Making the Arab region safer, more prosperous and inclusive – one experiment at a time

Lebanese Flag

Dr Fadi Makki, reflects on BX Arabia 2019, hosted by Nudge Lebanon & B4Development

In April 2019, over 300 attendees and 36 speakers came together for the second annual BX Arabia conference; from Lebanon, as well as from more than 15 other countries including Oman, Qatar, Egypt, UK, France, the US and South Africa. Speakers included practitioners, policymakers and academics. They spoke across 10 panels, covering the application of behavioural insights (BI) to policy-areas critical to rule of law and socio-economic development in the Middle East; these included health and education, but also increasingly complex areas, like tackling violence and the ethics of Nudging in the fourth industrial revolution. Below are some of the main themes (non-exhaustive) drawn from this two-day summit in Beirut.

An Opportunity to Take Stock of BI in the Middle East

Behavioural insights have exploded in recent years, not only globally, but here in the Middle East too. There is some traction in every Arab country on behavioral insights and experimentation, which is why BX Arabia 2019 was a very timely initiative for stock-taking, networking, collaboration and sharing of lessons learned from key stakeholders who are pioneering the use of behavioral insights across the region, including in Qatar, Lebanon, Kuwait, Oman …

This year, the Qatar Behavioral Insights Unit (QBIU), the first nudge unit in the Middle East, which has since been incorporated as a foundation called  “B4 Development”, is celebrating its third anniversary. During this time, it has expanded in mandate, from sports and healthy lifestyle to sustainability, workers’ welfare, entrepreneurship, education, social cohesion, prevention of violent extremism (PVE), and public service delivery.

BX Arabia 3Nudge Lebanon also celebrated its two year-anniversary, having grown from just a small four-person team in 2017, to more than 15 members with a portfolio of more than 30 projects in Lebanon and the region. As part of these projects, we have conducted dozens of randomised control trials, from increasing seatbelt use, to increasing payment of electricity bills, to cutting on consumption of plastic cutlery, and reducing food waste.

It is extremely symbolic and encouraging that this conference has been under the patronage of the highest level of government for the second year in a row, the President of the Lebanese Republic. This is clear sign that the Lebanese Government, along with other governments in the region, is realizing the importance of these tools, not to replace the conventional ones, but to complement them and reinvigorate them.

But with this realization of the importance of BI and the related change in mind-set, comes the need to change the skillset, and hence the need for building capacity in applying behavioural insights, as well as using rigorous experimentation to test what actually works in achieving behavioral change. This is why BX Arabia included a dedicated panel on capacity-building for BI: Speakers explored lessons learned from ongoing initiatives in building the capacities of policymakers, NGOs and students in designing, implementing and evaluating behaviorally-informed policy interventions.

In fact, during this year’s BX Arabia 2019, we also created space for American University of Beirut (AUB) and Lebanese University students currently taking a course in behavioural economics – jointly run by the Economics Faculty of AUB and Nudge Lebanon – to present posters about the behavioral experiments they have designed and conducted.

The Road Ahead

Hosting the second summit, BX Arabia 2019, was not only about taking stock of what we’ve all learned, but also about drawing a roadmap to where we are heading; highlighting the opportunities to maximise the full potential of behavioural insights in the Middle East, and applying it to the more complex policy challenges faced in this region, which we have started to take on at Nudge Lebanon and B4Development. Recent experiments include using values affirmations to improve academic achievement of underprivileged students, using commitment and reminders to improve workshop attendance and participation as part of a broader attempt to prevent spread of violent extremism, and using planning prompts among vulnerable populations to increase uptake of vaccinations.

BX Arabia stage line-upGiven the traction in various Arab countries in using behavioral insights and experimentation, BX Arabia 2019 sought this year to further push for increasing collaboration between these various Arab initiatives. Learning from one another and cross-border collaboration on resources and know-how between government, NGOs, academia and private sector, is a key priority going forward, which is why we launched the Arab behavioral economics Community of Practice (ARABEC) at BX Arabia 2019.  The ARABEC initiative will have its own website and act as a platform for collaboration and exchange on applications of behavioral sciences to public policy.

Last, BX Arabia 2019 sought to shed light on an important dimension in the debate about behavioral sciences and policy experimentation. Indeed, as this field grows and more stakeholders endorse its methodologies and approaches, we need to ensure that all users work with the highest degree of transparency and ethics so that we can fully leverage the power of behavioral sciences for good.

BXArabia rearAs new technologies – particularly artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data and the internet of things – are merged with behavioral insights, the opportunities for social impact and efficiencies across programs and value chains are phenomenal.

But these opportunities bring with them the potential to disrupt every industry, and reshape various aspects in our lives. More worrisome is the potential for misuse, unless ethical considerations and frameworks are developed and followed.

Such challenging and thought-provoking discussions held during BX Arabia only indicate that it is more pressing than ever to make the Arab region and the world, safer, more prosperous and inclusive, one experiment at a time.