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A 'citizen of the world' takes the King Center helm

Stanford Professor of Economics Pascaline Dupas begins her term as faculty director at the King Center.

For Pascaline Dupas, the year kicked off with big plans.

On sabbatical in Paris, she was looking forward to multiple research trips to sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia before taking over as Faculty Director of the Stanford King Center on Global Development.

pascaline dupas
Pascaline Dupas

Then the pandemic hit and her routine, like everyone’s, was upended. She spent months sheltering-in-place and caring for four young children (two of her own). Late at night, she would spend hours hunting for news about COVID-19 – not just in France, her native country, and the United States, but also in countries where, as a development economist, she has spent more than two decades working to reduce poverty.

When South African officials called for her advice ahead of an imminent lockdown in Cape Town, the gravity of the crisis facing the developing world hit hard.

“The majority of Cape Town residents live in slums,” Dupas says. “What does it mean to have a lockdown in a slum, where families are crowded in one-room shacks and the only way to get water is from a communal pump? It was terrifying to think about the implications for people living in contexts that are already so difficult.”

The effects of COVID-19 on global poverty have been top of mind for Dupas ever since, as she looks to the future as the Faculty Director of the King Center — a role she assumed on Sept. 1. In her new capacity, she is committed to ensuring that the center plays a leading role in understanding and solving the challenges brought on by the pandemic as part of its overall mission of reducing poverty worldwide. This means strengthening an already robust research agenda and identifying new educational opportunities.

“I feel fortunate right now to be leading a center that has such a strong multi-disciplinary, university-wide research community thanks to the phenomenal work of my predecessor, Grant Miller, and interim director, now Executive Director, Jessica Leino,” says Dupas, who is also a professor of economics. “Even with all that is going on in the world right now, expanding from this base is going to be very natural and easy.”

Drawn to academia’s holistic approach

Dupas is considered one of the world’s most innovative development economists. For two decades, she has worked to address the root causes of global poverty — first as a young worker for an NGO in Kenya and then as an academic. Her insights from randomized control trials in the field have contributed to a greater understanding of the factors that impact health, education, and economic well-being across sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the developing world.

In her work, she strives to identify scalable solutions. She has shown, for example, how simple, low-cost measures can, among other things, curb malaria, teenage pregnancy, and HIV infection, and boost savings rates. In her latest research published as a working paper in July, Dupas and her co-authors find that coupons for free diluted chlorine can be a highly cost-effective way of ensuring many more children grow up in homes with safe drinking water.

"The King Center is uniquely fortunate to have Pascaline Dupas as its faculty director,” says Jesper Sørensen, director of Stanford Seed. “Pascaline has already demonstrated, through her remarkable research, an ability to identify the most important issues facing the world's poor. The challenges of equitable global development have only increased with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the center is very fortunate to be led during this challenging time by someone with Pascaline's insight, energy and commitment."

In 2015, Le Monde recognized Dupas with its Best Young French Economist Award. Other honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2019. Among many affiliations, Dupas is a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR) and at the Freeman Spogli Institute (FSI). She is also an executive committee member and affiliate of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL).

“I am very pleased to have Pascaline aboard,” says Mark Duggan, The Trione Director of SIEPR. “As a development economist, Pascaline has contributed to her field significantly through her pioneering research and effective collaboration amongst colleagues in various fields of global development. In the forthcoming years, I am excited to see where she will lead the center.”

Born in the French city of Nantes with no academic in the family, Dupas knew nothing about development economics nor life in academia. That changed when, after earning a master’s degree in economic policy from the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, she enrolled in a program at Harvard for visiting graduate students. There, she took a joint Harvard-MIT course taught by development economists — and future Nobel Laureates — Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer. When, just four months into the one-year program, she learned Kremer needed a full-time research assistant in Kenya starting immediately, she jumped at the opportunity. She put her Harvard fellowship on hiatus and got on a plane.

In Africa for the first time, Dupas understood quickly the importance of good evidence for policy-making. At the time, the field of development economics was just starting to adopt an experimental approach – taking one micro problem at the time, understanding its root causes and trying out potential fixes. This “action research” model appealed to Dupas.

“The many issues facing poor countries are so complex, with so many interconnected pieces, and without obvious solutions,” she says. For example, slowing HIV infection rates may start with increasing school enrollment for young women, which means education policies may matter just as much as health care delivery policies. “I realized that academia would allow me to move across multiple domains like these and make the biggest impact.”

Dupas returned to Harvard to finish her program, visited MIT for a year, and then earned a PhD from the Paris School of Economics in 2006. She came to Stanford in 2011, after stints at Dartmouth and at the University of California, Los Angeles. Three years later, Dupas was tenured, and she became a full professor in 2019.

Opportunities for a new era

COVID-19 travel restrictions have made it harder for Dupas and her partners to conduct research.

Like many of her peers, Dupas has turned to phone surveys of participants from her existing studies to assess the fallout. Together with Asia Health Policy post-doctoral fellow Radhika Jain, she has uncovered evidence that India’s extreme lockdown measures has severely curtailed access to health services, disrupting immunization drives and contributing to an increase in deaths from non-COVID illnesses. In Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, one of the study sites for the African Urban Development Research Initiative that Dupas is co-leading with Marcel Fafchamps from FSI, informal workers have seen  sharp drops in income due to the lockdown.

“I consider myself a citizen of the world,” says Dupas, who also has relatives and in-laws spread across eight countries on four continents. “To witness an event that is affecting the entire world at once has been overwhelming at times.”

She worries that the fight against global poverty is about to lose hard-won ground. To prevent that, Dupas says it is more important than ever for researchers to understand the experiences of low-income people in low-income countries and to identify programs and policies that help them.

As Faculty Director of the King Center, she plans to ensure that Stanford’s sizable cadre of scholars in international development and their students have the tools they need to continue to identify policies and approaches for reducing global poverty in the face of multiple constraints. She sees, for example, unprecedented opportunities to attract speakers from all over the world to participate in webinars and workshops about COVID-19 since travel logistics are no longer an issue.

She also hopes to expand the pipeline of students at all levels of postsecondary schooling who are interested in development. This includes creating new training opportunities for young scholars that could, among other benefits, attract underrepresented groups, including scholars from low- and middle-income countries.

“There is so much amazing talent and passion for helping the developing world and it’s critical that we continue to harness this despite the current travel restrictions and other challenges,” says Dupas. “Fortunately, given the center’s strong foundations and amazing staff, I am confident we can respond to the moment we are in and do it well and do it rapidly.”

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