French Economist Esther Duflo to Advise Obama

Esther Duflo, French Economist, will join Obama's Global Development Council.Photo: Flickr.com/poptech

Esther Duflo, French Economist, will join Obama’s Global Development Council.
Photo: Flickr.com/poptech

France’s very own Esther Duflo, an accomplished economist, stands to be appointed to Barack Obama’s Global Development Council to advise the President on global development policies and practices. Contention has arisen domestically, however, with some convinced that her talents should be applied in her native France.

Duflo will be one of twelve members of the President’s Global Development Council, chaired by Mohamed El-Erian, Egyptian CEO of PIMCO, the largest bond investor  in the world. The Council was established in February 2012 under the U.S. Agency for International Development.

launched in 2010, the new Global Development Policy, in the words of Barack Obama, is designed to “change the way we do business” around the world and sharpen America’s developmental efforts.

The Council will work to advise the administration on U.S. global development policies and practices, to support new and existing public-private partnerships, and to increase awareness and action in support of development.

Esther Duflo is a decorated, world-class economist who, at the age of forty, is already noted for an impressive array of accomplishments. She was educated in France and received her terminal degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she received her Ph.D. in economics. She is the current Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics at MIT and holds a chair at the Collège de France on “Knowledge Against Poverty.”

She is the founder and director of Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), a research center that has launched more than 200 real-life experiments worldwide since its founding in 2003. These experiments define Duflo’s most powerful work in developmental economics, helping to change the way governments and aid organizations address global poverty.

Dulfo’s work with J-PAL espouses a particular method of research through randomized controlled trials, the same method that is used for drug testing. Real-life experiments are run on everything ranging from health to education and to agriculture in poverty stricken regions of the world to determine how aid money should be spent, rather than how much must be spent. These trials allow researchers to test whether certain conditions create similar or different outcomes, providing a better sense of causality in their work.

During a TED talk (a series of conferences focusing on technology, entertainment, and design) she gave in California in 2010, Duflo said with optimism, “in technology, we spend so much time experimenting, fine-tuning, getting the absolute cheapest way to do something — so why aren’t we doing that with social policy?” Much of her life’s work has been aimed at making aid and development programs as effective as possible. Her work has revealed gaps in the most conventional and intuitive forms of aid, like distributing free bed nets to keep away malaria-spreading mosquitos, showing they are unsuccessful and, moreover, unprofitable.

Her innovative technique for evaluating programs aimed to eradicate poverty has brought her a hefty list of impressive awards, and has gotten the attention first of Bill Gates, and now of the U.S. President. In 2009, Duflo won the MacArthur Fellowship, known as the “genius grant,” to further her work at J-PAL. The following year she won the John Bates Clark Medal, the most prestigious award after the Nobel Prize in economics, nicknamed the “Nobel-in-waiting.”

In 2011, she co-authored Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty with Abhijit Banerjee of MIT. It was awarded the Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year, and has been translated into at least ten languages. That same year, Time magazine named her one of 100 most influential people in the world. In 2012 Foreign Policy magazine named Duflo one of the “Top 100 Global Thinkers.”

Some have argued that the appointment of this left-of-center French intellectual is adding fuel to the fire of criticism from those who view Obama’s economic policy as socialist-inclined. Nevertheless, Esther Duflo will bring her insight to the table this year, alongside Obama and eleven other experts in the field.

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