What are your research interests?
My research lies at the intersection between development economics, economic history and political economy. More specifically, I am interested in studying quantitatively the deep, rooted determinants of development.
For instance, I have studied how Christian missionaries affected both positively and negatively local development in sub-Saharan Africa. As they converted people to Christianity, and invested in schools and hospitals, they indeed disrupted human capital accumulation, marriage markets and civic attitudes. I have also worked on state building and local development, for example in the case of Italy's quick consolidation as a unified state in 1861.
What inspired you to pursue this field?
I always had an interest in different social sciences, humanities and statistics. I was lucky to discover this line of research by the end of my studies, reading the work of pioneers in the field after I finished my masters degree. It was when I realised that I could use economic and econometric insights to learn about historical process of development, that I started to be really motivated by this field.
What is the impact of your research?
My research on Christian missions has taught me to be cautious about measuring the impact of interventions in the short run. Most missionaries in the early 20th century had 'good intentions'; they wanted to help/'save' people across the Empire. We now know that some of their 'interventions' had negative, unanticipated, long-lasting effects. Maybe that is the only thing I can say about impact.
How does you research influence your teaching?
I do talk a lot about how particular historical events have shaped development. I do not distinguish between rich and middle income countries when I teach development. Historical development processes in high-income countries give us important lessons about development.
For instance, we can learn about extractive institutions by studying the Antebellum US South. Similarly, we know that the relationship between openness to trade and development is complex and rarely univocally positive when studying episodes of free trade and protectionism across Europe and North America in the late 19th century.
What are the challenges in your field?
Interdisciplinarity is challenging, because it is impossible to please everybody. Reviewers may apply very strictly the standards of one of the fields, thus making it harder to publish our research.
For instance, if you are working on historical development, it is hard to meet the standards of statistical identification as set by impact evaluation studies; qualitative evidence based on historical or anthropological scholarship is not always accepted as proof. This issue of selection in evidence was also recently pointed out by Professor George A. Akerlof: in our discipline, there is emphasis on 'hard' evidence and a dismissal of 'soft' evidence, which generates selection, 'sins of omission', in the answers provided to big-picture questions.