As the largest global actor for uplifting the poor, the World Bank has wondered for decades why certain harmful beliefs persist in hindering progress. Like other aid agencies, the bank has spent billions in many countries, applying “best practices” and nudging changes in governance. On women’s rights, for example, foreign aid has made major changes worldwide. Yet, as the bank points out, about 90 percent of 173 countries still have at least one law that holds women back, such as requiring a husband’s permission to work.
Finally, in its 2017 World Development Report, the bank took a hard look at how to better understand and change the beliefs of citizens as well as the “elite” that govern them. The big conclusion: “Understanding their motivations is what matters to anticipating their conduct.”
Progress, in other words, depends on first listening to the values of people, such as their tolerance for domestic violence or corruption, and then finding ways to introduce alternative views that can change expectations. Passing a law often does not work. Bangladesh, for example, had a law on gender quotas for two decades before it was implemented.
Laws, of course, do often change behavior, provide a check on authority, and allow a contest of ideas. “Law provides a clear reference in the midst of diverging views,” the report states. “People comply with the law because doing so facilitates social and economic activities.”
Yet to adapt and accept progress, people must learn how ideas, such as equality before the law, can reshape beliefs and cultural practices. “Changes in preferences occur slowly over extended periods, such as global trends over centuries to view the practices of slavery and torture as immoral,” the report states. It is not always good to simply change a country’s power structure and laws without first transforming norms and beliefs.
“The idea of power cannot be understood without taking seriously the power of ideas,” the bank advises. A society needs a shared commitment to transparency and accountability for the best ideas to become widely accepted and then put to work. A good example is how the people of Guatemala, as part of negotiations to end a civil war, decided to demand honesty in government leaders. They set up a United Nations-backed commission to go after criminal groups that had infiltrated government. The result: Once-corrupt judges felt social pressure to end the practice of impunity for officials. Even a president was felled in 2015.
A society makes progress in its security, growth, and equity when people’s beliefs shift toward the common good and when everyone is allowed to participate in decision-making. Fixing laws and institutions is not always the solution.