Synchronous Online, Summer, 1 Credit, 8 weeks

Instructor: Gunars Platais

Course Information

Successful economic development has been an elusive target in many countries of the Global South. Considerable intellectual effort has been spent on this issue over many decades with mixed results. A recent and alarming trend shows that inequality has deteriorated across all countries, rich and poor alike. For example, the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) Human Development Report 2014 states that “although poverty is declining overall, almost 800 million people are at risk of falling back into poverty if setbacks occur.” Fittingly, the UNDP’s 2019 Human Development Report will focus precisely on this topic: inequality. According to the UNDP, almost 1.5 billion people are living in poverty in 91 developing countries with poor to almost non-existent health and education systems resulting in unacceptable living standards.

We know that countries can improve the standard of living and the quality of people’s lives even under adverse circumstances, and that countries have made great gains to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) despite only modest growth in income. At the same time, some countries with strong economic performance over the decades have failed to make similarly impressive progress in life expectancy, poverty alleviation, schooling, and overall living standards.

Course Description  

The course will address main development topics based on a theoretical framework applied to practical real-life examples with a focus on the contribution of engineering to these solutions. The format of the class will be guided by analysis and in class discussions in order to provide a multi-sectoral approach. Students will be introduced to basic economic theory and how it applies to economic development in order to better understand the conditions of poverty. Furthermore, students will also examine how the role of engineering intersects the solutions space. Some of the questions to be addressed include: Why do developing countries have poor health, high child mortality, face extreme poverty, low levels of education, and high levels of child labor?  Which, if any, policies are effective in alleviating these problems? Emphasis will be placed on analyzing current economic issues and policies in their historical context. The course is organized around a series of key themes, which will be explored with reference to particular societies and their histories. The process of economic reform, agricultural and industrial development, income distribution, health and education and international economic relations will all be scrutinized on a macro level in order to identify the negative and positive advances that have been accomplished internationally thus far.

The key cross-cutting themes are:

  • Theories of economic development: What are the causes of economic growth as well as the barriers to development? How do we best explain sustained economic development, and what are the limitations of these theories? How does engineering intersect in this space?
  • International development assistance (aid): Its critical role and how this has contributed (or not) to assisting countries improve their circumstances and of their people. The differences between different donor government agencies will be explored.
  • Modalities of development assistance: Supporting economic development through programs, budget assistance and projects. Logical Framework Approach and capacity building tools.

Summary Content

In the spirit of an integrated analysis the course covers, amongst other things, and in varying degrees of depth, the following topics: an understanding of the difference between growth and economic development; the meaning and measurement of economic development; major growth theories; sustainability; poverty and income distribution; inequality; significance of agriculture in developing countries; poverty and population issues; international trade; and the importance of foreign aid; the role of geography and institutions; fertility and population growth; social and environmental impacts; the role of credit markets and microfinance; health and nutrition; education; female empowerment.

Learning Goals

  • Students will have a broad understanding of the central themes and issues of economic development and growth.
  • Students will recognize poverty, its underlying causes and formulate solutions.
  • Students will be able to extend this knowledge into their fields of expertise in engineering and demonstrate how engineering can contribute to finding solutions.

Textbooks and Materials

All required readings will be provided through Canvass.


Critical Responses

(Graded as pass / fail / partial credit, each are 6% of final grade, 30% total)

The weekly critical responses are one-page essays related to the reading for that week. These pieces are not meant as a summary of the readings, but rather as an opportunity to engage with and explore key questions or concepts in the readings. Students are expected to read the response pieces sent in by other class members, and the responses will serve as a starting point for class discussions. All acceptable critical responses (i.e., responses that are approximately 500 words in length and that engage substantively with the readings) will receive full credit. Critical responses should be posted to the appropriate thread in Canvas and are due Monday at 11:59:59pm of the week the readings are due. Responses that are very short, that merely summarize the readings without engaging with them substantively, or that are delivered after the deadline will not receive more than half-credit. Students do not have to submit a critical response the week that they are facilitating the class discussion.

Discussion Facilitation

Each student will be responsible for facilitating a discussion of the week’s readings and lectures. Plan on facilitating discussion for approximately 30-45 minutes. You are encouraged to be creative in your facilitation (i.e., you are welcome to incorporate additional materials, case studies, or formats to facilitate conversation), but at a bare minimum plan on having five to ten substantive questions. The instructors are happy to talk with you beforehand if you would like to discuss ideas for facilitating the conversation.

Facilitation Review Sheet

(20% of final grade)

As part of facilitating discussion, you will need to provide your classmates with a one-page synthesis of the key ideas, concepts, and issues raised by the week’s readings and lecture. Please email your synthesis and questions for discussion to the instructor by Monday at 11:59:59pm.

Detailed Paper Outline

(10% of final grade)

Final Paper with presentation

(40% of final grade)

Group Work

Some of the assignments will be completed on an individual basis, but some will involve group work. For group efforts, all group members will receive the same grade. Each student will also receive a participation grade for the course that will be based in part on that student’s contributions to the group efforts. Peer evaluations, instructor observations, and other related methods may be used when determining the participation grade.

Late Policy

The grade for late assignments will be reduced by 10 percentage points (on a 100 point scale) per day that the assignment is late. We may agree to make exceptions to this policy on a very limited basis, provided that the reason is very compelling and provided that you ask us in advance.

Extra Credit  

(TBD points)

Extra credit assignments are not anticipated but may arise as the course progresses.


There will be no exams in this course.

Course Calendar





Introduction and Overview

Introductions, course outline, expectations, grading

Engineering and economic growth: a global view. A report by Cebr for the Royal Academy of Engineering. 2016.


Growth, Development and Wealth

What does “development” mean? How does it differ from “growth”?  Where have growth and development occurred around the world, and where has development progress been more limited? What is wealth? How does it relate to growth and development? Discussion of key development theories.

Dwight Perkins, Steven Radelet, David Lindauer, and Steven Block, Economics of Development, 7th edition, 2012 (W.W. Norton and Co.), Chapters 1, and 2.

Where is the Wealth of Nations? Measuring Capital for the 21st Century.

The Changing Wealth of Nations 2018 : Building a Sustainable Future


Patterns of Economic Growth

Why do some countries grow fast, while income remains stagnant in others? We will briefly review the basic concepts underlying standard models of economic growth and examine empirical patterns of growth. We will also examine other measures of development, including the human development index.

Commission on Growth and Development. The Growth Report: Strategies for Sustained Growth and Inclusive Development (2008). Overview and Part I (pp 1 – 31).

Transcending capitalism: Policies for a post-growth economy. Samuel Alexander. AQ: Australian Quarterly. Vol. 89, No. 2, 2018


Growth, poverty, and income distribution (Human Capital)

Does economic growth lead to poverty reduction? What does it usually imply for equity and the distribution of income? And what’s the difference between poverty and income distribution? We will explore the relationships between growth, poverty, and equity, and explore recent changes in the global distribution of income.

Poor economics: A radical rethinking of the way to fight global poverty. A Banerjee, E Duflo. 2011

Fighting Poverty One Experiment at a Time: A Review of Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo's Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. Martin Ravaillon.

The Divide. Jason Hickle. 2018

A (critical but friendly) review of Jason Hickle’s book, Divide.

Piecing together the Poverty Puzzle. Poverty and Shared Prosperity. World Bank. 2018.


Man-made capital

We will examine the importance of Infrastructure Investments on growth and development and its social and environmental impacts.

Engineering and economic growth: a global view. A report by Cebr for the Royal Academy of Engineering. 2016.

World Development Report 2004: making services work for poor people. World Bank Group.


Structural Transformation: Rural – Urban Transformation

We will examine the typical pattern of structural transformation during the growth process, and the rural – urban transformation dynamics including the social and environmental impacts.

Dwight Perkins, Steven Radelet, David Lindauer, and Steven Block, Economics of Development, 7th edition, 2012 (W.W. Norton and Co.), Chapters 16 – 18.

World Development Report 2009: Reshaping Economic Geography. World Bank.


Trade, Development and Foreign Aid

What is aid? Does it work? What is it trying to achieve? Does it do more harm than good? We will look at current controversies and debates about foreign assistance and development.

Dwight Perkins, Steven Radelet, David Lindauer, and Steven Block, Economics of Development, 7th edition, 2012 (W.W. Norton and Co.), Chapter 19 (Trade and Development). Chapter 14 (Foreign Aid).


Sustainable Development

What is SD? What is SD in the face of ever-expanding consumption? Does the economy need to continuously expand? Are there alternatives? Steady State Economy?

Systems integration for global sustainability. Jianguo Liu, Harold Mooney, Vanessa Hull, et al. Science 27 Feb 2015: Vol. 347, Issue 6225.

Criteria for Assessing Sustainable Development: Theoretical Issues and Empirical Evidence for the Case of Greece. Dimitra Vouvaki and Anastasios Xepapadeas. NOTA DI LAVORO 59.2005.


Presentation of papers



Presentation of papers



Grades will be recorded in Canvas throughout the semester. At the end of the term, the scores on all assignments are weighted by the percentages given above to determine a semester score. Student grades will be determined as follows based on their semester score rounded to the nearest single decimal place:

A+: 100 to 97.0 percent

A: 96.9 to 93.0 percent

A-: 92.9 to 90.0 percent

B+: 89.9 to 87.0 percent

B: 86.9 to 83.0 percent

B-: 82.9 to 80.0 percent

C+: 79.9 to 77.0 percent

B: 76.9 to 73.0 percent

C-: 72.9 to 70.0 percent

D+: 69.9 to 67.0 percent

B: 66.9 to 63.0 percent

D-: 62.9 to 60.0 percent

F: 60.0 to 0 percent




The most up to date course calendar, readings and assignments will be posted in Canvas. Critical responses and assignment submissions will be through Canvas.