Published: Apr 2014

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JEL Reference: D03, I31

Working Paper

The Future in Mind: Aspirations and Forward-Looking Behaviour in Rural Ethiopia

Poor people often do not make investments, even when returns are high.  One possible explanation is that they have low aspirations and form mental models which ignore some options for investment.  This paper reports on findings of an innovative experiment to test this in rural Ethiopia.  Firstly, individuals were randomly invited to watch documentaries about people from similar communities who had succeeded in agriculture or small business, without help from government or NGOs.  A placebo group watched an Ethiopian entertainment programme and a control group were simply surveyed.  Secondly, the number of invitees was varied by village to assess the impotance of peer effects in the formation of aspirations.  Six months after the screening of the documentaries, aspirations had improved among treated individuals but did not change in the placebo or control groups.  Effects were larger for those with higher aspirations at baseline.  We also find evidence of treatment effects on savings and credit behaviour, children's school enrolment and investments in children's schooling, suggesting that changes in aspirations can translate into changes in forward-looking behaviour.  There are also positive treatment effects on a set of related measures from psychology and sociology, including a measure of locus of control, which theory predicts should behave in similar ways to aspirations.  We also find that peer effects result in further impact on educational spending and induce more work and less leisure.  That a one-house documentary shown six months earlier induces such actual behaviour change offers challenging and promising areas for further research and the design of poverty-related interventions.

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Keywords: aspirations, expectations, future-oriented behaviour, media interventions