Posts Tagged ‘international development’

Systemic design thinking and complex adaptive systems

Going back to first principles has been a refreshing exercise. Even as our work has taken us into some wholly new places, there’s comfort in knowing that others have thought deeply about the concepts, though not in our context. I’m a firm believer in not re-inventing the wheel. Consider it a working prototype to be tested in a new environment, rather like I’ve been doing with Vijay Kumar’s innovation methods.

Here’s the context of the thinking I’d been doing on iterative programming for complex, adaptive systems – that is, taking on the wicked problem space of international development where the operating environment is rather greatly different from the predictable regularity of the developed world:

People-centered systems design thinking for complexity
Pivoting from “best practice” to “best fit”: An interdisciplinary perspective (Intro)
An Interdisciplinary Approach to “Best Fit” for International Development: Process and Tools (Part 1)
Enabling development’s paradigm shift from ‘best practice’ to ‘best fit’(Part 2)

Thus, it was with pleasure that I dived into exploring Peter Jones’ publications on social transformation. Two, especially, caught my attention.
The first lays the groundwork in the work of bringing together the two disciplines – systems thinking and design.  From the abstract of his Systemic Design Principles for Complex Social Systems:

Systems theory and design thinking both share a common orientation to the desired outcomes of complex problems, which is to effect highly-leveraged, well-reasoned, and preferred changes in situations of concern.Systems thinking (resulting from its theoretical bias) promotes the understanding of complex problem situations independently of solutions, and demonstrates an analytical bias. Design disciplines demonstrate an action-oriented or generative bias toward creative solutions, but design often ignores deep understanding as irrelevant to future-oriented change.While many practitioners believe there to be compatibility between design and systems theory,the literature shows very few examples of their resolution in theoretical explanation or first principles. This work presents a reasoned attempt to reconcile the shared essential principles common to both fundamental systems theories and design theories, based on meta-analyses and a synthesis of shared principles. An argument developed on current and historical scholarly perspectives is illuminated by relevant complex system cases demonstrating the shared principles. While primarily oriented to complex social systems, the shared systemic design principles apply to all complex design outcomes, product and service systems, information systems, and social organizational systems.

And once I noted there was a bit of an overlap between the references I’d drawn on for my initial exploration of design planning as the discipline from which to source methods to address the challenge of complex, adaptive systems as currently explored in the development space, I was relieved to see that I was on the right path for our own theoretical evolution.

This paper is a great starting point for our methods development for the context of the informal sector in the East Africa, particularly outside the urban centers. And, a second paper by Jones – Design Research Methods in Systemic Design validates many of our assumptions while working with only the methods and systems thinking from one school of thought – the Institute of Design’s philosophy and approach.

In future blogposts, I will attempt to triangulate the thinking from all of these disciplines – design planning, human centered design, systems thinking, and international development. There’s a paper I’m hoping to write by the Autumn, if all goes well and the abstract accepted for a conference at the end of the year.

UNDP’s 2017 Report: Universalism and Human Development

Though I’ve often deconstructed a variety of reports released by private sector actors like management consultancies, and public sector institutions like the UNCTAD or World Bank, I’ve never been moved to write about them here on the blog.

Last night, using the twitter hashtag #UNDP2017, I went through their recently released 2017 issue of the Human Development Report (their hashtag, #HDR2017*) and was rather surprised by their decision to take an unusual approach to the topic.

Unlike the majority of the reports I’ve seen till now, which tend to segregate regions by geography or continent or income (lesser developing countries, for instance, or sub Saharan Africa), this was the first time I’d seen such a holistic and inclusive approach to humanity’s development.

In fact, it was the first time I’d come across the concept of “universalism”. Almost a planetary focus, one might say, on the intertwined future of our common humanity, now mostly interconnected through this world wide web.

Here are a few more bits from the report to whet your appetite, though I do suggest taking a look through it yourself.

While things are improving, there are far too many marginalized groups of which the largest segment of humanity is women, especially those of us who were born in the formerly-known-as-developing world.

Though I must say that the skills the UNDP’s report writing team selects as necessary for our emerging future is one that can be mastered by anyone, regardless of culture, gender or education.

*You can see why I picked my own hashtag for easier readability

It’s way past the time to consider the Informal Economy as a distinct commercial environment

Brand stickers on avocados displayed for sale on a highway, Kenya. April 2013

Regardless of continent, it is now high time we accepted the informal economy (unformal or unrecognised or unorganized sectors) as a commercial operating environment in its own right.

The continued oversight is rapidly coalescing into a gaping void of hiccups and failures, by large companies, non profit institutions, and startups, alike. This issue goes far beyond “understanding the informal” or recognizing the fulltime professional status of the service providers that I’ve written about before.

It’s about the problems created by continuing to assume every individual is poverty stricken and struggling to make a livelihood simply because a significant portion of their commercial activity operates outside what is rarely defined but is assumed to be the formal, structured economy held up as the pinnacle of economic development.

It’s why academics can barely conceal their flabbergasted surprise that a person has a better quality of life, and a reasonably viable revenue stream in [gasp] informal market trading, or even agricultural work.

It’s why @pesa_africa questions the continued transplantation of e-commerce business models directly from Seattle to subSahara given that they’ve tended to wither on the vines.

It’s why market women and traders pay the price of daily harassment and abuse by those given authority over their peace of mind.

And, it’s also why the freshest produce gets to you first thing in the morning in Nairobi or Cotonou or Kinshasa.

This is not meant to be a paean to the hardworking women and men who keep the engines of commerce and trade humming in the harshest of environments with scarce resources and inadequate infrastructure.

It’s the first step in acknowledging yet another holdover from a colonial past that decades later still hampers and hinders the social and economic development that should have happened by now, by all rights.

It’s also the necessary counterpart to the recognition of agency required for design interventions to succeed once donor funding ends.

This theme is consistently covered in this blog in the category Biashara Economics and hashtag #biasharaeconomics

The importance of user agency for good design in the humanitarian and development context

humancenteredThis is a topic that has come up so often on Twitter that I thought to write it out once and for all. A link would be ever so much easier to argue with than to make the case for recognizing the agency of the end user – whether an intended customer or beneficiary – of an innovation.

At some point, I’ll get around to writing a much longer version with citations and links to contemporary research in iterative programming for complex, adaptive systems i.e. the ecosystem intended as the target recipient for the implementation of a socio-economic development program or project. For now, this short version will do.

The late John Heskett, professor in Design Planning and Market Forces at the Institute of Design, IIT, Chicago, once said in the classroom (notes, Spring 2003) that an invention could not be considered to be an innovation until it had been embraced by the end user. Witness the difference in adoption between Apple’s iPod and the Segway human transporter.

This metric of success for the novel – be it a product or a service, or even a business model such as the prepaid/pay as you go means of using mobile phones – requires that the customer (the end user or the beneficiary, as the case may be) be given the opportunity to choose, that is, to make a decision on whether to adopt, adapt, or reject the innovation in question.

In order to choose, and to decide, the user for whom such systems are designed must then be imbued with agency, rather than be considered passive recipients of the innovation.

This respect and recognition of the recipient’s agency forms the core of our work in innovation planning and concept design inspired by primary research in the informal markets of rural and urban sub Saharan Africa, South Asia, and the ASEAN. It has been informed by more than a decade of practical knowledge from experience in the field.

And it is this recognition of agency, which is that which empowers, that provides the foundation for our processes and systems, our methods and tools, and thus, our learning and teaching of how to think differently across the bridge of disparity, and inspires conceptual design of holistic solutions.

Without explicit acknowledgement of the individual’s agency or recognition of the diversity of circumstances, abilities, and aspirations in a community, any designs meant to effect positive change will remain lifeless attempts to intervene from the outside. Witness the number of pilots that fail to scale, or programmes that remain unsustained once external funding ends.

Part 2: Enabling development’s paradigm shift from ‘best practice’ to ‘best fit’

Workshop I_end user in sight during evaluation

Programming in International Development jumps directly into the Design phase of the projects. This is the root of the challenge they face now as they seek to change the paradigm away from ‘best practice’ to putting the end users at the center of their strategies, with ‘best fit’. I identified this problem in the Autumn of 2012 whilst delving into the internal project development processes with civil servants at the Netherlands Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Economy during a customized internal workshop.

It should be mentioned at this point that while Robert Chambers has extensively promoted the participatory approach, there were issues in the process that were explored during our work, and can be covered in a separate article. Participatory design is not synonymous with user centered design, and neither approach includes a robust methodology for assessing the landscape of the operating environment in conjuction with solution development for ‘best fit’, particularly in the developing world context.

Before we can jump into the design of a project or programme – whether with or without the participation of the end users/beneficiaries, we need a structured approach to grasping the context of the challenge. Without a map of the landscape of the ‘wicked problem’, one cannot navigate the complexity (1). This so called landscape map of the ecosystem in which the development project will be introduced, should not only include understanding the people and their operating environment, but identify and frame the touchpoints for the design of ‘best fit’ interventions.

That is, there’s a need for framing the problem in a manner such that the outcome narrows down the solution space i.e. delineating the boundaries for ‘best fit’ prior to the inception of the design process. In the field of design, these boundary conditions can be known as design criteria and constraints, along with filters for assessing optimal solutions at the conceptual stage from the plurality available.

UCSD

These first three steps in the process BEFORE jumping into design are collectively known as Design Planning, and their outcome minimizes the wasteful experimentation of ‘suits to try’ for ‘best fit’ as the design phase begins with the ‘measurements’ necessary for a ‘bespoke suit’ tailored to fit, to stretch the analogy. Bespoke tailors do not expect their carefully measured suit to fit their client on the first try, and usually one returns two or three times for the final fitting. Similarly, customized programming may require tweaks and can be considered a working prototype (a pilot program, for instance, prior to scaling) where the kinks are worked out together with the participants.

This will require work upfront at the start of the multi-year programmes. There are no silver bullets to addressing complexity.

 

(1) Part 1: An Interdisciplinary Approach to “Best Fit” for International Development: Process and Tools

An Interdisciplinary Approach to “Best Fit” for International Development: Process and Tools

This post follows on from the previous one which introduced the concept of a ‘best fit’ approach to the ‘wicked problems’ in development. There I posited that consumer facing private enterprises looking at the African market would benefit from considering Development’s thought-leadership in this regard, given their experience in the challenging operating environments of the developing world.

I also noted that while the ‘best fit’ concept was a welcome paradigm shift for addressing complexity, the siloed thinking common to academia left far too many gaps in their approach and process.

In this post, I will begin to explore the seminal thinking (1) at the intersection of business and design  – also known as innovation planning – for methods and tools to address complexity in a holistic way, all the while keeping in mind that we need to ensure the end users (the rural poor, the people, or the beneficiaries) are at the center of the strategy (Chambers 1988).

Where is the gap?

A careful review of the working paper provides evidence that the challenge faced by international development practitioners when considering a ‘best fit’ approach to programme design is the lack of a robust methodology proven to take one from A to B. Here, we can think of point A as their original ‘best practice’ paradigm, and the attendant methods learnt through study and experience. Point B would be a validated process, with an accompanying toolkit, for applying the ‘best fit’ approach. One can confidently say a How To Handbook is missing, and the siloed thinking creates the barrier to developing one within the field.

What is the challenge?

While Ramalingam et al (2014) recognize the need for tools and processes from other disciplines more familiar with complex systems, one can gather a sense that they don’t know where to start. One cannot simply throw various methods and tools at problems, like spaghetti on the wall, to see which sticks. Even in mathematics, formulae are carefully selected based on the variables available, and the answer to be calculated. One doesn’t blindly throw data at all the available equations hoping to discover the one that fits the problem statement.

This challenge is better articulated in Matt Andrew’s blogpost which posits that the ‘best fit’ approach to policy and programme design is akin to choosing a new suit of clothes. The implication is one must try many different suits in order to discover the ‘best fit’. This is wasteful and time consuming.

What can people centred innovation planning offer?

First, the fundamental premise of human centered design firmly focuses the outcome of the processes on the context and needs of the end users. This orientation offers design a headstart in considering Robert Chambers’ emphasis on putting people first. The entire discipline is eminently suited to take on this challenge for international development, in an empathetic and holistic manner.

Second, addressing complex systems designed for human interaction is another key facet of the field of design, particularly the specializations that deal with computer human interaction of all types. This means there is a vast body of work created over decades meant to consider exactly this point.

Third, rather than wasting time and money on “trying on different suits” for ‘best fit’, there are proven approaches developed to minimize the failure rate of innovations introduced in the consumer market, and maximize the adoption rate by the end users. In particular, the areas of design thinking, design planning and design innovation have years of expertise in considering exactly this.

Finally, for development policies, and programmes to provide value for money, and sustainable, beneficial outcomes for their target audience, they must be designed such that they are viable, feasible, and desirable. This requires a holistic approach to solution development integrating elements from more than just one discipline, whether its design or development.

The philosophy of the methodology required to leap from “We must pivot to ‘best fit'” to bridging the gap of knowledge of “How to map the wicked problem and assess the context for programming” will be covered in the next article.

 

(1)

Strategy as a Wicked Problem by John Camillus (HBR 2008)
Living with Complexity by Don Norman (MIT Press 2010) Chapter 1 PDF
A Short Grandiose Theory of Design by Jay Doblin (STA Design Journal 1987)
Wicked Problems in Design Thinking by Richard Buchanan (Design Issues, 1992)

Pivoting from “best practice” to “best fit”: An interdisciplinary perspective

There has been an evolution in thinking about development practice. Buckley and Ward (2015) found a broad consensus for a shift from a ‘best-practice paradigm’ (Chambers 2011) to one of ‘best fit’ — that is, development interventions that are ‘optimally adapted’ to the socioeconomic, political and ecological context at any given moment (Ramalingam et al. 2014: 3).

While the private sector’s approach to consumer marketing and product innovation offers much to improve the success rates of government policy and development programming, there are lessons from development’s thought leadership that offer global brands a strategic advantage when considering the frontier markets on the African continent.

One of these is the pivot away from the ‘best practice paradigm’ – Robert Chambers anticipated the contemporary concept of design thinking in his lifetime’s body of work – to design for ‘best fit‘, an approach to crafting solutions to ‘wicked problems’ embraced recently by the UK’s DFID. Indeed, the UNECA’s recently released Transformative Industrial Policy for Africa explicitly mentions the need for industrial policy designed for ‘best fit’.

Corporate strategy consulting tends to rely on the ‘best practice paradigm’, and this is demonstrated in the slew of analysis and reports by large firms, and boutiques. While the African continent’s markets are still considered nascent, this approach may pass scrutiny, but as the South Africans are discovering to their cost, their own legacy of ‘best practices’ are not always fit for purpose further north of the SADC.

What can we take away from the field of development research?

Ramalingam et al’s abstract for their working paper “From best practice to best fit: understanding and navigating wicked problems in international development” starts with,

The methods of complex systems research are increasingly being used and valued by international development organisations. These approaches enable a shift away from existing tools and business processes that reinforce a focus on static, simple and linear problems. The evidence is that these methods can help development partners better navigate the complex, dynamic realities they face on a day-to-day basis.

However, scanning their references shows gaps that emerge from siloed thinking natural to narrowly focused academic research. Businesses of all stripes daily navigate complex, dynamic realities with greater vulnerability.  An interdisciplinary perspective, as espoused by Aalto University, would thus encourage the consideration of adding a soupçon of Business and Design, to the Engineering, prior to synthesizing the key elements of ‘best fit’ for new market entry strategy, viz.,

Strategy as a Wicked Problem by John Camillus (HBR 2008)
Living with Complexity by Don Norman (MIT Press 2010) Chapter 1 PDF
A Short Grandiose Theory of Design by Jay Doblin (STA Design Journal 1987)
Wicked Problems in Design Thinking by Richard Buchanan (Design Issues, 1992)

As we can see, business, and then design, both have given much thought to this space now being touched upon by development researchers and theorists. This will be the topic of the next post, what lessons my teachers might have to share with the practice of development. For now, we’ll consider the value inherent in their explorations of the subject matter.

Development’s value to the practice of business strategy and innovation (design) planning lies in its deep and decades long experience in developing countries. As Ha-Joon Chang et al state:

Insofar as most African economies look rather similar to each other economically, it is not because they are in the same continent but because all economies – in whichever continent they are – at low levels of development look rather similar to each other, due to the lack of specialisation and diversification in the production structure, which then leads to high degrees of homogeneity in occupational structures, social organisations, and lifestyles.

What the Development industry brings to the table is experience in operating in the challenging operating environments of the erstwhile third world, especially among the lower income segments of the population, and outside of the population dense conurbations. Only a handful of consumer facing global brands have anywhere near this type of experience, and that too from the profit maximization point of view. Emerging market consumer firms, hyper local startups, and others in the distribution chain with such ground level expertise in traditional markets tend to keep their strategies close to their chests and their trusted relationship networks even closer.

Till now, ‘best practice’ as conventionally approached by private sector and social enterprises keen on addressing these untapped opportunities has been to partner logically with local NGOs for local expertise. But the last mile of customer experience has always struggled to translate itself from thinking of satisfying demanding consumers to resonating with established mindsets of passive beneficiaries. This has had its own problems.

So, what does ‘best fit’ mean, then, in this context?

Matt Andrews, at the Harvard Kennedy School, thinks of it as choosing a new suit of clothes. However, this description I’ll hold on to for the next post as it contains the problem statement that our interdisciplinary methods are designed to address.

Ramalingam et al’s original version with authors’ formatting:

‘Best fit’, a concept stemming from governance efforts, describes aid programmes that are optimally adapted to the political, social and economic context. Such programmes can take advantage of a plurality of possible solutions, which can be deployed flexibly. They often work at multiple levels simultaneously – from community to national and even global policy levels – in order to facilitate and bring about change.

Businesses contemplating the African consumer market would do well to take such a holistic approach to their market entry strategies, and the design of products, services, and business models. Adapting to the complexity and challenges inherent in the developing world’s operating environment for ‘best fit’ becomes even more critical for successfully bridging the disparities of context.

This shift in orientation requires questioning the dominant logic of existing corporate best practices, and, instead, a willingness to explore, discover, and experiment with crafting wholly new approaches to sustainable business practice, on multiple levels simultaneously. They have the advantage of proven and robust methods and tools from the disciplines of design and business, requiring only a little tweaking of the lenses. Understanding customer needs should already be in their DNA.

 

 

 

 

NB: Interdisciplinarity involves the combining of two or more academic disciplines into one activity (e.g., a research project). It is about creating something new by crossing boundaries, and thinking across them.

The formal sector and economic development: A lesson from marketing

Pursuing the thoughts introduced in the previous post further, I looked up the original reference on “formalization of the informal sector”1.

Alan Gelb, et al. 2009. “To Formalize or Not to Formalize? Comparisons of Microenterprise Data from Southern and East Africa.” CGD Working Paper 175

“…in East Africa, weak enforcement of tax payment and no significant difference in access to services between formal and  informal firms means that these variables do not explain the allocation of firms across the informal-formal divide.

We conclude that in countries with weak business environments, informal firms are just as likely as formal firms to increase their productivity as they grow.

Thus,  interventions to increase productivity and lower the cost of formality may be helpful.”

The question comes back to what is the benefit of formalizing when the costs associated with it do not offer any additional services, such as reliable electricity, for instance, that offset the investment.

Formality only becomes a barrier when new market opportunities require paperwork – a formal sector customer, or a chance to export.

“…improvements in the business environment in East Africa are potentially more valuable in changing the balance of benefits and costs from formalization, and so encouraging small firms to formalize and grow.”

Really, what seems to be the case is that instead of pushing individual entrepreneurs to formalize, it is their operating environment that must be tweaked in order to attract them towards formalization. As long as there’s little difference between the formal and informal sectors of the economy, there is no incentive to invest in the relatively expensive and cumbersome process.

The key insight here is that the current day efforts to push towards formalization, must instead transform into a pull towards formality.

If indeed we’re now seeing the end-users as customers of our services, then we must market the benefits in order to attract them. This has implications for the durability, and thus, sustainability of programs and initiatives, beyond the life of the project.

With the nuanced shift in perspective offered by Gelb et al, we can also see the role that human centered design can play in this journey. Who better to identify what customers’ need and want?

1

Why the Search for the Middle Class is a Waste of Time and Money

CJamzx5WsAANOgfOnce we stop focusing only on the search for the mythical middle class, we see the very real changes that have taken place, globally, over the past 25 years. The Pew Report in the previous post focused primarily on the middle income/middle class, overlooking in their haste that even this segment of the world’s population had almost doubled from 7% to 13%. Their rationale is based on conventional thinking which frames the importance of this middle income demographic so:

Developing a vast middle class is key to sustaining growth in emerging economies, whose comparative advantage in offering advanced markets products at a fraction of the cost is waning with new technologies.

Just a couple of days before this Pew report, the United Nations released an important global development report. Here, we can see the real changes that have taken place in historically poverty stricken populations like India’s and China’s:

More than a billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty since 1990 with China and India playing a central role in global poverty reduction, a major UN report has said

The latest estimates show that the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day globally fell from 36 per cent in 1990 to 15 per cent in 2011. Projections indicate that the global extreme poverty rate has fallen further, to 12 per cent, as of 2015.

The poverty rate in the developing regions has plummeted, from 47 per cent in 1990 to 14 per cent in 2015, a drop of more than two thirds.

“The world’s most populous countries, China and India, played a central role in the global reduction of poverty. As a result of progress in China, the extreme poverty rate in Eastern Asia has dropped from 61 per cent in 1990 to only 4 per cent in 2015,” the report said.

“Southern Asia’s progress is almost as impressive — a decline from 52 per cent to 17 per cent for the same period — and its rate of reduction has accelerated since 2008,” it said.

Who cares about the middle class and their mythical relationship to economic growth and progress when the data shows that poverty has been halved, and a billion people can dream of hope. If this middle class were genuinely related to economic growth then we wouldn’t be seeing these conflicting headlines. From the same article that touts the need for a middle middle as critical to growth, already linked above, and referencing the Pew Research report.

India’s middle class barely expanded during the decade, increasing from 1 per cent of the population in 2001 to 3 per cent in 2011, an increase the study called ”small by any measure.”

While the Indian economy is currently said to be so:

India is seeing “stable growth momentum” even as economic activities are expected to slow down in China, the US and many other major economies, says Paris-based think tank OECD.

Last month, OECD — a grouping of 34 countries — had pegged India’s growth to remain “strong and stable” at 7.3 per cent in 2015 on the back of revival in investments.

India has surpassed China to become the world’s fastest growing economy by clocking 7.5 per cent growth for the three months ended March. In 2014-15, the economy had expanded 7.3 per cent.

Earlier this month, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said the country is no longer satisfied being in the 6 to 8 per cent growth.

“It wants to transcend to another level and aim for 8 to 10 per cent growth… We wish to grow faster because we have a huge challenge of eradicating poverty ahead of us,” he had said.

Given the imperative to push hundreds of millions above the poverty line – far more important to a developing country like India, a historically poverty stricken country – worrying about the mythical middle class is the least of the government’s problems. India’s NREGA is the world’s largest public works programme, benefiting 182 million human beings, only 15% of the country’s population.

This begs the question: “Is growing a vast middle class really key to sustainable growth?

India didn’t grow one (sounds rather like a beard, doesn’t it?) as large as or as fast as China, yet India’s economic indicators seem to be healthier and its population emerging out of abject poverty.

One wonders whether the continued emphasis and focus on chasing the middle class dream not only blinds us to the very real social and economic developments taking place but also whether its a corporate imperative rather than a societal one?

In the long run, will more noodles and biscuits matter, or the fact that more girls are going to school, studying computers and English?

This same single minded search for a middle class is creating its own set of repercussions on the African continent. One gets the feeling there’s a bunch of folks wandering around dazed and confused, groping and grasping blindly for something called “middle class”. Again, overlooked in this game of blind man’s buff are data points like Kenya’s recent emergence as a lower middle income country – the World Bank upgraded it from low income last month:

“Our latest data show that in terms of this indicator, the world’s economic geography has changed a lot. In 1994, 56.1% of the world’s population – 3.1 billion people – lived in the 64 low-income countries. In 2014, this was down to 8.5%, or 613 million people, living in 31 countries. It is heartening to see that over the last one year itself four nations crossed over that critical line from the low-income to the lower-middle income category.”

But, no, lets go chasing the mythical middle instead. On paper, and in the numerous reports churned out by management consultancies, they might be easiest demographic to sell consumer goods to, but as I’d asked 8 years ago, is the holy grail of economic development only the creation of a consumer society? And, is it something that can be realistically aimed for, given the rapidly dwindling natural resources of our planet?

Global tipping point in development

Two years ago, I’d written the following words:

Finally, enough people in enough places have managed to lift themselves free of the gravity well sucking them down into completely insecure and uncertain relationship with the poverty line (aka the next meal or three for the entire family) that they can plan ahead for the next purchase or investment in their future economic status and social standing. One is not independent of the other, especially not in the closely knit, hyper local social networks in rural regions of the developing world.

What we’re in fact seeing are the metrics that demonstrate that tipping point I’d sensed a couple of years ago, while wandering around rural Kenya.

People, not consumers, are bootstrapping themselves out of poverty and feeling steady enough to make a leap for the brass ring of prosperity. The shift is so huge – 700 million people or 10% of the planet’s population – that we’ll be seeing the impact and influence of this emerge over the near term emerging future.

They’ll be neither the Bottom of any Pyramid nor the Middle Class – both measures use metrics too obsolete to account for the leapfrogging taking place in the eternally developing world. What they won’t be is stagnant, or satisfied with their achievements. Pew might say they haven’t come far enough, but who is to say that’s their own metric of success?

The ILO’s ‘historic’ informal to formal guidelines and framework: What does it actually mean?

Sustainable Value Chain 1

Illustration: JAM Visueeldenken

The big news this weekend is the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) first ever Recommendations and Guidelines on the informal economy. My first take away from all the documentation is that the informal sector is no more the enemy of good and, now, can finally be addressed with the consideration it needs and deserves. Here’s a key snippet from India’s Economic Times, using one of my favourite words:

“This is important because it is the first international labour instrument that covers the informal economy holistically including wage workers, small businesses, entrepreneurs and self-employed,”

Now, if only they’d also used the word Flexibly, I’d have died happy. But their objective isn’t to integrate the informal sector or bridge the chasm between the formal and informal economies, it’s to assimilate and contain. Anyhow, lets take a further look at what these guidelines are and what might they mean for Mama Biashara.

Section II – Guiding Principles (Page 13)

In designing coherent and integrated strategies to facilitate the transition to the formal economy,

Starts off with a very clear design brief – the choice of the word designing is significant and powerful, as it implies disciplined processes and methods and helps relate it to the holistically mentioned earlier. Next:

Members should take into account the following:
(a) the diversity of characteristics, circumstances and needs of workers and economic units in the informal economy, and the necessity to address such diversity with tailored approaches;

(b) the specific national contexts and priorities for the transition to the formal economy;

(c) the fact that different and multiple strategies can be applied to facilitate the transition to the formal economy;

We need to design for the specific context and conditions, for the to-be-discovered needs of the people, and, one size does not fit all.

Excellent beginning. And as the ILO’s DG is quoted to have said,

“It is not just the adoption of this Recommendation, it’s actually putting it into practice that will matter,”

After a bunch of inclusions and protections from (d) to (i) we have, what I believe, is the most empowering statement of all:

(j) the preservation and expansion, during the transition to the formal economy, of the entrepreneurial potential, creativity, dynamism, skills and innovative capacities of workers and economic units in the informal economy;

Let’s not lose teh hustle in the rush to regulate.

On the other hand, the need for flexibility during these transitions is overlooked and the closest framing we have that may apply to this aspect – as captured by the illustration above – is:

(k) the need for a balanced approach combining incentives with compliance measures;

which leaves it rather open for interpretation. You may call that being flexible, but the fact remains that negotiability of the system is an observed part of what lowers the barriers to adoption of measures for those who manage on irregular and unpredictable income streams and work primarily in the informal sector.

 Section III: Legal and Policy Frameworks (Page 15)

9. Members should undertake a proper assessment and diagnostics of factors, characteristics and circumstances of informality in the national context to inform the design and implementation of laws and regulations, policies and other measures aiming to facilitate the transition to the formal economy;
I don’t think, after this sort of framing and direction giving, that formal economists can overlook the need to dive deeply into understanding people, pesa and place, or the need for a systematic, rigorous, methods based approach to people-centric design of policies and programmes. There’s a huge difference between someone swooping in to do it all for you and someone figuring out a way for you to do it more efficiently yourself.  That’ll be key going forward, imho.

If you’ve read this far and are interested in my prior work in this space, feel free to reach out for some reading materials or for a conversation on how we can collaborate to make a positive difference for those who’ve been overlooked all this time.