News & CommentaryArchive
Jul 13, 2011
Bad News for Cynics and Optimists: An Extended Interview with Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo
Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo certainly don’t lack for attention. Their papers are among the most cited in development economics over the last decade and last year Duflo won the John Bates Clark Medal as the best economist under 40. But their fame extends beyond the reach of the Economic Ivory Tower. Duflo has won a MacArthur “genius” grant, been profiled in The New Yorker, spoken at TED and recently gave a keynote at the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s conference. Banerjee is a regular staple in many national Indian newspapers.
If I had to summarize their work into a short phrase, it would be “radically small thinking.“ As I wrote in my review of their new book Poor Economics for the forthcoming Fall issue of SSIR: “One reading of Poor Economics is as the most thorough indictment of big thinking in social policy since Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. That’s why the book is vital reading for everyone serious about confronting poverty. You may not agree with the conclusions, but the poor will be poorer if you don’t wrestle with the logic that informs them.“
Banerjee and Duflo’s work is bad news for cynics and optimists. It’s bad news for cynics because they’ve provided solid evidence, again and again, that small tweaks can bring about changes that materially improve the lives of the poor. In other words, they’ve shown that change is possible and aid, philanthropy and government policy can make a positive difference. Their work is bad news for optimists because it also shows, again and again, that the best of intentions often go awry, big efforts to change the world or “fix” or “solve” a problem faced by the poor don’t work very well, and that big changes take a long time.
Poor Economics has been receiving stellar reviews (you can see ours here) and exposing an even wider audience to Banerjee’s and Duflo’s way of thinking about poverty, development, economics and how to make the world a better place. Still, it seems, that plenty of readers miss some fundamental pieces of their thinking. See for instance my recent back and forth with Eric Meade on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog (including Eric’s original post, my response and the comments that follow).
Whenever I read one of their papers or talk with them I walk away with the exhilaration that only comes from (as the economist’s would say) changing my priors—in other words, I learn something and look at the world in a new way. That’s why I was so excited to spend more than an hour talking with them this spring after Poor Economics came out. We’re publishing a transcript of that extended interview in parts because it runs to over 6000 words in its entirety. We hope to publish the complete interview as a Kindle Single shortly.
Over the course of the interview we discuss microcredit, microenterprise funding and growth, labor markets in developing and developed countries, the evidence for focusing on women and girls with aid programs, the debate over RCTs and how they think about their own impact on changing the world.