USAID Administrator Mark Green’s Welcome Remarks at “A Conversation with Nobel Laureate Dr. Michael Kremer

Remarks

For Immediate Release

Tuesday, February 4, 2020
Office of Press Relations

 
February 3, 2020
Ronald Reagan Building
Washington, D.C.

ADMINISTRATOR GREEN: Thank you, Alexis, for that great introduction and good afternoon to all of you. It is, of course, my honor to introduce Dr. Michael Kremer today. And in doing so, I have an opportunity to make a modest payment on a huge debt of gratitude that I owe to Michael. It's actually three debts. The first one is a very personal one. And I'm sometimes asked how it is that I ended up here, USAID, the global development community.

I'm a kid from Green Bay, a Cheesehead, a conservative. I'm a recovering attorney. Although in some ways you can actually thank, Michael, for that.

You see, about 30 years ago when I was finishing up law school, Sue and I were looking for an opportunity to live overseas. We wanted to work, if we could, in rural Africa. Almost by accident, we stumbled on an innovative new program called World Teach, which matched American university graduates with Kenyan secondary schools would be teachers. We signed up and we became part of the very first class to go. And I learned more about development in that year, living in a village, working in a school than anything else I've ever done. World Teach was launched by a small group at Harvard, including a young student named Michael Kremer. And getting to work with him was a fantastic experience and getting to know him and I count him as a friend. It's a great honor.

There's a second debt that I owe -- we owe Michael. And Alexis made reference to it. In 2010, he joined the agency and co-founded our DIV, our Development Innovation Ventures program. Through DIV, USAID funds promising ideas, and pilots, and tests their effectiveness, scales up those ideas that show widespread impact and promise. It allows us to take calculated risks, quickly in projects that fail to pan out, and provide additional resources for those that do.

It's how we've institutionalized the experimental approach to development that is at the heart of Dr. Kremer's vision. And it's led to breakthroughs and innovations at a fraction of the usual cost. In fact, over a five-year period, just a few successful investments generated a higher return than USAID’s entire DIV budget. And when taken as a whole, DIV's overall portfolio of investments returned more than $5 for every $1 spent. He continues to play an integral role in the USAID, where he still serves, as you heard, as DIV's scientific director.

The third debt is one that the whole world owes Michael. It's that fresh thinking that he has brought to the development and the new hope that he has brought to millions in the developing world. Ironically, the formative experiences that shaped his thinking and would eventually lead him to be recognized by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, like World Teach, began at Kenya. Around 1995, Kenya's Ministry of Education was desperately looking for ways to boost student test scores. At the time, only about half of Kenyan students had access to textbooks.

So, an NGO thought that if they could get more textbooks into more students hands, it would naturally increase academic performance. That was the conventional wisdom, and in all honesty, that was the outcome that Michael expected. But to his surprise, that's not what happened. In analyzing the impact of the ministry's program to expand textbook access, he found that the increased supply of textbooks had almost no effect on the students' average test scores. Why not? And if more textbooks didn't improve scores, what would? To answer those questions, Dr. Kremer and his colleagues reflected on his time in Kenya and the context of Kenya's education system. They considered that in Kenya, school was taught in English, most students' third language. They also learned that many students fell behind in classes due to malaria or other illnesses because they often had to stay home to take care of themselves or siblings. Dr. Kremer and his colleagues hypothesized that perhaps some students fell so far behind that they couldn't even begin to follow those textbooks. If that were true, increasing access to textbooks wouldn't help. It wouldn't boost scores for students who had a low baseline of performance.

So, they further parsed the data and found that students with the high initial test scores did actually benefit from more textbooks. That makes sense because those students were able to make use of them. The rest of the students, those who started off with the lower scores, didn't benefit. They simply couldn't follow the lessons. The textbook strategy had failed.

But by understanding the context and examining the effect of the intervention by specific population characteristics, Michael Kremer was able to understand why, and thus propose a better policy and craft a better tool. That sparked an idea borrowed from other sciences by using randomized controlled tests to test various development initiatives, he could isolate the causal mechanisms. To put it another way, Dr. Kremer wanted to experiment, and he wanted to design experiments in such a way that it would be easy to identify how and why certain interventions worked or failed. Those answers could then inform public policy and programs design to produce better development outcomes.

The result was a new approach to development, an experimental approach. Over the last decade, Dr. Kremer and those inspired by his experimental approach have conducted trials that test interventions across all development sectors. And along the way they've helped to identify and scale up effective interventions that have improved the lives of millions of people all around the world. That has helped professionalize international development by bringing scientific rigor and an emphasis on evidence-based decision making to the field.

And by embracing experimentation, Dr. Kremer and his peers have also helped cultivate a culture of innovation and intervention that produces results. As I mentioned earlier, he brought that culture to USAID, and we are blessed that he did. For this body of work, the impact it has had on millions of lives around the world and development as a whole, Dr. Kremer was honored in December with the Nobel Prize in Economics. He's come a long way. Incidentally, to prove that, I can show you a picture or two of that young Harvard student, but it wouldn't be flattering to me either, so I’m holding back.

Michael, on behalf of everyone here, all of us at USAID, but most importantly, people care about lifting lives and building communities, to all of those and many more, it is an honor to have you here with us. And I know we all look forward to learning more from today's discussion and squeezing out of you every bit of knowledge that we possibly can. Thank you.

Last updated: February 04, 2020

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