Monday, June 01, 2015

Behavioural Insights in International Development

This is a guest post by Tom Wein.

International development seems a natural home for behavioural science, but how much progress has been made in integrating the two? Which challenges have been solved, and which remain?

The World Bank’s much-discussed ‘Mind, Society and Behaviour’ report is almost six months old, and co-author Varun Gauri came to the RSA to discuss progress so far. (You can watch the event video here). The integration project is, he argued, proceeding apace, and up to a point he is right. This post, sparked by Gauri’s talk but supplemented by further research and conversations, summarises the work done so far in creating behavioural science structures and alliances in development, before offering a personal view of the problems we still face in putting the two disciplines to work.

In terms of structures, the World Bank has so far been working with the Behavioral Insights Team, but will soon launch its own Behavioral Innovations Lab. There are also plans for staff training courses, and Gauri expressed his hope that behavioural science workshops would be integrated into the planning stage of all new World Bank projects.

Though Gauri talked mainly about the Bank, other donor organisations have made moves in similar directions, even if none have gone quite as far. DFID’s Chief Economist Stefan Dercon has been part of some interesting work at the intersection between development economics and psychology, though the wider organization has so far held back in this field. In 2013, USAID co-sponsored with UNICEF a summit on the evidence for behaviour change; the Agency has also funded a number of behavioural science-inflected change programmes.

Now outside government, the Behavioural Insights Team – the original ‘nudge unit’ – has also launched projects with UNDP, and with the governments of Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Peru. MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics in Nairobi, Cameroon’s IRESCO, and the Innovations for Poverty Action research programme have all sought to draw on psychology to explain behaviour and improve policy in developing countries. More directly employing behavioural science in development projects, rather than merely advising, is the NGO Evidence Action. At the biggest non-governmental donor of them all, Melinda Gates has spoken of her personal enthusiasm for behavioural science, and the foundation has funded Grand Challenges on changing health behaviours. There are ambitions to apply psychology to improve child nutrition, and to boost sanitation. For those trying to learn more, UCL’s Centre for Behaviour Change and Harvard Business School both offer training on the intersection between behavioural science, development and health.

So, in my opinion, there is some good work going on, and a mounting number of behavioural science studies have been conducted in developing countries (many of their results were mentioned by Gauri in his talk). It helps of course that development bodies have already acquired the habit, over the past decade, of conducting empirical research and reasonably rigorous evaluation; in that regard development policymaking was already more advanced than much domestic, national decision-making.

Though Gauri and others are right to be positive about the movement so far, some important challenges remain. Most significantly, the replication of some findings has not abolished the problem of applying WEIRD results to very different contexts; groups differ widely, and cross-cultural perspectives are still vital. Though knowledge of the particularities of conducting research in resource-constrained environments is spreading, we still lack a full understanding of the adjustments necessary and their implications for interpreting results. There is also, of course, much we still simply don’t know. As Gauri cautions, this is a discipline of incremental advances and diligent empiricism, not grand explanatory theories.

There has been one notable absence from the talk, and from the wider debate. Behavioral science’s temptation towards ‘we know best’ manipulation has been queried in virtually every context in which it has been applied. Yet not, Gauri said, at the World Bank. Skeptics would note that development economics has faced very similar criticisms, often accused of sidelining local voices in favour of intellectually arrogant technocracy. Given that development often deals – by definition – with the marginalized and disempowered, there is an even stronger duty than elsewhere to ensure that behavioural science interventions are implemented with the consent and cooperation of the participants.

Finally, what can behavioural science do to ensure that it is fit for purpose in developing countries? I believe its standard bearers can better engage with existing debates about behaviour in development, including the use of Theories of Change and efforts to leverage the power of communities. As a discipline, it can emphasize parsimony, both in its research questionnaires and in its models. For the latter work, the UCL team’s Behaviour Change Wheel deserves particular acclaim; 'Capabilities, Opportunities and Motivations' is accessible enough to be jotted down on the back of an envelope – even in an ancient Toyota on awful dirt roads. Behavioural scientists must recognise that development professionals have long been trying to change behaviour, and that behavioural science is there to improve and supplement, not replace. Above all, they can continue to ensure that behavioural science remains a discipline that seeks not just to understand but to respond; methods and models must have the clearest possible link from data to specific, actionable recommendations, because development does not need more vague advice from learned thinkers.

Development is ill-defined and contested; some would do away with the concept altogether. Behavioural science has experienced some of the same tribulations. The marriage between these two mongrel disciplines will only work if it focuses on ‘what works’, and is relentlessly pragmatic in delivering results.

Tom Wein is the founding partner of Aware International, a social enterprise offering behaviour insight and ground insight services for the public good. A behavioural science consultant and writer, he works mostly on conflict and development. He tweets @tom_wein and his writing is collected at


Tom W said...

If anyone knows of any work going on that I've missed, then please do add it in the comments!

Liam Delaney said...

Thanks for post. I always also think of Deaton's ideas on methodology and potential limits of RCTs in these contexts. A lot of progression since he wrote this but still an interesting aspect of the debate.

Unknown said...

Great blog post. I plan to conduct an RCT focusing on health behavior and using BI in Zimbabwe. I'm open to collaboration and am curious as to whether there are any ongoing or planned BI health projects in Zimbabwe/Sub-Saharan Africa.

Unknown said...

Great blog post. I plan to conduct an RCT focusing on health behavior and using BI in Zimbabwe. I'm open to collaboration and am curious as to whether there are any ongoing or planned BI health projects in Zimbabwe/Sub-Saharan Africa.