Esther Duflo

Duflo’s Early Life and Education

Esther Duflo (b. 1972) was born in Paris, France. Her father was a professor of mathematics, while her mother was a pediatrician.

For high school, Duflo attended the Lycée Henri-IV. Upon graduation, she attended the prestigious École normale supérieure (ENS).

Duflo originally planned to study history. She was able to spend the 1993–1994 academic year in Moscow, studying how the former USSR’s “propaganda requirements changed the actual shape of [large construction] projects.”

While in Moscow, Duflo also acted as a research assistant for Jeffrey Sachs, the chief American economist who advised the Russian Ministry of Finance on the privatization of the economy in the wake of the collapse of communism.

Duflo obtained her bachelor’s degree in history and economics from the ENS in 1994.

The following year, in 1995, Duflo received her master’s degree under the auspices of three separate institutions, namely, the Paris School of Economics, the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, and the ENS.

For her doctoral degree, Duflo attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she wrote her dissertation under the supervision of the future Nobel laureates, Abhijit Banerjee and Joshua Angrist.

Duflo’s doctoral dissertation focused on a 1970s Indonesian school-expansion program, providing conclusive evidence that a higher level of education results in higher wages in developing as in developed countries.

Duflo received her PhD from MIT in 1999.

Duflo’s Career

Duflo has pursued her entire career at MIT, first joining the economics faculty as an assistant professor straight out of grad school in 1999. She then obtained tenure and the status of associate professor in 2002, and finally was appointed a full professor in 2003.

Duflo currently occupies the chair of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics.

In 2003, Duflo co-founded (along with Abhijit Banerjee and Sendhil Mullainathan) the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) at MIT, which she still serves as Director. J-PAL is “a global research center working to reduce poverty by ensuring that policy is informed by scientific evidence.” J-PAL comprises more than 400 researchers, educators, trainers, and policy professionals located in seven offices around the world.

In 2010, Duflo received the John Bates Clark medal for the best American economist under 40.

In 2017 Duflo was invited to deliver the erstwhile Richard T. Ely Lecture, sponsored by the American Economic Association (AEA). Her talk was entitled “The Economist as Plumber” (see “Duflo’s Prinipal Works” below). (Note that since then Richard T. Ely has been “canceled” and the AEA’s annual award was renamed in 2020.)

In 2019, Duflo was awarded (along with the Abhijit Banerjee and Michael Kremer) the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for 2019. Her Nobel Lecture, entitled “Field Experiments and the Practice of Policy,” was published in 2020 (see below).

Duflo’s Ideas

Duflo’s work is centered on global poverty, seen through the lens of field work, experimentation, and seeing what works.

For example, Duflo has done extensive field work, especially in India, where she has interviewed a wide variety of people from ordinary walks of life, to determine which values are most significant to them, and which incentives guide their behavior.

Specific projects she has been involved in run the gamut, from women’s status, to education, to public sanitation, to microfinance.

The idea binding all of Duflo’s projects into a coherent whole is her conviction that development economics can only become effective by leaving the old ideological certainties behind and focusing on empirical work in the field.

The ultimate goal of that all-important research, however, is not merely to accumulate data, but rather to discover what the people in the developing world themselves actually think and feel, what they need, and how they respond to economic incentives.

Duflo’s Principal Works

1. Works Authored or Co-authored by Duflo

Intrahousehold Resource Allocation in Côte d’Ivoire: Social Norms, Separate Accounts and Consumption Choices” (NBER Working Paper 10498), with Christopher Udry (2004).

The Impact of Education on Fertility and Child Mortality: Do Fathers Really Matter Less Than Mothers?” (NBER Working Paper 10513), with Lucia Breierova (2004).

“Growth Theory through the Lens of Development Economics,” with Abhijit Banerjee, in Steven N. Durlauf and Philippe Aghion, eds., Handbook of Economic Growth, Vol. 1A. Amsterdam: Elsevier Science Ltd/North-Holland; pp. 473–552 (2005).

“Bank Financing in India,” with Abhijit Banerjee and Shawn Cole, in Wanda Tseng and David Cowen, eds., India’s and China’s Recent Experience with Reform and Growth. Hampshire, UK; Palgrave Macmillan; pp. 138157 (2005).

“Poor but Rational?,” in Abhijt Banerjee, Dilip Mookherjee, and Roland Benabou, eds., Understanding Poverty. New York: Oxford University Press; pp. 367378 (2006).

“Field Experiments in Development Economics,” in Richard Blundell, Whitney Newey, and Torsten Persson, eds., Advances in Economics and Econometrics: Theory and Applications. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 322348 (2006).

“Mandated Empowerment. Handing Antipoverty Policy Back to the Poor?,” with Abhijit Banerjee, in Stephen G. Kaler and Owen M. Rennert, eds., Reducing the Impact of Poverty on Health and Human Development: Scientific Approaches (Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 1136), Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell; pp. 333–341 (2008).

Expérience, science et lutte contre la pauvreté [Experience, Science, and the Struggle Against Poverty] (2009).

Le Développement humain. Lutter contre la pauvreté (I) [Human Development. Struggling Against Poverty, I] (2010).

La Politique de l’autonomie. Lutter contre la pauvreté (II) [The Politics of Autonomy. Struggling Against Poverty, II] (2010).

Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, with Abhijit Banerjee (2011).

Toilets Can Work: Short and Medium Run Health Impacts of Addressing Complementarities and Externalities in Water and Sanitation” (NBER Working Paper 21521), with Michael Greenstone, Raymond Guiteras, and Thomas Clasen (2015).

“Cognitive Science in the Field: A Preschool Intervention Durably Enhances Intuitive but Not Formal Mathematics,” with Moira R. Dillon, Harini Kannan, Joshua T. Dean, and Elizabeth S. Spelke, Science, 357: 47–55 (2017).

“The Economist as Plumber,” American Economic Review, 107: 1–26 (2017).

Double/Debiased Machine Learning of Treatment and Structural Parameters,” with Victor Chernozhukov, Denis Chetverikov, Mert Demirer, Christian Hansen, Whitney Newey, and James Robins, Econometrics Journal, 21: C1C68 (2018).

Can Microfinance Unlock a Poverty Trap for Some Entrepreneurs?,” with Abhijit Banerjee, Emily Breza, and Cynthia Kinnan (NBER Working Paper 26346) (2019).

 “Using Gossips to Spread Information: Theory and Evidence from Two Randomized Controlled Trials,” with Abhijit Banerjee, Arun G. Chandrasekhar, and Matthew O. Jackson, Review of Economic Studies, 86: 2453–2490 (2019).

Good Economics for Hard Times, with Abhijit Banerjee (2019).

In Praise of Moderation: Suggestions for the Scope and Use of Pre-Analysis Plan for RCTs in Economics,” with Abhijit Banerjee, Amy Finklestein, Lawrence F. Katz, Benjamin A. Olken, and Anja Sautmann (NBER Working Paper 26993) (2020).

“Field Experiments and the Practice of Policy,” American Economic Review, 110: 1952–1973 (2020).

Changes in Social Network Structure in Response to Exposure to Formal Credit Markets,” with Abhijit Banerjee, Emily Breza, Arun G. Chandrasekhar, Matthew O. Jackson, and Cynthia Kinnan (NBER Working Paper 28365) (2021).

 “The Impact of Free Secondary Education: Experimental Evidence from Ghana,” with Pascaline Dupas and Michael Kremer (NBER Working Paper 28937) (2021).

“Long-Term Effects of the Targeting the Ultra Poor Program,” with Abhijit Banerjee and Garima Sharma, American Economic Review: Insights, 3: 471–486 (2021).

2. Book Co-edited by Duflo

Handbook of Field Experiments, with Abhijit Banerjee (two volumes) (2017).