David Leonhardt of the New York Times surveyed economists to find out, and he says the answer is definitely yes:
I received dozens of diverse responses, but there was still a runaway winner. The small group of economists who work at the Jameel Poverty Action Lab at M.I.T., led by Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, were mentioned far more often than anyone else.
Ms. Duflo, Mr. Banerjee and their colleagues have a simple, if radical, goal. They want to overhaul development aid so that more of it is spent on programs that actually make a difference. And they are trying to do so in a way that skirts the long-running ideological debate between aid groups and their critics.
“Surely the most important societal question economics can help answer is why so many people are crushingly poor and what can be done about it,” David Romer, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said. The macro issues (like how to build a democracy) remain maddeningly complex, Mr. Romer noted. But thanks in part to the poverty lab, we now know much more about how to improve daily life in the world’s poorest countries.
Mr. Banerjee and Ms. Duflo may not be a modern-day Keynes or Friedman. But they have still managed to do something rather profound. They have brought together the best of the new economics and the best of the old.
As has been the trend over the last decade, they have plunged into the world around them, refusing to accept the idea that economics is merely an extension of math. Yet no one can accuse them of working on some little problem that doesn’t matter.
It is wonderful to see my colleagues up the river getting the attention that they deserve. The work that Leonhardt describes (and much other work in the same style) is extremely important, and has infused development economics with fresh air--most importantly in giving it a needed experimental focus.
At the same time, I worry that Esther, Abhijit and others are setting themselves up for the inevitable backlash by appearing to oversell what the randomized field experiments teach us. I say "appear" because they are sufficiently careful in their writings. But what the outside world sometimes hears is different.
The backlash will have several lines of attack. One is that the experiments in question have little economics in them, and teach us little about economics. So what if we are saving lives, Esther and Abhijit will rightly respond. Second, most experiments have unclear external validity, critics will say. In other words, we don't know if we can generalize to other setting, and if so how exactly. (See the comments thread here for how this has played out in one of my recent posts.) So, repeat the experiment in other settings, the randomizers will say.
One way to silence the critics is to have the randomizers tell us what are some social policies they have learned are good things that should be emulated in other settings. Or since their approach is broadly within the "many recipes" camp, it would be useful to hear from them what we have learned about context-specific policies--i.e., what kind of policies should be implemented in what kind of settings.
While on the subject of randomized field experiments, see also the very useful discussion by Chris Blattman, whose blog has turned into the most interesting development blog around.