The 2019 Nobel: remembering the world’s poor

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Congratulations to Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, and Michael Kremer for the richly deserved Nobel Prize! And congratulations also to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for reminding us, through this excellent choice, of those most in need of the attention of science and policy: the world’s poor!

As advanced countries have started to turn inward in recent years by closing their borders either directly to people from poorer countries or indirectly to the imports produced using cheap labor from these countries, the word “poverty” is starting to disappear from the research and policy priorities of many institutions. The World Bank, with its emphasis on eliminating extreme poverty, is still an exception. But outside the Bank, within-country inequality, gender disparities, climate change, and biodiversity have replaced poverty as the main areas of focus and dominate the current public debate.

Do not get me wrong. I have argued many times that addressing inequalities of any kind as well as climate change is imperative, not only from the point of view of advanced economies, but also from the perspective of developing countries. People in North America, Europe, or Japan may feel less inclined to worry about the welfare of those living on less than $1.90 per day, if they themselves feel under threat - no matter how socially minded they may be. And of course, inequalities, gender discrimination and climate change are issues as pressing, if not more so, in low-income countries. Still, this should not lead us to forget that hundreds of millions still live in extreme poverty, without access to basic services such as health care, education, and sanitation.

Against this background I welcome the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics, not only because it emphasizes the importance of bringing sound empirical evidence to policy (see David McKenzie’s excellent blog on explaining the many contributions of this year’s winners), but also because it brings back the focus to one of the most important challenges of our time: global poverty!  In conjunction with last year’s Nobel that rewarded research on growth and climate change, the Nobel Committee seems to be reinforcing the message that we should be striving for a society that fosters growth while being respectful of the environment and in which poverty no longer exists!

So once again, congratulations to the incredible minds that have devoted their intellect and energy to achieving this goal, and to the Nobel Committee for recognizing their contributions!

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Rongming Wu
October 15, 2019

Your job seems one of the greatest things for the achieving SDGs in the world.