Minds set in Washington DC

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‘Development professionals are susceptible to a host of cognitive biases, are influenced by their social tendencies and social environments, and use deeply ingrained mindsets when making choices’ (World Development Report 2015 'Mind, Society and Behaviour', page 181)

Set (vb) ... to put, form or be formed into a jellied, firm, fixed or rigid state…to present as a model of good or bad behaviour….to disappear beneath the horizon
Set (n) ... a number of objects or people grouped or belonging together, often forming a unit or having certain features or characteristics in common (Collins English Dictionary 2005) 


When I heard that the World Development Report 2015 was to be on Mind, Society and Behaviour I was excited and enthusiastic.  Hurrah!  For better or for worse, the World Bank is a trend-setter, even a citadel, of development thinking.  The WDR is well-researched, usually highly professional, and influential, and taken as authoritative. Coming from the Bank, this WDR could be a great leap forward.  I saw this as a potential breakthrough and a huge opportunity for the Bank to lead in moving our mindsets as development professionals towards greater reflexivity.  And as the quotation at the head above suggests, the Report goes a long way in critical awareness, and far further than anything that I have previously seen coming from the Bank.

Then there is the promising and uncharacteristically modest statement (p 21) that ‘The research presented in the Report comes from an active, exciting and unsettled field.  This Report is only the beginning of an approach that could eventually alter the field of development economics and enhance the effectiveness of development policies and interventions’. And who can quarrel with (p 20)  ‘Because policy makers are themselves subject to cognitive biases, they should search for and rely on sound evidence…’.  Also, to do the Report justice, it is a treasure trove of intriguing and insightful research findings about behaviour, mindsets and biases, such as – to pluck one almost at random – the box on page 184 The home team advantage: Why experts are consistently biased  which presents the recent finding from extensive research that referees, especially during critical moments, tend to favour the home side, for instance allocating more extra time when a home team is behind and less when it is ahead.

That said, I am angry and puzzled.   Together with Frank Greaves of Tearfund, I engaged with two of the WDR team in a video conference which covered CLTS (Community-Led Total Sanitation) and other issues we raised including reflexivity.  We supplied them with information and drafts.  Then after a few communications they went silent.  I thought I could understand this.  They must have been under tremendous pressure.  However, I never knew which if any of the five draft boxes I had sent them would be in the Report.  They never told me.  The next I knew was when I requested a copy of the Report and then read it.  That was when I was upset.

CLTS has been grossly misunderstood and misrepresented.  If the draft had been checked out with Frank or myself we would have immediately corrected it, and saved the team the embarrassment, and CLTS the cost, of wide dissemination of a damaging error.   Some of us engaged and familiar with CLTS have written an open letter, and the WDR team have replied.  The two documents are on the CLTS website.  In sum, a misreading of two flawed Randomised Control Trials (RCTs) led to the extraordinary statement (p 17) that ‘where CLTS was combined with subsidies for toilet construction, its impact on toilet availability within households was much higher’.  This flies in the face of almost universal experience.  To justify this statement from one of the RCTs where the treatment was CLTS plus subsidy would have required the control to be CLTS.   In fact, there was no CLTS in the control. If there has been its performance would almost certainly have been much better than the treatment.  Worldwide experience in over 50 countries is diametrically the opposite of the conclusion drawn.  At least 20 Governments have adopted CLTS without subsidies as national policy because it works so much better.   Where subsidy persists, as in India, CLTS is very difficult to implement.  In the early days of CLTS the major supporter and disseminator of CLTS without subsidy was the World Bank itself through its Water and Sanitation Program.   And since then Unicef, DfID, and a host of donors and NGOs have joined in, promoting CLTS without subsidies, recognising that subsidies inhibit self-help and that without subsidies CLTS triggering and follow up can lead to self-help construction and many communities quite quickly declared open defecation free.  Actively promoted by its originator, Kamal Kar, and others, CLTS without subsidies has gone to astonishing scale, with a  population now of probably over 30 million people benefitting.   This is rather more than (p 17) ‘some promising anecdotal evidence’.

And then I reflected:  this was just the most recent of a series of bad experiences I have had with the Bank and Bank editors over the past 40 years or so.  And I know others who have suffered similarly.  I have had the title of an article changed without being asked or informed– only learning about the change after publication: it used the word ‘shortcut’ with its connotations of second best when I was arguing that that RRA (rapid rural appraisal) was often the best:  ‘shortcut’ was last word I wanted, but though I was the author I was given no say in the matter.  Then in the project that came to be known as Voices of the Poor, my drafts were successively amputated and mutilated by editors in Washington DC in what someone described as ‘death by a thousand cuts’, to make them more acceptable I suppose to the mindsets, beliefs and culture prevailing there.  One the editors wrote that in my draft about powerlessness and poverty he had excised all the bits that were ‘emotional’. And now this.

I am puzzled because again over the years there have been people in the Bank whom I like and respect – hardworking, committed, and striving to make this a better world.   How is it that such decent and intelligent people can behave like this? Where does this come from?   Well, power, isolation, Bank culture dominated by economists and economic thinking and language (though less than before, perhaps), work pressures and stress, and a flood of internal over-communication, with too many articulate colleagues to be consulted and offering advice – these go some way in explaining the arrogance of decisions made quickly without consultation outside the Bank. Is it quite simply that their minds are set (see definitions above) with the biases in culture and preconceptions that prevail in Washington DC? 

Chapter 10 The biases of development professionals in this WDR qualifies any such conclusion.  It lists and explores four biases:  the use of shortcuts in the face of complexity; confirmation bias; sunk cost bias; and the effects of context and the social environment on group decision-making.  It is a big step forward for these to come from the Bank.  But there is a fifth bias or omission, howling out for expression, which is not there.  Immediately after the video conference I wrote to the WDR team urging them to include, and I quote from my email:

Reflexivity. (…..a mirror on ‘us’).  Can you, as I suggested yesterday, conclude [the Report] powerfully with the case for reflexivity, setting an example with your own critical reflections on the framing and content of knowledge in your own WDR?  It would be brilliant, absolutely brilliant, if you could, and would set a wonderful example to all of us who call ourselves development professionals…… Wow! What an opportunity!’

They edged towards reflexivity with a survey of World Bank staff and their beliefs, contrasting these surveys of local people’s beliefs, but stopped short of the last mile of looking at their own mindsets and biases as those who framed and wrote the WDR. 

Is lack of reflexivity a widespread disability of most of us who work in ‘development’, most markedly among quantitative professionals trained in economics and medicine?  About dozen years ago Ravi Kanbur, himself a reflexive economist, convened what came to be known as the Qual/Quant or Q Squared conference at Cornell. He invited quant folk to list the weaknesses of quant and the strengths of qual, and vice versa.  The contrast was sharp.  The qual folk were self-critical and gave a full list of the strengths of quant, while the quant folk were largely unreflexive and lacking on both counts.

Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if the WDR team had written something like this:
‘To be consistent, and to set an example, we in the WDR team will conclude by reflecting on our own mindsets, our own social and organisational context, our own behaviour, and how this has influenced our search for and choice of advisers, of research approaches, of types of evidence, of case studies, of vocabulary….’  ?

falseAnd they could have gone on to recognise their biases. These might have included their own ‘deeply ingrained mindsets’ , recognising how these privileged RCTs over other evidence, valued measurement and quant evidence at the cost of qual, had narrow concepts of credibility and rigour, and were framed and expressed in a characteristic vocabulary and concepts.  They might have recognised the influence of the social and organisational context of the World Bank, dominated by economists, and economic concepts, language and values, and the influence of interactions with their immediate colleagues in the team. And they could have looked through the mirror at their own behaviour and its many determinants  including constraints of pressures of time,  the tyranny of floods of email, too many peers and colleagues with fingers in the pie, multiple consultations, meetings, reviews of drafts and efforts of rewriting, all of these forcing attention inwards within the Bank rather than outwards. And they might have said that they like others were vulnerable to error and needed to be able to learn from failure.

But they can throw this back at me!  Robert, you hypocrite! What about a bit of reflexivity from you?  Like so many activists who posture as academics or academics who indulge in activism, you find the sport of Bank-baiting addictive.  Aren’t you gleeful in finding and flagging minor mistakes, and blowing them up into something bigger? And haven’t you enjoyed writing this blog about them?

Well, touché. 

In The Open Society and Its Enemies Karl Popper wrote something like ‘You may be right, and I may be wrong, and by an effort together we may get closer to the truth’. Can we struggle together to get closer to the truth? Can we always to be critical of evidence?  Can we seek a new inclusive rigour?  Can we always reflect critically on our own mindsets and their determinants? Is there a way forward through methodological pluralism, multiple triangulations and reflexivity?  

I would argue that for all of us, development professionals, this is indeed a good way forward, being continuously self-critical and repeatedly striving to unset our minds; and that on the way there is much to learn from this WDR.

Robert Chambers is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and works with the CLTS Knowledge Hub.

Date: 28 April 2015