Many aid and development programmes focus merely on technology and knowledge transfer or on providing services. That is the reason why many of them do not achieve their intended results. Because the heart of the matter: mindset and behaviour, is not addressed.
A good example is the recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa, described by many as a behaviour-driven crisis. Traditional burial practices together with distrust in government and health authorities were the main drivers behind the epidemic.
The aid community also plan their interventions on the assumption that we humans base our choices and behaviour on rational thinking and logical sequences. Most of the time we do not. We say and do what we believe is expected of us, or make choices that take the least effort.
Such as fruit vendors in India buying fruit on credit to sell each day, when small, viable savings could make them avoid that. And increase their income considerably, not having to pay the interest on the credits.
It is not only the attitudes of aid workers, government officials or other implementing partners that need to change; it is also the thinking and the behaviour of the populations we aspire to assist. Unless we address that directly, the list of failed projects and programmes will continue to grow.
Because bad choices make people stay in poverty.
The World Bank´s ‘World Development Report 2015: Mind, Society and Behavior’
This report is the most eye-opening report I have read in a long time, and I am not the only one of that opinion:
The report focuses on the different aspects of human mentality that influence the decisions we make.
I know I share the frustration of many aid workers when people in the communities we work in do not ‘get it’. Especially when we believe we present them with an obvious solution. That does not mean we are always right, far from it.
The report gave me many aha moments. For instance why my team members had to wait for hours before fish farmers bothered to pick-up the vulnerable fingerlings we were distributing (‘that ungrateful lot!). Or a typical scene in many countries: Mum and Dad on a scooter, wearing helmets, with their toddler at the front without a helmet. Now I have a better understanding of ‘what on earth are they thinking???!!!’.
Another good thing about the report is that it mentions examples from both poorer and richer countries. Thus, highlighting the communalities in the way we think. For instance in terms of procrastinating things such as setting up a savings scheme.
In richer countries we just have the advantage of being better informed, having better public services and more money. In other words: less excuses.
What is also sympathetic is that World Bank staff members have taken part in many of the studies presented in the report, revealing their own biases.
The report does not limit itself to explain the whys, but also to present examples of how to put theory into practice.
‘Somebody has got to do something’
Behavioural science and behavioural economics has emerged as an added approach to programmes in developing countries. One example is to make farmers increase their yields by encouraging them to buy fertilizers at the time of harvest. Another is to send regular reminders on taking medicine. Community-Lead Total Sanitation is a concept that focuses on behavioural change.
These examples of behavioural ‘nudging’ are unfortunately not yet the norm; and the aid community is, in general (not you and me, of course), conservative and reluctant to change.
Hence, I will try to ‘do something’, and address these issues in my blogs.
I am not a psychologist or a behavioural scientist, but I do believe there is plenty we can do without claiming to be experts on the human mind.
In that process I would welcome your help: if you have any examples, good or bad, of behaviour focused interventions you want to share, please contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org