Early Exposure to Development Challenges

I have been fortunate in that I was exposed to problems in development early in my career. I worked as a graduate research assistant for Cristina Bicchieri while she was completing her ground-breaking book, The Grammar of Society (2005). Bicchieri develops a theory of social norms as being amenable to measurement and intervention. Thanks to her support, I have continued to theorize about the nature and dynamics of social norms and how they direct the behavior of individuals in society.

The timing of my graduate studies was fortuitous. At the time, development agencies were turning away from what might be called “patient-centric development” and toward “agent-centric development.” That is, rather than seeing people as carriers of burdens and developing interventions to remove those burdens, there was a movement toward seeing people as making the best choices they could, given their many constraints. And while the availability of material resources often limits one’s choices, the social environment also heavily shapes individuals’ choices. UNICEF in particular took a leadership role in exploring how they could better understand the social environments that people face, and how they could help improve those environments to better protect the rights of children. Child protection is the most obvious case where development outcomes depend heavily on behavior, but water and sanitation has been another huge arena in which sustainable behavior change has the power to significantly improve people’s lives.

It was because of UNICEF’s interest in sustainable behavior change and the role of social norms in improving development outcomes that I could get involved in development policy, at first in a training capacity. As part of a team at the University of Pennsylvania led by Cristina Bicchieri and Gerry Mackie, I taught UNICEF staff on a program focused on understanding issues in development through the lens of social norms. This included questions of norm formation and sustainable norm change, as well as issues surrounding measurement. This Penn-UNICEF training program ran from 2010 until 2015, and helped build internal capacity at UNICEF for diagnosing, measuring, and intervening on unhealthy social norms, while working to support healthier or rights-promoting norms. Cristina Bicchieri has worked to institutionalize this kind of work at Penn by creating the Penn Social Norms Group (Penn SoNG).

I was lucky that I was able to do this work without too much interference with my academic positions. The program ran during the summer, and so I could do it outside of the academic calendar. I was a postdoctoral researcher at two different institutions over the years this program ran, and while this impacted my academic productivity in the summer, I didn’t have to worry about interruptions to my teaching. I could contribute to the UNICEF program in more intensive bursts of concentrated work over 6-8 weeks in the summer. During the academic year, I could then reflect and draw on what I was exposed to in my normal academic work.2

This experience working as a trainer and facilitator was incredibly valuable. Most importantly, it helped me better understand both how limited my exposure to the world had been, and how genuinely useful the tools of philosophy can be. Before working with UNICEF staff, I had the vague sense of living a cosmopolitan sort of life—working at a university meant being around people from many different countries, and academics often travel abroad for conferences. I have come to realize that my previous sense of the cosmopolitan pales in comparison to what I experienced working with an international development organization. The people I was fortunate enough to meet came from all over the world, with a large cohort from the developing world. This diversity of nationalities and languages was paired with a wide variety of disciplinary backgrounds. The problems we worked on were informed by a much broader reservoir of experiences and knowledge than I had previously encountered.

The kinds of problems we worked on were not merely speculative concerns or interesting theoretical challenges, but were urgent needs of real communities to which my colleagues had special obligations. It’s one thing to determine the wrongness of using child soldiers, but an entirely different one to work out how to re-integrate former soldiers and their brides into a community in a way in which everyone is treated with respect. Likewise, it is easy to condemn female genital cutting but rather harder to eliminate it from a community without creating social stigma for women and girls who have already been cut. People in the West also often assume that things like female genital cutting are imposed on women and girls by men, but often these are things that girls want because they are a social norm. It’s much easier to tackle a social problem when most people see it as a problem, but often communities view harmful practices as valuable and identity affirming. In other instances, people can simply fail to be aware that there are alternative options. These and many other pressing problems are regularly the subject of interventions by development agencies, and my role was to help policymakers think about some of these issues within a social norms framework to see if it offered new opportunities to better understand existing situations and to find more sustainable intervention strategies.

This work taught me a few important lessons that have served me well in my later efforts. The most obvious is that collaborative interdisciplinary work is often about translation. Like any discipline, philosophers have lots of jargon. That jargon facilitates efficient and precise communication among philosophers, but it makes much of what we say opaque to non-philosophers. I was prepared to reduce how much jargon I used and was willing to give up making some distinctions if it could make it easier for others to understand me. I was not prepared for the immense amount of jargon that development professionals use, including the dizzying number of acronyms that large organizations like UNICEF rely on. Much of my job was translating the concepts that I found useful from philosophical work into terms more comfortable for development professionals. So while I thought the effort was going to be in reducing the jargon I used, the real effort was changing to an unfamiliar jargon. This was part of a broader recognition that, in these contexts, my role was to support the work of others by providing them with new tools. While I had philosophical interests in this work, the reason I was in the room was to help them in their work.

The next big thing I learned was that development professionals operate under a very large set of constraints. An organization like UNICEF is invited in by governments to help with development challenges. But those same governments do not want to be embarrassed, so it may be the case that data collection is politically constrained. Just as often, it may be that there isn’t sufficient government capacity to do certain things. Likewise, development agencies may be constrained by what their donors are interested in, and much of their funds are earmarked for particular kinds of programs chosen by activist donors rather than being guided by expert assessment. Another constraint is that the project cycle is not very long (which is in part because of the budgetary constraints of donor-funded organizations). Finally, big organizations like UNICEF rarely do all of the on-the-ground work themselves and instead contract with smaller NGOs. These NGOs differ vastly in their training, professionalism, and technical capacity. Such constraints are certainly not crippling, but they do end up shaping what can be done, how it can be done, and what data can be brought to bear on a problem.

It is incredible how much can be done despite these constraints. These constraints are obvious upon reflection, but the outside public, which used to include me, has a very idealized conception of how development aid works. We tend to imagine single transformative fixes, like providing a new water well, or building a school, which then more or less permanently improve people’s lives. However, in practice these single interventions are rarely sufficient for significant change. Wells are not useful if pumps break and no one can repair them, and schools only help development if there are teachers and students who show up for class. Instead, many enduring development problems require not only material resources, but capacity development and sustainable behavior change. This can often mean that change is slow, and gains are hard won. Building a well is straightforward. Improving the civic position of women is not.

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