April 1, 2018

Can Behavioral Science Improve Policies for the Inclusion of Migrants?

Two central debates dominate development policies aiming the inclusion and empowerment of migrants in recent times: (i) the modern processes of intensive migration and, (ii) the use of behavioral science to achieve sustainable goals.

First, the tension on multiculturalism has risen in the Western Hemisphere with the recent high intake of refugees, the rise of terrorist’s attacks and extreme right-wing parties in European countries, as with the Brexit and Trump politics.

Second, The Nobel Prize in Economics awarded to Richard Thaler in 2017 for his contribution to Economics and Behavioral Science (BS) is a key indication that this discipline has come to stay in policy arenas. Nowadays, governments and international organizations have a Behavioral Division to design, implement and execute policies using behavioral insights (i.e. United Nations and the World Bank).

Hence, an interesting question arises: Can behavioral science improve policies aiming to achieve a long-term inclusion and empowerment of migrants in their host communities?

Let starts by the beginning. Historically, standard policies and social programs aiming to include and empower immigrants have been designed based on classical theories assuming that migrants are always self-interested and fully rational.

Unsurprisingly for many social scientists, these policies have failed to predict how migrants actually respond to changes in economic and social conditions. The theory and the policies have been especially inconsistent in situations of high uncertainty, risk or conflict.

For instance, research has shown that migrants can make choices that can: (i) directly affect their happiness, (ii) threaten their physical and mental health, (iii) make short-run decisions not consistent with their long-run welfare, and (iv) migrate even when the opportunities for employment and social benefits will be lower than in their home country.

This evidence means that many processes of migrations are still un-explained by classical frameworks; and thus, the designers of development policies have been unable to fully understand how to help migrants better integrate when moving into a new host society.

Recent work from behavioral scientists aims to reconcile and shed light to these classical inconsistencies and to help the empowerment of immigrants in modern societies. But, what is Behavioral Science?

This area is a very new field in social sciences investigating human behavior by understanding that individuals are: not fully rational, not always interested in maximizing their own profits, have instable preferences where our desires and moods can suddenly change and adapt to all new circumstances of life.

More specifically, behavioral science aims to study how social and psychological factors (such as emotions, social norms and mental biases) can pre-determine or shape how individuals make decisions without their full control.

All these aspects affect how individuals make decisions, and behavioral scientists are increasing applying these insights to practical problems to help shape individuals experience with products and everyday services.

A closer examination in the way humans make decisions can improve the way governments overcome public challenges to provide a long-term platform for the inclusion of migrants. Behavioral science is currently designing and implementing interventions to increase the collection of public funds and taxes, building better social safety programs, sensitizing native populations to overcome discrimination and prejudice, and similar ideas are been studied.

As expected, the design and implementation of these policies require a deeper understanding of human nature by integrating perceptions from all social areas such as anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, gender studies, economists and political scientists. The ultimate aspiration of behavioral science in development policy is to provide helpful strategies that are cost-effective across everyday situations in both low and high income economies.

Currently there are at least three programs using BS that aim to provide a long-term platform to ameliorate the inclusion and empowerment of migrants:

1- Migration and forced displacement continue as big challenges in Jordan.

The host community perceives that refuges are taking jobs away from them, and thus, refugees are prevented from using and sharing their skills. The United Nations is aiming to stabilize the livelihoods of Syrian refugees through skills exchanges and employment opportunities using behavioral science.

One intervention aims to help turn this core negative perception by implementing informal exchanges and interdepend work between Jordanians and refugees. The program plans to break down existing negative perceptions and stereotypes by making Syrian refugees trainers and mentors of Jordanians (based on their marketable job skills previously identified).

Thus, the intervention would support the economic stability of Syrians, improve the skills of Jordanians, while most importantly, helping to lower prejudice and discrimination towards refugees and new Syrian migrants. This project aims to promote regional peace and stability in the Jordan area using an expanded framework beyond classical theories.

2- At a Global scale, there is a necessity to empower migrant workforces in terms of their skill-based qualifications to make them more attractive at their new host society.

However, the under-employment of migrants is not always due to discrimination and biases in their host community, sometimes a major part of the problem is also technical. In some cases it is difficult for employers to understand the expertise and/or level of knowledge of an immigrant who was trained in another country.

Thus, a new global program of the UN addresses this problem as migrants move across different societies. Using behavioral sciences the global intervention plans to close the gap between the norms and conventions between different country-based standards in order to better understand the similarities and differences of technical capacity that each migrant has in their new home.

3- In Mediterranean and Eastern European countries, informal employment and under-reporting of taxes is a big challenge magnifying the current pressures to fund the provision of social services that will support natives, as well as the inclusion of refugees and low-skill immigrants.

For instance, reduced tax revenue means lower quality of healthcare, education and social insurance. However, a new intervention using social norms in written reminders plans to increase tax revenue by encouraging firms and professionals to increase the reporting and payment of their wages and taxes.

Two of the social rules used include: (1) comparing the situation of each firm/professional to the best in their sector, and (2) announcing “a public recognition certificate” if they increase their payments by a pre-announced percentage. Social norms have already proven to increase tax revenues in many countries. Among many studies, a nationwide research in Guatemala found that using certain social norms could increase tax revenues in about US $760,000 that represent nearly 36 times the cost of the full intervention (sending the reminders).

In conclusion, modern strategies promoting platforms for the inclusion of migrants continue as strong challenges to governments and societies around the Globe. Meanwhile, the influence of behavioral sciences in development policies has strengthen since the start of the first Behavior Analysis Unit in the United Kingdom in 2010.

However, although behavioral science has come to stay in the design and implementation of development policy by proposing more cost-effectives strategies, its benefits and limits to reach an ideal platform for the long-term inclusion and empowerment of immigrants is still to be tested across low and high income economics over the next decades.

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About Luis Artavia

Luis Artavia

Luis Artavia is a PhD Candidate in Development Studies at Erasmus University of Rotterdam (The Netherlands), where he also received a Master degree with distinction. His PhD research focuses in advancing the effectiveness of development work throughout the study of how the biological and psychological foundations of human behavior can help achieve development goals across rich and poor countries. His research locates at the center of Behavioral and Development Economics. For instance, he investigates the reasons why people cooperate or discriminate with each other and how factors such as social norms and emotions can shape these decisions. Before his graduate studies, he worked as a Consulting Research Analyst developing projects in the area of international development.

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