Esther Duflo is the youngest person to ever receive the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences and only the second woman. Duflo is a native of France and has been teaching economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1999.
Duflo was awarded the Nobel Prize on October 14, 2019, along with her husband, fellow MIT professor Abhijit Banerjee. Michael Kremer from Harvard University also shared the award.
The three researchers are known for their anti-poverty research. They have conducted experiments in African nations and in India to determine how various factors, such as health care and education, could be improved to combat poverty. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences noted during the award ceremony that Duflo and the other two economists “have played key roles in transforming research on global poverty alleviation.”
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Esther Duflo Said She Felt ‘Humbled’ & Hopes That Her Winning the Nobel Prize Will Inspire Other Women
Esther Duflo was asked about how it felt to be the second woman to win the Nobel Prize for Economics during a phone call with the Academy shortly after she was announced as a winner. She said she felt “humbled” upon being selected for the reward and hopes to represent “all of the women in economics.”
“We are a time when we are starting to realize in the profession that the way we conduct each other privately and publicly, is not conducive all the time to a very good environment for women. Showing that it is possible for a woman to succeed, and to be recognized for success, I hope is going to inspire many, many other women to continue working, and many other men to give them the respect they deserve, like every single human being.”
2. Esther Duflo Says the Fight Against Poverty Should Be Based On Scientific Evidence
Esther Duflo spoke with the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences over the phone on the morning that the Nobel Prize was announced. In the video embedded above, the call with Duflo begins at 11:15.
Before getting Duflo on the phone, the representatives from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences discussed Duflo and her team’s research. The committee noted that more than 700 million people live in extreme poverty around the world and that a large portion of children in poverty leaves school without basic skills.
Michael Kremer found in his research that simply providing additional tools such as textbooks did not improve results. Duflo and Banerjee then conducted field experiments that found that matching the teaching to the children’s learning levels led to improved results; to explain, children should be taught “based on learning levels rather than age or grade.” This research, called “Teaching at the Right Level,” is now used in India to benefit more than 60 million students.
This was an example of how Duflo and her team members have used research to implement changes. Once on the phone with the Academy, Duflo explained that the “essence” of her research was to ensure that the “fight against poverty is based on scientific evidence.” She said that even well-meaning people, who want to help impoverished communities, tend to create “caricatures” of poor people in their minds and don’t understand the reasons why the community is poor in the first place. Duflo explained that her work is focused on exposing the “deep root” of poverty in order to figure out solutions that would have the most impact.
3. Duflo & Her Husband Literally Wrote the Book On How to Combat Global Poverty
Esther Duflo and her husband, Abhijit Banerjee, have collaborated multiple times in the course of their research. In 2011, they published “Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty.” The book has been translated into 17 languages and won the Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award.
Duflo and Banerjee used the book to explain the results of their “hundreds of randomized control trials” analyzing why impoverished people make certain decisions and how those choices impacted the trajectory of their lives. A summary included on Duflo’s bio page on MIT explains:
“Through their work, Banerjee and Duflo look at some of the most surprising facets of poverty: why the poor need to borrow in order to save, why they miss out on free life-saving immunizations but pay for drugs that they do not need, why they start many businesses but do not grow any of them, and many other puzzling facts about living with less than 99 cents per day. POOR ECONOMICS argues that so much of anti-poverty policy has failed over the years because of an inadequate understanding of poverty.”
4. Esther Duflo Has Long Advocated For Attainable Education For Girls
Esther Duflo's research has been widely published in economic journals over the past several years. She has written extensively on topics including HIV prevention in Kenya; how teacher incentives can improve student results; bundling health insurance and microfinance; improving immunization rates in India; and the role of social interactions in retirement plan decisions. You can see a full list of her published work here.
In 2009, Duflo contributed an editorial piece to the New York Times about increasing educational opportunities for girls around the world. She explained that research has found that girls with greater access to education tend to delay motherhood. Duflo wrote that this was important because teenage mothers tended to have higher maternal mortality rates and their children were more likely to die young as well.
Duflo explained that during a pilot program in Kenya, the dropout rate for girls went down when schools offered incentives such as a free school uniform. In the piece, Duflo argued that making sure girls have access to education “will benefit generations to come” because “educated girls will become healthy mothers.”
5. Esther Duflo Is a Native of France & Has Been at MIT Her Entire Professional Career
Esther Duflo was born on October 25, 1972, according to her professional Facebook page. She grew up in France and earned degrees in economics and history from the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris in 1994. She obtained a Masters in Economics degree the following year.
Duflo then moved to the United States to attend MIT. She earned her Ph.D. in Economics in 1999. Duflo stayed on at MIT as an Assistant Professor of Economics and has been with MIT for her entire professional career. In addition to teaching, Duflo is also the co-director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab.