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Academic year 2008-2009
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Inaugural lectures

Chair Knowledge against Poverty – Academic Year 2008-2009

Esther Duflo
p. 18
Cet article est une traduction de :
Chaire Savoirs contre pauvreté

Notes de la rédaction

Esther Duflo gave her inaugural lesson on 8 January 2009. Her course entitled “Poverty and Development in the World” began on 12 January 2009.

The Chair receives support from the Agence Francaise de Développement (AFD).

The inaugural lecture is available from Editions Fayard. The video is available in French and English on the College de France website.

Texte intégral

Extracts from the inaugural lecture:

1“In 2005, 1.4 billion people were living on less than a dollar a day; each year more than 27 million children do not receive essential vaccinations, 536,000 women die in childbirth, and 6.5 million children die before their first birthday; more than half the school children in India cannot read a simple paragraph.

2Given the scale and complexity of such situations and the shock they provoke, it is tempting to either give up or else propose sweeping solutions that promise to end poverty. […] Under the auspices of the Chair “Knowledge against Poverty,” I would like to propose a third approach, one that is ambitious but also cognizant of its limitations. […] I will try to outline the possible role of economics in the fight against poverty, introducing the experimental approach to development economics. [...] The experimental approach requires the researcher to work with the implementing practitioners before the program is launched. It involves randomly selecting a sample of participants from the pool of potential beneficiaries. [...] Not only does this allow us to evaluate a given program, it also allows us, when working closely with the implementing organization, to construct experiments to test one or more underlying theories. [...] Each experiment generates new understanding, sparking new thoughts and motivating additional experiments.

3[...] Because of randomization, the experimental method is not based on potentially contestable hypotheses: if the experiment is conducted correctly, which can be easily verified, the results are what they are. If they are surprising, it is always possible to think that they are driven by chance or that they are only valid in that particular context. But the replication of the same experiment can remove this ambiguity. An experiment that yields surprising results catalyzes debate and further experimentation. Thus experiments are, better at testing economic theory. Certainly, theory inspires researchers and determines which experiments are eventually carried out. But, since the experiments can indeed contradict the theory, the validity of the experiment does not depend on the validity of the theory.

4[...] Since the program always has the potential to have real consequences in the lives of the participants, field experiments must follow certain strictures. Besides adhering to ethical standards and to the limits set by the implementing organizations, experiments also have the obligation to propose high-quality programs, that have some chance of improving the lives of the participants. These structures hold field experiments within a firm boundary. Yet, unlike retrospective studies or laboratory experiments, field experiments have a subversive power: They force scientists and field practitioners to be contradicted and surprised. This, in my opinion, is their real strength, for it gives us an opportunity to advance both the science and the fight against poverty.

5[...] General support for economic growth is essential. But unless the benefits of growth are shared, the support will not realize its end goal – a dignified existence for the greatest number of people. For this, money is not enough; it requires both the political will and the executive capacity to institute effective policy, which requires brave and radically innovative experimentation. [...] This approach is still developing. We can yet realize much richer models.[...] In all cases, the basic elements are microeconomic relationships. And the more we have confidence in our estimates of these relationships, the more we will understand which important elements to introduce into macroeconomic models and what weight to give them.

6[…] Taking my part in the challenge of generating of knowledge to fight against poverty is my job and my purpose in life. I am deeply honored to have the opportunity this year to share this passion and this process at the College de France.”

From left to right:
Michel Jacquier (AFD), Martin Hirsch (High Commissioner for Active Solidarities against Poverty), Prof Pierre Corvol (Administrator of the Collège de France, Prof Esther Duflo, Pierre Jacquet (AFD), Prof Philippe Kourilsky and Guillaume de Saint-Phalle (AFD).

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Table des illustrations

Légende From left to right: Michel Jacquier (AFD), Martin Hirsch (High Commissioner for Active Solidarities against Poverty), Prof Pierre Corvol (Administrator of the Collège de France, Prof Esther Duflo, Pierre Jacquet (AFD), Prof Philippe Kourilsky and Guillaume de Saint-Phalle (AFD).
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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

The Letter of the Collège de France, Collège de France, Paris, juin 2009, p. 18. ISSN 1958-1408

Référence électronique

Esther Duflo, « Chair Knowledge against Poverty – Academic Year 2008-2009 », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 4 | 2008-2009, mis en ligne le 15 novembre 2010, consulté le 24 mars 2017. URL :

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Esther Duflo

Professor of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Founder and Director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL)

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