Building Bigger Dreams

Can we improve people’s well-being by raising their aspirations?

Research shows that raising people’s aspirations can lead them to save and invest more in, for example, their children’s education.

Research shows that raising people’s aspirations can lead them to save and invest more in, for example, their children’s education.

Poor and hungry people face a daily barrage of external problems, but these problems are often linked with an internal challenge: low aspirations.

Fatalism can have devastating consequences. People who believe they have no control over what happens to them are not motivated to seek out, and invest in, opportunities to improve their lives. The result can be a vicious cycle of poverty and poor planning.

Can aspirations change? And can policies influence citizens’ aspirations in ways that improve their health and economic well-being? Until a few years ago, digging into the motivation behind behaviors was the realm of sociologists and psychologists—not economists or political scientists. A group of researchers at IFPRI, however, has been among the first development analysts to delve into poor people’s attitudes about their future.

“Waiting to Die Seated”

IFPRI researchers Alemayehu Seyoum Taffesse and Tanguy Bernard have pioneered IFPRI’s work in this new approach, starting in 2007 in Ethiopia, where a sense of fatalism and lack of hope color the language used by some disadvantaged people to describe their lives. One such expression is “waiting to die, seated.”

In 2012, the researchers conducted an experiment to see if they could raise these famously low levels of aspiration. To one group of randomly selected villagers, they showed an inspirational documentary about one of their peers who took bold action that led to farming or business success. Another group of villagers were shown an entertainment video, and a control group didn’t watch anything. Six months later, those who saw the inspirational video reported higher aspirations, saved more, and invested more in their children’s education than the other two groups.

An enumerator interviews an Ethiopian respondent about aspirations.

“Just because there is a school doesn’t mean children will be sent there,” explains Seyoum Taffesse. “Families have to believe their children will achieve and succeed.”

Seyoum Taffesse and Bernard then got to work developing and testing a consistent set of survey-based questions that researchers can use across communities and contexts to test aspiration levels. Demand for this measurement tool has been steady, with researchers adding questions on aspirations in contexts including India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan.

Conditions for High Aspirations

One of the earliest users of the new aspirations tool was IFPRI Research Fellow Katrina Kosec. “IFPRI is on the cutting edge,” says Kosec. “Aspirations research is getting a lot of interest within the Institute and outside.”

Working in ruraI Pakistan, Kosec and her colleagues found that certain community characteristics—even something as simple as the upgrading of a mud road—are associated with higher aspirations. Other actions associated with loftier aspirations include holding organized meetings to discuss concerns, expanding villagers’ links with other localities, and providing training—in short, factors that improve individuals’ windows of possibility and their voice in their community.

On the other hand, sudden weather shocks, such as Pakistan’s 2010 floods, destroy not only victims’ homes and livelihoods but also—in the absence of social protection measures—their sense of control and hopes for the future as well. Kosec and her colleagues argue that policies to protect households from unexpected disasters, such as cash transfers or weather insurance, could alleviate this double burden that wipes out both individuals’ assets today and their desire to invest for tomorrow.

Hearts, Minds, and Policies

Research from IFPRI and elsewhere makes a strong case for the power of high aspirations to help pull people out of poverty and build resilience among the rural poor. But questions remain about how best to do it: Documentaries showing success stories? Mass media? Indirectly through improved governance and infrastructure? What is the most efficient way to raise aspirations of the largest number of people—and how can programs such as social protection, weather insurance, and compensation for disaster victims be tailored to meet these newly raised expectations?

The IFPRI researchers studying aspirations have more questions than answers—but they’re far from finished.

As for the Ethiopian villagers, Seyoum Taffesse and Bernard are planning to go back this spring, three years later, and test how strong those aspirations still are—and whether the Ethiopian parents who saw their peers’ inspiring stories still believe in that future for their children.

“Opportunities are not static—they are created,” said Seyoum Taffessee. “And it’s not enough that they exist; they must be used.”

Photo credit: Panos/P. Wiggers


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In This Issue

Building Bigger Dreams

Can we improve people’s well-being by raising their aspirations?

Into the Spotlight

The grain teff has been consumed as a staple in Ethiopia for centuries but is little known outside the country. Now, researchers are training their attention on this understudied crop.

Untangling the Asian Enigma

Although South Asia has the highest concentration of undernutrition in the world, in the past two decades Bangladesh and Nepal have both achieved striking improvements in the nutrition of their citizens. How did they do it?

Does Money Talk?

FEATURE: Millions of poor people around the world are enrolled in safety net programs that hand out cash or food. What’s the best way to design these transfer programs?