Foundations of our approach

May 12, 2023
Richard Sedlmayr

It's rarely obvious what choices people in poverty should be making.

Global development is teeming with behavior change campaigns that presume to know what people in poverty should do. Sometimes - say, when promoting essential health products - this may be a sensible stance.

But most of life's pressing choices hinge on local context and personal preference. Who can really say if a given person should save more, invest more in their business, or spend more on their children? No matter how much research you may be equipped with: when trying to navigate such trade-offs for anybody other than yourself, you will lack some essential knowledge.

In this vision of development, people must be seen as the central agents of their own lives. This is not just a matter of respecting their dignity; it is also a matter of finding effective ways to help.

It's often possible to support people in the navigation of their own choices.

When we humans try to make sense of our opportunities, we do not navigate the real world, but mental representations of it - simplified maps and models that are stored in our minds. These mental representations, and their constituent components (our assumptions, beliefs, narratives, and so forth), are by definition imperfect. And they are hard to deliberately improve upon: "we don't know what we don't know". We have no choice but to compile them through our life experiences.

When these experiences are empowering, they can unlock human potential. Successful demonstration projects gave people access to data to help them better assess their options; to support that expanded their sense of control and hope; or to various forms of counsel, mentorship, and company. The unifying idea behind these approaches was not to override people's own decision-making, but to augment it: to engage people's consciousness and expand their capability to exert control over their own lives.

When the right conditions are in place, remarkable impacts on educational, health, and poverty outcomes can follow - even among people who face steep disadvantages and appear to have hardly any opportunities at their disposal. There is evidence that agency-oriented approaches can be highly cost-effective development interventions.

For more on the science, read our White Paper.

Our investments aim to expand people's agency over their own lives.

How do I get off the street? What could I do to help my children thrive? Which benefits am I entitled to - and how can I access them? We are most interested in solutions that help people navigate concrete challenges.

We find that promising approaches often have "cold" components that would appeal to an economist (in that they overcome information failures) as well as "warm" components that would appeal to a psychologist (in that they account for how humans make sense of their life experiences).

We are particularly keen on approaches that build on data & technology, and on existing networks & platforms, to offer customized support at massive scale. Our long-term vision is a vibrant ecosystem of players continuously testing agency-oriented approaches, reaching hundreds of millions of people, and sharing insights across thematic and geographic silos.

Ours isn't the only way to address poverty and marginalization. But we think it's impactful, respectful, and under-appreciated. For more on the kinds of investments we make, read What We Fund.