Prof. Esther Duflo’s work can literally save the world.
“I do think it is possible to eliminate world poverty,” she says. “Many things can make a big difference in the lives of the poor that can stop this vicious circle. I do believe that people –– and countries –– can grow out of poverty.”
Duflo, an expert in development economics, along with Prof. Abhijit Banerjee,in 2003 co-founded what is now the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab in the department of economics –– and already –– she says, they are making progress.
The pair launched the lab to turn research into action that improves the lives of the poor around the world. Their aim is to reduce global poverty by making sure that policy decisions are based on scientific evidence.
Duflo is a leader among researchers who are now using randomized evaluations, like those used in medicine, to evaluate social policies. This approach of rigorous testing provides clear scientific answers that will help create successful policies to combat poverty, she says. It is the only lab in the world that is devoted to fighting global poverty using this method. “We are just not sure what works and what doesn’t,” she says, “so it’s often the only way to get good transparent results.”
Duflo adds that solid evidence is essential because it can convince policymakers and also convince skeptics to devote more resources to this effort. Often, she says, policymakers lack the evidence they need to address various problems. For example: Should limited education budgets be spent on textbooks, teachers, or smaller classes? Or, should scarce health resources be spent on more doctors or basic sanitation? Duflo is hopeful that we will eventually change the way policies are evaluated. “This is happening slowly,” she says. “It has not happened yet, but we are making progress.”
Some projects the lab has studied include: How computer-aided learning affects performance of poor, grade-school children in India; how women village leaders affect political decision-making; boosting girls’ attendance at school; and racial bias in employment in the United States.
Born in France, the daughter of a professor and a medical doctor who often practiced in developing countries, Duflo has always been interested in helping the poor. “I was lucky to be born into a rich country and into a middle class family,” she says. “I figured the only way to justify that is to help narrow the gap between the rich and the poor.”