The Wonk’s Guide to Economics without Politics

What happens when the World Bank spotlights human irrationality but leaves human agency in the shadow?

The World Bank’s 2015 World Development Report focuses on understanding real human choices (as opposed to the “rational decision-makers” of traditional economics) in a way that’s often critically missing from the development discourse. I was pleased to see that focus, even though the report also had some crucial gaps and showed that our field still has farther to go in blending methods like behavioral economics and design, as I analyzed in a prior blog post.

Consideration of these gaps leads to another, related problem: The continued dominance of economics over politics in development thinking. This bias is not unique to the World Development Report, but rather a shortcoming of the sector at large. However, this particular report shows it glaringly.

Narrowest form of multidisciplinarity

The dominance of economics would almost make sense if we defined “development” in narrowly economic terms. Fortunately, the sector has long recognized the multidimensional nature of development, where non-economic factors like health outcomes, clean air, and human freedoms are just as critical as GDP growth.

However, this progress still isn’t fully reflected in benchmark documents like the World Development Report, which approaches every topic from an economics perspective. For example, field experiments by economists are used to justify cultural insights or the existence of altruism. Meanwhile, the psychological impact of poverty must be explained as a “cognitive tax”—as if the idea of cognitive overload needs a public finances framing.

In contrast, ethnography is mentioned only about six times in the entire 200-page report. The two-page “spotlight” on ethnography does little more than assert the simple importance of cultural and social norms, without discussing ethnographic methods that practitioners should consider or the ways findings from ethnographies should inform decisions. This is more than a mere dispute on types of evidence or approaches to analysis. A narrow disciplinary focus restricts our thinking on which problems are important.

This World Development Report is multidisciplinary, in its own way. By adding “behavioral” in front of “economics,” it somewhat expands the methodological toolkit. But the economics are still dominant. This is the narrowest form of multidisciplinarity, which takes a single discipline as a starting point and judges the others on its terms.

Politics without the politics

The sector is increasingly recognizing the importance of politics to development, yet political thinking is missing from the World Development Report. The few instances where political issues are discussed serve to highlight the extent of this blind spot, as ostensibly political topics get a conspicuously apolitical treatment.

For example, the World Development Report describes how electronic voting in Brazil enfranchised poorly educated citizens who had struggled to deal with the previous paper ballots. This had the effect of increasing the power of the political Left, resulting in more funding for health services over time. The system’s designers themselves were surprised by this outcome. The report’s analysis fails to acknowledge that a similar effort in most contexts would meet with opposition, especially if it were explicitly intended to make voting easier for a particular set of voters. This fact is particularly close to home, as voter identification criteria in the United States fall into exactly this political trap.

In another section, the report explains how corruption is a social norm in some contexts, and uses this fact as the basis for a discussion about changing the norm. Yet the political nature of corruption and its relationship to power structures is unaddressed. In many contexts, corruption—defined as the use of public office for private gain—is a key pillar in the political system that protects incumbent powers. Corruption can even have positive effects, as it may build political stability in a regime and distribute the rents of the state throughout the middle- and lower-ranks of public officials. We saw many of these effects in our research in Nigeria. Something similar can occur with forms of clientelism. The report is unable to challenge its own normative framing, drawn from economics, that corruption is inherently negative, and so misses the political nature of the phenomenon

These kinds of omissions appear again and again. A chapter on climate change reads more like a guide to behavioral economics for advocacy groups, with insights on how to use framing to account for biases and build support. There is sound advice here, but these insights are trivial compared to the political and economic interests aligned against meaningful climate action. The report makes no mention of oil companies wielding concentrated wealth to shape public policy, or of the conflict between developed and emerging countries over who will shoulder the burden of reducing future emissions.

Development sector professionals have an amazing ability to wish politics away in our analysis and action. Despite the importance of interest groups and contested space to historical outcomes, we are reluctant to include these political factors when thinking about our own work in the present. We have to work harder to see these blind spots. Any analysis of promoting change or sector learning that ignores these factors impoverishes itself.

Recognizing everyone’s agency

The report’s lack of political nuance is intertwined with a thread of paternalism that runs through any policy application of behavioral economics: the aim is to shape the choices of people, especially poor people. This paternalism is less of a concern in contexts where those being “nudged” have a way to hold the “nudgers” accountable. For example, the British government’s “Behavioural Insights Team” is indirectly accountable to the voters themselves, via their political representatives. In contrast, an international development organization seeking to influence citizens in poor countries faces no such accountability.

The result is a flawed framework that recognizes human irrationality but not human agency. It conceptualizes development as something done to individuals and communities, rather than with or by them. Their role is to be nudged into better development outcomes, in spite of their own imperfect decision-making. This paternalism is ethically flawed; the fact that it often fails to achieve development outcomes only adds to the case against it.

As we expand our analytical toolkit beyond economics and deepen our understanding of the nuances of human choice, we also need to expand our thinking on the role that individuals play in development outcomes. Analytically recognizing the role of politics is just one step. The corollary to understanding politics is recognizing power. We have much further to go, to programmatically allow for the agency and power of individuals to drive their own development.

Futher reading.