The Case for People-Facing Development

(This is a consolidated version of an article that was first published on linkedin in two parts: the original versions are here and here).

Here are a bunch of statements you’ll hear a lot in the development industry:

  • “We work on behalf of government X” (With the corollary: “We just build capacity”)
  • We are the implementing partner of Y

This is so endemic that rarely does one come across any serious challenge to the underlying theories. I get it: of course no-one wants to be seen as working in a vacuum or ignoring bigger policies and strategies. Also, ultimately governments should take responsibility for the development needs of their subjects.

All of that is true and I am not trying to pick that fight right now. Still, those concepts bother me a lot, and here is why:

They bother me because they force everyone in this industry into a business-to-business model. I really mean everyone.

In spite of all those high-quality pictures on homepages and in annual calendars, pretty much every-one in this industry is working on an enterprise model: their clients are institutions, not people.

Here are 4 reasons why that is bad:

  1. Your insights will forever remain opinions. World-changing innovations are often based on a fundamental “insight” that seems absurd/ counter-intuitive at first. These insights eventually are proven true as they get exposed to real people taking real decisions in the real world. They adopt or they don’t. They buy or they don’t. Or they buy for a reason that is different from the one you thought. In our industry, even if someone has a powerful insight, they can’t take that to the user to see if it works. They need to take that to a donor and convince them it is legit. That is super complicated for reasons that won’t fit in this article.
  2. As you insights remain opinions, your human-centered design remains a nice theory, as it will never be tested at scale. I mean really tested, not as part of a “formative research” or a “pilot”, or innovation “case study” to be written about generously and/ or published in respectable “Papers”.
  3. You will also never really communicate with the user themselves. Sure you sort of do, but it is often a proxy communication — framed by the complexities of “what will the donors/ government/ communication committee say”. The fact is you will get feedback from donors/ governments and you will act on it quicker than you would on feedback fromusers. Which is why communication strategies in this industry have been known to be atrocious at times — a fact often and loudly lamented by insiders.
  4. If you are successful (=well funded), your organization is a donor-relations machine. Its core competency is winning awards. Not creating anything for the beneficiaries. You may feel inclined to protest this point (“we are different!”), but it is really hard to be geared for both. It would be like McKinsey manufacturing and selling products at Walmart. Ain’t gonna happen.

This does not mean that institutions (donors?) don’t have the beneficiaries at heart. They really do. All of them. Every time. But they themselves function in an enterprise model — their immediate priorities are their own structures and their own complicated relationship with their counterparts. The experience of an individual beneficiary is secondary to that and only acutely real when it affects their primary concerns — the relationship with their own structures and their governmental counterparts. This is why articles reporting that people use mosquito-nets for fishing (here is a random one) are a bigger deal than the fact that many people find the female condom gross (They do. For real).

This reality affects everyone. Donors become process-checkers. Implementers become donor-pleasers. Community organizations become report-writers. Governments are the men in the middle. Our insights are only as good as our ability to get a slot in the next conference or a place on the next “consortium” seeking funding.

No-one can get out of this reality. At Triggerise where I work we are obsessing about being user-facing and we take huge pride creating user experiences first and foremost (such as convenience and rewards for pregnant women). In everything we do we start with that experience and work our way back to partnerships and funding. But every day, we are drawn into enterprise-facing realities. There is no other way — there simply isn’t going to be any significant revenue coming from those pregnant women whose experience we are improving. And without revenue, there are no experiences.

This creates a very unfortunate situation for the beneficiaries — the people on everyone’s website and annual reports. In order to change that we need to change (challenge?) the way money flows through our industry.

And here is the good news — I think it can be done. I think there is another way and I also think this other way can unlock tremendous opportunity. The secret is to link the funding to the consumer experience. In order to do that, several things need to happen:

  1. We need to give the consumer* choices. While this should be common sense, our industry is forever obsessing about “not duplicating efforts” (“Reinventing the Wheel“, they call it), and not “Confusing the beneficiary“. Both these obsessions — extensively expressed in arcane “coordination” mechanisms — are not only patronizing to this “beneficiary”, but they are incredibly harmful in the long term, as they dis-incentivize innovation, create massive bias in our evaluations, slow everything down to a grind and ultimately make the “beneficiary” experience irrelevant.
  2. We need to trust the consumer. Like any other consumer, this one will be often irrational (predictably so). But they will act on insights that can be identified and explored. Not through academic methods, but through marketing methods. Further, social media has given the modern consumer unprecedented power. We can and should use this at the bottom of the pyramid too. Social media (never-mind simple phones) is alive and well there and we need to harness it. I, for example, am a big fan of allowing patients to evaluate the quality of the service they receive, even in the most remote public clinics. And then provide extra funding to those clinics based on that. This will not only encourage a better service, but it will also give consumers more confidence and trust in the system.
  3. We need to be smarter in our program design. You can quote me on this:

“Any project with all its elements laid out and priced, year by year, month by month, over 5 years is bullshit”.

Yet, the typical format of traditional projects in the industry are 5 years (or more), priced in detail and laid into nice, waterfall models that can be traced back to manufacturing in the late 18th century. New models have emerged since and they have revolutionized every sector, except ours. Much has been written about the virtues of agility and the importance of designing on the go, based on real-time feedback from consumers and the markets. At Triggerise, for example, we manage real-time interactions over SMS (including transactions) in a cloud. This gives us an overview over what is going on in the market as it happens and how different approaches are or aren’t embraced by our consumers. We are doing A/B testing — effectively launching the same project with slight differences in two different communities and then picking the one with a higher adherence. Two weeks of this and we can repeat the process. Over time we increase our relevance and, hence, our impact.

4. Redefine sustainabilityI have written elsewhere on why you should stop obsessing about sustainability, but here is the crux. First of all, expecting (demanding) individual projects to become sustainable from a year to the next, is a bit unrealistic. (Particularly after 40 years of undermining markets by an inherently unsustainable industry). Second of all, we should look for viability, not sustainability. Capacity to evolve is the difference. The original cell-phone was unsustainable (ask Nokia). But you couldn’t possibly have iPhones without the dumb phone. And the iPhone is doomed to fall into irrelevance as well as something else will take its place. Life. So if your project is currently relevant (embraced by consumers) it should be good enough, as long as you have the means and the commitment to change it as realities are changing. Concerns about “sustainability” in this context will incentivize you to the exact opposite: avoid radical changes out of fear of scaring the donor.

Mix revenue streams.

So here is how it can be done. Forget public vs. private. We need to move beyond that. As we do so, we need to be challenge the fact that our sector has a deeply ingrained suspicion of anything that has a price or a commercial component. This has been a big problem for Social Marketers (such as yours truly), as entire committees/ working-groups are attempting to dismantle any project that involves a product distributed through commercial channels. Their arguments are simplistic: It is wrong to make a profit off poor people (as it happens they aren’t but if they were you’d have sustainability right there); or people haven’t got enough money to buy these products (this is a bit more nuanced, but it is not hard to structure the price well, including in light of actual costs incurred for people to access free products and services.) To keep it short, here is how at Triggerise we mix revenues streams:

Cross-subsidies. You segment the market. You get the premium segment to subsidize the bottom one. Airlines do it (business and first are subsidizing economy). With our Companion, we do that by designing blue, silver, gold companions, the later positioned for the emerging middle class, growing without options in that (huge) space between health insurance and nothing and willing to pay for an aggregated set or quality services and products.

Money “on the table” in the market — consumer goods companies are trying to reach down segments in our markets, and they struggle to make sense of informal markets, even as they are spending millions. (don’t believe me? Ask Nestle). Meanwhile, traditional aid organizations are spending massive amounts on bespoke, single-project supply chains that are leaky and inefficient. At Triggerise we offer better alternative to both.

Traditional Donors — yes, we’ll continue to need donors. But I believe that smart donors should invest unrestricted and demand to measure consumer relevance (along with transparency, of course), rather than invest in over-planned jargony programs that end up being evaluated by processes that have little to do with consumers. In fact, at Triggerise, we go even a step further — we challenge donors to underwrite a virtual economy that puts a real value on impact behavior, and let consumers choose.

*Note: throughout this article I am using the term “consumer” when writing about what is referred to in our industry as “beneficiary”. This is not an accident.

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