The World Bank on What People Really Think – Does it Go Far Enough?

The new World Development Report Mind, Society, and Behavior makes a very important point, that policy needs to take into account the complexity of people’s decision making. It brings a lot of new evidence that substantiates the point, and of successful policy design that takes the complexity of human beings into account.

This is based on a recognition that standard economics – which “places human cognition and motivation in a ‘black box’” – has been limiting. Yes it states that this approach can be “powerful and useful”, and this makes me wonder 1) whether this doesn’t present a logical contradiction (or at least a case of being right for the wrong reason), 2) and how come development policy has for so long been so dominated by a discipline that, as somebody once said, makes such strong assumption about human motivations without actually talking to them (or: why has it taken Nobel prize winners like Akerlof so long to read classic social science outside their comfort zone of economics? – and indeed, the 1st 10 references in WDR are all from economics, I admit I stopped counting after that).

Where I feel the analytics falls short is the way it discusses whether public policy should aim to shape human behaviour. This is, at best, too much of a North American bias. I’ve grown up in the Netherlands with a constant barrage of good advice from a well-meaning state, which makes me take for granted, to name a few, that savings is a good idea, that visiting the dentist regularly is important, and that parents should be provided with support after (and of course during) child birth and that they should be provided with evidence-based health advice.

I for one don’t believe people are “rational” human beings, even if one was able to define what that is (I still have regular discussions whether it is less or more healthy to cycle when it rains: I think I get a cold because I took the bus Monday, my partner – and no doubt my mother-in-law thinks it’s because I biked on Sunday). I take ‘bad’ decisions all the time: tomorrow I will watch Arsenal-Man City rather than doing my overdue tax return, and I still need to go to the dentist for check-up. Still, I am very happy that I grew up with a public authority that made me understand the importance of all these decisions, and I think the WDR would have greatly benefited by being more up-front about the bias from which this was written (and I think it neglects how much development policy has actually been concerned by people’s behaviour, such as very successful sanitation and education interventions that for decades have known changing norms is often critical) , one that still presents the idea of the ‘”invisible hand” as “powerful and useful” .

Again, the WDR provides very interesting insight into decision making of development experts. But here too I would have a slightly different take. Rather than being concerned about whether experts guessed wrong about behaviour and norms of poor people, I’d be concerned about why experts would guess in the first place. Or why they would assume most policy making is informed by the will to do good. This would bring one closer to an assessment of why for so long “black box” thinking has continued to be dominant, and what actions may be needed to ensure that future development interventions do not repeat the mistakes of the past: not the wrong guess, but the fact we guessed, and got away with guessing, in the first place.


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