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Esther Duflo

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The Poor Economist

When you’re a 38-year-old economist and have already won a ‘Genius’ fellowship, are tipped to be a future Nobel-prize winner, have addressed a committee of the General Assembly of the UN and can pick up the phone to call Bill (that would be Gates, though we’re betting Clinton would just as easily take her call), one would expect the world’s financial capitals to be your playing field.

Instead you’re more likely to find Esther Duflo fervently at work in villages across India, Ghana and Kenya, testing her radical theories with unusual methods, bridging the gap between economic theory and ground realities. So, she incentivised de-worming medicine for poor villagers by offering a kilo of lentils free, and counter-intuitively, chose to charge for mosquito nets, something that had earlier been available for free. This time, she found villagers a lot readier to use them.

But just when you think you’ve got Duflo, professor of Development Economics at MIT, all figured out, she reveals a passion for rock-climbing in the Alps and Africa, Indian cooking and a band called Madness. In between, she found time to co-author Poor Economics with MIT colleague and fellow THINKfest speaker Abhijit Banerjee, an ‘accessible’ book on the lines of Freakonomics that has the typically staid—and male-dominated—world of development economics buzzing. “Sometimes, it helps to be a woman in economics,” she laughed in an interview to Britain’s The Telegraph recently. “There is always some academic committee that needs to fill a quota.”

Hearing Duflo speak is a pleasure that doesn’t come easy—in 2009, she became the youngest woman ever to be invited to speak at the 500-year-old
Collège de France; hundreds, including former French PM Dominique de Villepin, found themselves crowded out.

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