Esther Duflo

Banquet speech

Esther Duflo’s speech at the Nobel Banquet, 10 December 2019.

Your majesties, your royal highnesses, your excellencies, dear laureates, ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my honor and privilege to speak on behalf of Abhijit Banerjee, Michael Kremer and myself, laureates of the The Sveriges Riksbanks Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel for 2019.

In truth, I speak on behalf of many more. For we represent a movement that is much broader than any one of us. We believe that the Prize recognizes not only what this movement has accomplished, but also what it could accomplish in the future.

This movement started with the conviction that it is possible to make significant progress against poverty in the world by focusing on well-defined questions, and being as rigorous as possible in answering those questions in the real world.

It was not necessarily obvious in the early to mid-1990s, At the time, poverty might have seemed unsurmountable. In 1990, 1.9 million people lived in extreme poverty. 8.8 million children died before their first birthday. That’s about 2 during the time of this speech.

Faced with this enormous problem, many people’s reaction was to try to not think about it at all. Others hope to find some magic bullet.

We believed that like the war on cancer, the war on poverty was not going to be won in one major battle, but in a series of small triumphs, and with no doubt many setbacks along the way.

To assess the progress, we adopted the methods of randomized controlled trials, popular in medicine but not really used in economics at the time. An RCT allows a research to vary just what she is interested in, leaving the rest constant, and therefore be driven by the question she wants to ask

We had two closely related ambitions. The first one was to contribute to improving the lives of the poor, here and now. The second was to build a better understanding of how they live their lives, from the ground up, by building a fuller picture, one question at a time.

But doing  this takes multiple projects. It takes patience, effort, and many, many people. So, I stand here today in the name of hundreds of researchers, thousands of staff members at the organizations which support their work like J-PAL and IPA, thousands of staff members of the non-profit organizations who partnered with us over many years, dozens of national and sub-national governments, the individuals, foundations and government agencies who have supported our collective work on behalf of, and with the involvement of, the world’s poor. This work and the culture of learning that it fostered in governments has led to real improvement in the lives of hundred of millions of poor people.

Today, I am also proud to represent women, and in particular women in economics. Tellingly, Elinor Ostrom, the only other woman before me also relied on field work and studied what we can learn from poorer societies, from Nepal to Indonesia. I don’t think this is an accident. Development is one field of economics that has its fair share of women.

Some of my own work has been on the importance of women as role models: I cannot help but hope that this prize, with its emphasis the essential question of how to improve the lives of others, and with one woman among the laureates, will encourage many others to come join us.

So on behalf of Abhijit Banerjee, Michael Kremer, and me, thank you to the Royal Swedish Accademy of Sciences and the Nobel Foundation for honoring us and the movement that is transforming development economics and the fight against poverty, with this Nobel Prize.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2019

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