Alumni Spotlight: Roberto Lagos (MAE '16) Named Honduras's Minister-Counselor for Economic Affairs

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Roberto Lagos (MAE ’16) is no stranger to change. In the past three years, he has moved to the United States, earned a master’s degree in economics, and worked at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). And now, he has pivoted to a new role.

After a quick visit home to Honduras last month, Lagos returned to Washington, D.C. with a diplomatic passport in hand. Lagos serves directly under Ambassador Marlon Tábora in the Honduran Embassy as the newly appointed minister-counselor for economic affairs. This position comprises responsibilities with far-reaching impacts: from further developing Honduras’s economic relations with both the United States and development banks to developing and implementing a research agenda that will inform policy decisions. A proud Honduran, Lagos has an admirable vision for the future of his country — one in which Honduras’s research capacity is not only strengthened but also a national priority — and it appears he is well on the way to making this vision a reality.

The alumnus graciously took time from his busy schedule to discuss his career thus far. Check out our interview with the Blue Devil.

Academics & Research

I wasn’t always an economist. In high school my teachers introduced me to the world of numbers, which led me to mathematics at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras. After graduating, I had the opportunity work as a junior economic research analyst in the Ministry of the Presidency. I worked with a team of economists to evaluate and design macroeconomic and social protection policy, and those analyses informed key public policy decision-makers. By the end of my time there, I had been promoted to the position of macroeconomic coordinator.

While I learned a lot after working there for six years, I still felt like I had a gap in my knowledge. I knew that I needed to study abroad and improve my technical skills, which is why I decided to apply for a master’s degree in economics. At Duke I took a lot of preparatory courses to get a good foundation in economics. Based on my background and interests, I focused more on theoretical macroeconomic courses; however, I also did some coursework related to applied microeconomics. Outside of my studies, I worked as a research assistant at the Social Sciences Research Institute (SSRI), where I provided research help, and at Professor Dan Ariely’s Center for Advanced Hindsight, where I performed behavioral and econometric analyses and learned more about causal inference. These experiences and the combination of skills I gained as a result helped me get a position at the IDB working on impact evaluations.

A Vision for Honduras

Honduras is in the middle of a transition. We are still recovering from the effects of the 2008 global financial crisis and 2009 internal political crisis. When President Juan Orlando Hernández took office in 2014, he had big challenges to face, including issues related to economic growth, human rights, justice, and security. In just three years, he has been able to help Honduras’s economy recover and get inflation under control. One of the most important results was to successfully complete an Article IV consultation with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that will guarantee continued funding for our country’s macroeconomic policy. Through a special commission on police reform, President Hernández has made important progress fighting against violent crime and corruption while strengthening citizen security. Vice President Mike Pence recognized these improvements during President Hernández’s most recent visit to the White House.

President Hernández and Ambassador Tábora share a plan for the Embassy of Honduras, one in which the embassy is transformed into a place of research, not unlike a think tank. Their plan involves hiring highly educated people from Honduras to work on technical research that can be useful for policymakers. At IDB, I had the opportunity to meet Ambassador Tábora, previously the bank’s executive director for Central America and Belize. It was this connection that led me to my new position as minister-counselor for economic affairs in the Embassy of Honduras.

As minister-counselor, I will be responsible for the following:

  • Help to develop and implement the Embassy of Honduras’s research agenda as it relates to economic and public policy topics.
  • Support the economic relations between the Honduran government and development banks such as the IDB, IMF, and the World Bank.
  • Help to improve the services of Honduras’s consular offices in the United States. This includes the modernization of systems that will allow us to better serve our citizens as well as collect data related to immigration, investments, trade, and the like. Collecting data will be very important for our research agenda; it will allow us to conduct research to answer important policy questions.
Transitioning to a Policy-Oriented Role & Future Aspirations

Coming from a research background, I think sometimes academics tend to focus on questions that are highly technical, and the answers to those questions are also highly technical. In my economics coursework, for example, I was always conscientious about understanding both theoretical and practical implications, and with the latter, how they relate to what is happening in my country. In order to pivot from academia to policy, I think the two most important things are to be able to understand these practical implications and to translate academic or technical language into the vernacular.

In the long term, I would like to get a Ph.D. in economics and further contribute to my country. There are not many people doing Ph.D.-level research in Honduras. I believe that a doctorate degree will allow me to develop additional skills and a research agenda, and I want to use my knowledge to help the new generation of Honduras, to encourage growth in research and academia.