Duflo’s achievements have brought her broad acclaim, even apart from the MacArthur award. When David Leonhardt of the New York Times surveyed economists in 2008 to see who was most effectively “using economics to make the world a better place,” Duflo, Banerjee, and J-PAL were the “runaway winner.” In January 2009, Duflo became the youngest woman ever to give lectures at the exalted Collège de France, in Paris, drawing international media attention. One London newspaper, theIndependent, called her “the new face of French intellectualism.”
In public, Duflo has a preferred sound bite–“There are no magic bullets”–but largely shuns rhetorical flourishes. Audiences may hear more stirring appeals about why we should fight poverty from Bono. But few people have been as innovative about how to fight poverty as Duflo. Her insights are getting a wider hearing: in October, she addressed the United Nations General Assembly, offering a typically pragmatic list of “best buys” among field-tested aid programs for poor countries. (For example, she said, making mosquito netting free, not just cheap, dramatically increases its use as a malaria prevention measure.)
“Esther is motivated by real-world issues,” says Harvard’s Kremer. “Her work forces us to confront reality.” When asked why she studies poverty, Duflo says simply, “I wanted to do something that was relevant.”
In her spartan office overlooking the Charles River, Duflo is affable and a bit droll when talking about her work. But she is largely serious-minded. From the age of seven, she says, she wanted to be a historian, and she studied both history and economics as an undergrad at the École Normale Supérieure, in Paris. But when she began graduate work in history, she felt uncomfortable. “Not enough data points,” says Duflo, whose father is a mathematician. In 1995, she landed in MIT’s PhD program in economics. “I realized that being an economist was a nice way to be in academia and in the world,” she says.
Duflo has never left MIT, and her style of economics owes much to its research culture. One of her PhD advisors, professor and labor economist Joshua Angrist, has long argued that economic studies should mimic randomized lab trials. Banerjee, another professor who was an advisor, had already begun using experiments in development economics, and Duflo gravitated to the field. It wasn’t long before it became clear that she could make a mark. “It’s what we expected from Esther,” says Angrist. “She was a great student, and was self-propelled in a way that was unusual. What was unforeseen was the way J-PAL developed. Esther has turned out to be very entrepreneurial as well as a great scholar.”
Duflo, Banerjee, and Mullainathan hoped to encourage field experiments in development economics by founding J-PAL, which is funded by Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel ‘78, a Saudi Arabian businessman who named the center for his father. Though the lab is based at MIT, its members are economists worldwide. They receive some funding, and the lab’s prestige helps their discoveries gain notice. J-PAL has now completed 180 studies.
The lab has established enough credibility, Duflo says wryly, that conducting unusual experiments to fight poverty “is not just what crazy people do. It’s what J-PAL does.” She pauses. “Well, we are still the same crazy people. But the existence of J-PAL means it goes from being my thing or Abhijit’s thing to our thing, a community of people who are all working in this field this way.”