Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, MIT economists whose work has helped transform antipoverty research and relief efforts, have been named co-winners of the 2019 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, along with another co-winner, Harvard University economist Michael Kremer.
The work of Duflo and Banerjee, which has long been intertwined with Kremer’s, has been highly innovative in the area of development economics, emphasizing the use of field experiments in research in order to realize the benefits of laboratory-style randomized, controlled trials. Duflo and Banerjee have applied this new precision while studying a wide range of topics implicated in global poverty, including health care, education, agriculture, and gender issues, while developing new antipoverty programs based on their research.
Duflo and Banerjee also co-founded MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) in 2003, along with a third co-founder, Sendhil Mullainathan, now of the University of Chicago. J-PAL, a global network of antipoverty researchers that conducts field experiments, has now become a major center of research, facilitating work across the world.
J-PAL also examines which kinds of local interventions have the greatest impact on social problems, and works to implement those programs more broadly, in cooperation with governments and NGOs. Among J-PAL’s notable interventions are deworming programs that have been adopted widely.
In the statement released this morning, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which grants the Nobel awards, noted that the work of Duflo, Banerjee, and Kremer has “dramatically improved our ability to fight poverty in practice” and cited their “new approach to obtaining reliable answers about the best ways to fight global poverty.”
While J-PAL researchers conduct experiments globally, Duflo and Banerjee have situated much of their own research in Africa and India. They have studied a wide range of issues implicated in global poverty, producing significant results over time. In one widely noted experiment, Duflo and Banerjee found that immunization rates for children in rural India jump dramatically (from 5 percent to 39 percent) when their families are offered modest incentives for immunization, such as lentils.
They have also studied educational issues extensively, often with additional co-authors, uncovering new results about improvements in student achievement (when classes are divided into small groups) and ways to improve teacher attendance. But the range of topics Duflo and Banerjee have studied is immense, and includes fertilizer use by Kenyan farmers, physician training in India, HIV prevention in Africa, the effects of small-scale lending programs, and the impact of aid programs in Indonesia, among many other studies.
In one study conducted on three continents, Duflo and Banerjee also reported significant welfare gains from an intervention that helps the poor simultaneously in multiple ways, including job training, productive assets, and health information.
Duflo and Banerjee have published dozens of research papers, together and with other co-authors. They have also co-written two books together, “Poor Economics” (2011) and the forthcoming “Good Economics for Hard Times” (2019).
A significant part of J-PAL’s mission is to scale up successful experiments that can be applied more sidely in society. When Kremer and economist Edward Miguel demonstrated the immense value of deworming children in the developing world, J-PAL helped start Deworm the World, a nonprofit that has treated millions of children in Africa.
Asked at today’s press conference about the significance of being only the second woman to win the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences, Duflo said she strongly wants to encourage other women to enter the discipline.
“There are not enough women in the economics profession at all levels,” Duflo said. “That has to change.” The issue, she noted, “is something the profession is starting to reckon with.” Banerjee, for his part, observed that development economics has a higher percentage of female scholars than other subfields within the discipline, and he agreed that women should be encouraged to become scholars in economics.
Peter Dizikes | MIT News Office October 14, 2019