The two-sided economist

Writing for economists and writing for a general audience are two very different things. Surely economists can’t do both?

Compare these two paragraphs as examples of different writing: 

Paragraph 1 – from an academic abstract:

Africa’s problem is to break out of an economic stagnation that has persisted for three decades. This article deploys existing primary research into an integrated argument that accounts for Africa’s economic distinctiveness and derives implications for international policies for poverty reduction.

Paragraph 2 – from a book written for the public

I was a student at Oxford in 1968… The father of my friend had been the governor general of a little country called Nyasaland, and so I read up on it. What I read made me resolve to go there. Renamed Malawi, it was the poorest country on the continent. It is easier to rename countries than to change them: thirty-five years later it is still as dirt poor as it was then. In another thirty-five years I doubt it will be much different, unless . . . This book is about that “unless.”

These two paragraphs hint at the same key message: Africa is very poor and needs a focused strategy to escape this poverty. 

In paragraph 1, the language is typical of academic economics, though by no means a bad example: Africa is stuck in ‘absolute poverty’ and ‘economic stagnation’ and this is an ‘integrated argument’ with ‘policies for poverty reduction’.

In paragraph 2, we start with a personal story and the language is simple to the point of being blunt: Malawi is ‘dirt poor’ and will remain ‘dirt poor, unless’ and ‘this is a book about that unless’.

Economists often moan that there is a trade-off (they would say ‘trade-off’, wouldn’t they?) and that it’s impossible to produce top quality research and write for a general audience.

Unless you consider that both paragraphs are written by the same person and in the same year: Professor Sir Paul Collier in 2007. The first paragraph comes from an academic paper while the second paragraph is the opening to his bestselling 2007 book The Bottom Billion.

In his excellent TED Talk Paul Collier talks of the need to use both paths to get your message across to different audiences. That’s why, as he puts it, he ‘broke all the professional rules of conduct for economists and wrote an economics book you could read on the beach’.


10 years later…

Fast forward to 2017 and I am filming former UK prime minister David Cameron give a speech on why he cares about development and why he is chairing a commission to examine evidence on the world’s poorest countries. His words: ‘I remember reading Paul Collier’s book, the Bottom Billion…’

We will probably never know if David Cameron ever read the academic paper.

It has been a privilege of ours to work with Paul Collier over the years. Paul is an academic who has adapted to be a superb communicator – and influencer. This is in large part because he broke some of the so-called rules of professional economists. Rules that this blog argues any economist can – and should – break.


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