14.771 | Fall 2021 | Graduate

Development Economics

Instructor Insights

Instructor Interview

Below, Professor Benjamin Olken describes various aspects of how he and Professor Esther Duflo teach 14.771 Development Economics.

OCW: For the uninitiated, what is development economics? Does it entail applying the standard tools of economics to the problems of development, or does it necessitate a radically different approach?

Benjamin Olken: Everyone has their own definition of course, but here is mine: Development economics is, broadly speaking, the study of two broad questions. First, why are some countries poor and some countries rich, and what is the right set of tools and policies to assist poor countries in reducing poverty and increasing incomes and well-being? Second, how do the various economic phenomena we seek to understand thoroughout economics function differently in low-income countries, given the lower levels of income, human capital, and physical capital in those settings, as well as increased informality and different institutions? We use exactly the same economic tools—applied economic theory and econometrics—as in any subfield of economics to answer these questions.

OCW: How do you divide up the teaching responsibility between the two of you?

Benjamin Olken: Some topics one of us has worked extensively on, so we take those—Esther has done a tremendous amount of work on human capital (health and education), and I have done a lot of work on the public taxation and social protection issues—so those are natural. The rest we divvy up based on interests, and we each have developed some expertise in teaching the topics over the years. And we switch it up from time to time as well to get new perspectives and introduce some variety!

OCW: You require each student to post a comment on the readings at least 24 hours before each class session, using the online discussion forum Piazza. Does that requirement stimulate richer in-class discussions?

Benjamin Olken: Yes, it’s terrific. It forces the students to read papers critically and come to class ready to discuss them. We read all the comments beforehand so we have a sense of some common themes, which helps us to draw out a good discussion.

OCW: What would you like to share about teaching 14.771 that we haven’t yet addressed?

Benjamin Olken: The “text” of this class is microeconomic issues in development, but the “subtext” of the class is how to do rigorous applied microeconomic research—what makes a good research paper, and how you identify those. We teach some of this explicitly, but that is also what I want students to take away from it. It’s a subtly different emphasis, but we’re trying to launch our PhD students on their own research careers, so this is very important. And it also means this is a great class for anyone interested in applied microeconomic research, even in other topics—your “text” may be different in another subfield, but the “subtext” of what makes a great microeconomic research paper is common across subfields. 

Curriculum Information


Requirements Satisfied

14.771 can be applied toward a PhD in Economics, but is not required.


Every fall semester


Grade Breakdown

  • 25% Problem Sets
  • 25% Replication/Research Proposal
  • 40% Final Exam
  • 10% Class Participation

Student Information


14 students 

Breakdown by Year

Mostly first- and second-year graduate students

Breakdown by Major

Mostly MIT Economics PhD students, plus several cross-registered PhD students

Typical Student Background

The course is designed to be taken concurrently with the first-year PhD micro-theory and econometrics sequences, but almost all students have some prior experience and familiarity with both economic micro-theory, statistics, and econometrics.

How Student Time Was Spent

During an average week, students were expected to spend 12 hours on the course, roughly divided as follows:

In Class

  • Met twice per week for 1.5 hours per session; 26 sessions total; mandatory attendance.
  • In class, Professors Duflo and Olken delivered lectures, and engaged students in discussion around the assigned readings.


  • Met once per week for one hour per session; 13 sessions total.
  • In recitations, a teaching assistant reviewed concepts from the lectures and answered student questions.

Out of Class

  • Outside of class, students completed assigned readings, posted responses to those readings on the class discussion forum, and worked on problem sets, a replication exercise, and a research proposal.

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2021
Learning Resource Types
Instructor Insights
Lecture Notes
Problem Sets
Written Assignments