Pushing evidence-based policymaking for the poor

Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, co-founders and co-directors of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) and Nobel Laureates in economics, author an article promoting evidence-based policy for poverty alleviation, the core mission of the now 20 year-old globally operating lab, and acknowledging the government, academic and non-government partners in India.

Abhijit and Esther write, 'These relationships reflect a small revolution in how economists do their research. The research is hands-on rather than hands-off, solving real problems but also learning better how the world works. The traditional dichotomy between the starry eyed researcher trapped in the ivory tower and the practically minded implementer who is too busy to reflect is crumbling. Good researchers know how to be practical and good policymakers know when they need to move beyond their comfort zone, and they relish the experience.'


We set up J-PAL, the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2003. J-PAL is now a network of researchers around the world (160 and counting) united by the mission to improve the quality of the policies that affect poor people worldwide by ensuring that policy decisions are based on scientific evidence. Our tool of choice is the randomized controlled trial (RCT), borrowed from medical science: each candidate’s intervention is first tried out in a treatment group randomly chosen from a larger population. In this way, any difference between the treatment group and the comparison group can be confidently attributed to the treatment. So for example, to study the effect of a new teaching tool, 100 schools chosen by lots from 200 will get the tool, while the rest will continue to use the status quo methods to see whether the new pedagogy makes any difference.

Today, J-PAL researchers have conducted or are in the process of conducting about 850 distinct RCTs in close to 80 countries. The research spans health, nutrition, healthcare, education, finance, labour markets governance, the environment and the design of social support programmes. This year we are celebrating the 10th birthday of our South Asia office and today, India has by far our largest office.