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Rehumanising the poor

Lazy. Desperate. Helpless. Resilient. Resourceful. Undeserving. All over the world, the ways in which our societies view the poor are mired with stereotypes.

Those of us who have worked with poor communities around the world know the struggle of fighting these stereotypes with a harsh truth: the decisions that poor people make can be very difficult for an outsider to understand. We often make decisions for the poor: what they should get to eat, where they should get to work, how much money they should get, what they should use that money for, how their children should be educated and so on. In a well-meaning attempt to improve the lives of the poor, we often strip them of their human agency, thinking that we know better how to take care of them.

Determined to move the poor back into the centre of their own decisions are the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics: Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer. Banerjee and Duflo are two of the co-founders of Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston. Kremer, a professor at Harvard University, has been a longtime associate of J-PAL. The lab was opened in 2003 to expand on Banerjee’s and Duflo’s idea of using randomised trials to test policies implemented to fight global poverty. Since then, the lab has conducted randomised evaluations in over 80 countries. Duflo is the youngest ever recipient of the prize and the second woman to have ever received it.

In 2011, Banerjee and Duflo published their book Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. At the core of their approach to the book is a restoration of the agency of poor people in making their own decisions by seeing how they react to different aid incentives. Traditional policies for aiding the poor “rarely have much space for average poor women or men, with their hopes and doubts, limitations and aspirations, beliefs and confusions,” write Banerjee and Duflo.

Formulaic thinking…

Before Banerjee and Duflo’s work on global poverty, randomised trials were almost exclusively used in medical research. By expanding it to developmental economics, they sparked a wider movement to implement randomised experiments to try and understand complex economic and social issues. Their work cautions against “the kind of lazy, formulaic thinking that reduces every problem to the same set of general principles” and instead pushes us to “listen to poor people themselves and force ourselves to understand the logic of their choices.”

The field of development and aid has always been teeming with underlying issues of power imbalances, moral hierarchies, and saviour complexes. In many cases, debates on these issues overshadow the implementation of aid or its effectiveness. This year’s Nobel winners find a way around these issues to shift the focus back onto the problem itself. Economics, they argue, can be used to listen, try to understand and make small changes. And those small changes can have big effects.

The decision to award this year’s Nobel to Banerjee, Duflo, and Kremer is an honour not only for those of us who work on development but for the poor themselves. Over the past few decades, these researchers have shown that the seemingly simple act of restoring the poor’s agency and simply using aid to respond to it can have the biggest impact on the global fight against poverty. Their straightforward, humanising approach is an important lesson for all of us to listen before we judge, speak, or act, even if we think we are doing so in the best interest of others.

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