Soap and In-Scent-ives

Leading a soap training in a nearby village.

Leading a soap training in a nearby village.

Behavior change is one of the biggest challenges in development work, just ask any international aid worker, NGO employee, or Peace Corps Volunteer. But it’s not because people living in the third world are stupid, ignorant, or any other appalling stereotype. Indeed, behavior change is challenging because changing behavior, no matter whether you live in Africa or North America, is difficult.

Most people know that it’s good to wash your hand after using the bathroom, before eating, and while cooking. But do most people wash their hands at those critical times? No. Not Americans and not Senegalese.

There aren’t enough incentives.

Economics is all about incentives. Perhaps you thought economists only discuss stock markets and currency, and they do (the boring ones, anyways), but beneath bear and bull markets and inflation and deflation lies incentives.

Economists study the way people respond – or don’t respond – to incentives. What makes people behave the way they do? What makes people increase or decrease a certain behavior? And how can incentives change behavior?

Think about the last time you washed your hands. Why did you do it? Was it because you had just watched an Ebola update on the evening news? Had you recently changed your child’s diaper? Maybe your boss was also in the bathroom with you and you didn’t want to appear like a dirty person undeserving of a raise.

Although you may not remember why you washed your hands, you were most certainly responding to an incentive. The thought of tiny, microorganisms hanging out on your hands might have scared you into washing your hands. Maybe you could see dirt on your hands. Your boss’ presence was a huge incentive.

Or, maybe, someone paid you.

If you paid people to wash their hands, would hand washing increase? For $0.01, hand washing would probably decrease. If it’s worth only a penny, it must not be that important. For $1, hand washing would probably increase to 100%. If you wash your hands only five times a day, you would increase your annual salary by $1,825. Even Warren Buffet wouldn’t be able to ignore that incentive.

So, $1 is an effective incentive for hand washing.

However, it’s not very efficient. Obviously, no one (except maybe Warren Buffet) will begin handing out dollars for clean hands.

Most people in Senegal know that hand washing, saving money, and eating vegetables is good. They know that sleeping without a mosquito net, poor recordkeeping, and using pesticides is bad. Yet, somehow, Senegal is still considered a developing country.

And the West doesn’t understand this. If you educate people, they’ll change behavior, right?

Everyone knows that smoking, overeating, and driving without a seatbelt is bad. Yet, those exact behaviors happen every day in America. Clearly, education doesn’t automatically lead to behavior change.

Many people think my life in Senegal is glamorous. I’m supposed to be “saving the world” one starving baby at a time. But, truth be told, I haven’t seen one starving baby in the past nine months.

Since I’m not “saving the world,” am I saving my own host family?


Why does my sister always cook with rice instead of healthier, cheaper grains? Why does my older brother buy a new iPhone but fail to pay school inscription fees for the children? Why does my little nephew refuse to wash his hands before meals?

But, then again, why do so many Americans eat processed food? Why do Americans take on a new car loan instead of saving their money to buy in cash? And why do one-third of Americans not wash their hands after going to the bathroom?

It’s not because Americans or Senegalese are uneducated. There just aren’t enough incentives.

This post isn’t going to end with a beautiful formula for behavior change. There is no three-step program for changing the world. If anyone tells you there is, they’re lying to you. When was the last time that new, fad diet worked for you?

There is, however, economics. Are there strong enough incentives for behavior change? What sort of social pressures would convince people to quit smoking? What sort of financial forces would persuade Senegal to join the developed world?

I’m not here to answer those questions. This is a discussion that will continue long after my Peace Corps service is over. But I’m here to invite you to join the conversation.

Next time you’re thinking about poor, starving children in Africa, instead, turn your attention to your overweight, chain-smoking neighbor. He or she needs your help just as much as the child in Africa.

Or, better yet, grab a bar of soap and wash your hands.

Are there enough incentives for you?


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