Why We Need To Invest In Behavioural Science To Bring About Grassroot Transformation

Posted on August 31, 2016 in Society

By Anjali Menon:

Time and again, we see several civil society organisations calling forth to action some commendable causes like health, education, empowerment, skill development and livelihoods. With the Companies Act in full swing, now several companies in India are investing in the social sector as well. There is a large sum of money afloat for the best implementing agencies to catch. Then why do most efforts not achieve their aim?

I was at a Skill Development Forum organised by the American Embassy at Hyderabad the other day, where several NGOs were discussing best practices across the globe.

What I find most ironic about such meetings is that social problems are people-centric. And the behavior and nature of people varies from one place to another. And here we are commenting on best practices across the most developed countries in the world. When we came to the challenges, everyone cried in unison “attitude change”. There was not even one suggestion made to this cause, because no one in that room, even with 20+ years experience in the field, had the slightest clue about why the dropout rates from schools and skill development centres were so high. There wasn’t the slightest self-doubt, that maybe there is something problematic in our very approach. And that is why Behavioural Science is terribly important in a field like this.

I work with an NGO in Hyderabad that tries to empower women through skill development. As I navigate the slums, I come face to face with their daily problems – the lack of water and sanitation is at the top of all others. When the water tanker arrives once or twice a week, the women we work with disappear for hours, while we sit at the training-cum-production-centre and sigh, heavily.

Many of them carry babies at the age of 15 or 16. They refuse to come and work at the tailoring centre because they have no place to leave their children. We shake our heads in disapproval. Some cry at the drop of a hat and some quit the moment a challenge crops up. We don’t deal with this because we don’t know how to. We should be encouraging the men to assume more responsibilities at home. We should be breaking the backs of government agencies to set up daycare centres. But instead, we try bringing celebrities to motivate the women to start working and empower themselves because we believe that the culture of hero worship in this state will eventually be the root of their development. Out of the funds allocated for such projects as mine, a mere 10% is allocated to community awareness. We run on hit and trial, based on our innate perceptions and deductions.

What we really need, is for a group of behavioural scientists to be conducting surveys and studies into the lives of the urban poor and chalk out patterns in their thinking, in their decision making processes, in their financial decisions and figure out how they can be influenced. We study organizational behavior, group dynamics and employee psychology for the benefit of multinational corporate houses in order to increase their productivity. And these studies have proven to be very successful. The field of Behavioural Science is capable of contributing to a large extent to development and the way I see it, the future of revolutionary grassroot transformation depends on it.

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