‘behavioural economics’ for Afghanistan?

Can behavioural economics help make strategic communications work better in Afghanistan?

This is an are that is of close interest to me in relation to my work in Afghanistan and broader work on the use of communication to help support changes in peoples lives. An interesting paper by Steve Tatham (formerly of the Ministry of Defence Advanced Research Grouup) and Andrew Mackay (formerly commander of 52nd Brigade in Helmand) and reviewed by Tim Harford notes in the Financial Times, suggests that behavioural economics has lessons for the use of strategic communications to influence the Afghan public. The paper, titled ‘Behavioural Conflict – From General to Strategic Corporal: Complexity, Adaptation and Influence’ suggests that the military needs to move from a ‘popularity’ based hearts and minds effort and embrace the reality of choices that ordinary Afghans face every day. They emphasise the insights ‘choice architecture‘ offers as relevant to Afghanistan – and point to the National Solidarity Programme as an example . Their conclusions are that the military doesnt have the requisite expertise in psychology or public relations.

Tathams and Mackay’s paper points to a problem that McChrystal recognised when he concluded the best way to win ‘hearts and minds’ was to ‘protect the population’, not hunting Taleban or persuading people to like the international forces.  However their conclusion misses the most critical element of any successful effort to build peace in Afghanistan. Afghans themselves. It is their country and they must be involved in shaping its future. ‘Influencing’ them as part of the international community’s agenda is guaranteed to fail, like so many previous efforts to tame Afghanistan. A report I helped write in 2008 for the Department for International Development on ‘Communications for Stabilisation’ concluded that the most effective use of communication was to create spaces for dialogue and debate, and allowing Afghan voices to really set the agenda, beyond voting in sham elections. This means that strategic communication efforts should focus more on helping Afghans be heard by international policy and decision makers so that they can adapt their strategy to the needs of the Afghan people. Communication efforts should also focus on helping people engage with local politicians – both to increase the responsiveness of the Afghan politicians, but also to increase the accountability of the Afghan state.

I think there is a great deal that choice architecture has to offer those who use communications to help support change. But, note Sunstein and Thaler, the behavioural economists who coined the term in their book Nudge, it is essential to involve the subjects of chose architecture efforts in agreeing to be part of efforts to use such approaches.

What do you think? Can communications help build peace in Afghanistan, and if so does choice architecture have anything to offer?


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