Nudging the nation toward sustainable development
When the Nobel Committee awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Economics to Prof Richard Thaler, we at the Mae Fah Luang Foundation under Royal Patronage (MFLF) were more than pleased.
The prize shed a spotlight on the “nudge theory” Prof Thaler discussed in his book Nudge in 2008. The essence of this book on behavioural economics is that people respond better to incentives than punishments, and that “nudging” can become an effective public policy tool.
To cite one example, Prof Thaler referred to companies the offer employees a choice of “opting in” to a retirement saving scheme and “opting out” of the scheme, noting that the latter was much more successful in leading towards high enrolment.
It is essentially easier to influence people’s decisions if you steer them with psychological means than with instructions, rules and regulations.
It’s the same reason the men’s toilets at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport feature a drawing of a little house fly in the urinal; it challenges men to take aim at the fly when they do their business, and as a result, reduces spillage.
According to Prof Thaler — who has been called “the father of nudge theory” and “the pioneer of nudges” — the presence of the fly has the ability to change human behaviour, at least in the toilet.
Indeed the changes led by the MFLF are a long-lasting story. We have been practicing it for 30 years, since HRH Princess Srinagarindra, the Princess Mother, proclaimed “I shall plant forests on Doi Tung” in 1987.
In those days, Doi Tung was a no man’s land filled with poppy cultivation, the illicit drugs trade and all the negative social ills that accompany these phenomena.
It was a scenario that other countries were facing, and that some countries like Afghanistan, Myanmar and Colombia still face today. It has been proven that illicit crop suppression does not work. It just drives the trade underground, only to resurface in other locations, and perhaps on a wider scale.
The Princess Mother firmly believed that “no one wants to be bad, they just don’t have the opportunity to be good”. Just as the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej had done, she gradually provided different crops that would offer equal, or better, income to villagers than illicit crops.
And it had to be done over time, over a long period of time. The people had to be convinced, they had to see for themselves. But over time they were able to make the right decisions and change their behaviour.
Our 30 years’ experience of transforming people’s livelihoods in the Golden Triangle suggests that, if we wish to apply a “nudge” to our local politics, society and economics, we must pose two fundamental questions.
The first is whether we were able to transform our sustainable development vision into something that truly improves people’s lives. And the second question is whether the adaptive changes we helped to catalyse are truly sustainable, in a way that can help people thrive — now and in future generations.
Did the Princess Mother order people to do something to modify the socio-economic fundamentals of their livelihood? Absolutely not, she just inspired them. It was a nudge, the Thai way, a whispered suggestion, 20 years before Prof Thaler’s definition.
In fact, almost 30 years ago, creating sustainable livelihoods, no matter how bad the original conditions of the people may have been, became the unique proposition offered by the MFLF.
However, you will not find such a trademark in any record of registered patents, as the foundation had no wish to protect its international intellectual property covering the ideas and good practices it has developed over the years.
Indeed, we believe the MFLF’s mission and our activities are more or less the same as the goals of people worldwide — to create sustainable livelihoods.
All definitions of sustainable development (SD) require we see the world as a system that connects space and time.
It is indeed the way we at the foundation view human development: We believe SD is always about people, and only about what those people get out of it. In a sustainable village, people and the environment coexist in harmony.
Nowadays, the world is being deeply shaken by two kinds of disruptive changes that will shape human history in the decades to come.
First up are the great historical hopes as defined in the agreement that 195 nations reached and signed in Paris — in mid-December 2015 — on how to control climate change and engender the planet’s sustainability.
In the middle of next month in Bonn, Germany, the parties who signed the UN climate change treaty will reconfirm their commitment to saving the planet by making peace between humankind’s activities and the land, the forests, the rivers, the oceans.
The second variable is the frequent news about acts of inhuman terrorism and the subsequent deaths — hatred and conflict engendered by forces I struggle to understand.
They seem to offer once again two possible scenarios regarding this global human drama.
The worst one could lead humankind to annihilation, whereas the Paris agreement on preserving forests and the environment can instead re-launch an era of peaceful progress.
Let us nudge the world towards the common good of humankind.
Sandro Calvani, PhD, is a Senior Adviser at the MFLF.