From a human face to human emotion: valuing feelings in development

Thirty years ago UNICEF reminded the world that development had a human face.  Making up for the “lost decade” of the Eighties did not have to be funded through macroeconomic management, debt service or growth recovery alone. How relevant that reminder continues to be today.

Back in the 1990s, optimism soared on the capacity of interpersonal trust and participation in social networks – social capital – to explain development. Social capital has been used ever since to explain child anthropometrical development, household expenditures, farming practices, migration, academic performance, democracy, economic growth, and even military desertion during the US Civil War.

And even those who hew to the belief that criminal offences occur only when monetized benefits exceed expected costs – to be adjusted by impunity rates – take exception to crimes of passion, completely unexplained by rational motives.

Embracing the idea that human beings cannot be understood solely as homo economicus has now inspired a whole new field: behavioural economics, where psychology and economics intersect.

Embracing the idea that human beings cannot be understood solely as homo economicus has now inspired a whole new field: behavioural economics, where psychology and economics intersect.

At one time individuals were subjected to laboratory experiments to reveal factors driving voting preferences: interpersonal trust, envy, cooperation, and obedience to authority. Best known is the Milgram experiment in the early 1960s where individuals were willing to unduly inflict pain on innocent victims simply because a perceived authority ordered them to do so.

Outside the lab, behavioural insights have been translated into real-life developmental policy design: for example, “nudging” has become a new popular strategy to get people to do the “right” thing and an alternative to the more mainstream but controversial conditionality.

Printing tax bills on pink paper typically used for debt collection in Singapore led to an improvement in the payment rate of between 3 to 5 percentage points. In Kenya, stickers in the notoriously dangerous matatu minibuses inviting users to complain about bad drivers helped reduce the number of traffic accidents by an estimated 140 accidents per year.

Explaining development through the lens of emotion

The much-publicized inclusion of happiness in national accounting in Bhutan perhaps clouds the more relevant contribution that subjective well-being has to offer development. Take the case of subjective life satisfaction and the Arab Spring. One could not possibly explain the Arab Spring based on objective developmental indicators.

Tunisia, where the revolution exploded before it sprawled across the region, had years of growth at respectable rates; reduced its monetary poverty sizeably; and even modestly reduced consumption inequality.

Here is the catch. As economic growth took place, expectations of improved quality of life grew as well. In time, feelings of frustration replaced those expectations and were then fuelled by growing awareness of pervasive corruption, nepotism, social immobility and lack of economic opportunities for youth. This is a common story in the Middle East and North Africa region.

A recent analysis shows that the gap between perceived and actual prosperity distribution has widened. And, in Egypt, while before the revolution, the poor used to believe their lives were better than indicated by objective measures, after the upheaval they believed themselves worse off than they objectively were.

http://www.worldbank.org/psp

In a sense, the Arab Spring is a story of withered aspirations rather than lack of “objective” development.

In fact, aspirations showcase the increasing importance of emotion in the inter-generational transmission of opportunities, a.k.a poverty. Psychologists refer to “socio-emotional capital” or “psychological capital” as a key driver for later-life outcomes and opportunities.

Take the case of empowerment among adolescents. Socio-emotional capital determines, for instance, self-belief about one’s ability to accomplish tasks and cope with challenges, as well as attitudes with respect to one’s future. These emotions help explain adolescents’ education and labour market aspirations which, in turn, have a bearing on future education and labour market outcomes. They also affect other aspects of adolescents’ lives, from prevailing attitudes on gender roles to early marriage and fertility decisions.

Similarly, a study in India found that parents’ aspirations for their children – their level of education, likelihood of graduating from high school, potential for getting a job, appropriateness of early marriage – affected their decisions to invest in their children’s human capital.

Children’s emotions and social benefits

One could expand the list of emotional drivers of development. Let’s focus attention on children and sports for development. The argument being that sports constitute a compelling alternative to violence among youth at risk, as well as instilling the values of team work, discipline, respect and inclusion.

Unsurprisingly, many of UNICEF’s most successful Goodwill Ambassadors are celebrity sportswomen and men. Less well understood – and perhaps even more beneficial than sports – are social development programmes through music and arts.

A paradigmatic case is the child and youth orchestra in Venezuela, El Sistema, which aspires to benefit 500,000 children a year from low socioeconomic backgrounds. A rigorous assessment of El Sistema expansion plans estimated a benefit to cost ratio of 1.68, mostly coming from social benefits in the form of reduced school dropout and community victimization rates among beneficiaries.

Who said ‘soft’ development?

Ironically, our emotions are the main hindrance for developing a comprehensive emotional lens for development. Many still think emotional development is ‘soft’ development.

But the evidence that supports the few examples used above comes from rigorous evaluations and carefully designed household surveys.

A young violinist from the National Youth Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela which is supported by the 'El Sistema' approach to musical education performs at the 'Celebration of Leadership' concert at the United Nations.
A young violinist from the National Youth Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela which is supported by the ‘El Sistema’ approach to musical education performs at the ‘Celebration of Leadership’ concert at the United Nations. ©UNICEF/UNI37128/Bronstein

Collecting emotion-related data is typically a heavier task than data on consumption, incomes or wealth. Emotions are not directly observed. Asking individuals directly about their aspirations may be subject to serious errors in measurement, coming from, among others, the unwillingness of individuals to report private knowledge.

A consensus definition on the measurement of emotion is still a work in progress. Indices used so far remain diverse, and essentially a factor of the personal choice of the researcher. But regardless of those choices, high quality emotion-related data requires an impressive display of precision.

A study of aspirations of children in Ethiopia conducted painstakingly detailed analyses of usability, reliability and validity of the survey instrument before it would scale up into a reasonably sized household survey.[i]

So where is all this heading to?

First, the belief that rational behaviour should dominate development analysis and policy design has been largely contested. And quite compellingly so.

Second, emotions play a substantive role in development, especially among children, adolescents and youth. This is not, however, a horse race to determine whether emotions or rationality are more important to explain development. It is a question of how they complement each other to make policies more effective.

Third, emotions are not just the soft side of development, they are simply part of development.

Four, in terms of quality data collection, they remain as much, if not more, of a challenge, than collecting standard indicators of well-being. Besides, how emotions affect individual decisions that bear consequences on their human capital, labour, saving, fertility or criminal behaviour need to be further understood. But, by all means, this is not a flavour of the month among policymakers and donors or a short-lived fashion among academics eager to publish on trending topics.

Certainly, at UNICEF Innocenti we take emotional development seriously and join those already working on these issues. Researchers at UNICEF work on multiple aspects of adolescent well-being including, for example, the measurement of their life satisfaction or estimating the effects that cash transfers have on mental health and aspirations.

By engaging in this work we hope to expand the toolkit of good policies that development practitioners can use to design effective policies for children, adolescents and youth. Without a doubt, much more remains to be done and we certainly call for more work in this area. Because – as it was the case thirty years ago –we need to remind ourselves that development also has many human faces.

Jose Cuesta took up his position as Chief of Social and Economic Policy at the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti in October. He holds a PhD in Economics from Oxford University and most recently worked at the World Bank where he co-directed the Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2016 flagship report series.

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[i] Those three properties of the survey refer to the willingness of individuals to answer proposed questions; responses are consistent to repeated application of the questionnaire; and answers measure only aspirations and no other emotion.

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