On February 18, 2015, the SSRC awarded its highest honor, the Albert O. Hirschman Prize, to Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, and to the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), which they cofounded and codirect at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The Hirschman Prize is awarded by the SSRC to scholars who have made outstanding contributions to international, interdisciplinary social science research, theory, and public communication. The 2014 Hirschman Prize selection committee consisted of Margaret Levi, Harriet Zuckerman, and Hirschman biographer Jeremy Adelman, who deliberated over a roster of deserving nominees before selecting Banerjee and Duflo and the groundbreaking work being done by J-PAL.
Like Albert Hirschman, Banerjee and Duflo are deeply committed to producing new social scientific knowledge that expands frontiers of discovery while also confronting deep practical and ethical issues. They share Hirschman’s passion for promoting economic development and alleviating poverty and its disastrous effects.
Institutions, as well as individuals, deserve recognition for their contributions to scholarship and policy, and so this year’s award also honors J-PAL as an institution. Few university-based initiatives in the social sciences have accomplished as much as J-PAL in terms of the rigor of its research and the potential of the resulting knowledge to affect both social policy and ordinary lives. Additionally, few such organizations have achieved J-PAL’s nearly worldwide reach, now with offices in Africa, Latin America, South Asia, and Southeast Asia as well as North America and Europe.
The 2014 Hirschman Prize Ceremony was hosted by the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey, Albert Hirschman’s academic home and also currently home to Dani Rodrik, the first Hirschman Prize recipient (other past awardees include Charles Tilly of Columbia and Benedict Anderson of Cornell).
A group of friends and scholars from New York and the Princeton community gathered in Wolfensohn Hall at IAS to celebrate the work being done by J-PAL and to learn more about Banerjee and Duflo’s experience founding and supporting their worldwide network of researchers. The event opened with a welcome from Robbert Dijkgraaf, IAS director, followed by a brief history of Albert Hirschman’s life and work by Dani Rodrik, Albert O. Hirschman Professor, IAS School of Social Science. Ira Katznelson, SSRC president, officially presented the awards, which were accepted by Duflo.
Duflo spoke extensively about J-PAL’s history and context in the world of social science and specifically about the use of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in various types of interventions (see the right sidebar for a complete transcript of her speech). Afterward, Margaret Levi, chair of the prize selection committee, moderated a lively conversation between Duflo, Yale economist Christopher Udry, and the audience.
Discussions about RCTs and scaling interventions continued over a celebratory reception and dinner, concluding an event that honored J-PAL’s work pushing scholarly boundaries and exploring the intersection of research and public policy.