Martin Ravallion, poverty researcher and impact evaluation pioneer: 1952-2022
As I completed my PhD one of my examiners, Frances Stewart, asked me what I planned to do next. I told her I was planning to apply for the World Bank Young Professionals programme, as being at the Bank seemed the best place to work to influence development policy. I don’t think you should do that, she told me. The Bank swallows people up. You would become just one of many bureaucrats. You have more chance to influence the Bank from outside – as she herself had done in her work on Adjustment with a Human Face – than from inside.
I think she was largely right.
But there are exceptions. Martin Ravallion – who died in December 2022 – was one.
Martin, regularly ranked amongst the world’s leading development economists, played a central role in the mainstreaming of poverty in the development agenda. In these days of the SDGs, younger people may not be aware that there was a time when poverty was at best a marginal concern in most development discourse. Modernization and growth held sway.
Martin brought quantitative rigour to the study of poverty, making it a respectable area of research. Whether we like it or not, development policy is dominated by economists. Matin produced field building papers, such as his work on the measurement of poverty, which opened up new areas of research. He led the project which produced the first global, comparable estimates of poverty – setting the dollar a day poverty line – which enabled poverty to be included in the International Development Targets (IDTs, forerunners of the MDGs).
Perhaps less well known are his contributions to impact evaluation – such as the entertaining Ms. Speedy Analyst introduction to the topic. Martin was not a randomista. He was critical of the view that we should only fund things which have been shown to work by RCTs. His study of the Trajabar programme in Argentina is perhaps the first use of propensity score matching to evaluate a development intervention.
I did not always agree with Martin. He supported the World Bank growth-led approach in the growth versus human development debate in the 1990s, notably in his World Development paper ‘Good and Bad Growth’. My own view is that that position was convincingly demolished in one of Frances Stewarts’ papers also published in World Development, ‘Economic Growth and Human Development’. But you don’t have to agree with a paper to recognize it as an important contribution. I was a peer reviewer for ‘Good and Bad Growth’. It is to this day the only paper I have recommended for publication without any revisions at all.
Researchers of Martin’s dedication and commitment are rare. His memory should be an inspiration to us all. He reminded us that we should put our intellects – though they may not be as formidable as his – in the service of the poor.