Prakarsh Singh, assistant professor of economics, served as the main organizer for the inaugural Liberal Arts Colleges Development Economics Conference (LAC-DEV). Held on the Amherst College campus on Oct. 4 and 5, LAC-DEV was the first conference in the U.S. designed specifically to bring together development economists based at top liberal arts colleges. It featured a keynote speech by Dean Karlan, professor of economics at Yale University and president and founder of Innovations for Poverty Action; a discussion of the best ways to teach development economics; and paper presentations by numerous scholars—including, rather unexpectedly, Amherst undergrad Alvaro Morales ’14.

Singh in front of a blackboard

Professor Prakarsh Singh in his classroom

As Singh describes it, development economics is a fast-growing field concerned with studying the methods and policies that might be employed to improve the lives of the world’s poor. A few conferences have been established for development economists, but the major ones cater mainly to scholars based at large universities. Last year, Singh, representing Amherst, and several colleagues from Colgate, Hamilton, Wesleyan and Vassar founded LAC-DEV, an annual conference to be held on a rotating basis at each of their five schools. They decided that the inaugural conference would take place at Amherst, and they put out a call for papers from development economists on the faculties of the nation’s top 40 liberal arts colleges. Out of about 50 papers submitted, they chose 19 to be presented at the conference, during sessions focusing on “Infrastructure,” “Political Economy,” “Schooling,” “Health,” “Latin American Development” and the “Role of the Public Sector.”

Shortly before the conference began, one of the presenters scheduled for the session on Latin America fell ill and told Singh he couldn’t participate. So Singh called Morales, a student from his Spring 2013 “Microeconomics of Development” seminar who had written an excellent final paper on the relationship between child abuse and child health in Peru. The Dean of the Faculty’s Office had awarded Morales funding to spend this past summer revising the paper and preparing it for submission to academic journals. Singh asked Morales: Would he step in and present his paper at LAC-DEV?

“I was like, ‘Sure. Why not? I’ll put together a PowerPoint,’” Morales said. He gave his presentation the next day.

“This was quite a brave thing to do, because you have all these top development economists sitting in the audience, and this guy’s never presented a paper before,” Singh noted.

“I got some great feedback, some good comments,” Morales said. “And it was just a really cool experience that, as an undergrad, I got to do that.”

His professor agreed: “That was, I think, the highlight for me in the conference, because I felt proud that I have a student who could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the others.”

Morales is now working with Singh to finish revising the paper and submit it for publication, as well as to organize his senior thesis, which will examine the relationship between child abuse and terrorism in Latin America. Morales has also applied for a 2013–2014 Watson Fellowship to study remittances in that area of the world.

He appreciated the opportunity to experience the conference, especially as a student who’s considering a career in development economics. “It’s a really broad field,” he observed. “Since it’s one of my possible paths, it’s really cool to see what it entails on a deeper level than just having a class.”         

“Because development is such a vast field, it’s very difficult to organize [classes] in a logical manner,” said Singh. But he plans to bring some of the tips from the conference’s “Teaching Development Economics” session—on gathering student opinions and demonstrating research methods—back to his own classroom. He had assigned the 10 students in his “Microeconomics of Development” course this semester to attend LAC-DEV and to summarize the papers presented.

Singh giving a PowerPoint presentation in front of an audience
Singh in front of the LAC-DEV audience in the Paino Lecture Room of the Beneski Museum of Natural History

According to Singh, the inaugural LAC-DEV, which attracted some 50 people, “went much better than anyone had expected. I’m still getting emails from the participants saying that it was such a great conference and everything went really smoothly.” He acknowledged that he couldn’t have organized it without assistance from Jeanne Reinle, academic department coordinator for economics, and from student hosts David Beron ’15 and Hao Liu ’16. And, he noted, no one had to pay to attend, thanks to sponsorship from the dean of the faculty; Five Colleges, Inc.; and Smith and Mount Holyoke Colleges.

“The best thing about this [conference] was that there was this feeling of bonhomie between all of the participants. We are all based at similar types of colleges; all of us value teaching; all of us value presenting results as clearly as possible,” Singh said. “Everyone was hugging each other at the end of the conference.”

Top photo by Rob Mattson; bottom photo by Hao Liu ’16