At its core, social change is about changing people’s behaviour. Why not instil an understanding of the science behind human behaviour and how to change it in international development studies graduates?

International development, as a field of study, incorporates many disciplines that address the multifaceted challenges of global poverty and inequality. However, one field that is still glaringly missing from the modules of the top 10 international development studies (IDS) programmes in the world is behavioural science. Only one programme even mentions ‘behaviour’ in its syllabus.

Leaving behavioural science out of IDS programmes is a critical oversight, given that human behaviour is at the heart of both the challenges and solutions within international development. When I was studying cognitive psychology at Maastricht University, I did an elective course on globalization and it was my first insight into the global development field. I was immediately captured by how psychology (the core of the broader term behavioural science) could add value to global development and help to design better programmes. This was because the cognitive psychology track I followed was on health psychology and designing social and behaviour change programmes. Yet, when I applied for jobs in the international development sector, it was not clear to hiring managers how this background was applicable.

In the early 2000s, behavioural science was not widely adopted in development work. Where it was being applied, understanding was limited to how behavioural science can be used to design information, education and communication materials.

Luckily, things have changed dramatically over the last 5-10 years. Understanding of the value that behavioural science can add gained prominent attention with the publication of the UN Secretary General’s Guidance Note on Behavioural Science.

Who is applying behavioural science in international development?

The United Nations Secretary-General’s Guidance Note on Behavioural Science marks a groundbreaking step in integrating behavioural insights into the fabric of international development. This document serves as a testament to the growing recognition of behavioural science as a key tool in addressing global challenges. It outlines pragmatic strategies for leveraging behavioural insights to enhance the efficacy and impact of UN programmes.

The Guidance Note underscores the importance of understanding human behaviour in the design and implementation of policies, aiming to foster more effective, inclusive, and sustainable outcomes in various fields of international development and diplomacy. It shows how behavioural science contributes to combating poverty, improving public health, preventing crises, promoting equality, tackling corruption, and strengthening peacebuilding​​.

International NGOs are also increasingly hiring professionals with a background in or at least an understanding of behavioural science. These organisations include FHI360, Save the Children, Rare and World Vision.

Interest in behavioural science is continuously increasing. As of 2022, there have been three International Social and Behavior Change Communication (SBCC) Summits. The first was held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2016, the second in Nusa Dua, Indonesia in 2018, and the third in Marrakech, Morocco in 2022. The 2022 SBCC Summit included 200 organizations and nearly 2,000 attendees from 129 different countries. The extent to which behavioural science and social and behaviour change methodologies were being applied was further evident from the 202 oral sessions, 171 posters, 94 pre-formed panels, and 42 multimedia showcases. Funders are also highly interested in behavioural science and representatives from USAID, the Aliko Dangote Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Astraea Foundation were among several funder attendees.

What would behavioural science bring to IDS programmes?

IDS graduates should enter the workforce with solid understanding of how behavioural science and adjacent fields enhance programme design and implementation, as opposed to being introduced to this on the job for the first time.

Incorporating a module on behavioural science, and extending it to include social and behaviour change (SBC), systems thinking, relational design and human-centred design, could radically transform the impact of development work. The fundamental principle of behavioural science is to understand and influence social actions in ways that guide development policies and interventions toward more successful outcomes. It unlocks the human dimension of development problems, which is often the foundation of sustainable change.

When designing projects aimed at improving health, education, or economic conditions, the inclusion of behavioural insights can ensure that these interventions are tailored to the needs, preferences, and behaviours of populations. A sanitation project, for example, could benefit from understanding local attitudes towards hygiene practices, while an education initiative would be more effective if it catered to the behavioural patterns influencing school attendance and learning engagements.

Moreover, designing for social and behaviour change has emerged as a powerful tool to addressing social norms and practices that underlie many development challenges. Issues such as gender inequality and environmental degradation can be more effectively tackled when SBC strategies are applied, influencing group and individual behaviours.

It is time for international development educators to recognize the profound benefits of behavioural science. Its integration into the study of international development would not only enrich the curriculum but would also equip future development practitioners with the understanding and skills necessary to design and implement more effective programmes.