Courtesy of Princeton University

In the 31st Annual Kuznets Lecture, former Yale professor Leonard Wantchekon explored the political mechanisms behind developmental economics.

The lecture, hosted by the Yale Economic Growth Center, is named after Nobel laureate Simon Kuznets, who established the Economic Growth Center, and it features economists who contribute to the field of economic development. Wantchekon, who is currently a professor at Princeton, discussed the removal of political barriers to developmental policy implementation in his lecture. 

“Much of my work has been on how do you fix distortions of politics … to find ways to reduce the gap between what politics is and what politics ought to be,” Wantchekon said. “I wanted to highlight how critical political mechanisms are to really understand development and propose an approach, called ‘political distortion,’ that tries to unify, theoretically and empirically, different aspects of those mechanisms.”

Wantchekon taught for the Yale Department of Political Science for six years, from 1995 to 2001, before moving to New York University and then to Princeton University in 2011. He said that Yale’s economics and political science departments are at the forefront of political economy discussions, making it a “great place” to give his lecture. 

Thursday’s event marked the first Kuznets Lecture in two years, after the Economic Growth Center canceled the 2021 lecture due to the pandemic. Former World Bank Chief economist and current Yale professor Penelopi Goldberg delivered the 2020 Kuznets Lecture. 

“There was a lot of excitement … I think it’s happening right at a really good time,” Vestal McIntire, senior staff writer and communications specialist for the Economic Growth Center, said. “Professor Wantchekon was able to come to campus and when student groups found out, there was a lot of interest. I think not only because of the subject matter he is speaking on, … but also the fact that he is the founder of the African School of Economics and its role in the development of a new generation of economics.” 

During his week back at Yale, Wantchekon met with students from the Council on African Studies, International and Development Economics, Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and the Yale School of Management. 

Bomi Okuyiga GRD ’23 told the News that students were excited about meeting Wantchekon due to his interdisciplinary approach to developmental economics and his efforts to create the African School of Economics.

“I think everyone has been really excited to meet Leonard,” Okuyiga said. “A lot of students that are studying Africa and economic development quite often … are not taught by a professor that is actually from the region. I spoke to him a few weeks ago about some work he is doing in Nigeria and he even said his angle, the fact that he knows the culture and they were able to bring that into the work has really helped a lot in his research and that is a reason for the African School of Economics. Again, I know students here at Yale really recognize the value of more diversity in academia.”

Okuyiga said the Kuznets Lecture highlights intersections in international development. She believes that the Economic Growth Center is trying to “blend” more disciplines together, not just political science and economic disciplines. 

Wantchekon commented on the need to integrate economic history and cultural understanding into the broader field of economics. 

“One thing that I think is missing from curriculums is the integration of economic history,” Wantchekon said. “[It] should be embedded in various important topics so we can better connect the present from the past so that we always have a present understanding about where we are coming from. I would like to see a bigger push for understanding of the culture and of the place being covered with the help of regional programs. I think we really have to pay attention to the local context well beyond just collecting survey data.”

Wantchekon is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Econometric Society, the Bureau for Research and Economic Analysis of Development and the Research Affiliate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.