Aspirations as tool for development

As we know, education has many individual and social returns. For instance, as it has been established over time, every additional year of education increases one’s earnings (World Bank, 2021). Moreover, enhancing one’s skills also has the aggregate benefit of boosting economic growth, through the higher productivity of individuals. Thus, education is an important tool to reduce poverty and to foster inclusive economic development. Beyond economic indicators, education can also promote self-fulfillment, by helping individuals to reach their full potential.

While these are just a few examples of education’s benefits, it is easy to see that it can set in motion a virtuous cycle. That’s the reason why education has long been recognized as a human right, and as one of the Sustainable Development Goals. Unfortunately, external factors such as the lack of proximity to a school, insecurity, inadequate school infrastructure, low quality education and household poverty, generate significant constraints to educational attainment. Furthermore, there are other less tangible factors that might limit education, even when education is more easily accessible. One of said factors is aspirations, that is, one’s goals in various aspects of life, such as education (Fruttero et al., 2021).

Where do aspirations come from?

In the following paragraphs, I will refer to the findings of a very recent review of aspirations by Fruttero et al. (2021) to briefly summarize the current stance on aspirations and Economics. According to the authors, aspirations made their way into Economics in the 2000s, when the economist Debraj Ray put forward theories that linked aspirations and poverty. As we may have experienced in our own life, aspirations can encourage us to exert more effort and to make choices that are more aligned with our desired goals. This is, indeed, the basic theoretical framework of aspirations, they motivate efforts which in turn influence life outcomes. As noted by Ray, a key aspect of aspirations, is that they are inherently social, meaning that the individuals that surround us have a significant influence on our aspirations by acting as role models or promoting social norms (Fruttero et al., 2021), that is what is expected from us given our life conditions.

Aspirations also depend on the awareness of opportunities and our circumstances. For instance, as pointed out by Appadurai (2004), poverty can significantly hinder one’s ability to develop high aspirations. Considering how aspirations are formed, such limitations can arise from the lack of exposure to different role models, lack of access to information about certain opportunities, the perceived impossibility to reach one’s goals given the circumstances, as well a mix from all these factors. The results of several empirical studies are consistent with the theoretical framework of aspirations. For example, adverse events such as conflicts and natural disasters, can have a devastating effect on aspirations, by affecting what one perceives as achievable (Kosec & Mo, 2017; Moya & Carter, 2019, as cited in Fruttero et al., 2021).

As aspirations are shaped by external circumstances and one’s perceptions of it, they do not necessarily align with one’s potential (Fruttero et al., 2021). This means that in some cases, adverse circumstances can lead individuals to a condition known as “aspiration failure”, which is defined as the lack of desire to aspire to reach one’s potential (Dalton et al., 2016), or to aspire to change one’s circumstances even when it is achievable through additional effort (Ghosal, 2013).

What are the implications from these findings?

The understanding of how circumstances influence aspirations has helped policymakers worldwide to address both external and internal constraints to change individual educational outcomes. As aspirations are not limited to education, the findings on this topic have also inspired various interventions that aim at challenging social and gender norms, providing information, and exposing individuals to diverse role models.

While the evidence suggests that aspirations can be a powerful development tool, it is important to have realistic expectations. Where certain conditions are in place, raising aspirations might be the missing piece to long-lasting change. However, most likely aspirations can only take us so far. As already noted by different authors, in situations when aspirations cannot be realized, high aspirations can backfire, as they can, for instance, lead to discouragement and frustration (Fruttero et al, 2021). Aspirations, while significant, are only an additional factor to consider in education policies and programs. As it is often the case in socioeconomic issues, there is not a single or simple solution. Fortunately, as in this case, research help us to identify ways to constantly improve policies’ effectiveness, speeding up the process to reach the desired development goals.

What can we do with these findings in our everyday life?

The findings on aspirations also point to a way in which all of us can contribute more actively to economic progress. For example, participating in community programs, such as tutoring, mentoring, volunteering, or even just sharing one’s story, are great and feasible opportunities to do so, as role models and information play a considerable role in aspirations.

Finally, abstracting from Economics, because one can be a mentor to some and a mentee to others at the same time, I also like to think that the findings on aspirations speak of the importance of constantly lifting each other up, that is, sharing knowledge and motivation with each other so that we can all reach our potential.

Alejandra Diaz Fuentes
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Source :

Appadurai, A. (2004). ‘The Capacity to Aspire: Culture and the Terms of Recognition’, in Rao, V. and Walton, M., (eds.) Culture and Public Action, Stanford University Press, Palo Alto, California, pp 59-84.

Dalton, P. S., S. Ghosal, S. & Mani, A. (2016). Poverty and aspirations failure. The Economic Journal 126(596): 165–188.

Fruttero, A., Muller, N., & Calvo-Gonzalez, O. (2021). The Power and Roots of Aspirations: A Survey of the Empirical Evidence. Policy Research Working Paper; No. 9729. World Bank, Washington, DC. Available at:

Ghosal, S. (2013, August 5). Raise aspirations to break the poverty trap. The Conversation. Available at:

World Bank (2021, October 22). Education overview. Available at: