Institutions and Infrastructure for Market Development

Aspirations and well-being outcomes in Ethiopia

The aim of this program, initiated early 2007 by Alemayehu Seyoum Taffesse (ESSP/DSGD) and Tanguy Bernard (MTID) with later collaboration from Stefan Dercon at the University of Oxford, is to bring an empirical content to the so-called Aspiration failure theory developed by Arjun Appadurai and formalized by Debraj Ray. This theory states that a lack of proactive behavior to better one’s future can in part be explained by constraints faced in the process of forming aspirations. These constraints are particularly prevalent among poorer populations, contributing to what may be referred to as aspiration-failure-induced poverty traps.

The aspiration failure framework attempts to explain why some poorer populations tend to invest less in their own future, despite important potential returns. This lack of investment can in turn be used to explain lack of information, market failures, and low private appropriation of returns, as well as identity issues and psychological factors, seen in the developing world. As aspiration is a socially determined, individual attribute, its study may prove useful in understanding the individual-group symbiosis that seems to be key to economic growth and socio-economic transformation.

The research program was developed in several steps:

Step 1: Correlations. A specific aspiration module was added to a large household survey conducted by CHF-Partners in Ethiopia. The data collected was used to assess basic correlations between aspirations, aspiration windows, and investment behavior. The results obtained strongly matched the key predictions of the said theory, thereby warranting further exploration.

Step 2: Measurement. An instrument was specifically designed to measure various dimensions of individual-level aspirations and aggregate them altogether. The instrument was tested for validity, reliability, and applicability on a purposive sub-sample of the ERHS households in central Ethiopia. Test results supported the use of the instrument for later experiments.

Step 3: Treatment. A competitive grant from the SEVEN Fund was utilized to select ten success stories from rural Ethiopia, showing individuals who had significantly improved their situation by taking actions that any of their neighbors could have taken but did not. A 15-minute documentary was prepared for each selected story, providing details of the individual’s initial situation and the various steps taken to reach his/her current situation.

Step 4: Experiment. A research grant from DfID’s iiG is being used to fully test the aspiration failure framework, in collaboration with a Village Savings and Loans Association (VSLA) programs of CARE Ethiopia. Specifically, baseline data were collected for 2200 individuals in 64 villages, after which individuals were randomly invited to watch a subset of the documentaries complied in Step 3. Another random subset was invited to watch a placebo consisting of a standard Ethiopian TV show. The sampling design further allows for identifying individual versus group effects of documentaries on changes in one’s aspirations and on participation to the VSLA program. The follow-up survey is currently being implemented.