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[NAIROBI/LONDON] Fear of envy from neighbours can discourage impoverished villagers from adopting new ideas on how to increase food production, according to a rare quantitative study of the phenomenon.

The authors, from the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom, found that villagers in rural Ethiopia were reluctant to adopt new agricultural ideas, such as water harvesting and using fertilisers or improved seeds, because they feared a negative reaction from others in the community.

Previous research has shown that envy can work for or against innovation. Researchers have suggested it may have played a role in delaying the emergence of entrepreneurs in China and Eastern Europe, because of fears of retaliation against successful individuals. Other experiments have shown that people invest more in development when competing groups also invest — a positive effect of rivalry, which is similar to envy, according to Daniel Zizzo, co-author of the new study.

"[There has been] quite a bit of anecdotal evidence and a lot of sociological work, but very little in terms of actual quantitative evidence," he said.

To assess feelings of envy, his team simulated economic games with people from four villages, and used questionnaires, focus groups and sociological studies conducted by Addis Ababa University. Results were compared with Ethiopian Household Rural Surveys, which contain information about the implementation of agricultural innovations and, therefore, attitudes to innovation.

The amount of envy among villagers correlated with the likelihood of innovating.

"There is a clear and well-defined sense in which a measure of social envy negatively predicts real–world, actual innovations," Zizzo told SciDev.Net.

Policymakers should consider the role of social preferences and use institutional changes to turn them into productive, rather than destructive, effects, said the authors, who suggest that promoting innovations that are less socially conspicuous would allow innovators to elicit less resentment from others.

"This is an initial study, the first example of a quantitative study of this kind," said Zizzo, adding that he is "reasonably confident that what is captured is a more general phenomenon".

Anne Bruntse, regional coordinator of ecological development organisation BioVision, said that similar feelings are common in some areas of Kenya, but are disappearing elsewhere.

"It is my impression that, along with so many other improvements in the political climate, giving people hope of the possibility of a better future is doing much to eradicate those old fears," she said.

Stephen Mugo, a plant breeder at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), said he had heard many stories of destruction or theft of agricultural innovations in Kenya. He said that involving the whole community in accepting invention could help curb these negative feelings.

But Mary Abukutsa, an agriculture lecturer at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya, said that a small Ethiopian study could not be generalised to other developing countries, and that she had no experience of such fears in West and Central Africa.

Envy manifests itself most negatively in situations with extreme inequalities or insurmountable exclusion, said Calestous Juma, professor of the practice of international development at Harvard University, United States. It is caused by a feeling of powerlessness and is a major obstacle to socio-economic improvement, he said.

"But explaining lack of innovation using emotion alone as the key barrier is too rudimentary an analysis," he added.

John Thompson of the Institute of Development Studies, United Kingdom, said: "The problem has been that agricultural extension is treated as a strictly technocratic process. What this study, and many studies like it, often show is that these are socio-technical processes, and we need to get to grips with the social side of these processes if agricultural extension and innovation are to succeed."

The study was presented last month (18 April) at the Royal Economic Society Annual Conference in London, United Kingdom.

Link to full paper