Decolonization, Data, and Development: The Country Studies Program at Yale’s Economic Growth Center

by Lisa Qian

October 19, 2020

A photo of four men in suits, Paul Kuznets and three colleagues from the Bank of Korea
Paul Kuznets (second from left) with colleagues from the Bank of Korea during the 1966-67 academic year as part of the Country Studies program. Photo courtesy Paul Kuznets.

When the Economic Growth Center was founded in 1961, with the intent of improving understanding of development processes, it faced two shortages. First, there were few scholars of development economics, which was a new field at the time. Second, data on national economies were scarce. To tackle these deficiencies, the Center resolved to train 25 recent PhDs and send them to the field to collect data on developing countries.

The Country Studies program, as this effort was known as, was the flagship program of the Center’s first 10 years and one of the first large-scale efforts to compile development data, long before the World Bank and other institutions took on a similar mission.

Initial Founding

The idea for the program was developed in tandem with the EGC’s original grant from the Ford Foundation. It was strongly supported by Simon Kuznets, who was closely associated with the founding of EGC, and inspired by the newly independent countries post World War II. At the time, how these countries would develop their economies was an open question. In an effort to better understand these economies’ historical development and thus have a better foundation to study future development, funds were allocated to send the young scholars to developing countries and to commission them to write a “country study.” These book-length studies were detailed quantitative and qualitative analysis of a country’s economic development and intended to add to the limited literature on many of the countries’ economies.

The Country Studies program

Each year from 1961 to 1966, Lloyd Reynolds, the EGC director, recruited outstanding students from economics doctoral program and presented them with the EGC’s offer. The participants would be assistant professors at Yale and spend a year teaching and preparing for the next 1-2 years in their country of choice. Afterwards, they would return to Yale to write up their findings. Of the 25 assistant professors hired under the program, seven were born to families from developing countries themselves.

Gerry Helleiner M.A. ’60 Ph.D. ’62, the first person hired for the country studies program, had not yet finished his economics dissertation at Yale when Lloyd Reynolds offered him the job. Later, he recalled Reynolds saying to him, “Anywhere you want to go, we will pay for you.”

Helleiner chose Nigeria because he thought that this former British colony had the potential to become a powerful player on the continent. He, like most of the other participants, was fascinated by development, but had limited exposure to this field before partaking in the Country Studies program. At the time, because development was so new, few universities had professors or courses specializing in the field.

I think that I couldn’t have had better luck than to be in the country study program because I really appreciate the value of in-depth analysis of individual countries and then having time later on to branch out to do more collaborative work with other people - Albert Berry

For some participants, the program provided the opportunity to re-engage with countries already familiar to them. Don Mead M.A. ’57, Ph.D. ’62, a registered conscientious objector, had spent his required two years of alternative service as a social worker, working with Palestinian refugees in Egypt. When he came back to his doctoral program at Yale, he was energized to study systems-level understandings of inequality across countries and returned to Egypt for his Country Study. Vahid Nowshirvani had done little academic work on his homeland of Iran prior to Yale, but now chose to research the country formally as his Country Study.

Though the first year in New Haven was meant to be a teaching and preparation year, many program scholars spent the year frantically finishing their dissertations instead. Still, the participants fondly remembered the lively debates which were common at the center’s weekly seminars. Simon Kuznets, the original mastermind behind the EGC who would go on to win the Nobel Prize, frequently drove down from Harvard to attend the gatherings and provide his perspective. Many of the Country Studies participants also remembered the provocative critiques posed by Dudley Seers, the famed British development economist who visited the EGC in the early 1960s.

“A lot of us sat at his feet and learned a lot,” Mead recalled of Seers, who was known for his critiques of Western economists and applying Western models of development to developing countries.

Paul Kuznets and a woman sitting at a table with microphones
Paul Kuznets (right) speaking at a conference during his year in Korea as part of the Country Studies program. Photo courtesy Paul Kuznets.

When the time came for the scholars to travel abroad, they were given a matrix of data to collect on the national economies, which was developed by Professor Richard Ruggles and his wife and collaborator, Nancy Ruggles. The EGC also identified host institutions for the scholars, often government ministries or universities.

The scholars met with a wide range of academics, officials and business people to collect data. Many also visited archives, often holdovers from colonial governments, to study historic development. In addition, participants traveled widely across the country to understand the full scope of economic activity. Paul Kuznets recalled arranging a tour of Korean factories, including a glass-making shop, a steel mill, a textile factory, and a three-wheel truck plant.

The impact of Country Studies

When the Country Studies participants returned to New Haven, they worked on their monographs. Only about half of the scholars finished their books, but of the books that were published, several became standard reference texts for the country in question.

“The painstaking research of Gerald Helleiner is an achievement not to be overlooked,” read one review of Helleiner’s study of Nigeria. The statistics gathered in these books were often the most extensive figures yet published on a country’s economy.

For Albert Berry, the very lack of statistics available made writing an overview of the Colombian economy difficult. He did note, however, the importance of agriculture for the Colombian economy and the intensely unequal land distribution.

“I very much got into agriculture and wound up writing a book on agriculture in Colombia instead of a book on Colombia as a whole,” Berry said.

Still, though the availability of data varied across countries, the Country Studies program was one of the first forays into the quantitative study of development and successfully achieved its goal of training a generation of young economists. Over the subsequent decades, development as a field moved away from data and focused more on theoretical models, but the EGC maintained its quantitative emphasis. Following the completion of the Country Studies program, EGC professors turned to microdata and studied farm output and population dynamics. More recently, EGC professors have returned to the field once more, collecting data on topics ranging from child cognitive development in Colombia to coronavirus vulnerability in India. These studies are intellectual successors to the pioneering vision of quantitative development research put forth by the Country Studies program.

Lisa Qian is a 2020 economics graduate of Yale College and a former intern at the Economic Growth Center.