What counts in the end: better behaviour or a better ability to explore and learn?

In one of my recent articles I asked the question ‘Should we fix wrong behaviour?’ The article has had great resonance with the community. In particular, it sparked an inspiring exchange among colleagues at ACDI/VOCA, which they shared on their own blog. They gave me permission to repost the article here but given its length I will just link to it – do read it if you have the time. Below, I have drawn out a couple of quotes that I found particularly interesting and insightful and I am also adding some follow up thoughts from my side at the end.

My take on Marcus’s blog is who is the “agent” that modifies the behavior? When development actors design and push behavior changes, the issues Marcus points out are real problems. However, if the market actor is the principal agent that explores a new set of behaviors, and the development organization facilitates this learning process to see what works in a context, then this is a more appropriate role. It’s a development as freedom perspective. Development actors may supply information to inform rational choices, bridge networks to open up new choices, or even work on high-level institutional change with the potential to change the landscape in which choices are made.

Dun Grover, Director of Monitoring, Evaluation & Learning for the USAID Honduras Transforming Market Systems (TMS) Activity

Good [Social and Behavior Change] SBC practitioners will work WITH an actor to identify a set of behaviors that are ideal. (…) The process should be participatory from the start. (…) So, the idea isn’t (or shouldn’t be) to tell market actors that they’re practicing “bad behaviors” and then suggest a set of “good behaviors.

Sarah Sahlaney, Social and Behavior Change (SBC) Director

There’s also a distinction that we shouldn’t overlook–the argument that the ideal behaviors in market systems for a given context is often unknowable at a point in time–either by the market actor or anyone else for that matter. In this case, the “identification” is not linear, but is a non-linear process of real-time retrospection, iteration, and adaption that is critical to learn by doing and to discover what “ideal” behaviors fit the current context.

Dun Grover

I also think it’s important to distinguish between behavioral economics, which is mostly about the disconnect between what people say they will do and what they actually do in an economic sense, and social and behavior change, which is a more participatory approach to development, as Sarah notes below. Behavioral economics (as a subset of economics) does in fact have a specific perspective about what people should do (so that economic theories work). While both approaches can be useful in our work, and in understanding why people do what they do, they are not the same.

Cheryl Turner, Managing Director, Technical Learning and Application (TLA) Unit

We as development actors should work together with market actors to allow them to experiment, based on their own pain points, facilitate an interpretation of their findings and conclusions, and support the scaling of concrete, meaningful solutions that others in the system will hopefully imitate and replicate.

Sergio Rivas, Chief of Party, Honduras TMS

The emphasis on planning and strategy is really deemphasized in market systems. (…) Alternatives discussed a lot at the [Market Systems] Symposium, which Bob also flagged in his comments, are “probing” and “sensemaking.”

Dun Grover

On the one hand, our projects are funded to achieve very clear policy objectives, which almost always include explicit behavior change on the part of our beneficiaries, often on the most important aspects of their lives. Only within those parameters can we pursue participatory approaches, which is a huge reason we consistently regress toward prescriptive action plans and paternalistic strategies.

Dan White, Director of Agriculture, TLA

I really enjoyed reading through this exchange and I find it very inspiring. Thanks a lot for sharing it with the wider community! It has certainly inspired some follow-up thoughts in me. 

Sergio distilled quite nicely what a more nuanced and complexity sensitive view of behaviour change means in terms of the development actors’ role: “work together with market actors to allow them to experiment, based on their own pain points, facilitate an interpretation of their findings and conclusions, …”. What was also expressed in the exchange was that we need to constantly revisit the behaviours that we’ve identified with our partners, discuss alternatives, try new things, etc. In other words, what we are actually doing is helping them to becoming better at exploration and learning, both individually and collectively. Why, then, do we need to talk about ‘behaviour change’ at all then? Why is our focus on the outcome of this process? What we are doing in effect is building the partner’s capability to explore, learn and adjust. Shouldn’t that be a result in its own right? 

In other words: Quite naturally, people engaged in development programmes have a strong ‘before’ and ‘after’ logic when they talk about change. Before we came in, the market actors showed a certain behaviour, which did not lead to a desirable outcome for our group of beneficiaries. After we left, the behaviour changed to a ‘better’ behaviour. Even if we allow for the fact that we cannot plan this ‘better’ behaviour from the outset, we are still essentially looking at how the situation looks like when we leave. Market systems, on the other hand, don’t have a ‘before’ and ‘after’. There is also no absolute ‘better’ or ‘worse’ – context is what decides about what is ‘better’; and what might be ‘better’ now might become the next trap. So, my question is: do we focus too much on the change (i.e. comparing the after with the before) instead of focusing on the process (i.e. what is needed to change from a situation that is perceived to be problematic to a situation that is perceived to be better)? As all solutions are transient, should our prime focus not be on building the capability in the market system to run this process of change, the process as described in the exchange that builds on exploration and learning? And probable the most important question: should our programmes not be assessed with regards to how well they have been able to put this capability in place (rather than with regards to what ‘better’ behaviour they have been able to catalyse)?

I’d be curious to hear what you think about these questions!

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