Published on Development Impact

Remembering Martin Ravallion

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Martin Ravallion, one of the most influential figures (we would have written ‘the most influential,’ but he taught us to always be precise and never exaggerate without solid evidence to back up a claim) in the study of poverty and inequality, died on December 24. He was 70 years old. For his family and for those who considered him a mentor, a colleague, or a friend, the personal loss is painful and hard to put into words. For the world of development economics, the loss is equally large: his contributions to the field are countless.

Below, we’ll do our best to remember Martin and celebrate his life as a professional and as a friend. His body of work was enormous and would be hard to cover in one place and we won’t attempt to be comprehensive. What follows will be a bit more personal, as it is not only good for people to know how influential Martin’s ideas, papers, and books were, but also how he led and inspired so many people by example…

He is a key reason this blog exists

Most people who have followed Development Impact over the years will not know this, but it was Martin Ravallion who, about 12 years ago, allowed us to start this blog when we went up to him with this half-baked idea that we wanted to write about a broad range of issues and methods relating to causal inference and impact evaluations (you can see our introductory post here). It was a risky thing for a World Bank director to give full editorial control of a blog to a few relatively junior researchers, but he did. His only request to us was that it wouldn’t be a blog where we just wrote about our own papers - as if all of us bloggers were just like him, churning out great paper after great paper on a weekly basis! We responded “that won’t be a problem,” and off we went. Knowing that he has been proud of Development Impact over the years has been both comforting and a driving force to make sure we did not screw up.

Martin Ravallion was responsible for bringing both of us to the World Bank. 

Berk: I was a second-year PhD student of Erik Thorbecke (of the Foster-Greer-Thorbecke, of the FGT, class of poverty indices, which include the commonly used headcount, poverty gap, and so on), who knew that I was interested in studying poverty measurement. He wrote an email to Martin when I asked him if he knew anyone I could intern for over the summer. Martin offered me a job that involved putting together a database on poverty and growth in India. For the first summer, the job involved spending a lot of time in the dusty halls of the Library of Congress, which contained isles of India’s National Sample Survey reports. In these reports, there were published tables (state by state, as well as national - disaggregated into various categories, like urban/rural, etc.) that provided distributional data (per decile IIRC) and my job was to digitize them (entering them into spreadsheets by hand, back then!). You can already see in this work how global public-good minded Martin has always been: the database, painstakingly put together over three summers, has not only been used to write papers by Martin himself and his co-authors - along with the likes of Besley, Burgess, Duflo, Foster, Pande, Rosenzweig, and others - but also by a number of graduate students for their dissertations.

David: I was an assistant professor at Stanford, and wanted to join the World Bank for both professional and joint-location reasons. I had been doing some work on poverty traps and Martin’s work on poverty was a great attraction to me, and I saw him as proof that the Development Research Group was a place where one could write excellent research papers. Martin arranged for me to spend 6 months as a visitor in 2005 (which I later learned was not so easy to do) and I was convinced I wanted to join.   I was then delighted to be hired, but disappointed that I did not end up in Martin’s unit (and in fact was first hired in the macro group!). After Martin had left the Bank, I had a funny conversation with him where I said that looking back, this was perhaps one of the moments that had most impact on my research career - as readers know, counterfactuals are hard, but my suspicion is that such was his enthusiasm for the topics he worked on and his presence, if I had been hired into his unit, I would never had had the career working on firms and migration that I have had. So I thanked him for not taking me into his unit - and in typical Martin fashion he seemed both pleased and slightly grumpy about this strange thank-you.  

Some highlights of his research and teaching

As we stated above, when we try to provide highlights of his work, it’s hard not to get overwhelmed. Just try to read through his Google Scholar page (with it’s 80,000+ citations and h-index of 132!) and you are on an amazing journey through everything you can possibly think of in the field of economics of poverty, on which he literally wrote the book (which we reviewed here): poverty traps, antipoverty targeting, workfare programs in India (a topic on which his views evolved over time with new ideas, data, and evidence), China’s poor, thoughtful critiques of multidimensional poverty measurement, growth incidence curves (which greatly influenced Berk earlier in his career, including in this paper on poverty and inequality in post-apartheid South Africa), poverty lines (here, here, here, among many others), relative poverty, intra-household inequality… and we haven’t even scratched the surface yet! You’ll notice that we have not yet gotten to the dollar-a-day poverty measurement, the World Bank’s cross-country poverty and inequality database (PovcalNet for many years, which has now been replaced by the new Poverty and Inequality Platform, or PIP). With a small team of researchers he led, he was behind that entire operation for a long time, until he passed it onto his successors in the WB’s Data Group and moved on to academia to teach at Georgetown.

In his enormous body of work, however, you will also see surprises - if you were expecting a singular focus/obsession with work on poverty and inequality. He has always been interested in (and, needless to say, very good at) econometrics and causal inference methods. Consider this whimsical piece he wrote more than two decades ago, if you will, about Ms. Speedy Analyst, who is an economist in the Ministry of Finance in the fictional country of Labas, trying her hand at evaluating, ex post, the impact of a government program targeted to the poor. People coming of age in economics in the 2010s might have gotten the impression that he was not fond of (or even against) RCTs, but that could not be further from the truth. He would be the first to object to that characterization (and often did, noting he himself had conducted an RCT of a workfare program in Argentina as early as 1998): he just did not enjoy some of the more extreme claims made by the so-called randomistas and he was not shy about expressing his displeasure. In particular, he worried a lot as Research Director that researchers choose the most important questions first, and then the method to answer them, and not just go around looking to see what could be randomized. He talks about this concern in our 6 questions with Martin Ravallion interview.

He wrote about non-response bias in surveys (because that affects distributional measures). He was recently excited about missing markets for work permits and wrote about them with Michael Lokshin, with whom he has many papers. He was also interested in poverty in the developed world, writing about it in the context of the U.S., where he lived most of his life: the income floor for the poor and basic income (here and here), just to name two areas. Like we said, somewhere in the list of more than 800 entries in his Google Scholar page, we have to stop…

After leaving the World Bank in 2013, Martin was Edmond D. Villani Chair of Economics at Georgetown University. He took great enjoyment in his teaching, and was particularly proud of his courses on inequality and poverty. His economics of poverty website shows his enthusiasm, accompanying the lecture slides with the comment “The notes are in the form of PowerPoint slides–well over 1,000 in all!. Rest assured, I have never covered all of this in a one semester course of about 30 lectures.” - with Martin, there was always more that could be said.

Personal reflections

We’d like to conclude by sharing a few more things about this person, who not only inspired us so much, but also meant a lot to us as a wonderful human being. One thing that people might not know about him is that he was originally trained as an architect in Australia, switching to economics later on. Sanne Blauw and Maite Vermeulen have a wonderful in-depth profile of him from 2016 which describes some of his early life, titled “Meet the greatest anti-poverty crusader you’ve never heard of”. This profile also tells the story of how he met his wife and frequent collaborator, Dominique van de Walle, along with delightful snippets of conversation between the two of them. One of David’s laments in reviewing Martin’s great book on poverty was that in typical Martin fashion, he did not make himself part of the story, and so we did not get any backstory or personal anecdotes amidst the serious discussion. However, this makes the dedication of the book even more potent “In 1980 two students at the LSE met and started talking about the economics of poverty. For Dominique, with love” - our thoughts go out to Dominique.

He loved Sydney and would not accept any arguments that there are any better cities (at least in Oz) to live in. He was a foodie and he certainly knew his wines. Some of Berk’s most memorable memories with him are eating together (very often with Dominique and Berk’s longtime partner and collaborator, Sarah Baird) - whether it was Martin or Berk who cooked or it was at a restaurant somewhere in the world. Berk considers it among his biggest professional accomplishments that Martin loved his sourdough crumpets so much that they were named ‘Martin’s crumpets.’ His name was pronounced ‘Ravall-ian’ in an Anglicized way and not ‘Ravay-yon,’ as you might say if he were French: so many students at any conference he was attending would gingerly approach just to meet him, quietly calling Professor Ravallion in a French accent. 

As pleasant as it is to remember him with those memories, it has to be his professional influence that left an imprint on both of us. He was not prone to exaggeration and if you got “this is an interesting paper,” or “this is not bad” for one of your papers, you had done extremely well. (When he was the manager of the Poverty and Inequality Team in DECRG, he read every paper written by researchers on his team and gave feedback before it was published as a World Bank working paper. He argued that the WP was going to be the most visible and read version of your paper, so it was important to get it right.) 

Berk: During my promotion review, he told me two things that will stay with me forever. First, he told me that I had integrity and that this was the most important thing: he cared about people speaking their minds but doing it effectively and productively and he liked people who put their hand up for service and to contribute to public goods. That was his way of taming this often hot-headed young researcher into something more useful for the World Bank in particular and the development economics community more generally: I’ve tried to follow his kind guidance and live up to his high standards ever since. Second, he told me that I had done OK (beyond their originally low expectations of me) up to that point, proving that I could publish in our field; but that I now needed a project that was mine: something, an idea, that I would come up with, pursue, and see through from A-Z. That’s what pushed me into my first field experiment (with Sarah Baird and Craig McIntosh) in Malawi: until then I had always worked with HH survey data collected by someone else. He encouraged me to get out of my comfort zone, asked me to take risks, and gave me the time and space to go for it. I have done my best trying to pass similar advice on to others as I got older myself and would consider myself very lucky if I had even a small fraction of the influence he had on so many on just a handful of younger researchers.

We miss him dearly …

Addendum: Dave Evans has added a nice overview of some of Martin's work over at the CGD blog.



Berk Özler

Lead Economist, Development Research Group, World Bank

David McKenzie

Lead Economist, Development Research Group, World Bank

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