Maya Shankar
Lori Foster
Publication Date
December 20, 2016

"Agenda 2030 can only be achieved if we critically examine the behavioural factors that lead people to utilize programs effectively and efficiently. Research in behavioural science - regarding how people make decisions and act on them, how they think about, influence, and relate to one another, and how they develop beliefs and attitudes - can inform optimal programme design."

In 2016, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Innovation Facility collaborated with the UN Behavioural Science Advisor to work on behaviourally informed design, drawing on research findings from psychology, economics, and neuroscience, with 8 UNDP Country Offices in all 5 regions: Bangladesh, Cameroon, China, Ecuador, Jordan, Moldova, Montenegro, and Papua New Guinea. This progress report highlights the potential of behavioural insights to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and provides a series of case studies from the UN Behavioural Initiative (UNBI) - charged with translating behavioural science insights into more effective and efficient UN programming and operations - in 5 broad areas under Agenda 2030:

  1. Advancing Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment - with a case study focusing on combating child marriage by challenging social norms (South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East)
  2. Leaving No One Behind - with case studies focusing on: stabilising livelihoods of Syrian refugees in host communities and vulnerable Jordanians through skills exchanges and employment opportunities (Jordan); empowering the migrant workforce through skills-based qualifications (global); and increasing accurate wage reporting and public investment through targeted communications (Moldova)
  3. Protecting the Planet - with case studies focusing on: protecting the environment by promoting uptake of an e-waste recycling programme (China); alleviating traffic congestion and the resultant pollution by increasing usage of a mobile phone app (Bangladesh); and reducing carbon footprints by tourists through increased donations (Montenegro)
  4. Managing Risk and Building Resilience - with a case study focusing on protecting the environment, improving livelihoods, and strengthening local cultural identities through crowdfunding (Ecuador)
  5. Preventing Violent Conflict and Building Peaceful Societies - with case studies focusing on: reducing government corruption by encouraging public reporting (Papua New Guinea) and increasing public service responsiveness through better job performance measures (Cameroon)

The report also describes two pilots that UNBI is developing to internally strengthen the UN. In 2016, UNBI participated in a number of meetings and forums, engaging in capacity building exercises, contributing to research committees, and serving in a behavioural science advisory role during high-level discussions.

As noted here, common principles underlie and unify many key features of human behaviour. A quick guide - "SIMPLER" - articulates a set of common "nudges" that can be used to improve programme outcomes and efficiency:

  • Social influence - e.g., persuade by referencing peers
  • Implementation prompts - e.g., establish steps to desired action
  • Mandated deadlines - e.g., make deadlines prominent
  • Personalisation - e.g., use name, not generic greeting
  • Loss aversion - e.g., emphasise losses, not just gains
  • Ease - e.g., reduce steps in a process
  • Reminders - e.g., use phone calls, texts, postcards

The Feature B box on page 4 of the report shows the process of designing a behaviour insights project. In Busia, Western Kenya, independent researchers are interested in increasing farmers' use of modern fertilisers to boost agricultural productivity. The challenge is that farmers underutilise these fertilisers, even though, when asked, nearly 98% say they want and plan to use them. To investigate this mismatch between farmers' intentions and their actions, behavioural scientists use a systematic, 4-part process:

  1. Define the problem: Not enough farmers use fertilizer despite a stated intention to do so.
  2. Diagnose each stage of the decision-making process to identify barriers to optimal decisionmaking and follow-through: For example, it is a hassle to walk 30 minutes walk to town to pick up the fertiliser.
  3. Design a programme that breaks down these barriers: What if we offer a fertiliser delivery service at no cost to farmers to reduce the hassle factor?
  4. Test the efficacy of the intervention using rigorous evaluations: UNBI uses research methodologies like randomised-control trials (RCTs) to directly test the impact of applying behavioural insights to UN programmes. Ecuador's "GreenCrowds" project, which sent outreach email messages to individuals prompting them to donate to environmentally-friendly projects, helps illustrate the process behind designing and implementing an RCT. See "Feature C" box on page 11 of the report.

Overall, the report shows that approaching development challenges with behavioural insights leads to better diagnoses of problems and to better designed solutions. UNDP asserts that public policy and programme officials around the world can achieve better outcomes - often at low or no cost - simply by leveraging current understanding of human psychology and behaviour.


UNDP website, April 20 2017. Image credit: UNICEF/BANA2013-01238/Kiron