Philanthropy Action

Analysis, Interviews, and Reviews


Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, co-founders of the Jameel Poverty Action Lab and co-authors of the recent book Poor Economics are at the heart of the movement to seek rigorous evidence about the lives of the poor and programs that aim to help them. As they write in Poor Economics, they believe that “we have to abandon the habit of reducing the poor to cartoon characters and take the time to really understand their lives, in all their complexity and richness.”

Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with Banerjee and Duflo for an extended conversation about the small and big pictures that emerge from their research, their critics and their plan to change the world. In fact, the conversation was so extended that I’ve had to break it up into pieces. We’ll be publishing it in four parts over the next few weeks—the full interview will be available soon via Amazon Kindle.

In Part 3, we discuss whether focusing on women and girls will yield better development results and the role of food subsidies and cash transfers in India and prospects for reform. In case you missed them here are Part 1 and Part 2 of the interview.

Timothy Ogden: Recently there’s been a lot of people excited about the possibility of India doing away with subsidies for food and fuel and moving to direct cash transfers to the poor instead. I’m certainly no expert on India but I do know that a big part of the attractiveness of some civil service jobs is the ability to skim the subsidies. Do you think the move to direct transfers is really going to happen? Isn’t the whole state apparatus highly incented to not let it happen?

Abhijit Banerjee: Exactly right. I don’t know that there’s any good reason to think it’s going to happen. Here’s the one reason it might happen. The government is actually extraordinarily sensitive to the fact that it’s extremely inept at delivering anything to the people. The only reason it might happen is if one government before one election might realize this is a sure win and if we can somehow make it work it’s going to get to the people at a rate at which nothing else will, and just before elections bureaucrats have less influence and even corrupt members of your own party have less influence than at normal times. That’s because everyone realizes that if you don’t win the election there’s no more pie to dip your fingers into, so I think at those times it could happen.

TO: To extend the cynicism a step further, it seems the perfect time to do it is when a party knows you’re going to lose. So you make this move to limit the next party’s ability to reward the foot soldiers.

AB: The current party [Congress] is actually very frightened that they will lose next election. I think that’s why they think the “right to food” will actually save their prospects but I think the “right to food” will explode in their face because people will soon realize that the food is not showing up. The worst thing for a politician is to promise something like something that’s easy for people to tell whether it’s been delivered or not and then not follow through. You can say anything you want about the quality of education and get away with it, but people will know that they didn’t get the promised food so I actually think the “right to food” approach is going to backfire on them. But they don’t seem to think so.

TO: I was wholly unaware of some pretty frightening nutrition statistics in India that you present in the book. People are eating less and eating less nutritiously even as their income rises and stunting and malnutrition is in some cases growing. From that perspective wouldn’t it be a bad idea to move from food subsidies to cash. Wouldn’t it exacerbate the problem?

AB: The food transfer is entirely voluntary. It’s not the food, the form, that matters. For most people the food aid is marginal to what they’re already consuming. So anything they can get from the government they buy and then they buy extra. It makes no difference whether it’s food or not. That’s part of the problem. If [the Congress Party] actually manage to implement the “right to food” and do it at the level they are predicting, it might stop being marginal for people and that might actually affect their nutrition.

But there are many more things that are more simple than the “right to food” to address the nutrition problem. It’s nutrients more than nutrition, it’s nutrition rather than food. The problem is precisely that people have stopped consuming a lot of the traditional high protein, high nutrition crops. Grain consumption is not the issue. I think the issue is that they’re not consuming pulses. That’s because the Green Revolution had little impact on lentil production. Lentil production has fallen relative to grains. The relative price of pulses has gone in the wrong direction and that has something to do with that there’s been no Green Revolution in lentils. The price of lentils has doubled in relation to grains over the last 20 years.

If the pulse prices came down to where they were in 1975 relative to grains, I think nutrition would change significantly in the right direction.

TO: It’s interesting that Canada is one of the world’s largest producers of pulses now and Canadian public universities are working on improved pulse varieties. Just another example where the Canadian government’s aid budget may be irrelevant but public funding of better growing pulses in Saskatchewan may have a massive positive impact.

Shifting to another topic, let me ask about women and girls. In almost all advertisements for aid and charity these days you see some version of the idea that the focus of aid should be on women and girls. There’s some indication in the text of some disagreement between the two of you on the evidence for that claim and of the need to focus on women and girls.

Esther Duflo: That’s mostly in jest

AB: We both agree that the idea of focusing on women and girls is very intriguing but slightly overblown. We don’t actually know. Men versus women seems to make a huge difference in some places and not in others.

ED: It’s not overblown necessarily. Women do spend money differently than men. The issue is whether women are inherently better people or the differences are the outcome of the social structure.

TO: You write about your fathers. Your fathers weren’t drunkards who cared nothing about their children. I think about the generations of my family and we’re not so far removed from rural farmers or the lower rungs of the working class. We didn’t go to school only because our mothers invested in us. I’m troubled about the whiff of racism in the notion that mostly black and brown men in poor countries don’t care about their families and white men in rich European countries do.

AB: That’s the sense in which I think the evidence is overblown. I think that the evidence is clear that the particular forms of social dysfunctionality that emerge when economies are not working well have very different effects on men and women. That’s partly because of the social roles assigned to them. So when you are a farmer and you you’re your land and you realize that everybody else is making much more money than you, somehow your assigned role as the income earner of the family means you feel that in a different way than your wife who is also feeling the pinch of not being able to afford things. But in a sense it is definitely true that it is not her assigned role, and I think it makes a difference that it’s not her assigned role. She is more able to discharge her assigned role than the man is in difficult economic circumstances. And that’s almost surely one of the reasons why in the US when the urban blue-collar industries went into decline, the traditional working class and particularly African-American working class family got under a lot of stress.

I’m sure this phenomenon exists everywhere in the world. When you lose your job or your job is not up to snuff, it’s difficult for men in traditional societies. I think it has a lot to do with their assigned role of income earner is one that was particularly vulnerable to the shocks that the families were subject to. I do think that it’s exactly what you said, I don’t disagree with that. I think there is an easy essentialization of gender which is clearly dangerous.

TO: Well of course women are better people, it’s just a question of marginally how much better [laughter].

ED: There’s a factor of what I think is called benign sexism. For instance, there are surveys where people ask, “do you feel that women possess an inherent quality of gentleness that men lack?,” something like that. And people say “yes.” That’s also a form of sexism.

TO: There’s some hint of this as I understand the results of the Spandana microcredit study. I think you found that women didn’t spend more in the categories like education or food where people expected that women would spend more of their income than men did.

ED: Yes, we didn’t find any of that [more spending on children or education].

TO: I wonder if there’s a discretionary income issue. Men traditionally have the discretionary income and when they feel they have done the work to earn the income then they have the right to spend some of it on themselves. But in traditional societies women are receiving a portion of the family income for a specific task—to buy food and take care of the children. So that’s what they spend it on. When women become discretionary wage earners, they behave like the men and spend more money on themselves—as is their right.

ED: That’s what Chris Udry and I found in Cote D’Ivoire and we talk a bit about in the book. It is true that when we find that when women do better than men in a particular year that they spend more on food which is their particular job, their social role, but they also spend on themselves. So it’s not that women do not want to spend money on themselves. Their traditional role involved making sure that people are fed. And that’s less the case for men. Why societies evolved like that makes sense.


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