In June this year, António Guterres declared that behavioural science was ‘a critical tool for the UN to progress on its mandate’. UNDP’s Regional Innovation Team in the Arab States, a long-running proponent of behavioural science, has partnered with the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) to conduct a year-long capacity-building project across 10 Arab States*. The goal is to enable UNDP Country Offices and their partners to design and pilot behavioural interventions to support youth and women’s entrepreneurship in the region.
We recently co-hosted a webinar at the UN Behavioural Science Week 2021 during which we presented initial evidence from the project and asked UNDP colleagues in participating Country Offices to reflect on their experience thus far. We share three insights below about what it takes to apply behavioural science to complex challenges and the value of experimenting across countries.
Using behavioural science to tackle one of the highest rates of youth unemployment in the world
In the Arab States, about 1 in 4 young people is unemployed. This unemployment rate has been higher than in the rest of the world for the past three decades, and it has worsened since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Half of young women in the Arab States are neither in employment nor in education or training (NEET)*, and they are twice as likely to be unemployed compared to men. Entrepreneurship can be a way to improve young people’s prospects*, and especially opportunities for young women who face a range of additional barriers to becoming entrepreneurs, including restrictive social norms, caring responsibilities, limited business-relevant networks and difficulties accessing finance and training.
At its heart, entrepreneurship consists of a series of behaviours: creating a (new) product or service, opening a bank account, applying for a loan, registering one’s business formally, to name only a few. During the project, each UNDP Country Office will implement and learn from a pilot intervention in one of three areas, with a view to then scaling findings to larger target groups with the support of national partners:
- Entrepreneurship training programmes: Nudging greater participation of youth who don’t typically apply to training programmes, such as youth from rural areas (Libya) or persons with disabilities (Syria), and offering redesigned training to help would-be entrepreneurs to come up with more innovative ideas (Iraq).
- Access to finance: Encouraging women entrepreneurs, particularly in rural areas, to open bank accounts (Tunisia), including with microfinance institutions (Djibouti), to make use of mobile money services (Morocco), and to engage in better financial planning (Lebanon).
- Business registration: Encouraging entrepreneurs to register their businesses formally, among others by reducing friction in administrative processes (Jordan, Somalia, Sudan).
While clear and user-friendly information provision is a popular means of delivering a behavioural intervention, there are also other means, as shown in the diagram below. UNDP Country Office interventions span these five categories:
Three insights from the process so far:
1. Take your time and define the problem in behavioural terms
Good problem definition is at the heart of any good solution, but it can be particularly time-consuming in the case of behavioural interventions.
As per the UN Behavioural Science Report, “the use of scientific methods to better understand human behaviours and contexts can be complex; the application of behavioural science may require more time to set up and show results than more traditional approaches. This complexity must be recognised at all levels and factored into planning decisions.”
It can also be tempting to jump to solutions before having properly understood the problem and defined it in behavioural terms.
Breaking down a complex question into specific behavioural questions
Behavioural approaches typically involve breaking down complex problems, such as ‘financial inclusion’ or ‘women’s empowerment’, into a set of specific questions and target behaviours. Selecting a behaviour that is going to be impactful, strategic to address, and measurable is not an easy feat. However, investing time in the behavioural diagnosis is key to designing a great solution later on.
2. Probe your assumptions
Martin Eccles, an implementation researcher, used to mock practitioners by saying the most frequent model of change followed the ISLAGIATT principle – a made-up acronym standing for ‘It Seemed like A Good Idea At the Time’.
What he meant was that, too often, practitioners rely on their opinions, personal experience and intuition to design interventions, which can lead to a waste of precious resources.
We started the project by putting together an evidence review to tailor our capacity-building activities to the local context, and inform the design of country-level interventions. While any rigorous behavioural work requires exploration of and customisation to the local context, existing evidence can provide valuable inspiration and is a good way of challenging assumptions from the outset.
We strongly encouraged our colleagues to park any preconceived notions and delve into the existing academic and grey literature* to get different perspectives on the behavioural problem they were looking to address (and potential solutions). For example, there is a common misperception that women might be more risk-averse than men. However, growing evidence suggests that this may not be true. Rather, they evaluate risk differently to their male counterparts*.
Read the evidence review: Paving the Path to Successful Youth Entrepreneurship in the Arab States with Behavioural Science | United Nations Development Programme (undp.org).
3. Listen, experience, understand
Interviewing people in the target group is invariably one of the most rewarding and cost-effective steps to understanding the context and the reasons why people don’t perform a desired behaviour (e.g. go to a bank or register a business).
Our colleagues in UNDP Tunisia travelled to the south of the country to speak with rural women entrepreneurs. They discovered that the women mistrusted financial institutions, seeing them as “black boxes”. Using BIT’s Barrier Cards tool* they were able to disentangle the reasons behind women’s financial exclusion in this particular context.
Interviews also helped our colleagues in UNDP Lebanon break down the rather abstract concept of ‘women’s economic empowerment’. Narrowing down to the idea of how women manage the finances of a business on a day-to-day basis, and how that sense of preparedness allows them to invest better, they found that all interviewees, no matter how elaborate their financial management tools, had a misguided perception that their own methods were overly simplistic.
Of course, since people’s attitudes, values, and perceptions don’t always translate into action, it is best to triangulate interview data against observed behaviours: our colleagues in UNDP Sudan spent several hours at the registrar’s office observing business registration processes.
These deep, direct interactions with the people and communities that UNDP serves are essential to diversifying our knowledge base and moving past one-size-fits-all solutions to entrepreneurship challenges.
We’ll be back later in the year with findings and practical tools from the project that we hope can benefit other practitioners working in this space. Stay tuned!
*Djibouti, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Tunisia.
*Compared to 1 in 5 young men.
*Promoting entrepreneurship is linked to a reduction in unemployment but may not always be the best option for all. This project focuses on reducing friction for existing and would-be entrepreneurs.
*This included systematic reviews and meta-analyses but also institutional research reports, working papers, etc.
*Centre for Entrepreneurs. (2015). Shattering Stereotypes: Women in Entrepreneurship
*The Barrier Identification Tool is a free tool created by BIT, using the COM-B model of behaviour change developed by Susan Michie and her team of behavioural experts at University College London. It helps practitioners identify and classify potential barriers to your desired behaviour.