Building bridges in economics research: John Whalley (Canada)

December 09, 2010
IDRC Communications

Canadian and Chinese economists join forces against poverty

For the past three years, IDRC, in partnership with the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo, Canada, and Beijing Normal University, has helped to build a research network on poverty in China — the first of its kind in the world’s fastest-growing economy.
The goal has been to support promising young scholars and encourage fresh thinking in an area of increasing concern to China: the rising inequality that has accompanied high economic growth.
China’s economic boom has been
accompanied by rising inequality. IDRC
supports young scholars and senior
economists who bring fresh thinking
to the problem of poverty.

The achievements are heartening, as a remarkable group of senior Chinese and international economists mentors a new generation of scholars undertaking applied research on poverty and inequality in China: 19 young Chinese economists, assisted by almost as many respected senior scholars, are breaking new ground as they explore applied research on poverty and inequality in China.

The Young China Scholars Poverty Research Network is coordinated by John Whalley, professor of economics at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, and a CIGI Distinguished Fellow, and Li Shi, professor of economics at Beijing Normal University.
My interest had long been on global issues and global trade and investment issues. Increasingly, you can’t really work on those issues from a global perspective without recognizing the significance of China.
This project stems from the mid-1990s when a group of scholars in the poverty area emerged who had achieved some prominence, but there were relatively few of them. There was a need for a new generation of young poverty scholars to come forward to contribute to the debate.
Since 1999, China has made huge commitments to increasing resources to universities and research institutes. The impact has been quite dramatic with large numbers of graduate students coming into North American and European programs, some returning to China. This has led to changes in teaching practices in China.

Reciprocal benefits

The young scholars’ work has helped deepen understanding of the dynamics of poverty and inequality, and their data work has helped show that inequality is now beginning to plateau in China. For example, one study found that earning differentials between migrant workers and local workers had decreased between 2001 and 2005, and that discrimination against migrant workers had eased slightly. Another study showed that poor rural people would benefit more if their outpatient care was subsidized than from having hospital care reimbursed.

This kind of research is essential for developing effective public policy to reduce inequality. Over the longer term, these young scholars may very well be the leaders of tomorrow. The role and influence of their contribution will be enduring and greatly valued within China.

I’ve been impressed by their enthusiasm, their commitment, and their willingness to work hard to learn.

In fact, working with them has, I think, affected my own research in a number of critical ways. I now tend to see China as an increasingly market-oriented economy, but one to which you can’t mechanically apply the same kind of analyses that you would typically produce for developed economies.

Working with the young scholars has brought home to me that you have to nuance the work that you do as it’s applied not just to China, but to all developing countries.

IDRC’s financial support has been very welcome, but IDRC offers more than that. It’s also the intellectual support. The program officers we’ve worked with have made many contributions and suggestions. It’s also very appealing to us that IDRC-supported research projects are to a large degree initiated in the developing world to meet the needs they identify as priorities.​