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10.31.2018

When Economists Ask Why

Dr. Charles Becker reflects on his work and his relationship to DCID

 

Photo: Duke Economics

 

By Brooklyn Bass, DCID Communications Assistant

For fifteen years, Charles Becker has been a part of the Duke community as a research professor of Economics―a job not for the inflexible. With research projects in multiple areas, traveling, and several student advisees, his day-to-day life is hardly predictable.

“[The variation] makes me wake up in the middle of the night” Becker chuckles. “I think the advantage of being an academic is that you get to choose projects you work on. So, you end up doing all kinds of interesting things that are related primarily by technique rather than a particular area of focus. I think that I’m a wonderful role model, but not in the positive sense. It’s better actually to focus a little bit more than I do.” With hands in several research projects, Becker is especially tuned into his work on bridal kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, a country in Central Asia that has a special place in the professor’s heart. Becker has been going back and forth to the small country for more than twenty years.

 

“It’s very hard not to apply our values and our culture to very different settings. That’s exactly why we should try to understand people. So, as economists…our first instinct should be to understand why.”

 

According to Becker, 20-25 percent of women report that their way to marriage was through kidnapping—a quite alarming statistic.“The question is—as an economist—to ask if this is bad,” Becker said. “That might seem obvious, but there are instances that these kidnappings are for show—a cultural ritual. To what we have to show this isn’t usually the case.” Becker’s work on bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan has proven to have public health concerns. Gradually, his research correlates an increasing amount of children born to women who are kidnapped to being 200 grams lighter than their counterparts in “love” and arranged marriages. “It’s hard to come up with an alternative story of how this could be if it were not stress-induced,” the professor said. “This phenomena is also comparable to the birth weight loss to women in the United States who have been subjected to extreme violence.” The research also seeks to address larger questions about the institution of marriage, insights that could ultimately help the international development community make better policy decisions. Along with his other work on demography, migration, and population, the information could be useful to policy makers as they go about understanding the cultures in places they are trying to develop.

“It’s so easy to say what ‘they’ do is bad without understanding the motives that drive certain behaviors,” Becker said. “It’s very hard not to apply our values and our culture to very different settings. That’s exactly why we should try to understand people. So, as economists, when we observe something even though our instinct is to make an ethical judgement that’s good or bad—though obviously rape and murder is bad— our first instinct should be to understand why. Why do these things exist? Our goal is to try to understand why things happen rather than simply observing and judging.”

Beyond what he hopes the impact of his research will have on the development community, Becker is also expressive about the future of project building and hopes to see foreign aid projects valued beyond the amount of money being invested in them.“The best foreign aid projects are often not those that are terribly expensive,” said Becker. “They are the ones that find the right counterparts—that are interested in affecting useful change. Often, this doesn’t take a ton of money.” In a world that is much wealthier than it was thirty years ago, Becker asserts that there are countries that have enough wealth to support reasonable living standards for their populations and enjoy substantial economic growth. Unfortunately, this is not occurring. “The trick is to figure out how to get people in charge to redesign incentives that encourage economic growth to rather than just making credit available or providing large scale assistance,” Becker said. “We need to go back a couple steps and think, okay, the people who run a given country have designed a system from which they benefit. How do you find people within that who are interested in making changes? How would you assist them making those changes in a way that doesn’t obviously undercut those who are in power because they would never deliberately undercut themselves. In this way, the system will evolve in ways that allow for increased growth for the broader population.”

These are questions that Becker believes DCID is in the business of answering and is proud to be able to contribute to a changing vision for the future of development. “A place like DCID is able to create real value,” Becker said. “Director Indermit Gill’s focus on creating parallel research is really important. I think that is what is going to launch DCID into the next level. That’s why I’m excited about being associated with DCID.”