World Development Report 2015 calls for knowledge of human mindsets in development policies

Development Policy15 Jun 2015Vanessa Nigten, Babs Ates

On Wednesday June 10, 2015 a presentation was given at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the World Development report 2015 “Mind, Society and Behavior” (WDR2015). Co-author Ryan Muldoon shared the core insights of the report with policy, practical and research development professionals from the Netherlands. The WDR2015 discusses the limits of rational thinking and how this influences human behaviour in development practice. The goal of the report is to create a better understanding of the human actor in development practices by using insights from behavioural science and experiences from, in particular, the private sector. A panel of experts with a track record in this culturally oriented field of knowledge warmly applauded the Word Bank for now embracing this approach. This allows opportunities for more integrated behavioural thinking in Dutch development policies.

The WDR2015 fights the “economic” assumption that humans are rational beings. Muldoon challenges the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its related professional audience to rethink their policies and practices. He encourages them to consider lessons from behavioural sciences on the ways in which people think, which the report divides into automatically, socially and using mental models. Thinking is often automatic and dependent on what comes to mind effortlessly. Additionally, social networks and norms influence people and their thought processes. Finally, people also use mental models drawn from society and shared histories. The report synthesizes evidence and describes these behaviours in more detail with practical, illustrative examples.

The report calls for a different approach in development practice that considers the influence of human behaviour. To address this behaviour, diagnosis and experimentation should be embedded in the implementation of development programmes in what the World Bank refers to as “adaptive design”. An illustration of this design is embedding “network effects”, for example where farmers in China were more likely to purchase weather insurance after a friend had participated in an information session on the nature and benefits of the product first. Another example in local African communities is the placement of a chlorine bin next to a safe water well. This has proven to be more effective than asking people to travel to obtain chlorine. To take those network effects into account, programmes need to remain partly open for development, to allow for the unpredictability of people’s reactions in practice.

Whereas current development practice can fail to address certain mental models, such as the role of women, adaptive design can help to identify assumptions and create better-designed interventions. Moreover, when developing these kinds of interventions, it is important to keep in mind that development professionals are also biased. The panel drew attention to this bias in the WDR2015, considering its strong focus on behavioural change from a Western perspective. Another limitation identified in the report was the lack of attention for the substantial influence of power and politics in shaping mind, society and behaviour.

The World Bank report underlines that these behavioural approaches call for research and learning to be placed at the centre of development practice and policy-making. It emphasizes the need for enhanced understanding, complementary tools and methods, and a change of mindset on development issues. This can be achieved by integrating current knowledge that is currently spread across disciplines such as behavioural economics, psychology, anthropology, neuroscience, sociology and political science.

The widely shared message was that increasing integrated knowledge and understanding of human decision-making will lead to better policy and interventions, especially those targeting human choice and actual behaviour. An example of a field being largely influenced by social norms is nutrition security. Although some steps have already been taken to include human decision-making, the assumptions still have to be challenged in policy thinking.

The session at the Ministry has shown a shared need to move beyond the “homo economicus” so as to increase the impact of inclusive development practice. As one of the organizers of the event summarized, “Without an understanding of behaviour, there is no behavioural change. Without behavioural change, there is no development. Without inclusive thinking, there is no inclusive change.”

Thinking about the intersection of policy, social norms and behaviour is still in its infancy, and a great deal more research is needed. In practice, the private sector is already beyond the public sector in using social psychology for marketing. It is now up to public institutions to make use of behavioural sciences to enhance policy design for development affairs. Where Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) are already popular in the Netherlands, a renewed focus on what one of the panellists called “Public-Research-Private Partnerships” (PRPPs) could be the way forward.

For the Dutch Knowledge Platforms on development, this can be seen as a call to increase contextualized integrated knowledge with an eye for behavioural attitudes and linking it to policy practice. More targeted research on human behaviour in development practice and capitalizing on current knowledge could push for the necessary changes towards more effective development policies and practices.

This blogpost was originally published on the Food & Business Knowledge Platform website.