Myth 3: Needs trump desires.

Suppose you received an unexpected bonus of $20,000 right now, which of the following would you be most likely to spend it on?

      a)      Travel and tourism
      b)      A personal assistant for six months
      c)      A new multimedia system or new electronic gadgets

When the Jester asks this question in audiences consisting of university students, faculty, corporate employees, or non-profit/multilateral staff, he finds that most people spend on (a) or (c). A few people – usually multitasking overachievers – say (b).

If your sole goal in life were to increase your income, then (a) and (c) would be considered frivolous expenditures. Instead, you ought to take the personal assistant, and then use the time you gain from not having to do your laundry, answer silly e-mails, make travel plans, etc., to do more productive work. But, of course, your sole goal in life is not just to increase your income.

Well, neither is it for poor people! They have other desires, too, and in many cases, they are more interested in fulfilling those other desires, such as for entertainment, than for so-called needs.

The problem with “needs” is that except for the absolute minimum requirements to eek out survival, they are often a projection of rich observers onto the observed poor. When rich folk visit poor rural villages or poor urban slums, they’re prone to seeing nothing but needs: needs for clean water, needs for toilets, needs for basic healthcare, needs for better education, needs for better employment, needs for information. Casting these things as needs gives them a great urgency, but that urgency is not always felt by poor people themselves, who often have their needs met through poorer-quality alternatives. (Note that the Jester isn’t saying that better-quality options aren’t important; just that the need for them might not be urgently felt.)

If you’re reading this post, you are likely to be wealthy, at least relative to global standards. You’re a lot richer than the over three billion people who are below the World Bank’s poverty line of $2.50 a day, and probably richer than the 80% of the world population living on $5.15 a day, or $1880 a year. [i]

Of course, there are also people who are a lot richer than you. Let’s take, for example, Bill Gates, whose net worth hovers around $50 billion. He probably believes a personal assistant is an absolute need, and in fact, he has a small army who manages his home, his multiple offices, his schedule, and his e-mail. If he applied his own sensibility to the life that you or I lead, he’d assume a personal assistant is an absolute need to get any serious work done. Tourism and multimedia? How frivolous! Among options (a), (b), and (c) above, you ought to choose (b).

But, most of us don’t. We don’t because we have reasonably alternatives to manage our home, our office, our schedule, and our e-mail, although they are probably not nearly as efficient as Bill’s team of personal assistants. We are willing to settle for an alternative that a richer person considers a need, and then spend our disposable income on something fun. And, it’s the same for poor people. They are willing to settle for alternatives — what richer people have are luxuries — and then spend their disposable income on something fun.

For example! Many very poor people happily spend on ring tones, which can cost anywhere from a few cents to a dollar, depending on geography and telecom. Harder to believe are India’s “caller tunes,” where for 30 rupees a month (approx. $0.60), you can substitute the “ring” that people hear when they call you, with the music of your choice. You yourself never hear this music. Local photo shops in India also run a brisk business using Photoshop to matte photos of people against various backgrounds suggestive of Hindu mythology or scenes from Bollywood. These services can easily cost Rs. 200 ($4) per photo, in towns where few people earn above $4 per day. Increasingly, people in poor communities around the world pay a few months’ income to purchase fancy phones. And, in a paper that will appear at CHI 2010, Thomas Smyth and colleagues describe a thriving gray market of peer-to-peer video exchange on mobile phones. Informal businesses download a gigabyte of pirated movies onto mobile phones for Rs. 100-200 ($2-4). (Incidentally, have you ever performed a Bluetooth file exchange between mobile phones? These low-income folks who do P2P file exchange do it routinely. They overcome significant UI challenges to do these activities, unlike all of the poor people whose “needs” for better nutrition we keep trying to shove down their throats.)

In contrast, if you were to ask these very same people to pay $4 a month for health insurance, or $4 a month to send their children to private school, all would think twice, and most would decline. They might feel that the free government clinics are enough, or that the most they would pay for private schooling is $2 a month (typical for many of India’s low-end private schools).

What does this mean for ICT4D?

First, it means that needs are not necessarily NEEDS. Just because you’d be miserable without something, doesn’t mean that everyone is. I once met a man named A. V. M. Sahni, an ex-officer of the Indian Air Force, who began development work in and around Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh, after his retirement. He devoted much of his time evangelizing check dams, which are small dams that slow the flow of river water enough to soak local land. The result is that many dry areas can go from one crop a year to two or three. The rest of his time, Sahni would go into villages where check dams had their impact, and help farmers move from one crop to two crops. He told me that the farmers were overjoyed with two crops, but that he met resistance when he tried to go for three. Apparently, the farmers would say, “Who is this old man who has nothing better to do with his life than to push us to work like dogs?!” At two crops, these farmers were lucky to net $800 a year; but that was a boon to them, because it was already double what they used to make.  

Second, results of “needs assessments” should be interpreted properly, and in some cases, thoroughly reconsidered. In theory, needs assessments are conducted to avoid doing things that people don’t want. But, in practice, needs assessments themselves are the worst violators of this dictum. Needs assessments come with built-in biases of the people doing the assessment. The Jester has never heard the following question during a needs assessment interview: “Would you find it desirable to have a liquor store in your neighborhood?” This means that needs assessments often throw out, or neglect to ask altogether, information about what people want beyond development-related issues. Sure, everyone wants better healthcare and better education, but those desires may pale in comparison to the desire for a weekly film showing or a more extravagant wedding ceremony. Why is it important to know this? The Jester is not suggesting that development should cater to everyone’s basest desires, but rather… 

Third, it might be more important to build demand, than to clear the path to access. In ICT4D, projects spend so much effort trying to make it easier to have access to better X, without asking first the question of whether X is, in fact, something people actually desire. Given people have lots of desires, and that important goals in development might not be not be among the top, perhaps the emphasis should be on raising demand. One great story along these lines is about turning sanitation (a “need” that no one really wants) into demand. Over half of Indian households lack a toilet, and this is in spite of many well-funded attempts to get them out there. The failures have all focused on supply: lower costs, subsidies, distribution, etc. Recently, though, the state of Haryana began a “No Toilet, No Bride” campaign. With jingles such as “No loo? No ‘I do’,” the campaign has turned a needs-based issue of sanitation into one of aspiration. Apparently 1.4 million toilets have been built in Haryana over two years, partly as a response to the campaign. One Haryana man says, “I will have to work hard to afford a toilet. We won’t get any bride if we don’t have one now.” [ii] Building demand is often more important than designing the right gadget. Smyth’s paper about mobile video exchange, incidentally, is titled “Where there’s a will…” Of course, social marketing like this should only be undertaken for tried-and-true interventions, like toilets. The worst thing you could do is to raise demand for something that doesn’t work.

Fourth, just because something is a need, doesn’t mean there is a self-sustaining business model waiting to be discovered. See Myth 4.

[i] Shah, Anup. “Poverty Facts and Stats.” Global Issues, Updated: 28 Mar. 2010., retrieved Apr. 2, 2010, based on World Bank Development Indicators, 2008.


[ii] Wax, Emily. In India, new seat of power for women. The Washington Post, Oct. 12, 2009., retrieved Apr. 2, 2010.

4 Responses to “Myth 3: Needs trump desires.”

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