“J-PAL fits in perfectly with MIT’s mission and values — to make the world a better place through service to humanity. Everyone here is concerned with questions of deep moral importance — and that is how to relieve human poverty and the suffering it creates.”
— MIT President L. Rafael Reif, at the J-PAL@10 gathering
MORE THAN A THOUSAND PEOPLE from across the nation and the world gathered at MIT on December 7, 2013 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). The program featured stories from the field, talks and videos, panel discussions with researchers, policymakers, staff, and partners — and a musical tribute from Bono, of the rock band U2, singing "Happy Birthday" to J-PAL via video.
Established in 2003 as a research center within the Economics Department of MIT's School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, J-PAL's founders pioneered the use of randomized control trials to test the effectiveness of anti-poverty programs. Today, J-PAL comprises a global network of nearly 100 researchers working in 55 countries. (2015 update: 100+ researchers in 66 countries).
A pioneering approach
“J-PAL fits in perfectly with MIT’s mission and values — to make the world a better place through service to humanity,” said MIT President L. Rafael Reif, who addressed the crowd during the morning session of the daylong anniversary conference, J-PAL@TEN, which took place in Kresge Auditorium. “Everyone here is concerned with questions of deep moral importance — and that is how to relieve human poverty and the suffering it creates.”
To date (in 2013), J-PAL has completed 447 randomized evaluations addressing such questions as: Do free bed nets help the fight against malaria? [Yes]; Does vocational training improve youth employment? [Sometimes]; Does electronic monitoring improve attendance among health professionals? [No.]; and Do deworming programs boost school performance? [Yes].
J-PAL comprises a global network of 100+ researchers working in 66 countries. Their impact can be measured in the millions of people around the globe whose lives have been improved through J-PAL research. As of 2013, these include: 65.6 million people who have received subsidized rice, 33.89 million people who have received remedial education, and 59.14 million who have benefited from deworming programs.
Measuring the impact
J-PAL comprises a global network of 100+ researchers working in 66 countries. Through J-PAL research, their ability to improve the well-being of people and communities is increased significantly. To date, 202.72 million people have been reached by programs that were found to be successful by J-PAL affiliates and then scaled-up in different parts of the world.
J-PAL's results do not come easily, as J-PAL Deputy Director Iqbal Dhaliwal emphasized in his talk. “Policy is really, really hard to change. Institutions have constraints,” he said. “[And,] people are hard to change. People rely on instincts, ideology, and inertia.”
Running research projects to provide evidence of what works, and then communicating results to ensure that proven programs are scaled up, takes an extraordinary amount of support. J-PAL Director Abhijit Banerjee therefore used his time on stage to express his gratitude for all the help J-PAL has received in the past decade — beginning with MIT’s support for the lab’s launch.
“MIT had faith in us," Banerjee said. He went on to credit J-PAL’s growth to financial support — from the Jameel family, MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, and others — and to the on-the-ground legwork provided by the lab’s many partners in impoverished areas worldwide, and to the contributions of government leaders who put J-PAL’s research findings into action through policy.
Program Areas | updated for 2015
Agriculture — over 66 projects in 23 countries
Education — over 169 projects in 36 countries
Energy and Environment — over 33 projects in 14 countries
Finance and Microfinance — over 204 projects in 43 countries
Health — over 145 projects in 38 countries
Labor Markets — over 100 projects in 38 countries
Political Economy and Governance — over 147 projects in 35 countries
For current scale and programs, visit JPAL Projects.
J-PAL’s broad spectrum of supporters was reflected in the event’s speaker list, which included:
Major donors — notably Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel, chairman of Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives, after whose late father J-PAL is named;
J-PAL leadership — among them Executive Director Rachel Glennerster, Director Esther Duflo, and Banerjee;
Key partners from in-country programs — such as Rukmini Banerji, Director of Programs for Pratham, an education program for underprivileged children in India, and Juan Cristóbal Beytia Reyes, SJ, Chaplain of Techo, which builds housing for the impoverished of Latin America; and
Governmental leaders — among them Martin Hirsch, former high commissioner of France, and Alan Krueger, former chairman of the US Council of Economic Advisers.
In addition to those who spoke in person, several sent video messages, including Jim Kim, president of the World Bank, Jairam Ramesh, India’s minister of rural development.
Top: L to R: J-PAL Executive Director Rachel Glennerster; Abhijit Banerjee, MIT economist, J-PAL Founder and Director; Rukmini Banerji, Director of Programs for Pratham. Bottom, L to R: Ben Olken, MIT economist, and a JPAL Director; Esther Duflo, MIT development economist, JPAL Founder and Director; Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel (after whose late father J-PAL is named), Chairman of Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives.
A compelling mission
What drew so many people from as far away as Brazil, India, Tanzania, Saudi Arabia, and Sweden to MIT on a chilly Saturday in Decmeber. For some, it was simply the power of J-PAL’s mission combined with the demonstrated success of its evidence-based approach. Tiantian White ’13, who graduated from MIT with a degree in biology, said, “When I was a student at MIT pursuing my passion in science, I often struggled thinking how I can apply all the knowledge from my statistics and experimental biology class to poverty alleviation, something I am equally passionate about.” Now working as a policy analyst at J-PAL, White said she has discovered that “the ability to apply the scientific approach to problem-solving and the understanding of rigorous evidence can be tremendously powerful in tackling extreme poverty.”
Hearing about J-PAL’s humble beginnings was particularly inspiring, White said. “We sometimes forget how much we can do to make this world a better place,” she said. “The J-PAL story at J-PAL@TEN is one that reminds us of that fact.”
Other attendees were drawn as much by the speaker list as by J-PAL’s record of accomplishment. Tracy Ware, for example, came to see J-PAL Director Esther Duflo. “She has rock star status,” said Ware, who works for Empower Dalit Women of Nepal in North Waltham, MA, and took “The Challenges of Global Poverty,” a massive open online course that Duflo teaches with Banerjee.
Duflo spoke just before lunch, and her topic was “Getting It Wrong, Trying Again, Getting It Right (Sometimes).” Characteristically, Duflo was more interested in discussing the challenges J-PAL faces going forward than in highlighting the accomplishments of the past. “How have we been so slow?” she said. “165 million [impacted by J-PAL] is really very little in comparison to the hundreds of millions who stand in need.”
Yet, if J-PAL’s progress seems slow when measured against the scale of the world’s problems, it is nonetheless impressive. “In 10 years I’ve learned some things,” Duflo admitted. “Our role is to chip away at the problem long enough and persistently enough so we can identify the levers that can improve the situation. To change lives we have to change minds,” Duflo added. “And I’m pretty sure we can do that.”
J-PAL's six regional offices are located in universities in Europe, South Asia, Latin America, Africa, Southeast Asia, and North America. Research by J-PAL affiliates has contributed to several important policy debates, for instance, by providing evidence that charging even very small prices for preventative health products significantly reduces use.
J-PAL’s chipping away has clearly been relentless. From one small office at MIT in 2003, the lab has grown to cover the world with six regional offices. This summer, the organization launched the newest of the six: J-PAL North America.
MIT Professor Amy Finkelstein, who directs J-PAL North America with Professor Lawrence Katz of Harvard, emphasized in her talk that J-PAL’s methods can have significant impact even in the developed world. Describing her work on the Oregon Health Insurance Study, a randomized study of the effects of expanding access to health insurance, Finkelstein noted that something important changes when a program’s results are measured scientifically. “What’s really gratifying to me is that no one is arguing about the results, they’re arguing about what it means,” she said.
The next decade begins
To wrap up the day, Banerjee, Duflo, and Glennerster joined fellow J-PAL Director Benjamin Olken in a panel discussion titled “J-PAL: The Next Decade.” Going forward, Olken said he expects J-PAL to increase its involvement with governments to ensure policies have strong evidentiary support. And, Banerjee said he expects J-PAL’s research will begin to take off in new directions. “People will think of ways to measure things we don’t think can be measured, like corruption,” he said.
That said, since J-PAL's affiliated professors set their own research agendas, it’s impossible to predict exactly what questions the Lab will tackle next, as Glennerster pointed out. "We have a belief in a bottom-up approach, and a large part of our role is to encourage the creativity of the researchers on the ground. That’s where the magic happens."
Abdul Jameel Latif Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL)
Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Senior Writer: Kathryn O’Neill
Photographs courtesy of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab