Profile of Abhijeet Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Iqbal Dhaliwal

IMF’s Finance and Development Quarterly Magazine profiles the trio behind rise of JPAL.

In a world that increasingly despises expertise and academic research, where the very perception of reality is often shaped by political beliefs, J-PAL can claim objectivity, providing policy advice based on evidence tested in the field using a scientific approach. It can show palpable results in helping vulnerable people solve very practical problems.

Banerjee and Duflo are at its center. They founded the organization in 2003 as the Poverty Action Lab, along with Sendhil Mullainathan, a former Harvard professor who is still a contributor. They set out to change the world’s approach to poverty, no less.

In 2005, the Lab was renamed to honor the father of Mohammed Jameel, an MIT alum and Saudi businessman and philanthropist whose family foundation is an ongoing supporter. Other backers include large private donors and advanced economy development agencies.

J-PAL’s staff includes about 400 research, policy, education, and training professionals, with headquarters in Cambridge and regional centers in North America, Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. An additional 200 researchers oversee projects that are executed by about 1,000 contractors. The organization has awarded $63 million in grants to fund new research since its founding in 2003.

Although its focus was initially on poor and emerging market economies, J-PAL is now active in Europe, researching, for example, initiatives to promote social inclusion of immigrants. Its North America branch has projects on retraining and skills development for workers, homelessness and housing, criminal justice reform, and health.

Iqbal Dhaliwal’s role has been important:

Dhaliwal, the J-PAL executive director, was hired 11 years ago to address that specific problem. He is a fast-talking Indian economist with degrees from the University of Delhi and Princeton and is married to Gita Gopinath, the IMF chief economist.

“When Esther hired me in 2009, they had realized that the journey from a research result into a policy action requires much more considered effort,” Dhaliwal says. To bridge the gap, evidence must be made accessible to policymakers andsvalidated by other studies in different contexts. In addition, implementation needs to be monitored to bring new reality checks back to the policy findings, Dhaliwal says.

Post Covid-19 world for JPAL:

As of mid-March, J-PAL, like the rest of the world, was locking down to stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. The organization quickly made operational adjustments like pulling staff from the field and increasing phone surveys. It offered financing to quickly launch new research initiatives such as cash transfers, digital identification, and innovation in government practices.

The pandemic presented a new set of big problems and showed how critical it can be to have accurate, timely statistics. It underscored the importance of using government administrative data to improve decision-making and share results “faster and cheaper than [with] field work,” Dhaliwal says.

Dhaliwal says the post–COVID-19 world will reassess the role and value of governments in a crisis, leading to better public management and more appreciation of the importance of social protection.

“For the last few years, a lot of new philanthropy has premised itself on the belief that governments are unnecessary and can be bypassed,” he says. “This crisis makes it clearer that we all need to invest in building governments’ capacity to make good decisions and to be resilient to handle big events like this one,” he adds, mentioning as an example the ability to make quick emergency cash transfers, which has been a challenge even for a country like the United States.

Dhaliwal sees the coronavirus plague as foreshadowing what a climate crisis could look like.

“This pandemic has shown us, first, the supremacy of nature and, second, how once a tipping point is hit (community spread of infections or increase in earth’s temperature), it is very hard to avoid significant damage and death,” he says. “So the time to act is now. It has also shown that if we do the right thing (like social distancing), and do it drastically, it can have a positive impact.”

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