Making Economics 'a Lever of Action in the World': New Nobel winner Esther Duflo on how to build a better, fairer system.

AuthorPal, Amitabh

Esther Duflo, co-recipient of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics, is the youngest person ever, and only the second woman, to obtain the award in that field. Duflo, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, shared this year's honor with her husband, Abhijit Banerjee, also at MIT, and Harvard professor Michael Kremer "for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty," to quote the Nobel citation.

The trio's methods, which include using randomized controlled trials to measure the effects of various interventions, "now entirely dominate development economics," stated the Nobel Committee. It cited the impact of their research in education and health care in countries including India and Kenya.

The French-born Duflo obtained her undergraduate degree in history and economics, with her thesis focusing on how the Soviet Union utilized propaganda. Her studies and her internships convinced her that "economics had potential as a lever of action in the world."

After completing a master's degree in France, Duflo came to MIT for her Ph.D. and has been there since. In 2003, she and Banerjee co-founded the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at MIT to implement their ideas. Duflo has received a string of awards and distinctions, culminating in the Nobel. Together with Banerjee, she has written Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, an explanation of their work, and the just-released Good Economics for Hard Times, an engrossing look at the big issues of today.

I drove from Madison, Wisconsin, to Milwaukee in mid-November to meet Duflo at Marquette University, where she gave a talk on the themes of her new book. She graciously gave me time before her presentation, and we chatted in a conference room, bonding over the fact that much of her lab's work has been conducted in India, including in my wife's hometown, Udaipur. At her well-attended lecture later that day, Duflo coined a formulation that summarizes her approach to her field: "There are no silver bullets, just a number of silver pellets."

Duflo received her Nobel Prize at a colorful ceremony in Stockholm in early December. The three economics co-winners announced before the event that they would be donating their prize money to a foundation promoting developmental economics. "As a child, I read about Marie Curie, who used the proceeds of her first Nobel Prize to buy a gram of radium to further her research," Duflo stated. "Our field is a collaborative one, so supporting the next generation of economists is our 'gram of radium.' "

Q: What difference will winning the Nobel Prize in Economics make for your work?

Esther Duflo: It might be extremely helpful in the sense that it could give us much more visibility and respectability with policymakers. Maybe it also can help in catalyzing our...

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