Stephan Klasen, Professor of Economics at the University of Göttingen and one of the world’s most distinguished development economists, passed away on October 27, 2020 at the age of 54, after a long battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Stephan was a brilliant and passionate researcher who cared deeply about making the world a better place for everyone, and who left an unforgettable impression on those who had the privilege to know and work with him.
Stephan’s research was prolific and versatile, with a publication record that spans more than 170 refereed papers and book chapters. While his research covered a broad range of topics–from poverty measurement to the economics of climate change–he will be most remembered for his contribution to the study of gender equality. His research interests in this field can be traced back to his time at Harvard University in the early 1990s where he was a doctoral student of Amartya Sen who would become the 1998 Nobel Laureate in Economics. Stephan’s dissertation on gender bias in mortality during the process of economic development is described by Sen as “possibly the most definitive work in this area”. Over the decades that followed, Stephan emerged as one of the world’s leading scholars on the causes and consequences of gender inequality. His most important contributions on this topic are reproduced in the Economics of Gender Inequality: A Collection of Stephan Klasen’s Work in Honor of his Academic Life (edited by his former colleagues, Isabel Guenther and Michael Grimm), and in four review articles (#1 forthcoming but ungated here, #2, #3, and #4), which he published between 2018 and 2020. This was a time when he was already marked by his illness but still extraordinarily productive (when he also produced work on poverty measurement and on greenhouse gas emissions).
Rare among economics professors, Stephan did not stay in the academic ivory tower, but eagerly engaged in policy dialogue. After completing his PhD, he joined the World Bank as a Young Professional, working mostly in South Africa. He returned to academia but kept involved with national and international development institutions. Between 2011 and 2014, he was the coordinating lead author for the 5th assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). And since 2013, he served as a member of the UN Committee on Development Policy, appointed by the Secretary General of the United Nations.
On par with his passion for research and policy advise was Stephan’s dedication to the training and mentoring of young economists and the strengthening of the development economics research landscape in Germany (and beyond). Under his leadership, Göttingen became the most visible development research hub in Germany, also now known as Göttinger Schule. Over the course of his career, Stephan supervised 76 doctoral students, a significant portion of whom were from developing countries, and trained, mentored, and inspired many young development economists. His former students have gone on to pursue successful careers in academia, government or development agencies, and are thus carrying his legacy forward.
Two occasions stand out to illustrate how many lives Stephan touched and how revered he is amongst his students, colleagues, and friends. In 2016, shortly after his diagnosis with ALS, more than 150 development economists from all over the world gathered in Göttingen to commemorate Stephan’s 50th birthday with a two-day conference. And in November 2019, more than 250 formers students, colleagues and friends attended Stephan’s farewell lecture and honored him with several minutes of standing ovations and tears. On this occasion, the University of Göttingen also established the "Stephan Klasen Fellowship" to honor his commitment to young researchers and development economics. Under the fellowship, two postdoctoral researchers in development economics from low- and middle-income countries (of whom at least one will be female) will be invited to Göttingen for a one-year scientific exchange each year.
To us, Stephan was an engaged PhD supervisor and co-author, and above all a wonderful mentor. Not only did he encourage us to work on poverty and gender inequality, spend time with us writing papers and grant applications, but he was also a true advocate, bringing our work and expertise to the attention of others in his network.
While Stephan’s passing leaves a huge void, the memory of his kindness, energy, humility, warmth, and decency will be treasured forever by his family, friends, students, and colleagues.
This blog post was co-authored with Janneke Pieters.