Every now and then, one hears rants about how easy development should be; that if markets have figured out how to reach the poor, why can’t governments? “Oh, why can’t they even build decent roads?”, “If every village has a shop that can sell shampoo sachets, biscuits and cola, why can’t they also make medicines available?”, goes the argument.
The “bottom of the pyramid” bounty hunters’ cult perpetuates the myth that development can be delivered through sachets. That is partly why wondering why India has more cell phones than toilets seems to be a perfectly legitimate question. Some of these questions are accompanied by genuine incredulity and others, plain contempt at the failure of the development sector actors.
The development sector is slow. Often, it does not have the best of talent. However, the field is also highly complex and no corporate sales and distribution model can be transplanted in toto to a developmental context.
Let’s look at cola companies, for example. Decentralized storage and distribution models and aspirational marketing seem to work and these products are hugely popular. But then, so are say, alcohol, beedi and gutkha—all examples of cheap temptation goods. Clearly in this case, one is not sitting in judgement on whether the product is intrinsically good or bad. This is not a luxury one has in the development sector though. Bringing “good change” in the lives of people is not as easy as having them buy more cola.
Another important aspect is that of power relations in society. In a community with layers of overt and covert power relations, am I more likely to care if my neighbour accesses a government/NGO assistance to build a toilet or gets a concessional loan from a bank, than if I see him buying more sachets of shampoo than I do? In a society where women hesitate in talking to men and cover their heads whenever outside their homes, is buying a packet of biscuits the same as them acquiring condoms from the nearby clinic/pharmacy (and convincing their partners to use them)? This is not to say that sales and distribution models do not face any pressure from entrenched social powers. However, the nature of such pressures in the developmental context is more complex and therefore offers greater resistance to potential interventions and change-agents.
Distribution models and the resultant availability of certain products and services are critical in poor communities. Basic vaccines for infants and tablets (iron tablets for pregnant women, medication of TB, rehydration salts, among others) are great examples. There is often an issue of lack of trust associated with modern medicines, the kind that mass marketed products rarely have to face. Say, for instance, there is a rumour that colas in a particular region are making men sterile, it would be very interesting to see how the corporation copes with the resultant community backlash. Polio vaccine campaigns have had to deal with such misinformation campaigns for years in many parts of the globe—yet, there is obviously no way we can give up.
Development is also about living with conflict. Take the example of two cola giants—Cola A and Cola B. Cola A and Cola B do everything possible to attract consumer loyalty. In most markets, they compete and co-exist, offering a choice to the consumers, one of the basic tenets of a marketplace. Now, imagine Cola A-loyalists are the majority and are convinced that they are superior to Cola B-loyalists and therefore decide to boot out their opposition from their village. They go on a rampage vandalizing Cola B outlets, threaten suppliers, sellers and consumers with dire consequences, offering them the choice to either convert or leave. What then? Will Cola B dig in its heels fight for the rights of the minority that still prefers its brand? Highly unlikely—they will probably just cut their losses and seek more “stable” markets, where they can go about their business without having to deal with local politics. Once again, no such luxury when it comes to development interventions. Managing resistance of local elites and supporting the vulnerable is a sine-qua-non of development action.
Of course, there is much to be said about the success of private enterprises in establishing strong distribution models that reach far and wide. I also agree that the development sector can learn a lot from the way the private sector aligns incentives of multiple stakeholders along the supply chain. However, the next time you are told how easy eradicating poverty should be just because someone figured out how to sell chips in the back of beyond, remember it’s not as easy as that.