INTERVIEW: Patrick Guillaumont and Sylviane Guillaumont Jeanneney

Published on July 27, 2023 Updated on July 27, 2023

on the February 10, 2022

A talk with the CERDI's founders

INTERVIEW with Patrick Guillaumont and Sylviane Guillaumont Jeanneney

Where did you meet?

We met in Paris. Then, we were students at the Faculty of Law and Economies in Paris. We had a taste for public affairs and economic and social interactions. At the same time, we attended Sciences-Po. Political economy was changing. Until that time, the discipline was merged into law studies in France. 

lt then found its place, particularly with the development of quantitative methods. Our graduation class was the first of the 4-year bachelor's degree, with 2 years of specialization in economics.

lt was the first time that there was mainly economics in the 3rd and 4th years. To become a university lecturer at the time, once you had your doctorate, you had to pass a faculty aggregation examination. lt was a rather special exercise: four 45-minute lectures had to be prepared in 24 hours as a team. We also had to present two theses! We were accepted quite young and we were lucky to be able to go to Dakar together. One of us was appointed to Dakar but attached to Clermont, and the other was appointed to Clermont but seconded to Dakar for cooperation! lt was an exceptional experience. At the time, the University of Dakar looked like a French university and the students came from all over West Africa. The numbers were relatively small, and the students were very often excellent. We knew them very well. lt was an extraordinary melting pot. 

Unfortunately, in 1968, after a series of violent events (demonstrations repressed by the authorities), the university was temporarily closed and the international students returned to their respective countries. lt was during these years spent in Dakar that our African vocation was strengthened. Many links were forged and have endured ever since. 

How did the CERDI adventure start? 

PG: We made a choice when we first moved to Clermont-Ferrand at the end of 1968. We were young lecturers, we had just spent 4 years in Senegal at the University of Dakar and we wanted to create a development research center. 

SG: As the University of Dakar had been partly closed in 1968, we "picked up" a number of excellent Mrican students. 

PG: Colleagues kept telling us: "But why do you want to do this in Clermont Ferrand?" The standard path was Paris. Outside Paris, there was not much in this field of research in France. But as we hired young colleagues, some of them did their doctoral studies in Clermont-Ferrand and became lecturers; we had a "contract of trust" with them. We thus created a tool without equal at the time in the field of development economics. Things are different now. Parisian preeminence has weakened. True competition has established itself in France and abroad. This competition has served us well, but it is also a challenge for the future of CERDI. We did however hesitate about staying in Clermont Ferrand. 

I was pretty busy in the 1970s because we had created the Faculty of Economies and I was its Dean until 1976. That was when I created CERDI, which was recognized as a research unit associated with CNRS. CERDI then flourished to become the leading French center in development economics. I first managed it until 1991, then Sylviane took over from 1991 to 2000. Patrick Plane, Vianney Dequiedt and Grégoire Rota-Graziosi then followed on. 

SG: In 1976, the University of Paris was in a very difficult situation. At the time, we would say: "No lecturer has a desk and a chair." Computers didn't exist -then! The situation was very complicated. We were of course attracted to Paris, but we told ourselves that if we wanted to create a research center similar to those in the United States or the United Kingdom, it was easier in Clermont-Ferrand. We wanted lecturers, researchers, and students to be able to work in the same place, so that they could interact with each other. At that time, we could not have achieved it in Paris, where the situation was very different. 

Did you want to change the world like many students who come to study at CERDI? 

PG: Yes, of course! In all modesty. We could not bury our heads in the sand when embarking on this path, it is because we wanted to make things happen, to change things. I often said to students: ''You take this path because it is where the most important economic problems are. You will be able to have a significant impact thanks to your research, your work." Furthermore, at the time, it was a little frustrating to see how economics was a little out of touch with the most important real problems. There was almost an intellectual waste. Today, economics is much more connected to reality. 

Why did you choose development economics? 

PG: A former colleague once told me: "Development economics is over!". In fact, since his comment, it has developed significantly in France and around the world. 

SG: From a theoretical standpoint, many advances in development economics have passed into general economic theory. Because developing countries have specific structures that lead to new ways of thinking. It is a very stimulating science. 

PG: What made CERDI unique is our dual relationship with the South and with international institutions. For the South, we have trained many Afriean Doctors of Economies and hosted many civil servants in our "management of economic policy" program. This program was created some 20 years ago to train mainly African leaders in the analysis and evaluation of economic policies; there are now 700 to 800 alumni who form an extraordinary network and social capital. There are many former ministers, high-ranking officials, etc. This social capital is created by trust, with very strong human relationships. 

SG: ln this social capital, we must also underline the role of the Senior Professional Diploma in Economie Development qualification. We have trained many remarkable students who now occupy important positions in development organizations. . 

PG: When we go to Africa, we are always made very welcome. There are always former students who welcome us and we get together for drinks. When you are a researcher at CERDI, you benefit from this very useful relationship of trust in the field. 

The other social capital is in international relations. Our ambition was to have a voice comparable to the Center for Global Development (CGD). This is the leading Ameriean think tank, which is a model for us. Of course, its experts do not necessarily share the same ideas as us. We want to express a French voice. We established contacts with the CGD; we are preparing an event with them for the big summit on the financing of Afriean economies called for by President Macron. 

lt is crucial to work with international institutions to make your voice heard. ln the 1970s, we also had difficulty positioning ourselves. The World Bank was omnipresent and very influential. The World Bank recruited many CERDI Doctors of Economies. But some told us: "CERDI is the World Bank." Definitely not! lt was false! But we had to get to know each other to create a dialog and get our ideas across. lt is not by ignoring the World Bank that we can better understand and influence them. 

So, we therefore chose to establish dose relations with international institutions. First, it was interesting to find jobs for our students, but also to be heard. At the time, a French friend who was at the World Bank told me that you had to have done a PhD in the United States to enter the major international institutions. l'm not certain whether our ideas have counted, but since then, many former CERDI students have joined the World Bank! And so, over time, CERDI has become the royal way to join the IMF, especially for French-speaking students. We have been able to maintain this dialog, understand the operating methods of these institutions and carry out applied research. If you want to be influential, you have to be recognized. It doesn't work if we stay in our ivory tower and say that everyone else is stupid. 

SG: This position was sometimes difficult to maintain because the climate in France was often mistrustful. There were anti-World Bank preconceptions. 

Was it also with this in mind that you developed FERDI? 

PG: At the turn of the 2000s, we wondered how to strengthen CERD I and protect it from possible academic turmoil. lt takes a long time to build an institution like CERDI. lt took decades. To ensure its sustainability, we decided to create a foundation recognized as being of public utility by the French state, which has legal status and is independent. lt took a long time, but FERDI was established in 2003. At the time, the Ministry of Education was quite hostile to university foundations. This changed subsequently. In the statutes of the foundation, it had to be separated from CERDI. FERDI's role then evolved to become that of a think tank with a broader vocation. This role was reinforced by state support given jointly to another think tank, IDDRI (chaired by Laurence Tubiana at the time), through an AFD loan at zero interest rate as part of what is called the Initiative for Development and Global Governance (IDGM). The goal was to create a large French think tank on development and environmental issues. In fact, FERDI, having base resources, was able to have international collaborators, commission studies, and have a place in the international debate. 

The next step was achieved with the big loan in 2009 

PG: Yes, we said to ourselves: "lt would be a shame not to have a Labex (laboratory of excellence) in development economics," which would provide both a label and financial resources. This is how the Initiative for Development and Global Governance (IDGM +) was born, associating CERDI with FERDI and IDDRI. This Labex, led by FERDI, has strengthened Clermont's legitimacy in the field of international development, it is the only one in France which focuses on development economics, and there are only four other Labex in economics (Paris School of Economies, Toulouse School of Economies, Sciences Po, Aix Marseille). We were told once again that it would not work: "Economies is hard science. The Labex is not made for a think tank". We took the gamble of giving it the object of "Designing new development policies on the basis of research results." The international jury approved our choice. This was a significant turning point, as it strengthened the synergy between FERDI and CERDI, which are linked by common interests and a strong friendship between many of their members. 

lt is this base that made Clermont-Ferrand an attractive location for the Global Development Network (GDN), when this international institution which is devoted to strengthening research in the South in social sciences, which is useful for economic policy, wanted to set up shop in Europe. The project, initially considered improbable, but prepared by FERDI, took shape thanks to the support of local authorities, then that of the State through a gram from the French Development Agency. This will now be on a much larger scale than initially envisaged and is now intended more broadly to support the Clermont Ferrand pole of international development. After the creation of CERDI in 1976, that of FERDI in 2003, the launch of the IDGM in 2008, and the attribution of the Labex IDGM+ in 2011, a new decisive step opens at the same time both for Ferdi and CERDI, especially with the State's willingness to have a territorial anchoring for its policy. 

SG: We have returned to a regional planning policy in France and this is a good thing! We have benefited from the State' s willingness to have a territorial anchor for its international policy. 

Have you encountered any political obstacles or support? 

PG: We received a lot of support, both from the right and the left. Finally, we had a French and European vision. We have generally been supported at all levels (department, region, state), whatever the political tendency! And even more so with the GDN project. 

Do the results of CERDI and FERDI's research work end up being applied in the field? 

PG: This is a fundamental question. lt is even the question on which we aim to be judged, especially FERDI as a think tank. We are asked: "What is your impact?". For this we have an annual IDGM monitoring committee. As for the researchers, we know that we have written so many articles, we have organized so many scientific events and conferences, we have been quoted so many times, etc. These are signs of intellectual influence. The more ideas are scientifically disseminated, the more they can percolate into the public domain and have an impact on policies. For FERDI, there are a few points on which it can claim more direct political influence. For example, we have been working for the past 10 years on the reform of the allocation criteria of multilateral institutions that issue grants or concessional loans to developing countries. These institutions use mathematical allocation formulas which give considerable weight to the performance of countries in terms of economic policy, which is a somewhat subjective judgment. But these allocation criteria must also take into account the poverty of countries and their vulnerability. One of our major struggles has been to take vulnerability into account in the criteria for allocating concessional funds. It's a long fight in which we have had victories and some failures. If you look at the allocation model of the European Development Fund in Brussels, you will clearly see that the formula used is that recommended by FERDI. And it includes vulnerability! At the time, the development commissioner told me: ''I'm interested", he asked me to ad vise him on the subject and convinced his services to adopt the proposed reform. It was a transparent political choice. ln this case, we succeeded in asserting our idea of vulnerability. We almost got there with the African Development Bank, we were almost at the end of the process, but there was a reluctance from some shareholders and management, but this reform remains on the agenda. The influence in this area is also evident when FERDI works with the Commonwealth Secretariat to establish the universal vulnerability indicator it wants to promote. I believe that we have truly had a concrete influence on the consideration of vulnerability by various development institutions. I have also worked to promote the importance of vulnerability when preparing the 2030 Agenda at the United Nations. This notion of vulnerability has spread widely, and we are not responsible for this! Certainly, FERDI is not the only player in this area. Still, on the precise point of aid allocation criteria, FERDI has had an identifiable impact, even influencing a resolution at the United Nations! There are many other concrete examples, sometimes more informal. For instance, on African monetary policies, on what we called "the franc zone," we have written and spoken a lot, and many ideas developed at FERDI have been included in reforms aimed at promoting better confidence, more Africanization of the system, and the creation of less dependency. 

Have you also been working on the issue of Least Developed Countries (LDCs) for long? 

PG: LDCs are a concept that played a significant role in FERDI's development. Most of the LDCs are African countries. Not ail African countries are LDCs, but the majority are in Africa. I have been fortunate enough to be a member of the United Nations Committee for Development Policy (CDP) for over 20 years. This is a group of some 20 experts, former ministers, academics, researchers, and NGOs from ail regions of the world who represent an intellectual community and provide high-level technical support to ECOSOC (Economie and Social Council of the United Nations). The role of this committee was to identify LDCs in order to include new countries in the category or prepare the exit of others. I was passionate about the case of these countries and I chaired the CDP identification group, which in particular led me to focus on their vulnerability. LDCs are now identified as low income, low human capital, and high vulnerability countries. I also drew from this experience in writing two books published 10 years apart, one on the foundations of the LDC category, the other on its impact on member countries. Moreover, the monitoring of policies implemented for LDCs has become an important FERDI program, carried out in cooperation with other international think tanks, with a view to influencing major international meetings relating to these countries. 

SG: ln terms of fiscal policy, we have worked hard, and this has led to significant reforms in Africa. lt always takes a long time; it takes tenacity and perseverance for political ideas to evolve and be implemented. We must not be afraid of repeating things. 

PG: FERDI has also collaborated extensively with regional economic unions in Africa, in particular in West and Central Africa, where there is in both cases, an economic and monetary union. We have forged partnerships with them on a number of important points. For example, in Central Africa (CEMAC), where there is an attempt to coordinate economic policies between countries, a reform of multilateral surveillance criteria has been developed, which introduces an element of contracyclicality. lt was a very interactive project with many collaborators. The reform was adopted and even welcomed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). 

Has economics improved the situation of the poorest countries? 

You are touching on another important point. If we chose to do development economics, it is in the belief that it is possible to change things, to promote better policies and institutions. Basically, 1 hope that we have been able to help improve things a little. 

SG: There is a big issue right now and that is the environment. Everyone is in favor of policies that take care of the environment, but the problem does not present itself in the same way for the poorest countries. We must not forget that development aid is above all to fight poverty and not just to reduce CO2. Of course, we have to look for solutions that combine the two. But on the pretext of reducing CO2 at the global level, poor countries should not be prevented from increasing their income either. There is exciting work to be done to combine these two requirements. 

On this subject, how is the African situation evolving? 

PG: The notion that Africa has not advanced is a totally false idea. ln the more than 50 years that we have been traveling in Africa we have seen enormous changes. Even, contrary to what some say, in the governance of countries. I need only mention these 700 to 800 civil servants in post who graduated from CERDI and FERDI, even if they constitute only a small number, 1 am certain that they have had a positive impact on the policies in their countries. There have been considerable changes in the quality of administration. Africa has also experienced strong economic growth. The main indicators of social development such as mortality, education, etc. have improved. Although there is still a lot that can be improved, the trends are positive trends. However, there are still factors of considerable vulnerability and fragility at the economic, climatic, and socio­political levels. These are the three dimensions in which vulnerability must be tackled. These factors remain very important in Africa, which has high economic vulnerability, the problem of the price of raw materials, the price of imported products, energy dependence, monoproduction, etc. There is also a very high vulnerability to climate change for arid zones and zones liable to flooding in the future. Political fragility also remains significant in Africa, with terrorist risks. lt certainly exists in other parts of the world, such as in Burma currently, or in Venezuela, but there remains a very deep­seated political fragility in Africa. 

SG: The jihadist risk is a new major threat. 

PG: Before the arrival of Covid-19, French-speaking West Africa was the area in the world with the strongest growth, with the exception of a few Asian countries. Countries were growing at 5-6% per year. lt may not sound like a lot, but it was a big change from the long period of stagnation in the 1970s and 1980s. On the eve of the pandemic, there were some truly major changes underway. Above all, there is a new African elite, complemented by the diaspora, an African capacity for development which is considerable.