Here's my take on Development Economics, wrong or right.
Development Economics is not a "main-stream" Economics field. Most Development Economists are Development Economists because they really do care about the worlds' poor, they tend to be more liberal and less dogmatic than your average economist, and many of them view other, more mainstream fields such as Macroeconomics or Macro Growth as witchcraft. They often point out that in Macro, you've always got these really difficult identification issues, and it's often impossible to say w/ any certainty that you've identified a causal relationship as opposed to just correlation. With Micro-Development Randomized Trials, it is possible to know "things" with much more certainty.
While I can understand the views of Development Economists, I cannot really remember being impressed by any Development Economists, or have ever walked away from a Development Econ presentation/class feeling like I've really learned a new, important insight into the fundamental question of Economics: Why are some countries poor? And what can "we" do about it? And this was my feeling today when I sat in on a first graduate development lecture of the term. First I should say that the professor was an eminently likable guy who's heart is in the right place, and that there are many readings on the syllabus which I was not familiar with which look like they could be very interesting papers: Bliss & Stern's (1978) "Productivity, Wages and Nutrition", and Hoddinott et. al. "Effect of a Nutrition Intervention During Early Childhood on Eocnomic Productivity in Guatemalan Adults". At the same time, I can only sit thru so much blather on the Household Production Model and blather about rural credit markets (maybe this means I have ADD).
The real problem with the course and syllabus is what it did not have: There was not a single geography paper. Not a single Economic History paper. Not a single Macro-Growth paper. Not a single book of any kind.
Is geography really altogether unimportant? Does it really make no difference for manufacturers whether they produce high up in the Bolivian mountains or next to Iron Ore Deposits on a navigable waterway next to Chicago? Is the whole of History irrelevant because it's impossible to go back and do a randomized trial? (For that matter, I suspect that only a fraction of the papers on the syllabus are randomized trials -- it looks like many are simply rural Micro-Theory papers -- and of those which are, I wonder how many tell us something we didn't already know and carry important policy implications.) Perhaps the whole of Macro Growth is irrelevant (I don't actually think so, I think there are some diamonds in the rough), but is the whole field of Economic Geography irrelevant? Urban Economics too? Is there nothing to be learned by looking at detailed case studies at countries which have managed to develop?
I'm of the theory that a syllabus for a graduate course is a very intimate, personal thing which says everything about you as a scholar. Everything you've ever learned about your field which was not already obvious to someone outside of your field should on that syllabus. Since Development is a wide-ranging topic, the syllabus should be wide-ranging as well. It goes w/out saying that 2/3rds of the stuff listed can be "background" readings, and that the class itself should focus on a more specific, focused slice of the literature.
The problem is that I didn't get the impression that this professor, or other development economists, had read, say, Jeffrey Sachs "Tropical Underdevelopment" paper, or Alfred Crosby's "Ecological Imperialism" and found it wanting. My sense is that they haven't even read them.
What they have read is what other Development Economists who they see at conferences each year write, who all think the same way, who all edit and publish in the same set of journals.
The question is, then, what is the difference between a "Macro/Micro Development Economist" an "Urban Economist", a "Growth Economist", an "Economic Geographer", or an "Economic Historian?" They all try to get at the same two questions -- why are some countries rich and other countries poor, and what can we do about it. But they do not talk to each other. They cannot be bothered to read each others papers, or attend each others conferences. The lines between these fields are delineated, basically, in a more-or-less completely arbitrary (and heavily path-dependent) manner based on who your friends are, what kind of papers they write, and what their and their friends' priors are about the fundamental question of economics.
The syllabus I received will be an extremely helpful resource if I try to publish any papers in a development journal -- as it will allow me to cite the key development papers which will impress (and likely have been written by) referees. Reading all of these papers will also show me what kind of papers, data, methods, and writing style is considered acceptable for the field. Yet, it's much less clear how many of these papers will teach me something I do not already know and have policy implications -- after all, I already suspected that having poor nutrition growing up would be correlated with time spent out of the labor market later in life, however nice it is to see a confirmation of this.
Few, if any, of the papers on the syllabus are "big picture" papers. This follows from the anthropology of Development Micro people -- randomized trials are King, it's impossible to do a randomized trial of industrial policy for different countries, so Development Economists would prefer to be silent. Fair enough.
The only problem is that if I'm the President of Madagascar, I've still got to answer these "big picture" high-development questions and decide on a "grand strategy" and choose my actual policies. (Just because Esther Duflo can't think of how these questions can be answered doesn't mean that they aren't actually answered by people making policy choices.) Wouldn't it be nice if, instead of relying on my priors, there were an academic discipline designed to help provide insight into answering these questions, as difficult as they are? Perhaps we could call this discipline "Development Economics"!
In any case, I'd like to hear why I'm wrong.
UPDATE: I just surfed over to Chris Blattman's blog, and read clicked on his syllabus for his: African Poverty and Western Aid" Course, and most of the criticisms I have above are not valid. His syllabus actually looks quite good...