David Leonhardt, who writes a column on economics for the New York Times just conducted an interesting exercise. He surveyed economists and "asked which economists were managing to do influential work on the crucial questions facing modern society. Who, in other words, was using economics to make the world a better place?"
Leonhardt's survey revealed a "runaway winner": the "group of economists who work at the Jameel Poverty Action Lab at M.I.T., led by Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, were mentioned far more often than anyone else." Here is his explanation of what the Lab is all about:
Ms. Duflo, Mr. Banerjee and their colleagues have a simple, if radical, goal. They want to overhaul development aid so that more of it is spent on programs that actually make a difference. And they are trying to do so in a way that skirts the long-running ideological debate between aid groups and their critics.
“Surely the most important societal question economics can help answer is why so many people are crushingly poor and what can be done about it,” David Romer, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said. The macro issues (like how to build a democracy) remain maddeningly complex, Mr. Romer noted. But thanks in part to the poverty lab, we now know much more about how to improve daily life in the world’s poorest countries.
The basic idea behind the lab is to rely on randomized trials — similar to the ones used in medical research — to study antipoverty programs. This helps avoid the classic problem with the evaluation of aid programs: it’s often impossible to separate cause and effect. If aid workers start supplying textbooks to schools in one town and the students there start doing better, it could be because of the textbooks. Or it could be that the town also happened to hire a new school administrator.
In a randomized trial, researchers would choose a set of schools and then separate into them two groups. The groups would be similar in every respect except for the fact that one would receive new textbooks and one wouldn’t. With a test like this, as Vinod Thomas, the head of independent evaluation at the World Bank, says, “You can be much more accurate and much more clear about the effect of a program.”
The approach can sound cruel, because researchers knowingly deny help to some of the people they’re studying. But what, really, is the alternative? It’s not as if someone has offered to buy new textbooks for every child in the world. With a randomized study, you at least learn whether your aid money is well spent.
. . .
Mr. Kremer and two other economists, in fact, did the textbook experiment — and found that textbooks didn’t improve test scores or graduation rates in rural western Kenya. (The students were probably too diverse, in terms of preparation and even language, to be helped by a single curriculum.) On the other hand, another randomized trial in the same part of Kenya found that treating children for intestinal worms did lift school performance. That study has led to an expansion of deworming programs and, as Alan Krueger of Princeton says, is “probably improving millions of lives.”
Mr. Banerjee estimates, very conservatively, that $11 billion a year — out of roughly $100 billion in annual development aid worldwide — could be spent on programs that have been proved to work. Unfortunately, nowhere near $11 billion is being spent on such programs. “Right now, we don’t have a lot of things that have been taken up by the policy world,” he said. “But the policy lag is usually substantial. Now that we have a lot more results, I expect that in the next 10 years we will have a lot more impact.”
Mr. Banerjee and Ms. Duflo may not be a modern-day Keynes or Friedman. But they have still managed to do something rather profound. They have brought together the best of the new economics and the best of the old.