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Quest to end child poverty wins Nobel Prize for economists

AP and Reuters, October 15, 2019 7:00PM Kids News

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Indian schoolchildren walk through floodwater in Kolkata, India on September 25, 2019. The Nobel Prize winners’ programs are helping millions of schoolchildren in India. Picture: AFP media_cameraIndian schoolchildren walk through floodwater in Kolkata, India on September 25, 2019. The Nobel Prize winners’ programs are helping millions of schoolchildren in India. Picture: AFP


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The Nobel Prize in economics* has been jointly awarded to three people who have taken a practical, experiment-based approach to solving child poverty.

They are US-based economists Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer.

French-American Duflo becomes only the second woman to win the economics prize in its 50-year history, as well as the youngest at 46. She shares the award equally with her husband, Indian-born American Banerjee and Kremer, also of the US. 

media_cameraTwo of the three joint Nobel Prize winners in economics, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo. Picture: AFP

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said their work had shown how poverty could be addressed by breaking it down into smaller and more precise* questions in areas such as education and healthcare, and then testing solutions in the community, much like scientists or doctors would.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announces the winners of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Stockholm, Sweden, Monday October 14, 2019. Picture: AP media_cameraThe Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announces the winners of the 2019 Nobel Prize in economics in Stockholm, Sweden, Monday October 14, 2019. Picture: AP

“It starts from the idea that the poor are often reduced to caricatures* and even the people that try to help them do not actually understand what are the deep roots of (their) problems,” Duflo said.

“What we try to do in our approach is to say, ‘Look, let’s try to unpack the problems one-by-one and address them as rigorously* and scientifically as possible’,” she added.

Their work in rural Kenya and in India, for instance, found that providing more textbooks, school meals and teachers didn’t do much to help students learn more.

Making the schoolwork more relevant to students, working closely with the neediest students and holding teachers accountable* — by putting them on short-term contracts, for example — were more effective in countries where teachers often don’t bother showing up for work. The winners’ recommended program of remedial* tutoring is now benefiting 5 million Indian children, the academy said.

The team has also worked on the “Teaching at the right level” (TarL) program which has helped 60 million children in India and Africa and focuses on maths and reading skills for primary school students.

Kremer and others found that providing free health care makes a big difference: Only 18 per cent of parents gave their children de-worming pills for parasitic infections when they had to pay for them, even though the heavily subsidised* price was less than $1. But 75 per cent gave their kids the pills when they were free. The World Health Organization now recommends that the medicine be distributed for free in areas with high rates of parasitic worm infections.

media_cameraNobel Prize winner Michael Kremer. Picture: AP

Banerjee, Duflo and others found that mobile vaccination clinics in India dramatically increased the immunisation rates compared to traditional health centres that often went unstaffed. The immunisation rate rose further if parents received a bag of lentils as a bonus for vaccinating their children.

A health worker administers polio drops to a boy during a door-to-door immunization drive in Mumbai, India, Friday, Feb. 24, 2012. India celebrated a full year since its last reported case of polio last month, a major victory in a global eradication effort that seemed stalled just a few years ago. Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad warned that India needed to push forward with its vaccination campaign to ensure the elimination of any residual virus and to prevent the import and spread of virus from abroad. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade) media_cameraA health worker gives a child drops of polio vaccine in Mumbai, India. The Nobel Prize winners found that mobile vaccination clinics were more successful than traditional health clinics. Picture: AP

The team pioneered “randomised controlled trials”, or RCTs, in economics, which have long been used in sciences such as medicine.

An RCT could, for example, take two groups of people and study what difference a treatment makes on one group while the other group is only given a placebo*.

Duflo said the importance of the two most commonly cited approaches to tackling poverty — foreign aid and freeing up trade with poor countries — had often been “overstated”.

Despite enormous progress, global poverty remains a huge challenge, the academy noted. More than 700 million people live in extreme poverty. One in 10 people in developing regions still live on less than $2.80 a day. In sub-Saharan Africa, that proportion rises to 42 per cent.

Five million children die before age five, often from diseases that can be prevented or cured easily and inexpensively. Half the world’s children leave school without basic literacy and maths skills.

Swedish chemist, engineer, inventor of dynamite and businessman Alfred Nobel left money in his will to establish five Nobel prizes in 1895.

The prizes were to be for chemistry, literature, peace, physics and physiology* or medicine and any living person of any nationality could win one.

The first prizes were awarded in 1901.

A sixth prize, for economics, was first awarded in 1969.

The Nobel prizes are widely considered to be the most prestigious* awards in each subject area.

Twelve Australians or people working in Australia have been awarded Nobel prizes, eight of which were in the fields of physiology or medicine.

The Australian 50th - 1996 media_cameraAustralian vet and science researcher Professor Peter Doherty, who won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine jointly with Rolf M. Zinkernagel in 1996. He is an expert on the immune system.


  • economics: study of poverty, wealth and how money moves around a community
  • precise: exact
  • caricatures: exaggerated, oversimplified versions of something
  • rigorously: thoroughly and carefully
  • accountable: responsible, required to provide reasons for actions
  • remedial: for people who have had difficulty learning something
  • subsidised: discounted
  • placebo: substance that has no benefit; placebos such as a pill with no medicine in it are used in trials to compare to the results for those who get real medicine
  • physiology: study of how a living thing functions
  • prestigious: highly regarded and respected


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  1. What is unusual about Esther Duflo winning a Nobel Prize in economics?
  2. What happened if a parent was offered a bag of lentils if they brought a child to be vaccinated?
  3. What proportion of children leave school without basic literacy and maths skills?
  4. Who was Nobel?
  5. What are the six types of Nobel prizes?


1. Solving poverty
After reading the Kids News article on the Nobel Prize winners and the poverty projects they’ve been working on, summarise the projects’ findings using the headings below in a three-column table.

In the third column, work with a partner and think of some ways you think may help tackle child poverty in one of the following areas: education, healthcare, farming or clean water.




(relating to either education, healthcare, farming or clean water)

Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Health and Physical Education, Critical and creative thinking, Personal and social

2. Extension
What explanations can you think of to explain why Duflo is only the second woman to win this Nobel Prize in the past 50 years? Do you think there will be more women winning Nobel prizes as the years go on?

Time: allow 10 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Critical and creative thinking

After reading the article, with a partner, highlight as many wow words or ambitious pieces of vocabulary that you can find in yellow. Discuss the meanings of these words and see if you can use them orally in another sentence.

HAVE YOUR SAY: What would you like to win a Nobel Prize for?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

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