As Tavneet Suri (Louis E. Seley Professor of Applied Economics) and Esther Duflo, PhD ’99, (Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics) recently explained during their fireside chat at the MIT Sloan Women’s Conference, they are in the movement-creating business.
Specifically, the business of creating a global movement to end poverty—a goal Suri, Duflo, and their colleagues at the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) have been working toward ever since the initiative was founded in 2003.
“This can’t happen without a movement of people,” Duflo told the audience. “It’s what we’ve said from the very first day: It’s a movement of thousands of researchers, people in the field, and you and government.”
Building a movement
Duflo, who won the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics with Abhijit Banerjee (Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics) and Michael Kremer, co-founded J-PAL with Banerjee and Sendhil Mullainathan in 2003.
At the time, the three MIT economists wanted to do “something more meaningful” than simply acquiring more funds for their individual research projects.
“We wanted to start building a network of people across many universities, and we wanted to be able to leverage this network to do what academics are not good at doing: translating their research for policymakers, answering policymakers’ questions about their findings, and discovering new ways to make ourselves useful to them,” said Duflo.
The mission of J-PAL was to bolster poverty alleviation policies around the world through scientific research. Specifically, Duflo and her co-founders wanted to use their scientific research and the research of others in their network to educate and train policymakers tasked with tackling poverty around the world.
To accomplish its mission, J-PAL and its affiliates would have to work for many years, if not decades, in places like India and Africa to create public goods the researchers “likely won’t see the direct impacts of during [their] professional lives.” And as Duflo explained it, that was the whole point.
“Suddenly, it exploded after almost 20 years, and now there are thousands of researchers in our network from around the world,” said Duflo. “It’s about them, it’s about consummating the research into action, and it’s about making the research better.”
Becoming more inclusive
As large and impactful as J-PAL’s network and its public outreach have become, however, there is still more work to be done.
“It’s a movement but it hasn’t been as inclusive of a movement as we have liked,” said Suri, who serves as scientific director of J-PAL Africa and co-chairs the lab’s agriculture sector and the Digital Identification and Finance Initiative in Africa. “It needs to be a global movement and I think we have a responsibility to make it that.”
To that end, various efforts across J-PAL’s seven regional offices in Africa, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East and North Africa, North America, South Asia, and Southeast Asia are actively trying to expand the network.
“We’ve built an agenda to reach out to academics on the ground so that this is truly a global movement and not a movement just here,” said Suri, who offered the example of J-PAL Africa’s efforts to prove more funding to African academics and foster better collaborations with them.
“This has been a big part of trying to take very seriously what Esther and Abhijit said when they received the Nobel, which is, ‘It’s a movement,’” said Suri. “That’s the exciting point of what’s coming next.”
Visit the recap website to see more selected highlights from the MIT Sloan Women’s Conference.