Indian-American MIT professor Abhijit Banerjee is among the three laureates awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics 2019 “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty”.
Banerjee and his fellow laureates Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer’s innovative research, based on field experiments, has laid the foundation for the best way to design measures that reduce global poverty, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said while announcing the prize on Monday.
“Their experimental research methods now entirely dominate development economics,” the academy said.
Banerjee, 58, is Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is married to Duflo, 46, the second woman and the youngest ever to receive the economics award.
Banerjee studied at the University of Calcutta and Jawaharlal Nehru University in India. He received his Ph.D from Harvard University in 1988.
He, along with Duflo and Sendhil Mullainathan, founded the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), and continues to be a member of its Executive Committee.
He has been a Guggenheim Fellow (2000), an Alfred P. Sloan Fellow and a winner of the Infosys Prize (2009). In 2011, he was named one of Foreign Policy magazine’s top 100 global thinkers.
He served on the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda.
The academy has highlighted how Banerjee and Duflo’s field experiments have shown that the primary problem in schools in many low-income countries is not a lack of resources, but that teaching is not sufficiently adapted to the pupils’ needs.
“In the first of these experiments, Banerjee, Duflo et al. studied remedial tutoring programmes for pupils in two Indian cities. Schools in Mumbai and Vadodara were given access to new teaching assistants who would support children with special needs. These schools were ingeniously and randomly placed in different groups, allowing the researchers to credibly measure the effects of teaching assistants. The experiment clearly showed that help targeting the weakest pupils was an effective measure in the short and medium term.”
The research results went hand in hand with large-scale programmes to support students, which have reached more than 100,000 schools in India, the academy said.
It also cited the impact of J-Pal:
“There are also rough estimates of how many people have been affected by these research results. One such estimate comes from the global research network that two of the Laureates helped found (J-PAL); the programmes which have been scaled up after evaluation by the network’s researchers have reached more than 400 million people. However, this clearly underestimates the total research impact, because far from all development economists are affiliated with J-PAL.”
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The NYAY connection
In 2016, Banerjee had written a column for the Hindustan Times, after the arrest of JNU students in a sedition case. He spoke of his own arrest at JNU in 1983 and why the government needed to stay out of “thinking spaces like JNU”.
“Every nation necessarily inhabits a morally compromised space. All too often our ideals seem to be held to ransom by what we believe, rightly or wrongly, to be objective reality. As India, we support the self-determination of the Palestinian people but not those of the Kashmiris, because we need to secure our borders or because we need to protect the Kashmiri people from some greater evil across the border or because we need to defend the legitimacy of the original accession. Whatever those arguments be, when we make them it is vital that we recognise that we are on delicate terrain, vital that every time we deviate from our stated ideals we take a deep breath and think about it. This is why universities, and civil society more generally, are so important for a democracy like ours, founded on a genuine idealism that we have a hard time holding on to.”
Books and films
Banerjee has written and edited several books. His best-known works include Good Economics for Hard Times: Better Answers to Our Biggest Problems and Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, co-authored by Banerjee with fellow Nobel laureate Duflo.
Banerjee has also directed two documentary films —The Name of the Disease (2006) and The Magnificent Journey: Times and Tales of Democracy, with Ranu Ghosh (2019).