Fifty years later, CDE continues mission of global education

Concluding half a century of educating students of economics from low and middle income developing countries, the College’s Center for Development Economics (CDE) will celebrate its 50th anniversary this month. Next week, “A Half Century of Searching and Learning” will feature afternoon panel discussions with successful CDE alumni and faculty, including many of the aforementioned dignitaries, and evening lectures by renowned economists Joseph Stiglitz and Dani Rodrik.

Origin and Mission

The CDE was initially conceived in 1958 by Emile Despres, a professor of economics at the College at the time, when many colonial states in Asia and Africa were gaining independence and fighting for a foothold in a global marketplace dominated by the post-war West.

Tom Powers ’81, current director of the CDE, said that other professors were inspired to step in as well.

“A number of Williams professors had been on overseas missions to help countries transition to independence,” he said. “They came back saying that countries need people to do economic analysis … to look at conditions and advocate sober policies.”

According to Powers, Despres and his colleagues in the economics department believed that success for developing governments depended on the policies implemented by their senior advisors and the quality of the underlying analysis required to craft those policies.

Unlike an M.B.A. or PhD in economics, the CDE master’s degree program stresses economics as the foundation for public policy.
“Microeconomic issues here are not how your company makes money but how to use micro-incentives in a public policy context,” Powers said.

The CDE’s mission is quite clear. According to Powers, the CDE “targets people in developing countries who have worked in the public sector, shown promise in their careers and have a motivation to continue to work on public policy issues.”

In keeping with the tradition of a liberal arts education, the CDE seeks to help its students, called fellows, acquire the ideas, tools, judgment and critical thinking skills that will enable them to return home as effective policy-makers.

Student Experience

For Alassane Koulibaly, a Fulbright Scholar from Burkina Faso, the ability to analyze socioeconomic programs in his home country is a critical tool.

“Since the independence [of Burkina Faso], we have had a lot of development programs, and those programs do not reach their goals,” he said. “If I can learn to assess a program I can be helpful.”

Peter Nurnberg ’09 majored in economics as an undergraduate, taking classes at the CDE during his junior and senior years to supplement his experience in the College’s economics department. Nurnberg said his courses covered topics including introduction to development economics, macroeconomics in developing countries and microfinance.

“I think [the CDE] is a wonderful place because it makes economics more real and tangible,” Nurnberg said. He highlighted the value of his experience talking to fellow students about economic issues that were not only discussed in class, but that they were experiencing within their home countries. “That’s obviously a much richer experience than just reading something in a textbook,” he said.

Evolution and Effects

Although the CDE’s mission has not changed over the last 50 years, the program itself has. Like all of the College, the CDE went coed in the 1970s, graduating its first female student in 1972. This year’s class has more women students than men.
“Gender equality has taken longer here,” Powers said. “It’s not because we haven’t tried; it’s more due to the applicant pool.”
Powers has also seen a change in the applicant pool. The leading CDE countries since the first graduating class in 1961 include the Philippines, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Indonesia. The CDE is constantly looking to refocus its resources as more nations and regions worldwide become more developed. Current CDE fellows hail predominantly from Africa, Southern and Eastern Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe.

“Many of the international undergrads [at the College] are incredibly talented, but they are from the very best schools in their countries,” Powers said. “That’s not true [at the CDE]. Our students have gone through the public education system and worked in government.”

Today, that focus of the CDE has shifted from central planning to microeconomic incentives, international finance and the movement of capital to reflect the shift towards free foreign exchange and the overall reduction of international financial restrictions. Powers said the CDE’s curriculum has been influenced both by the rise and fall of various states and regions and by current events.

More than 90 percent of CDE graduates return home, and almost three-quarters remain in the public sector, serving in ministries of finance, central banks and positions of political leadership, Powers said. CDE alumni include prime ministers of Bangladesh and Singapore, cabinet ministers in Turkey, Botswana,
Philippines, Georgia and South Korea, executive directors of the World Bank and governors of state banks around the globe.

Into the future

The CDE is looking to use its anniversary events and the support of a stronger alumni network as a springboard to move forward. Powers pointed to difficulties in securing funding for the CDE and its research, as the program’s original supporters have moved on to other projects. The College committed its support to the CDE under President Emeritus Morty Schapiro, and Powers expects that support to continue.

“Based on the things Adam Falk is saying [about the CDE], we’re excited,” he said. “We feel like an important part of campus.”