12 things you should know about Nobel Prize winner Esther Duflo

Esther Duflo became the youngest ever recipient and the second woman to be awarded the Nobel for Economics. Here is a list of things you should know about the trailblazing economist.

24th Oct 2019
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Esther Duflo was awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize for Economics, formally known as The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory Of Alfred Nobel with her colleagues Abhijit Banerjee and Michael Kremer “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty.” 

The French economist is a tenured Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) since 1999. Duflo, 46, became the youngest ever recipient and only the second woman to be awarded the Nobel for Economics since it began in 1969.

She is also the Co-founder and Co-director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-LAB) a global network of anti-poverty researchers that conducts field experiments. 

Duflo is the author of several books like Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, Good Economics for Hard Times along with her fellow Nobel prize winner and husband Abhijit Mukherjee. 

She also received the MacArthur “genius” Fellowship in 2009 and was named as one of the “forty under forty” most influential young leaders by Fortune magazine in 2010

HerStory brings to you 12 interesting things that you should know about this trailblazing economist.

Work not limited to poverty 

At MIT, the researcher focuses on economic lives of the poor, with the aim to help design and evaluate social policies. Her work has involved subjects like health, education, financial inclusion, environment and governance. She has conducted experiments in India and African nations to determine how various factors such as healthcare and education could be improved to combat poverty. She has written extensively on topics including HIV prevention in Kenya, how teacher incentives can improve student results, bundling health insurance and microfinance, improving immunisation rates in India, and the role of social interactions in retirement plan decisions, increasing educational opportunities for girls, and more. 

History was the first choice 

Esther studied history in her undergraduate degree at Ecole Normale Superieure, Paris. It was while spending a year in Russia at a time when the country was transitioning to capitalism that she decided to make the switch to economics. She watched economists advising the Russian government and realised that academic economists could do academic work and still make real world impact. This led her to the conclusion that it was the best of both worlds. 

Mother’s contribution to her career 

Her mother, Violaine Dufli, a pediatrician, would often visit countries like Rwanda, Haiti, and Salvador to help treat children living in poverty or who were victims of war. Through her mother, she was exposed to poverty as a child and felt a responsibility that she translated into her lifetime work.

MIT broke a rule for Esther

Duflo completed her PhD in Economics from MIT in 1999 and was appointed as an assistant professor in the Department of Economics. MIT broke a long-standing departmental rule against hiring its own graduates when they appointed her in 1999. In 2002, Esther, 29, was promoted to the position of Associate Professor with tenure making her the youngest faculty member to be given tenure. 

Field experiments helping provide education to 60M students

Along with Abhijit Mukherjee, she partnered with an Indian NGO Pratham to develop ‘Teaching At The Right Level’ (TaRL) approach. The field experiments conducted by them proved that matching teaching to the children’s learning level rather than age led to improved results. The approach has now been scaled to throughout India and Africa to reach over 60 million students. 

Her drive

Duflo says, “ What drives me remain simple questions: what makes poor people tick, what keeps them stuck, and how economic policy can help them. This is what helps me get out of bed, even when I am jetlagged and feeling quite sorry for myself.”

The economist has spent over 20 years pursuing answers to questions about poverty using the ‘randomised controlled testing’ method - a technique commonly used by pharma to test new drugs. Esther and her colleagues are popularly known as ‘randomistas’ for the use of this technique in their research studies. This method is now widely popular amongst development economists who seek solutions for real world problems. 

An optimist, a pragmatic idealist 

Duflo subscribes to the optimistic notion (which, perhaps, runs ahead of firm data) that tomorrow might turn out better than today. Duflo’s thought of doing good science, and the thought of doing good is what fills her brain, she admits. 

She is part of a crop of economists that follow the line of pragmatic idealism - an ideal where you first believe that there’s something to be done about poverty and then you try to do it.

A passion for immunisation 

Duflo has done extensive work in the field of immunisation and is particularly passionate about it. She set up three immunisation camps in Udaipur, Rajasthan that incentivised mothers to bring their children by offering a kilo of lentils for each child. This led to an upshot in full immunisation from six percent to 38 percent. This field experiment had far-reaching and positive effects.

The person and her passions

Juggernaut Books Founder Chiki Sarkar, who is the publisher of the couple’s second book, Poor Economics, says that Esther is a quiet person when you meet her but is quick as an arrow.

Duflo, in a magazine article, had admitted, “I’m not very social, in the sense of cocktail-party social. I don’t like to talk to people I don’t know.” She added that she is “fiercely independent and tough and cool, and

the person who makes the family’s clocks run on time.”

Chiki also revealed that the economist also has a passion for rock climbing, which she pursues in the midst of all the work she does. She also has a passion for classical music. Her only non-classical favourite is a British pop band, Madness. 

You can learn from her too!

Duflo has helped create an MITx MicroMasters programme in Data, Economics, and Development Policy, which the Institute launched in 2016. Students, aspiring economists, policy makers and others can take the course online on MIT’s online education platform. 

She is also an instructor for several courses on MIT opencourseware the university’s open education online platform. Her popular courses include ‘The Challenge of World Poverty’, ‘Foundations of Development Policy’, and ‘Putting Social Sciences to the Test: Field Experiments in Economics’.

A love for India

“She’s very comfortable in India,” says husband Abhijit Banerjee of Duflo. “She doesn’t get information overload.” Her affection for the country is evident as she returns at least once a year to India. While living in Cambridge she would often be surrounded by Indian friends and colleagues. In her apartment in Beacon Hill, where she lived alone, she would cook Indian food in a kitchen remodelled by an Indian architect.

Plans for the prize money 

Duflo recalled a story she'd read as a young girl about Marie Curie, the Nobel winner for her work in Physics, who used the proceeds of her first Nobel prize to buy a gram of radium and continue her research. 

She said that she would discuss it with her two fellow recipients and figure out what their gram of radium is and use the money for that.

(Edited by Rekha Balakrishnan)

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