Researching the politics of development



Profile of a Research Associate – Nicolai Schulz

7 July 2020

In our latest blog series, we are spotlighting our wonderful ESID Research Associates. First up, as Nicolai Schultz takes up a new position as post-doctoral researcher at Humboldt University’s Department for Agricultural Economics, we celebrate his work and contribution to ESID.

What are your current circumstances during the coronavirus pandemic? Where are you living and what’s it like working from home?
I’m very fortunate in the sense that not much has changed for me. I’ve been working remotely from home in Berlin for most of the time prior to lockdown. While having to share the home office with my partner and flatmates now has not necessarily boosted productivity, it does ensure that the social distancing does not feel that distant.
What has your role been for ESID?
I have been working as Research Associate at the GDI and ESID since August 2018 (in parallel to completing my PhD in Development Studies at LSE in March 2020). Together with Tim Kelsall, I am leading the ‘Defining and measuring political settlements‘ project.
Can you tell us about your own research interests – what areas do you focus on and in which regions?
My research interests primarily concern the political economy of development, with a focus on industrial and trade policy in sub-Saharan Africa. At ESID, I have co-led the effort in quantifying political settlements through a large-scale expert survey. In my dissertation at the LSE, I explored how producer group size and coalitions between traders and producer affect when governments in sub-Saharan Africa employ export bans on raw commodities to promote processing. To test rivalling explanations, I relied on the quantitative analysis of an original ‘African Export Restrictions Database’ and comparative case studies across seven commodity sectors in Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania, which I travelled to for eight months during 2017. In addition to my thesis and ESID work, I have published and worked on topics related to the determinants of civil wars, anti-corruption agencies, exchange rate valuation, and the political economy of green energy transitions. I am currently beginning my study of the politics of bioeconomy policies in the Global South as a postdoctoral researcher at the Humboldt University in Berlin.
How would you describe your research if you were talking to a taxi driver with no knowledge of development?
With regard to our work on political settlements, and assuming I’d take a taxi in the UK, I would probably use UK politics as an example. I would start off by saying that what we are trying to understand in our research is whether more powerful governments and leaders are more developmental. To illustrate what we mean by ‘powerful’, I would contrast Theresa May’s fairly fragmented and weak ruling coalition after the 2017 general election with, perhaps, the more cohesive and powerful ruling coalition of Boris Johnson after the 2019 general election. And I would ask the taxi driver which PM s/he reckons would be more able to pass and implement their desired policies. Probably arriving at the answer that it is the more cohesive and powerful coalition (à la Johnson post-2019), I would then explain that we are trying to quantify such differences in power dynamics across 42 countries in the Global South and test whether these can explain how well governments have promoted development.
Which of your research findings are you most excited about?
After nearly two years of designing and conducting our survey, we have now collected 124 out of 128 country-expert replies. This, for the first time, has allowed us to look at our data, create and correlate variables, and conduct very crude tests of hypotheses. Seeing that our questions and the expert replies seem to have created valid, novel and rich data has been particularly exciting.
Which papers or publications are you most proud of? Why?
My recent World Development article on the ‘The politics of export restrictions: A panel data analysis of African commodity processing industries’. Only my second publication, the paper presents the core theoretical model of my thesis, as well as the findings of its quantitative analysis. Apart from the years of hard work that went into the paper, I am particularly proud of the contributions it makes to the political economy of development literature, specifically providing new insights into the critical role politics plays in industrial policy-making in Africa and showing that African mass producer groups can overcome usual Olsonian collective action problems to oppose policies adverse to their interests in certain circumstances.
Who do you most admire in international development?
If I had to name one on the spot, it would be Professor Thandika Mkandawire, who sadly passed very recently. During my time as a masters and PhD student at LSE, Thandika was Professor of African Development at the Department of International Development. He was not only a true intellectual giant in Development Studies, but also a kind and supportive mentor to many, as well as a leading force in ensuring that more African students could study at our department. One of the things that I admired most about him was his dedication to push the frontiers of African political economy to the very end, in spite of his illness and advanced age. Thandika was and remains a true inspiration to me and certainly many other scholars and students of international development.
What is one way you would like to see international development respond to the current coronavirus pandemic?
The coronavirus pandemic has cost nations in the Global North trillions in economic loss and relief packages and strained their bureaucratic capacities to the limit. It is difficult to imagine how disastrous the pandemic will likely become in those countries in the Global South that are nowhere close to having the economic and state capacity to combat the virus that the North has. In many countries, the majority of the population lives not from monthly paycheck to paycheck but from their daily or weekly incomes. And the macroeconomic balance is also under massive threat, with steep falls in primary commodity exports, growing import demand for medical supplies, and massive capital outflows, which risks causing serious balance of payment and inflation crises. While many adequate and inadequate points on the problems of aid and debt relief can be made, I believe in these exceptional and extreme times that both must be increased rapidly and massively by multi- and bilateral donors and creditors.