A Nobel Prize for Development RCTs!

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Today the 2019 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences was awarded to Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty".  Here is the scientific background from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Guardian’s coverage (including a link to an interview with Abhijit’s proud Mum), and coverage from Marginal Revolution.  This is fantastic recognition for three amazing researchers who have inspired so much of our work. I wanted to celebrate this, and note a few additional elements that make their work particularly special.

1.       An award for a fundamental change in the research production function: the production function for research using randomized controlled trials is fundamentally different from so much of the development (and economics) research that preceded it. So much of the work of these researchers has involved working closely with NGOs and governments in the messy business of delivering policies (which Esther memorably described as economists being plumbers), spending much time with the communities being studied, and collecting survey data on thousands of people over many years. Another Nobel Laureate, Robert Solow, once remarked that the most powerful tool for research was one economics professor and one research assistant. Their research process is strikingly different, and requires large teams, management skills, and overcoming many small things that could derail the whole endeavor – one of Michael’s most famous papers is the O-ring theory -  I’ve previously blogged about how a lot of impact evaluation is like this.

2.       They are not just researchers, but incredible entrepreneurs: as noted above, to make all this work takes a large team of surveyors, field coordinators, policy implementors, research assistants, and more. One of the big innovations of these researchers has been professionalizing this process, most notably in setting up J-PAL. So much of my work is about the difficulties faced by entrepreneurs growing firms, and how rare it is to succeed, and to have managed to grow J-PAL to the organization it is today (with the help of Rachel Glennerster and many other staff there) is also to be congratulated. Coupled with similar work Dean Karlan has done in growing Innovations for Poverty Action, and Arianna Legovini has done here at the World Bank in developing and growing DIME, they have put in place an infrastructure that has enabled so many other development researchers to also conduct randomized experiments.

3.       Building ladders for others to do this work: after the announcement, Esther said ““It was incredibly humbling, to tell you the truth … The three of us stand for hundreds of researchers”. This is not by chance, but in part because of all the work the three of them have put into making this possible. This includes advocating strongly for the role of RCTs in development research – that has helped spur funders, governments, NGOs and more to want to support this work; their amazing track record of teaching and advising students at MIT and Harvard; their active leadership roles in the development economics community; and being part of a new online program to teach this work globally.   

4.       Recognizing economics as it is done now, not just playing catch-up with the 1980s, and what this means for gender in economics: Esther is 46, and is the youngest ever economist to win the Nobel Prize. She is at the forefront of a new generation of brilliant female development economists. Often the Nobel’s seem to be playing catch-up with the history of thought, recognizing someone in their 70s or 80s for a brilliant paper written many decades ago – and in doing so, looking back at a time when there were far fewer female economists. Instead, one of the joys of the prize being awarded now is to see it be much more current, and the possibilities that this can bring in both inspiring more women to see economics as something interesting, practical, helpful, and done by both women and men; as well as to see what new opportunities this can bring for Esther while she is still in her prime as a researcher. And perhaps for one glorious moment, when people hear you are an economist, they may refrain from asking about the stock market or U.S. economy.

5.       We’ve blogged about their work many times: Here is my review of Poor Economics, and Esther and Abhijit’s response. Posts on Kremer’s work on girls schooling, Duflo and Kremer’s work on secondary schooling; the re-analysis of Kremer’s work on deworming;  work by Duflo and Kremer on HIV, education and fertility; work by Banerjee and Duflo on ultra-poor programs;  work by Banerjee on the theory of doing experiments; work by Banerjee and Duflo on microfinance and welfare; Banerjee and Duflo’s work with the police in India; Duflo’s ideas on RCTs and development; and I’m sure more that I’ve missed, and a lot more to come!

Finally, all three researchers have been incredibly nice to me throughout my career, and it is fantastic to see them recognized.

Authors

David McKenzie

Lead Economist, Development Research Group, World Bank

Join the Conversation

Robert Picciotto
October 15, 2019

Angus Deaton, Martin Ravallion and Lant Pritchett have demolished the credibility of this work. It adresses simple if not stupid questions at very high cost. The validity of its findings is often suspect given the limitations of small data and sampling challenges. It raises serious ethical issues. Mixed evaluation methods are more adapted to the complexity and volatility of the development enterprise

Najy Benhassine
October 15, 2019

Excellent tribute David. Thank you !

Martin Wolf
November 11, 2019

What is the biggest anti-poverty programme in world history? The industrial revolution. And what is the biggest anti-poverty programme of the last 40 years. China’s economic growth. What did, or could, random controlled trials approach contribute to either? Absolutely nothing. This is an attempt to answer precisely questions that do not matter very much, because we have given up answering questions imprecisely that really do matter. This is intellectual defeat, not victory, as Lant Pritchett has argued