Professor Outlines Proposals for Poverty Reduction
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Edmond D. Villani Chair of Economics Martin Ravallion launched his new book “The Economics of Poverty: History, Measurement, and Policy” during an official book launch in Riggs Library on Feb. 5.

The new book shares content and approaches explored in Ravallion’s undergraduate course at Georgetown titled “ECON-156: Poverty,” with a focus on the way future policies and policy makers could address an issue as complex as poverty.

Dean of the College Chester Gillis and professor of economics Francis Vella both introduced Ravallion, highlighting his contributions to the Jesuit tradition, his academic accomplishments and his overall impact on the Georgetown community.

“As [Gillis] said, you’ve really made a huge difference in the department and it gives me great personal pleasure to have the opportunity to celebrate the book,” Vella said. Following the remarks of his colleagues, Ravallion described how his interest in economics began, before outlining the structure of his book and the difficulties inherent in both writing and teaching others with limited backgrounds in economics.

Finally, he offered reflections on the future of global poverty before opening up the meeting to a question-and-answer session.

Ravallion said his work’s goal was to broaden the intersection of people interested in both economics and poverty in a way the average reader could understand without advanced mathematics and complicated theorems.

He compared his work with the example of an important paper he studied in graduate school by James Mirrlees on optimal taxation, which the professor then adapted for readers with less formal backgrounds in economic literature.

“I had to convert [that paper] into something I could teach to undergraduates in a book with no advanced mathematics using simple diagrams and words to explain the essence of Jim Mirrlees’ formulation of the equity-efficiency trade off,” Ravallion said.

Ravallion said his 700-page work contains no simple magic fixes for poverty. However, it does review evidence for many policies available, as well as the most relevant policy debates, providing a framework for thinking about the many problems policymakers face today, and for evaluating what works and what does not in specific contexts.

“The concept of poverty must be relevant to the society we’re talking about. There’s no point using India’s poverty line in this country or the U.S. poverty line in India. The U.S. poverty line is ten times the Indian poverty line,” Ravallion said.

Ravallion outlined both pessimistic and optimistic scenarios for the future of global poverty. The former path assumes a return to the slower reduction of poverty, characteristic of the late 20th century, and the second depended on the continuation of the faster trajectory present in the early 21st centuries. The optimistic scenario requires that we maintain the growth rates of the developing world since 2000 and see no increase in overall inequality.

“The pessimistic scenario will take 50 or more years to lift one billion people out of extreme poverty, while the optimistic path will do it in 15 years or so,” Ravallion said.

Ravallion also highlighted the numerous challenges that must be overcome to fight poverty. He noted the causes of poverty often begin early in a child’s life and stressed that formal schooling — while important — cannot entirely solve the greater issue of global destitution.

“Early childhood development — this has got to be pretty much number one on the agenda across the world today,” Ravallion said. “Much of the inequality and poverty in the world today comes from the first few years of life and it’s not easily redressed by schooling.”

Revallion said strategies to address poverty must include devising effective social protection policies to help tackle inequality and risk, managing urbanization and find reliable measurements for poverty.

He also argued the global situation of poverty is improving, adding that he is optimistic when it comes to the important role students and their experiences hold.

“I think very well of the Georgetown undergraduates. I’m not Jesuit, I’m not even Catholic, but I really appreciate that moral tradition,” Ravallion said. “When I started teaching that course, at first I thought, ‘Ah I’m going to teach those Georgetown students what poverty’s like in the world.’ And the first thing I found out is that many of them already know. That was a revelation.”

Economics professor Arik Levinson said he admired Ravallion’s dedication to the university.

“He is a fantastic colleague in both dimensions; you’ve seen it in interactions with undergraduates — he’s been a great mentor to our PhD students — and he’s a great colleague in seminars,” Levinson said.

Jiadi Chen (GRD ’19), who attended the event, praised Ravallion’s lectures for their comprehensibility through his particularly effective use of models and data as well as his insight on the issues of poverty as invaluable and encompassing.

“He gave a really general overview of the poverty and inequality issue global-wide, how this idea has evolved throughout history and what’s changing now,” Chen said.

Gene Choi (SFS ’16) said Ravallion’s teaching style allowed him to easily explain topics in a form that a wide variety of students could understand.

“There was a lot of material covered in the limited amount of lectures that we had, but Ravallion managed to make it simple and interesting. He is a well-known expert on the topic with lots of field experience, so his personal anecdotes were extremely helpful for understanding some difficult concepts,” Choi said.

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