'Mind, society and behavior' at the World Bank

    The World Bank’s 2015 World Development Report. Photo by: Devex

    There’s no doubt that World Bank President Jim Yong Kim is enthusiastic about his institution’s latest World Development Report, entitled “Mind, Society, and Behavior.”

    However, many wonder whether an institution with an such an uneasy relationship with change and reform can truly put the report’s insights and operational tips into practice.

    “For us, in my view, not to take this behavioral science literature into account as we do our work is a form of malpractice. So we simply must do it,” the World Bank chief said during a panel discussion with the report’s directors and a behavioral studies expert.

    The question still on Kim’s mind is — how?

    Released last week, the 2015 World Development Report suggests that humans think and make decisions automatically socially, and using mental models drawn from their societies and historical contexts. It encourages development professionals and organizations to consider more precisely how human beings — both implementers and beneficiaries — think and act.

    The authors argue that development organizations can learn from industry and the private sector to implement procedures that mitigate these decision making biases. For instance, “dogfooding” — a process in the technology industry in which employees test out a product themselves before taking it to market — could be translated into development practices. Likewise, the military and private sector process of “red-teaming” — finding an outside group to challenge an operational design — could elevate the quality of a particular development agenda.

    Disruptions favor change

    The challenge is how to move on from lofty statements and actually implement those recommendations by changing the way such a complex institution as the World Bank works, Kim told David Halpern, a panelist and chief executive of the Behavioural Insights Team, a U.K government behavioral sciences think tank.

    Too often, the expert noted, organizations will release high quality reports, credit the team that carried it out and then fail to put those insights into practice or push the knowledge forward.  

    “Challenge your various divisions and groups,” Halpern suggested. “Say ‘OK, come back within six months with three examples of where you’re going to use this and it’s going to take you in a different direction.’”

    Halpern also said the World Bank could offer more knowledge and advice rather than simply funds.

    “Behavior is most amenable to change when you’re at some kind of point of disruption or crisis,” said Halpern, explaining that countries in need of World Bank support are often at crisis or extreme disruption points, and therefore most receptive to new ideas.

    Let’s ‘create space for people to fail’ — Kim

    Varun Gauri, co-director of the World Development Report 2015, recalled how he had a meeting with a number of senior directors at the World Bank about mainstreaming some of the report’s insights into bank policy.

    “There was a sense that there was a great interest in this whole agenda, but people would like to feel freer to experiment and potentially to fail,” he said. “We need to think a little bit organizationally about how to liberate people, which is a challenge because we may have targets for success rates of projects.”

    Kim is open to the idea of a team at the bank dedicated to behavioral insights.

    “Having some kind of behavioral insight teamlike unit would be great … You want experts who can sift through all of the different kinds of information,” he explained. “There are ways of structuring how you would do an intervention and measure it. And I think we do have to create the space for people to fail.”

    Kim admitted, though that implementing change at the bank is easier said than done.

    “It’s hard,” he said. “Culture change here is hard.”

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    About the author

    • Jeff tyson 400x400  1

      Jeff Tyson

      Jeff is a former global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers multilateral affairs, U.S. aid, and international development trends. He has worked with human rights organizations in both Senegal and the U.S., and prior to joining Devex worked as a production assistant at National Public Radio. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French from the University of Rochester.