Esther Duflo’s career as an economist can be said to have started with the first chapter of her PhD thesis, which estimated the impact of a big schooling expansion in Indonesia in the 1970s on the future earnings of the children who went to the schools. The final version remains important in the literature on the impacts of education in developing countries.
Since Open Philanthropy has been investigating education as a possible area for involvement, I revisited the paper in my way. I went back to the original data (not easy!), thought critically about the methods, and added new rounds of data about the earnings of those children later in life. As often happens, I wind up pretty skeptical—but not without some self-doubt. The “natural experiment” in the paper is not a clean experiment that Duflo would later champion. So it stands to reason that the tougher the standard of evidence you bring to it, the less convincing it will be.