Deep Causes of Economic Development

Since the groundbreaking work of North (1990), institutions are seen as important drivers of economic development. More recently, Acemoglu et al. (2002, 2005) empirically demonstrated the importance of inclusive institutions to explain diverging patterns of global development. Economic history has also taken up this research agenda and consequently institutions now have a key role in the study of development in the very long term.  However, much of the research focuses on macro-level, formal institutions (e.g., economic and political institutions that ensure the protection of individual economic freedoms such as property rights). A crucial, but underexplored factor remains: the role of persistent, informal institutions that operate at the micro-level, which have recently be shown to matter for development outcomes (Nunn 2012; Alesina et al. 2013).

A prime example of one such institution is the family, where key economic decisions are made. One strand of literature argues that family plays a role in transmission of norms, beliefs, and values, which matter for economic, political and social outcomes. Another strand of literature, invoking the famous “quantity–quality tradeoff” argument, highlights the link between household structure, namely the number of children and human capital formation (Diebolt and Perrin 2013).

Both the work of Amartya Sen (2001) and the World Bank (2012) highlights women’s agency, the capacity of individuals to make meaningful decisions about their lives, as a key contributor to the development process. Creating equal opportunities for women is important for three reasons: firstly the misallocation of women’s skills has a high economic cost; secondly the control women have over their own lives and resources shapes the next generation in terms of their children’s health, education and nutrition; and lastly because increasing agency of women both at the individual and at the collective level can produce superior institutions and policy outcomes.

The following call for papers is for a two-day conference to take place in Utrecht on 18–20 December 2014. We invite proposals on the long-term relation between development and informal institutions, with a particular focus on family organisation and the decision making power of women, both at the micro and the macro level. Though we focus on the past two centuries, we welcome proposals on all periods.  Abstracts should be no longer than 500. The abstracts should be sent to by 30th of June. a

This conference is by invitation only and is made possible by NWO project,” Agency, Gender, and Economic Development in the World Economy, 1850-2000”. Funding for transport and accommodation is available.

Organisers: Sarah Carmichael, Selin Dilli, Jan Kok, Auke Rijpma, Lotte van der Vleuten, Jan Luiten van Zanden.


For questions, please contact:

Acemoglu, Daron, Simon Johnson, and James A. Robinson. 2002. “Reversal of Fortune: Geography and Institutions in the Making of the Modern World Income Distribution.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 117: 1231–1294.

Acemoglu, D., S. Johnson, and J.A. Robinson. 2005. “Institutions as a Fundamental Cause of Long-run Growth.” In Handbook of Economic Growth, edited by Philippe Aghion and Steven N. Durlauf, 1:385–472.

Alesina, Alberto, Paola Giuliano, and Nathan Nunn. 2013. “On the Origins of Gender Roles: Women and the Plough.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics (February 19).

Diebolt, Claude, and Faustine Perrin. 2013. “From Stagnation to Sustained Growth: The Role of Female Empowerment.” American Economic Review 103: 545–549.

North, Douglass C. 1990. Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance. Cambridge University Press.

Nunn, Nathan. 2012. “Culture and the Historical Process.” Economic History of Developing Regions 27 (sup1): S108–S126.

Sen, Amartya. 2001. Development as Freedom. 1st Oxford U.P. paperback ed. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford U.P.

World Bank. 2011. “World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development”. Washington, DC: The World Bank.