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Busara Center for Behavioral Economics

Press release

MacKenzie Scott $2.5 million gift to Busara shines spotlight on behavioral science for international development

(Nairobi) - November 15, 2022

Philanthropist MacKenzie Scott has gifted Busara with a $2.5 million grant to accelerate the impact of its rigorous behavioral science research by widely disseminating its knowledge on various sectors in Africa, Asia and Latin America. A leading institute in the Global South to lean on behavioral science for international development, Busara’s builds collaborative relationships between multidisciplinary researchers, implementers and policy makers and pushes practitioners to think beyond current limitations. “At Busara, we think change in human behavior is essential to tackle the climate emergency, to eliminate poverty, and to find just and equitable ways to govern,” said Chaning Jang, Busara’s Chief Executive Officer. “Behavior change is a slow, painstaking process. It requires committing to continuous learning and to taking small steps, many times over.”

Mackenzie Scott’s grant supports taking such steps for a better future. Operating as an independent research organization since 2015 with headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, Busara grew from one of the first behavioral science research labs in the Global South. Today, Busara pursues behavioral science that integrates perspectives from decision science, psychology, economics, political science, anthropology and human-centered design. This holistic approach aims to understand what shapes human decision making.

Our research and recommendations for leaders and communities are rooted in human-forward thinking. This cutting-edge endeavor, now with offices in five countries in Africa, in India and Latin America, is filling a massive data and knowledge gap that is essential to the Global South’s development. Busara understands the details of human behavior on and uses this understanding to change behavior – a crucial point that is often overlooked in development because it is difficult to do.
“The funds we picked look for teams with lived experience in the issues they’re addressing,” said Mackenzie Scott in the announcement of the grant.

The Scott grant will kick-start Busara’s high ambition to further develop as an organization from and in the Global South that is finding creative ways to build the diverse professional environment that understanding humans requires. The $2.5 million grant is the largest of its kind to Busara, representing fully unrestricted funding as an expression of trust in the organization’s mission and governance.

Busara’s work allows behavioral science and international development to meet. “Behavioral science is often used for really small design changes in a project,” said Jang. “But that’s not how we think about it—or not only how we think about it. While we want individual programs to be better designed for humans, we see behavioral science as the game changer that supports the implementers to reflect on their own ways of working, their own biases and their own needs to change behavior.”
Behavioral science is too often treated as a niche interest, but in reality, its impacts are sustainable and replicable across the Global South. To date, our work has helped farmers to better understand how they can buffer themselves against risks and contribute to managing climate change; supported distribution of vaccines or other public health measures; and offered ways to improve outdated mental models of international development.

Offering programs that are context-appropriate is more complex than it seems. A behavioral perspective requires taking into account that humans in different cultures, with different institutions, have different perspectives and reasoning of why things are the way they are. Programs that overlook such human and psychological diversity are less effective and usually face clashes between decision-makers and those whom the program aims to serve because they do not share the same perspective.
Seeking better understanding of behavior in the Global South is an urgent mission. While Europeans and North Americans make up only approximately 14 percent of the world’s population, behavioral research is vastly disproportionately focused on them. This means that insights gained from research in Europe or North America is used to design policies for populations in Africa or Asia – and that simply does not work. The Scott grant recognizes the consequences of such a massive data gap and how it creates misleading, and even damaging, policy.

“We cannot do our work and be ourselves hyper-contextualized unless we build the technical expertise around behavioral science in the places in which we work,” said Samantha Bastian, Busara’s Chief Operating Officer. “This means that we are simultaneously building a field of research and practice in the Global South while nurturing local, niche expertise to claim ownership of the field for those who are from, live, and work in the Global South.”
Busara-trained staff and their evidence-based research are leading the development field through publications, participation in PhD programmes, and an ever-expanding research agenda. But funding to research that is rooted in the Global South is still grossly inadequate. 

“I am so proud that Busara’s ethos of being deeply rooted in the communities in which it conducts its research, and of being a critical friend to the international development industry has been recognised by MacKenzie Scott,” says Anne Healy, Busara board member and Director of Evidence to Scale at the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “We are grateful that Scott understands the long-standing impact of investing, rather than outsourcing, development for local and regional communities.”

For more information, contact: Michael Onsando, Manager Voice and Impact (English/ Swahili) Mobile:+254 727 703 794 Email: [email protected] www.busaracenter.org