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) tweet
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.
Due to the growing recognition of the importance of aspirations, however, I spent time during a recent trip to Myanmar developing a new study of the economics of hope. We started from scratch with open-ended interviews in several villages. We spoke with rice farmers and landless households; Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims; young people and old people about what makes them happy and about their hopes for the future. This qualitative research has allowed us to re-write the questionnaire, and pilot testing is now underway.
By adding questions about village characteristics prior to asking about individual aspirations, we are aiming to contextualize and prime respondents to provide more accurate and reliable answers. This is important as Arjun Appadurai writes in his influential essay, “The Capacity to Aspire”:
Aspirations about the good life, about health and happiness, exist in all societies. Yet a Buddhist picture of the good life lies at some distance from an Islamic one. Equally, a poor Tamil peasant woman’s view of the good life may be as distant from that of a cosmopolitan woman from Delhi, as from that of an equally poor woman from Tanzania. But in every case, aspirations to the good life are part of some sort of system of ideas…which locates them in a larger map of local ideas and beliefs. (p. 67) tweet
We are also finding alternatives to asking all questions in monetary terms. For example, instead of simply asking, “How much would you like to spend on your house?” we ask respondents to describe the house they would like to live in. Aspirations for housing will then be measured by comparing this “dream house” to the house in which they are currently residing.
We are also including skip codes in the questionnaire in order to increase the relevance of each question to the respondent. If the respondent is a farmer, then we will ask only about land ownership and rental. If the respondent is a day laborer, then we will ask what sorts of jobs they want and future land ownership or rental. If the respondent is above a given age, then we will ask about aspirations for the educational attainment of their child or grandchild rather than their own personal educational attainment.
A study on the economics of hope would not be complete without asking about agency and avenues used to achieve this hope. To measure agency we are using an instrument similar to that tested in Ethiopia that asked respondents about the nature of success in their lives and the lives of those around them (Bernard and Taffesse, 2012). Avenues are measured by adapting the so-called State Hope Scale used in clinical psychology.
Finally, we are planning a randomized treatment of aspirations, agency, and avenues in order to measure the formation of hope. The plan is to mimic an experimental aspirational treatment study carried out in Ethiopia (Bernard et al., 2013). Treatment will consist of an inspirational video showcasing individuals from rural Myanmar who have recently experienced relative success in farming or entrepreneurship. This will be followed by a short psychological counseling session. We will administer follow-up surveys to measure the formation of hope and its outcomes of future-oriented economic behavior such as saving, spending on education, housing expenditures, and entrepreneurial investments.