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A cultural approach to development

Catherine Thomas, a PhD candidate in social psychology and King Center research funding recipient, traveled to Niger to help facilitate community discussions.
village in Niger
Learning about a women’s agricultural cooperative in a village outside Niamey, Niger | Credit: Catherine Thomas
Gender and Equity

Catherine Thomas first became interested in the intersection of behavioral science and development when she heard the economist Esther Duflo describe the benefits of a multi-pronged approach to poverty-reduction—including support for income generation, cash assistance, savings groups, and life skills coaching.

Now, Thomas is part of a major World Bank project that applies that thinking—known as the “graduation” approach—to social protection programs in six countries in Africa’s Sahel region, a large, semi-arid area that includes countries such as Mauritania, Senegal, and Niger. The Sahel Adaptive Social Protection Program seeks to help vulnerable communities prepare for the effects of climate change, including through cash transfer programs.

Thomas, a PhD candidate in social psychology and Stanford King Center on Global Development research funding recipient, first started working with the Sahel program in 2017. She traveled to Niger, a majority Muslim country where women face a variety of social and cultural barriers to economic participation, to help facilitate community discussions around women’s economic development. In 2018 and 2019, she returned to conduct her own empirical research, testing two psychosocial approaches to motivating women’s economic engagement.

Analyzing Women’s Agency

catherine thomas
Catherine Thomas

In her study, approximately 2,500 women in 33 Nigerien villages watched one of two films about a woman starting a business and then took part in a survey Thomas designed. In the “personal initiative” version of the film, the businesswoman embodies Western values such as hard work and individual merit. In the “interpersonal initiative” version, her actions depict values common in low-income and more normatively driven societies, including collaboration with neighbors and family members.

“In the United States, we have the Protestant work ethic,” Thomas explains. But, in non-Western countries, “especially in low-income contexts, agency is more about fulfilling obligations to others and meeting norms—promoting your in-group over yourself.”

Although the results of the study are preliminary, they are striking. In ranking the most important factors in a woman’s economic success, more women chose “peace,” followed by “social capital,” “hard work,” and “personal initiative.” When asked the opposite question—which factors are most responsible for economic failure—more women chose lack of respect for others, followed by conflict in the household, a lack of persistence, and not having a plan for the future.

Thomas says the results are in line with what she and her co-researchers hypothesized and make sense in the Sahel, where 80 percent of people live on less than $2 a day.

“These are very harsh conditions,” Thomas says. “You have to rely on your community for everything. That’s not to suggest women are devoid of agency; it’s just that agency takes a different form in that context. Having others’ support dictates your economic opportunities.”

Abdoulaye Sambo, one of Thomas’ Nigerien research partners, says in his culture “spiritual peace remains essential for the achievement of all human things.”

“Without it nothing can be achieved. And, material peace comes from spiritual peace,” Sambo says. “Unlike the West where economic and financial success is perceived as positive, in our societies, it is a factor of society destabilization, injustice, inequality.”

Previous research—including by Stanford Professor and King Center Faculty Affiliate Hazel Rose Markus—has shown that people outside so-called WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) contexts are generally more interdependent. But Thomas’ work is novel because of where and with whom it is taking place—remote regions of Niger with low-income women—and in that it seeks to change the design of aid delivery.

Markus, who serves as one of Thomas’ advisors and is also involved in the work in Niger, says the research is about “how to provide aid in ways that convey agency and dignity.”

“Catherine’s work is expanding how we understand agency and how it is shaped by the circumstances and situations of peoples’ lives,” she says. “The work suggests that billions of dollars of aid could be more effective by responding closely to how people understand themselves and what they think they should be doing in the world.”

Thomas plans to write up her findings in collaboration with her colleagues in Niger, at Stanford and at the World Bank. She says nonprofits and policy agencies in Niger and Malawi have already contacted her about her work and its implications.

“Overall, through research at the intersection of cultural and social psychology and development economics, I hope to advance our understanding of ethical poverty alleviation,” she says.

Pursuing Real-World Impact

Thomas says growing up in Mississippi—where 20 percent of residents live in poverty—made her interested in learning how to reduce poverty and inequality. After graduating from Yale University with a degree in anthropology, she earned a master’s degree in global mental health at King’s College in London and then worked for two years studying the impact of cash transfers on domestic violence and psychological wellbeing in Kenya.

She chose Stanford for her PhD because of its emphasis on real-world research and has held positions within Stanford’s Basic Income Lab, the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, and the Center on Poverty & Inequality. She is currently a graduate fellow with the Center on Poverty & Inequality’s American Voices Project, in which interviewers speak to people about their experiences living in communities all across the United States. In June, she published a paper on dignity in aid delivery and co-authored a piece for Time on research showing growing support for universal basic income during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas says she was drawn to social and cultural psychology for its potential to help improve the efficacy and ethics of development programs.

“My goal as a researcher is to bring in other types of agency and understandings to development,” she says. “If you take that approach to behavioral science and to development policy design, this changes almost everything.”