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Why Won’t Babu Move?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Much of what we do in international development as a field of practice is designed to make Babu move, yet more often than not Babu does not make the move we would like her to make, a move that we are convinced is clearly, evidently, certainly, demonstrably in her overall best interest. As a result, we are, at turns, surprised, frustrated, angry, resigned, cynical even.  The fault is with Babu, we are convinced, and not with us.

As you must have guessed by now, Babu is the prototypical intended beneficiary of many of our development programs and initiatives. Depending on how you pronounce her name, she could be from any of the continents to which most developing countries belong. We work in development largely because we want to improve Babu’s life. We have a passionate concern; we want to do the very best that we can for her. We bring money, expertise and oodles of benevolence to Babu’s hometown. But we know that for the initiative to go well (and produced those magical ‘development results’) we need Babu to play her part. We need her to make a move of some kind. Perhaps we want her to:

  • Wash her hands thoroughly with soap each time she touches human waste;
  • Go to the health clinic supposed to serve her and assert her rights;
  • Attend parents-teachers meetings  and raise hell if Junior is not being taught right or taught at all;
  • Become a smart micro-entrepreneur; or
  • Make intelligent choices during elections, resisting the calls of ethnic solidarity or the blandishments of corrupt politicians.

The list goes on but I think the point is made. And as we all know very well, there are many reasons why in each particular case Babu fails, refuses to, simply cannot, or neglects to make the move we believe it is so obviously in her interest.  Again, there is a potentially long list, but they include:

  • Power relations in her context;
  • Her deeply held beliefs and values (see Box on cognitive hierarchy);
  • The state of her knowledge and attitudes;
  • The complexities of the communication context she is in; or
  • Self-efficacy challenges: Can I do this? Will it make a difference at all if I do it?

Beliefs, Values, Attitudes, and Opinions: A Cognitive Hierarchy. This figure shows how beliefs form the basis for values, values for attitudes, and attitudes for opinions. From the book Public Opinion, Second Edition, p. 124.

In my opinion, the saddest part of all this is that taking seriously what it will take in each case to get Babu to move is the weakest, the most neglected, and the least funded part of international development. And this is largely because the leading institutions and agencies working in international development are dominated by a stunningly narrow view of what a human beings is (that is, who Babu is). Therefore, they are not as good as they need to be at understanding --in its full richness --the true wellsprings of human action.

And that’s a pity.

Photo Credit: Trevor Samson / World Bank

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Submitted by Denis on
Well done Sina for bringing up starkly what we as development practitioners are up against. Unfortunately, without an honest dialogue with Babu and ensuring we have common expectations of what we want to achieve, we risk going in different development trajectories.

Submitted by Heather Esper on
Thanks for sharing the cognitive hierarchy table Sina. I recently read a great policy paper on behavioral design put out by the Center for Global Development in late 2012 by Saugato Datta and Sendhil Mullainathan. The paper includes a useful framework for behavioral design and also includes a set of behavioral design principles to improve the reach and effectiveness of development programs. Link to policy paper:

Submitted by Lotta Adelstal on
Thanks for sharing a snapshot of the reality of people and us practioners! Changing individuals and society is a complex process. It requires us to understand the web of thoughts and reasoning behind peoples decision to act or not to act. The tools and the knowledge needed to design effective behaviour change efforts are abundant, we simply need to put them to practice. And for this, decision-makers have to feel the same urge to invest in people processes as in technical processes ...

Submitted by D Cammack on
This subject is not altogether ignored in development (I have been looking at it for 12 years at least and Ann Swindler for longer e.g., In recent years Chabal and Daloz have tackled culture and development ( and the recent APPP programme (of which I was part, with David Booth directing it - has also taken note of this issue. The point I want to emphasize here is that culture is dynamic and if we note only people's values etc, as in the chart above, it tends to make us think of it as static and unchanging. The key question is how do people change their values, beliefs etc and how that then changes their actions. A focus on insitutitions and incentives evolves from that question (and not solely as Dani Rodrik would have it, from economics - For instance, strong leaders can motivate change in beliefs and behaviour, as can hard times (e.g., a refugee's experience can really drive new views and actions). We need to explore this process further and to tap into it where it exists, to drive the types of behavioural changes noted by the author, as well as many other national-level reforms.

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