MIT Economist Duflo Wins John Bates Clark Medal for Development Economics

Esther Duflo, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, won the John Bates Clark medal for the economist under the age of 40 who contributed most to the profession.

Duflo, 37, “distinguished herself through definitive contributions to the field of development economics,” the American Economic Association said today in a statement. A French citizen, she has used experiments to address questions of politics, gender and education in developing countries such as India and South Africa.

“Her work is of scientific importance but also shows a passion for caring about people,” said Kenneth Rogoff, former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund in Washington who is now a professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “She is a profoundly influential figure for young economists.”

In one series of papers, Duflo studied the impact of female political leaders in villages in India, finding, among other things, that they shifted spending away from education toward drinking water, the association said.

In other research with Rohini Pande of Harvard that the association said had “generated considerable popular attention,” Duflo examined the effects of dam construction on development in India. Their results suggested that the large dams had “marginally positive returns to the entire economy” while increasing poverty and income inequality, it said.

‘Flexible Tool’

“What her work has done is to take the idea of field experiments and turn it into an extremely flexible tool to study a range of fundamental economic questions,” said Abhijit Banerjee, a fellow professor at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who has done research with Duflo.

He said their work on microfinance had caused a stir after they found that such lending “did not have the kind of transformative impact that has been claimed for it” and that its effects, while favorable, were limited.

Duflo completed her undergraduate studies at L’Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris in 1994, received a master’s degree from DELTA in Paris in 1995, and completed a PhD in Economics at MIT in 1999. She is founder and director of the Jameel Poverty Action Lab, a research network specializing in evaluations of social programs.

Past winners of the John Bates Clark award include the late Milton Friedman; New York Times columnist and Princeton University professor Paul Krugman; and Lawrence Summers, who is director of President Barack Obama’s National Economic Council. Data compiled by Bloomberg News show that recipients of the medal have a 36 percent chance of eventually winning the Nobel Prize in economics.

The John Bates Clark medal, started in 1947 as a biennial award, is now being awarded annually. It is named after the U.S. economist who died in 1938 after spending most of his career teaching at Columbia University in New York.

Emmanuel Saez, a professor at the University of California in Berkeley, who has done extensive work on income inequality, won the award last year. In work he did with Duflo, they used field experiments to study enrollment in U.S. pension plans.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rich Miller in Washington at rmiller28@bloomberg.net

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