2009 MacArthur fellow Esther Duflo is pushing the field of development economics by studying specific causal relationships that lead to or perpetuate poverty. She looks at close-to-home issues: household behavior, education, access to finance and health.
At MIT, she's the founder and director of the Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), a research network that evaluates social programs. It's concerned less with wide-ranging policy than with specific questions. Sample: If schoolkids could get their uniforms for free, would attendance go up? What's an effective way to reward mothers for immunizing their babies? Randomized trials offer new insights toward creating global equity and prosperity. Her work may blur the lines between economics and activism, but it's a role Duflo not only considers comfortable but vital.
Her new book is Poor Economics, with Abhijit W. Banerjee.