I am an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan. I study development, governance, and adaptation, with a focus on developing countries and emerging markets, particularly China.
My research tackles a central mystery of development: How did some societies make the dual transition from poverty-and-backwardness to prosperity-and-modernity? Given that poverty, weak institutions, and corruption are mutually reinforcing, how is it possible to escape the poverty trap?
Standard development theories, practices, and methods, largely assume a linear causal logic: either good governance leads to economic growth or vice versa.
Departing from convention, my research demonstrates that the first step of development is, paradoxically, to harness weak/wrong/backward institutions to kick-start markets. In other words, what we normally perceive as “problems” may be turned into solutions. Effective improvisation, however, does not automatically happen; it requires certain supporting conditions. Hence, a second line of my research studies the design of institutions that faciliate adaptation.
Changing the way we think about development requires both new ideas and new methods. I advance this agenda through these interconnected themes:
- how normatively weak/wrong/backward institutions can be used to spur new markets;
- the design of “meta-institutions” that foster effective adaptation;
- the interactive relationship between corruption and growth;
- the combination of qualitative research with machine learning statistical methods to test dynamic theories of development.
My book, How China Escaped the Poverty Trap (Cornell University Press, Cornell Studies in Political Economy, 2016), lays the foundation for my research agenda. It won the 2017 Peter Katzenstein Book Prize for outstanding first book in international relations, comparative politics, or political economy. The prize committee describes the book as “a field-shifting move to non-linear complex processes.” Reviews of my book are found at this link.
My work has received awards and support from various institutions. I received two Early Career Fellowships from the Andrew Mellon Foundation/American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the Eldersveld Prize for outstanding research contributions from the University of Michigan. I am also winner of a global essay competition on “The Future of Development Assistance,” sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. My new projects are funded by the Smith Richardson Foundation and IBM Center for the Business of Government.
Apart from my scholarly work, I enjoy public engagement and learning from practitioners. I’ve written op-eds for The Wall Street Journal, Project Syndicate, The Conversation, Devex, Straits Times and other outlets. I am named a Public Intellectuals Fellow by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, and served on the United Nations Expert Group on Eradicating Poverty in 2017.
A native of Singapore, I attended Colorado College and received my PhD from Stanford University. Prior to joining Michigan, I was on the faculty of Columbia University SIPA, where I taught political and economic development.