The eagerly awaited 2015 World Development Report (WDR), launched yesterday, is on the topic of ‘Mind, Society and Culture’. For busy readers there is a great 40 page overview here and those with an aversion to reading can check out the handy infographic below. But I urge you all to download and read the whole thing. It is superb stuff – to my mind one of the very best ‘big development reports’ in recent years.
The central idea is that “paying attention to how humans think (the processes of mind) and how history and context shape thinking (the influence of society) can improve the design and implementation of development policies and interventions that target human choice and action (behavior).” The report sets out to bring together the latest thinking on neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology, behavioral economics, sociology, political science, and anthropology. It uses this trans-disciplinary lens to explain the decisions that individuals make in many different areas of development, from savings, investment and energy consumption to health, and child education. It also seeks to better understand collective behaviours develop and become institutionalised in groups and societies. This infographic gives a decent summary of the key themes explored.
There is a goldmine of material here, drawn from extensive and diverse sources, and it is well written and accessible, as would be expected from a WDR. Unusually for such a report, it cites studies undertaken in developed as well as in developing countries – and some remarkable similarities emerge as one reads. It becomes clear that the problems of development are not confined to national boundaries: they are features of the modern human condition – and they are neither inevitable nor incurable.
What especially caught my attention was the fact that – after a comprehensive review of how issues of mind, society and behaviour play out for people facing a variety of complex choices – the final chapters focus on biases of development professionals and the need for adaptive interventions. This is how the chapter on biases begins:
Experts, policy makers, and development professionals are also subject to the biases, mental shortcuts (heuristics), and social and cultural influences described elsewhere in this Report. Because the decisions of development professionals often can have large effects on other people’s lives, it is especially important that mechanisms be in place to check and correct for those biases and influences. Dedicated, well-meaning professionals in the field of development—including government policy makers, agency officials, technical consultants, and frontline practitioners in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors—can fail to help, or even inadvertently harm, the very people they seek to assist if their choices are subtly and unconsciously influenced by their social environment, the mental models they have of the poor, and the limits of their cognitive bandwidth. They, too, rely on automatic thinking and fall into decision traps. Perhaps the most pressing concern is whether development professionals understand the circumstances in which the beneficiaries of their policies actually live and the beliefs and attitudes that shape their lives. A deeper understanding of the context yields policies that more accurately “fit” local conditions and thus have a higher probability of succeeding. (emphasis added)
Instead of relying on anecdote and hearsay, the WDR 2015 team put this last (italicised) point to the test. They designed surveys and collected data on how World Bank staff perceived the beliefs and attitudes of poor people across several measures. The findings were compared against the actual beliefs and attitudes of a representative sample of individuals in developing countries. They found that the professionals in question were actually pretty bad at predicting how poverty shapes mindsets.
…although 42 percent of Bank staff predicted that most poor people in Nairobi, Kenya, would agree with the statement that “vaccines are risky because they can cause sterilization,” only 11 percent of the poor people sampled in Nairobi actually agreed with that statement. Overall, immunization coverage rates in Kenya are over 80 percent.
Overall, these findings suggested the presence of:
a shared mental model, not tempered by direct exposure to poverty. The disparity represents not simply knowledge gaps on the part of development professionals but a mistaken set of mental models for how poverty can shape the mindsets of poor people. This is crucially important since how development professionals perceive the poor affects how development policy is created, implemented, and assessed.’
The chapter summarises four specific biases and challenges faced by development professionals:
- complexity: that development is a complex, messy, conflict-ridden process, and that this complexity affects decision-making in a number of ways. Although we need multiple ways of understanding the options available to us, the reality is that development agencies have sought to deal with this complexity through uniformity, order and simplification of intractable problems. However, a range of approaches are available to understand and navigate complexity (this section, rather gratifyingly, cites Aid on the Edge of Chaos)
- confirmation bias and motivated reasoning: that development professionals bring a whole set of ‘priors’ making them more susceptible to the selective gathering of / attention paid to information that supports previously held beliefs or theories, with a failure to actively consider alternatives. Here there is a call for more development agencies to develop more institutionalised approaches for dissent and challenge such as deliberative forums and ‘red teaming‘
- sunk cost bias; whereby development professionals are more likely to continue a project or approach once an initial investment of resources has been made, for fear of appearing wasteful – even though paradoxically, continuing the work will definitely incur needless costs. Here ‘there are important implications from recognizing that development is complex, that many projects will fail, and that learning is as important as investing.’
- the effects of context and the social environment on group decision making – specifically, very few development actors actually have a first-hand understanding of poverty and scarcity. We are entrenched within our own organisational and sectoral ‘thought worlds’, with specialised language, codes and symbols. Because of the dominance of these thought worlds, we are desperately unaware of how poor people actually think and act. Here the key is to fix these gaps in understanding by allowing development actors to witness first hand the lives, experiences and mindsets of those they seek to help.
The chapter on adaptive interventions is also well worth reading, not least because of its argument that a focus on rigorous results and an emphasis on adaptation and learning need not be at odds with each other (a point that Owen Barder and myself have argued in the past). It argues that in order to navigate the challenges above, we need new intervention logics based on the following principles:
- More resources should be devoted to definition, problem diagnosis, and design of interventions;
- Implementation should test several interventions, each based on different assumptions about the problem being faced, and the kinds of choices and behaviours that might be encountered
- Selected interventions should be adapted and fed into new rounds of definition, diagnosis, design, implementation, and testing
- The process of refinement and testing should be continued after the intervention is scaled up.
These ideas underpinned much of the work I led with John Primrose and Miguel Laric on applying complex systems tools in DFID, in particular the design of a new £60m programme on private sector development in DRC. I especially liked the adaptive management diagram the WDR team has developed (see below) – could this form the basis of a new adaptive version of the ubiquitous ‘logical framework’? And while I’m on the subject, isn’t it about time some dedicated R&D funds were put forward to radically rethink and improve this much-criticised-but-seldom-replaced tool? That really would be a public good for development…
Many sociologists and anthropologists will grumble that none of this is new, not even for the Bank. In the words of one rather jaded colleague: “isn’t it great that the Bank has discovered people matter, again?” And of course many of these issues have been ‘hidden in plain sight’ for decades – one need only take a cursory look at the work of esteemed colleagues such as Robert Chambers and Rosalind Eyben.
However, I think such criticisms would be rather misplaced. The strength of the report is not necessarily in its originality, but in its breadth and depth of evidence, its timing and its focus.
First, the report synthesises evidence from many different disciplines and settings, qualitative and quantitative, primary and secondary, and demonstrates the relevance of its core arguments across the whole of the development landscape. As such, it presents a solid intellectual edifice about the need for engaging with the issues of mind, behaviour, and culture in a systematic and through way. And it puts these forward as a direct and coherent alternative to the neoclassical assumptions that still dominate much of development economics. That this work has been led by the World Bank, who many see – rightly or wrongly – as the high priests of traditional development economics, is also noteworthy. At the risk of being proven wrong, I think WDR 2015 will be looked back on as a major milestone in development thinking. More work is inevitably needed, especially on the implications of these new methods and approaches for how we think about, communicate and fund development work. These methods and approaches also call for research and learning as central within, rather than peripheral to, development operations – something we have struggled with to date.
Second, it is very well-timed. There have been many voices calling for such changes in the development sector, the latest manifestation of which is the Doing Development Differently manifesto. This WDR should provide a rallying point for these numerous communities around some common messages and ideas. It also sets out some specific entry points for concerted action to enhance our understanding, our methods and tools and – most importantly – our mindsets. I think this is especially important in light of the growing emphasis among development donors on ‘uniformity, order and simplification’. To capitalise on this timing, there would need to be concerted efforts at multiple levels to push for the called-for changes in some prioritised areas of development policy and practice, and build the evidence base of their efficacy.
Third, and as noted above what I found especially refreshing was how the report focuses not just on development challenges, but also on the development profession itself. All too often we see the development knowledge community focus on a particular development challenge – institutions, participation, accountability, transparency – with a focus on what poor countries or poor people need to do differently. And all too often the aid system itself is not subject to the same kind or level of scrutiny. To the credit of the WDR 2015 team, they bring the development sector itself firmly into their analysis, and they don’t pull their punches. One is left with a clear sense that the development profession can be as much an entrenched part of the development problem, as the active facilitator of relevant and appropriate solutions. Throughout the report, the fundamental question beloved of Tolstoy, Chambers and others is alluded to in a variety of ways: unless we can change ourselves, what hope do we possibly have of changing others? The question is how to maintain this humility in the face of the political pressures on development, which emphasise certainty and pre-defined results.
So analysis, methods and ideas aplenty, but some big challenges too. As well as much-needed and long-called for changes to the development process itself, let’s hope this report brings about a more honest and widespread conversation about how we development professionals need to change, and some new ideas about the ways we might collectively do so. As much because of its source as its content, this WDR is a big breath of fresh air. Let’s absorb it in huge lungfuls.