Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Member Blog: Jeffrey Bloem

Measuring hope: Lessons from rural Myanmar

Jeffrey Bloem is a Master’s student in Michigan State University’s Department of Agriculture, Food, and Resource Economics. Follow him on Twitter @JeffBloem and on his blog.

As behavioral economics has become the mainstream of economic science, there has been a growing recognition that economic behavior is often influenced by historical experience, social observation, and individual aspirations. A recent demonstration of this can be found in a widely discussed article published last May in Science. Banerjee et al. (2015) speculate about the specific mechanisms driving the results of their evaluation of a multi-dimensional program aiming to ‘graduate’ participants from poverty, saying:

Perhaps this program worked by making beneficiaries feel that they mattered, that the rest of society cared about them, that with this initial help they now had some control over their future well-being, and therefore, the future could become better. (p. 14)
Several other studies have aimed to measure the formation of aspirations in India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Kenya, and Peru. They all demonstrate something fundamental about human behavior, particularly when surrounded by life-stealing poverty.

Psychologists (see Snyder, 2002 for a summary) say hope is comprised of three elements: aspirations (or some specific goal), avenues (or a visualized pathway toward aspired outcomes), and agency (or a feeling one can attain aspired outcomes). In a working paper, Travis Lybbert and Bruce Wydick (2015) draw a distinction between wishful hope, which they call “Hope 1,” and aspirational hope, which they call “Hope 2,” Of primary interest to development economists then is “Hope 2,” as aspirations without sufficient agency or avenues could become wishful and relatively inconsequential in economic decision making.

I’ve been part of a team of researchers trying to contextualize this research to Myanmar. The Myanmar Development Resource Institute (MDRI) is a think-tank established to provide independent policy analysis and research related to economic reform, poverty reduction, and improved governance. Michigan State University’s Food Security Group and IFPRI have partnered with MDRI to provide technical support on an agricultural and livelihood household survey of Mon State (a coastal region close to Thailand in Southern Myanmar).

An early draft of this household survey included a module on aspirations, a set of questions that looked almost identical to those previously used in Ethiopia and Pakistan. During pilot testing, however, this module was found to frustrate respondents. After hours of questions about intricate details of their lives, questions regarding their aspirational hopes (or a lack thereof) upset many respondents. These experiences ultimately led enumerators to unanimously vote to drop this module from the questionnaire....

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