Engaging economics: CDE provides a view of the “real world”

It was during one of my political economy senior seminars that it finally hit me. A classmate asked, “What is the developing world like?” It struck me as odd that this question would be asked at Williams at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized how deep the effects of the Purple Bubble are.

Thomas Paine wrote, “My country is the world. My countrymen are mankind.” This is the sort of value that the College should be promoting to its students: citizenship, not only in one’s community, but also as a member of an increasingly connected world. Today, I call for Williams College faculty, administration and students to become more engaged with the Center for Development Economics (CDE) in an attempt to take advantage of the international community that exists in our own Purple Bubble.

Williams’ mission statement commits itself to providing the finest possible liberal arts education and “also encourages students to learn independently, and reflects the complexity and diversity of the world.” I believe the CDE and its fellows are the most valuable resources for becoming well-informed global citizens and it’s time we found ways to incorporate this international perspective into our Williams education to create an integrated campus that includes all.

Personally, I was not introduced to the CDE until the beginning of my senior year for a couple of reasons. I was somewhat terrified of taking a 500-level economics course in the master’s program. It was not until a close friend of mine, a graduating senior who majored in economics, told me about the CDE and the amazing people there that I finally got myself to the Center. Now I realize that I was three years late.

The CDE has an alumni network of over 1000, representing 96 countries. This year, CDE fellows represent 21 countries and form, by far, the most diverse group of students on this campus. What separates the CDE from the undergraduate body is its first-hand experience with the most pressing issues of the developing world. Fellows hold positions in their countries’ central banks, finance ministries and World Bank offices; they have the type of insight that transcends the limits of the typical economics paper.

“Economics of Institutions” is the title of one of the senior seminars for economic majors. The course asks the question: why are some countries rich and others poor? While I believe that Williams undergrads are very smart people, there is something to be said about the merits of listening to a person that has actually worked in those poor countries’ institutions as opposed to an undergraduate from white suburbia’s thoughts on the subject.

But this knowledge, this tremendous amount of real world experience in developing countries, remains hidden for the vast majority of the campus. I would not be taking a huge risk in saying that an overwhelming majority of the campus has no idea what the CDE stands for. In what ways can the administration, faculty and student body engage the CDE?

First, the administration can increase its financial backing for the CDE. Currently, the CDE receives no funding from the College and each year must raise all of its money independently so that it can support the needs of its students. Now that the College has achieved its $400 million Capital Campaign, it should view the CDE as a valuable investment and increase funding.

Second, faculty should also be more creative with their curricula and find ways of incorporating the resources of the CDE into their classes. Many of the most interesting talks that happen at Williams actually happen because of the CDE (one example being economist William Easterly). Faculty must do more than just encouraging undergrads to attend these talks.

But I unfairly characterize the sort of engagement faculty should be taking in order to partner with the CDE. Economics majors are encouraged to take a class for full credit at the CDE. Economic Development in Poor Countries (ECON 204) surveys topics studied at the CDE and serves as the perfect stepping stone to begin taking courses at the Center.

Over Winter Study, CDE fellows typically give presentations on their home countries, in the same way that students who studied abroad regularly give talks on their experiences abroad. The majority of students who interact with the fellows are those who take classes at the CDE, but this comes as no surprise. Regardless, encouraging students to meet, learn from and interact with the fellows should not be limited to the economics department.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, undergrads need to find ways to make the campus more accessible and inviting to the fellows. Introduce yourself and invite a fellow to dinner or to coffee; seek out their knowledge about a country that has piqued your interest. Tonight, the first-ever CDE Fellows Dinner will take place in Dodd and is a perfect example of this sort of networking that can occur between undergrads and CDE fellows. Rick Spalding, Chaplain to the College, always says that the most radical thing we can do is to introduce people to each other. Interactions should not be limited to those self-selecting few, but rather to the campus at-large.

Jose Pacas’08 is a political science major from Wyckoff, NJ.