Making science work for development

Using behavioural science in international development

The ideas of behavioural science, first popularised in the book ‘Nudge’, are making an impact on development programmes. In 2010, the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) was set-up within the UK government, using empirical approaches to test new policies with the aim of delivering efficient and effective public services. In 2014, the BIT team spun out as a ‘profit with purpose’ company, growing the team and expanding its work worldwide.

‘interventions need to take into account the specific psychological and social influences that guide decision making and behavior in a particular setting. That means that the process of designing and implementing effective interventions needs to become a more iterative process of discovery, learning, and adaptation.’    World Development Report, 2015

Starting out in International Development

BIT’s international development work started via a request from the United Nations Development Programme to support the Moldovan Government to improve medical treatment adherence amongst patients with tuberculosis. This was followed by a collaboration with the Guatemalan Tax Authority and World Bank to improve tax compliance, an enormous challenge for low and middle income countries.

 Impact of behavioural insights on tax receipts

At 11 % of GDP, Guatemala has one of the lowest proportions of tax revenue anywhere in the world. BIT used a randomised controlled trial to test different messages in letters to improve tax payments. The best performing letters used a message that highlighted the 64.5% taxpayers who had already paid their taxes or framed non-declaration of tax as an intentional choice. These letters were highly successful, with the best performing letters quadrupling the tax received per letter sent. Since then, the BIT has worked with a number of low- and middle-income countries. For example, BIT are currently trialling interventions to tackle teacher absenteeism in Peru and to encourage the poorest pregnant women to participate in pre-natal healthcare in Mexico.

Alongside its projects, BIT has been an inspiration for similar units worldwide, with the team working directly with Australia, Singapore, and the World Bank Group. These are enabling BIT and others to understand whether similar behavioural approaches are effective in different cultural and political contexts.


BIT have used their work and the academic literature to develop frameworks, such as EAST (Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely), and TEST (Target specific behaviour, Explore context, Solutions based on evidence, and Trial) to help others apply behavioural insights. The BIT Chief Executive also helped launch the World Development Report 2015 demonstrating how BIT insights can be applied to development policy and they’ve published over 15 academic papers in the last four years.


Freedom to innovate
BIT has frequently found fewer barriers to testing and trying out ideas within development projects than in the UK:

“Global Development is ahead of domestic policy in empirical evaluations – there is more of a history of randomised controlled trials in development and you need that level of rigour to understand what is happening. Some interventions are subtle, so you need to think of impact.”

Using collaborative approaches
BIT use a collaborative model, working with skilled in-country staff and partners and ensuring that they understand the behaviour in detail and in context. It can take months to find skilled officials, resulting in the team sometimes declining projects with high start-up costs. Partnering with organisations such as the World Bank and the Department for International Development (DFID) enables them to have economists or tax officials on the ground to work with.

Building the right expertise
Initially, the team did not have extensive development expertise, however, they had a staff member who saw the potential for impact and had an interest in global development. Rather than turning down requests they recruited staff with backgrounds in development economics and related subjects enabling them to turn the demand for their skills into an opportunity.

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