Does Malcolm Gladwell want rural Indian women to buy Chevys? A few reflections on DevEx World

In 2014 I shared some reflections on DevEx’s career forum (The future of expats in a globalized development industry).

This week I followed DevEx World social media coverage and Michael Igoe
’s summary really sparked my urge to share a few reflections.

The positive potential of the private sector, the power of innovative, data-driven initiatives as well as a discursive change in moving from ‘beneficiaries’ to ‘consumers’ featured quite heavily.
Given DevEx’s focus on the aid industry, a range of sponsors, including Cargill, Pfizer, Chemonics and the Exxon Mobil Foundation, that may deserve more critical discussion and its embeddedness in the DC political development circles this may not be entirely surprising.

Healthy, empowered consumers through data science innovations
It does not take long before ‘behavioral psychologists, data scientists, and machine learning experts’ appear in Igoe’s summary post.

I found it quite fascinating that of all automotive metaphors Malcolm Gladwell could have chosen (Tesla, Uber,…) he opts for upper-middle class Chevrolet consumers:

“What if we think about the mother in a village in rural India with the same kind of sophistication as we think about the upper-middle class Chevy buyer in the suburbs of New York?” The organizations and companies that are applying this consumer-based approach to development have the potential to transform the choices available to people living in some of the most impoverished parts of the world.
Another common theme in development discussions is talking about an outdated sector that needs to be disrupted.
As a European citizen I find always fascinating when Americans discuss healthcare-related issues-one of the most problematic sectors of the country which negatively affects millions of people.

At a time when technology grants individuals the power to broadcast their aspirations, and organizations the power to learn more than ever about the communities they strive to serve, the development industry’s power and accountability structures can still constrict organizations’ ability to act on that information. Donor-driven health and development programs still tend to privilege risk-avoidance and control over responsiveness to a broad and diverse base of development “consumers,” said Karl Hoffman, president and CEO of PSI.
And I would have liked some clarification on what kind of ‘international organizations’ in Afghanistan Rani talks about:
In Afghanistan for example, international organizations too often approach their work as though it’s being done in the absence of a state, said Rula Ghani, the country’s first lady.
DC as the home base of the military-industrial-development complex should be a reminder that many organizations do excellent work in the country, but that the ‘war on terror’ discourse may have played a part in undermining Afghan state structures. This may be particularly true for DC-based contractors that have spent billions of dollars on questionable development projects.

The development industry disruptors should listen to critical media & communication science!
As a Communication for Development researcher I am following a lot of fascinating media, communication and journalism colleagues and their work and I think many more development enthusiasts should do so as well.
Linnet Taylor
s critical engagement with (big) data, Safia Umoja Nobles work on algorithmic oppression, or Richard Heeks work on new forms of work, i.e. the ‘gig economy’, offer comprehensive food for thought that a public-private transformation from ‘beneficiaries’ to ‘consumers’ is much more complicated-and in some cases may not even be desirable. And then there are Zeynep Tufekci, Daniel Kreiss, David Karpf, Shannon MacGregor or danah boyd whose Twitter feeds, research and public engagement is very much applicable to the challenges we discuss in the aid industry! 

At the same time, critical insights from Kate Raworth and Jason Hickel and many others indicates that economic growth and 20th century economic models alone may not be enough to promote a sustainable future. By labeling ‘beneficiaries’ as ‘consumers’ there is a real risk that there will be more corporate incentives to sell ‘stuff’ (including services) to poor people that will not transform lives or eradicate poverty.

Maybe a term and concept such as ‘citizenship’ sounds outdated nowadays, but when I first learned about it in connection with my IDS PhD research I found it an important counter-discourse to the dominant neoliberal market logic.

As much as moving away from the ‘beneficiary’ logic is a timely debate, relying uncritically on data-driven public private partnerships to fix deep-rooted inequalities, political decisions to ignore evidence and to create a new class of empowered consumers will more likely create the next facebook-like scandal with sensitive health data rather than a transformation into a participatory, fair and sustainable future.

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