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