Esther Duflo

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Who is she?

Esther Duflo was born in Paris on the twenty fifth of October nineteen seventy two. She is a development economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in theUnited States of America, where she is also the co-founder and director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab.

She has been called an inventor of development economics, a profession which is said to be less than a decade old. She has received numerous academic honors and prizes for her work. She came 91st in Time Magazine’s 2011 one hundred most influential people in the world and is tipped for the Nobel Prize for her work on alleviating poverty.

Why she is inspirational

Esther Duflo is interested in the causal relationships that lead to poverty and the means to eradicate it. She is thinking outside the box and taking the subject of development economics from an abstract lab based experience into the field and the every day lives of people to understand the impact of policy, education, access to finance and health and household behaviour on poverty. She is taking a pragmatic approach to understanding and evaluating what incentives enable the poor to actively engage in ‘escaping’ their poverty and is gathering real data in the process to find out what really works in villages in places like India, Kenya and Ghana.

Her goal is global equity and prosperity.

To this end, Esther Duflo is adapting scientific tests to anti-poverty programmes, using methods such as ‘random testing’, used by pharmaceutical companies to test dugs. She is reported to be less concerned about policies and more interested in investigating in elaborate detail the small and practical things that can make a difference to the very poor by dealing with specific questions about what works, why they do and why they don’t. For example, if school kids could get their uniforms for free, would attendance go up? or What is an effective way to reward mothers for immunizing their babies? She is also reported to be relentless in her questioning of conventional wisdom and the value of foreign aid and micro-finance on poverty.

This approach has led her to question established thinking and approaches to economic development in poor communities. For example, philanthropy from donating money, volunteering, good actions to help make things better, she believes, do not motivate the poor. There are flaws in this approach which need to be reviewed alongside the “cartoon visions” of the poor. There is a need to engage with people in order to understand what works and supporting them to achieve it through any means necessary.

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For instance, whilst the issue of education, education, education is a given, the focus instead show be on how to make sure that the pupils and the teacher turn up at school. In tackling this issue, Esther Duflo tests a range of means to motivate the poor in the form of tiny incentives. For example incentives like free meals or uniforms can maximise attendance at school among the poor just like giving families free lentils to immunize their children; a win-win approach as it has been described. By making the immunization available she found that immunization rates increased from 2% to 18% but with the added incentives, it increased to 38%.

In the real world in which experts and non experts of the west argue that poverty alleviation is a waste of time and that rogue governments and corrupt officials are to blame, Esther Duflo argues that not all failed policies are the result of corrupt governments but the failure to invest thinking time to resolve the problem.

She believes that the two solutions on offer, the market and more billions, have failed to deliver results. She advocates a third way: making anti poverty programmes work better. The modest use of scientific method combined with generosity and determination should make a difference.

She has been criticised for this approach which has been described as bribing people to improve their own health and as blurring the lines between economics and activism. “Some of what we prove may seem obvious but we have to overcome prejudices,” is her response. “Many aid organisations, for instance, believe people should not be given bribes to improve their own health.” She is said to consider it vital. She is undaunted in her commitment to her goal: “I’m not giving up,” she says. “My day job is to identify good ideas; my night job is to convince policy mak­ers that they are good ideas. That makes for long days!”

Esther Duflo in her words:

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“I suppose people are asking ‘Who is this person? What is all the fuss about?’ Partly also, I think the subject is something that intrigues people. Why is it so difficult, despite all the efforts which have been made, to help people to escape from poverty?”

“If we don’t know whether [aid is] doing any good, we are not any better than the medieval doctors and their leeches.”

“In technology, we spend so much time experimenting, fine-tuning, getting the absolute cheapest way to do something — so why aren’t we doing that with social policy?”

“There’s no silver bullet. You cannot helicopter people out of poverty.”



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