Sunday, April 02, 2006

Tokyo 2006 Interlude 1: A development economics conference in Tokyo without Japanese scholars

I'm not sure if this is all right to make public. But I guess the blame should go to Japanese bureaucrats most of whom probably don't bother reading a blog in English. So let it go.

Part of the reason I went back to Tokyo this time was to attend an academic conference held in Tokyo on 1st and 2nd April 2006 - "Institutional Development, Market Integration and Growth" organized by EBRD with CEPR and BREAD. In case you are not familiar with these three acronyms, EBRD is an international organization that lends money at an interest rate lower than the market one for economic and social development in former socialist countries in Europe and Central Asia - in other words, the East European version of the World Bank. CEPR is a London-based research network of leading European economists - an European equivalent (to my understanding) of NBER in the United States. BREAD, probably the least known among the three, is also a research network of leading development economists - anyone interested in development economics keeps an eye on what BREAD is doing.

A weird thing was that it was when the deadline for paper submission had passed that development economists based in Tokyo learned about this conference. This sounded like all those leading development economists in BREAD ignore Japanese development economists.

I got upset by this as I knew several Japanese development economists. Fortunately, I also know Tim, the President of BREAD. So I talked to him about this, and he quickly agreed to invite Tokyo-based development economists to the conference and told me to make a list of them.

So I made a list with help from those in Tokyo and sent it to the conference organizer at EBRD. Of course, I included my own name in the list. :) This prompted me to go to Tokyo.

Anyway, what I learned from this was that it wasn't that BREAD ignored Japanese researchers, as it's clear from Tim's quick response. What mattered seem to be two things - the lack of connection among Japanese development economists with leading development economists in the United States (and at the LSE) and the probable laziness of Japanese bureaucrats at the Ministry of Finance.

The first thing is an unfortunate truth - no Japanese development economist has published papers in the leading academic journals of economics in the past two decades. No one, after getting a PhD in economics, has got a tenure position at the leading universities in North America and Europe. (I'm not talking about all the Japanese economists here - there are Japanese professors of economics with tenure at leading universities in the U.S. But none of them are development economists.) This has a side-effect, by the way - any Japanese youngsters interested in development economics find it quite difficult to get accepted at the PhD program in the top 10 economics departments in the United States (except for University of Chicago). This is because what is necessary for getting into top 10 universities is at least one recommendation letter from a well-known economist.

But this disadvantage could have been overcome if information on the conference had flown from the Ministry of Finance in Japan, which funded this conference (that's why this conference was held in Tokyo), to development economists in Tokyo. Weirdly enough, this didn't happen.

The following is my speculation. I'm not sure if this is true. But basically, Japanese development economists have connection with officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). If it was the MOFA that funded the conference, I suspect this wouldn't have happened. But officials at the Ministry of Finance only have connections with macroeconomists and public or financial economists. This is understandable because the Ministry of Finance has nothing to do with development assistance and hence development economics.

Nevertheless, the Japanese counterpart for international development assistance agencies such as the EBRD is usually from the Ministry of Finance just because - I suspect - it has something to do with money. Japanese official development assistance has long been controlled by as many as four different ministries - the Ministries of Finance, Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Industry (now renamed as Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry), and the Economic Planning Agency (now absorbed into the Cabinet Office). There is no independent agency in charge like the USAID. It is well-known (at least in Japan) that Japanese bureaucrats don't cooperate across different ministries - information doesn't flow across ministries and they basically fight each other about the area of issues in charge.

So the story should have been like this: the EBRD, which wanted to have a chance to absorb the knowledge accumulated in development economics - that's what its Chief Economist Erik Berglof told us at the end of the conference - looked for the funding source and approached the Japanese government. The counterpart in the Ministry of Finance in Japan said yes on condition that the conference must be held in Tokyo. But those at the Ministry of Finance didn't know any development economist in Japan and didn't even try to ask someone in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for help.

Or maybe those bureaucrats didn't bother doing something good to economists in Japan. Economists are generally not respected at all in Japan. Unlike the United States or quite a few developing countries, economists rarely get an official position in the government. Something equivalent to the appointment of Ben Bernanke as Fed Chairman is unthinkable in Japan. If you get a PhD in economics, you won't find any job in the public sector in Japan.

Correct me if you're one of those Japanese bureaucrats who were in charge of the conference and if my speculation is wrong.