Myth 5: If you build it, they will come.

Next week, the Jester will, under cover of his secret identity, give a talk at UC Berkeley called “The Ten Myths of ICT for International Development.” In a demonstration of technology leading to questionable outcomes, Jesterial intent will be magnified through webcast and later available on YouTube.

Generous readers of the ICT4D Jester have already read four of the ten myths that will be presented. Where are the remaining six, readers might wonder? Actually, the Jester has since dreamt up a total of no less than twelve myths, but he has been remiss in posting. The impending talk was a good reminder. And so, here we are with Myth #5…

Recall from “Myth 3: Needs trump desires” that needs assessments are biased towards what outsiders perceive to be needs. Rich people (by which the Jester means middle-class and up) won’t settle for medical care that isn’t scientifically certified, but poor people are often comfortable with questionable healthcare. Rich people ensure quality education for their children; poor people consider third-rate private school at $2 a month quality education. Rich people believe houses should be constructed to earthquake-resistant codes; poor people are content with walls of concrete blocks stacked on top of one another.

None of this is to say that poor people don’t deserve good healthcare, good education, good housing, and a good many other things. Of course, they do! But, because of the tremendous human capacity for psychological habituation, people get accustomed to what they have. And, when people are accustomed to things, they don’t necessarily feel a strong motivation to change them, even when what they’re accustomed to might appear horrific from the outside.

Habituation to low standards is good on the one hand, since it keeps people sane. A hard life would be only harder, if people constantly felt the harsh contrast with a better life. But, habituation is also one of the greatest forces working against international development, because it means that impoverished people don’t necessarily feel the motivation to improve their own situation. Habituation is also one of the key reasons why in so many development projects, you build it, but people still don’t come.

The classic case of this in ICT4D is the telecenter. (Telecenters are Internet cafes with a development mission.) The Jester has visited over 50 telecenters across three continents and at least six countries, run by a variety of different organizations — governments, universities, private companies, and NGOs. In the vast majority of these, footfall was minimal. Even in those cases where the Jester stayed for more than a couple of hours, it was rare to observe more than one or two of clients per day. In short, whatever value these telecenters might have provided (that’s a whole ‘nother banana), demand was slim. The major exceptions were telecenters in certain locations that billed themselves as computer education centers (these sometimes did spectacularly well), and telecenters which otherwise provided a narrow service, such as allowing people to pay their electricity bills. Few people were interested in acquiring better knowledge of hygiene practices or learning superior agriculture techniques.

Of course, non-ICT development experts in healthcare and agriculture extension will tell you that it takes immense effort to motivate people, to say nothing of changing their habits. Motivation is at least half the battle. No doubt, readers will have heard comments along the following lines from on-the-ground practitioners: “You know what’s the biggest challenge in my job? Sure, funding is a problem, corruption is a problem, infrastructure is a problem. But the real challenge is motivating people to take an active role in improving their own lives.” Perhaps the most striking example of this that the Jester has heard, is that there are people with curable blindness, who are offered a fully subsidized surgical procedure to get back their sight (by groups such as the Aravind Eye Hospitals), who nevertheless decline the offer.

(At this point, the Jester feels compelled to say that he is not blaming the victim. Lifelong circumstances in which effort is not rewarded but upset by whims of weather or constraining social structures are bound to beat motivation out people. We have a bias towards believing that motivation is self-determined, but who’s to say that it isn’t due to inherited genes and the encouraging attitudes of parents and teachers, none of which are under our control? Political philosopher John Rawls argued that we cannot necessarily take credit for such traits.)

Insufficient motivation equals deficient intent. And that means that if technology is a magnifier of intent and capacity, no amount of technology will accomplish anything where there is deficient intent. Analogues in the rich world are easy to come by: In most of the developed world, every car must come with seatbelts and wearing them is mandatory, yet more than 20% of passengers continue not to wear them. Studies of gym membership and actual usage inevitably report that frequent users are in a tiny minority, despite all the technology they have access to. And, the Jester is flabbergasted by the number of Bay Area drivers lining up in the slow toll booths, because they never acquired the effectively free Fastrak automated toll-paying device. What are they thinking?

All of these are examples of cases where access is not the problem. Motivation is. Luckily, motivation is something that, if eager-beaver ICT advocates would get off their access soapbox, could be influenced by ICT using well-worn methods of social marketing. The Population Media Center’s Sabido methodology, for example, airs soap operas on broadcast television with positive social messages to influence healthcare outcomes. A radio and TV ad campaign in Ghana increased the fraction of people washing their hands. A study by IPA researchers, Dean Karlan et al., shows that SMS-based reminders to save can boost the fraction of people who stick to previously made commitments to save. (The Jester would note that changes in motivation often require person-to-person awareness campaigns, training sessions, and laborious “hand-holding” efforts, but since he so seldom has an opportunity to end on a positive note for ICT4D, he will not.)

Of course, all of these examples are consistent with technology magnifying intent and capacity. In these cases, it is the people behind the campaigns, whose desire is to boost motivation, whose intent and capacity are being magnified by technology.

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One Response to “Myth 5: If you build it, they will come.”

  1. Jyo Says:

    I wonder if you have ever come across something called ‘motivation enhancement’ therapy/process.

    While it originated in the context of working with clients with drug abuse, it is crossing boundaries. The process looks at stages of commitment to change and acting upon that. We had suggested its application in health sector and might be taken up as a project.
    May be understanding the process of change, barriers to it and how to navigate, will be helpful for those working towards change in other areas…

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