The “plumbers” of science to the rescue of the climate

2023-04-29 00:12:43

The fight against climate change should take the example of the fight against poverty in the world, says the Nobel economist Esther Duflo, that is to say, beware of the hope of “miracle solutions” and instead multiply measures more modest, but very concrete, having proven their effectiveness in reality.

For 30 years, immense progress has been made in reducing poverty in the world, recalled the expert in the field on Friday during a conference at the University of Montreal. Not only has the global population living in extreme poverty (less than $2 a day) halved from 2010 to 2019, from 15% to 8%, but several other indicators of well-being, such as death rates infant and maternal, have followed the same trajectory.

This remarkable achievement is not only attributable to the extraordinary economic awakening of China and India as is often said, she points out. It also stems from the fact that governments and major international institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, have ceased to fixate on the sole variable of economic growth and have instead aimed for progress in multiple areas of development, such as education, health, poverty, women’s rights or the environment. And to help them, they were able to rely on the lessons learned from a new scientific approach firmly rooted in pragmatism and using control and experimental groups to test the effectiveness of various measures in the field.

It was in 2019 that Esther Duflo was awarded “the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel” alongside her American husband of Indian origin, Abhijit Banerjee, as well as the ‘American Michael Kremer.

The youngest laureate (46 years old) and only second woman (after Elinor Ostrom in 2009) to win the prestigious distinction, more commonly known as the “Nobel Prize in Economics”, the Frenchwoman has become a star of economics through her humanist approach and firmly rooted in reality, which often upsets received ideas.

The tiny economist who talks nervously was in particular in Montreal to receive the Lumières prize on inequalities, awarded jointly by the Quebec Observatory of Inequalities and the international literary festival Blue Metropolis. The Quebec anthropologist Francine Saillant, the politician Christianne Taubira and another economist, the American Joseph Stiglitz, had been entitled to the same honor in past years.

Facts first

Unlike ideologues, who are not interested in facts, or theoreticians, who seek simple and elegant models, Esther Duflo likes to compare her work to that of “a plumber” who seeks above all to understand the situation without preconceptions. , which pays attention to detail and uses a fair amount of trial and error.

With the 400 researchers associated with the Poverty Action Laboratory (J-PAL), which she co-directs with her husband, the professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has thus, over the years, contributed to improving policies and programs reaching more than 600 million people, mainly in developing countries, but also in rich countries.

At one time, for example, it was a popular theory that providing poor people with free mosquito nets to prevent malaria depreciates their value to them, to the point of reducing their long-term use. Thus, we gave away mosquito nets in villages and sold them for a small sum in other villages, only to realize in the end that the theory was false. Since then, we have started by giving away mosquito nets, which has helped 70% of households keep the habit of having them, as well as reducing the number of cases of malaria by 450 million.

We could also talk about this ambitious project to connect poor families to the aqueduct network, which no one seemed to want in Tangier, Morocco, until researchers in the field showed that it was enough to simplify the formalities. registration so that more than two-thirds of the targeted households request it.

If the expert had to cite a single misconception that she would like to uproot first, she does not look long. “An idea that we find both among public policy makers and among many academics – in poor countries as in rich countries – is that helping people financially makes them lazy, she said. said in an interview Duty. It’s just not true. Experience after experience proves this to be false. And yet, social policy remains completely inspired by this misconception. »

“If we managed to get rid of this idea, it would make a lot of progress with better designed, more effective and fairer policies,” she continues. “We have to stop being suspicious of the poor,” she used to say.

The progress of recent years on the front of the war against poverty is however threatened today “to be partially erased” by global warming and its disproportionate impact on developing countries, warned Esther Duflo. But in this case, “there is nothing that poor countries can do” to significantly reduce a problem of greenhouse gas emissions “essentially linked to the consumption of rich countries”.

Unfortunately, “the ecosystem of climate today looks a bit like the ecosystem of poverty 15 years ago. That is to say an absolute search for the miracle solution, be it nuclear power, electric cars, carbon capture. While I am absolutely convinced that, as with poverty, [la solution] going to be a multitude of things. None particularly fantastic or extraordinary, individually, but which, if we look in 30 years – it is my hope – will have allowed progress”.

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