March 16, 2015--We economists who work in development know that our task is more an art than a science. We know that our work requires more flexibility and judgment than rigor and rules. We know that life is not a laboratory.
Yet, we insist on treating economics as a science in development programs—even as we refuse to be the “one-handed” economists that Harry Truman longed for.
Some reconciliation to this dilemma came to me during one of my meditation sessions. (One might question whether I was trying to find God, or to solve a puzzle I brought from work! But that’s another discussion altogether.)
As I struggled to focus my mind where it artlessly reached and maintained a state of steadiness, it struck me that economics tries to do the same. Economists advocate allowing markets to work spontaneously to find equilibrium—much like spiritual practices that aim to uplift one’s consciousness to a state where it is in equilibrium with its being.
And instructions from a guru on the path of spirituality are like economic principles that shape the path to economic progress. The guru’ instructions may be identical but the journey for each individual on the path will vary with his or her subjective experience and psychological growth. Economic principles, too, guide development programs, but the progress chart for each program will vary with the unique circumstances of each—local culture, custom, history, the absorptive capacity of organizations, even language.
The spiritualist and the development economist would do well to accept this reality: that what we individually achieve is infinitely small in the larger scheme of things and that much of what we confront is often far beyond our control. Acceptance brings relief and allows us to approach the task at hand with a certain amount of humility.
Our goal, then, is to approach our respective disciplines as a science—following foundational principles and holding ourselves accountable to the standards that these principles dictate. But we acknowledge that the application of these principles in achieving results is almost certainly an art. In this way, we treat development economics as a cooperative art versus a productive art.
The alternative is to follow whim and create a collective chaos!
Pooja Pokhrel designs and manages complex international development projects and provides economic analysis that supports macroeconomic and public financial management, private sector development, and trade expansion. Before joining Nathan in 2007, she worked in Nepal as a research assistant and then as consultant for the United Nations Development Program in Sri Lanka.