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.