Thursday, October 16, 2008

What causes Poverty: Q & A with Esther Duflo, MIT JPAL

Duflo in India; to the left is J-PAL colleague and fellow economist, Abhijit Banerjee (photo courtesy:

The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab or J-PAL for short is an alternative approach to studying poverty. A group of almost renegade development economists under the guidance of Esther Duflo, Abhijit Banerjee, and Rachel Glennerster run a series of randomized trials around various topics to statistically determine the various variables involved in poverty. The hope is that in determining the variables and the extent to which they affect wealth and poverty, a more efficient, effective, and proportionate response can be developed.

Randomized trials have their own issues; they cannot necessarily be generalized (as J-PAL agrees and Esther discusses below). Still, the approach and the work already done by the Lab have yielded fascinating results. Poverty has hardly ever been systematically studied; J-PAL is changing that in a big and important way.

Recently, the International Herald Tribune (Global edition of the New York Times) did an excellent Q&A session with Esther Duflo, where she fielded questions from global readers. Besides a fascinating discussion, she also points you to a lot of good and relevant reading material.

Some of the questions include:
  • What do you think are the worst mistakes made by Western countries in their politics to defeat poverty? Do you think there’s a real will to defeat poverty?
  • As someone who has dedicated your career to discovering and applying effective approaches to alleviate poverty, what do you think are the best ways to deal with the corruption and mismanagement of aid by governments?
  • How do you think we can bridge this ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor?
  • What are the root causes of poverty?? the Indian caste system?? Is it tribal conflict??
....and much, much more. Read the entire discussion here.

More reading: MIT Economists help their profession get its groove back.

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