Unconscious Bias and Development

My thing is international development and my wife’s thing is counseling and psychology.

Therefore, when I saw this picture of some brain imaging in an article on development on The Guardian, I thought “I gotta read this- two world’s colliding”. 

Hopefully this blog will give a bit of an insight as to why WDR does some of the things the way it does.

If you saw the words ‘development’, ‘poverty’ and ‘Africa’ written on a page – almost no information at all – your thoughts would still fill in the spaces. Your biases would come into play. We all have unconscious biases in the way we think and development professionals are not immune (and neither are those of us who donate to development agencies). So well-intentioned development professionals are capable of making consequential mistakes that have an impact upon others, the materially poor. The problem arises when mindsets are just that – set.

We have two systems of thinking: the automatic and the deliberative. For the automatic, instead of performing complex rational calculations when making decisions, our thinking relies upon pre-existing mental models and shortcuts. These are based on assumptions stemming from our life experiences and education. More often than not, these mental models are incomplete and shortcuts can lead us down the wrong path. Thus, thinking automatically can become thinking harmfully.

We need to combat this unintentionalism with intentionalism in order to address the possible biases of our thinking. Why? In order to make better decisions regarding how we all respond to poverty. The World Bank’s 2015 World Development Report has identified four cognitive biases:

1. Thin Simplification – when the more options with which people are presented, the harder it is to make a decision and the more susceptible to being influenced by information. 

When dealing with complex issues, development agencies can be guilty of applying standardized management tools. However, what is really needed is for professionals to work in a space where all assumptions and perspectives can be heard and challenged. Collaborative techniques for identifying problems should be used.

2. Confirmation bias – when individuals selectively gather certain information in order to support a previously held belief.

Being exposed to multiple viewpoints, large data sets and new information and technology, forces us to come up with our best arguments. When done in a group, debate challenges and tests our thinking.

3. Sunk cost bias – when a struggling or ineffective project is continued after initial investment as stopping it would mean acknowledging that previously-allocated resources have been wasted.

Under the watchful eyes of donors, there is a pressure not to recognise failure. Not exactly a cover-up but much learning is lost in not acknowledging when things don’t go as expected. Failure (or disappointment) needs to be discussed. How can we expect different results if there is a culture of hiding some of them?

4. The influence of context – when practitioners don’t fully understand the circumstances or mindsets of those they are trying to help and fill in the gaps with their own assumptions and perceptions.

There needs to be a two-way street whereby mindsets not only shape poverty but poverty shapes mindsets. How we perceive the poor and their problems greatly affects how development interventions are created, implemented and assessed. Too often, solutions are designed by people who do not share or understand the cultural norms, dispositions, history, or mindsets of the people they seek to serve.


So how does WDR carry out its work in order to avoid some of the pitfalls of unconscious bias?

WDR insists that partners involve beneficiaries (those who are the materially poor and will ultimately benefit from any activity) in, not just the implementation of any project or programme, but in the identification of the actual problem and the design of the solution. Thus, different perspectives are heard and assumptions by the ‘professionals’ don’t dominate.

For example, WDR partner, Methodist Development & Relief Services in Ghana, right from the start of any new work, sits down with village leaders and members to understand the problem and, together, come up with the best solution they can. Throughout the life of the intervention, it is local people who coordinate the work on the ground.

WDR is wired to appreciate an innovative solution. There are too many donors and agencies in the West that believe there can be simple standard solutions to complex problems. Development is certainly not a world of ‘one size fits all’. Many children are out-of-school in the developing world but, because of their unique circumstances, the answer is not necessarily to build a classroom and pay a teacher. Anyway, this is probably unsustainable. WDR partner, Open Schools Worldwide, has designed a special literacy and numeracy programme, taught by trained volunteers to deliver the classes under trees, in a community centre or on the edge of a dump. WDR endeavours not to be influenced by the ‘normal’ solution.

An OSWW class

An OSWW class

WDR acknowledges that it will have assumptions and misunderstandings of its partners and the circumstances, customs and perspectives of beneficiaries. WDR believes that one of the most effective ways of combatting this is to know its partners and the benficiaries by meeting them face-to-face. There is an intentional effort to travel to partners and beneficiaries and simply talk (as well as monitor and evaluate what is going on). In June, I will be going to Zimbabwe to meet with those from Dabane Water Workshops and also Open Schools Worldwide. Also, in May, we will have Mrs Thokozani Poswa from Phakamisa, South Africa, visiting us in Ireland. This is an investment in order to be more effective and better stewards of funds. Thus our mindsets here are informed and shaped.

WDR does not cease partnerships because things don’t go fully to plan. We already know that partners are trustworthy and are doing their best. WDR, the partner and beneficiaries may very well have made an error of judgement somewhere along the line but development interventions also happen in very unstable environments and there is also something called bad luck. We don’t dispense with partners because of failure and we don’t cover it up. In fact we go digging for the learning in the situation so that next time, we do better together.

So Irish Methodist World Development & Relief does not believe that there are any surefire solutions. We try to avoid assumptions (especially our own), encourage contributions from everyone and value innovative thinking and doing. It is hard work to escape our own biases which we may not even know are there.


Read 'The fascinating world of unconscious bias and development policy', The Guardian