Transcript from an interview with Esther Duflo

Interview with Esther Duflo on 6 December 2019 during the Nobel Week in Stockholm, Sweden.

How did you become interested in economics?

Esther Duflo: I grew up in a suburb of Paris, in a family with three children. My father is a mathematician and my mother is a pediatrician. Nothing really remarkable about my childhood except for the fact that my mother was involved in a small NGO of doctors who were helping children victims of war. She used to have her regular work in Paris but then from time to time she would spend a few weeks away to do this work, to help the children of the war. I think very early on we got from that a sense that there were some children who had very different experiences growing up and that gave us children a sense of how fortunate we were and maybe how responsible we were of doing something with this good fortune. From this experience I always hoped that some part of my life would be devoted to fighting poverty but I didn’t really know which part. Growing up I thought I would have some career and then on the side I would work on an NGO, very much like my mom. But after some point in the middle of college, I thought maybe this is not entirely satisfactory, that my entire life should be devoted to this and not just something I would do on the side.

I thought maybe I would go into politics or I wasn’t quite sure. I decided spend take a year to think about it, I went to Russia for one year and there I was doing various things, but one of the things I was doing is to be an assistant for economists who were helping with the transition in Russia at the time from communism to capitalism. And in this context I realized how influential economists could be and I thought this is actually perfect, because I had always envisioned myself as an academic, because I am more like the sort of quiet, reflective type and I wanted to do science and I thought with this job I can do my science and at the same time when I have something to say I can really have a role in policy. So that is when I really decided to go into economics.

Can you tell us about your relationship with India?

 Esther Duflo: India is the place where I first went as a graduate student to start doing field work. And I kind of learned that in Calcutta as a graduate student in my early 20s with no understanding of anything really, and with a lot of misconceptions about what it was to be poor, in particular the centered around Calcutta. Because somehow I was a bit obsessed about poverty in Calcutta as a child having grown with Mother Teresa and the like. And I arrived in Calcutta and I was kind of shown how different the life of the poor really is and how they were kind of going about their business and being under-pricing and having issues but not being like the helpless people that I kind of had in the corner of my mind. From then on; it was kind of a lot of my education as a development economist and as a human being was through the work that I did in India. And then of course now, my husband is Indian, my in-laws are Indian, most of my work is in India so that is kind of a second home for me.

What have you learnt from your travels?

Esther Duflo: I think you learn that people are not so different, maybe it is one of the biggest things that I have learnt, that people live in very different circumstances and that of course has implications on what they can achieve and what they can do with their lives, but at heart we have the same type of strengths as human beings and of weaknesses. They just happen to be dipped into different contexts.

What can economics tell us about migration?

Esther Duflo: I think the biggest misconception that people who are against migration have are two. One is that everybody wants to move from poor countries to rich countries and profoundly if there was no restriction this is the first thing that would happen. And the second is that should they come this would have a large impact on the wages of people here and particularly low-skilled people here. And it turns out both things are just factually incorrect. In practice, a lot of people who have the opportunity to move don’t, so even within country migration from one place to another is very low. People don’t move from the rural area of India to the urban area of India so they are not going to move to Sweden.

People don’t move from the places that get hit by economic shocks in the US to other places that don’t get hit by the same shocks. Fundamentally, people prefer to stay at home. And if you were to remove all the migration barrier the flows would not be that big. That is the first thing. The second thing is that even when there are big migration flows, which usually comes because of a crisis, for example the Syrian crisis did push a lot of people out. It is not that they wanted to go out, it is that they had no choice. But even when that happens all of the history suggests that when there were such episodes, they weren’t big impact on the wages of the natives. If anything in some cases you can see that it leads to a small increase in native wages and in employment, not decrease. So that is the second misconception. So once you remove these two misconceptions there is really no reason to be that scared of migration one way or the another.

Do you feel that being a woman has affected your work as a scientist?

Esther Duflo: I do think that women tend to have different interests than men. I don’t think it is coming from biology, but it is probably coming from early education of girls versus boys. I certainly see in the field of economics, development economics, the study of poor countries, it is the only field that is really more or less equally men and women working in this field. A lot of women come to economics because they want to study questions that have direct implications on the lives of others and can have direct impact on how to do better policy – development economics, public economics, health economics, education. So I do think that being a woman has influenced, probably is one reason why I am interested in development economics. That is of course the most important but apart from that I don’t think there are necessarily vast differences in the way that being a woman specifically has influenced my work.

Of course I have a very specific way of working but it is hard for me to say where it is coming from. But certainly I think one reason why there are few Nobel Prize winners in economics is that there are few women in economics, very few. And I think one of the reasons is that many young women don’t think to even go into the field because they do not realise that those topics are also part of economics. And I do hope that giving the prize to development, not only to a woman among the laureates, but just even the topic is going to make them aware that that is a possibility, those are part of the topics that economists study and therefore are going to serve as kind of a role model for more women to come into the field.

How can we encourage more women to pursue economics?

Esther Duflo: I think there are already two ways to increase the fraction of women in economics. The first one is making people aware that economics also addresses those issues, social issues, climate, poverty, all part of economics and you know not just interest rate, making banks bigger. The second thing is the culture itself in economics is not very friendly. It is a very aggressive culture, very in-your-face culture which many women don’t particular like. There I think the profession can improve by being mindful of having a somewhat more civil way of engaging with each other. And I do think that actually this is already changing, that in the last few years there has been a realization that it is not okay to be aggressive and rude etcetera, one has to … the whole field has to become more gentle.

How is your work tied to climate change?

Esther Duflo: The work on poverty is intimately connected to any work on climate change for two reasons. The first one is that climate change is going to affect, is already affecting the poor countries more than anywhere else. First of all because the poor countries are in the south where it is already hot and second of all because there are fewer ways to adapt. For example it is in Bangladesh places are literally going to go under water. It is in India, where some parts of India are going to become inhabitable because it is too hot and so on and so forth. So that is the fact that it is in the south. And the fact that there are less ways to adapt is for example when there is a heat wave in France it ruined … Last year there was one last summer, it doesn’t kill anyone because we know what to do and we also have the means to adjust to it so we can make sure that everybody is in a cool place and there are enough places with air condition where the old and fragile people can be protected. And it is a matter of organization, so the first heat wave killed many people and the second one didn’t.

In India there are just fewer air conditions for people living in rural area, where are they to go? They have to continue living and the agriculture is not resilient to the heat and so on and so forth. So they have less ability to adapt and therefore it is much much more costly. And the same number of hot days in India kills more people than it does in America or Sweden if you have hot days sometimes. So that is one reason why I think the change in the planet’s climate could easily undo all of the progress or most of the progress that has been made in fighting poverty in the last few years.

The second reason although most of the responsibility for climate change lies with the rich countries there might be some opportunity in poor countries to do things that are going to preserve the environment. For example the forest is not depleted yet in some places so you could try and keep it. There could be ways to compensate people to keep it etcetera. So there are still areas that not have been made yet in the poor countries in the way that they are going that could have an influence on climate change in the future. That is why I think for these two reasons you can’t really be a development economist and not be worried about climate and vice versa, you can’t be concerned about sustainability and not think about the south. Let me just add that with that said I think that the effort and really the bulk of the action in terms of sustainability world will have to be a reduction in consumption in rich countries, because that is really where we are, just consuming too much, period.

What can we do to create a more sustainable world?

Esther Duflo: I have one hope which is that peoples … Sometimes economics tend to think that people always … that all that people want is to consume more and have bigger cars and more air condition in the summer and more heat in the winter. But I think that people’s likes and preferences and needs are much more influenceable than that. So when you see a movement like the youth movement, for example Greta’s work here, it could be enough to create enough of awareness of the issue that people become aware that it is not okay to let the planet warm and it is not just about polar bears, if you don’t care about polar bears, it is also about people.

Most economists tend to be a bit distrustful of the ability of individuals to care about other individuals, particularly people who are far away, but I actually don’t think that is true. I think that people can easily be taught to care. Once they are taught to care I think they can also relative easily adjust to a change in their own consumption because we are creatures of habits and I think if we change a little bit the way we behave then we can get used to that so that it doesn’t become that difficult. The consumption per capita of someone in Sweden is much lower than someone in America and I don’t think the Swedes are unhappier. It is just that they got used to take the subway, the tramway to work. I think we can get there in the sense that I think it will require changes in the way we behave here but I don’t think these changes are necessarily sacrifices.

Can you tell us about your approach to solving problems?

Esther Duflo: I think it is very important to ask questions that can be answered. And that can be answered in as rigorous and scientific way as possible. The question can be broader or it can be narrow but it should be specific. For example there are questions you can ask through experiments that have vast implications, for example “Is private school better than public school?”. That doesn’t seem to be a narrow question, but it is a pretty well defined question. And you can set up an experiment that compares the expense of children in a system that is mostly private school and the same in mostly public school, by creating an experiment where some villages have private school voucher offering and some villages don’t. So that is not a narrow question, that is a broad question but that is one you can set up an experiment for.

I think to me it is very essential to try to ask these questions that are very well defined and on which you can train your kind of gaze as a scientist in trying to answer them rigorously and that involve usually not answering the whole problem you would like to answer at once. I don’t have answer on whether aid work, I don’t have answer on whether all countries should be like China. Because to me the questions are not even very well defined. But I can answer a question on “Would kids to better in a system where they have free access to private school?” or “Would kids do better in a system where school is provided by the government?”. That’s kind of how I see the differences. And once you have your very well defined questions, you can set up an experiment, very much like you test the effectiveness of a drug in medicine, you can look at the effect of the program or the effect of the intervention or the effect of structuring your school system for example.

What are your hobbies?

Esther Duflo: I would say I am an ex-climber, I used to climb a lot before having children. But now I think, first of all I have less time and second of all, my husband think that I should be sure to be alive for my children, so I should not take some unnecessary risk. So now I do all sorts of … I still climb but indoors, and I do all sorts of other activity like running, playing tennis and hiking.

How is your working relationship with your co-laureate Michael Kremer?

Esther Duflo: Michael was a young assistant professor at MIT when I came as a graduate student and was really the kind of visionary in seeing how you could start using experiments in the field. They existed as a technique but almost nobody had used them. And Michael, and then Michael and Abhijit together started doing this work. First of all really feeling their way around and as a student I was watching this happening and this was really incredibly exciting to know that was like a tool that could be exploited to us. As soon as I could, as soon as I got my PhD I got involved in this work as well. And since then, of course we have been working, Michael was one of the first few affiliates of our network, J-PAL. We were eight researchers at the beginning when we created the network and he was one of them. Of course, Michael’s wife Rachel Glennerster who is now the chief economist at DFID and was for fifteen years the executive director of J-PAL and grew it from these eight people to 200 affiliates and 200 fellow travellers. I have a lot of work with Michael, I worked with him in Kenya on several projects and we are still involved in a work, in a big project in Ghana together. And it is kind of, I think we are very different the three of us, in what we bring to the table so it is always a huge pleasure to work with them.

What does the prize mean to you?

Esther Duflo: I think what the Nobel Prize gives us is a chance for leveraging the work we have done so far and give it even more presence. Really the way you achieve any success in the fight against poverty is by working with development country governments. It is not really NGOs or foreign aid or one of us who can make a difference, everything happens in the development country governments themselves when they, if their policy work better and they are able to design better policy to achieve the problem that they are thinking about. And we have already started on this journey where we really work more and more with governments, not just to give them suggestions but to kind of learn together. And I think this will help even more in terms of opening doors and making, reassuring various governments with whom we are not yet working, you know this is legitimate and not a strange undertaking by some crazy people so I think that will help a lot. And I also hope that it is going to contribute to bring many more people to the field, researchers and also to bring money to do all this work so the whole thing should kind of move on to one more level of intensity I am very much hoping. And then the second thing is related to these climate discussions we were having a little bit earlier, I would hope that a lot of work also gets focused on these issues, both in rich countries and in poor countries.

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