The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy recently concluded a five-day high impact workshop on "Behavioural Insights to Advance Policy Innovation," attended by 50 senior team members from USAID South Asia (Serbia, the Philippines, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Nepal), NITI Aayog Government of India, India’s premier public policy think tank, and Capacity Building Commission of India (CBC), a central agency responsible for enhancing future-forward skills of 3.3 million Indian bureaucrats.

""workshop attendees listen to presentation"
The workshop was held at the University of Chicago Center in Delhi and led by Harris Senior Lecturer Dr. Rebecca J. Wolfe.

The workshop initiated the vision that the USAID Administrator Samantha Power had shared in her address to the United Nations in 2021: “The central premise of behavioral science is simple. To make progress, we have to understand human behavior, not on the basis of intuitions, but using new findings and concrete data. We must learn how the people we hope to serve act or do not act in response to everyday challenges. And rather than making assumptions or applying what works in one culture to another, we need to gather evidence and data from the specific communities in which we serve.”

“The Administrator’s priority dovetails with our ambition here on the ground in India to understand and facilitate leadership by local communities in an intentional manner. Behavioral insights are a powerful tool for doing that,” said Veena Reddy, USAID India Mission Director. India, the world’s largest democracy with 1.7 billion people, has remained a priority for USAID, especially with regard to its potential of scaling solutions using behavioral insights.

The workshop was held at the University of Chicago Center in Delhi and was led by Harris Senior Lecturer Rebecca J. Wolfe. It combined classroom and hands-on learning that focused on translating and applying evidence from behavioral science research to the work of USAID, NITI Aayog, and CBC. The key focus of Wolfe’s workshop was measuring the impact of "nudges", a simple, noncoercive way of urging people to make better choices. The concept was popularized in 2008's Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, by University of Chicago Professor Richard Thaler, who won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2017 for his contributions to behavioral economics, and former University of Chicago Law School Professor Cass Sunstein, who is now at Harvard.

""workshop attendees listen to presentation"
Participants learned the fundamentals of applied behavioral science and explored how to incorporate lessons learned in their own programs.

Wolfe, who was the architect of the workshop, teaches Translating Evidence for Policy and Program Design at Harris and has previously designed several programs for USAID during her stint with the Mercy Corps, noted, “If we're trying to change people's behaviors, we actually have to understand how they perceive the world.”

At the workshop, participants spent the first three days learning fundamentals of applied behavioral science. It was followed by field trips, including to the Kali community in New Delhi, where USAID and the Government of India have been working to install fresh-water taps and hygienic community toilets. Here, participants practiced the skill of diagnosing barriers to usage and maintenance of the facilities, as well as how to improve the same. The last two days of the workshop were then devoted to participants discussing how to incorporate lessons learned in the workshop to their own programs, so they had concrete steps to take when they left.

“How, in a huge project with a lot going on, do you know that this little intervention, or nudge, is actually doing anything? What does the evidence tell us?” Wolfe asked, underscoring Harris’ focus on using data-driven, evidence-based analysis to produce effective behavioral-driven interventions.

Reiterating the importance of this workshop, Cheistha Kochhar, MAIDP’20, who has worked at senior levels in India’s government—most recently building the NITI Aayog Behavioral Insights Unit as a Senior Adviser—said, “Policy and development institutions regularly introduce several welfare solutions in the market. This course will help participants measure how citizens are responding to those solutions and what are the ways in which we can encourage desired behaviors in target populations.

workshop participants stand in front of a banner for the event
UChicago has long been learning in and partnering with India, with the government and University ties stretching back to 1913.

“Consider the Anemia-Free India Program, which distributes iron and folic acid tablets to pregnant women in rural areas.” Kochhar said. “They may forget to take the tablets regularly or they may not consume them altogether, we don't know. But understanding this better can significantly improve our efforts to reduce anemia.”

“A policy school at a great research university is meant to be serious about taking basic research findings and making them of service,” said Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, interim dean and Sydney Stein Professor at Harris. “One way to do that is to reach out into the world and say, ‘Look, basic research creates a whole toolkit of ways of thinking, ways of solving problems, ways of approaching problems, that are different from the ones you are accustomed to in whatever line of work you are in.’ That’s certainly true for thinking about development economics.”

“With UChicago positioned as a leader in understanding behavioral insights and nudges, it was a natural choice to lead the workshop,” said Ranjan Daniels, Senior Associate Dean of Student Recruitment and Global Outreach at Harris.

UChicago has long been learning in and partnering with India, with the government and University ties stretching back to 1913. The Delhi Center opened in 2014 to advance collaboration among scholars and students from India and Chicago. And the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC), led by Professor Michael Greenstone, is increasing the number of research projects and building partnerships with government agencies through EPIC India. The workshop, which is being called the first such training for USAID globally, is another milestone.

“We've been really grateful to have the opportunity to deepen our partnership with the Government of India through the co-learning and co-implementing of behavioral economics programs,” Warren Harrity, USAID/India’s Program Office Director, said. “And that all led to this training with UChicago and our trying to expand and deepen knowledge within USAID/India and with partners throughout the region.

“In USAID programming, we measure outputs of change, such as counting the number of water taps installed in houses. But what are the outcomes — how do we ensure that this water is being used for sanitation and hygiene? The missing middle is the behavior change,” he added, “so how we get from outputs to outcomes is what we're looking at with this training.”

photo os workshop presenters
Warren Harrity, USAID India Program Office Director; Senior Lecturer Rebecca Wolfe; Dr. Alexandria Huerta, USAID India Deputy Mission Director; and Veena Reddy, USAID India Mission Director

That thinking was echoed by Kochhar. “Most development practitioners assume that if the output is delivered then it will automatically translate to outcome, but that's not true. There are multiple missing pieces in between, and a critical missing piece is that of behavior.”

Kochhar recounted her meeting with Administrator Power in 2022. “We exchanged thoughts on how USAID and the Government of India have a similar approach towards tackling developmental challenges, and that is through understanding and empowering local communities. Behavioral science can be a powerful, people-centric tool to do that. The fundamental value of behavioral science lies more in truly and accurately understanding the people that we are serving, rather than in changing them. This science offers a robust toolkit to enable our institutions, policymakers, and policies to be more citizen-centric.”  

“There's a takeoff happening on the use of behavioral science,” Harrity added. “More and more people are learning about it and more and more people are receptive to it. And when I say ‘people,’ I mean government leaders are more receptive to it because they're becoming more knowledgeable about the benefits of behavioral economics. That includes the Government of India.”

""workshop attendees listen to presentation"
The workshop underscored Harris’ focus on using data-driven, evidence-based analysis to produce effective behavioral-driven interventions

This increasing adoption of behavioral science in the world’s largest democracy, Kochhar added, is also a great opportunity for the field to strengthen its scalability and replicability.

Dr. Ramaswami Balasubramaniam, or “Dr. R Balu” as he is known, the Member-HR for India’s CBC, reinforced Kochhar’s point during a recent visit to UChicago. “The role of CBC here is not to see whether behavioral insights will benefit the commission, but rather to determine if programs like this will be scalable and necessary and whether or not they create an impact.

“Prime Minister Narendra Modi is always concerned about how citizens benefit from all the work the government does,” Dr. R Balu went on to explain. “So, when we give this kind of training to our government officials, we also have to ask ourselves what citizens will gain as a result.”

As the workshop neared its close, Harrity took a moment to reflect on the high energy level and engagement he said he saw in the room and on the field visits.

“One of our Government of India colleagues who works in the water sector told me today, ‘I've already established a meeting for next Tuesday to talk with my team about using this to start reinforcing behavior change,’” Harrity said. “USAID will be doing much the same. That's exciting. This is how we will take this learning to the next level—and make an even greater impact on the ground.”

“Workshops like these truly represent the mission of the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, and we are honored to note that we will continue expanding our collaboration across India in the space of behavioral science and beyond,” Daniels concluded.

The application for our 2024 admissions cycle is open. To begin your graduate school journey with Harris, start your application here. If you know a great future Harris student, please refer them here.

attendees stand in front of a UChicago office