UC Berkeley Geographer Michael Watts receives Ester Boserup Prize for development research

February 5, 2024

UC Berkeley Geography Professor Emeritus Michael J. Watts was recently awarded the prestigious Ester Boserup Prize for his outstanding contributions to the field of development research. The Copenhagen Centre for Development Research, a leading institution known for its interdisciplinary approach, awarded the prize to Watts for his substantial contributions to the understanding of development studies.

The Ester Boserup Prize is given to a scholar whose work has enriched and expanded insights into the dynamics of development and economic history, as well as the complexities of poverty and prosperity, marginalization and civic engagement, and the contrasts between lawlessness and justice.Reflecting on his selection for the Ester Boserup Prize, Watts shared insights into the parallels between his work and that of Boserup, the late Danish economist whose work focused on agrarian change and the role of women in development.

"I am honored to receive this award and grateful to the award committee for selecting me. One of the reasons I was chosen is likely due to my focus on agrarian dynamics in the Global South gender within agricultural households,” he said. “Ester Boserup emphasized the importance of looking inside the household, examining gender roles and how they vary culturally, impacting who has access to land, what crops are grown, and the overall structure of agricultural systems.”

Boserup’s interests in labor and agricultural intensification were central to the field to which Professor Watts contributed over 40 years of research in Africa, South Asia and California.

Born in England, Watts received his bachelor’s degree from the University College London and his Ph.D. in geography from the University of Michigan before joining the UC Berkeley Geography faculty in 1979. He retired in 2016.Watts began his fieldwork into the heart of development studies in the 1970s, focusing predominantly on Africa. He delved into the dynamics of agricultural change and the distressing phenomenon of famines. His work, deeply anchored in geography, emphasized the interplay between agriculture and environmental factors. 

"As a geographer, I was especially interested in the interactions between agriculture and the physical environment, including aspects such as rainfall, drought and soil quality," said Watts, highlighting his approach to understanding complex agricultural systems.

Professor Watts spent his early days conducting fieldwork in Nigeria during significant drought and famine. This experience was pivotal, setting the stage for his lifelong commitment to understanding and addressing complex issues in development studies.

His approach to research has been characterized by collaboration and engagement with local communities and scholars. "I always worked collaboratively with local students and faculty," he said. 

Watts also had a profound impact as a mentor. During his tenure at Berkeley Social Sciences, he has chaired over 100 Ph.D. dissertations (and almost as many as a second and outside reader), with many of his former students now holding prestigious academic positions at top universities around the world. 

“I work with so many students, many of whom now are full professors at Yale, Stanford, UCLA, Dartmouth, Michigan, and universities in Europe and other parts of the world," he said.

Among his many influential publications are Curse of the Black Gold, a work that explores the oil and gas industry's impact, particularly in Nigeria, and Liberation Ecologies, which delves into political ecology. These works demonstrate his ability to transcend academic boundaries and engage with wider audiences.

In the course of his work in the oil-producing communities in the Niger delta, Watts faced dangerous situations.

In 2007, while in Nigeria to visit a radical journalist and friend at the National Point newspaper, Watts was shot in the hand by one of nearly a dozen heavily armed men. "In the total chaos, there was a lot of shooting; one (person was) shot in the leg," he wrote in an email to UC Berkeley Economics Professor Edward “Ted” Miguel. 

These events transpired in the wake of turbulent elections in Port Harcourt marked by gang violence, political thuggery and the breakdown of security. The newspaper’s office was damaged and its computers and other equipment were stolen.

As he prepares to accept the Ester Boserup Prize in Copenhagen this spring, Watts reflected on the significance of this recognition. 

"It means so much because it's Ester Boserup,” he said. “She laid the groundwork and was there at a time when it was extremely difficult for women scholars in the field of development."

The award is not just an acknowledgment of Watts' scholarly achievements but a testament to his lifelong dedication to dissecting and addressing complex issues in agricultural systems, environmental challenges and societal structures in developing regions. His work continues to inspire and shape the field of development studies and geography today.

In summing up his impactful career, Professor Watts offered a holistic view.

"We all stand on the shoulders of people that preceded and in this regard Ester Boserup is such a towering figure,” he said. “My work may not have been as influential as her work, but I'd like to think that it's had some type of impact in a variety of fields in and outside of academia."

Berkeley Social Sciences Dean Raka Ray said the award is a testament to Watt’s dedication and to the profound influence he has had on both the academic community and development practices worldwide.

“Ester Boserup was a legend. I am delighted that Professor Watts has received an award in her name because it acknowledges the outsized impact he has had on the field of development studies,” Ray said. “Michael Watts has consistently elevated everything he touches – from scholarly work, to mentorship, to the institutions he has run. He is a true representative of what we strive to cultivate at Berkeley Social Sciences. I couldn’t be more pleased.”