Franco-American Esther Duflo Wins the Nobel Prize in Economics

French-born American citizen and MIT professor Esther Duflo is one of three economists awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics for her research into the fight against poverty.
La Franco-Américaine Esther Duflo, professeure d’économie au MIT et lauréate du Prix Nobel. © Reuters

Finding local solutions to the global problem of poverty is the calling of Esther Duflo, one of the most prominent economists of her generations. While studying at the Ecole Normale Supérieure during the 1990s, she was completing a thesis on the Soviet economy when Thomas Piketty, then professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), suggested that she move to the United States and focus on applied economics.

This marked a turning point in Duflo’s life and career. Having graduated from the School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris and from MIT, where she defended her PhD thesis entitled Essays in Empirical Development Economics in 1999, she carried out research in India, Ghana, and Kenya. She likes to compare her work to that of a plumber. “We need to stop thinking about poverty as a big problem with big solutions,” she said in an interview with French magazine Le Nouvel Obs. “If you ask a plumber to repair an entire house, they will fail. But if they repair the leaks, and the roof is sturdy, then we might make some progress.”

Her commitment saw her awarded the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize, on October 14, 2019, making her the first French woman – and the second woman overall – to win it. And at 46, she is also the youngest.

Small-Scale Economics

A tenured professor at MIT since 2004, Duflo became a naturalized American citizen in 2012 and shares her prize with U.S. economists Michael Kremer and Abhijit Banerjee, her husband. Cofounders of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at MIT, they pioneered randomized trials which are widely used in biology but rarely applied to the field of economics. By comparing two randomly-chosen groups, the researchers were able to evaluate the effectiveness of humanitarian programs.

“If we introduce a new learning support program in schools, we choose 200 schools at random and roll it out in half of them,” said Duflo to the AFP press agency in 2010. Students’ progress is then analyzed and the results of the experiment are sent to public authorities and local NGOs. An experiment carried out in Udaipur, in Western India, demonstrated that a child vaccine campaign was more successful when parents were incentivized – with lentils in the case of this particular study. The rate of vaccination reached 38.3% in the test village, compared with just 6.2% in the control village.

Advisor to Obama

This research saw Duflo pick up the Best Young Economist of France Award, along with its U.S. equivalent, the John Bates Clark Medal. She was also voted one of the world’s most influential people by Time magazine in 2011. Her work was then truly recognized two years later when she became an officer of the French National Order of Merit and joined the Obama administration as a development advisor.

She and her husband cowrote the 2012 best-seller Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, translated into more than 17 languages, and Good Economics for Hard Times, which will be published in the United States on November 12, 2019, by PublicAffairs. Their first work deconstructs theories, caricatures, and clichés that underpin programs designed to fight poverty, such as “Why don’t poor people save money when they can?” and “Why don’t they vaccinate their children?” Their second book explains how economic science can provide answers to social inequalities from New Delhi to Dakar and from Paris to Washington D.C.

“Esther Duflo also shows hints of idealism,” wrote The New Yorker in 2010. “She is a left-of-center French intellectual with faith in redistribution, and she subscribes to the optimistic notion that tomorrow might turn out better than today.” Almost ten years later, these words have somewhat lost their irony.