Esther Duflo wins the Clark medal

by Jérémie Cohen-Setton on 30th April 2010

What’s at Stake: The John Bates Clark medal is awarded to the economist under 40 who "who is judged to have made the most significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge". The award is considered one of the most prestigious honours within economics, and until 2010 it had been awarded only every other year. Many consider the Clark Medal to be a preview of future Nobel prizes, as 12 of the 31 prior Clark Medalists have gone on to receive the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science. This year's winner is Esther Duflo. Professor Duflo, 37, helped found the Poverty Action Lab, whose affiliates do randomized experiments in poor countries to help determine what types of aid and anti-poverty programs actually work.

Esther Duflo has distinguished herself through definitive contributions to the field of Development Economics. She has been a leader in using randomized field experiments to address important questions concerning public policy in developing countries. Duflo’s contributions to Development Economics also include a collection of important studies that use non-experimental methods.

Catherine Rampell reviews some of her recent work. One of her studies looked at how quota systems for female politicians affected Indian attitudes toward female leadership. Other papers have looked at ways to motivate teachers to have better attendance at Indian schools, and what effect reducing the student-teacher ratio at Kenyan schools has on test scores. She has also conducted field experiments regarding American pension policies, to see what kinds of incentives and social pressures help encourage people to save more for retirement.  Professor Duflo has also opined about how the growth of the financial sector in recent years has distorted social and economic priorities.

David Leonhardt argued in a 2008 op-ed that economics has been made relevant again thanks to people like Duflo. “A good deal of modern economic theory,” John Cassidy wrote in a 1996 article “simply doesn’t matter much.” Over the last decade, however, economics has begun to get its groove back. Armed with newly powerful tools for analysing data, economists have dug into real-world matters and tried to understand human behaviour. Economists have again become storytellers, and, again, they matter.

Ryan Avent argues that experimental economics in the field of poverty and development economics doesn't grab the headlines like macroeconomic research, but her work provides crucial insights that generate real impacts on communities. That's more good than most economists can hope to accomplish.

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