She didn’t realize it until she was getting her undergraduate degree, but Esther Duflo’s path began to take shape from a very early age. Her mother, a pediatrician, worked with organizations helping children living in poverty or who were victims of war. She would return from trips to countries like Rwanda, El Salvador or Haiti and convey what she was seeing to her children.
At a glance
Title: Professor of Economics and co-founder and co-director of the J-PAL at MIT
Field: Development and social economics
Current focus: How to make policy work better for the economic lives of the poor
Favorite destination: Delhi, India – but not in the winter
Family business: Her sister, Annie, works for a poverty non-profit and policy organization
Times are changing: In 2019, Duflo became only the second female Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences. She is also the youngest economist ever awarded the prize.
"Me and my siblings were all aware of how extraordinary our plight was compared to what we could have been dealt with,” says Duflo. “We got exposed to poverty and that you can do something about it.”
Duflo felt a responsibility and took action. It is this action that has contributed to her being seen as one of the most influential economists working on global poverty today.
From Russia with love
Duflo became interested in economics while spending a year in Russia at a time when the country was transitioning to capitalism. She was studying history as she watched as many economists were advising the Russian government during a state of turmoil. Realizing that academic economists could focus on academic work with the patience and care it requires, while also being influential in the real world led her to the conclusion that it was the best of both worlds.
“Suddenly it dawned on me that economists have this really wonderful position in life where they can think deeply about issues but when they have something to share, they'll be in a position to share it with policy makers,” she says.
Ever since those early days, it is exactly the approach she’s taken, focusing on issues and projects where the policy implications can be seen shortly thereafter. Her tool of choice to achieve this is randomized controlled trials.
Not so random results
Randomized controlled trials are when a fraction of a predefined group or population is randomly selected to test a new program or method and then those results are compared with the status quo.
At a broad level, Duflo focuses on poverty. In particular, she works on poverty in poor countries like India and Africa. One area that she has done extensive work in, and is particularly passionate about, is immunization.
She and her colleagues, Abhijit Banerjee and Rachel Glennerster, conducted two treatment programs in India and showed that providing people with very small incentives for immunizing their children can have demonstrably positive effects. The first focused on improving the supply of immunizations at camps, essentially making sure they were readily available and properly stocked to handle local demand. Providing a randomized incentive on top of this further increased immunizations. They also focused on key influential people, what Duflo refers to as change agents, or social leaders within the villages with the ability to change the behavior of those around them.
The far-reaching effects and results of these incentivized immunizations have become one of the most impactful and positively surprising experiments of her career.
Improving gender equality one leader at a time
Another area where the results were equally surprising and better than expected is the impact of female leadership in India, both in terms of their efforts and the ripple effect it carries.
India has a policy of affirmative action for women in politics at the local level and so in every election, a number of villages must elect a female leader. Duflo and her team then compared those villages to others who had not ever had a woman elected.
Not only were their policy efforts different than their male counterparts, they found that this exposure to a woman in power resulted in higher graduation rates for girls, reduced the parents’ aspiration gap between boys and girls, and increased teenagers’ own aspirations for their lives and careers.
“We tried to tell people women leaders are just as good as men, and that had no effect,” she says. “Giving information in the form of a lecture doesn't work, people seem to need to see it for themselves.”
Giving information in the form of a lecture doesn't work, people seem to need to see it for themselves.
Changing the world one issue at a time
In an effort to bridge the gap between the world of research and the world of policy, Duflo, Banerjee and Sendhil Mullainathan were inspired to launch the Poverty Action Lab, which became the Jameel Poverty Action Lab (JPAL) shortly after. Glennerster joined shortly thereafter as well.
What initially started as a group of eight affiliates almost 15 years ago, today JPAL has offices on nearly every continent and has roughly 200 permanent staff members in India alone. Always conceived as something more of a network, JPAL has three core pillars. Research support in the form of providing help hiring research assistants or access to grant funding is the first, while training and education resources are the second.
“Over the years, we have improved the quality of the research, the kind of protocols you need to follow to ensure that ethic rules are satisfied and scientific integrity is respected,” she says. “This improves the quality and makes it a little bit easier to conduct research on these topics.”
The third, and crowning aspect according to Duflo, is communicating results to policymakers. “We interact with policymakers to surface from them the questions that they want answers to and to give back to them results,” she says.
How does this impact effective policies? By sharing information retrieved from research in other areas, JPAL supports governments and international organizations in scaling up effective policy while scaling down ineffective policies. This is done in a variety of sectors from education and health to environmental and political. One example of an issue governments could benefit greatly by sharing knowledge with each other is something as basic as nutrition, specifically micronutrients, which has been one of the more challenging and difficult areas Duflo has worked in.
“The main issue that people are facing is not a deficit of calories but it's a deficit in nutrients,” she says. In India, people are deficient in a variety of vitamins, iron being a primary one. What has been particularly vexing to Duflo is how accessible iron supplements are, in the form of pills or supplemented grains and salt, and people’s resistance to implementing them into their daily diets.
“The technology exists but getting people to change their habits and what they eat is actually extremely difficult,” she says. “They also frankly don't think it's such a big issue. It seems to be a bigger problem that's so far unresolved.”
The power of economics
While not all experiments end with the results one had hoped for, Duflo couldn’t be happier with her chosen field.
“I work among very nice people on problems that are important to me with methods and tools I am comfortable with,” she says. “What could be better?”
As Duflo sees it, economics is a field that touches upon the most core issues that people are worried about today. From trade and economic growth to immigration and inequality, economics tells us how people interact with each other and how they respond to the incentives that exist in the world around them.
“Economics, I think, is less useful for its conclusions than for its approaches and everybody would benefit from at least listening to the arguments, even if they don't agree with where it leads them,” she says.
By studying how people respond to incentives and how they interact within networks, both physical and virtual, economics looks at the effects of interdependent situations. It also examines how people behave given a certain set of preferences and how those preferences are influenced by the world we live in and the environment around us.
The way in which we present problems and the world to people will have a tremendous influence on our ability to fight these problems.
“We tended to think people have views and they act as a function of these views,” she says. “Understanding that, in fact, those views themselves have a certain amount of arbitrariness is pretty important when you think about issues like bigotry and racism but also climate change. Because if your preferences are not very well defined, it means they can also be affected and the way in which we present problems and the world to people will have a tremendous influence on our ability to fight these problems.”