Profile of Melissa Dell: Pioneers new ways of unmasking legacies of the past

IMF’s Finance and Development Jun-2022 edition profiles Melissa Dell of Harvard University:

Scholars have long wondered why some places prosper, while others do not. How do societies climb the development ladder to greater prosperity? What is the secret sauce of economic success? Why is GDP per capita in South Korea so much higher today than it is in Cambodia, which had a similar standard of living in 1960?

Questions like that have inspired sweeping, almost epic books that span centuries and continents, like Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond, which looks at environmental factors, and Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, which focuses on the role of institutions. 

These questions fascinated Dell, but she wanted to follow a different path. She took a microscope to the subject, looking not at the diverging fortunes of continents and nations but of neighboring towns and villages.

“To be able to really delve into things, it helps to have that kind of local perspective,” Dell says in an interview with F&D. “By focusing on the micro level, you can get a lot more detail and granularity about what’s going on.”

One of Dell’s big contributions to the literature of development economics—and the advantage of her micro approach—has been to identify what she calls channels of persistence. 

 

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