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Economics Professor Dell Wins Clark Medal

Littauer Center for Public Administration Building is home to the Economics Department. Some Economics professors have recently signed a letter in support of finding a solution to climate change.
Littauer Center for Public Administration Building is home to the Economics Department. Some Economics professors have recently signed a letter in support of finding a solution to climate change. By Mia B. Frothingham
By Meera S. Nair, Crimson Staff Writer

Economics Professor Melissa L. Dell ’05 was named the recipient of the John Bates Clark Medal for her research on the role of institutions in economic development.

The Clark Medal — awarded annually by the American Economic Association — recognizes an American economist under the age of 40 “who is judged to have made the most significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge.” According to the AEA’s website, several previous winners have gone on to become Nobel Laureates.

In a press release announcing this year’s award, the AEA described Dell as giving “a new energy and direction to the entire field of political economy and development.” Dell has conducted research on the long-lasting effects of institutions, conflicts, and historical economic conditions on modern economic development, primarily in countries across Latin America and Southeast Asia.

“Through her pioneering careful and creative data collection and empirical work, Melissa Dell has advanced our understanding of the role state and other institutions play in the daily lives of and economic outcomes of ordinary people,” the press release reads.

Jeremy C. Stein, chair of the Economics department, said he admires Dell’s work to shed light on institutional differences within countries, which had previously been examined primarily through the lens of cross-national studies.

“She gets very deep into the details, and then manages to pull that together and bring a lot of data to bear,” Stein said.

Economics Professor Michael R. Kremer ’85, whose Nobel prize-winning work also focuses on development, concurred that Dell’s research has uncovered a flurry of important insights in the field.

“Her work focuses on economic history and she spends the time to really understand the history,” Kremer said. “Using that knowledge of history, she finds ways to convincingly estimate the impact of particular institutions or of particular insights.”

“She also demonstrates the pathways involved were much more complex than sometimes assumed,” he added.

Stein added that Dell’s selection as the 2020 Clark Medalist is indicative of her overall intellectual prowess.

“She is just absolutely brilliant, incredibly creative, and very broad-ranging in the kind of work that she does,” Stein said. “And I think it’s just inspiring for the students.”

Dell — who graduated summa cum laude from the College with a degree in Economics — has amassed several other honors for her work in the past few years, including being named by The Economist one of the decade’s top eight young economists in 2018.

In an interview with the Harvard Gazette, Dell said she was excited not only for the personal recognition, but also for the attention the award brings to the field of development economics in turn.

“This recognition shows that people are interested more broadly in the sorts of questions that we study in the political economy of development,” Dell said. “I think it’s really exciting for the field and for the sorts of questions that we think are really important.”

Dell’s recognition comes on the heels of Kremer’s receipt of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences last fall.

“It has been a pretty good year for development economics at Harvard,” Stein said of the pair of prizes.

—Staff writer Meera S. Nair can be reached at

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