FROM ITS ROOTS AS A MODEST EXPERIMENT nearly 20 years ago, a program based at Harvard Kennedy School has steadily grown in scale and influence, earning international acclaim in the economic development and growth arena. In the process, the Growth Lab at the Center for International Development has honed its field work, academic research, technology tools, and classroom teaching into a unique blend of analysis and action that has touched cities and countries across the globe.

In the metaphor of its founder, Ricardo Hausmann, the Growth Lab is like a teaching and research hospital for a medical school, training students and practitioners how to do policy work. The Growth Lab’s “patients” are governments that need diagnosis and treatment to heal deep economic ailments. 

Consider the Growth Lab’s project in Namibia—just one of the lab’s seven current national engagements. Independent only since 1990, Namibia lies on the arid southwest coast of Africa, still suffering from the legacy of apartheid a generation ago, much like its larger neighbor, South Africa. The Namibian government came to the Growth Lab for help in crafting a strategy for sustainable and inclusive growth.

That’s why Nikita Taniparti MPA/ID 2018, now a Growth Lab research manager, led a team of six researchers through a series of discussions in April with local officials and residents in the crowded, struggling villages of northern Namibia. This fieldwork took place midway through the Growth Lab’s three-year applied research project in Namibia to help identify ways to grow the economy as it copes with searing inequalities that have plagued the country since independence in 1990. This Growth Lab team was hunting for solutions to a specific aspect, framed by the Namibian government: how to rethink land tenure and use in the north to foster inclusive growth and higher productivity. And a team of four Growth Lab student interns returned to Namibia for the second straight summer for more hands-on work.

Members of the Growth Lab team visited the Etunda Green Scheme to visit smallholder farmers, and also the asparagus farm owned by a Spanish company—Industrias Alimentarias de Navarra (IAN), both in the Omahenene region.

At the same time, back in the Growth Lab’s warren of offices at HKS, postdoctoral researchers were puzzling through larger academic questions to understand the obstacles to growth not just in Namibia but in other countries across the world. These scholars crunched fresh economic data and drew from decades of development research to produce peer-reviewed papers and in-depth analysis. 

Meanwhile, another set of Growth Lab experts on the digital team used the incoming Namibian field data to build a simple, user-friendly web tool designed to quickly scan the economic landscape and find products and services best positioned to power the next phase of Namibia’s growth. This tool mirrors other innovative Growth Lab data visualization tools built in recent years to enable officials to make informed decisions about development policies.

Bringing this work full circle, Harvard faculty members engaged with middle-level and senior officials from Namibia and other countries through the spring in a 10-week Kennedy School Executive Education course called “Leading Economic Growth.” The course allowed those who are dealing with real-world conundrums each day to learn the Growth Lab methodology and to problem-solve with counterparts in other countries facing similar constraints on growth.

Woven together, these research and teaching components add up to a powerful engine not only for assessing problems but also for identifying and testing workable solutions. And in the process, scores of Kennedy School students and alumni are tapping into a Growth Lab smorgasbord of learning and professional opportunities.

“There’s a huge multiplier effect for each project we work on because we are working in the country and they are sending their civil servants to study at Harvard,” says Taniparti, the Namibia project co-lead, who joined the Growth Lab staff in 2018 after earning her HKS degree and then working at a research institute in her native India. “These country officials are getting access to the wider Harvard network. And students and faculty at Harvard end up enlarging their research interests because they know there’s an avenue to apply them at the Growth Lab.”

Professor Ricardo Hausmann in a classroom

“I think the Growth Lab is an institutional innovation that is quite unique. There is nothing quite like it, I would say, in the world.”

Ricardo Hausmann

Aphary Muyongo, the deputy director of economic geology in the Namibian Ministry of Mines, was one of several Namibian officials in the executive education course. Muyongo came across Growth Lab research papers on Namibia and found them practical and clear on the need to diversify the economy away from raw mineral production. That prompted him to want to do more with the team. 

“At the end of the day, it’s equipping us with tools on how to approach our economic problems,” he says of the lab. “And for me, this is very empowering because even if you are left on your own, you’re able to do the work by yourself, instead of a consultancy where you give a question and then they come up with solutions. This is like hands-on—you have to do it yourself.”

The Growth Lab’s Roots  

Ricardo Hausmann, the Rafik Hariri Professor of the Practice of Political Economy at the Kennedy School, remains the hard-driving faculty director of the Growth Lab. He is blunt in his pride: “I think the Growth Lab is an institutional innovation that is quite unique. There is nothing quite like it, I would say, in the world.”

Its origins were less auspicious. “It was something that we stumbled into,” as he puts it.

Hausmann came to the Kennedy School in 2000, after seven years as chief economist at the Inter-American Development Bank, and previously served as minister of planning in his native Venezuela. He recalled the initial challenge that evolved into the Growth Lab: He was asked to produce a strategy for economic growth in El Salvador in 2005. He pulled together several HKS faculty members to help: Dani Rodrik, Robert Lawrence, Lant Pritchett, and Andrés Velasco. “It was like herding cats,” Hausmann says now. “But we managed to come to a synthesis, and, in the process, we discovered a different way of analyzing things.”

Hausmann, Rodrik, and Velasco wrote a paper titled “Growth Diagnostics,” which generated so much attention that the World Bank asked them to teach it in what became a long-running executive education course. “Then the World Bank asked us to apply this growth diagnostic methodology,” Hausmann remembers. “Next in line was South Africa, and next was Kazakhstan.” In early 2006, he launched the Growth Lab as a program within Harvard’s Center for International Development, where he was the faculty director.

Hausmann plunged into ideas around economic complexity and growth diagnostics, which evolved into the two trademark methodologies of the Growth Lab. His research papers now have tens of thousands of citations.

“The economic complexity approach had enormous impact, and it allowed us to attract more postdoctoral fellows and to have more visitors who wanted to do research with us,” Hausmann says.

The Growth Lab team tours ROAMA Manufacturing’s apparel facility. Data graphics help assess the relative benefits of promoting activewear in Namibia.

Economic Complexity by the Letter 

The executive education component has become an intrinsic part of the Growth Lab model—Hausmann teaches the course with HKS Senior Lecturer Matt Andrews, who leads the Building State Capability program within the School’s Center for International Development. “Leading Economic Growth” enables officials from countries that want to work with the Growth Lab to test whether the approach is worth a multiyear engagement.

Teaching in the spring executive education course, Hausmann used an analogy from the game of Scrabble to get across a key insight of economic complexity. In that game, having a diverse set of letters allows you to build more words—and more complex words. In the Growth Lab’s lexicon, a country with more diverse productive capabilities can grow more diverse and complex industries than one with fewer capabilities. Expanding the set of capabilities allows locations to find new industries and better growth opportunities and thus create more wealth, through strategies such as attracting talent and firms from other countries.

Hausmann prefaces his teaching hospital metaphor this way: “Public policy is to economics what medicine is to biology or engineering is to physics. Physics and biology study the nature of the world we live in. Medicine, engineering, and public policy are about changing the world. Progress in biology and physics is very helpful to medicine and engineering, but biologists are not physicians, and physicists are not engineers. The Kennedy School needs to advance knowledge in public policy and teach it.”   

Data visualization of Namibia product space on Growth Lab’s Viz Hub
Data visualization of Namibia product space on Growth Lab’s Viz Hub

For Hausmann, the Growth Lab’s three dozen researchers are the equivalent of a teaching hospital’s interns and residents. He notes that medical school students spend just one year in the classroom and the next three years in teaching hospitals working with patients. In the classroom, you can explain a disease or an economic model and study its implications. But doctors do not know what ails their patients and must figure out which disease is affecting them. This can only be taught by looking at real patients. The same is true of public policy, according to Hausmann. In his view, the Growth Lab aspires to be the Kennedy School’s teaching hospital for economic growth problems.  

At the same time, just as some doctors focus on clinical research to advance medicine’s underlying biology, Hausmann’s nine postdoctoral fellows in the Growth Lab are producing the core academic research on economic growth. The applied research teams take that academic learning into the field to inform their context-specific, custom treatment plans.

“What we are trying to advance is the technology with which we study issues,” Hausmann says. “We diagnose things, we cure things—that’s our core work. That’s our mission. And in the process of doing our work, we develop technologies to analyze things and fix them and we want to make them accessible to the world at large.”

Diagnostic Tools for Growth 

To that end, the Growth Lab built its Atlas of Economic Complexity, a prize-winning tool for tracking global trade flows, product by product and country by country. That is the most ambitious of many data visualization tools built by the Growth Lab and is available on its Viz Hub. Another recent tool is Metroverse, which drills down below country level to look at development data for more than a thousand cities globally. The tools are user-friendly, designed for non-experts.

Tim Cheston, one of the Growth Lab’s three senior managers for applied research, says the Growth Lab’s approach flouts a lot of conventional wisdom. “All our methods basically go against the development paradigm of ‘one size fits all,’” Cheston says. “The methods both in economic complexity and growth diagnostics really emphasize the location-specific nature of the challenges and barriers to economic growth, as well as the opportunities for that location to be able to diversify and grow.” 

The Growth Lab has carried out research projects in more than 30 countries since its founding. A key feature is that these projects are usually sustained for several years, allowing relationships to grow and country expertise to deepen. The lab currently has active policy engagements in Colombia, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Namibia, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates. Work with the state of Wyoming is planned. 

Data visualization of Namibia product space on Growth Lab’s Viz Hub and members of the Growth Lab team presenting to local officials.

Former Growth Lab faculty and student alumni also now hold influential positions at other institutions, spreading the Growth Lab methodology. The dean of the newly established School of Public Policy at the London School of Economics (LSE) is Andrés Velasco, a former HKS professor who worked closely with Hausmann for years in the formation of the Growth Lab. In March, Velasco launched a new research collaboration with Hausmann and the Growth Lab. 

At a recent event at LSE, speakers from several countries described the impact of Harvard’s Growth Lab projects, not least in Albania, which has been a focal point of Growth Lab research since 2013. Albania’s deputy prime minister, Arben Ahmetaj, said, “The past nine years have been transformative for Albania.”

“We went from a country which was on the brink of collapse [with] a failed growth model that relied heavily on construction and remittances,” Ahmetaj said, “to a country that was able to restore its macroeconomic stability without recession, undertake transformative reforms in priority areas such as energy and fiscal policy and turn around the growth rates by creating an export-led sustainable growth model.”

“Today, I can proudly say that together with Ricardo and his team, we actually changed the failed model into a successful growth model,” he added.

Another recent “patient” has been Jordan, an Arab country plagued by chronic unemployment. Former Prime Minister Omar Razzaz has described how the Growth Lab team’s diagnostic work identified information technology as a promising avenue for increasing Jordan’s economic complexity. After three years of pursuing that strategy, Jordan achieved huge IT industry growth: American multinational Cisco’s presence grew from 10 engineers to 1,300; Microsoft’s technical staff grew from 25 to 500; and Amazon and Expedia have achieved similar growth.

Growth Lab Grows Its Own Talent 

A distinctive feature of the Growth Lab is the extent of its homegrown staff. The majority of the lab’s applied researchers are graduates of the Kennedy School, mostly with MPA/ID degrees and many with international roots. The lab also places 16 HKS students in intensive summer-long internships in countries where projects are underway. Several former interns are now on its full-time team of nearly 50 people.

All three current applied research program senior managers are HKS graduates who worked their way up to leadership roles. Douglas Barrios MPA/ID 2012 worked briefly for a consulting firm after getting his degree, but soon came back to the School to join the Growth Lab. Barrios, who oversees projects in Namibia, South Africa, and Kazakhstan, says that team learning and mentoring are baked into the system. He notes that the applied research teams “do a lot of capacity-building with our counterparts so they are able to do this type of work on their own.”

“All our methods basically go against the development paradigm of ‘one size fits all.’”

Tim Cheston

Tim O’Brien MPA/ID 2015 spent two years in the Peace Corps in Malawi before coming to HKS and joined the Growth Lab after graduation, traveling almost monthly for fieldwork on a series of country projects and rising to senior manager. “The Growth Lab organization is very flat,” he says, “and you’re quickly put in situations with real decision-makers. Within my first six weeks, I was writing a memo to the prime minister of Albania. Within my first year, I was meeting with the prime minister of Sri Lanka.”

Hausmann decided early on that he wanted to make all of what he calls the Growth Lab’s “know-how” technology free and accessible to researchers and policymakers everywhere: “Our philosophy has always been that we create public goods, and we serve them up for free to the world.” It helps to have his teams testing those tools in practice—out in the field with the nation-patients—and constantly honing them.

“We are in the business of developing knowledge, science, and technology to do public policy. And that is different from advancing the frontier of knowledge in pure economics in the same way that doing medical research is different from doing biology.”

Banner image: (Left to right) Miguel Angel Santos, Andrés Fortunato, Helvi Fillipus (Bank of Namibia), Robby Amadhila (ROAMA Manufacturing), and Nikita Taniparti

Faculty portrait by Martha Stewart

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