Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 50

by Pranab Bardhan

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

Some years after Carlos died, another friend and another noted development economist, Hans Binswanger, was diagnosed as HIV-positive. He initially took that as a death sentence and gave away much of the material things he had. But by then the new antiretroviral drugs were in use, and possibly because of them lived an active life for another quarter century, until he died in Pretoria, South Africa in 2017 at age 74. In 2002, shortly before he left his World Bank job, he founded and endowed an NGO in Zimbabwe, that supported about 100 mostly HIV-positive children and their families by providing education, supplemental health care, and counseling. In South Africa he married his boyfriend Victor in a traditional multi-day Zulu celebration. Since then he has always identified his last name as Binswanger-Mkhize.

Hans was born in Switzerland in a prominent Swiss family. He was a major agricultural economist with pioneering work on peasants’ behavior in the face of risk. This work was based on experiments carried out in India. I think I met him first in Hyderabad at ICRISAT, the International Crop Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics, where he was the principal economist for 5 years, before joining the World Bank.

In 1977 he invited me and Kalpana to present papers at a conference in Hyderabad on the subject of rural labor markets (later he co-edited a book where these papers were published). I remember the lavish party he gave for all the conference participants at his home which was a stunning converted-fortress in Hyderabad. The intensive ICRISAT village studies that started under his leadership in India made possible data-intensive work by many agriculture researchers all over the world, and generated over the years hundreds of Ph. D’s. Since then I have interacted with him many times, particularly when he was doing some policy work for the World Bank on land reform in South Africa. He came to Berkeley and addressed my graduate seminar on Economic Development. I last saw him at a meeting in Delhi, just a couple of years or so before his death.

In 1984, after some strong persuasion by Carlos, when I finally accepted the Editorship of JDE I insisted with the Dutch publisher that the rather stiff submission fee for articles in the journal had to be waived for authors resident in developing countries. The publisher reluctantly agreed, but later quietly raised the submission fee for authors of developed countries. When I saw that, I insisted that the submission fee will be largely spent on paying a token honorarium to the referees who had been reviewing papers pro bono earlier. The publisher agreed, and I made the honorarium payable only to referees who did their reviews within 2 months, and even the latter were given the option to donate the honorarium to a student fund in Berkeley. With the money in the latter I started an annual JDE award to the best development economics graduate student in Berkeley.

One immediate effect of the waiver of submission fee for authors resident in developing countries was that it led to a hefty increase in submission from the latter countries, particularly from two large ones, China and India. Unfortunately, most of these articles were really not of publishable quality. But I thought JDE could do a valuable service to these authors by giving them some careful comments on their article, which they often did not get in the limited academic circumstances of their workplace. The downside of this for me was that some referees were getting annoyed that we were sending them articles that were clearly unpublishable. At the cost of increasing my work load I stepped up my preliminary screening of these articles, to weed out those that were particularly weak. (Talking of service to developing countries, once an article from China was a reasonably good one in terms of the mathematics in it, but the English was barely comprehensible. So I asked the author to get the English vetted by someone knowledgeable in English. The author in sending the revised version said he had done so, but still much of the text remained incomprehensible. Then I and my editorial assistant sat down together and corrected the English line by line, and we finally published it).

In the academic world of Economics publishing articles in a major journal is more important in promotions than even publishing books. This inevitably leads to tensions with and pressures on the journal Editor who willy-nilly becomes a gatekeeper for the profession (one rejected author even screamed at me over the phone and said that I was acting as a ‘censor’). Around that time JDE was getting I think about eight  hundred articles a year, of which on average less than ten per cent were accepted (usually after significant revisions). The publisher allowed me only two co-editors, to whom I channeled some of the articles for decision-taking; even so I was handling nearly six hundred articles a year myself.

This was a big burden, and the main chore was to find appropriate good-quality reviewers. With proliferation of journals there is ‘overfishing’ in a small common pool of good reviewers. It was not uncommon to find referees for a paper only after a frantic search for many weeks and at our fifth or sixth attempt—in the pre-internet age all this was done by regular mail. Once two such referees per paper agreed to do the job, then the thankless task was to pursue laggard referees, and I did this with some unpleasant persistence just for the sake of fairness to the authors. I was used to hearing from impatient authors about the delay in review, but when in the UK research-funding agencies started giving some weight to a whole department’s research productivity, I started getting appeals from UK department chairpersons for expediting the review of an article by a department member because their promotion decision or departmental evaluation was nearing a deadline. I tried my best to help, but it was not entirely in my hands.

One intellectually exciting windfall for the Editor of a premier field journal is to be able to directly watch how the research frontier of the subject keeps moving. One also gets an opportunity in marginally shaping the direction of research in the field. For example, I felt that not enough work was being done in theoretical aspects of development economics, so I organized some special issues of the journal to give some prominence to work on those aspects. (Paul Krugman, a frequent referee and occasional writer for the journal those days, had been among those who helped me in this). Similarly, on empirical work I felt that not enough attention was being paid to data quality, so I invited TN Srinivasan to guest-edit a symposium in the journal on serious data quality issues in developing countries.

An editor can, of course, be misled by preoccupation with conventional wisdom and guided by the tunnel vision of many standard referees on a given topic, and not have the open mind of visualizing completely new directions. My friend Geoge Akerlof told me that the paper that finally got him the Nobel Prize was initially rejected by some journal editors. Paul Krugman has also written that the paper that got him the Nobel Prize was rejected by some mainline journals. Outside Economics I remember the case of the brilliant physicist, Satyen Bose of Kolkata, whom I have mentioned before, who had sent his path-breaking paper in 1924 to a prominent science journal in London where it was rejected. He then mailed a copy to Einstein who immediately recognized it as one of the most important findings in quantum theory. Bose never got the Nobel Prize, but most of the particles in the universe got named after him (bosons); later several Nobel Prizes have been awarded on work related to the boson.

I edited JDE for 18 years, and in the first dozen years or so I used to be inundated by empirical papers doing statistical exercises on cross-country data easily available from the publications of international organizations. I have never been a fan of such cross-country statistical exercises, as they hide a lot of inter-country variations that are due to reasons (economic, political, cultural) that are not immediately observable in the data, even apart from the large data comparability issues across countries. Also, in such inter-country data sets a continental country like China or India (where even some of the provinces are larger than most countries in the world in population size) provides one data point just as much as a speck of an island in the Pacific Ocean gets—this is like the United Nations General Assembly rule of ‘one country, one vote’. Like the proverbial little Dutch boy I as the Editor had my finger in the dike as it were, and tried what little I could to stem the flood of such papers sent for publication in the journal in this period.

I also have some experience of observing how data used to be ‘manufactured’ for some countries. When I was a student in Cambridge I had a fellow student who was writing a thesis on the Jordanian economy. Once I asked him if he had data from Jordan on some of the complex issues of industrial structure he was dealing with. He said, of course not; so he had got from the library some data reports from India and Nigeria, and whenever he found data from Jordan missing, he interpolated the numbers from those in India and Nigeria. Half in jest, I asked him why India and Nigeria—was it because geographically Jordan was located about halfway between India and Nigeria?

I once attended a UN conference where the main participants were officials in charge of data collection in different international organizations. I remember one official candidly saying that he had some quota for producing some international statistical tables, and as the deadline for the annual submission of those tables approached, many data cells were still blank because for some countries the data were simply not available; then what he usually did was to look at the data of adjoining countries, and if they existed, he’d simply interpolate and fill the blanks. I appealed to some of these international data generators to color-code the data in the published tables—the data that were ok to use should be in green, those that should be used with caution in yellow, and the data that were risky to use in red. In response they pointed to the footnotes in small print below the tables where such words of caution were mentioned, but I knew most users of data did not bother to read them and merrily went on to crunch them indiscriminately into their statistical analysis.

The situation is, of course, much worse in some countries when data are manipulated to please the political bosses. I have heard quite a few stories about Chinese official data, particularly at the provincial level and below. This is understandable in a country where promotion of local officials depends partly on the data of how well the local economy is reported to be performing. Independent sample survey data become particularly important in this context. As I have mentioned before, with the leadership of Mahalanobis for a time India was at the frontier of good-quality survey data collection. (When the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai came to India in the 1950’s he spent quite a bit of time with Mahalanobis to find out about the source of India’s achievement in such data collection).

Unfortunately those days are gone. Survey data collection has been in some disarray in India in recent decades. But under the current political regime some data which turn out to be unflattering for the rulers are suppressed. For example, in a country with large numbers of poor people official poverty estimates have not been available for the last 10 years. An elaborate survey was carried out by the National Statistical Office for the year 2017-18 and after the data were tabulated, some of the key results came out in the media. It soon turned out that those results implied an increase in poverty since the last estimate five years before then. The administrators immediately blocked the official release of the Report and said that something must be wrong with the data. After all, how can poverty increase under the glorious rule of the current supreme leader?

I have heard of a story from the ancient Indian fables collection called Panchatantra, where the king once with great fanfare banished poverty from the land. One day a man from the margins of his kingdom came to his court, and said with folded hands, “Your majesty, you’ve banished poverty, but that wretched fellow has taken shelter in my home and refuses to go”.