How Michael Kremer is transforming global research into development economics

In 1985, a fresh college graduate named Michael Kremer traveled to Kenya hoping to learn more about a subject he had studied at Harvard: economic development in low-income countries. He didn’t expect an official from the village where he was staying to invite him to teach at a new school, but Kremer stayed in the country for a year to do just that. In fact, he co-founded an organization, WorldTeach, to send more teachers to Kenya and eventually to several other developing countries.

Given the opportunity to make a difference, Kremer took the leap, supporting a moral commitment to improving human life with hands-on work and an entrepreneurial spirit.

When he returned to Kenya in the early 1990s, Kremer was just beginning his academic career as an economist at MIT. His plan was to reunite with old friends and spend time “being a tourist,” he says. But the opportunity to help has come again. A friend, a Kenyan who worked for a small Dutch non-governmental organization operating in Africa, was trying to identify schools in which to roll out a program to improve learning. Kremer offered an informal suggestion: select schools in a systematic way, then compare the results in those schools with the results in the same number of similar schools where the program was not working.

After returning home, Kremer heard from his friend that the NGO was interested in trying the approach. This was the beginning of a relationship that helped determine the trajectory of Kremer’s research in economics: he became involved not only in the study of the Kenyan school, but also in other experiments carried out by the organization, now called ICS Africa, helping him develop evidence-based programs. .

Kremer’s desire to help was moving towards a scientific methodology, which would complement the more established approaches in his discipline.

“Randomized controlled trials have been used in medicine for a very long time,” he says, noting that some economists and other social scientists have also used them. And yet, the technique had not made much inroads into economics, which largely focused on theoretical models or relied on existing data. Early in Kremer’s career, the subfield of development economics — which studies economic problems in low- and middle-income countries — was no exception.

The results that came back from Kenyan schools were unexpected. Studying a rural part of the country that had one textbook for every 17 students, Kremer and his fellow researchers hypothesized that increasing the number of textbooks would increase average test scores. Their 2009 paper concluded no. Only the students who performed the best on the pretests improved, because the intervention failed to address a deeper problem: a program heavily focused on high-achieving students. Historically, Kenyan schools have been judged on their ability to produce a handful of excellent students, not on their ability to meet the needs of the majority. Once it was clear that more textbooks were not the answer, other interventions, such as remedial lessons for students who fell behind and allowing different schools to cover subjects on their own pace, could be considered. Since then, other researchers have worked with NGOs, including Pratham in India, to develop such interventions, which now reach hundreds of millions of students each year.

Kremer and his colleagues had found a virtuous circle: an experimental result can reveal hidden factors, suggesting new directions for intervention and evaluation. This process can be repeated as long as it proves successful.

Kremer was born in New York to parents who were both children of Jewish immigrants from Europe. He came of age in the orbit of Kansas State University, where his father, Eugene Kremer, taught architecture, and his mother, Sara Lillian Kremer, was an English professor. He credits his mother, author of two books on literary representations of the Holocaust, with teaching him the need to fight against avoidable suffering and injustice in the world – the main motivation for his work, the foundation of WorldTeach to conduct research in Kenya and beyond.

Kremer and his wife and collaborator Rachel Glennerster— a British development economist who joined the UChicago faculty as an associate professor in 2021 — take this intention to heart in their research as well as in their personal philanthropy: they are part of the Giving What We Can Pledge, a pledge to give 10 percentage or more of their lifetime income to high-impact charities.

Preventing suffering, from an economist’s perspective, means asking which interventions will do the most good in the most effective way. Kremer points to another ICS Africa program as an example of how “catalytic investment” by an NGO can scale up. This program tackled the problem of intestinal worms, parasites that infect hundreds of millions of people worldwide, more than a quarter of the world’s population, especially in hot regions with poor sanitation. Sometimes the worms cause debilitating digestive, nutritional, and developmental problems.

In the early 2000s, Kremer and a colleague set out to study a group of 75 schools in Kenya. They found that a school program providing deworming pills to all students reduced absenteeism by more than 25% – a staggering result improving the health and well-being of the children directly affected, and probably the whole community. local population and its economy over time. . In their 2004 paper, the authors argue that the positive spillovers easily justify the provision of free universal treatment to school-aged children in high-risk areas.

Officials took note. After the study, with support from NGOs, the program was scaled up nationwide by the Kenyan government. From there it was taken over by several Indian states and later by the Indian national government. Today, the second most populous country in the world holds National Deworming Day twice a year, administered by public schools.

Bringing actionable research results to governments in developing countries is a major goal of Kremer’s research. “We don’t write primarily for foreign donors or philanthropists,” he says, though he’s happy if they read his work. “The big win is if the Indian government decides to scale up deworming, reaching hundreds of millions of people.”

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