New World Bank Team Mainstreams the Adoption of Behavioral Science in International Development

Oct 22, 2015 in Blog

Today’s World Bank Global Insights Initiative (GINI) announcement represents many milestones. It’s the most significant of the many recent steps made by the world’s multilateral governance institutions to add behavioral science tools alongside those of traditional economics to the modern policymaker’s toolbox.

As such, it’s a triumph for those of us who support a behavioral approach and have long argued for a more inclusive economic discipline, one built on a sympathetic appreciation for the complex drivers of human decisions and actions, and an acknowledgement that we’re all subject to systematic biases.

The path to such mainstream recognition was paved with January’s publication of the 2015 World Development Report (WDR) entitled “Mind, Society and Behavior,” which summarized the progress made thus far in applying behavioral insights to development. This approach is often in contrast to more traditional methods such as the use of economic incentives or macroeconomic reforms.

GINI puts into practice the World Bank’s affirmation that low-cost, behaviorally-informed interventions or programs with behavioral principles embedded in their design do indeed hold potential for significant impact.

The formation of GINI is also a continuation of the growing phenomenon of public institutions recognizing the need to build in-house expertise in behavioral insights rather than relying solely on external experts. The 2015 WDR emphasizes that “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 their biases and blind spots.” In fact, in one of the surveys WDR writers conducted, World Bank staff more accurately analyzed data on the effectiveness of skin cream than they did the same data framed instead as data on the effectiveness of minimum wage laws on poverty—a sign of “confirmation bias” or the tendency to ignore data in favor of pre-conceived views. Prioritizing behavioral science from within the Bank is perhaps the best first step in promoting a bias-free World Bank.

Last—and most importantly—today’s announcement marks a significant new opportunity for developing nation governments to access behavioral insights through engagement with the World Bank. The Bank is the foremost provider of technical assistance to many of these governments, as well as the world’s knowledge hub for the practice of development in all domains. With GINI now in place, policymakers in the world’s least developed nations will have access to support for infusing policies with behavioral insights, maximizing impact at little cost.

Results are sure to follow. Already, ideas42 and the World Bank have partnered to encourage water conservation in Belen, Costa Rica. There, a simple addition to the local utility bill design compared household use to that of their neighbors in order to spur conservation. Activating this “social norm”—or the natural human tendency to act in conformity with a peer group—produced water savings of about 3.5-5.6% per household, an amount equivalent to 188,000 showers each year. With conservation benefits equal to between 13 and 26 times the cost of implementation, our re-designed bills are now likely to be one of the first policies that GINI is hoping to scale to other developing locales. We are also partnering with the World Bank on the incorporation of behavioral insights into cash transfer programs in a number of countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

ideas42 is excited to play an advisory role in helping GINI establish a presence within the Bank by aiding in identifying and launching new projects. Besides water conservation, promising avenues include cash transfers, support for farmers, better tax collections, education programs, public health, and many more policies and programs. These mirror many of the domains behavioral science practitioners—including our team at ideas42—have demonstrated success in to date, solidifying the foundation for GINI’s work.

We’re continuing to look forward to many more milestones in the pathway to a more ‘behavioralized’ foundation for international development policy, both at the World Bank and beyond.

Looking for more? Check out the behavioral implications of the 2015 WDR, and our work with cash transfers in the international development space.