When I forget myself, I come back to this photograph to remind me of whom I really work for and why. His name was never asked because he was much older, and thus respected. One could only call him aap (thou). He was my first interviewee for The Prepaid Economy project, more than 6 years ago, when I set out to find out more about those on irregular and unpredictable income streams managed their household finances in the rural context. Patriarch and Master Craftsman, he led his family in the hand crafting of lac bangles, which he and his son then took to the capital to sell.
I come back to him today because I never forgot the sharp and sudden lesson I learnt from my experience in attempting to interview him for the project. Oh, he was all smiles and goodwill, welcoming and willing to helpfully share whatever he could. I’d been introduced to him before, as he was a wellknown craftsman in the region. And yet, till date, I could probably not tell you a single thing about the way this home based informal business managed their household finances.
I was dumbstruck once the tea had been drunk and the polite necessities out of the way. I’d come prepared with a 10 page questionnaire on all kinds of things related to the informal economy, the unpredictability of cash flow, on savings and loans and emergencies, as well as why the prepaid business model work so well. Only when I faced him with this sheaf of paperwork did I realize that I could not bring myself to ask him any of these probing, nosy questions on something as personal as his income and spending habits.
Respect was the barrier to curiosity. Respect silenced me. And with deep regrets and much respect I made my farewells after a few half hearted and polite questions on the business of making and selling bangles and bracelets.
Respecting the researched
I was reminded of him today when I came across an extensive global survey of people’s financial habits. I cannot put my finger on what made me feel as though this survey didn’t care about seeking to understand people’s lives and challenges, the constraints and conditions in which they struggled to hold life and limb together. To dream about sending the youngest to university or aspire to owning a milch cow.
It seemed to feel more like a market research report meant for a profit seeking consumer product company attempting to identify opportunities to exploit and gaps to leverage, to grow market share and reach a new consumer segment. Yet, it was meant for the greater benefit of the target audience, unlike say, beer.
Solutions meant to improve quality of life must grapple with the tension between creating value and capturing it ~ Niti Bhan
Beer does not pretend that drinking it will improve the quality of your life and wellbeing. It knows its place and role in your life. The market research for beer has its own integrity. You don’t expect to understand the context and the operating environment of the excluded.
Why should this be an issue anyway?
For too long the excluded have also been the ignored. The informal economy, lumping together as it does the shadows and the greys, is perceived, for the most part, as a bad thing. The cash based rural and informal markets, the livelihood activities, the various ways and means those ekeing out a living make do, all these end up tarnished by the same brush.
And so, we have little or no knowledge of the way this operating environment works, what makes it tick, what are the larger patterns at play and the rhythms of its transactional flows. Its only now that this segment of the population is being taken seriously in their own right, as customers and as a demographic, not simply as passive beneficiaries.
Look at that man above. A much respected craftsman and artisan, part of the cash based rural economy of his home village, his return from the big city after selling his inventory only means an injection of capital for the entire community.
Thus, if we’re to design and develop products or services or even, programmes, meant for him and his family (and all the others like him, who make their livelihoods in these humble traditional ways), we’re better able to succeed if we can contextualize our concepts and anchor them to the conditions and constraints of the operating environment.
That is, we need to understand the ecosystem in which we seek to introduce the new. We need insights to understand not only his aspirations and goals and needs, but also his challenges, patterns of cash flow and buyer behaviour.
Pasteur’s Quadrant and Ethics
Simply counting heads or the “What” or “How” is not enough, in my opinion. We must also seek out the “Why” without which there is always the danger of exploitation or over emphasis on the profit angle. Consumer insights for those with disposable incomes are not the same as understanding the conditions of those without. Solutions meant to improve quality of life or wellbeing for the under served must grapple with the tension between creating value and capturing it.
This diagram, better known as Pasteur’s Quadrant, captures this inherent tension between consumer marketing driven research (Applied) and social sciences (Pure basic) to offer a middle path. One that fits the context of the lower income demographic, or those who manage outside of the formal institutions and services. I’m not using the word “Bottom of the Pyramid” anymore because the more I’ve gone into the field to talk to people the less I think of them as the bottom of anything. That’s a top down label that lumps billions of people into an undifferentiated mass rather than acknowledging their agency and aspirations.
The Ethics of Use-inspired basic research
This validates the paucity of knowledge and understanding of the informal sectors of trade and business, even as it seeks to identify opportunities and synthesize insights that can inform solution design.
Ethics in research is not simply how personal data is anonymized etc but also integral to the framing of the lens through which we choose to study the target audience.
Do we see them as an untapped resource to be exploited for profit or do we seek knowledge that can better enable us to provide for their needs?
This is a choice that researchers must make as their frame of reference, their biases and assumptions, and the goals of their intended audience all come through clearly in the manner in which the reports are written and the material shared.