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Remembering Martin Ravallion

I have often wondered why we don’t express appreciation for people in our lives enough when they are still around so that they would know how they are valued. No one is perfect, but they don’t need to be for us to recognize what is valuable about them and what to celebrate and be thankful for. In the case of Martin Ravallion, there is much to celebrate and be thankful for. This is a note of remembrance and appreciation of Martin through the limited lens of my journey with him, which has been a long one. The cumulative sum of hours I have spent working with Martin is a big number.

My association with Martin goes back a long way, all the way back to mid-1985 when, in a quasi-radical mindset denouncing the US and UK as seats of imperialism, I arrived at the Australian National University (ANU) to pursue a PhD in Economics. There at the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Martin – who had joined ANU just about a year ago following his PhD in 1981 from the London School of Economics and short stints at Nuffield College and Queen Elizabeth House in Oxford – became my PhD supervisor. Though only one of three on my supervisory team, Martin was by far the most influential in shaping the awkward transition of my research topic from post-Sraffian economics (a lingering influence of Prof Sukhmoy Chakravarty from the Delhi School of Economics) to agricultural labour markets in India and the doctoral dissertation that followed. I recall Martin was working at that time on his book Markets and Famine which came out in 1987. I had only a fleeting sense at that time of the significance of the book, which a review by Jean Drèze in 1989 (Journal of Economic Literature) described as “a tour de force—without question the most important piece of work on the subject since Amartya Sen's pioneering contribution seven years ago.” Martin acknowledged in the book’s Preface that “the underlying premises of this book owe much to Amartya Sen’s work on famines”. Noting her help with this study “in so many ways since it began”, Martin dedicated the book to Dominique van de Walle, his life-long partner, whom I also got to know from my time at ANU.

Martin left ANU in 1988 to take up a research economist position at the World Bank while I was still finishing my PhD. I submitted my PhD thesis in January 1989, and in what turned out to be a sliding-door moment in my trajectory, I wrote to Martin asking if he may have any short-term work opportunity for me while I looked for an opening in the academic job market. Little did I know that when I arrived at the World Bank in Washington DC in March of 1989 (on a three-month contract), it would turn out to be the start of a long-term association with Martin.

This was the time at the World Bank when Lyn Squire was leading a team (which included Dominique van de Walle) on the 1990 World Development Report (WDR) on Poverty. The core poverty estimates in the WDR were based on a background paper authored by Martin (“Quantifying the Magnitude and Severity of Absolute Poverty in the Developing World in the Mid-1980s”). This was the genesis of global poverty monitoring by the World Bank, a mantle that Martin took on from then on and held right till his departure from the World Bank in 2013 (and even beyond that in a significant advisory capacity). This early work came to provide the foundation for the articulation of the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goal 1 and later the Sustainable Development Goal 1.1 on eliminating extreme poverty; the targets for these goals were specified in terms of the international poverty lines (of a dollar-a-day and later $1.25, $1.90 and most recently $2.15-a-day) that were directly based on the global poverty work pioneered and led by Martin at the World Bank. If today monitoring progress on this goal has come to be recognized as the mandate of the World Bank, one person who made this possible more than anyone else was Martin Ravallion. As Tony Atkinson observed in the Report of the Commission on Global Poverty in 2017, while there were precursors, for instance in the work of Ahluwalia, Carter and Chenery (1979), “there have been major developments, notably as a result of the research carried out in the past 25 years at the World Bank by Martin Ravallion and colleagues, where the output of this research is embodied in the PovcalNet database on which today’s estimates are based”. (Recently, PovcalNet has been superseded by the Poverty and Inequality Platform.)

Martin wrote another paper in 1994 that turned out to be highly influential. Titled “How Robust is a Poverty Profile?”, the paper introduced the cost-of-basic-needs (CBN) method of setting poverty lines. This soon became the canonical method of setting poverty lines used in numerous World Bank poverty assessment reports and adopted widely by many countries for establishing their own national poverty lines. I have personally used the CBN method for the poverty assessments for the Philippines and Timor-Leste. A testament to its widespread adoption, it even came to be known as the Martin method.

My early years at the World Bank were formative. The relationship with Martin had soon morphed from one of a former student to that of a junior colleague. This was a period of my initiation into poverty research. I recall the early days at the World Bank when Martin allowed me a lot of leeway with my slow and ponderous way of working in sharp contrast to the frenetic pace at which Martin worked. The six years from 1990 to 1996 were a period of very productive collaboration with Martin and a time of great learning. What I learnt from Martin only became clear by hindsight, for the learning was always implicit and by osmosis. Looking back, there were three major learnings. One was developing a deeper appreciation of empirically-grounded research and the importance of treating data with respect. The second was a lesson into the fine art of working with often imperfect data to extract a story, for there is often a story that merits telling. A third lesson was one of persistence and commitment; there weren’t any shortcuts to this kind of work. All these have been enduring lessons and all were epitomized by Martin’s own approach to work.

The early 1990s was also the time when Martin and I embarked on the India poverty project. This was a relatively ambitious project, the centrepiece of which was putting together a time series on poverty at the state and national levels all the way from early-1950s when national household surveys were initiated in the country (under the stewardship of P.C. Mahalanobis) to the early-1990s. A consistent time series on poverty over such a long period was unprecedented, and it allowed us to ask questions that could not be adequately addressed through cross-country regressions. Questions such as: Does the pattern of growth matter for poverty reduction? What is the relationship between farm productivity, wages and rural poverty? When is growth pro-poor? This research on India led to a series of joint papers in late-1990s and early-2000s that delved into these questions. The database for this research was made publicly available, and it spawned a number of subsequent studies by other researchers and the database was also used by many PhD students for their doctoral dissertations.

As the chequered progression of my career took me away from Washington DC and ultimately away from the World Bank, active interaction with Martin became less frequent. However, the work on poverty in India continued to be the mainstay of my later collaboration with Martin. We extended our earlier analysis to inquire into India’s poverty reduction experience following the rapid growth since the economic reforms of the 1990s. The research article “Poverty and Growth in India over Six Decades” published in 2020 was the last piece of my joint work with Martin. We had started discussing a new research project on the evolution of relative vs absolute poverty, and even begun some preliminary work, but that was not to be.

Trying to document Martin’s research contributions is a daunting task. Collected works of Martin Ravallion would run into several volumes. His prolificity as an author was of legendary proportions. Google Scholar has more than 800 listings for him. Ideas RePec lists 371 distinct works. Starting with his first published paper in 1979 in Urban Studies, this amounts to an average of nine works every year. Maintaining that average for 43 years is a feat that many may envy but few can rival. And this does not include at least equally numerous contributions to a wide range of research, policy and popular platforms and media outlets; for instance, VoxEu alone has 24 columns by Martin. The World Bank’s Policy Research Working Paper Series has 156 papers by Martin (the NBER Working Paper Series has 34), though nearly all of them are also likely to have a published version.

I have had the chance to witness the nonstop writing marathons in action, somehow magically unfettered by Martin’s increasing administrative responsibilities. An unfinished draft, often a printed version, would be carried home where work on it would continue before Martin returned to work the next morning. On co-authored papers, it was not uncommon that Martin would send you a draft, and before you had the chance to go through it, the next revised version would follow, on occasion leaving you with the mildly frustrating task of having to compare your older half marked-up version with the new one you just received.

I have also seen many an example of what began as a comment quickly transforming into a full-blown journal article. This reflected the quality of his typical comments, the rigour and depth of which often carried the potential of being developed into a paper – an opportunity that Martin was unlikely to miss. He wrote more and faster than most people could read. Yet he also read voraciously. The bibliography of his 2016 book, The Economics of Poverty, runs into 57 pages; with an average of 25 listings per page, that is 1425 references! If quizzed, Martin would have readily told you the key point(s) of each one of them.

Martin’s work covered the spectrum from the local to the global. It spanned all continents, though the two most populous countries, China and India, were a special focus with numerous papers on both. Martin’s research methods ranged the full gamut from measurement tools, programming algorithms, econometric analysis, impact evaluation using observational and experimental data, and historical and philosophical analysis. For Martin, the research question at hand took precedence over the research method, and he was critical of the elevation of one particular research methodology as the gold standard, for instance illustrated by his 2020 essay “Should the Randomistas (Continue to) Rule?”. In this regard, he was in substantial agreement with the views of Angus Deaton and Jean Drèze.

The thematic scope of Martin’s work was also vast. The New Economics Papers (NEP) service of RePec lists the fields for an author’s announced papers. For 144 of Martin’s announced papers in NEP, it lists 43 fields ranging from Development; Unemployment, Inequality and Poverty; China; Transition Economies; Agricultural Economics; Post-Keynesian Economics; South East Asia; Business, Economic & Financial History; Africa: Central & Western Asia; Economics of Happiness: Labour Economics; History & Philosophy of Economics; Pubic Economics to Experimental Economics, Health Economics, International Trade and even Open Economy Macroeconomics. Martin is also listed as a specialist in 14 of these fields. Specific insights from individual papers of Martin across these fields are too numerous to document in any brief of moderate length. The profession will continue to distil the wide range of these insights and their true import for a long time to come.

Above all, Martin was a development economist par excellence. A recent tribute describes him as “an exceptional poverty economist”. Martin would have likely quibbled with that. Unless poverty and economics were viewed as in the opening quote from Max Hartwell on Martin’s website on the Economics of Poverty that “Economics is, in essence, the study of poverty.” Martin’s life’s work in many ways can be seen as an incessant demonstration of this aphorism. As Martin put it himself while introducing his website: “This website tries to help make poverty a central theme of economics. While economics is not sufficient for understanding and fighting poverty, it is necessary.” I believe this is what profoundly animated Martin. The indomitable energy, grit and intellectual discipline he brought to his work cannot be explained by a hunger for recognition.

There was a side to Martin that brief exchanges with him would fail to reveal. He generally maintained a tough exterior, had little time for sentimentality and suffered no fools, which together with his laconic (Aussie) sense of humour, often conveyed a sense of gruffness about him – apparently not your typical “nice guy”. But underneath this exterior, there was a gentler Martin that would reveal itself to those, myself included, who had more sustained interaction with him.

For many of us, especially his junior colleagues and co-researchers, the generous, respectful and nurturing side of Martin was obvious as we were its direct beneficiaries. There were many acts of kindness and gestures of warmth. And appearances to the contrary, he was not dismissive of substantive criticism, only the criticism had to pass the test of cogency.

The tough exterior, as one of our common friends pointed out, however, had a functional role in that it allowed Martin, together with his intellectual prowess, to imprint a stamp of authority at the World Bank. Not many may know that when Martin joined the World Bank, the Development Economics Vice Presidency, the research arm of the World Bank, had no division with an explicit focus on poverty; in fact, Martin started at the Agricultural Policies Division. That a Poverty Analysis and Policy Division came into existence in 1991 (later renamed Poverty and Human Resources Division) was not unrelated to Martin’s foundational work on poverty and the potential research agenda on poverty that he was carving out.

The World Bank is a large institution with a diversity of views, motivations and ideological predilections. Shifting agenda and focus does not come easily or quickly. In such an environment, Martin had a big role in shaping poverty reduction as the prime unifying goal for the World Bank well before the twin goals of ending extreme poverty and shared prosperity were proposed and adopted in 2013. Indeed, being the big force behind this shift of focus on poverty may well be Martin’s most significant legacy for the World Bank. It may not have been achievable without a forceful and tough exterior.

Martin’s untimely demise on the eve of last Christmas marks an end to my professional and personal journey with him. Yet, it is a journey that will continue in another form. It is an immense personal loss for many the likes of myself who had a substantial opportunity to work with him and whom he greatly influenced. More importantly, it is an immense loss for the profession of Development Economics. His passing is untimely because, even as he leaves behind a huge legacy, he was no way near done yet. In the final year of 2022 itself, he had written nine articles (four published journal articles, three NBER papers and two working papers). Though the work he has left behind will be cited for decades to come, he had a lot more to give. He never stopped. One of his last tweets posted less than three weeks before his passing was:

“School closures during the pandemic may well have magnified the inequalities of opportunity in America.”

Development Economics has been left guessing what his next paper (or tweet) would have been on.

Gaurav Datt

14 January 2023


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