#50over50: Abhijit Banerjee
Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee is the Person Behind Personality in my 50 over 50 list! When I met him recently, I was happy to find him to be the same: simple and practical person that he was 13 years ago. It's amazing how his lab drew parallels between two distinct but mammoth social problems: poverty and healthcare, in order to solve the former issue in a methodical way.
When I was co-hosting Aamra Grove with Anand Mahindra in 2007, we wanted to invite some out-of-the-box thinkers from academia. Anand suggested Abhijit Banerjee from MIT and we invited him to Mohonk Mountain House to join us. In 2003, Abhijit started J-PAL (Jameel Poverty Action Lab) and we all wanted to learn about his plans for the lab. At our gathering, he said the lab was set up with the goal of transforming how the world approaches the challenges of global poverty. I was taken in by the fact that they were going about tackling poverty in a very logical way. And the lessons to this approach come from the healthcare industry!
Let’s pause for a second and look at the healthcare industry. While we still may not have a cure for cancer and are still struggling with providing basic healthcare to all, we have made huge strides in the area. For example, we have eradicated polio and smallpox which were once thought to be deadly diseases. We have made so many advances that the life expectancy of human race has increased dramatically. And how have we done it? When we want to introduce a medicine that could potentially save millions of lives, we run clinical trials, we observe results, we note the failures, make the tweaks, and keep improving the effectiveness of the drug. We make the best possible medicine by observing the results on the field.
The question is why not apply the same principles to a large social issue like poverty? J-PAL uses economics and research tools to conduct Randomized Control Trials (RCTs) that test behaviour and outcomes. Many programs like Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Pratham are collaborating with the lab to better design their programs.
Do all the government schemes we have in place to send children to school, actually result in them being better educated? That understanding pointed to the fact that we need better teachers and curriculum than just schools. Once the kid comes to school, what makes the parents keep him or her in school? Of all the schemes like giving them transportation to come to school, giving free meals etc., deworming the kids has higher likelihood of keeping kids in school. To find such answers, the lab conducts large-scale tests in different geographic locations, collects the results, and analyses them to come up with the best observations. It is about bringing an academic and quantitative rigor to large social questions. It takes guesswork out of implementing schemes and making decisions. This takes a lot of patience and ability to sustain the study for long periods of time. What started as a small lab in 2003, has over 400 research professionals working with many foundations and institutions.
What an institution like MIT provides an academic like Abhijit Banerjee is a safe haven to think without having to worry about either raising or managing funds. While the donors are impressed with the work Abhijit is doing, the university administration does the follow up to collect and manage the funds. When Abhijit was on his trip across India in January 2020, he was asked if he would have got the Nobel prize if he lived in India and the honest answer was “probably no.”
Apart from Rabindranath Tagore, the rest of the Nobel Laureates of Indian origin got their awards for the work they had done in the west. They all had a larger ecosystem that not just funded their work but let them be free to think without worrying about the day-to-day operations. Ironically, this practice prevailed in India prior to the British invasion. The Maharajas used to support the arts, culture, and science by providing patronage for the best minds such that their talents were treated with respect. And today, corporations and foundations have to step up in a huge way to make this happen. Abhijit is the Ford Foundation Chair at Harvard and his lab is supported by many foundations. If not for these corporations, foundations, and academic institutions, he could not have tried all these experiments which were essential to form theories.
The one thing about Abhijit that has not changed in the dozen years that have passed between the first time I met him and the recent encounter – he remains a simple person with no demands and has a very dry sense of humor. Also, he wears his fame with a sense of practicality. It is as though he knows that this too shall pass. When he was congratulated on wearing a white dhoti along with his Fellow recipient and wife, Esther Duflo; his answer was that it was easier to do that than to wear white tails that were required for the ceremony. It was not about making a statement about your culture or an effort to be different – it was just a simpler and more practical solution than be bothered with wearing formals.
I was truly thrilled when I heard that Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer shared the Nobel prize for economics in 2019. Part of it was pure pride of our shared heritage and part of it was the thrill that we celebrated his work before the world showered him with the much deserved accolades. And it was even more thrilling to see that the success has not changed him!