MIT Professor Kristin Forbes admits she once wondered if economics was “all about doing proofs in an ivory tower.” Now, as a founder of Deworm the World, she has seen firsthand “the power of good economics to improve the lives of millions.”
A nonprofit organization, Deworm the World provides school-based programs to treat children for parasitic worms. Worldwide, more than 400 million children suffer from intestinal worms, which can make them too sick to attend school.
“People rarely die from worms. It’s not as dramatic as AIDS,” Forbes says. But treating for worms is incredibly cost-effective. A child can be dewormed for 50 cents or less a year — and is more likely to attend school, learn more, and have higher earnings later in life than infected children, according to research conducted by MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab.
Incorporated in 2008, Deworm the World tackles the worldwide problem of chronic, widespread infection with helminth or schistosome worms. Transmitted through contaminated soil or water, these worms live in the intestines and cause stomach pain, fever, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, blood in stools or urine, and fatigue.
Treatment is simple: a deworming tablet given just once a year will safely eradicate infection. In fact, Forbes says Deworm the World focuses on treating whole school populations, rather than testing and treating affected individuals, because testing is significantly more expensive than mass treatment, which has no side effects.
It’s a perfect example of good economic policy in action. To date, Deworm the World has reached more than 20 million people in 27 countries and is continuing to expand.
For Forbes, however, it is just one of many projects in which she works to make the world better through economics. “I have given briefings to the president, the vice president, and members of the Cabinet,” says Forbes, who is the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Professor of Management and Global Economics at MIT. “It has been incredibly rewarding to see how explaining facts can change what they do.”
As a newly minted college graduate, however, Forbes initially did what most economics majors did: she went to work on Wall Street. There she quickly discovered the “thrill of the deal” wasn’t enough for her, so when she was offered a job at the World Bank, she leaped at the chance.
She spent much of her year there trying to explain the so-called “Asian miracle” — the rapid growth of China and several other Asian economies that had pulled so many people out of poverty — and what lessons to apply to other countries. The experience demonstrated for her the power of sound economic policies to better the world, and drove her to pursue a doctorate. “That’s when I fell in love with economics.”
Even after getting a Ph.D., however, Forbes considered leaving the academic path. “I wanted to effect things immediately,” she says — and she had a job offer from the International Monetary Fund. But then she got a call from the late MIT Professor Rudiger Dornbusch, a man she describes as an “amazing teacher, friend, mentor, and inspiration.” Dornbusch refused to hang up the phone until she agreed to take the job she’d been offered at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
“He convinced me that it’s very hard to make an impact on policy; first you have to establish credibility as an economist,” she says — and working at MIT and doing research would give her that edge.
“He was right,” Forbes says. A few years later, she took a leave of absence from MIT to become the youngest person ever to serve on the White House Council of Economic Advisers (in 2003-2005).
“I valued the independence that came from being the MIT economist on leave at the White House,” she says, explaining that she could argue with the president fearlessly because she had “a great MIT job to come back to.”
Founding of organization
Then, in 2007, Forbes had the chance to participate in the Forum of Young Global Leaders, “a group of amazing people” (as Forbes describes it) named by the World Economic Forum to serve as a catalyst for improving the world. A meeting of this group at Davos, Switzerland, led to the founding of Deworm the World by Forbes, Rachel Glennerster, Esther Duflo of MIT, and Michael Kremer of Harvard. “We saw this as a way we could make a concrete difference, by improving education in the developing world,” Forbes says.
Now that Deworm the World is up and running, Forbes is spending more time on other projects — notably conducting research on repatriation tax holidays and leading a major effort to explain the global financial meltdown — but she continues to spread the word that sound economic practices can make the world a better place.
“People often don’t understand the connection of economics to their day-to-day lives,” she says. “Explaining it clearly to people can make a powerful difference.”