The other day I got in an old green LandCruiser SUV, drove 2 hours down corrugated red dirt roads past herds of cattle and fields of cassava and sorghum, arrived in a rural village called Kokodu where villagers had decorated their secondary school with purple flowers in anticipation of our arrival, observed a workshop intended to teach villagers how to develop plans to achieve their goals and maintain their self-confidence when times get tough, and then watched as 20 groups of three villagers each received grants of $100 to use to build new businesses in their communities. The recipients cheered and sang. I was given three chickens and a colossal bunch of green bananas.
This is more or less what my job looks like when I go out to do fieldwork. Currently I work as a consultant for Village Enterprise, an American NGO that has been running economic development programs in East Africa since 1987. They work with the poorest households in rural areas and use a very comprehensive program that combines teaching basic agricultural and financial skills, giving cash transfers, providing business mentoring and forming villagers into collective savings groups to help them build sustainable livelihoods. Their program is intensive and produces outstanding results: four years after completing the program 75% of the businesses Village Enterprise starts are still operational, and after participating in the program for one year 67% of participants report an increase in household food consumption and 75% of people report an increase in their standard of living. To evaluate what appear to be terrific outcomes to their programs, Village Enterprise recently began an official impact evaluation, in which the model that they’ve developed is run simultaneously against a number of different development interventions to see which produce the best results on a number of villages that have been selected for their comparability. The overall question is: what is the most impactful (and cost-effective) means of assisting marginalized people in rural communities to lift themselves out of poverty?
This is where I come in. As a consultant, I’m not involved in the day-to-day operations of Village Enterprise; instead, my chief responsibility is to help design, pilot, and implement one of the OTHER models of economic development. The full comprehensive Village Enterprise program is being compared with a number of different variables, including villages that receive only cash transfers, villages that receive nothing (control villages), villages that receive only cash and business training but don’t form savings groups, and lastly, villages that receive cash transfers AND a behavioral intervention. This last is, in my opinion, the most unpredictable and exciting part of this whole experiment. I am responsible for developing and implementing the behavioral intervention on the ground here in Uganda.
You may be wondering what a behavioral intervention looks like, and frankly I’ve been spending a lot of time wondering the same thing. The basic idea is this: imagine that you are going to give a very large amount of cash, with no conditionalities or strings attached, to a person who is not expecting to receive that money. It doesn’t matter if that person is American or Ugandan or Danish: most people are completely unprepared to receive a lot of money all at once (think about lottery winners!), and if someone just GIVES it to them the chances are slim that they will carefully think through the steps that they have to take to put that money to the best possible use. The full Village Enterprise program mitigates this issue by working with communities intensively over the course of a year to help farmers develop the plans and skills necessary to use that money effectively, while other NGOs simply give farmers and rural villagers money and encourage them to spend it however they think is best. There are problems with both of these approaches: the former is expensive, time intensive, and difficult to coordinate and operate on a large scale, whereas in the latter it is frankly implausible that most, or even any, of these unstructured cash transfers will go towards building sustainable livelihoods. So here’s the obvious question: what if there was some kind of miraculous middle path, that involved very little involvement from the NGO making the cash transfer, and yet could somehow structure the way that people think about this large and unexpected windfall and nudge them towards putting it to good use?
A behavioral intervention is intended to be a “light touch” intervention that minimizes the amount of time an NGO spends with rural communities, but uses a combination of activities to influence the way that villagers think about and allocate the cash transfer that they receive. The term “behavioral intervention” sounds reminiscent of something that happens to dissidents in 1984, but actually the goal of the intervention is to strike a balance between urging villagers to use the money for specific purposes (buying land, investing in livestock, etc.) and allowing them to make their own choices about how they want to spend the money that we give them.
I’m not doing this on my own. I work with a pair of psychologists— one at Princeton, one at U. Chicago— who have been enlisted to envision what an effective behavioral intervention should look like. At this point they’ve developed a “script,” a series of activities that a trainer will go through with a group of villagers. First villagers identify a successful person in their community, list items that person has that mark them as rich, describe habits or characteristics that that person has that allow them to succeed, and then the trainer asks them if they can emulate these habits in their own life. The script then segues into affirmation storytelling: villagers turn to their neighbors and tell them, in great detail, a story about a time that they confronted a challenge or obstacle and eventually overcame it. The trainer then distributes large pieces of cloth to the villagers, and ask them to draw themselves, their households and their farms as they see them now, and ask them to draw themselves and their possessions as they would like them to be in one year. Villagers then speak one-on-one with the trainer, describing what their goal is, the specific steps they will take to achieve this goal, and the rough dates by which they will achieve each step of their plan. Finally, the trainer gives them their cash transfer in two separate envelopes: a red envelope, containing 90% of the money, which villagers are encouraged to use exclusively for business, and a green envelope with 10% of the cash which villagers can spend as they wish, on nice food, booze, or luxury goods.
So let’s unpack that. When we talk about the “poorest of the poor” in rural villages, we’re talking about people who have very few past experiences of success, and therefore often think that they don’t have the capacity to succeed. We begin with an exercise intended to “demystify” the rich, where we ask villagers to think critically about HOW successful people acquired the things that mark them as successful, and then ask them what habits rich people exhibit that they do not, and ask them if they too are capable of emulating these habits. We transition to an activity where we stimulate villagers’ memory of a time that they encountered a challenge and were able to overcome it. Many of the people that we work with have never told anyone their success story before, and remembering past successes encourages people to believe that they can achieve similar successes in the future. When villagers draw on a piece of cloth their lives as they are and their lives as they want them to be, they can more tangibly visualize their goals and the specific things they hope to achieve. The people we work with are people who have little experience making drawings, and we encourage them to hang their drawings in their house to serve as a reminder of their goals. We ask villagers to think of and then share the steps they will take once they receive the money, the idea here being that if villagers have a roadmap in mind of the things they have to do sequentially to build a business, once they have the cash in hand they’ll feel that they have a reasonable means of achieving their stated goal. We distribute money in two envelopes because we are not naïve, and we realize that poor villagers who receive a huge windfall of cash will spend some amount of it on luxury goods that were previously inaccessible. The green envelope is a safety mechanism: by telling villagers that it’s OK to spend some money according to their own whims, we allow them to buy a few small luxuries without feeling like they’ve derailed their whole plan.
All told, the whole training session takes about two hours. While I’m here, I hire, train, and direct the Intervention Leaders who will facilitate these training sessions in the village, run pilots to refine the script by seeing how villagers react to and engage with each component, communicate with these psychologists in the US, and spend a lot of time in the field learning about which are the most effective means of motivating and inspiring people who are unfamiliar with NGOs, receiving cash transfers, or starting businesses. I’ll be here for at least the next four months, and here’s the thing: I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think we were on to something, if I didn’t think that this could really work. I’m convinced that we’ve found a mix of activities and exercises that convince people that they can be successful if they have a clear goal and focus on a plan to achieve it, and as I continue to refine this script in pilots I see villagers engaging with our activities more and more. Today I ran a pilot that involved asking fifteen villagers to draw their current situation on a piece of cloth and then draw how they visualize their lives in a year. One woman raised her hand and asked (in Ateso) if she would be allowed to participate because she had never held a pen before, and two other women chimed in to add that they were in the same situation. I assured them that they could, passed out the pens, and saw that these three women put more time, effort, and thought into their drawings than anyone else there.
Knowing that someone believes in you is an incredible motivator. I think just giving someone a cash transfer doesn’t convince them that you have any real stake or interest in their success; but if you sit with them for a few hours and ask to hear about their hopes, dreams, past achievements, and the steps they plan to take to make these dreams reality, they have a reason to believe that they can be successful. My goal in Uganda is to do my job well, spend as much time as possible in the field to understand the communities that I’m working with, and fulfill the contract that I signed a month ago. Nevertheless, there’s something deeper underlying that: I really think that if this works, behavioral interventions and light-touch approaches to cash transfers can revolutionize the field of economic development, offering a cheap, easily facilitated and effective way of encouraging people to use an unusual opportunity to its maximum potential.
This intervention is complex, and I’m still struggling to articulate what exactly I’m doing here and why I’m doing it. Please comment to give me your thoughts or ask me questions. As always, I’m looking forward to hearing from you.