Bergeron’s fieldwork in the Democratic Republic of the Congo puts into practice his knowledge at the crossroads of economics, political science, and development.
April 26, 2021
“The big question I was always curious about,” Augustin Bergeron PhD 2021 says, “is why some countries are poor and others are rich.”
To answer that question, Bergeron realized he needed a mix of skills. Originally from France, he completed a master’s degree in economics at the Paris School of Economics before finding his way to Britain to undertake a second master’s in political economy at the London School of Economics. “I think France is quite traditional, academically speaking,” Bergeron says, “so if you're an economist, you just study economics; if you're interested in political economy you just study political science. I really wanted to work at the intersection, so I ended up doing two master’s degrees.”
Unwilling to be boxed in, Bergeron has spent his academic career exploring the intersections of economics, political science, and economic development in order to understand how developing countries can grow. For his doctoral studies, he found an excellent match in Harvard’s PhD Program in Political Economy and Government (PEG), which allows students to take courses at different Harvard schools and tailor a doctoral program to suit their interests. “I was able to function under the umbrella of development economics, which involves interdisciplinary work essentially,” Bergeron says. “I found myself most excited to understand the role of government’s fiscal capacity in the process of development.”
Being free to pursue his research interests while also having strong support from faculty across Harvard was one of Bergeron’s favorite aspects of PEG—and one he took great advantage of during his time as a student. The interdisciplinary program allowed him to work with faculty across the University, including Harvard Kennedy School’s Asim Khwaja, the director of the Center for International Development and the Sumitomo-FASID Professor of International Finance and Development. Bergeron established a habit of checking in with different Harvard professors and other experts a few times a week. “My officemates would make fun of me because I met with so many faculty members,” he jokes.
Bergeron’s doctoral work has focused on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country that has low fiscal capacity and that offered him the opportunity to engage with local government officials to conduct experiments on fiscal capacity. His advisor Nathan Nunn, the Frederic E. Abbe Professor of Economics at Harvard University, had already been doing fieldwork in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and had laid some groundwork. “The government is really eager to improve on its tax collection, and to experiment and build fiscal capacity from the ground up,” Bergeron says.
Before the pandemic hit, Bergeron conducted an extensive amount of fieldwork, spending months at a time in Congo conducting surveys and focus groups, implementing experiments, and meeting with government officials. “It is extremely important to have an understanding of the local context” for the type of economic development work he is interested in, Bergeron says, so travel and time in the field is essential. “It’s challenging at first to make a leap outside your comfort zone, to pursue research in the field and in a country you’re not yet familiar with,” he says, “but it’s also incredibly enriching to be able to study a context not just from a distance, but actively by spending time there.” While this past year has been focused on writing his dissertation, Bergeron is eager to get back in the field when he can.
And he is relieved that the next steps of his academic career are already in place: Bergeron has a job—two jobs in fact—already lined up. After graduation, he will spend a year as a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University’s King Center on Global Development, where he will work with and be mentored by faculty members Pascaline Dupas and Katherine Casey, before becoming an assistant professor at the University of Southern California.
While Bergeron’s family is not able to travel from France for his Harvard graduation this May, they will watch the streamed commencement events with pride and perhaps see him after he has settled in California. Bergeron acknowledges he will be even farther from home on the West Coast—and even farther from his research sites in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—but he looks forward to this next step: “I think it’s going to be a very exciting new chapter.”
Portraits by Natalie Montaner