Economics the World Can’t Afford to Overlook

Philip H. Brown, Ph.D. has lived and worked in China, Central America, Africa, and Chile. He has seen firsthand the impact of economics on real people, and it was his work in a Rwandan refugee camp that inspired him to pursue his doctorate to help the poor as a development economist.

One misconception people sometimes have about economics is that it is a field exclusively focused on the study of wealth. In contrast to this stereotype stands development economics, a branch devoted to the study of developing countries. There is no universally accepted definition of a “developing” country. The United Nations, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank all use different classification systems, taking into account factors such as per capita income level, export diversification, integration into the global financial system, international trade statistics, life expectancy, and literacy rates. Nonetheless, according to the IMF’s World Economic Outlook Report and World Bank data, more than 150 nations qualify as “developing.”

Economic inequality and poverty in developing countries represent a global problem. For economists such as Dr. Philip H. Brown, Paul Collier (former director of research for the World Bank), and Nobel laureates Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz, the field of development economics marks a path toward resolving a problem that the world cannot afford to ignore.

The Neighbor Effects of Provision of Public Goods Among Chinese Villages by Philip H. Brown

As a development economist, much of my research has focused on better understanding poverty and inequality in countries such as Chile and China. Working on areas such as health, education, environmental protection, and public goods provision, my work aims to identify hurdles in the fight against poverty and to propose implementable public policies. One recent study is entitled “Neighbor Effects in the Provision of Public Goods in a Young Democracy: Evidence from China.” This project seeks to answer whether higher spending on public goods in neighboring areas is associated with higher spending on public goods at home and whether any such effect is related to nascent elections in Chinese villages. This study is unique in that it examines neighbor effects in an emerging democracy. While yardstick competition and fiscal mimicking have long been observed in developed countries with democratic traditions firmly in place, there is scant empirical evidence regarding young and developing democracies.

In undertaking our research, we looked closely at 86 rural Chinese administrative villages that have undergone democratic transitions in the past 20 years. We find that incumbent chairs of village committees (who are elected) are spurred on by public works projects in neighboring villages to initiate their own projects while incumbent secretaries of the local Communist Party branch (who are appointed) are not influenced by spending in neighboring villages, suggesting that democracy underlies neighbor effects. Expansion of local elections to townships and other higher levels of government may thus result in an increase in competition among village officials, leading to greater accountability to constituents. A working version of this paper was published in the International Food Policy Research Institute’s discussion paper series in September, 2010.

About the author: With a PhD in Economics from the University of Michigan, Philip H. Brown makes extensive use of econometrics and empirical methods in his research on poverty and poverty alleviation in the developing world. Phil Brown’s academic papers are accessible at

About Philip Brown

Development economist Philip H. Brown has lived and worked in rural China, East Africa, Central America, and South America as part of his efforts to understand and combat extreme poverty in developing regions. His more than 30 published articles and presentations at international conferences have earned Phil Brown recognition as an accomplished scholar and researcher, especially in the field of Chinese economics. After obtaining his Bachelor of Arts in International Political Economy from Colorado College, Phil Brown gained valuable hands-on experience working at a refugee camp in Tanzania. He enrolled in the School for International Training to receive additional specialized instruction in sustainable development before earning his Master of Arts and Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Michigan. Phil Brown received fellowships from the Spencer Foundation and the University of Michigan Rackham School of Graduate Studies. In addition to serving on the Colby College faculty for eight years, Brown also worked as an international consultant for the National Developmental and Reform Commission of China, and co-edited the China Economic Review. Phil Brown continues to generate valuable data and research in the field of developmental economics. His most recent article, “Cash Transfers and Poverty Reduction in Chile,” is slated to be published in the Journal of Regional Science. Phil Brown’s recent work generates valuable data and research on the economics of natural disasters such as the 1997 forest fires in Indonesia and the 2008 cyclone in Burma. An analytical piece describing how media coverage affected charitable donations during the tsunami in Southeast Asia brought Phil Brown added distinction when both the New York Times and the popular economics book SuperFreakonomics featured his research findings. He is currently working with data from American charities to evaluate how demographic characteristics of neighborhoods influence giving for disaster relief. When he is not engaged in economic research, Phil Brown enjoys whitewater rafting, kayaking, and baking bread.