Meet Esther Duflo, the rock-climbing professor tipped for a Nobel prize, whose radical thinking on global poverty has earned her the ear of the world’s most powerful politicians and philanthropists. Just don’t ask her to crack a joke.

I am trying to decide whether or not that French word froideur applies to Esther Duflo.

Certainly, she doesn’t do jokes and the closest she has come to one in public was when she made a speech at a conference in California last year and started it by warning her audience, ‘I’m short. I’m French. I have a pretty strong French accent.’

Well, she is indeed petite. And she does have a strong French accent, despite living in America for the best part of 15 years.

But froideur? I think it might be more diffidence and briskness of manner, because she does smile occasionally; it’s just she does it in a slightly suspicious way, as if she fears you might be after her teeth.

Also there is something quite severe about her dark, no-nonsense hair and her dark, no-nonsense clothes.

But here I am frivolously talking about her hair and her clothes when I haven’t even mentioned her area of expertise – and the reason for her lack of frivolity – which is global poverty, specifically why development programmes in poor countries often fail and why they sometimes succeed.

At 38, Esther Duflo is a professor of development economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a mouthful usually shortened to MIT.

At the age of 29 she had her pick of Ivy League professorships, including Princeton and Yale, but went with MIT partly because it offered to fund her own research laboratory, based mostly in India, to the tune of $300,000.

Why is she in such demand? She is tipped as a future Nobel prizewinner, having already won the John Bates Clark Medal, which is considered the ‘Nobel-in-waiting’.

She has also won a coveted MacArthur Fellowship, known as the ‘genius fellowship’. And as well as being granted the unusual honour of addressing a committee of the General Assembly at the United Nations, she also has the ear of Bill Gates.

In France, meanwhile, she is considered to be ‘the new face of Left Bank intellectualism’. Two books based on her lectures have become bestsellers there.

Her latest, Poor Economics, co-authored by the MIT professor Abhijit Banerjee, is aimed at a broader readership – more along the lines of Freakonomics – and already it is making waves in development circles.

It is always dangerous for journalists to try to summarise the clever ideas of clever people, but here goes.

Duflo is what is known as a ‘randomista’. Her radical approach has been to introduce to her field the randomised control trials used in testing new medicine. She does her research in villages in India, Ghana and Kenya.

An example. One of the causes of poverty in developing countries is a lack of education. It can prevent parents from immunising their children, say, or using mosquito nets.

But Duflo is a great believer in questioning received wisdoms that rely on hypothetical arguments, by finding practical ways to test whether they are true.

Could it be that poor people don’t value mosquito nets because they are given away free? She tried charging a nominal fee for them and found, counterintuitively, that many more people were prepared to use them.

‘What was a little bit new about our approach was that we collected a lot of data. We thought, “You don’t have to wait for the data to come to you, or always talk about hypothetical cases. You can conduct your own experiments.”’

Given the scale of the problem – almost a billion people in the world are surviving on the equivalent of 50p a day – does she ever feel like giving up in despair?

‘No, you have to be optimistic and you have to take the view that a bit better is better than nothing. Also, if an experiment doesn’t work, that can be a useful result because it means you don’t have to apply it on a world scale only for it to fail.’

The poor can often be very clever in the way they spend what little money they have, she believes, because for them it is a matter of life and death.

We patronise them, moreover, even though they often think like we in the rich countries think. ‘Take the case of the MMR vaccine in Britain.

‘Parents started to believe that it was linked to autism and refused to immunise their children. They thought they were doing the best for their children but actually they were questioning the authorities without any scientific ability.

‘This was unusual, though, because what normally happens in the West is that we take things like this on trust. You believe your doctor. In the developing world it is different because the trust is not there, for good reason.

‘Many people who call themselves doctors aren’t doctors, they are charlatans. And some of the drugs are counterfeit. Government has often lied to people, claiming things are in their best interest.

‘In our countries we also get helped a lot. You have to make a big fuss not to get your children immunised. In India the reverse is true.’

The standard solution to immunisation is to bombard with information, she adds. ‘But sometimes to get people to take de-worming medicine the easiest option is to give them a tiny incentive, such as a kilo of lentils.

‘It had a much bigger take-up when we tried that.’

Then there is the strange case of the man in a village in Morocco who could not afford to feed his family yet bought a television.

‘The poor get bored the same as the rest of us. Their happiness might be as important to them as their health.

‘That man had bought a television by saving for it for many months; it wasn’t an impulse purchase. We have to take that seriously and ask why.’

It must be galling for her to listen to the views of non-experts all of the time; everyone has an opinion on global poverty and the most common one is that aid is a waste of time unless you change the rogue governments that administer it.

A high percentage of it ends up in the pockets of corrupt officials.

‘This waste-of-time argument is a standard view that you hear among non-experts and experts alike,’ she says.

‘But not all failed policies are the result of corrupt governments, but because not enough thinking went into the problem. You can start thinking about politics in the same ways you think about immunisation and education.

‘Can we fix it? Can we make it a little better?’

One of the main problems related to global poverty is population growth. Is the solution to give women more control over their fertility by educating them?

‘The new UN forecasts are for a world population of 10 billion, but the truth is we have no idea, and that is scary.

‘India and Africa are growing the fastest, so the question becomes: why do poor people have more children? Is it that they would like fewer but are not able to control their fertility?

‘Not always, because we found that often just giving people contraceptives doesn’t lead to a big drop in fertility, so we had to think again.

‘We met a guy in Indonesia who had nine kids and complained it had made him the poorest man in the neighbourhood. So I asked him, “Why do you have so many, then?” And he said, “So at least some of them will be around to help me out in old age.”

His wife was silent during the discussion, I should add. It was his choice, not hers. His choice was informed by worry about what would happen in old age, whereas in the West we don’t have that worry because of the welfare system.’

What does she make of the Tory decision not to cut foreign aid despite its round of severe government spending cuts?

‘I followed that. I think it is to the credit of the rich countries and their citizens that they know it wouldn’t make a huge difference to their lives to give less.’

As Ian Parker revealed last year in a fascinating profile of Duflo for the New Yorker, she had two dinners with Bill Gates (among others, including the heads of Amazon and Facebook) a conference last year , encounters she describes as ‘efficient’.

She says she doesn’t like to talk to people she doesn’t know. But, according to Parker, she is comfortable when discussing her work, and her scientific approach clearly resonates with the philanthropists of the internet age.

Gates told her, ‘We need to fund you.’

Is he a good listener? ‘He is a voracious reader and when he talks to you he is able to connect it with things he has read or seen. He is very smart and is trying to incorporate what you are saying into his own thinking. So he is very engaged.’

She’s a fan, then, I take it? ‘The billionaire group is…’ Long pause… ‘It’s a great privilege when you feel as if you could have a big influence on someone like Bill Gates.

‘There are a lot of positive things in what he is doing. His foundation is very evidence-driven and pragmatic. His message, and our message, is that what matters is not how much you spend but how you spend it.

‘If you spend your money well it will go a long way. The emphasis should be on finding out what works.’

What does she do when not thinking about economics?

‘Rock-climbing. I climb in a gym and outside, in the Alps and in Africa, Mount Kenya, Kilimanjaro.’

Her orderly mind reveals itself as she describes the nature of her pleasure in rock-climbing.

‘You have to be deliberate and patient, and confident you can make it. Otherwise it is a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you think a climb is too hard it will become too hard.’

Rock-climbing. Tackling global poverty. She seems to approach both with the same systematic optimism.

‘You need to be entirely focused on what you are doing at that instant. Completely absorbed. So I can’t be thinking about economics.’

Does she read economics books on the beach? ‘I don’t go to the beach. There is no value in going to the beach. If I did go I would probably read economics books.’

She describes herself as ‘understated’, and ‘not very funny’. There have been boyfriends in the past but at the moment she lives alone in her flat in Beacon Hill, Boston.

What does she do for fun? Does she have a favourite sitcom? ‘I’ve never had a TV in my whole life. Television passed by me. I like the cinema and cooking for friends. Indian cooking. A bit of French. I follow books; I don’t invent.’

Did her family cook? ‘Not at all. There was food on the table but my brother and I became interested in cooking perhaps as a reaction to eating pasta all the time as children.’

Her brother is a professor of philosophy in France, her father a professor of mathematics, her mother a doctor. I’m guessing the conversation at mealtimes was pretty cerebral?

‘We were quite engaged as a family. So, yes, there were a lot of interesting debates at mealtimes.’

Not surprisingly, Duflo tends to listen to classical music, but she does have a favourite band and you are never going to guess what it is: Madness.

You can’t quite picture her singing along to Baggy Trousers, but then again she is not an easy person to pigeonhole.

A final question, then. Is it fair to say that not many of the world’s leading economists are women? ‘Five years ago it was, maybe. But now there are many more in the pipeline.

‘In a way it has been an advantage for me to be a woman because there is always some academic committee that needs you to fill a quota!’

And with that belated evidence of a sense of humour, we say our au revoirs.


James Blunt

It could be the homes around the world; his military bearing; or that he’s our biggest musical export since Elton. For whatever reason, being called annoying, a philanderer or – worse – middle class doesn’t exactly keep James Hillier Blount awake at night. Nigel Farndale met him

It’s not the sight of the groupies that haunts me, but the sound, or rather the absence of sound, as they ghost past us on their way up the stairs to the dressing-room. It takes me a moment to figure out that the reason they aren’t talking to each other is that they don’t know each other. One of the band members, the keyboard player, I think, has picked them from the audience on the basis of their looks. Half-a-dozen of them, all in their late teens and early twenties, and all, surprisingly, in pretty frocks, as if they were going to a Sunday school meeting. They have been separated from their friends like lambs weaned from their mothers. The silence of the lambs.

The ‘us’ they are filing past is James Blunt and me. He has a bottle of beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and not a hair in place – tousled just so, like a Renaissance painting of John the Baptist – but they don’t realise it’s him because he has changed out of the suit he was wearing on stage and is now in jeans, T-shirt and leather jacket, as well as a pink feather boa and star-shaped novelty sunglasses. But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is the end of the day; we need to go back to the start, well, to the middle, when the seats are empty and the Texan sun is at its most unforgiving.

A barefoot and unshaven Blunt is wearing normal sunglasses and shorts as he plays his piano, strums his guitar and sings his plaintive songs into the microphone for the sound check, all the while looking out with his soulful eyes over an empty, open-air arena in Houston. At 5ft 7in, he’s not a tall man, but he has presence and an unaffected manner – a certain maturity, too, one that you wouldn’t normally associate with a pop star in the ascendant.

But then he is 34 and this is his second career, his first being as an officer in the Household Cavalry. He joined after graduating from Bristol University with a degree in sociology. He became a champion skier for the Army and not only saw active service in Kosovo, but also guarded the Queen Mother’s coffin when she was lying in state.

Tonight he will be supporting Sheryl Crow, though, since his second album ‘All the Lost Souls’ and the single from it, ‘1973’, went straight to number one in America, he is arguably the bigger act these days. Indeed, not since Elton John has there been a more successful British singer-songwriter in the States.

His first album, ‘Back to Bedlam’, also went to number one over here, as it did in 18 other countries, making it the biggest-selling album of the millennium. It even entered the Guinness Book of Records as the fastest-selling album in one year. But it was his first single that really put him on the map. You’re Beautiful became the sound of that summer. It was everywhere, and still is – having become a favourite at weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs. I even heard a brass band playing it at an agricultural show in the Yorkshire Dales this summer.

As well as millions of sales, James Blunt has won Brit awards, Ivor Novello awards, MTV awards and various Grammy nominations. In terms of credibility, he’s headlined at Glastonbury and won the respect of the world-weary music press. Yet not everyone loves him, as he points out when we get something to eat in the canteen area back stage.

‘After Back to Bedlam really started selling,’ he says, ‘there was this sudden aggression towards me in the UK, for whatever reason, and that focused my mind, made it clear to me what I was doing and why I wanted to do it. I write songs for myself. I don’t write them for you, or for anyone else, I write them because I have experiences that I need to process. I don’t have the answers all the time, but I do have lots of questions, and I express them in the songs I write.’

He is, I think, alluding to a poll last year of ‘the most annoying things in life’, which put him at number four, just behind cold-callers and queue-jumpers. ‘I haven’t met anyone who voted in the poll, have you?’ he says when I mention this. ‘That poll probably came from a website that was after some publicity. You and I could do the same poll very quickly right now and it would count as a poll. We could do one about annoying newspapers, for example. I promise the Sunday Telegraph wouldn’t be in my list. My parents take it.’

His father, a retired colonel in the Army Air Corps, manages his son’s finances. His mother arranged the purchase of his six-bedroom villa in Ibiza (he also has a chalet in Verbier and recently bought a place in Chelsea). ‘I’m not married,’ he says, ‘and so the support structure in my life is my parents. I’m closer to them now than I have ever been.’

He certainly isn’t married, as the photographs of him emerging from nightclubs with various high-profile women on his arm attest. Tara Palmer-Tomkinson was probably the best known socialite, Jessica Sutta, of the Pussycat Dolls, the most glamorous. He also seems to be photographed regularly cavorting on beaches with bikini-clad models such as Petra Nemcova, whom he dated and then dumped – unceremonious dumping being his way of ending relationships, according to the tabloids. He once said he found himself in a swimming pool in LA with nine naked women. ‘I was the only bloke. It was the only time I wished my mates were there, purely to spectate. I had arrived. It was a moment.’

Now he says of the tabloid interest in his peripatetic love life: ‘Last week I went to my home in Ibiza and was photographed by the paparazzi in my swimming trunks with girls. What is the point of that? I’m not that bothered, but maybe the media should be concentrating more on global warming or the Russian invasion of Georgia.

‘Looking at me in my swimming trunks is not a great sight. It’s a waste of time. There generally is a long lens pointing at me wherever I go, these days. I’m comfortable with it. I appreciate how things work. But my record label said something about my always being photographed coming out of nightclubs and I thought, “But this is what I do. I was doing it before the second album came out, so what is different now? You didn’t tell me to stop then.” I’m not going to change my life because of these people. I don’t see why I should.’

His label also gets him to dye his grey hairs and be enigmatic about his love life, which is an old tactic dating back to the Beatles – they had to pretend they didn’t have wives and girlfriends so that fans could fantasise they were in with a chance.

Actually, at the time of going to press, Blunt seems to be going out again with one of his old flames, Verity Evetts, an Oxford-educated barrister. He has also stayed friendly with some of his other exes, the socialites at least. He told one – an ex who got married not long ago – that he doesn’t feel ‘centred’ at the moment and would like to get married as well. Then again, he also said that he never tires of singing You’re Beautiful night after night because it gets him laid night after night.

Either way, he tells me he has grown used to the idea that his mother will probably find out from the papers what he has been up to, and with whom, before he has had a chance to tell her. ‘And my [two] sisters are quick to email me about things in the papers, laughing their heads off. I get healthy, ritual abuse from them, and give it back myself.’

As we are talking, I can’t decide whether the way Blunt smiles all the time is disarming or disturbing. He’s like a victim of a religious cult, smiling at the beginning of the sentence and at the end. I guess he has a lot to smile about, but also I sense a great deal of insecurity to disguise.

Then, I’m distracted by the sight of Sheryl Crow playing table tennis across the room. She has been holding her adopted son in one arm as she bats with the other, and now, even more distractingly, she is heading straight for us. ‘Are we going to have one of our little conversations on stage again tonight, James?’ she says. ‘That flirting thing. I think it worked well last night.’

They discuss the duet they will sing – a cover of Cat Stevens’s The First Cut is the Deepest – then we both watch her shimmy away, her blonde curls bobbing. ‘She’s very down to earth,’ he says. ‘I’d met her a couple of times, which was why she asked me on this tour. We do end up playing a lot of table tennis on the road. We’ve done 117 shows so far this year, in 117 cities, and there are a lot of hours to fill in the day.’

As he sleeps on his tour bus with his band, one city tends to blur into another. When I joke that he is in Cincinnati now, he looks genuinely confused. ‘No, this is?… Oh, right. Actually, I always get the tour manager to say where we are just as I’m going on stage. I still managed to get it wrong the other night, saying “Hello Dallas” when I meant Austin. I’m surprised I got out alive.’

He is funny on the subjects of things that go wrong. ‘People are normally surprised by my show, which is more energetic than you might think. Jumping on the piano. Jumping out into the audience and running up and down the aisle high-fiving them. But going off the stage can be quite dangerous. I broke my finger once. My legs carried on when I jumped off, and I smacked down on the ground. The spotlight was on me, and when I got back to the piano I hit the wrong note and thought, “Why did I do that?” And I looked down and saw it was because my finger was broken, sticking out an angle. Look,’ he says holding it up. ‘It’s still crooked.’

On another occasion, in Chicago, he jumped 8ft off the stage. ‘When I began running to the audience, a security guard stuck his arm out and I thought, “Does he want a hug?” Then next thing I know he’s rugby-tackled me. He wouldn’t release me and I was screaming in his ear, “I’m the f—ing singer.” I had to wait for the other guards to pull him off.’

I would have thought Blunt’s training in unarmed combat would have helped. I presume he still works out. ‘No, never. Couldn’t handle it. Too boring. I am a hyperactive person though.’ He likes an adrenaline rush, as well, having recently bought an 1100cc Moto Guzzi V11 Sport motorbike. There’s also the skiing, which he still does, and the riding. Actually, he tells me, he never really liked horses before joining the Life Guards. So why did he join that particular regiment?

‘Well, it is a reconnaissance regiment.’ But they are all so tall in the Life Guards, did that not make him self-conscious? ‘Some are. The Foot Guards tend to be taller regiments, though. The Life Guards take a few shrimps, as well. Besides, they are on horses, so height isn’t so important. Also being in that regiment had the benefit of being in Knightsbridge. I got a chance to be in London and meet people in the music scene.’ And groupies, as it happens.

As he paraded up and down the Mall in plumed helmet and shiny breastplate, girls would stick their phone numbers down his knee-length boots. But it was his time in Kosovo that really made girls swoon. He used to strap his guitar to the outside of his tank, because there wasn’t room for it inside. He had learnt to play the violin at five, the piano at seven and the guitar at 14, while a pupil at Harrow.

He writes his songs on piano and guitar. ‘But mainly guitar because it is easier to carry around. It’s like a child messing around with a toy. If a tune comes to me I don’t record it instantly. I think if I remember it, then it must be worth remembering, and if I forget it, then it was forgettable.’

Does he have any anxiety dreams about forgetting lines or chords? ‘Not yet. Perhaps I will tonight. Perhaps you’ve jinxed me. But audiences aren’t judgmental, and if things go wrong and you can look them in the eye, that is fine. The only people who are judgmental are the journalists. I will be conscious of you being there in the audience judging me.’

Blimey. Sorry about that. Is it true he signs breasts? ‘Not that I remember. Not that I’m fussy what I sign. A lot of men started coming to the shows after I appeared on Top Gear last year. That was such fun. I spun the car five times. I thought I might as well make the most of it. I am competitive.’

He recorded one of the fastest laps, but I’m surprised blokes didn’t think him manly before that, given his tour of duty in Kosovo. ‘It’s because I sing songs that are heart-on-your-sleeve and therefore I must be overly emotional. Nothing I can do about it. I could pose more, but I am comfortable with my masculinity.’

He has said that his lyrics are autobiographical, in which case, are we to assume that the lyric on his new album, ‘I killed a man in a far away land’, means he killed a man in a far away land? I only ask because in the past he has said that he would never try to exploit what he went through, what he saw. ‘You should ask any soldier how many lives he has saved. How they do it is no one else’s business. What I took from my experience in Kosovo is that you are told from one day to the next who your enemy is and it keeps changing. That’s what is happening in Iraq, too. I believe in looking people in the eye, looking for the common humanity.’

He is a great believer in looking people in the eye. He will use the phrase again later and it seems to reveal a Christ complex, or a John the Baptist one. That direct and challenging stare of his. It would also explain the hair.

It is time for him do some photographs before he goes on stage and, endearingly, he says he is ‘not fussed’ about the grooming he is offered before they are taken.

On stage his features contort with passion when he sings. The big video screen goes in tight on his face. His voice is by turns soft and tremulous and forceful, but always high. Having seen him in concert once before, a couple of years ago, I notice the tone of his banter has changed.

‘Wow it’s hot tonight,’ he says now. ‘I’m surprised any of you are wearing any clothes. We could all take them off and get friendly.’ It is suggestive, designed to get the teenage girls in the audience screaming. Before he used to joke about his ‘girlie voice’ and taking helium to get it that way, and being ‘a bit wet’ and the ‘housewives’ favourite’. I think now he has realised that, actually, he is a proper musician, a popular one, too, and that he doesn’t need to apologise for it.

Afterwards, back in the dressing-room, he strips to the waist as he talks because he wants to take a shower before going back on to do his duet with Sheryl Crow. ‘Things got a bit hairy out there when I jumped into the crowd,’ he says. ‘Did you see that? Some thought it was some kind of sport to grab me.’

I watch his duet from the side of the stage and notice he whispers something in Sheryl Crow’s ear and then she starts running her hands over his trousers suggestively, patting them. Afterwards, I ask what he said. ‘”Is now a good time to ask for your phone number?” She was checking my pockets, pretending to look for a pen.’

He shows me round the gold-coloured tour bus where he will be sleeping tonight as they drive to their next gig in Dallas. It is full of hi-tech equipment and is nicely air-conditioned but there isn’t much space in the bunks. ‘We do live in close proximity,’ he says. ‘Some of us stay up late. This is the crew end, they have to get up early.’

Where do the groupies go? ‘Never have groupies on here. Never. They’d only get in if we invited them in. But we’d only ever invite friends in.’

Does he sleep OK? I heard he has to take sleeping pills. ‘It is a bit of a rough sleep, but better than a hotel and taking planes all the time because you have to get to the airport two hours early, which is miserable. Then your flight gets delayed.’

He is drinking champagne from a plastic cup. ‘This is for your benefit,’ he says. ‘The tour management went out and bought a bottle of champagne because he thought I should be seen drinking it. Better for my image. Isn’t that sweet? Normally, we drink vodka and beer. In fact, I think I’d rather have a beer, now. Want one?’ He opens a well-stocked fridge then takes me to the back of the bus where there is some seating space. He has one small case which he pulls out from a cupboard. It continues a few pairs of socks, T-shirts and a spare pair of jeans. No photographs or mementos. ‘This is all I have for 14 months on the road,’ he says. ‘I’m not known for style.’

Does he know how much he is worth? ‘No I don’t, not very interested in it to be honest. I travel with hand luggage only. That is why I always seem to be wearing the same clothes in photographs. If a tabloid says my clothes aren’t fashionable or my hair looks stupid, I really don’t worry about it. Don’t have any hair gel.’

In London, he takes the Tube or the bus. He prefers pubs to restaurants. When he goes to Ibiza, he flies easyJet. Still, that’s at home. Presumably on the road he can afford to be more self-indulgent.

Another lyric that we can only assume is autobiographical is ‘I’ve taken a s—load of drugs’. It is. Though his only comment on the subject is that he has ‘a comfortable relationship with drugs’. His relationship with fame is less comfortable. Oscar Wilde said there were two forms of tragedy: not getting what you want, and getting it. Is that how it felt for him when he went to number one? ‘Actually, I don’t think I had been dreaming about it. Certainly, I hadn’t anticipated being so recognisable so quickly.

‘I do remember getting a phone call from the record company, who said both the single and the album have gone to number one, and thinking, “S—, this is not what I expected.” I hadn’t prepared myself for it. Number two is great. Number two is nice. I sensed then it would mean having to change from being a musician to being a celebrity and that that would be a change for the worse. Fame doesn’t affect me, but it does affect everyone else around me. As for celebrity, it is the worst invention of the modern world. Gossip columns treat your life as if it were a cartoon. Relationships reduced to cartoons.’

Although there are other public-school bands around at the moment – Radiohead, Coldplay – Blunt seems to have suffered more than most from a perception that he is too posh to be credible. His family name is Blount (and his middle name Hillier), but he changed it to Blunt to sound, well, blunter and more proletarian.

When he tells me he would nevertheless still send a son of his to Harrow – ‘I think I would. I think I would. Public schools make individuals rather than sheep’ – I ask what he makes of the mood change now that the old Etonian David Cameron has made it OK to be posh. ‘Is it? I must come back to Britain immediately. Is it really safe to come back?

‘It’s not a dirty word to be posh, people come up to me and no one gives a damn if I’m posh. It’s about having a normal conversation and looking people in the eye.’

We head back to the dressing-room where he puts on his feather boa and novelty sunglasses then we wander back downstairs to have a word with Sheryl Crow, who is signing autographs. This is the moment at which the keyboard player says: ‘This way to the good-time room girls’ and the silent groupies dutifully appear.