In praise of a critic: Angus Deaton’s Nobel win

Monday morning brought the news that Angus Deaton, an eminent economist and vocal critic of many forms of international aid, had won this year’s Nobel Prize for Economics. Blogs and opinion pages rapidly filled with predictions that the development community would bristle at the recognition of someone who had challenged so many aid orthodoxies.

It is perhaps unexpected then, that we turn to these pages to argue that Professor Deaton’s selection for this honor is actually excellent news for international development institutions. While we may debate some of his conclusions, Deaton’s voluminous body of work has consistently tackled the questions that matter most for improving the lives of children and their families.

Most important among these queries has been Deaton’s insistence on looking beyond averages to uncover the inequities that they too often mask. This commitment to identifying and measuring the disparities that often lurk behind national or global averages – a commitment shared by UNICEF – is a prerequisite for policy, investment, and action that effectively supports the most disadvantaged.

Three other themes in Professor Deaton’s work are particularly relevant as the world prepares to implement the new Sustainable Development Goals – an agenda that will guide billions of dollars of development spending and impact lives in every region of the world. These themes offer guidance on where and how those investments should be made:

Household data matter. Today, universities include the basics of household survey collection as a routine topic for students of international development. It is only in the last generation, however, that such surveys have become both technically feasible and widely accepted as valuable. Professor Deaton’s groundbreaking technical work deserves much of the credit for the former and his continued advocacy for household surveys has enhanced the latter. There is no longer any doubt about the importance of household level data, but there is a continuing struggle to appropriately finance household data collection, analysis, and use. The Nobel Committee’s explicit recognition of Deaton’s accomplishments on household data should highlight the importance of addressing these funding challenges quickly and adequately.

Health matters. As nations seek to grow and prosper, they rely on healthy workforces to power their economies. Countries that face high disease burdens pay a steep economic price when workers are laid low by illness. While this relationship is important, it does not fully capture the value of investing in health for individuals and nations. Professor Deaton’s research has expanded the world’s understanding of the role of health in overall wellbeing, making a much more robust and people-centered case for health spending. This is particularly important for capturing the value of investing in children’s health, which might otherwise be underestimated. Deaton’s research offers valuable insight into the centrality of health for many of the global community’s aspirations in the coming years.

Systems matter. In all the sectors his development research touches, Deaton has consistently emphasized the irreplaceable role of government systems for delivering essential services. Strengthening government institutions – whether for delivering life-saving immunizations, providing quality education, or guaranteeing basic income for vulnerable households – must be a key priority of all partners in the development sphere. While there are legitimate debates about the most effective ways to strengthen government capacities, the necessity of doing so should remain at the heart of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals.

Ultimately, we share Angus Deaton’s optimistic yet cautionary conclusion in his most recent book – much of the world’s population is doing better than ever before, but much remains to be done for those left behind by this progress. As the world commits to reaching those children and families over the next 15 years, the legacy of Professor Deaton’s work should guide those efforts – deepening investments in data, expanding commitments to health, and strengthening the systems to deliver essential services.

Emily Garin is a Policy Specialist in the Division of Data, Research, and Policy at UNICEF. She is a former student of Angus Deaton’s at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.


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