The World Bank tackles Mind and Culture: heads up on the next World Development Report

March 31, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

Even though annual reports by the many fragments of the multilateral system have proliferated in recent years (I can’t keep up any more), the World sivartha-1Bank’s World Development Report still stands head and shoulders above the rest. And the next one’s theme, WDR 2015: Mind and Culture, due out in November this year, is pretty eye catching. And welcome. There’s not much to read on the report website just yet, so it was useful to get a briefing from WDR team member Steve Commins on his way through London last week (thanks to Save the Children International for hosting the lunchtime meeting, but please don’t put the crisps next to me in future).

According to the brief blurb on the WDR website:

‘The World Development Report 2015 is based on three main ideas: bounds on rationality, which limit individuals’ ability to process information and lead them to rely on rules of thumb; social interdependence, which leads people to care about other people as well as the social norms of their communities; and culture, which provides mental models that influence what individuals pay attention to, perceive, and understand (or misunderstand).

The report has two main goals:

To change the way we think about development problems by integrating knowledge that is now scattered across many disciplines, including behavioral economics, psychology, sociology, anthropology, neuroscience, and political science.

To help development practitioners use the richer understanding of the human actor that emerges from the behavioral sciences in program design, implementation, and evaluation.

The central argument of the Report is that policy design that takes into account psychological and cultural factors will achieve development goals faster.  The main tools — affecting prices through taxes, subsidies, and investments; regulating and legislating; and providing information — all remain relevant. But once considered from the perspectives of bounded rationalitysocial norms, and cultural categories, each tool becomes more complex and more nuanced.’

The conversation at Save highlighted some of the big questions that are likely to surround the report:

Maximalist v Minimalist: Is this just about being more effective at what we are already doing (the Nudge school of benevolent paternalism aimed at things like getting parents to send kids to school) or about doing different things? In economist-speak, is this just about building better utility functions? Steve cited a colleague’s interesting concept of ‘autonomy-enhancing paternalism’ – yes the uppers are trying to influence the lowers, but the intention is to encourage autonomy (literacy, organization, empowerment) rather than automata.

Paradigm shift or new toolkit?: As set out by Steve, the WDR will argue for a fundamental shift to better and more consistently take into account culture, beliefs, and the rich and exciting world beyond the arid reductionism of homo economicus (my word’s not Steve’s). However, busy policy makers always ask ‘what do I do differently on Monday morning.’ For once, I’m going to go with the paradigm shifters – I think the report should concentrate on setting out the big picture, not getting bogged down in producing a new checklist, which will inevitably drag into towards the minimalist end of the spectrum.

vitruvian-267x300Diagnostics: Mind and Culture could open the door to seeing the world in very different ways from the monetary. How do we map different realities – power? Trust? Wellbeing? Faith?

What level of aid biz navel gazing? Clearly mind and culture is about ‘us’ as much as about ‘them’, how do bounded rationality, social interdependence and mental models help/hinder the typical World Bank (or Oxfam) staffer from being effective in helping people free themselves from poverty?

Who’s the Real Target Audience? Seems to me that the obvious one is yet-to-be-enlightened economists of the rational expectations school. If so, then the report’s content, tone, governance, comms etc should all be tailored accordingly.

Steve came up with a nice soundbite: ‘vinegar v honey – which one attracts the flies?’ to argue that first caricaturing, then slagging off ‘mainstream economists’ is a really terrible way to influence….. mainstream economists. Instead, why not try ‘Hey, here’s the future way of thinking about the human condition: it’s already everywhere in the broader social sciences; it’s already being used by many economists in their work and is only going to expand. We’re going to help you understand it and explain what it means for your work.’ But there will be difficult choices – how far should the report go in diluting a message to make it acceptable to recalcitrant MEs (again, my words)?

Gender: You could write the whole of a WDR on Mind and Culture simply on gender, and I kind of hope they will. Perfect illustration of the limitations of orthodox thinking and the importance of everything else.

Results: the big one. According to Steve, ‘The challenge with all this is that it never easily fits results-based management. We have absorbed this cult of results across the aid business, but many or most important ones cannot be put into a logframe. It’s one of the key aspects of the ‘so whats’ in the report – we’ve all been going in the wrong direction, here’s a better way.’

I could go on (and doubtless will, at some point). The point being that the potential is huge. But we have been here before. WDR’s regularly sound brilliant in the initial stages, then somehow the grind of writing, debate and Bank sign-off produces an all too recognizable World Bank sausage by the end of the process. I hope they can retain some of the originality through to the end product.

Some WDRs leave a lasting legacy; others think without trace. At the moment, I’m optimistic about this one.

And here’s what Robert Chambers has to say on it.

March 31, 2014
Duncan Green