“A lot of people go into economics because they care about poverty”
Telephone interview with Michael Kremer following the announcement of the 2019 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel on 14 October 2019. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Media.
Although the problems of poverty are often described as being intractable, Michael Kremer talks about the hopeful, practical steps that are being taken to alleviate poverty around the world. He also reflects on the reasons that the randomized trials he pioneered in Kenya in the 1990s were so influential in shaping the field of development economics.
Michael Kremer: Hello?
Adam Smith: Oh hello. My name is Adam Smith. I’m calling from Nobelprize.org, which is the website of the Nobel Prize in Stockholm. Congratulations on the award of the Prize in Economic Sciences.
MK: Thank you so much.
AS: Well it’s an awkward moment to catch you at. Are you actually in the UK at the moment?
MK: That’s right, I’m in London right now.
AS: Right, okay. How did the news reach you?
MK: I had … I had a skype message from a Swedish colleague saying that he wanted to talk to me urgently and I started to send him a note to say that this was a phishing attempt, that he should be aware that somebody has hijacked his account and it was a phishing attempt, and then somebody here at the LSE, Steve Pischke, knocked on my door and told me congratulations, and that explained it so …
AS: The randomised evaluations which the three of you work with were something that you really pioneered in Kenya in the 1990s. And I know that they’d been used before but they really took off when you started working with them. What was the key to their success in that period in Africa?
MK: I think that one real key is that I think a lot of people think of economics as only about the stock market but a lot of people go into economics because they care about practical problems and poverty. One of the … you know aside from the methodological side of randomisation, this type of work involves on the ground engagement and trying to engage in a practical way with problems, and it combines that with intellectual rigour and I think that’s led to a real flourishing of the field, and lots of understanding now about practical steps to address poverty. I think that makes the field very exciting but I think it’s also very exciting for the world. And I think there had … There can be a tendency to see the problems of poverty as intractable, and I think we’re learning that there’s a lot of practical steps that can be taken to address poverty.
AS: That’s the point – your work is leading to all these small success stories around the world which together become a great source for hope.
MK: I think that the work in the field is, more broadly … I mean it’s just very exciting to go to conferences these days and see the fantastic work being done. And I think that this is both intellectually exciting, helps us improve our understanding of the world, but I think it also can help lead to practical improvements on the ground as well. And has.
AS: Yes indeed. And that link with the policy making is absolutely key isn’t it.
MK: Yes. I think that’s … I think that’s important.
AS: You do sound as if you’ve been quite surprised by the news.
MK: [Laughs] Yes, very much so.
AS: Had you any inkling that this might happen?
MK: No, none at all.
AS: That’s nice. And it’s very nice that the three of you awarded are all such close colleagues.
MK: Yeah, it’s wonderful, wonderful to share the prize with them. They’re wonderful scholars and wonderful people to work with.
AS: Have you been able to speak with them yet?
MK: I’ve just spoken with my family and that’s it. I’m a bit in shock here and taking it one step at a time.
AS: It’s really very kind of you to speak to us, and we very much look forward to speaking more when you come to Stockholm in December.
MK: Okay, wonderful. Well thank you so much.
AS: Thank you. Bye bye.
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Their work and discoveries range from how cells adapt to changes in levels of oxygen to our ability to fight global poverty.
See them all presented here.