Part of the learning involves reflecting on what can be learned from the science of human development. The staff group at WEvolution have been reading relevant books and articles. The work on scarcity by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir came to attention because, when women in SRGs talked to Ratio about barriers to enterprise, one was having space to think beyond the day to day challenges of managing a house, putting food on the table and looking after the kids. Here is a brief summary of the reflections of the staff group.

The research in a nutshell:

At the heart of the work are some simple experiments. Respondents are asked to solve simple financial problems. Some deal with it in rational terms, and find a resolution. Some deal with it in emotional terms, thinking about how difficult it would be to be faced with such a challenge. This group tend to get overwhelmed, and fail to find the solution. Financial stress can, by this mechanism, reduce a person’s IQ by around 14 per cent, roughly equivalent to losing a night’s sleep. (How effective are any of us when we lose a night’s sleep)? The most interesting part of the work took place in a part of India where differences in income due to harvest time meant that respondents could be rich for a few months and then poor for a few months. When they were rich, respondents did well on the tests. When they were poor, they did not.

There are a number of reasons to like this work:

It describes a change mechanism: We can talk about poverty. But how does poverty get into the body, how does it exert its effects? Poverty is risk for all kinds of negative outcomes in life, but most people who live in poverty do not succumb to that risk. Why? The Scarcity work suggests that for some women, a laser like focus on basic needs excludes thinking about their own needs (and restricts opportunities for them and their children).

It applies to all: Theories that apply to sub-groups of the population can work, but they should also be treated with extra scepticism. Does the Mullainathan and Shafir work apply to everybody, to me and you? Yes it does. Think about the last time you received some overwhelming news. What did you think about (and what did you stop thinking about). Watch the behaviour of people getting onto the trains, desperate to get to their seats, and watch them again when they are seated and relaxed.

It fits with emerging ideas about how relationships exert their influence: for every change mechanisms that explain how people get into difficulty, there should be others that explain how they get out of that difficulty. The next input describes the latest research on this question, and part of it is to do with cognition, how we think, what opportunities in life we are prepared to entertain.

In practice:

All very interesting, but so what? We found that these ideas are highly relevant to question of scaling SRGS. How are we going to get thousands of women queuing around the block to join an SRG? When we are faced with great poverty, or with major domestic crises, it difficult to find the space to think about taking control of one’s life. The task is to find openings, moments of reflection, transition points maybe, when women are prepared to take a chance on something different. The women in the SRGs talking to Ratio are saying that once this chance is taken, the SRG opens up cognitive bandwidth. It creates a context for enterprise.