Nobel Prize for Poverty Scholars
By Tommaso Reggiani.
The 2019 edition of the prestigious award has been awarded to three scholars (Duflo, Kremer and Banerjee) who share the same experimental approach to fighting global poverty.
You probably already have read and heard about it from a thousand different sources, this year’s Nobel prize in Economic Sciences, is a triple award: to substance, competence and commitment.
While the traditional and more media friendly development policies promoted by governments and major international cooperation agencies were largely based on systems of the highest level and huge infrastructure investments, in the mid-1990s, Abhijit Banerjee (MIT), Ester Duflo (MIT) and Michael Kremer (Harvard) began a patient – at times almost artisan – type of fieldwork, aimed at experimenting with targeted and circumscribed interventions capable of expressing a tangible impact, evaluating their effectiveness in a systematic and rigorous way. And it is precisely this particular mix of the typology of the interventions (micro and concrete) and their evaluation (methodical and systematic) that has made their research so special.
Michael Kremer was the first one to have an intuition. Moved by the desire to actively contribute to an increase in the level of education in Kenya (it is clear that education is the indispensable fuel for any form of development, be it economic or human) he wanted to understand, studying the data, which of the different possible adoptable policies were the most effective. The only way to do this with adequate diligence was to translate the experimentation protocol that is conventionally adopted in the medical field into a social context.
He identified a well-defined group of schools as similar and comparable as possible to each other (the patients in this case) and randomly assigned different policies to them (the therapies to be tested): he provided books and additional teaching material in abundance to one group, monetary incentives for families who had sent their children to school on a regular basis to a second group of schools, and finally a third group were given kits for vaccinations against intestinal infections.
After a certain amount of time (the time it takes for the active ingredients involved to express their properties), the average values recorded in the three different groups were evaluated: the degree to which the children were learning (body temperature), the absence rate (blood pressure), the school dropout rate (heartbeat) etc. These “pills” (joke!), is the methodological dynamic of the randomized controlled tests celebrated by this Nobel Prize.
In principle, all three initiatives examined in this experiment appear to be laudable, but on the field urgency required the initiatives that were really effective to be clearly distinguished from those that were merely “nice”.
The experiment proved that the vaccination program – although less romantic in nature – was vastly more effective than the gift of all those wonderful books and notebooks collected with so much zeal during our pre-Christmas parties: when you are perpetually sick and being absent is the rule, books and encyclopaedias are of little use in the classroom.
Something similar can be said for the monetary incentives to families: if they send you sick to school at all costs – best-case scenario, you’ll fall asleep on the encyclopaedia – worst case scenario, the infection spreads to the whole class.
Ester Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee (Banerjee is the brilliant Duflo’s husband, not she the wife of…) have directed their efforts following in the wake of Kremer’s results, conducting field experiments in India in an attempt to rigorously scour the most concrete and effective interventions to improve health conditions, the education of women and children and the promotion of entrepreneurial activities rooted directly in the territory. Many of the remedies tested by them are the result of long periods of observation spent learning directly on the field, in a face-to-face experience with the worries and problems that the poor face on a daily basis.
By dividing the great problem of poverty into a large number of well-circumscribed aspects (health, education, productivity, etc.) and facing each of them with carefully designed and evaluated experiments, our Nobel Prize winners have contributed to deconstructing some difficult conceptual knots. Traditionally, economists have used comparisons between different countries to try to measure how, for example, different levels of education have an impact on communities’ ability to generate wealth and development.
However, this kind of evaluation also brings about a certain risk of making the mistake of comparing apples and pears (i.e. comparing the efficiency of a medicine administered first to a new-born baby and then to a grown-up body builder). Randomized experiments conducted on the field, by their very nature, enable researchers to establish very precise causal links, while also offering useful information to define the channels through which the desired effects are transmitted and propagated in the different realities.
The other day I was at my desk at the university trying to put together ideas for a lecture, when I received a message via Skype from a German colleague of mine “DULFO”. I completely forgot about the Nobel Prize announcement. But as soon as I read Dulfo, my mind immediately went back 10 years, when a friend of mine – a strong-willed missionary in a favelas in Brazil – wrote an e-mail to me with a sentence that has since always remained engraved in my mind «… that competence and commitment that the poor deserve». This is precisely what the poor deserve. Competence, diligence and commitment.