• Opinion
  • April 1, 2019
  • 7 minutes
  • 1

Can behavioural insights be used for international development?

Opinion: The BIT is running projects in many low and middle income countries

This piece was written by Dr. Kizzy Gandy, Principal Advisor within the Behavioural Insights Team’s (BIT’s) international development team. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed.


As the original nudge unit, we’re often asked whether behavioural insights are relevant across different cultures and economies. Can we draw similar conclusions about people’s behaviour in Britain, where we were first set up, as in, say, Bangladesh?

After running projects with governments and organisations in more than 20 low and middle income countries, it’s a question we’re increasingly confident in answering: yes.

Behavioural insights can contribute a great deal to tackling complex development challenges, often at very low cost, in a variety of places and scenarios — from medication adherence to corruption. Given the evolutionary roots of human cognition, we have not been surprised to find that people all over the world are prone to the same decision-making biases.

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No matter where we live, we all gravitate towards options that are easy. We’re all influenced by the behaviour of others, whether they be our neighbours, colleagues and fellow citizens. Assistance in planning effectively can help us all meet our goals, whether they include filing your taxes on time or completing a training course.

We share many of the same human traits and biases, but it’s also true that these may be expressed differently depending on where we live and work. Context is vital when it comes to tapping the full potential of behavioural insights, which is why we partner with governments and organisations to help design and test appropriate interventions.

No matter where we work — and in the last few years that has covered countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh, Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Nigeria, Tanzania, South Africa, Georgia and Turkey — we use behavioural science to improve lives and public services. Recent highlights include:

  • Combating corruption in Nigeria: Not being able to show an ID when requested by a public official leaves people vulnerable to demands for bribes. Yet a significant number of people still fail to pick up their new driver’s licenses, even when notified. So we worked with a local office of the Federal Road Safety Corps of Nigeria to test the impact of sending a follow up text message reminder.

    The message, which used loss aversion by highlighting that the recipient had already paid for their licence, more than doubled the number of people who picked up their driver’s licence in a two-month period.
  • Improving responses to intimate partner violence (IPV) in Georgia: We tested four different Facebook ads to encourage friends and family of IPV survivors to take supportive actions. An ad which used positive social norms about bystanders speaking out against IPV had a 50% higher click rate when it was combined with an offer to get tips for providing social support to survivors compared to when it was combined with information on how to connect survivors to services.
  • Reducing social security contribution arrears in Indonesia: As part of our capacity building partnership with the Indonesian social security agency BPJS Ketenagakerjaan (BPJSTK), we co-designed and tested four different email messages to reduce arrears of mandatory social security contributions by employers. Around 313,000 companies registered with BPJSTK had arrears at least once between July 2017 and June 2018, leaving millions of Indonesian employees without workplace insurance or old age benefits.

    With a sample of 95,156 companies, we found that highlighting the risk of prosecution for non-compliance increased the number of companies that made a payment before the deadline by 2.6 percentage points compared to a “no email” control group. It also reduced arrears by 3.4 percentage points, resolving an extra USD 734,000 in old debt. This represents a USD 3.7 million reduction in arrears if the email had been sent to the whole sample.
  • Promoting financial inclusion in Mexico: We tested various different ways to encourage beneficiaries of the conditional cash transfer programme Prospera to make better use of formal financial services. We tripled the number of beneficiaries that made a digital transaction at an agent banking point (retail outlets authorised to carry out banking services) by targeting an intervention at agents. The agents were provided with a poster to promote their services and incentivised with three small items (a cap, thermos and folder) if they completed more than 20 transactions with Prospera beneficiaries within two months.

We believe behavioural insights have an important role to play in the development of low and middle income countries, particularly through local organisations and governments themselves learning the methodology.

Designing public services around the drivers of human behaviour, and conducting rigorous evaluations to find out what works, is a cost-effective way to promote a country’s prosperity and the well-being of its citizens. We hope our findings inspire a wider audience to adopt a behavioural lens and become experimenters when addressing development challenges.

Want to know more about applying behavioural insights to policy challenges overseas? Download BIT’s latest International Development report here. — Kizzy Gandy

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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