Experimentation and Behaviour Change for the SDGs: Bringing Behavioural Insights to Scale

September 28, 2018

Distinguished guests, Professor Sunstein, Cynthia McCaffrey, Alexandra De Filippo, colleagues from UNDP, UNICEF and sister agencies. Good afternoon.

UNDP is honoured to join UNICEF in welcoming Prof Cass Sunstein to the UN during the General Assembly. This September it has been almost three years that the Sustainable Development Goals came into effect. It has been ten years that the ground-breaking book ‘Nudge’ was published.

Behaviour change on a global scale is instrumental to achieve the SDGs. To make progress we need to better understand the importance of choice architectures and of cognitive biases, including our own.

For example, SDG 12 on responsible production and consumption lists targets that require individual changes to our daily nutrition intake. To successfully address global health challenges, such as obesity or excessive personal consumption patterns of water or energy, we need to address policies and education, among other things. In light of the #metoo movement it is also increasingly clear that attitude changes and associated behaviour are essential to empower women and girls and eliminate sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse.

Approaching human behaviour with a pragmatic view on the complexity of our decision-making processes has not always been at the core of public policy and development programme formulation. The Homo Economicus, that uber-rational, self-interested prototype posited by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, has long influenced how policies were formulated. Evidently, there is a lot more driving us than competitive self-interest—and this has implications for development and public policy.

The work of behavioural scientists like yourself, Richard Thaler, Daniel Kahneman and others is increasingly influencing how governments and development organizations design interventions.

Over the past five years, UNDP has been investing in applying findings from behavioural science in its programme design and its support for policy formulation. What began as a first experiment to support the Government of Moldova with improving the adherence rate of tuberculosis patients, matured into an emerging service line of the organization.

Back in 2013, UNDP Moldova with the support of the Innovation Team started a collaboration with the Behavioral Insights Team from the United Kingdom, together with the Government.[1] The partners designed an experiment to support TB patients with following through with their medical treatment, achieving a 100% increase with an intervention that removed a significant behavioural barrier. We will hear more details about this trial later. Allow me to underline the important elements of this approach:

Behavioural Insights in the development context can be understood as a two-pillar approach. The first pillar consists of investing in context-specific behavioural drivers and barriers, while leveraging insights from behavioural science. The second pillar entails designing experiments that are based on rigorous monitoring and evaluation systems.

For the past four years we invested in a portfolio of country-based experiments, with the generous support of the Government of Denmark. We designed and scaled behaviourally-informed interventions to address environmental protection in China and Mongolia, to address gender-based violence in Egypt, Georgia and South Africa, to increase tax compliance in Moldova and Armenia and to improve our cash-transfer system to poor households in Bangladesh – to name a few.

These trials, based on a behavioural insights approach, are part of a larger approach in UNDP to embed innovation and experimental ways of working in how we do business and in how we support partners.  With a portfolio of over 140 experiments in 85 countries, our data shows that partners from governments and the private sector chose to contribute additional resources in 60% of this portfolio – a first proxy for scale.  These initiatives also attracted 50% more private sector partnerships than the average UNDP project.  For every dollar invested, additional 2.1 dollars were mobilized on the country-level.

These country-level innovation experiments have led to the emergence of new service lines around alternative finance, data innovation, public policy labs, tech and behavioural design.

These are important achievements but it not enough. In UNDP, we are entering a new phase of innovation. A key challenge we are addressing is scaling, not only solutions, but also processes. We are working on embedding principles of experimentation, adaptive management and user-centric methods in how our organization operates – as well as in the mindsets of our staff.

A key component of innovation is humility: acknowledging that we do not have the full understanding of the complexity of development challenges and that no single actor can have solutions to complex problems. Partnerships are essential to address the challenges of our time and I am delighted that UNDP and UNICEF are committed to collaborating closely on the corporate level. For the past years, our organizations already have been working closely together on innovation – exchanging lessons, designing joint work on the ground and jointly growing the UN Innovation Network.

Today, I look forward to a discussion that helps us better understand our own biases and heuristics, and to listen to experiences on how experimental ways of working were introduced in governments.  We are committed to embedding behavioural insights as a key approach in our toolbox to address complex development challenges. In July, we co-organized the first ‘UN Behavioural Insights Day’ during the High-Level Political Forum. Together with UNICEF, UN Women and UNITAR we had Prof Dan Ariely with us and advocated for behavioural design. Today we are following-up and are focusing on how to institutionalize this approach. Later today, a small group of colleagues from various agencies will discuss this in more detail with Prof Sunstein and I expect concrete recommendations and steps from my entrepreneurial team!

On this note, I would also like to thank the moderator of our event today, Alexandra De Filippo. For the past years, Ms De Filippo and colleagues from the Behavioural Insights Team, have been working with UNDP Country Offices and our Innovation Facility on the design and implementation of trials as a trusted partner.

It will be my great pleasure to learn from Prof Sunstein today, together with our friends from UNICEF and you distinguished guests. Let us explore insights on the bounded rationality of our behaviour, how we can apply these findings to design better policies and programmes for the SDGs and scale new ways of working.

Thank you.