Thursday, January 15, 2009

In praise of Esther Duflo

MR points to this piece in the UK Independent on French development economist Esther Duflo.

Esther is indeed an intellectual leader, a delight in person and deserving of the many honors that have been bestowed upon her.

Those honors, and Esther's contributions to development, to economics as a whole and to development economics in particular are not dimmed by characterizing them accurately. Contra the article, she was not the first person to suggest using field experiments to experiments to evaluate anti-poverty programs. These date back (at least) to the Negative Income Tax experiments in the US in the 1970s, which took place when Esther was a child, and continue through a long series of experimental evaluations of welfare-to-work programs and job training programs in 1980s and 1990s.

Is it really too much to ask reporters at leading newspapers to get these things right?

One can also appreciate all that Esther and her legion of co-authors and followers have done while still having some sympathy for the view, recently voiced by Angus Deaton in a talked entitled "Instrumental Development Economics" - I am still trying to track down the slides - that there is more to development economics, and even more to empirical research in development economics, than field experiments. Field experiments are new and exciting in the development world and much valuable and tasty low-hanging research fruit is being harvested. That is all to the good. But graduate students aspiring to become development economists should learn about the whole toolkit, including the econometric wrenches and theoretical screwdrivers, not just the field experiment hammer.

Finally, the "no-nonsense look of a primary school teacher" seems a bit tough. I agree with the no-nonsense part, but Esther has a good bit more charm and presence than the reporter for the Independent lets on.