Q & A with a Development Economist: Natural Scientists in Development

Since 2011, the Office of Astronomy for Development has been on a mission to stimulate the use of astronomy, including its techniques, technologies, infrastructure, and people, towards sustainable development. Astronomy, like a number of other fields of science and technology, possesses skills and strengths that can help tackle some of the most pressing challenges in society. The OAD has been engaging with development experts in order to understand these issues better and identify opportunities for the application of astronomy. Recently, our projects fellow, Ramasamy Venugopal, had a (virtual) conversation with development economist and OAD Fellow, Dr. Tawanda Chingozha, to understand what development means and the role of sciences such as astronomy.

The development challenges the world is facing are numerous, complex and evolving and hence they require a complex mix of skills and perspectives. Extra hands on deck are always required and by participating in development, natural scientists can bring or influence new ways of tackling development challenges.

Introduction to development:

[Ram]: Everyday we hear news stories from around the world on poverty, inequality, poor education, conflict, humanitarian crises etc. Do they all come under the field of development? How would you define development?

[Dr. Chingozha]: Yes, poverty, conflict, and education, among others are all development issues. I would add that development is the running mate of economic growth. Where there is less economic growth, these challenges worsen. Even with economic growth, you will also find some of these challenges. For example, despite South Africa being one of the most economically advanced countries in Africa, it is one of the most unequal countries on the planet.

On your question on defining development, well there isn’t really one answer but when you start to deal with allocation and re-allocation of scarce resources in an endeavour to address these challenges and start to evaluate the pros and cons, choices and contradictions, you have entered into the development economics discourse.


[Ram] What does a development expert do? When people think of an astronomer, they think of someone staying up at night and studying the sky. Even though that is no longer the case, the job of an astronomer is familiar for most people. How broad are the roles in development?

[Dr. Chingozha]: To begin with, a development expert is primarily concerned with the question of how best we can deal with development challenges. How can we end poverty? How can we strengthen institutions? How can we end inequality? Typically a development expert would spend their time evaluating the effectiveness of different policies of governmental and local and multilateral policies/interventions so that he/she/they can give policy advice on the best policies or their mix thereof. 


[Ram] Elaborating on that, can you give us an overview of the various actors in the field of development? Government, NGOs, foundations, policy think tanks?

[Dr. Chingozha]: Development issues are so broad and they are interlinked one way or another to our way of life. But to focus things a little bit – yes, government, NGOs, foundations and policy think-tanks are all important development actors. Government’s role is to plan, budget and implement development programs hence we have the National Development Plan (NDP) in South Africa and other countries. However, given the scarcity of resources and the poor state of economic growth for many countries, especially in the Global South, private NGOs as well as UN organizations fill a huge gap. In some countries, they play a role larger than that of the government. To ensure that we do things in a systematic way, to ensure that actions are results driven and to achieve optimum allocation of resources, the evaluation work and infrastructure of think tanks comes in.


[Ram]: Can you briefly describe your particular area of expertise in development?

[Dr. Chingozha]: My PhD focused on the effects of land rights and market access on welfare and agriculture productivity. Given that sub-Saharan Africa is a data scarce context, I relied on machine learning and citizen science classification of satellite imagery. It also involved the applying of quasi-experimental techniques to evaluate policies. Therefore I am also trying to mimic some of those approaches in evaluating the impact of science on socio-economic outcomes through my work with the OAD. 


Role of natural sciences & astronomy in development:

[Ram]: Historically, the natural sciences have been mostly curiosity driven. Where do you see the natural sciences such as astronomy and physics fitting into the development arena?

[Dr. Chingozha]: This is an important question Ram. But it is one in which we are still busy exploring. I think that natural sciences have a role in introducing communities to simple technologies that can change their lives. Although development economics has global relevance, some of the most critical challenges like poverty are concentrated in developing countries where there is high marginal productivity of capital. What this means is that a simple innovation can achieve a disproportionally high positive effect in a low or middle income country. 


[Ram]: Perhaps a more important question is: Should natural scientists concern themselves with development? Given that there are so many people and institutions working for development, can the skills and contributions of astronomers or physicists make a difference ?

[Dr. Chingozha]: Definitely yes. The classical economic problem is the exercise of allocating scarce resources to meet unlimited needs. Therefore, there is always a gap that needs to be filled. We have not yet reached a point where we can say everyone has access to clean energy or clean water, so there is always something we can all do. For example, there are still schools which lack sufficient, qualified teachers, so you can imagine an astronomy student or educator helping to tutor Maths at their local high school in their free time.


[Ram]: What is the view among development experts of natural scientists getting involved?

[Dr. Chingozha]: Of course I cannot speak for everyone, but my view is that we need all hands on deck. Allow me to borrow from management theory where one of Henry Fayol’s 14 principles of management is ‘espirit de corps’ which means team spirit. Different sciences should not work in silos. A polytechnic college located next to a remote village can change the lives of ordinary men and women in that village by deploying a simple innovation like solar cookers. These can increase agricultural productivity in the village as it will result in people spending less time looking for firewood.


[Ram]: Examples of successful collaborations between natural and development scientists?

[Dr. Chingozha]: I think there definitely are many unsung heroes. But one example from the OAD is a pilot project in Kenya that aimed to contribute to the improvement of public health – diagnosing eye defects – using citizen science. I should point out that the platform used, Zooniverse, was started by astronomers and physicists as a way to classify galaxies. So these represent a meeting of natural science and public health.


Dr. Chingozha’s work and role:

[Ram]: How did you get involved with the Office of Astronomy for Development?

[Dr. Chingozha]: I met with officials from the OAD at a data science conference. I mentioned that my PhD was data intensive. So, given that at the core of astronomy is working with and processing images, we saw an important overlap. The only difference is that astronomers are looking up from Earth into the universe and development economists are using images from satellites to study what is happening here on Earth. Secondly, since I am also greatly fascinated by the universe, I was interested in pursuing and getting to know how astronomy impacted development. 


[Ram]: What is your role at the OAD?

[Dr. Chingozha]: At the OAD I try to bridge the gap between astronomers and development scientists. I try to bring out the development context in OAD projects and activities. At the moment I am also working with others to develop criteria and methodology that we could potentially use in evaluating the socio-economic impact of OAD projects. I also provide input in managing relationships and collaboration between the OAD and the development economics community. 


How can natural scientists contribute?

[Ram]: What do you think natural scientists really need to understand about development? What are we missing?

[Dr. Chingozha]: Natural scientists need to understand that sometimes even with small efforts or gestures we can achieve development outcomes. They need to know that many of the development challenges we face are because of certain market failures and market imperfections. For example, as a result of poor availability of information and matching mechanisms in the market, an otherwise good candidate can be jobless for years. This is where an innovative application, maybe a machine learning one, can come in. By understanding the trade-offs and contradictions of certain policy choices and why things unravel the way they do, scientists will be better able to appreciate the importance of their contribution as well as the right policy/action/intervention mix. That is why at the OAD we have developed the “Introduction to development economics for non-social scientists course”. In implementing interventions/projects, results will not always be as expected but it is an exciting field. 


[Ram]: If you could give advice to astronomers/natural scientists who are keen to contribute their skills for development, what would you say to them?

[Dr. Chingozha]: I would say that the development challenges the world is facing are numerous, complex and evolving and hence they require a complex mix of skills and perspectives. Extra hands on deck are always required and by participating in development, natural scientists can bring or influence new ways of tackling development challenges. 


If you are an astronomer or natural scientist interested in pursuing a project or idea with an impact on development, you can contact us: Dr. Tawanda Chingozha, tawanda@astro4dev.org and Ramasamy Venugopal, rv@astro4dev.org.

You can also apply for a project grant until May 31, http://www.astro4dev.org/aboutiauoad/cfp/