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Bringing Behavioral Insights to Scale in the United Nations

By Benjamin Kumpf, Rafael Obregon, and Raquel Wexler

This article originally appeared in [] and belongs to the creators.

Designing people-centered policies and programmes

To meet the ambitious 17 Sustainable Development Goals, the global development community needs to accelerate work towards the transformations of economic and social systems, and design and test bold policies, and invest in innovation. However, despite the best of intentions, what we often forget is that as humans we all have bounded rationality and biases that influence the way we make decisions. For instance, if we are to collectively achieve Agenda 2030, all actors need to take a human-centric and experimental approach in designing policy interventions that account for how people make decisions in their daily lives. 

"Enter behavioral insights (BI), a field that draws on research from psychology, economics, sociology, and neuroscience to generate insights about why people make the choices they do. Behavioral insights already help governments and international organizations design people-centered policies and programs that take into account the psychology of decision-making. "

Over the past few years, behavioral science has gained momentum as an important tool in policymakers’ toolkit. The United Nations, the World Bank, and the U.S and other governments around the world have created dedicated teams of behavioral scientists to address policy challenges and maximize impact. UNDP, UNICEF, and other UN agencies have already invested in proof-of-concept initiatives and published their findings in reports such as Behavioral Insights at the United Nations, co-produced by the UN Secretariat, the UN Behavioral Insights Initiative and UNDP; and ‘Consuming Differently, Consuming Sustainably: Behavioral Insights for Policy-Making’, co-produced by UN Environment and Ideas 42. UNICEF recently published the ‘Human-Centered Field Guide for Investigating and Responding to Challenges’, providing practical advice on adopting a behavioral design approach, and is currently developing an organizational strategy to strengthen local capacities on BI.  

As another step in introducing new ways of working in the global development agenda, UNICEF Communication for Development (C4D) Section, Programme Division and UNICEF Office of Innovation, in partnership with UNDP, co-hosted a UN General Assembly side event to discuss the potential and future of behavioral insights. Entitled ‘Experimentation and Behavior Change for the SDGs: Bringing Behavioral Insights to Scale’, the event featured a keynote lecture by Professor Cass Sunstein. Prof. Sunstein is a co-author of ‘Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness’ as well as Founder and Director of the Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy at Harvard Law School. Sunstein has advised several governments in embedding behavioral insights in their policy-making processes. 

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We make 35,000 decisions each day, often in environments that aren’t conducive to making sound choices. 

At TDL, we work with organizations in the public and private sectors—from new startups, to governments, to established players like the Gates Foundation—to debias decision-making and create better outcomes for everyone.

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© J.Gauthier – Abdoulaye Mar Dieye – Director, Bureau for Policy Programme Support. UNDP

In their welcoming remarks Cynthia McCaffrey, Director, UNICEF Office of Innovation and Abdoulaye Mar Dieye, Director, Bureau for Policy Programmes Support, UNDP, highlighted the importance of this.

“We are always looking for innovative approaches and tools to foster social and behavior change. BI is one of the newest tools that we have started to look at, particularly through its integration in communication for development interventions,” said McCaffrey during her opening.

“Partnerships with governments and local academia is the cornerstone of how UNICEF works. In this context, we have just begun exploring the type of capacity development needs in-house to see how BI could be used to achieve our corporate results; and with partners, as part of our local capacity development efforts on accelerating evidence-informed social and behavior change,” she adds. 

“Behavioral Insights in the development context can be understood as a two-pillar approach. The first pillar consists of investing in context-specific behavioral drivers and barriers, while leveraging insights from behavioral science. The second pillar entails designing experiments that are based on rigorous monitoring and evaluation systems”, said UNDP’s Mar Dieye. 

“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 behaviorally-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.”

During Prof. Sunstein’s keynote lecture, the fundamentals of the innovative BI approach were introduced, and examples of their practical applications were presented to illustrate how BI application can benefit programme designers and implementers. The key message: our choices are heavily influenced by cognitive biases and heuristics as well as the choice architectures that frame decision-making. How to design the architecture for decision-making and bridging intention to action was one of the key questions of the first collaboration between UNDP and the UK Behavioural Insights Team, starting in 2013. In Moldova, many adults treated for tuberculosis stop taking their medication and relapse, negatively impacting the individual’s health and the national economy. One of the main barriers was that people had to make a mandatory visit to a clinic to take the drugs in the presence of a doctor: a friction cost. Results from a randomized control trial indicate that twice as many patients follow through with treatment if allowed to take medication at home while connected to a doctor or nurse through their phone camera – 87 percent compared to 43 percent in the control group.

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A panel discussion followed where panelists examined why the BI approach matters for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and how new ways of working can be introduced in the UN Development System.

keynote speakers

© J.Gauthier – Keynote speaker Prof. Cass Sunstein, Founder and Director, Program on Behavioural Economics and Public Policy, Harvard Law School (second from right) stands with panelists (L-R) Malika Bhandarkar, Innovation Facility Global Coordinator and Fund Manager, UNDP; Rafael Obregon, UNICEF Chief C4D; Abdoulaye Mar Dieye, Director, Bureau for Policy Programmes Support, UNDP; and moderator Alexandra De Filippo, Principal Advisor at Behavioural Insights Team North America. ©UNICEF/J.Gauthier. Not in photo: Panelist Benjamin Kumpf, Policy Specialist, Innovation, Development Impact Group, UNDP.

The discussions explored how to institutionalize new ways of working and making behaviourally-informed approaches the new normal in the UN Development System. “The greatest potential for behavioural insights to have positive impact is in the reduction of poverty,” Sunstein says, “All over the world, people are suffering from severe deprivation. The public and private sectors could do much more to help. Making it easier for people to obtain access to help-educational opportunities, employment, medical care, food, even clean water – could do so much to improve people’s lives. Better choice architecture could make all the difference.”

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