Is it the Leeches?

Last week, three professors were honored with the Nobel Prize in Economics – Esther Duflo, Abhijit Banerjee, and Michael Kremer – for their “experimental approach to alleviating global poverty.” In particular, Esther Duflo is someone I have long followed and admired – and as the youngest person to receive the prize, and only the second woman – she is particularly impressive. A fun fact – I read Duflo and Banerjee’s book Poor Economics when I was first in Zambia in 2011.

The team won this award for their work to bring randomized controlled trials to the development world, especially focusing on education and health. And more importantly, when they find promising results, they work to help bring those ideas to scale. While this type of research approach has long been done in social sectors in the U.S. (e.g., my former employer – MDRC!), up until 20 years ago, it was rarely seen in development economics. And it radically changed the landscape – for the first time, people could know whether textbooks help improve student performance (hint – they did not), or whether cameras could improve teacher attendance (fun fact – they did). But more than these individual stories, the three of them upended our assumptions about what we believed to be working, and forced us to question how we knew something was working.

It’s why a decade ago, I was thrilled to accept a job at MDRC where I learned how to set up these studies, how to talk about them, and how to write about them. It’s why six years ago, when I started working for Impact Network, one of my main goals was to make sure we eventually had our own study – so we would know what is working about our programs, and what needs improvement. And it’s why two years ago, we began our partnership with American Institutes for Research, and our 30-school randomized controlled trial evaluation. In a few short weeks, we cannot wait to share those results with the world.

For now though, I want to appreciate the work that these three pioneers did to set the stage for all of those that followed, and for providing a practical roadmap for alleviate global poverty.

“The thing is, if we don't know whether we are doing any good, we are not any better than the Medieval doctors and their leeches. Sometimes the patient gets better, sometimes the patient dies. Is it the leeches? Is it something else? We don't know.”

-- Esther Duflo

[On another note – I highly recommend Duflo’s TED talk -].