In 1985 a new college graduate named Michael Kremer traveled to Kenya hoping to learn more about a topic he had studied at Harvard: economic development in low-income countries. He didn’t anticipate that an official in the village where he was staying would invite him to teach at a new school—but Kremer stayed in the country for a year to do just that. In fact, he cofounded an organization, WorldTeach, to send more teachers to Kenya and ultimately to several other developing countries.
Given the opportunity to make a difference, Kremer jumped in, backing up a moral commitment to improving human life with hands-on work and entrepreneurial spirit.
When he returned to Kenya in the early 1990s, Kremer was just starting his academic career as an economist at MIT. His plan was to meet up with old friends and spend time just “being a tourist,” he says. But the opportunity to help arose again. One friend, a Kenyan who was working for a small Dutch nongovernmental organization operating in Africa, was trying to identify schools in which to roll out a program intended to improve learning. Kremer offered a casual suggestion: select schools in a systematic way, then compare outcomes in those schools with outcomes in the same number of similar schools where the program was not operating.
After returning home Kremer heard from his friend that the NGO was interested in trying out the approach. It was the start of a relationship that helped determine the trajectory of Kremer’s research in economics: he got involved not only with the Kenyan school study but with other experiments being done by the organization, today called ICS Africa, helping it develop evidence-backed programs.
Kremer’s desire to help was evolving into a scientific methodology, one that would complement the most established approaches in his discipline.
“Randomized controlled trials had been used in medicine for a very long time,” he says, noting that some economists and other social scientists had also used them. And yet the technique had not broken through widely in economics, which largely either focused on theoretical models or relied on existing data. Early in Kremer’s career, the subfield of development economics—which studies economic issues in low- and middle-income countries—was no exception.
The results that came back from the Kenyan schools were unexpected. Studying a rural part of the country that had one textbook for every 17 students, Kremer and fellow researchers hypothesized that increasing the number of textbooks would increase average test scores. Their 2009 paper concluded that it did not. Only the the students who scored highest on pretests improved, since the intervention failed to address a deeper problem: a curriculum heavily geared toward the strongest- performing students. Historically, Kenyan schools have been judged on their ability to produce a handful of excellent students, not how well they meet the needs of the majority. Once it was clear that more textbooks alone wasn’t the solution, other interventions—such as remedial education for students who have fallen behind and flexibility for different schools to cover materials at their own pace—could come into view. Since then, other researchers have worked with NGOs, particularly Pratham in India, to develop such interventions, which now reach hundreds of millions of students each year.
Kremer and his colleagues had hit upon a virtuous circle: an experimental result can uncover hidden factors, suggesting new directions for intervention and evaluation. This process can be repeated for as long as it proves fruitful.
Kremer was born in New York City to parents who were both children of Jewish immigrants from Europe. He came of age in the orbit of Kansas State University, where his father, Eugene Kremer, taught architecture, and his mother, Sara Lillian Kremer, was a professor of English. He credits his mother, who authored two books on literary representations of the Holocaust, with teaching him the necessity of addressing preventable suffering and injustice in the world—the key motivation behind his work, from founding WorldTeach to conducting research in Kenya and beyond.
Kremer and his wife and collaborator Rachel Glennerster—a British development economist who joined the UChicago faculty as an associate professor in 2021—take this intention to heart in their research as well as in their personal philanthropy: they’re part of the Giving What We Can Pledge, a commitment to give 10 percent or more of their lifetime income to high-impact charities.
To prevent suffering, from an economist’s perspective, means asking what interventions will do the most good in the most efficient way. Kremer holds up another ICS Africa program as an example of how a “catalytic investment” by an NGO can scale up. This program addressed the problem of intestinal worms, parasites that infect hundreds of millions of people globally—over a quarter of the world’s population—especially in warm areas with poor sanitation. Sometimes the worms lead to debilitating digestive, nutritional, and developmental problems.
In the early 2000s, Kremer and a colleague set out to study a group of 75 schools in Kenya. They found that a school-based program providing deworming pills to all students reduced absenteeism by more than 25 percent—a staggering result improving the health and well-being of the children directly affected, and likely of the entire local population and its economy over time. In their 2004 paper, the authors argue that the positive spillover effects easily justify providing free universal treatment to school-age children in high-risk areas.
Officials took note. After the study, with the support of NGOs, the program was scaled nationwide by the Kenyan government. From there it was picked up by multiple Indian states—and then by the Indian national government. Today the world’s second most populous country holds National Deworming Day twice a year, administered through public schools.
Bringing actionable research findings to the governments of developing countries is a major goal of Kremer’s research. “We’re not mainly writing for foreign aid donors or philanthropists,” he says, although he’s happy if they read his work. “The big win is if the Indian government decides to scale up deworming, reaching hundreds of millions of people.”