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WHOSE BIASES COUNT? Steve Commins on the new World Development Report

Stephen Commins, 5 December 2014

A few years ago, a major donor agency organised a nationwide poverty discussion with civil society organisations (CSOs) in Bolivia.  While the meeting between agency officials and the CSO representatives was going on, indigenous people’s organizations were out in the streets, invading government offices and setting up barricades, taking action against their sense of exclusion from the political system.

Their protest handed the donor staff a reality check. While they had reached out to many CSOs, these CSOs had been led by mestizos who spoke Spanish and were generally disconnected from the poorer and more marginalised indigenous communities.

This story — and many more like it from my long career in international development, with both non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the World Bank — came to mind over the last year or so when I have been on the team writing the Bank’s latest World Development Report, WDR2015, Mind, Behavior and Society, published yesterday. 

The Report emphasises the enormous scope for psychologically and socially inspired polices and interventions to help people make choices that promote their own interests, and how behaviours, social norms and mental models shape individual and collective action in ways that do not fit ‘standard’ economic models.

One of the several ways in which the Report is unusual for the World Bank is its chapter on the biases of development professionals.  The premise is first that it is easy enough for professionals to look at (or look down at) the behaviours, biases, mental models and cultural norms of ‘poor people’, patients, students, etc.. It is not so easy, however, to hold up the mirror to the limited cognition of professionals themselves.

Some examples of ways in which organisational structures and embedded institutions limit self-criticism came from a survey of World Bank staff, featured in the report, which found that development practitioners’ models of how poor individuals think and behave are sometimes inaccurate. There are also numerous examples of how even well-intentioned approaches to development can go astray.

A former Peace Corps volunteer who had worked in Lesotho for a number of agencies wrote a superb paper for a course with me, asking if NGOs and others were interlopers or interlocutors in Lesotho.  This distinction is a clear and crisp demarcation about the differences in mindsets and professional approaches to working with poor people and communities.

These professional biases affect lives in OECD countries as well. In the United States at the start of the Ebola outbreak, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) assured the public that US hospitals were well equipped to handle Ebola cases.  This was not an accurate representation of the realities, as confirmed both by nurses and other health workers.

Similarly, there was an expectation that the ‘public’ nature of the British National Health Service (NHS) would guarantee quality care equitably, without considering how the system would promote certain behaviours and norms and replicate social biases.

At the organizational level, this calls for both transparency and accountability, as well as a culture that promotes learning and openness about errors.  This is difficult because, despite the language of ‘learning’, any form of power is made nervous by facts and criticisms that reflect badly on its credibility.

Academics as much as any other profession are prone to a lack of self-criticism (despite the appearance of a critical environment) and to becoming increasingly narrow in their upward climb into the higher ranks.  Too many papers and reports that in theory address complex and important social issues are burdened with jargon, insider debates and lofty phrases that signify membership in a club rather than wrestling with their limited knowledge.

This isolation from the muck and mire has been noted by Robert Chambers (Provocations for Development), Mike Edwards (The Irrelevance of Development Studies) and others.

One of the most recent illustrations of the importance of stepping outside the professional box or mindset is in the magnificent book, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo. Stepping into one slum, she provides the type of voice that professionals need to hear. The centrality of this approach is emphasized in her comment: “Slums are over-theorized and under-reported.”

So, what to do?

The WDR suggests a number of ways to challenge professional blindspots, but the core lesson is that there is no substitute for challenging ourselves individually and collectively to keep narrowing the gap between what we think we are doing and the actual effects of our policies and practices.

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