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

March 31, 2014
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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.


  1. I absolutely love the idea of development being ‘the future way of thinking about the human condition’ (or perhaps the way of thinking about the future human condition), though i do fear that the trend of making development about everything – though it is – endangers making it about nothing.

    I also look forward to more ideas about how to take these great ideas and turn them into genuinely transformative ways of working.

  2. Really good post, Duncan.

    The paradigm shift vs. new toolkit needs urgent attention at the moment. While there’re many encouraging movements underway in different organisations, I see a clear tendency that (on this occasion) Mind and Culture (usually norms and informal institutions) are simply adapted into traditional equilibrium models of the world. The static institutions-as-icebergs metaphor is an example.

    If that goes unchallenged, I predict that it’ll go the contextualist movement the same way it did Community-driven/based Development. Contextual considerations will mostly be token or, at best, instrumental. You end up with the same failure rates but with a new vocabulary to explain it. (Sometimes with the loss of legal rights in the process).

    The real possibilities lies in, as you hint, nudging and in acting as brokers based on the realisation of the dynamic/non-equilibrium nature of the relationship between formal rules, expectations, beliefs, etc.

    But, (us in) the complexity camp needs to hurry up producing a synthesis that one can push as a slightly more formula approach than the bag of compelling but non-operational metaphors on offer at the moment.

  3. Duncan,

    I am with you on the execution. I followed up on the 2015 WDR from one of your earlier postings. I worry that the composition of the 2015 WDR team is not (could be wrong) culturally diverse so maybe one lens about mind and culture may dominate.

  4. Thanks for sharing this Duncan.
    It’s fantastic that the world bank is focusing on these issues.

    A few reflections and questions:

    1) Where is the refernece to the prviate sector here? Private sector companies have known about mind and culture for decades and, more importantly, been acting on that knowledge.

    They have not had the luxury to pretend that human beings are entirely (or even mostly) rational, routinely use social interdependence and norms to create change and mental models are a key part of how marketing departments change the minds and behaviour of millions of people on a daily basis.

    2) I would also echo the point made by Robert Chambers about emotion – something private sector companies recognise and utilise every single day. We are emotional beings and any investigation into mind and culture has to recognise that and put it front and centre. See Damasio’s ‘Decartes Error’ and just about every single advertising campaign ever.

    Going further, i would also argue that ‘information’ as a category of intervention is inadequte, and a consequnce of the old paradigm of assuming we are all perfectly rational beings that only need information to make the right decision. Information is often necessary but insufficient (we know smoking and chocolates are bad for us…). Sometimes is not even necessary for change – think about how much information most voters have about the politcians and policies they vote for.

    3) Although the report says it focuses on BE, social norms and mental models, the ‘Participate’ section of the WDR website has only three questions that are mostly about BE.

    Behavioural economics, or experimental psychology, is one tool to create change that recognises the ‘bounded rationality’ of human beings, but by no means the only one. The political interest shown by UK and US goverments has given it a lot of attention but i would argue it is much better suited ‘bounded interventions’ that more easily fit into RCTs (e.g. what’s the best line of copy for a letter to remind people to fill out their tax return?) than some of the more challenging issues the sector is wrestling with, such as governance, gender-based violence, and stigma and discrimination of minority groups to name three.

    Perhaps the biggest challenge will be the point you make last – results. A process and approach that recognises the irrational, emotional, and social nature of human beings doesn not fit neatly into a logframe format. Again, something provate sector companies do routinely: focus on the change you seek and recognise that the way you get there needs to be flexible, responsive and iterative.

    4) Although the panel is very academically distinguished, i wonder how many are practitioners and have had to put some of these theories into practice? I would argue that if the spirit of the WDR is to recognise that human beings are not robots (or ‘econs’), then it would also be good to see some consultation of those who have practical experience and success with designing interventions for irrational, emotional, social actors w(i.e.’humans’).

    Thanks again for sharing, I will follow this with interest.

  5. Very interesting stuff.
    I wonder if, in the discussion of mental models, the report will bring in any concepts from the field of Adult Development. That would take it, potentially, beyond a paradigm shift, perhaps even towards a different way of understanding paradigms themselves (yes, getting a little out there, I know).
    If done well, I think the audience to benefit from the report would go far beyond the ‘mainstream economists’.

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