Dr Michael Callen
We spoke to Michael Callen about how a year abroad in Bejing motivated him to study economics, his current research on state building reforms in Afghanistan, and his interests outside of teaching or doing research.
Hi Michael, great to speak to you! Could you tell us a bit more about yourself:
I am an Associate Professor in the Department of Economics and I am a Research Programme Director for State Capabilities at the International Growth Centre. I am originally from Leadville, Colorado, USA a small mining town that also claims the highest elevation of any incorporated town in North America. My BSc is in Econometrics and Mathematical Economics from LSE and I did my PhD at UC San Diego. I have worked previously at the Harvard Kennedy School, UC San Diego, and UCLA.
I spent a year in high school studying in Beijing and living with a Chinese family from 1999 to 2000. This provided me a very direct experience with how economic development can utterly transform people’s lives. I became fascinated with trying to understand how policy could change economies and thereby make people better off. Economics does not come very naturally to me. However, it is well worth the effort to grasp it, because it provides such a powerful tool to understand the world and to craft better policy. So, to students reading this who similarly find economics challenging, stick with it!
Could you tell us about your research interests?
I study political economy, development economics, and behavioural economics. I work primarily in fragile conflict-affected countries such as Afghanistan, Nepal, and Pakistan. My experiments often require me to work closely with governments, donors, and political parties in these countries. I find the experience of engaging with policy partners very rewarding.
Please tell us about a current piece of research you're working on?
From 2016 to 2020, I was part of a team that worked closely with Ashraf Ghani’s government to try to achieve a few basic, but essential, steps in state building through a reform to how teachers’ salaries are paid. We sought to build an accurate list of who worked for the government, and then eliminate a few basic problems that plague government salary payments in poor countries, such as very long delays and leakage in disbursements. We did this first by paying salaries using mobile money and second by working with the Ministry of Finance to help streamline and organize the backend processes related to salary payment. We evaluated every component that was amenable to randomization in the context of an at-scale Randomized Control Trial. In the process, we learned a tremendous amount about what works, and what does not, for state building reforms. The fall of the Afghan Government to the Taliban underscores to me the critical nature of trying to understand how to make state building effective. Most accounts of the failure of the Ghani government – such as claims that Afghan governments, by their nature, are hopelessly corrupt, or that Afghanistan is inevitably the `graveyard of empires’ – are mistaking symptoms for causes. They are far too simplistic, and therefore not very useful as we think about whether and how to engage in state building. In the coming months, I expect to write much more on this, including the results of our RCTs.
Is there anything else you'd like to share with our community?
Returning to LSE has been truly great, despite the limits imposed by the pandemic. Using social science to make the world a better place is in the fabric of the institution. As such, it is both a delight and honor to be back at LSE and to play some role in the mission of the institution. I am also thankful that my research helps me connect to people from all walks of life and from all over the world.
When not teaching or doing research, I am an avid rock climber. I enjoy all disciplines from bouldering to remote alpine trad climbing. Recently, I have been quite focused on sport climbing. I am also a big fan of music and enjoy all genres. I particularly like live music and look forward to seeing more shows as artists return to the stage.