The White Man’s Burden by William Easterly – a user centered approach to aid programmes

Approaching William Easterly’s recent book on foreign aid and economic development challenges in the ‘third’ or ‘developing’ world from the design thinker’s point of view has been an eye opening exercise. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has written a mixed review evaluating Easterly’s thesis and approach, while other reviews include the London Book Review’s balanced summation.

While written about developmental economics, poverty, foreign aid and the grand plans designed to save the poor from themselves, Easterly proposes an alternate approach based on the principles of the user centered approach to design of systems and solutions.

Do exploratory research, understand the needs of the users, observe them and the systems they already have in place for addressing the issue or existing grassroots solutions [jugaad or bottom up innovation], use these as prototypes for the design of replicable successful programs, cross pollinate ideas that work across different regions or countries, adapt programs and plans to local culture and social customs – basically the user centered approach to the implementation of aid programs.

But Easterly doesn’t actually use any of these terms that we may be familiar with, he classifies the top down, traditional global foreign aid approach as one designed by “Planners” and the bottom up, grassroots, user centered approach which relies on feedback mechanisms and accountability as one developed by “Searchers”. Look at the way he describes the approach of each,

“In foreign aid, Planners announce good intentions but don’t motivate anyone to carry them out; Searchers find things that work and get some reward. Planners raise expectations but take no responsibility for meeting them; Searchers accept responsibility for their actions. Planners determine what to supply; Searchers find out what is in demand. Planners apply global blueprints; Searchers adapt to local conditions. Planners at the top lack knowledge of the bottom; Searchers find out what the reality is at the bottom. Planners never hear whether the planned got what it needed; Searchers find out whether the customer is satisfied.”

Don’t the Searchers – who adapt to local conditions, find out what the reality is at the bottom, obtain user feedback etc – sound just like the ideal user oriented consumer product companies who seek to design and develop products to fill gaps in the market or meet an unmet need, discovered by observation and understanding local culture?

Reading further, the takeaway seems to be three key approaches to successful developmental programs –

  • Design programs for local needs and local culture, adapting them to each locale and environment
  • Observe local solutions developed to address the issue successfully, particularly if they adapt the “official” way to do things to the needs of the local culture or customs
  • Then cross pollinate by taking concepts that have worked at the grassroots level – call it bottom up innovation – and scale them or adapt them for other regions or countries

Therefore, while I may not be in a position to evaluate his entire thesis on the global developmental economics platform the way Shri Amartya Sen might be able to, incisively, in his review of Easterly’s book, I do conclude that there is a powerful message here that the very same methods and tools that profit making global multinationals are beginning to use to successfully enter new markets, such as ethnographic research and understanding local culture and conditions before launching products or services without a clue, would also be extremely powerful ways for the design and development of a variety of aid programmes that actually respond to the actual needs of the local populace.

Sen concludes in his review as well,

In his wholesale praise of “searchers” over “planners,” Easterly says, “Planners determine what to supply; Searchers find out what is in demand.” This may be just so, but there is a radical difference (of which Easterly is surely aware, judging from what he writes elsewhere in the book) between the enterprise of supplying “what is in demand” — which is integrally linked to the buyers’ ability to pay — and that of supplying needed goods and services to people whose income and wealth do not allow a need to be converted into a market demand.

None of this, however, negates the importance of Easterly’s general praise of searchers. There is much merit in ground-level explorations of what is feasible — even when addressing problems that are a thousand times more difficult than selling Harry Potter books to buyers who are willing and able to pay for them. Information and initiatives have to come from many sources, including the deprived themselves (this is why studies such as Voices of the Poor are so important), and without constant searching for what the problems are and how they can be addressed, global aid efforts end up being far less effective than they could be.

 

NB: This review was first published on Perspective 2.0 on December 13, 2007

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