Development in a Coke bottle

David, at “Find What Works blogs about Melinda Gates’ recent TED talk, where she lauds Coca Cola for its success in taking Coke to the remotest corners of the world. Gates underlines three core reasons for Coke’s success – Use of real-time data in the feedback loop; Leveraging local entrepreneurial talent; and Going local in developing aspirational marketing campaigns.

David concludes with –

What disappoints me is how thin the analysis usually is. As with most similar commentary, Gates fails to discuss the unique constraints facing social causes. These include the difficulty of determining impact when your goal is not measured in dollars (as it is for a business) and the range of stakeholders you must be accountable to when the money comes from one place (donors) and the services/products go someplace else (beneficiaries). The challenges actually are unique. Business principles are useful and the development sector can learn from multinational corporations, but simply mimicking them is not enough. The principles have to be translated. That’s the hard part.

I share David’s angst about the casual swipes people take in equating private sector strategies with the development sector’s objectives and point to the former’s successes in the face of the latter’s trials and tribulations. Is “good change” in the lives of people as easy as having them drink coke? 

First of all, I am a little surprised by the choice of the product. Why coke? Why not beedi or gutkha which too, are “ubiquitous” (at least in India)? After all, beedis and gutkha are at least much more reasonably priced than a bottle of Coke and offer greater ‘satisfaction’. I get it…we are not sitting on judgement of whether the product is intrinsically good or bad. We are also not implying that ‘popular demand’ equals ‘good’. But this popular demand and the resultant far-reaching supply chain have anything to do with the nature of these products (cheap temptation goods, bordering on being addictive)? Probably does… 

Lets leave all of that aside. Does merely their availability make them the models for the development industry to imitate? In a community with layers of obvious and not-so-obvious power relations, I am more likely to care if my neighbour gets assistance to build a toilet or gets a farm loan from a bank, than if I see him drinking  more Coke than I do. In a society where women hesitate from talking to men and cover their heads whenever outside their home, is buying a bottle of coke the same as them getting condoms from the nearby clinic/pharmacy (and convincing their partners to use them)? 

Marketing and the resultant availability of certain products and services is critical – vaccines and other medicines (for TB, diarrhea etc) are great examples. But if ever there is a day when rumours spread that Coke is making young men and boys sterile, I will be interested in seeing how it fares in these remote pockets where it reaches. 

Coke is also a good example of a one-size fits all product. If many members of a community decide they prefer to Pepsi to Coke, Pepsi will probably follow suit and set up shop. But what if the Pepsi-loyalists decide that they are a superior group and therefore Coke should be booted out of their village (and threaten to vandalize Coke outlets, suppliers and customers if they do not voluntarily leave), will Coke stay on in the village and fight for the rights of the minority that still prefers Coke? They probably will cut their losses and escape so more ‘stable’ markets, where they can go about their business without having to deal with local politics.

There are of course key lessons about appropriate incentives for the actors at different stages of the supply chain. Waiting for altruistic supply agents is unlikely to work. They too live in a competitive market economy and need to make their ends meet. Even so, the dream of delivering development in a Coke bottle will remain just that – a dream.

Disclaimer: I have nothing for or against Coke, Pepsi, beedis or gutkhas. All names used are merely for illustrative purposes


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