Esther Duflo

Article excerpt

Byline: Daniel Gross

Obama taps poverty's 'rock star.'

in the first week of January, most of America's best-known economists were in San Diego, thronging the American Economic Association's annual meeting at the Manchester Grand Hyatt resort. But one of the profession's sharpest young economic minds, Esther Duflo, was off doing fieldwork in India.

Duflo, 40, is enjoying quite a run. Born and raised in France, she arrived at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1995 to pursue a Ph.D.; in 2009 she won a MacArthur "genius" grant; then in 2010 took home the John Bates Clark Medal, given to the best economist under the age of 40. Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, coauthored with her partner (and father of her child), Abhijit V. Banerjee, won the 2011 Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award. And then in late December, she was nominated for a post on the White House's new Global Development Council, an entity designed to rationalize the government's approach to foreign aid. "She's an absolute rock star," said Dean Karlan, professor of economics at Yale University and a colleague. "She's a great example of the new wave of development economists--people who are really bright and dedicated to theory, but are driven by improving the world around them."

Development economics has long been a contentious field tied up with geopolitics, ideology, and bitter, ego-driven feuds. Duflo and her colleagues have sought to defuse the dispute between what they call the "supply wallahs"--folks like Columbia's Jeffrey Sachs who believe that the poor simply need more resources--and the "demand wallahs," experts like New York University's William Easterly who believe that top-down aid programs don't work.

Instead of endlessly debating ideology, Duflo and company pursue empirical evidence. …