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Why discrimination?

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The international media have recently put attention to laws against homosexuality adopted by several African countries. Sensible people have, quite rightly, expressed outrage over these laws, and the widespread homophobia behind them. World Bank President Jim Kim expressed his opinion against such discrimination deeming it bad for people and for societies. In a Washington Post opinion piece, President Kim shares his personal experience of being judged based on appearance and reminds us that discrimination is widespread: 83 countries in the world outlaw homosexuality; more than 100 countries discriminate against women; and even more countries have laws that discriminate against minority groups.

A recent research by Audrey Sacks, Safi Lakhani, and me indicates that negative attitudes toward various groups are widespread around the world. Although these things vary by country, immigrants, ethnic minorities, the poor, HIV-positive, and homosexuals are frequent targets of discriminatory attitudes—in developed and developing countries alike.

We set out to explore the processes that underpin discrimination, in particular exclusion and discrimination in everyday social interaction. We wanted to understand better the social norms and attitudes that underpin discriminatory behaviors and ultimately lead to outrageously discriminatory laws and institutions.

All of us have group identities. We identify with people that are like us: from the same city or country, speakers of the same language, colleagues, fans of the same soccer club, devotees of the same guru, what have you. There is nothing strange or wrong about that.

The problem starts when we perceive members of any social group as different to and less valuable than our own group. How often—in many different countries—have I not heard otherwise sensible people characterize members of some race, caste, ethnic, or religious group as “lazy”, “dirty”, “ignorant”, or just “different”.

In isolation, such views may be relatively inconsequential. But once they are aggregated across many people, negative attitudes toward other groups start to have wide-ranging consequences as evidenced, for example, by anti-gay laws, or by Europe’s growing ethnophopia.

A few surveys collect questions about values and attitudes. We liked one question in particular, in which people are shown a card with a list of different groups and asked to name the groups they would not like to be their neighbors. Respondents are offered a choice of 15 different groups: immigrants, unmarried people cohabitating, elderly, families with children, Jewish people, and so on. We interpret respondents’ answers to reveal not only their housing preferences but also their broader attitudes toward the inclusion and exclusion of specific groups in social life and beyond. This simple, hypothetical question about who people would not like to be their neighbors has been asked in all Eastern Europe and Central Asian countries as well as in some African, Asian, and West European countries.

Negative attitudes are very common

The biggest surprise—which probably shouldn’t have surprised us—was that unwelcoming attitudes to groups such as immigrants, ethnic minorities, the poor, HIV+ individuals, homosexuals, and many others are very common. This is true even in settings where laws and policies espouse equality. For example, in a sample covering all Eastern Europe and Central Asian, and some Western European countries, 55 percent say that they don’t want homosexuals as neighbors. 43 percent don’t want people living with HIV/AIDS.

There is wide variation in answers across countries: in Azerbaijan, 91 percent do not want homosexuals as neighbors, compared to 3.5 percent in Sweden. And while 81 percent of Czech’s don’t want Roma as neighbors, this falls to 22 percent in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

What also surprised us was how many different groups can experience being at the sharp end of negative attitudes: immigrants, people with a different religion, people of a different race, Jewish, and cohabitating unmarried couples all face fairly high levels of being unwelcome, at least in some places. In Mongolia, Russia, and Turkey, for example, more than 30 percent do not want to live next to an immigrant (see table 1). Twenty-four percent of Turks do not want speakers of other languages as their neighbor. The poor are not particularly welcome neighbors in places like Moldova, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Belarus, Kosovo, and Mongolia (12-19% do not want them). In some countries, even the elderly (17% in Moldova) and families with children (17% in Kosovo) are frowned upon as neighbors.

The survey question about unwelcome neighbors did not cover gender attitudes, but we know from other sources that gender discrimination remains widespread.

Table 1: Percent not wanting category as neighbor
(all countries covered by the Life in Transition Survey II)

The table shows the response categories and % responding yes (across all sample countries) to the LiTS question: “On this list are various groups of people. Could you please mention any that you would not like to have as neighbors? Please just read out the letter that applies”.
Source: LiTSII

Dislike of other groups is not confined to Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The World Value Survey (WVS) includes a similarly worded question about unwanted neighbors. In South Africa, 46 percent of respondents do not want to live next to a homosexual, 14 percent do not want Indians as neighbors and 9 percent do not want to live next to a white or a colored person. In Finland, 24 percent do not want Russians as neighbors.

In South Korea, none of the groups asked about are widely accepted: immigrants are unwanted by 39 percent, people of a different race by 36 percent, people with AIDS by 94 percent, and homosexuals 87 percent. In India, between 40 and 50 percent of the respondents do not want immigrants, speakers of another language, people with a different religion, race or with AIDS as a neighbor. I find this remarkable given the multiethnic and multi-religious tapestry that is Indian society.

We are all affected

There is a clear conclusion here: at some point in our lives, all of us will interact with people who feel negatively toward us not because of something we do or say, but because of who we are. Jim Kim’s experience of being judged based on appearance is not unusual. And many of us may be subject to amplification of negative attitudes and discrimination flowing from multiple identities, if we are simultaneously immigrants, speak another language, or belong to a minority race or religion.

Moreover, evidence suggests that discriminatory attitudes are not on the decline. As reported in the World Development Report 2014, for example, the percentage who would not welcome a neighbor of a different race or ethnic group has been fairly constant over time in many countries for which we have data (Figure 1).


Discriminatory attitudes are often expressed in behavior and impact development outcomes

Negative attitudes do not remain confined to social contexts; they impact development outcomes. Teachers in India have been found to make lower-caste and dalit children sit on the floor in class, and to talk to them in derogatory terms (Kabeer 2000). Doctors and nurses have been found to withhold care and express prejudiced attitudes when working with patients. In the LiTS survey, 17 percent reported having been treated disrespectfully by health staff. The Moving out of Poverty study (Narayan, Pritchett and Kapoor, 2009) reported that in the countries included in the study, access to many government programs was conditioned on caste, ethnicity, or political party affiliation. This can help explain low utilization of health services by minorities and incomplete immunization coverage in some countries.

Social exclusion is also linked to conflict and fragility

The literature on fragile and conflict-affected environments highlights inequalities, mistrust, and discrimination between social groups as a key driver of violent conflict. Much contemporary violent conflict occurs when ethnic or religious differences between groups result in economic and political differences and create resentments that may lead to violent struggles.

The World Development Report 2014 on Risk and Opportunity argued that while the bonding and social capital that groups have internally helps them organize risk management and solutions to shared problems, it also excludes others and can cause antagonism toward other ethnic and religious groups. Some ruthless politicians use common identity and real or perceived discrimination to manipulate groups and legitimize the use of violence.

Intolerant attitudes come in distinct categories

We used the LiTS survey responses to statistically analyze unwelcoming attitudes and their determinants. Correlation and principal component analysis suggest that unwelcoming attitudes can be grouped into three distinct clusters, or components.

This means that the degree to which people are welcoming or rejecting of other groups can be traced back to three distinct sets of values (values being the underlying drivers of expressed attitudes). These are:

• Intolerance toward stigmatized attributes and behaviors: not wanting drug users, pedophiles, heavy drinkers, homosexuals, and cohabitating unmarried couples as neighbors.
• Intolerance to different ethnic, religious, and linguistic identity groups: not wanting people of a different race, people speaking a different language, immigrants, people who belong to a different religion, Jewish people, or gypsies (Roma) as neighbors.
• Intolerance for the poor and for different lifecycle stages: not wanting families with children, the poor and the elderly as neighbors.

In other words, we can make a distinction between exclusionary attitudes that stigmatize specific attributes and behaviors, including sexual orientation; negative attitudes toward specific identity groups (race, language, religion); and intolerance for the poor and for different lifecycle stages. This distinction has not been drawn before to our knowledge.

Another surprise was when we tested how much education and income means for these attitudes. Not much, it turned out. Rather, country-specific factors such as history, culture, religion, and so on were important.

Implications for social inclusion

The findings could have important implications for theories about exclusion and for the design of social inclusion policies.

Tackling the norms and values that underpin exclusion should be an essential element of social inclusion strategies. Seldom do development policies and programs explicitly address norms and values. To the extent that policies address equity, they often focus on differences in outcomes (literacy, mortality, earnings, and so on) between groups more than on the underlying values that result in exclusion.

Policies focused only on outcomes can be undermined when society’s broader discriminatory beliefs and practices surface. The law may aim to improve the status of group X, but nurses, doctors, teachers, police, and bureaucrats continue to despise and disrespect group X’ers. It is hardly surprising if under these circumstances outcomes for Group X fail to improve at desired rates.

More effective social inclusion may require paying attention to the processes that result in exclusion.


Rasmus Heltberg

Lead Evaluation Officer, Independent Evaluation Group, World Bank

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