Interview with Ted Miguel:
Lessons from the Nobel Prize in Economics
Last week, Makhtar Diop, Vice President for Infrastructure at the World Bank, interviewed CEGA Faculty Director Ted Miguel about the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics. They discuss Miguel’s joint work with laureate Michael Kremer in Kenya and what the prize means for the development economics community. A version of this interview appeared in the World Bank Infrastructure team’s “Infra-Insights” newsletter earlier this week.
Makhtar Diop: You have been friends with the three Nobel laureates for a long time and have co-authored numerous articles with them. How do you feel about this Nobel Prize?
Ted Miguel: I’m so excited that the research we’ve been doing is being recognized at the highest level. It’s an incredibly gratifying feeling as a scholar to see that the papers I’ve worked on with Kremer have been cited prominently in the scientific announcement by the Nobel committee. To see this work recognized as work that’s reshaped our discipline is something really special as a scholar.
The committee was also very generous in recognizing the institutions that have supported the research. More specifically, they cited 3 organizations, namely the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), and the Center for Effective Global Action (CEGA) here at Berkeley. it’s been an incredible time for us here and in thef ield. We feel like we’re still in the middle of the revolution of randomized evaluations and impact evaluations in development, so that the prize is coming kind of early, but the Committee seems to think we already won that revolution. So I think that’s exciting.
On a personal level, Michael Kremer was my thesis adviser and I started working for him 25 years ago as his research assistant, so it’s incredible to look back on that time span. Abhijit was my teacher in undergrad, I worked for him as a research assistant, and he was also on my thesis committee. For all these reasons, I feel very connected to this Prize.
MD: This Nobel Prize is not only celebrating breakthrough in the economics theory, but also the way policy outcomes have been affected by rigorous and evidence-based research. While doing your research, did you interact with policymakers and civil society organizations?
TM: We’ve had the privilege of working with many NGOs and government policymakers that are carrying out programs. The design of the original deworming project in Kenya in 1997 came about because of these interactions. We faced realities on the ground that we were still learning about and that policymakers already understood: How could this program be designed? How could the drugs be delivered? How should the project be set up? We would never have been able to implement a program without their collaboration and design it properly if we didn’t spend a lot of time with them.
During my first summer in Kenya, I had several meetings with local health officials where I learned about deworming and school health. This played a key part in my work. What’s so fascinating about this agenda is that so many people have contributed to this research. Once you have those relationships, it’s much easier for policy makers to absorb the evidence because it comes from programs they helped design and closely implemented. All these projects have come about due to productive interactions between researchers and policy makers in a way we had never seen before in economics. That’s probably the most influential aspect of this work.
MD: You talked about the interactions with some of the NGOs and the back-and-forth with policymakers. What did you learn from your interactions with policymakers on how to influence them in practice?
TM: If I think back to the major policy successes we’ve had in the deworming project, the first one was working with the Kenyan government when they started rolling out national deworming.
I learned a few things: 1) Process took time. It took multiple years from the beginning of the research to the actual policy change. It was the result of alliances and partnerships with many different groups. Makhtar, you know about this because you were there in Kenya at the time, and you helped us make those early connections. It was out of our realm of experience: we don’t do that kind of work, we don’t build political and technical support within ministries. As researchers, it was a new territory. Our time working with you in Kenya taught us a lot about that process.
2) The other thing we’ve learned is that sometimes a change in government can derail programs for which there’s a lot of good evidence. It happened with some cash transfer programs for instance. The political reality is often more important than the scientific reality for program implementation and that’s something we must understand as researchers.
MD: I’ve known you for close to 18 years, and I’d like to talk about your impressive research journey. You started on health and education with the work on education outcomes with Michael. You have worked on political competition and ethnic identification in Africa. You also worked on social norms, with your witch killing paper, and on climate and violence, thus making great contributions to scientific papers that are often cited. How do you choose your topics?
TM: Thank you, Makhtar. The driving goal of my career since I started my PhD is trying to make some sort of positive intellectual contribution towards promoting economic development in Africa. In this regard, a lot of issues such as health, political conflict and climate change, have been salient. When it comes to the methodology, I’ve been focusing on the rise of RCTs and research transparency. This has been motivated by a desire to have better research done on these topics. Take the witch killing paper for instance. I found out about that phenomenon in Tanzania, and then the project took several years of field work, discussions, and data collection.
I can now say that the most valuable element in coming up with these projects is the time spent on the ground — in my case in East Africa — learning about local social realities. I truly believe the work of development economists today is based on on-the-ground reality more than it is based on abstract theory. The theory is very useful, but the research idea should come first from the field and the reality, and the methods and theory should follow — not the other way around.
MD: I am a big fan of your work on ethnicity and public goods. I believe it is one of the most original works when it comes to social norms in the African context as it brings an economics lens to issues that are not studied from this perspective. Is that a line of work that you would like to further pursue?
TM: I’m certainly very interested in the topic. Ethnic cooperation norms are still very close to my heart because the main part of my PhD dissertation was related to this work in Kenya. We are currently doing work on issues related to government corruption and leakage in the electricity sector. We’re collecting lots of data on construction and engineering quality and relating it to institutional factors in Kenya. I hope to keep working in those areas in the future.
MD: Part of your work has been based on capacity building in countries. Centers like CEGA and J-PAL have emphasized the need to train people and researchers from emerging and developing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Why is it so important for you?
TM: At CEGA, the very first program we started 12 years ago was the East African social science training program. From the start, it has been at the core of our activity. Why? Because people understand their own societies better than outsiders can, so making sure there is a cadre of well-trained development economists focusing on these issues in their own countries is critical to have research progress.
As a child of immigrants, I can relate to that. My father came here from Uruguay to do his training, and the mother of Temina Madon, the original Executive Director of CEGA, came from India to do her training in the US. Temina and I saw eye to eye on the fact that access to training opportunities in rich countries could be transformative.
We have a real faith that, with the right training, scholars from low- and middle-income countries could be extremely productive and influential. That’s what’s motivated us to start. We’ve always made it a priority at CEGA. As I look back at my work over the last 18–19 years at Berkeley, one of the things I’m the proudest of is bringing dozens of African scholars and some South Asian scholars to campus for training. The impact that radiates out through their networks and societies can be much larger than what I can do on my own.
MD: Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview. Any final words?
TM: Makhtar, I want to thank you not just for interviewing me, but also for the support you gave us in the early days of this movement, long before any of the papers were published and long before the Nobel Prize.
We presented the earliest version of the deworming paper results in Nairobi because of your interest, and you filled the room with government policymakers and foreign aid officials. You really had faith in the message and understood the value of the research. Many thanks for being an early supporter of this evidence agenda.
MD: It was my pleasure to work with you guys, and to contribute to this agenda. Thank you so much, Ted!