By Amit Roy
AN INDIAN origin academic, Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee, is among three people who have been awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize for economics “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty”.
Banerjee, 58, shares the nine million Swedish krona (£728,000) prize with his wife, Esther Duflo, 46 – the couple are professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – and Michael Kremer, 54, Gates Professor of Developing Societies at Harvard University.
“Their research is helping us fight poverty,”said the Nobel committee, which made its announcement on Monday (14).
Telephoned from Sweden with the news at 4am in America, Banerjee apparently went back to sleep although he was soon woken up by a flurry of congratulatory calls, especially from India.
Although Banerjee has not been entirely supportive of the Indian government’s economic policies, prime minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “Congratulations to Abhijit Banerjee on being conferred the 2019 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. He has made notable contributions in the field of poverty alleviation.
“I also congratulate Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer for winning the prestigious Nobel.”
The Nobel economics prize- technically known as the Sveriges Riksbank Prize- is the only award not created by philanthropist Alfred Nobel. Instead, the economics prize was created by the Swedish central bank “in memory of Alfred Nobel” and first awarded in 1969.
The former Congress president Rahul Gandhi caused controversy by tweeting: “Abhijit helped conceptualise NYAY that had the power to destroy poverty and boost the Indian economy. Instead, we now have Modinomics, that’s destroying the economy and boosting poverty.”
That brought a swift rebuke from Amit Malviya of the Bharatiya Janata Party: “Here is PM Modi congratulating Abhijit Banerjee without any ifs and buts despite knowing that he has been a critic.
“And Rahul Gandhi is not only politicising Abhijit’s Nobel prize, but also using it to attack PM Modi. I know it is tough but will Rahul ever learn to be graceful?”
Nirmala Banerjee, mother of Abhijit Banerjee Photo: STR/AFP via Getty Images.
Banerjee was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata) on 21 February 1961 to Dipak Banerjee, professor and head of economics at the city’s Presidency College and Nirmala Banerjee, economics professor, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, also in the capital city.
The young Abhijit attended South Point School and Presidency College, where he completed his BSc in economics before doing his MA in economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi and his PhD at Harvard. Before joining MIT, where he is now the Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics, he taught at Harvard and Princeton.
The award was hailed by Amartya Sen, one of the world’s foremost economists who was himself the sole winner of the Nobel for Economics in 1998: “I’m very, very happy and delighted that Abhijit Banerjee along with others have been awarded the Nobel for Economics.
Because both men are Bengali, attended Presidency College and most importantly, have worked in the field of poverty, Banerjee was hailed as “Sen’s spiritual heir” when he and Duflo, once his PhD student, jointly won the £30,000 Financial Times Business Book of the Year in 2011.
That was for their seminal work, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty.
The award ceremony that year took place at the William Wallace Collection, a sumptuous mini-palace in Manchester Square, London, which contains a fabulous display of French furniture, paintings and ceramics. The winner was announced over dinner, attended by, among others, Lakshmi Mittal. The judges included Shriti Vadera, now chairman of Santander UK.
On the cover of the book was a perspicuous plug from Sen- “a marvellously insightful book… on the real nature of poverty”. “The book is a journey into the multifaceted and complex lives of the poor, based on over fifteen years of work the authors have done with the poor, trying to understand the specific problems that come with poverty – and to find proven solutions,” the FT said about the winning entry in a competitive field. The editor of the FT and chairman of the panel of judges, Lionel Barber, said: “I was blown away by the thoroughness of the empirical research. This is going to be a real basis for innovation in policy, innovation in government, and a guide to intellectual debate. This is a business book in the broadest sense.”
The prize was then co-sponsored by the Goldman Sachs Group, whose chairman and CEO, Lloyd C Blankfein, commented: “This is an important and thoughtful book. It provides real insight into many of the fundamental issues that can help alleviate poverty. Poor Economics is a deserving prize winner.”
Eight years on, there is an explanation as to why the authors are considered deserving winners of the Nobel.
The Nobel committee posed the question: “What is the best way to design measures that reduce global poverty? Using innovative research based on field experiments, Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer have laid the foundation for answering this question that is so vital to humanity.”
It said: “Over the last two decades, people’s living standards have noticeably improved almost everywhere in the world. Economic wellbeing (measured as GDP per capita) doubled in the poorest countries between 1995 and 2018. Child mortality has halved relative to 1995, and the proportion of children attending school has increased from 56 to 80 per cent.
“Despite this progress, gigantic challenges remain. Over 700 million people still subsist on extremely low incomes. Every year, five million children still die before their fifth birthday, often from diseases that could be prevented or cured with relatively cheap and simple treatments. Half of the world’s children still leave school without basic literacy and numeracy skills.”
The committee said: “The research conducted by this year’s Laureates has considerably improved our ability to fight global poverty. In just two decades, their new experiment-based approach has transformed development economics, which is now a flourishing field of research.
“The Laureates’ research findings – and those of the researchers following in their footsteps – have dramatically improved our ability to fight poverty in practice. As a direct result of one of their studies, more than five million Indian children have benefitted from effective programmes of remedial tutoring in schools. Another example is the heavy subsidies for preventive healthcare that have been introduced in many countries.
“These are just two examples of how this new research has already helped to alleviate global poverty. It also has great potential to further improve the lives of the worst-off people around the world.”
Duflo, who is only the second woman to win the prize and the youngest, and her husband have set up the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Alleviation centre at MIT. It is believed only five other couples have ever shared a Nobel Prize.
“Our goal is to make sure the fight against poverty is based on scientific evidence,” Duflo told a press conference. “Often the poor get reduced to caricatures and even those (who) try to help them do not understand the deep roots of what is making them poor… We try to address problems as scientifically as possible.”
“Showing that it is possible for a woman to succeed and be recognised for success I hope is going to inspire many, many other women to continue working and many other men to give them the respect that they deserve like every single human being,” she added.