Transforming development economics, one experiment at a time.
by Ian Parker
Esther Duflo, a thirty-seven-year-old professor of development economics – the economics of poor countries and poor people – runs ?eld experiments that measure different ways to save the world. In February, she went to Long Beach, California, to give a presentation at TED, an annual conference devoted to “ideas worth spreading.” Her demeanor was brisk and unsmiling. “I’m short, I’ m French, I have a pretty strong French accent,” she began. Then she showed a slide of a neighborhood in Port-au-Prince that had been knocked down in the recent earthquake. “There’s something like a Haiti earthquake every eight days,” she said. That is, twenty-?ve thousand children around the world die of preventable causes every day. How should the developed world respond? With more aid? She showed a graph that plotted the billions in development aid given to A?ica in recent decades, along with the continent’s G.D.P. per capita over the same period. Aid had risen sharply; G.D.P. had not. But the statistics revealed nothing about cause and effect,” Duflo said. Without this money, Africa might have turned out better, or worse, or the same. “We have no idea,” she said. “We’re not any better than the medieval doctors and their leeches.” A slide of a leech.
Eight days later, Du?o was back in her o?ice at M.I.T., in Cambridge. There was a view of the Charles River, and the central heating made plaintive, human sounds. She ?ddled ceaselessly with a binder clip; though she was sitting on a narrow of?ce chair, she managed to pull her legs up under her. Her manner mixed intellectual assurance with slight social impatience. (A favorite English phrase: “Give me a break”) Pinned to the door was a poster, in Bengali, related to work she had done in India on local elections; she translated the text as “Together we can talk and solve our problems.”
[read more: The New Yorker]