Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo are Nobel laureates. The prize recognises their scientific contribution to reducing poverty. It has halved worldwide in the last decades.
Their journey has been long with many waypoints. One was J-PAL, the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab established in 2003 by Banerjee Duflo and Sendhil Mullainathan with a mission to generate science to inform poverty reduction.
The primary tool was the randomised control trial. The centre has been the catalyst for nearly 1,000 evaluations in 81 countries. It is a high octane What Works Centre.
Had it stopped there the product might have looked like one of the hundred or more What Works Centres now established around the world, each generating lists of things that sort of work, and a few that sort of don’t work.
Banerjee and Duflo work went further. Here are three of the many ingredients to progress.
One, they make a lot of use of surveys. Information gathered from people living in poverty that indicates how they lead their lives, the choices they make, their incomes, family structure and size…..
Two, they go walkabout. They spend a lot of time in the countries where the trials and surveys take place, walking around communities, talking to people, getting an intimate understanding of the context and its influence on decision making.
Three, and by far the most important ingredient, they are curious. Banerjee and Duflo don’t read the results of a trial and think ’eureka, here is a programme to change the world’. They think ‘I wonder why that trial had (or did not have) these effects?’ They think back on the results of the surveys they know so well. They reflect on other literature (and not just the scientific literature). They take their questions on walkabout and ask people living in poverty for their answers.
Some of the failings of What Works Centres in the U.K. and the U.S. (I do not know about other countries) are the result of them being considered the end of the story, and not the beginning. The results from J-PAL have been the catalyst for thinking, innovation, and broader policy change, not a repository of useful programmes.
Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty 2011 and Good Economics for Hard Times, 2019