How "Marketing" Can Help Eliminate Extreme Poverty

June 25, 2005

When Nonprofit X goes to county Y and begins handing out seeds and fertilizer to farmers as part of an agricultural intervention during a famine, how does Nonprofit X know that they aren't causing a greater problem or ignoring a better solution? Perhaps it turns out the fertilizer is more valuable when it is sold on the nearby market than it is in the ground. Perhaps microloans or digging new wells are better solutions that the population is looking for.

At any rate, even in this very simple hypothetical situation, it is clear that you have to go there. You have to ask and investigate. You should, in short, behave in a manner very similar to that of a market researcher. In fact, if we undertook all of our development decisions with a rigorous marketing mindset, we'd be going in far fewer circles with misused money.

This is the gist of a thought-provoking article from the Harvard Business School on the concept of marketing being used in human development situations involving poverty. I think it is especially pertinent for folks involved with technology and communications because of the heavy (though often overlooked) influence of advertising and marketing in all media.

I would call this a process of evaluation, but the "marketing" concept works well.

In many poverty-reduction programs, be they governmental, philanthropic or academic, the decision making about method — how to alleviate poverty — comes from the top down. This makes sense in many ways, and I'm certainly thankful for the developed world's research institutions, mulling and muttering in their thinktanks about how to best deal with poor farmers and streetworkers around the world.

But programs have to take all of their stakeholders into account when it comes to crafting policy — and that should mean subjecting proposed solutions to the "market" of consumers — the population in poverty. In traditional markets, this process is essential, because bad ideas don't make money and are necessarily reformed or removed from the market. But in many governmental and philanthropic situations, bad ideas can thrive.

This is a concept of including the population you are serving the in the program decisions that you are making. It's that simple.

Here's a bit:

"We're making the important distinction of replacing the exchange paradigm with an intervention paradigm, where we say we're intervening to change lives, not to change consumer choices.

... Four billion people are outside the exchange network. But it's not as though these folks have nothing to do with marketing. Somebody is approaching them. Somebody might approach a poor subsistence farmer in Uganda to say, 'We want to give you some agricultural aid. We want to give you a loan.'

There again, why is advocacy important? Because even in that case, what we find is that they have already decided what's good for the farmer. They already decided that what's good for the farmer is these kinds of implements, these kinds of equipment, this kind of loan. In fact, the farmer may say, 'Given everything else, that's not exactly the kind of output that is going to enhance my life. I want security and food for the family first, before I become this terrific entrepreneur.'"

Read the entire article at the Harvard Business School website.