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Weird Science: Envy Holds Back Agricultural Development

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Thu, Mar 31, 2011 at 1:00 PM

click to enlarge Ethiopian landscape - FLICKR/TESEUM
  • Flickr/Teseum
  • Ethiopian landscape

In a rural Ethiopian village, a man sets fire to his brother's farm when his brother begins cultivating a more profitable cereal. Why? Envy, which can cripple agricultural development. Actually, envy can cripple just about anything. That's obvious. Now, thanks to research released last week by the University of East Anglia, sociologists have a quantifiable basis to begin understanding how envy works in real-life agricultural settings.

The study, Envy and Agricultural Innovation: An Experimental Case Study from Ethiopia, which will be published as a working paper by the

Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University, focused on four rural villages in Ethiopia, where fear of a negative reaction from others, including being stricken by the evil eye, made villagers less likely to adopt fertilizers or improved seeds. (No specifics on what these fertilizers or "improved seeds" were.)

Academics at UEA's Centre for Behavioural and Experimental Social Science (CBESS) conducted "money burning" experiments with 240 people in the villages. Participants could "burn" (i.e. decrease) others' money -- but only at a cost to themselves. Professor Daniel Zizzo found that in communities where people were more willing to engage in "money burning," they were less likely to engage in agricultural innovation. In plain English, farmers were discouraged from investing in their farms or in related business ventures because they feared their proceeds would be destroyed.

It wasn't all bad news. The study found that the effects of envy may be mitigated when several people in the community adopt an innovation at an early stage. The study also found that individuals with the highest subjective well-being were more willing to innovate.

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