Putting Economic Policy to the Test: An economist’s real-life experiments yield surprising results

A F&D profile of Esther Duflo:

“IT IS A CAPITAL MISTAKE to theorize before one has data,” Sherlock Holmes remarks to his friend Dr. Watson in “A Scandal in Bohemia.” Development economist Esther Duflo would probably agree.

A slight, intense, 31-year-old with dark hair and eyes and the harried air of someone with too much to do in too little time, Duflo, a native of France, is part of a rising group of young economists who are questioning traditional development strategies. Her modest office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she is Castle Krob Development Associate Professor of Economics, is decorated with textiles from India and Indonesia, two of the developing countries in which she has done research.

Describing her methods, Duflo says that she works “in a very micro way. My projects always consider one simple, stripped-down question having to do with how people react within a certain context.” Typically, her question has to do with how a selected program in a developing country has affected the poor people it was designed to benefit. She amasses huge amounts of data in the field, in collaboration with local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and academics, and then subjects the data to rigorous econometric analysis to determine the program’s impact.

Although she considers her questions “simple,” her goal is anything but. Indeed, research carried out by Duflo and her peers is challenging some of the cherished assumptions on which many development policies are based. For example, in a study of Indonesia’s massive school construction program (the country built over 61,000 primary schools in 1974–78), Duflo found that, while workers who were educated in the new schools received higher wages, the wages of older workers in the same districts increased more slowly from year to year, apparently because the market was flooded with graduates from the new schools and capital formation did not keep up with the increase in human capital. These findings, she concluded, “are important because, contrary to what is often assumed (on the basis of the experience of Southeast Asian countries), acceleration in the rate of accumulation of human capital is not necessarily accompanied by economic growth.”

Studying real people in real environments is central to Duflo’s approach. In a paper she wrote in 2003, “Poor but Rational?” she speculates that there may be “more to learn about human behavior from the choices made by Kenyan farmers confronted with a real choice than from those made by American undergraduates in laboratory conditions.”

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Posted by at 10:23 AM

Labels: Profiles of Economists


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