Poverty Action Lab and Its Leaders Honored by SSRC

Abhijit Banerjee
Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee
Two economists battling world poverty and the institution they helped create have received the highest honor offered by the Social Science Research Council, the Albert O. Hirschman Prize for 2014.

The prize is awarded periodically for contributions to international interdisciplinary social science research, theory and public communication, according to the SSRC, in the spirit of the economist Albert Hirschman. Past recipients have been international political economist Dani Rodrick (2007), social science historian Charles Tilly (2008) and international studies professor Benedict Anderson (2011).

Esther Duflo
Esther Duflo
This year the award goes to the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, or J-PAL, located at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and its co-directors, Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo.

Founded as a research center at MIT’s Economics Department, J-PAL has grown into a global entity using evidence-based scientific research which is then translated into action to reduce world poverty. As described at the lab’s website, J-PAL does this through rigorous and randomized evaluations of poverty-fighting programs and policies, widespread dissemination of its findings to promote effective solutions and identify failing ones, and capacity building for others to replicate the first two steps on the ground.

Banerjee, Duflo, and Sendhil Mullainathan founded the Poverty Action Lab in 2003. After a series of major donations, the lab rechristened itself the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Acton Lab in honor of the father of donor and MIT alumnus Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel. Last summer the lab opened its fifth independent regional office in Indonesia, joining other such centers in Chile, France, South Africa and India.

“Few university-based initiatives in the social sciences,” the SSRC wrote on its website, “have accomplished as much as J-PAL in terms of the rigor of research and the potential of the resulting knowledge to affect both social policy and ordinary lives.”

Banejee and Duflo codified some of the J-PAL experience in 2011’s Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, which is predicated on the idea that “so much of anti-poverty policy has failed over the years because of an inadequate understanding of poverty. The battle against poverty can be won, but it will take patience, careful thinking and a willingness to learn from evidence.”

Banerjee, educated at the University of Calcutta, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Harvard University, is a past president of the Bureau for Research in the Economic Analysis of Development, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Econometric Society, and has been a Guggenheim Fellow and an Alfred P. Sloan Fellow. Duflo, educated at the Ecole Normale Supérieure and MIT, has among other honors in 2009 received a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship and a John Bates Clark Medal for the best American economist under 40 in 2010.

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