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Thursday, Nov 14, 2019

Nobel for Banerjee, Duflo a boost for their poverty action lab’s India programmes

Banerjee and Duflo, with long-time J-PAL affiliate Michael Kremer, were jointly awarded the 2019 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences, or the Nobel Prize in the field of economics, “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty”.

india Updated: Oct 18, 2019 06:59 IST
Snigdha Poonam
Snigdha Poonam
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo were awarded the Nobel Prize for their experimental approach to alleviate global poverty.
Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo were awarded the Nobel Prize for their experimental approach to alleviate global poverty.(HT Photo)

Nobel Prize winners Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo on Thursday spoke about J-PAL’s role in their journey in a press statement, highlighting the importance of experimental research and policy engagement that is at the core of the anti-poverty action lab.

On October 14, Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) co-founders Banerjee and Duflo, with long-time J-PAL affiliate Michael Kremer, were jointly awarded the 2019 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences, or the Nobel Prize in the field of economics, “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty”.

“This recognition signifies the critical importance and urgency of our work. We have seen the great potential of experimental research and policy engagement to make change on a global scale. I look forward to taking this work forward with J-PAL’s incredible affiliated researchers, staff, funders, and implementers to reach hundreds of millions more around the world,” Duflo said.

Banerjee and Duflo co-founded J-PAL with Sendhil Mullainathan at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2003 with a mission of reducing poverty by ensuring that policy is informed by scientific evidence. J-PAL began with six staff members, and has since expanded to more than 400 research, policy, education, and training professionals across seven offices worldwide. Its researchers and staff design and carry out innovative randomised evaluations to identify effective approaches to poverty and other global challenges. Its policy experts work with decision-makers in governments, NGOs, and the private sector to help them apply results from the randomised evaluations.

In a Randomised Control Trial (RCT), participants are randomly divided between two groups - the experimental group receiving the intervention that is being tested, and the control group receiving a conventional or alternative treatment - in order to achieve fairness and statistical edge. “To date, more than 950 randomised evaluations have been conducted by J-PAL affiliated researchers and more than 400 million people have been reached by scale-ups of programmes found to be effective by J-PAL affiliates,” noted the press statement.

Established in 2007, J-PAL South Asia (J-PAL SA) has been involved in 189 ongoing and completed evaluations targeting different dimensions of poverty.

Among its well-known evaluations in India is one underway in Haryana since 2013. Partnered by the state government and Breakthrough, a human rights organisation, the school-based gender attitude change programme spans 314 government schools in Haryana, which has the most male-skewed sex ratio among all Indian states, and employs interactive classroom discussions.

Researchers randomly selected 150 schools in which to implement the program, while the remaining 164 served as a comparison group. Nearly 15,000 secondary school students between 11-15 years of age in Classes 7-8 were surveyed in both single-sex and co-educational schools. Over two-and-a-half years, the classroom discussions reportedly increased students’ support for gender equality and led them to enact more gender-equitable behaviour. “The behavioural changes were more pronounced for boys, who have more power and agency than girls in their society,” said Shagun Sabarwal, associate director of policy and training at J-PAL (SA). She said J-PAL will carry on with the study for years to come. “The idea is to track the study participants as they grow up and take on different roles. How will they behave as fathers, mothers, and husbands, and what decisions they will take.”

In Bihar, the state government has committed an investment of $120 million to scale up a J-PAL-evaluated livelihoods programme called Targeting the Hardcore Poor. Designed by the Bangladeshi developmental organisation BRAC in 2002, the Graduation Approach, which provides ultra-poor households with a productive asset (such as a cow, goat, or supplies for petty trade), training, coaching, access to savings, and consumption support over two years to help them graduate from extreme poverty, has been tested in various countries, including Ethiopia to Afghanistan.

Researchers found the program enabled the poorest women to shift out of farm labour and into running small businesses, increasing their earnings by an average 38% four years after the transfer of the productive asset. “Five-and-a-half years after the programme ended, their savings were up by 200%,” said Sabarwal.

In 2017, the state government of Bihar collaborated with J-PAL affiliates Banerjee, Duflo, Sabarwal and Jyoti Mukhopadhyay, to evaluate the impact of its pilot program in two districts. The government subsequently announced plans to adopt the Graduation approach in its Satat Jeevikoparjan Yojana (Sustainable Livelihoods Program), to reach 100,000 households across the state between 2018 and 2020.

In Gujarat, research by J-PAL affiliates showed that making environmental auditors more independent improved the accuracy of pollution audit reports and led industrial plants to reduce emissions. “This paved the way for economists to play a role in policy making about energy and environment,” said Sabarwal. In 2015, Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) issued new guidelines that require random assignment of environmental auditors to industrial plants.

J-PAL’s ongoing evaluations in India include improving immunisation rates in Haryana, strengthening early learning in preschool centres in Tamil Nadu, saving ground water through better irrigation practices in Punjab, and testing the impact of direct benefit transfers across Indian states with NITI Aayog.

“J-PAL affiliates worked with us at various levels, from designing of the policy to supporting the implementation. For example, what enterprise work for what village based on market demand. Also in training, advocacy, performance evaluation and quality improvement of the system,” said Ajit Ranjan, state project manager for the Satat Jeevikoparjan Yojana in Bihar. “They help us scale up the implementation to a larger area and identify places where it is becoming diluted and the reasons for it,” he added.

Sabarwal said the Nobel for Banerjee and Duflo gives a boost to J-PAL’s work in India. “It validates the idea of evidence-based policymaking and pushes India to embrace the shift,” she said.

Responding to the often cited concern about RCTs that an intervention that works in one setting may not work in another, Sabarwal said, “RCTs allows us to gather a combination of general lessons about human behaviour in a specific setting. Before testing the same intervention elsewhere, we study the context of that place. Some lessons can be generalised even if the design is made different. For example, the observation that children learn more not when they are given more books but when they are taught at their level of learning stands true from Asia to Africa,” said Sabarwal.

“Brining evidence to bear in understanding ‘what works’ is an important ingredient of effective policymaking,” said Yamini Aiyar, President at the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi. “But beyond evidence on specific interventions, there is the challenge of embedding ‘what works’ into bureaucratic systems entrenched in a complex political economy and building capacity for long-term systemic change .This is the wicked policy problem India needs to resolve,” she added.

As general practice, Sabarwal said, J-PAL’s research teams avoid getting into an agreement with a state government about to change, builds relationships across the bureaucracy in charge, and entrench themselves in the field. “It helps that we don’t have a political brand,” Sabarwal said.