Reflections on the 2019 Nobel Mémorial Prize Awarded to Banerjee, Duflo, and Kremer

By Lisciandra, Chiara | Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics, Spring 2020 | Go to article overview

Reflections on the 2019 Nobel Mémorial Prize Awarded to Banerjee, Duflo, and Kremer


Lisciandra, Chiara, Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics


Introduction

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 2019 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel to Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, and Michael Kremer for their "experimental approach to alleviating global poverty" (Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 2019a). As soon as the news was released, it sparked a debate among economists, international development scholars and academics in general, which has been covered in the media in the following weeks.1

Even before this year's Nobel Prize, important points concerning the research program in development economics had already been raised. The debate dates back roughly two decades, when randomized field experiments started gaining momentum. Topics range from the different levels of analysis of poverty (Cohen and Easterly 2009), to methodological and ethical issues in randomized field experiments (Deaton 2009; Rodrik 2009), to the relation between economic research and policy (Duflo 2019). The debate is broad and has prompted economists to take a stance on foundational issues regarding the methods and purpose of research in development economics. It gives all of us interested in economic methodology a wonderful opportunity to plumb economists' motivations underlying their approach to the subject. This year's award has revived previous discussion and has also added to it the question of the significance of this Nobel Prize, or rather, which particular aspects of this research program made it deserve a Nobel Prize. Given that this article is a reflection on the Nobel award, let me start from some considerations about the Nobel Prize in economics more broadly and then move to the features of this year's award.

Criteria for a Nobel

Broadly speaking, what are the criteria that make a piece of research in economics worth a Nobel Prize? The Nobel committee does not have a list of criteria set in stone, but Assar Lindbeck-the chairman of the Prize Committee from 1980 to 1994-provided some indications in an overview article first published on the thirtieth anniversary of the Nobel Prize in economics:

When considering what should be regarded as a 'worthy' contribution, it is probably correct to say that the selection committee has looked, in particular, at the originality of the contribution, its scientific and practical importance, and its impact on scientific work. [...] To some extent, the committee has also considered the impact on society at large, including the impact on public policy. (Lindbeck 2007; italics added)

In the following sections, I will assess the laureates' contributions against the criteria given by Lindbeck. Does the laureates' work meet the requirement for a Nobel Prize? Do the critics contend that they don't? As it will become clearer as this paper unfolds, while there is a general consensus that at least some criteria have been met by the awardees, critics are divided on whether the laureates are deserving of the award.

The Debate

That this Nobel Prize has generated controversy has struck many as surprising. There are, in fact, some clear reasons for being in favour of the committee's decision. First, the laureates work on the economics of poverty and this year's Prize directs attention to the persistence of poverty in the world. The awardees' research focuses on topics including education, health, micro-credit, gender, and policy effectiveness in developing countries. It is estimated that, in less than two decades, the Poverty Action Lab-which supports most of the laureates' development projects-reached up to 400 million people worldwide. Moreover, this Nobel award has a symbolic significance: Banerjee is one of the few laureates from a non-Western country to receive a Nobel Prize in economics, and Duflo is the second female and the youngest laureate in economics since the award was established 50 years ago. Note that, in economics, the average age for being considered for a Nobel prize is around 65. …

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