The People's Economists
As a young research associate, I stopped at a dhaba with my boss, me armed with hand-sanitiser and a spoon, while my boss dug in to a plate of fish with her hands. My boss was Esther Duflo, director and co-founder of J-PAL, and we were on a field visit in a village in Odisha in 2008. J-PAL was in its early years then, set up globally at MIT in 2003 and in India by 2007. Despite the expansion and recognition of its work worldwide, Esther remains the same person, down to earth, no frills or fuss, who says exactly what she means in a precise five words or less. And much can be written about Abhijit Banerjee’s fantastic cooking skills.
Working with Esther and Abhijit for more than a decade has given me immense appreciation for these brilliant yet unpretentious people. They have always been open to hearing the ideas of research associates and field staff. They devise elegant solutions to complex development challenges, turn unwieldy ideas into actionable plans, engage with colleagues and bureaucrats, and return home to review a 250-page journal submission — all as part of a day’s work.
For them to join the ranks of Jan Tinbergen, Milton Friedman and Amartya Sen is one thing, but to attract global attention to the powerful methodology in which they, along with their co-laureate Michael Kremer, have been pioneers is another thing entirely. They have led the charge to mainstream the application of a rigorous and scientific lab methodology — the randomised evaluation — outside the laboratory, amidst the complexities of the real world, in order to derive precise measures of the impact of poverty alleviation programmes. In their own words, back in the late ’90s and early 2000s, Abhijit and Esther, together with their early partners, took a leap of faith and used randomised evaluations in the field — at the time not a widely-used practice in development economics. Their intention was to do research which was hands-on, solve real problems, and also learn, with greater precision, how the world works.
Under their leadership, and with the efforts of J-PAL’s network of 181 affiliated researchers, we have moved the frontiers in the fight against poverty and inequality in cost-effective and measurable ways. Whether we are thinking about innovative ways to bring women out of extreme poverty, improve educational attainment or increase immunisation rates for children under the age of five, our work fills critical evidence gaps. This research is then brought to policymakers in a manner that is globally informed, by pooling the best insights from randomised evaluations in 83 countries, as well as grounded by local conditions and implementation feasibility, to enable context-specific policy decisions. J-PAL’s scientific evaluations have debunked commonly held beliefs, and have resulted in evidence-based policy decisions.
As the news broke, my 79-year-old grandmother called to congratulate me, and to ask me specifically what it is that we at J-PAL do. Therein lies the significance of this moment. Not only have these Nobel laureates spent their careers bringing rigorous research to play in important policy decisions, but their work, and this recognition, have brought a powerful approach for fighting global poverty into our everyday conversations.
Mukerji is the executive director of J-PAL South Asia