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Nobel, Nobility, Poverty & Democracy

India-born Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee, his wife and fellow MIT Professor Esther Duflo, and Harvard’s Michael Kremer have recently been awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics. People consider this incident a Victory for Democracy!
In the traditional sense, their research methodology, in particular, is politically neutral. They prescribe a particular solution for a particular problem. Naturally, people could seldom find the elements of dictatorship or authoritarianism in their solutions. The question arises here is whether one can consider their methodology as ‘Democratic’ only on the basis of this logic…

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Banerjee, Duflo & Kremer

Before attempting to find the answer, it is necessary to understand the basic meaning of Democracy. Democracy does not only refer to merely holding elections after a certain period or formal dialogue between the Government and the Opposition. As per John Stuart Mill’s classical definition, Democracy means a “government by discussion”. And, the first prerequisite for proper discussion is: the desire to listen. One of the main features of Democracy is to listen to those people, whose voices remain unheard in the equation of power, with particular attention. The research methodology, adopted by the three Nobel Laureate economists, stresses on the desire to listen!
In the discussions of mainstream Economics, the concept of people is characteristically abstract. Economics certainly deals with people, but as a whole, and not with any particular individual. This is a theorist’s own periphery… it depends on her/his belief, values and consideration. Economists, who think about poverty and its alleviation, try to find solutions in their own ways on the basis of their own concepts of people. The theorists’ personal views on poor people and their nature have always influenced Economic Theories. Some were known rarely visiting poor people to see their conditions before preparing their theories!

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J S Mill

Banerjee, Duflo and Kremer are exceptions… they are against that practice. According to them, all poor people are not the same, as their hopes, fears, achievements, disappointments, satisfactions, dissatisfactions and ambitions are different. Therefore, if someone wants to resolve their problems, s/he would have to visit them in order to know about their needs. The three Nobel Laureates believe that it is crucial for the economists to know what the poor people think about their problems, how they would want to solve them, or whether they think about their solutions at all. For Banerjee, Duflo and Kremer, an economist should give importance to them, whose problems they want to solve.
Here, the Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT) approach takes a distinct path from the mainstream Economics. It recognises the agency of common people. This is the essence of Democracy… it is important to listen to those who bear the brunt of the situation prevailing. Later, the concerned authorities will try to find solutions. From this point of view, there is a significant similarity between (the Nobel Prize win of) these three economists and Abiy Ahmed Ali (the Ethiopian Prime Minister who has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this year “for his efforts to achieve peace and international co-operation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea”). Perhaps, the Nobel Committee has advocated for Democratisation at a time when Democracy is under serious threat across the Globe!

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RCT in public policy

If the Principle of Development is not Democratic, then it goes on to mean that the Principle is controlled by Authoritarianism! It also means that the Ruling Class is dominating the Policy-making System, and is not discussing the issues with all sections of people. It is not that the Mainstream Development Economics is characteristically Undemocratic. However, the manner in which the system is being run is undemocratic. There is a tendency to implement the policy from the top, especially the way in which the development policies are determined. Electoral Democracy does not resist this tendency. So, election is not enough to practice ‘real’ Democracy.

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One can hope that this year’s Nobel Prizes in Economics and Peace will strengthen the Pro-democracy Movement. The desire to listen is not necessary only for development policies, but also for Politics. The Politicians should listen to those people who vote for them…

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