Poverty, Aspiration, and Capability: Looking into the Future

A child often dreams big, despite its circumstances, blissful and naive. That is why when we ask a poor child what it wants to be in life, we often get somewhat audacious answers like a pilot, a doctor, or a teacher. But as the child grows, the cruel nails of reality start puncturing the balloons of its aspirations.

Children adjust their aspirations based on their lives’ experience, continuously and subconsciously. Particularly, children’s aspirations are shaped by internalising the experience of people around them—their parents, siblings, extended family, and community. But usually, the people in a poor child’s life are also poor, with limited education, wealth, and social status.

A poor child “belongs” to a disadvantaged community, not just physically, but also in an abstract sense. It belongs to a socio-economic class and racial or cultural identities that also tend to be disadvantaged. Belonging to one class or identity also comes with the feeling of exclusion from others. The feeling comes through direct experience—for example, the knowledge that it is extremely unlikely for someone from the extreme-poor class to become a part of the educated, urban class. Or it comes through the stigma or notion attached to the class or identity—for example, the widespread belief that an extreme-poor person is “incapable” of becoming a part of an educated, urban class.

Growing up, a child eventually anchors its aspirations to its life experience as well as to the belongingness to and exclusion from certain groups and identities. In other words, aspirations are adjusted to their perceived realm of feasibility. For the poor and disadvantaged, this realm is limited and thus, their aspirations tend to be low.

But do aspirations really matter?

Aspiration is defined as “a hope or ambition of achieving something.” It is closely related to explicit or subconscious goal setting, which can affect performance in many ways. First, goals can direct attention and effort towards goal-related behaviours and actions and away from those that are irrelevant, including what is outside the perceived realm of feasibility. For example, a poor father may not invest in his child’s education if he does not aspire his child to find high-skill jobs. Second, goals serve an energising function—harder goals producing higher levels of effort and easier goals producing lower effort. If perceived return to education is low, why would the poor set lofty goals for education and work hard to attain them? Finally, goals also motivate people to learn skills and acquire the capabilities necessary to achieve those goals. For example, a poor adolescent may not take her lessons seriously, if she does not aspire to use her education for earning.
While it is often clear how low aspiration and low effort keep people poor, the opposite causal link—poverty breeding low aspiration and effort—is neither observable nor intuitive. But we realise by now, low aspiration can simultaneously be a cause and effect of poverty—poor people aspiring low and low aspiration producing behaviour that helps perpetuate poverty, creating a behavioural poverty trap.

Addressing poverty is the number one global development agenda, but actions to this end often fail for incomprehensible reasons. Subsidised skills training programs targeted to the poor usually have low take-up rates and disappointing learning outcomes; microcredit is frequently splurged on consumption goods, not invested in the productive asset; promotion on healthy behaviour seldom brings sustainable change.

Can aspiration help explain these failures? If so, is it possible to break the behavioural poverty trap through external influence?

Research suggests that role models can play an influential role in raising a person’s aspiration, particularly when the person belongs to the class or identity of the role model. A randomized control trial (RCT) found that when women are appointed in village councils in India, the gender gap in occupational aspiration and educational attainment among adolescents in those villages disappears—the adolescent girls find a relatable role model in the female leader. There are also indications that depiction of strong female characters on television (TV) shows can influence gender-norms—ideas about what women can and cannot do.

Is it possible to introduce relatable, successful role models to the poor through documentary films that would influence the aspirations and behaviours of the poor and help them break free of the behavioural poverty trap?

Economist Stefan Dercon, along with other researchers, conducted an experiment in a distant corner in Ethiopia, with some of the poorest and marginal communities in the country. They showed a one-hour documentary on successful people from similar communities to a randomly selected group of poor people. Six months after showing the documentary, they found an improvement in aspirations among those exposed to the success stories. It also had a positive effect on their savings and credit behaviour, children’s school enrolment, and investments in children’s schooling.

The experiment provides two important insights: 1) it is possible to alter the aspirations of the poor people through a relatively simple mechanism, such as a documentary; and 2) change in aspiration can bring positive changes in the behaviour of the poor, potentially helping them get out of the behavioural poverty trap.

The authors have conducted a follow-up survey in Ethiopia after five years to test the long-term impact of the documentary. Stefan Dercon, et al. are testing a similar intervention with the clients of an organisation called Give Directly that provides direct cash support to the poorest. They are exploring whether watching documentaries on a relatable role model can increase the impact of cash transfer. The result of these experiments can provide us with valuable insights on developing more effective poverty reduction programs, through incorporating efficient strategies to address the barrier of low aspiration.

Improving aspiration by itself may not do much, but it has the potential to boost the impact of development programs, accelerating the rate of poverty reduction and improving socio-economic mobility. For us, it would be very interesting to test whether aspirations play a role in improving the effectiveness of ultra-poor graduation or skill development program, for example.

Nusrat Jahan is the Head of Communications and Knowledge Management at BRAC Institute of Governance and Development, BRAC University.