“Hopefully, it’s onward and forward from now on.”
Telephone interview with Esther Duflo following the announcement of the 2019 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel on 14 October 2019. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Media.
Esther Duflo reflects on the relative lack of women working in the field of economics and how to adapt the profession to attract a wider sphere of people. She also discusses the way that local experiments can often uncover general principles that can be applied to problems of poverty worldwide.
Ester Duflo: Hello?
Adam Smith: Oh hello. My name is Adam Smith. I’m calling from Nobelprize.org, the website of the Nobel Prize in Stockholm.
AS: We have a tradition of recording, as you may know, very short interviews with new Laureates.
ED: You don’t want … we can do it a little bit later with my husband.
AS: Are you with your husband at the moment?
ED: No, no. He’s still … he went back to sleep. [Laughs]
AS: How very wise of him. [Laughs] It must be very nice to be awarded in each other’s company?
ED: Yes. As long as you’re woken up at night it’s good that you are both woken up for the same reason.
AS: And indeed with Michael Kremer because you’ve worked very closely with him as well.
ED: Yes. No, no, this is wonderful. He was not with us today but it was wonderful this, you know, Micheal Kremer is the first who went to Kenya and started running this experiment, and very early on we all learned from his … from what he was trying to do and his mistakes, and it was … it’s been a wonderful ride ever since then.
AS: And the key is that you need to understand the lives of the people you’re trying to help.
ED: Exactly, and trying to understand them a little bit more deeply in order to devise effective policies to help them get out of poverty.
AS: Because human behaviour is often surprising and not what one would expect.
ED: Exactly. And without spending some time understanding the life of … the intricacy of the lives of the poor and why they make the choice that they make, and why something that might seem at first surprising makes a lot of sense in a particular logic, it is impossible to design the right approach. So the intuition that we might have about a particular problem – this is what needs to be done, there is no text book in schools so we need to give text books. That was the first experiment that Michael Kremer did, and it didn’t work. And in a sense people, of course, running the first experiment was in itself was a wonderful idea, but the fact that it didn’t work was almost as important and revealing. Because it made him realise, and then the rest of us, like ‘Oh, things are not as straight forward as you might think’. The obvious solutions are not always the real ones because we misunderstood the issue. The problem was not the lack of textbooks. The problem is that what is in the textbook is not what the kids need.
AS: Does your work make you hopeful, or also worry you that it’s just … every solution has to be so carefully tailored to the people who it’s being applied to that the work seems sometimes sort of insurmountable.
ED: Oh no, the work makes us tremendously hopeful because the… in a sense there is a combination of specific and general. So the specific is you have to understand what’s the nature of the problem, and the nature of each problem is different. But what is much more general is the lessons that you can draw from human behaviour, once you understand what exactly is the lesson, can often be carried from context to context. So if you take for example the case of learning that Jakob Svensson was talking about today, we understand that the problem is not resources, the problem is not textbooks, the problem is that the children are taught something which is much, much too far for them to understand. They are not taught at the right level. And so the solution becomes simple. It’s ‘Oh, we have to teach them at the right level. If they cannot read we teach them to read’. Which is what this organisation we worked with for many years, PRASAM, kind of pioneered. But then you … Once you discover that, that is actually a tremendously robust insight across contexts we’ve discovered. We keep running into the same problem from place to place to place, in the [unclear] of India, in Africa, even in France, we have the same problem. And the solutions, in a sense, then can be the same. So you’ve learnt something which is very general, and then from this very general finding you can, you can extract lessons that you then tailor to each individual context, or that the policymakers will tailor to each individual context. There has been tremendous progress done against poverty in the last several decades, and not just against income poverty but also against the problems that are related to poverty, like infant mortality, maternal mortality, low immunisation etc. And to a large extent these are because better policies have been undertaken. And to at least some extent it’s because people … policymakers have been much more rigorous about thinking ‘What are the real problems? What are the real solutions to this problem? What works, what doesn’t and why’. So there is plenty of reasons to be hopeful.
AS: Yes, that constant interplay between experiments and policy is extremely important isn’t it. The topic will of course come up so may I just ask you about the fact that you are only the second female Laureate in 50 years of the Economics Prize, and the only one now living. It’s a very hopeful sign even though the statistics are somewhat depressing.
ED: You know this is … hopefully, it’s onward and forward from now on. I think it does reflect the fact that the field is not … there are not enough women in the economics profession. Period. So it’s not just … you see this problem at all level. Not enough women go into economics as graduate students. Not enough women continue to become assistant professor and then get promoted and then subsequently get recognised for their work. So we really have a problem in economics that is structural and fundamental, that this, you know, lack of women receiving Nobel Prizes before, relatively small number ‘til today, reflects, and … So first of all I think it is going to change because there are more women among the younger cohorts so it’s going to improve, mechanically it’s going to improve. But second of all not enough, not fast enough. And I think it’s … the profession is starting to realise that in part it’s the general climate, and the way we treat each other is not conducive for having more women in the profession. It’s not just about promotion but it’s about the general environment and how people talk to each other and address each other in seminars and things like that, that we need to work on a culture that is more respectful and that will be more acceptable for many women who think that they don’t want to play the games of shouting at each other. So we need to make progress there. We also need to make progress in showing to the younger people that economics is relevant for problems that they care about. Because I think women … but it’s also true for minorities. We are talking about women but other minorities is even worse. We see very, very few people who are non-white in the profession at all, and it’s partly because they don’t go into the profession, partly because the perception is that economics is not about real problems for the real world I think. I’m hoping that … I’m hoping that this could also make a difference.
AS: Indeed, well hopefully today’s prize has been inspiring in both ways – both inspiring women to come into the profession, and also showing people that economics can be relevant to directly helping people.
ED: Yes, I think both of these will attract more women to be honest. I think many women do not see themselves as like thinking about finance, or… But they might be more likely to see themselves as doing things that are directly relevant to have an influence in the world against poverty or social problems more generally.
AS: Thank you very, very much indeed, that was a lovely conversation.
ED: You’re most welcome.
AS: It’s been a great pleasure speaking to you, congratulations.
ED: Thank you, bye bye.
AS: Thank you very much, bye bye.
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Their work and discoveries range from how cells adapt to changes in levels of oxygen to our ability to fight global poverty.
See them all presented here.