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MIT Better World

By Mark Sullivan

From scrappy beginnings 20 years ago, J-PAL has grown into a network of more than 750 researchers worldwide rigorously evaluating the most—and least—effective approaches to fighting poverty. It has launched multiple initiatives to concentrate resources around key priorities for policymakers, launched regional offices, and amassed hundreds of government and nonprofit partnerships to share findings and catalyze the adoption of evidence at scale. The result: more than half a billion people across the globe have been reached by programs and policies informed by insights from researchers affiliated with J-PAL over the past two decades.

Applying to economics the methodology long used for testing new drugs and medical treatments, J-PAL-affiliated scientists carry out randomized controlled trials that, in the words of J-PAL cofounder and Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Esther Duflo PhD ’99, take “big problems and break them into manageable pieces, smaller questions that admit rigorous answers.” It’s an approach that provides an alternative to “basing decisions on instinct, ideology, or inertia,” says J-PAL global executive director Iqbal Dhaliwal.

In 2019, Duflo; J-PAL cofounder Abhijit Banerjee, the Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics; and longtime affiliate and then Harvard economics professor Michael Kremer were awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. The Nobel committee cited the economists’ research that “has considerably improved our ability to fight global poverty” and credited their “new experiment-based approach” with transforming development economics.

Two years after its founding in 2003 by Banerjee, Duflo, and Sendhil Mullainathan, now at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, what was then known as the MIT Poverty Action Lab partnered with Community Jameel, an organization advancing science to help communities confront pressing challenges. The lab was renamed in honor of the late Abdul Latif Jameel, father of Mohammed Jameel ’78, Community Jameel founder and chairman.

United States

A Federal Office to Bolster Evidence-Based Policymaking

Regional office J-PAL North America contributed in 2015 to the creation of the Office of Evaluation Sciences (OES), whose goal is to “build and use evidence to better serve the public.” Since then, OES has conducted more than 90 evaluations with 20 federal agencies and impacted policymaking across a range of sectors. J-PAL staff and affiliates continue to partner with OES.

Promoting Housing Choice to Improve Economic Mobility

Evidence from a flagship randomized evaluation to test the impact of offering rental assistance to help families living in high-poverty neighborhoods move to low-poverty areas provided the impetus for several policy changes at local and federal levels to expand housing choice for families with low incomes.


Government Innovation Lab to Improve Education

With support from J-PAL, Peru’s Ministry of Education created MineduLAB, a unit to identify, test, and scale low-cost interventions to improve educational outcomes. MineduLAB has conducted nine randomized evaluations and committed to scaling up three programs. It has also informed the design of similar innovation laboratories in Latin America.


Information and Enforcement to Reduce Overfishing

Evidence from a randomized evaluation and cost-effectiveness analysis led the Chilean government to expand a consumer information campaign to prevent the overfishing of Pacific hake, which presents a formidable environmental and economic challenge. The study found that awareness campaigns and vendor enforcement strategies helped reduce the availability of illegal hake in local markets.

illustration of France


Unintended Effects of Anonymous Résumés

The French government, which had been looking for effective ways to counteract discrimination in labor markets, abandoned a policy that would have required firms to make recruitment decisions based on anonymized résumés after research showed that a voluntary pilot scheme actually harmed underrepresented applicants’ employment chances.

illustration of kenya


Deworming to Increase School Attendance

After research by J-PAL affiliates found that school-based distribution of deworming pills in areas of Kenya with high rates of child intestinal worm infection boosted health and school attendance, the approach has been scaled to reach more than 280 million children. J-PAL research has since led to the launch of similar efforts in Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Nigeria, and Vietnam.

illustration of india


Clean Cookstoves Program Flickers Out

A global campaign backed by the United Nations sought to reduce indoor air pollution by replacing open-fire cooking with less polluting stoves. J-PAL field researchers in India found the new cookstoves did not reduce smoke exposure, improve health, or reduce fuel usage. The policy lessons: identifying the right technology is key, and new approaches need to be tested in real-world conditions over extended periods before they are widely adopted.

illustration of indonesia


How Debit Cards Helped the Poor Obtain More Food

For years, the Indonesian government sent bags of rice to villages, where leaders were supposed to distribute them to poor residents. However, people received the full intended amount only 24% of the time. When recipients were instead sent debit cards to buy food themselves, millions of Indonesians started receiving the intended amount 81% of the time. According to a study co-led by J-PAL economists, for the poorest 15% of households, this switch to debit cards reduced the overall poverty rate by 20%.

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