2023 Annual Letter from the Global Executive Director

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A woman with a bag of rice at a government grain distribution center in Odisha, India.
A woman with a bag of rice at a government grain distribution center in Odisha, India.
Photo: Pradeep-Gaurs, Shutterstock.com

2023 marks twenty years since J-PAL was founded by Abhijit, Esther, and Sendhil. I have had the privilege of being here for fourteen of those years, and still vividly remember early years working out of cramped shared offices in a dated building tucked in the far corner of MIT’s campus. Then, our regional presence consisted of just a handful of people in two recently-launched offices in South Asia and Europe.

At that time we operated with a startup mentality. We hustled to matchmake affiliated researchers (just 27 of them!) with implementers and kick off new research projects on the ground, learned together with policy partners how to incorporate rigorous evidence in their decision-making, and enthusiastically showed potential funders that randomized evaluations were indeed possible on challenging topics like anti-corruption and climate change. We stood up scrappy regional offices in new countries to ensure local expertise was at the forefront of our work and built a suite of training and education courses to help grow the capacity of policymakers, practitioners, and scholars to rigorously evaluate the impact of policies and programs worldwide.

Photo of the J-PAL Directors Ben Olken, Iqbal Dhaliwal, Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo
J-PAL Directors Ben Olken, Iqbal Dhaliwal, Abhijit Banerjee, and Esther Duflo. Photo credit: J-PAL

It has been inspiring and humbling to see how J-PAL has evolved since then. Our research network has grown from eight founding affiliated professors to 294, and our researcher pipeline now includes over 400 invited researchers and dozens of scholars and post-docs. Their work, which has helped establish the importance of randomized evaluations in social policy, has been recognized through major awards, including three John Bates Clark Medals, four Elaine Bennett Research Prizes, seven MacArthur Fellowships, and, of course, three Nobel laureates.

Alongside these contributions to the field of economics, we have strived to build a culture of evidence generation and use around the world. Through our in-person and online training courses, including a MicroMasters credential program, we have expanded the skills of thousands of researchers, practitioners, and policymakers to apply and use evidence. We have published more than 800 plain-language summaries of research projects to help make results more accessible and 44 Policy Insights that draw out generalizable lessons across multiple studies, launched 28 research initiatives that concentrate funding and policy engagement around urgent policy questions, and helped release more than 135 public datasets from evaluations, enabling others to learn from and reevaluate past research.

And we have built resilient partnerships with hundreds of government departments and nonprofits worldwide across a broad policymaking cycle from evidence to scale. Over half a billion people have been reached by programs and policies that have been informed by evaluations from J-PAL affiliated researchers.

But these numbers don’t tell the whole story. Behind them are hundreds of thousands of study participants, without whom we would have no results to learn from, and our incredible funders and implementing partners, whose vision, leadership, and belief in our mission make this work possible. We are grateful to our brilliant staff and surveyors who hike miles to conduct household surveys, clean up data sets, help draft papers and policy reviews, patiently build trusted relationships with implementing partners, design training courses, and manage complex finances and operations. We are also very proud of our illustrious alumni who continue to advance evidence-informed policy throughout their careers, contributing to our mission long after their time with us.

I hope you will take the time to look through this digital report, which takes you through some of the highlights of our work over the past year—including the expansion of our evidence-to-scale work, with support from Co-Impact and Community Jameel, to forge deeper evidence-to-policy partnerships with innovative-minded governments. Complementary path-breaking work is happening at our regional offices, including J-PAL South Asia’s Alliance for Scaling Policy Impact through Research and Evidence (ASPIRE) in collaboration with the Veddis Foundation; J-PAL MENA’s launch of the Egypt Impact Lab with the Egyptian Ministry of Planning and Economic Development; and J-PAL Europe’s creation of a policy lab at the Ministry of Social Inclusion in Spain. (See more from our regional offices.)

We also launched our eleventh sector, Social Protection, and doubled down on our commitment to creating a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive field of economics by expanding our Regional Scholars Programs beyond the Digital Identification and Finance Initiative (DigiFI) and the Digital Agricultural Innovations and Services Initiative (DAISI) to several other regions, adding to a growing list of J-PAL investments in the future of research. We continue to focus on the pressing need to bring in more researchers from underrepresented regions and backgrounds to our research network, and to identify new ways to engage with researchers based in the countries where we work.

As we enter J-PAL’s third decade, there is no shortage of challenges: Climate change, humanitarian crises, persistent bias and discrimination, and lagging early childhood development are all sobering reminders of how much urgent work there is still to do. Read our Year Ahead section to learn more about our forward-looking goals.

Our twentieth anniversary gives us the opportunity to express our gratitude to everyone who helped make this possible and to reflect on our growth and impact. I hope to see many of you in person or virtually over the course of 2023—thank you for joining us on this journey. 


Read the 2022-23 edition of "Improving Lives Through Evidence."

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