When Economists Study Politics in Developing Countries

COGITO Wide Angle: Interview with Benjamin Marx
  • Ballot counting at a polling station in rural Guinea-Bissau, elections 2014Ballot counting at a polling station in rural Guinea-Bissau, elections 2014

Better understanding the state of political systems – particularly in developing countries – via methods used by economists does not appear to be commonplace. However, it is an increasingly popular method that provides results which complement those obtained by political scientists. Benjamin Marx, permanent faculty member, has demonstrated their usefulness in research he has conducted in Kenya and Indonesia.

You study political life in developing countries, but with an economist’s approach. Why this choice? What does economics bring to the analysis of phenomena that are usually tackled by political science?

Benjamin Marx – All the research projects I have conducted with this interdisciplinary approach have convinced me of its added value in the study of political phenomena. Several of my projects are collaborations between economists and political scientists. This is the case of a study I conducted on vote buying in Uganda, and of an article on Islamic law institutions and the 1960 land reform in Indonesia, both of which were conducted with US-based researchers.

In this approach, political science brings its conceptual approach, its knowledge of institutional mechanisms (indispensable for understanding electoral phenomena), and its precise knowledge of local contexts. In my work on Africa I have especially drawn on the work of political scientists such as Joel Barkan and Jeffrey Herbst, who have influenced many scholars in both disciplines.

Meanwhile, economics and econometrics bring their methodological tools as well as great rigor to causal inference, which refers to a researcher’s ability to establish a causal relationship between X and Y variables. This type of approach has recently allowed economists to improve our understanding of political phenomena in developing countries.

For example, two Greek economists – Stelios Michalopoulos and Elias Papaioannou – have established the existence of a structural relationship between pre-colonial political institutions and the different levels of economic development observed in sub-Saharan Africa. Other economist-led research has improved our understanding of phenomena at the crossroads of economics and other social sciences, such as corruption.

There is now a fairly broad consensus among development economists around the importance of institutional phenomena in the emergence of longstanding trends in economic development. My thesis supervisor, Daron Acemoglu, has significantly contributed to this research. To study the political economy of developing countries is to attempt to understand the political and institutional phenomena that hinder the eradication of poverty, the improvement of health and education conditions, good governance, etc. It also sparks imagination about potential solutions.

You recently studied voter turnout in Kenya. How did you proceed and what conclusions did you reach?

B.M. – This was a project conducted in collaboration with the Electoral Commission of Kenya in 2013, aiming to promote citizen participation in a difficult institutional context. The previous presidential election in 2007 had led to an upsurge of interethnic violence in the country, leading Kenya to reform its electoral process and to adopt a new Constitution.

The study focused on the evaluation of simple messages transmitted to citizens by SMS, providing basic but essential information on how the electoral process was functioning in this new framework. For example, some messages contained simple reminders about the practicalities of the voting process, while others sought to succinctly explain the role of a parliamentarian.

Using a randomized evaluation, we were able to show that these messages had increased voter turnout, which is a major challenge in a country where more than 20% of the adult population is illiterate. On the other hand, these messages had another, more unexpected effect: in a survey conducted several months after the election, we observed that citizens who received these messages had a lower level of trust in their electoral institutions.

We explain this result by the fact that the messages increased the salience of the election for voters, while they sent potentially ambiguous signals about the transparency and administrative competence of the Commission. Once confronted with the reality of the election and the difficulties observed on the ground, voters were able to interpret the content of these messages in a different way. Our study therefore highlights the benefits of an information campaign of this type, while showing the importance of the content of the messages: any information about a “sensitive” electoral process can give rise to potentially contradictory interpretations, which will affect citizens’ trust in their democratic institutions in the long term.

You have also studied the relationship of Muslim institutions to society and politics in Indonesia, and have highlighted the importance of land reform in this relationship. How do you explain this?

B.M. – This work was part of a more comprehensive research project on the relations between the Indonesian state and Islamic organizations since 1945. Indonesia has approximately 225 million citizens of Muslim faith, making it the largest Muslim country in the world.

In this case, the purpose of this first study was to study the effects of an agrarian reform that was initiated by the Indonesian government in 1960, and that ended in resounding failure. This work revealed the decisive role of Islamic institutions in the failure of this reform. We showed that an institution of Islamic law called waqf (known in French as biens de mainmorte or habous in North Africa) allowed large landowners to eschew the redistribution of their farmland to the poorest peasants. The waqf is an original legal status based on a donation made in perpetuity for the purpose of financing a work of public or religious utility. For example, a landowner can transfer his land in waqf by stipulating that the land will be used to finance an Islamic school. A property benefiting from waqf status cannot be subject to expropriation and its purpose cannot be changed after the deed of foundation. This institution has historically played an important – and probably negative – role in the economic development of certain regions, particularly in the Ottoman Empire.

Under pressure from Islamic organizations, the Indonesian government of the time had accepted the fact that land with waqf status could not be subject to the redistribution law. This legal element greatly contributed to the failure of land reform. Indeed, landowners massively transferred their land to waqf status to escape redistribution. We were able to show that these transfers led to a strengthening of local Islamic institutions, especially in the educational sphere. A large number of Islamic boarding schools (known in Indonesia as pesantren) are financed by waqfs, and many of these institutions play an important role in local political life. We argue that land transfers to waqf status in the 1960s had a lasting effect on support for political Islam. Today, Islamist parties (which remain a minority nationwide) are doing best electorally in the regions that should have been most affected by land redistribution. These regions are also adopting more local laws based on Islamic law (Sharia). Land reform has thus enduringly shaped the trajectory of political Islam in Indonesia, due to the mediating role played by the waqf.

We are currently working on a second study that focuses more specifically on the role of Islamic schools. This article shows how Islamic schools have adapted to the growth of public education since the 1970s. We also study the ideological consequences of the competition between public and Islamic schools.

You have also studied corruption phenomena related to obtaining housing in slums and the issue of slums in general. What have you learned about this topic?

B.M. -My colleagues and I learned a lot over the course of this project. I’ll give you two examples.

First, the fact that slums in developing countries are not areas of lawlessness, as they are often described. Slums have a complex system of informal regulations and a real housing market. In Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum and one of the largest slums in Africa, 92% of residents pay a monthly rent. This market is dominated by extremely powerful local political actors who have the power to intercede on behalf of landlords or tenants in conflicts over land use.

Second, our work has shown that the fundamental question raised by slums is the question of social mobility. Is life in the slums a springboard to a better life, integrated into the metropolis, with access to public services and better jobs? Or, conversely, are slums “poverty traps”, with residents remaining prisoners of their precarious living conditions from one generation to the next?

Paradoxically, most economists have a very optimistic view of slums: since living standards are generally much higher in urban areas, many people think that slums are a springboard for rural-urban migrants, who get closer to the opportunities offered by the city. In reality, our level of knowledge about these mechanisms is relatively limited. Few longitudinal studies have been carried out to understand whether there is real mobility from the slums to the middle classes and the formal sector. In our study of Kibera, we show that half of the residents live in the slum for more than eight years, and a large number of families have been there for several generations. This may lead to a less optimistic perspective on the phenomenon. To answer these questions, we will need to continue to follow the families who responded to our survey in 2012-13, in order to better understand whether the social mobility of residents of slums such as Kibera is a myth or a reality.

Can your research findings give rise to exchanges with politicians and/or citizens in the studied fields, particularly to consider solutions?

B.M. – Of course! All this research is meant to help governments, civil society, and citizens to better understand how to improve the governance and transparency of their institutions, how to promote political participation, and so on. Several of the aforementioned studies were carried out in consultation with local actors. For example, the study conducted in Uganda aimed to assess the impact of an information campaign on vote buying conducted by 13 civil society organizations in Uganda. This coalition of NGOs had contacted us in 2015 to create a randomized evaluation of their operations. The study in Kenya was also a collaboration with the government, as I mentioned earlier.

Finally, I have been working for several months on the implementation of a project on decentralization with the government of Indonesia and the World Bank. The purpose of this study is to help 75,000 Indonesian villages better spend the funds they receive from the central government (which have been sharply growing since 2014) by improving governance in the villages. It also aims to train municipalities on issues of public administration and local democracy. This project will allow us to apply what we have learned from other recent studies on decentralization in Indonesia and other emerging countries. These countries are often ahead of us in terms of evaluation policies: in Indonesia, but also in India, South Africa, and Brazil (until recently) there is a real interest in collaborations between governments and researchers to evaluate and better understand the effects of a program or public policy.

Interview by Hélène Naudet, Office of the VP for Research
Translated by Carolyn Avery

The interview was first published in Sciences Po's Cogito Research Magazine, N°11.

Benjamin Marx


Benjamin MARX is Assistant Professor of Economics at the Department since 2018. He is also a CEPR Research Affiliate and AALIMS Faculty Fellow.

His research interests are in political economy and development. His work explores issues related to institutions, accountability, and voting behavior in developing countries, with the goal of understanding how institutions and incentives shape economic and political outcomes. His recent research has focused on Indonesia, Kenya, Senegal, and Uganda.

To learn more about Benjamin Marx, consult his website


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Firms in Times of the Pandemic - Dec 4th

Call for papers
  • Abstract image of the impact of covid-19 on the economyAbstract image of the impact of covid-19 on the economy

Sciences Po, in cooperation with the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR), is pleased to announce that it will be co-organising an exceptional conference with the Banca d’Italia and the Banque de France, on the theme “Firms in Times of the Pandemic”.

The conference will take place in Paris, December 4th, 2020.

The conference will feature two keynote lectures by Beata JAVORCIK (Oxford University and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development) and David THESMAR (MIT Sloan).

Programme Committee:

We are calling for papers ! Interested authors should submit a detailed extended abstract or, preferably, a complete paper in PDF format to: firmorgdyn2020@banque-france.fr

DEADLINE: August 23rd, 2020.
*Decisions of acceptance by the program committee will be announced by mid-September.

Read the call for papers for more details (PDF 661,02 MB)

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PhD Presentations - June 30th

  • Paper in a typewriter on which it is written "New Research"Paper in a typewriter on which it is written "New Research"

First time presentations can be daunting - come join us to warmly support our first year PhD Candidates !

In this time of Covid-19, the Department is dedicating June 30th to our PhD students on zoom.

Our first year students will have the opportunity to present their work for the first time to their peers and faculty members:

  • 10.30 Ségal LE GUERN HERRY (advisor: Jean-Marc ROBIN): Economie de la fiscalité 
  • 11.00 Gustave KENEDI (advisor: Pierre-Philippe COMBES): Intergenerational Social Mobility: Measurement, Mechanisms and Policy
  • 11.30 Samuel DELPEUCH (advisor: Thierry MAYER): Macroeconomic Imbalances and the Rise of Protectionism
  • 12.00 Victor SAINT-JEAN (advisor: Stéphane GUIBAUD): Does Dark Trading Alter Liquidity? Evidence from European Regulation

12.30 to 14.00 Lunch break

  • 14.00 Marco PALLADINO (advisor: Yann ALGAN): Firms, Bargaining and the Gender Wage Gap in France
  • 14.30 Clémence LOBUT (advisor: Denis FOUGÈRE): Les effets de l’utilisation du numérique sur les apprentissages des élèves
  • 15.00 Daniel GYETVAI (advisor: Pierre CAHUC): The Short-Term Impact of UI Benefits on Wages in the Presence of Nash Wage Bargaining, Renegotiation by Mutual Agreement, and Benefit Endogeneity

When ? JUNE 30th, 2019 - 10.30 to 16.00
Where ? Join on zoom 

COGITO: Ghazala AZMAT on gender inequality in higher education

  • Gender gap symbolized by woman who cannot open a door because there are no stepsGender gap symbolized by woman who cannot open a door because there are no steps

The 10th number of Cogito, Sciences Po’s Research magazine, is soon to be out with a special dossier on gender equality. It features an article by Ghazala AZMAT on gender inequalities in higher education - particularly true in the field of economics (read interview with Sergeï GURIEV, director of our PhD programme).

Ghazala AzmatGhazala AZMAT is a Full Professor of Economics at the Department since 2017. Her research interests are in applied and empirical economics, with a particular focus on the economics of education and labour economics. In 2018, she was awarded an important ANR Tremplin-ERC grant for her project Gender, Aspirations, and the Labour Market (ASPIRE). One of its central objectives is “to open, and develop, a new line of research in the formation, and role, of aspirations in understanding gender differences in labour market outcomes.” – an objective that is reflected in her Cogito article. But also in Ghazala AZMAT’s praxis.

To wit, Ghazala AZMAT organised a “Women in Economics” event in late February, just before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, aimed at supporting female PhD students in economics. With around 33% of women in economics and even less at the professor level (24%), there is evidence to suggest that women find it particularly hard to make careers in economics, compared to many other disciplines.

In the spirit of the European Economic Association (EEA) Standing Committee on Women in Economics, this event at Sciences Po centred around more senior female economists circulating information on, or relevant to, more junior female economists, and by providing a forum for discussion of issues relevant to women in economics.

In her Cogito article, Ghazala AZMAT underscores the mystery shrouding the gender gap in higher education: “In most OECD countries, women have surpassed men in college completion (…) The removal of barriers for women into education and the labour market being important drivers of (…) increased investments in human capital. However, the changing patterns in higher education attainment have raised a number of new questions, baffling many social scientists. Women’s under-representation at the top remains a mystery, especially given the numbers coming through.”

If gender differences in field choice is a first important step to understanding gender inequality in higher education, it is insufficient: “When looking at earning differences among men and women studying in the same field, we see with no exception, women are paid less (…) Moreover, these gaps grow over time.”

Ghazala AZMAT points to new promising lines of research that focus on gender differences in skills (verbal vs math skills, behavioural and socio-emotional skills), as well as the impact of a high pressure environment in competitive fields that may help unravel the mystery.

Read Ghazala AZMAT’s article in the forthcoming edition of Cogito 

More about Ghazala AZMAT and her research 

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In focus: our PhD

  • Economics word cloudEconomics word cloud

The academic year 2020/21 is winding down: it is a timely moment to celebrate our young doctors (read below) and our 1st year students who will be presenting their research for the first time June 11th.

But first, who are our PhD students ?

Interview with Sergeï GURIEV, Director of Doctoral studies in economics.

Sergeï Guriev

"Our students focus on topics of great importance to society, economics and politics..."


Before coming to Sciences Po in 2013, I ran the New Economic School (NES), a small private university in Moscow which was established in 1992. I joined the NES as an assistant professor in 1998 and was appointed its director in 2004. The core programme of the NES was, and still is, a Master’s in economics which is in many respects similar to the Master’s in Economics at Sciences Po. While the NES has made a conscious decision not to create its own doctoral programme, we regularly sent many of our graduates to the leading PhD programmes in the US and Europe, so while working at NES I was always in close touch with doctoral programmes around the world.


During my career I have done research in many fields of economics: I’ve worked on contract theory, development economics, labour economics, political economy, and economic history, and have written both theoretical and empirical papers. Today, I mostly work on the political economy of populism and on the political economy of modern non-democratic regimes.


Sciences Po has the DNA of an institution that strives not just to understand, but also to transform the world. Most of our students focus on topics of great importance to society, economics and politics. This means that talking to our students about their research is always exciting. Furthermore, thanks to the rapid development of theoretical and empirical methodology and the growing availability of data, the quality and rigour of our students’ research are improving every year. This, however, is true of many other PhD programmes, so competition is tough. The good news is that our department has built a critical mass of faculty that can provide ideas and feedback to students in all fields of economics.


It is important to choose the right topic – the research question that matters, that you are passionate about, and that can be addressed with available methodology and data. But good ideas alone are not enough. Success in a PhD programme requires hard work and persistence, and this is not easy. At the undergraduate, and even Master’s, levels, there is a structured process for coursework. At the PhD level, students work independently. It is crucial for PhD students to be proactive, and to seek advice and feedback from faculty, visitors, and fellow students. Finally, in addition to doing research well, success requires presentation and writing skills – for this, of course, they need to attend many seminars (fortunately we have excellent seminar series), and read a lot.


Economics does have a major gender problem – to a much greater extent than other disciplines, certainly more than other social sciences and even more than mathematics and natural sciences. The explanations are the same as in other male-dominated occupations: as economics has always been dominated by men, its practices (including those for selection and promotion) and social norms have been shaped to suit men and essentially discriminate against women. One of our researchers, Ghazala Azmat, permanent faculty member at the Department, explains this in an article in an issue of the research magazine Cogito Gender Inequalities in Higher Education. The good news is that this problem is finally recognised by the profession and all economics departments around the world (including Sciences Po), and they now want to change the status quo. At the Sciences Po Economics Department, we are also strongly committed to increasing the number of female students and faculty. Some progress has been made in terms of hiring female faculty. When I arrived at Sciences Po in 2013, we had only two tenure-track faculty, and zero tenured female faculty. Today, we have four tenure-track and three tenured female faculty. This is, of course, still a small minority; we still have the responsibility to do better.

More information:

*original interview published by Sciences Po's Doctoral School (read article)

PhD Day - June 11th

Paper in a typewriter on which it is written


The Department is dedicating June 11th to our PhD students on Zoom COVID-19 obliged. Our first year students will have the opportunity to present their work for the first time to their peers and faculty members.

First time presentations can be daunting - save the date and come join us to warmly support our first year PhD Candidates!

  • 10.15–10.45 Leonard LE ROUX : Traditional leaders and local government in South Africa (thesis supervisor: Benjamin Marx
  • 10.45–11.15 Kevin PARRA RAMIREZ : Exchange of information and bank deposits in international financial centres (thesis supervisor: Philippe Martin
  • 11.15–11.30 Break 
  • 11.30–12.00 Nourhan HASHISH : The Egyptian Public Sector Minimum Wage: A Driver for Married Females Labor Force Participation? (thesis supervisor: Sergeï Guriev
  • 12.00–12.30 Mylene FEUILLADE : Within- and Between-City Real Income Disparities (thesis supervisor: Pierre-Philippe Combes)
  • 12.30–13.45 Lunch Break 
  • 13.45–14.15 Juan Sebastian IVARS : Team performance and market competition (thesis supervisor: Jeanne Hagenbach
  • 14.15–14.45 Moritz HENGEL : Hosting Media Bias: Evidence from the Universe of French Television and Radio shows (2002-2020) (thesis supervisor: Julia Cagé
  • 14.45–15.00 Break 
  • 15.00–15.30 Valentin MARCHAL : Is a low-inflation target compatible with degrowth? (thesis supervisor: Stéphane Guibaud
  • 15.30–16.00 Clemens GRAF VON LUECKNER : Decrypting Hidden Capital Flows (thesis supervisor: Stéphane Guibaud)

When ? Friday, JUNE 11th, 2019 - 10:15 AM to 4 PM
Where ? Join on zoom (link to follow)

Congratulations to our 2020/21 international job market candidates

Festive background with gold particles falling from above

Our PhD programme trains top economists who seek to pursue university and academic careers in France or abroad, as well as careers requiring high-level doctoral training: in international organisations, think tanks, research institutions, government agencies, banks, and insurance companies.

Despite an international job market plagued (no pun intended) for the second consecutive year by COVID-19, our candidates have fared remarkably well in securing positions in top-knotch universities.

Camille URVOY

Camille Urvoy

Camille Urvoy will be joining the University of Mannheim as an Assistant Professor in September 2021. 

Currently a Teaching Fellow at the Department as well as affiliated to the LIEPP, she will be defending her PhD thesis entitled Political Profit from Nonprofits: Evidence from Governmental Transfers(supervised by Sergei GURIEV) in July.

Her research interests are in political economy and public economics. She would like to understand how interests are represented in democratic systems and how that affects people attitudes, preferences and public policies.

More about Camille URVOY and her research


 Aseem PATEL

Aseem Patel

Aseem PATEL will be joining the University of Essex as a Lecturer August 1st, 2021.

Currently serving as a Research Assistant for the ANR project 'Occupation Mobility and Wage Dynamics within and between Firms' (OMWD), he will be defending his PhD thesis entitled Employment Protection Legislation, Unemployment and Demographics (supervised by Jean-Marc ROBIN) in July.

His research interests lie in macroeconomics, labour economics and applied econometrics.

More about Aseem PATEL and his research


You may want to read about last year's placements too! (link)

Consult all of our previous placements 
Learn more about our graduate and PhD programmes 
Sciences Po's Research School (link)

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