The Pandemic Paper: Professor Mushfiq Mobarak at The Cambridge Union

Darren Wong 11 May 2020
Image Credit: VoxDev

There is absolutely no shortage of news about Covid-19. Its economic repercussions, the “new normal” of social distancing, our greater reliance on digital technology… But what does it really mean to be living in these “unprecedented times”? Through a series of interviews, I explore some pertinent questions about the broader implications of the pandemic from the perspective of different academic disciplines. While there are definitely no clear answers, perhaps these can offer some food for thought as we transition back into post-pandemic life.

For the first interview of this series, I spoke to Professor Mushfiq Mobarak after his speech at The Cambridge Union for the debate on global lockdowns last week. He is a Professor of Economics at Yale University, with concurrent appointments in the School of Management and in the Department of Economics. Founder and faculty director of the Yale Research Initiative on Innovation and Scale, Professor Mobarak also holds appointments at the Jameel Poverty Action Lab at MIT, the International Growth Centre at LSE, and Innovations for Poverty Action. I focused on issues surrounding development that the pandemic has surfaced, such as aid, the role of the state and supranational bodies, and inequality.

As global activity winds down, could the coronavirus portend a soft reset in our way of life? We are already witnessing some positive signs — the decrease in air pollution in major cities around the world is a clear indicator of what the world can do about anthropogenic environmental degradation with sufficient political will. Amsterdam also recently announced its plans to embrace Kate Raworth’s “doughnut model” after the pandemic. Raworth, a lecturer at the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute, is known for her work on doughnut economics, which proposes a “safe and just operating space for humanity” that balances essential human needs and critical planetary boundaries. This fundamentally rethinks economic development to tackle the social and environmental challenges we face today through a regenerative and distributive economy that rejects the obsession with endless GDP growth.

Does the end of the crisis present an opportunity for mankind to reform our development trajectories? Or is it just a blip that we should not be too optimistic about as a sign of change?

Does the end of the crisis present an opportunity for mankind to reform our development trajectories? Or is it just a blip that we should not be too optimistic about as a sign of change? “You and I are chatting with each other, from Singapore to New Haven.” Professor Mobarak pointed out the ease of interacting online. “We’ve learnt that we can do this — part of it is technological, but the other part is learning about what we are comfortable with.” Likewise, there are certain aspects that mankind will realise can be changed — for instance, a decrease in air travel for talks and seminars — but he hesitated to call the changes we see a “new normal”. The decrease in air pollution has come with some real economic costs and is temporary. “I hope, and I think, it’s not going to return to the status quo; it will probably be a middle ground, where we are today and where we were last month.”

Earth Day came and went on 22nd April, and I expressed concern that environmental movements might have hit a stumbling block and lost some steam as global attention is channelled towards tackling the pandemic, albeit deservingly so. Professor Mobarak highlighted other “unintended consequences” of the pandemic. “We cannot seek healthcare as much as we should, such as for measles vaccinations” and that we must be wary of a “resurgence or emergence of these diseases, which are also highly contagious”. True enough, dengue fever is on an alarming rise in Southeast Asia and Latin America as the coronavirus pandemic unfolds.

Given that the coronavirus has and will hit certain countries harder than others, I asked how this will implicate global inequality and how this inequality could be reconfigured through development interventions. While the worst outbreaks at the moment are concentrated in the United States and Europe, the situation could easily get out of hand in poorer countries with weaker institutional and healthcare capacity.

“When a disease is communicable, that definition implies that all countries are linked.” Professor Morobak said, “global cooperation is needed and has been at an all-time high since the end of World War 2. The longer arc is that after World War 2, the world learnt that there are lots of ways that we are co-dependent and have to avoid outcomes like wars.” He cited policies and institutions like the United Nations, World Bank and World Trade Organisation, that have “created platforms for us to share information and strategies and help each other out.”

However, at the same time, there is a “creeping movement towards nationalism”, country-first approaches that do not bode well for global development and cooperation, and he hoped this serves as “a wake-up call”. “Even if the US and Europe are able to get to the inflection point on the curve and see a decrease in the number of coronavirus cases, if the virus continues to live on in other populations of the world, it will re-emerge in other parts of the world.”

“Even if the US and Europe are able to get to the inflection point on the curve and see a decrease in the number of coronavirus cases, if the virus continues to live on in other populations of the world, it will re-emerge in other parts of the world.”

Our discussion then moved into the role of states and civil society in the development landscape. As states around the world implement restrictive measures to suppress the spread of the coronavirus, the importance of the state has never been more apparent. As neoliberal ideologies have stripped back much of the responsibilities of the state through privatisation and the devolution of power to the local scale, how might the role of the state change in the post-pandemic world and what kind of new partnerships might it herald?

“It is not just the state that matters, but also other important actors to form coalitions.” Professor Mobarak drew on the example of social transfer. “How do we identify the poor? In some countries, governments have the information due to a centralised tax system, but in many others, we don’t have it because of informal sector workers who are not part of the fiscal system. What we’ve learnt is that a lot of data on where people are and what people are doing lies in the hands of mobile phone providers.” Public-private partnerships thus constitute an important part of development cooperation and he called for governments to “adapt the regulatory system on data privacy and access to information for these partnerships to form.”

Professor Mobarak also cited BRAC, the world’s largest non-governmental organisation (NGO) that is based in Bangladesh. “Some of the services it provides makes it almost function like a parallel government — health services, clinics, education, banks. Implementation capacity and reach can exist in many forms; we need to make good, innovative use of this capacity and NGOs are a large part of this.” While the government may “send a central directive to follow”, such as social distancing regulations, individual behaviour is “much more affected by people you trust, such as friends and neighbours”. He reminded that “we all live within real-world social networks, which is where most of our communication happens and most of our information comes from.” Civil society may also be in a better position to uncover and tackle problems on-the-ground, like access to food and services.

He reminded that “we all live within real-world social networks, which is where most of our communication happens and most of our information comes from.”

I ended the interview with the same question I would ask for future interviews regarding the coronavirus pandemic: Are there any ideas in the discipline (development economics) that will not survive the coronavirus?

“One way the academia will change is with regards to the value of data and different types of data.” There is a wide range of data collection methods, as he shared, including experiments, fieldwork, macro-economic time series analysis, big data and even cell phone records or satellite records. “Something that has become clear as I help Bangladesh and other developing countries devise appropriate strategies is the value of merging different types of data sources and the recognition that there are separate bits of information that exist in different data sources that need to be put together to make the right kind of statistical inference for policy change.”

in highlighting the fragility of the world and its systems, the pandemic triggers a sense of reflexivity as it simultaneously reflects the fragility of the human condition.

Summing up my thoughts on the pandemic in relation to development, I can only hope that in highlighting the fragility of the world and its systems, the pandemic triggers a sense of reflexivity as it simultaneously reflects the fragility of the human condition. By situating human existence into perspective, perhaps the world can come together through various modes of development and swallow the tough pill of directing economic growth towards greater social equity and ecological justice, instead of solely capitalist accumulation.