The next in our series of Faculty Spotlight posts comes from Steven Block. Prof. Block currently teaches Development Economics: Macroeconomic Perspectives, Agriculture and Rural Development in Developing Countries, and Political Economy of Reform, Growth, and Equity. It was also announced today that Prof. Block will serve as Academic Dean in 2015-2016.
My interest in economics came initially from outside the field. During my senior year in college, I took a class on the politics of hunger. I found the topic compelling, and after graduating volunteered at Oxfam America. A year later, I stumbled into a class on the “economics of the world food system” and I was swept away by the realization that the dry and seemingly counterintuitive theories that filled my introduction to economics curriculum could actually be applied to analyze and propose solutions to a real-world problem that mattered. My professor in that class would later become my PhD thesis advisor, and we still collaborate on research over thirty years later.
I hope that my own teaching at Fletcher has the same effect on my students. In my class on food policy and agricultural development, I try to demonstrate the value of applied economic theory as a tool to understand the complex and emotionally vexing issue of world hunger. The topics that I cover in that class include the design of policy interventions to protect nutritionally vulnerable consumers, as well as interventions to generate income for smallholder farmers. These challenges are magnified by the recognition that consumers and producers of food often have conflicting interests (that is, producers prefer high food prices, while consumers prefer low food prices). Resolving such conflicting interests among groups in society inevitably leads to issues of political economy – another core focus of my teaching and research.
These topics also motivate much of my academic research. In recent years (often in collaboration with colleagues at Tufts’ Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy), I’ve investigated the measurement and determinants of agricultural productivity in Africa, the roles of maternal education and economic growth on child nutritional status, and the politics of agricultural trade policy in Africa.
My broader interest in development economics stemmed from my initial interest in hunger issues. Needless to say, hunger has its roots in poverty. But the relationship between poverty and hunger is complex, with causality running in both directions at once. I’m particularly interested in the potential for agricultural development to contribute to the broader process of economic development. Thus, core topics in my development economics class include poverty, equity, and the effect of economic growth on both. Since poverty in developing countries is disproportionately rural, development strategies that include agriculture have the potential to generate “pro-poor” growth.
While I take every opportunity in class to demonstrate the uses of economic theory in addressing these issues, I also stress the need for interdisciplinary approaches. Towards that end, I teach a class on the political economy of growth and equity in developing countries. Part of the motivation for the class is the recognition that while economic models can prescribe the “right” answers to policy challenges, politicians often make other choices — frequently to the detriment of a majority of their own citizens. In this class, we explore various paradigms that seek to explain the too frequent observation of politicians sacrificing social welfare for political survival.