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Esther Duflo wins Clark medal

MIT’s influential poverty researcher heralded as best economist under age 40.
Esther Duflo, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics at MIT, was named the winner of the 2010 John Bates Clark medal.
Esther Duflo, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics at MIT, was named the winner of the 2010 John Bates Clark medal.
Photo: L. Barry Hetherington

MIT economist Esther Duflo PhD ‘99, whose influential research has prompted new ways of fighting poverty around the globe, was named winner today of the John Bates Clark medal. Duflo is the second woman to receive the award, which ranks below only the Nobel Prize in prestige within the economics profession and is considered a reliable indicator of future Nobel consideration (about 40 percent of past recipients have won a Nobel).

Duflo, a 37-year-old native of France, is the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics at MIT and a director of MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). Her work uses randomized field experiments to identify highly specific programs that can alleviate poverty, ranging from low-cost medical treatments to innovative education programs.

Duflo, who officially found out about the medal via a phone call earlier today, says she regards the medal as “one for the team,” meaning the many researchers who have contributed to the renewal of development economics. “This is a great honor,” Duflo told MIT News. “Not only for me, but my colleagues and MIT. Development economics has changed radically over the last 10 years, and this is recognition of the work many people are doing.”

The American Economic Association, which gives the Clark medal to the top economist under age 40, said Duflo had distinguished herself through “definitive contributions” in the field of development economics. “Through her research, mentoring of young scholars, and role in helping to direct the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at MIT, she has played a major role in setting a new agenda for the field of development economics, one that focuses on microeconomic issues and relies heavily on large-scale field experiments,” the association said in a statement.

Fighting poverty

In 2003, Duflo co-founded J-PAL along with one of her mentors and frequent collaborators, Abhijit Banerjee, MIT’s Ford International Professor of Economics, as well as economist Sendhil Mullainathan, now of Harvard. While Duflo’s own work has often focused on fieldwork in India and Kenya, J-PAL supports research in dozens of countries, and aims to work with both governments and nongovernmental organizations to implement anti-poverty programs.

“The field has exploded over the last few years,” says Duflo. Her receipt of the Clark medal, she adds, “is a sign that the field is so alive. Many more young people are now working in development economics, and hopefully that will continue.”

In one notable study, Duflo, together with Banerjee and J-PAL’s executive director, Rachel Glennerster, found that the rate at which families in northern India will immunize their children jumps from about 5 percent to nearly 40 percent when parents are offered a small bag of lentils as an incentive. Duflo, Harvard economist Michael Kremer, and economist Jonathan Robinson of the University of California, Santa Cruz, have run repeated experiments in Kenya that help farmers use fertilizer in a more efficient fashion.

Much of Duflo’s work has analyzed educational practices. After an experiment involving more than 120 schools in Kenya, Duflo, Kremer, and Pascaline Dupas of UCLA concluded that dividing classes into groups based on student performance can help both high-achieving students (because they benefit from being around their strongest peers) and low-achieving students (because they can be taught at a level more comprehensible to them). In India, Duflo, Stephen Ryan of MIT and Rema Hanna of Harvard discovered that instructor attendance at rural, one-teacher schools improved notably when verified by date-stamped cameras and linked to salary; student performance improved as a result.

While these research projects typically take place on small scales at first, J-PAL works to broaden the scope of successful experiments. After Kremer and economist Edward Miguel of the University of California at Berkeley showed that giving children medicine to free them of intestinal worms markedly helps school attendance, J-PAL helped start Deworm the World, a nonprofit organization that helped the Kenyan government treat 3.6 million children in 2009.

“We are extremely happy for Esther and MIT,” said Ricardo Caballero, chair of the Department of Economics and the Ford International Professor of Economics, Macroeconomics and International Finance. “She has built one of the most successful academic careers I can recall in recent times while making a huge difference for the poor around the world. This award is the latest recognition to her superb work but surely not the last one. What a collection she is putting together.”

A series of honors

The Clark medal is one of several prizes Duflo has been awarded recently. In 2009, she received a MacArthur Fellowship; was the first recipient of the Calvó Armengol International Prize from the Barcelona Graduate School of Economics; became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and delivered a lecture series at the College de France in Paris, having been named that institution's first holder of its "Knowledge Against Poverty" chair. J-PAL claimed a significant new international prize in January 2009, the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the category of Development Cooperation.

MIT economist Paul Samuelson was given the first Clark medal, in 1947, while MIT graduate Emmanuel Saez PhD ’99 was awarded last year’s prize. The most recent MIT faculty member to win the medal, before Duflo, was Daron Acemoglu, now MIT’s Charles P. Kindleberger Professor of Applied Economics, in 2005. Prior to 2010, the Clark medal had only been awarded in odd-numbered years; now it is given annually.

Past MIT faculty members who have won the Clark medal include Samuelson, Robert Solow (who won it in 1961), Jerry Hausman (1985), Paul Krugman (1991) and Acemoglu. MIT alumni who have won the award include Lawrence Klein PhD ’44 (1959), Joseph Stiglitz PhD ’67 (1979), Lawrence H. Summers ’75 (1993), Steven Levitt PhD ’94 (2003) and Saez.

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