I'll begin my fourth and final installment of my long essay addressing the debate on "design imperialism" by admitting that it doesn't take much effort to find something about globalization to be incensed about. Starbucks is pricing your favorite coffee shop out of the neighborhood; riots in Indonesia were triggered by the Asian financial crisis. Apple imposes its corporate values to the worldwide availability of adult content on their application platform**; Coke and Pepsi logos have been painted onto remote pristine mountain ranges.
Or perhaps you prefer to take the profit-at-any-cost argument to the next level. You can cite Nestle's aggressive sale of milk-powder in markets where doing so is likely to inhibit the lactation of mothers; Facebook and Google endlessly exploring and re-defining privacy in their race to monetize you through new services; Monsanto's development and apparent halting of sterile seeds to force farmers to make repeat purchases every year; the very visible suicide rate of Foxconn factory workers in China (most likely some of you will be reading this on a Foxconn assembled device); companies that are benefitting from the sale of monitoring equipment in countries like Syria or Egypt; and accusations of racism in the advertising of Unilever's Fair & LovelySkin Whitening creams. (For a good background on the latter read this paper.) Make no mistake—governments***, BigCorps, organisations, agencies need watching, need to be held to account, and in many markets there are players that hold a disproportionate amount of power.
But as consumers, employers and employees, I, you, we, they are complicit in this relationship in the products we make and consume, as well as in the lifestyles we aspire to and the moment-to-moment decisions we make in how the products we buy are used. Sure, we demand privacy, but we are willing to let personal ethics slide when a photo worthy situation presents itself. We have grown used to free e-mail, but (momentarily) rally against our e-mail being read by an algorithm so that Google can serve us more contextualized advertising. We roll up to a remote mountain village and mutter expletives at being woken by a ringtone—but get the jitters at the mere thought of giving up our own connectivity. We complain of global warming and then jet-off to another conference that espouses amongst other things sustainable living. We are highly vocal about the price of new electronics but vote with our wallets when it comes to disposing of them in an slightly-more-costly but environmentally less impactful manner. Or we fly half-way around the world to conduct business but not track every source of income that enables that business to occur, the many different players in global network that allows us to get there, stay there, communicate with collaborators and loved ones while we are there.
* * *
I conduct a fair amount of community facing activities—from spending time in universities to doing talks around the world, and I am grateful for the opportunity to share and learn from the intellect in the room. But on occasion the assumptions behind the questions miss the mark to the point where a step back is necessary. There are a number of misconceptions about consumers in highly income/resource constrained (or "poor") communities that seem to repeat themselves with a depressing regularity and is often directed from passionate minds with a particular, accusatory venom:
Consumers on low levels of income are incapable of making rational or "right" choices for themselves
These same consumers are duty bound only to make rational choices ("rational" as in on things that have an immediate benefit to their current socio-economic situation, as defined by the person making the argument)
Any time a consumer makes an "irrational" choice the "fault" lies with the company providing the products
Let's go through each in turn:Consumers on low levels of income are incapable of making rational or the "right" choices for themselves
I would argue that these are, through necessity—some of the world's most critical consumers. Not having to think about every single thing you spend your money on, the trade-offs, the social debts you might be calling in, is a luxury that relatively few can afford. Consumers on very low levels of income are consistently pushed to make more rational choices than their wealthier counterparts because the issue of how to spend their limited income is consistently more present in their day-to-day decision-making processes. Like their wealthier counterparts they also have rich strategies for coping with limited and variable formal and informal forms of income and credit. (Portfolios of the Poor is a good read to get started on this topic, and a minor contribution to this can be found in this research in Afghanistan. Predictably Irrational, Freakonomics and The Undercover Economist all do an entertaining job of exploring the notion of the "rationality" and "rational consumer behavior".)
Consumer literacy (knowing what you are buying and its value, and understanding the trade-offs in the choices you make) and the broader textual literacy/numeracy issue is a fascinating topic, and there are certainly consumers everywhere that don't make what most of us consider to be rational choices. Don't worry—if you talk to very low-income consumers, they often consider the purchase decisions of relatively wealthier people to also be irrational—it's all relative. The people making the poor-must-behave-rationally argument seem to mix up formal education levels and peoples' ability to read and write with intelligence and street smarts (most adult illiteracy is a result of a lack of opportunity to learn or apply what is learned, not a lack of intelligence). I'm not trying to gloss over very real issues of consumer literacy, and the Marketplace Literacy Project is a good place to start understanding the benefits of education and training in this area. Financial literacy presents a particularly interesting challenge—and both the IMTFI and CGAP, or even my own research in this area are good starting points if you want to explore more.
These consumers are duty bound only to make rational choices ("rational" referring to those things that have an immediate benefit to their current socio-economic situation, as defined by the person making the argument)
Is saving three months' salary and on occasionally going without food to be able to afford a basic Nokia-branded mobile phone irrational? What if it's used to enable a business? Or play games? Or chat with loved ones? Or browse porn? Is spending one month's salary on an unknown-branded device any more rational? Just how rational is your purchase of your iPhone? That pair of Nike sneakers? Those red high heels? Who is to define what is rational? What was the opportunity cost of your last large purchase? What is the opportunity cost of buying that branded phone versus one where the manufacturer is unknown? And who is to decide what the viable opportunity costs are? Or to loop it around to the design community—are low income consumers duty bound to ignore aesthetics and more superficial elements over more functional choices? And to loop once more—are designers duty bound to make products for these markets aesthetically displeasing? Because that's where this argument is heading.
Any time a consumer makes an "irrational" choice the "fault" lies with the company providing the products
In a country where lighter skin is commonly associated with not having to work in the field, and where people aspire to work in white-collar jobs is it rational to want to lighten your skin? And if for some consumers the answer is yes, what are the local options for doing so? How safe, reliable and effective are they? If a multinational comes in and offers a product that lightens your skin, and is (by local metrics) consistently safe, reliable and effective are they a pariah or a savior? Is it the designers duty to work on such a product? Or their duty not to? If a multinational company aggressively markets their products by appealing to people's aspiration to have lighter skin, does it inherently make them racist? What if a local company does the same thing? what if a local company does the same thing, but makes even more outlandish claims?
Race is understandably a polarizing issue, and some companies shoot themselves in the face with poorly thought out marketing campaigns that justifiably triggers a strong backlash. But I suspect some of you will have realized over the course of this paragraph that the issue is more complex than you first thought. How can you listen and talk to people on the ground, whose agenda you can understand before reaching a conclusion? What do you need to do to move beyond headlines and trending topics?
Or consider an example that leans the other way. The micro-finance industry is currently grappling with the consequences of an oversupply of easy-credit into markets where consumer financial literacy is relatively low, and where personal effects of that oversupply is medium to long term (lifetime) debt. What are the acceptable costs of trying to service financially constrained consumers with something that, if done right, can have a significant positive impact? For which real world products and services does a precautionary principle kick in? And before you start to tut, pause a moment to reflect on your own situation and that of your community—how much of what you spend is on credit? What is your level of debt? When will that be repaid?
Companies that target consumers in countries with very low levels of income are inherently evil
There are companies out there that, given the opportunity, will exploit the communities in which they work and put financial profit seemingly before everything else—just as there are countries in which government/agency oversight is minimal and where lobbyists hold sway. But to assume that every company is that way is putting passion before logic. My assumption is that driven by necessity and constraints, low-income audiences are the most critical consumers on the planet. To create a commercially sustainable product or service that can meet their needs at a price point they are willing to pay is quite simply a remarkable achievement, especially considering how nuanced local alternatives can be. Your and my appreciation of whether those products or services are rational choices for those consumers are largely irrelevant, as irrelevant as your purchasing decisions are to them.
To paraphrase something I wrote a few years ago that I think still stands: "Pushing technologies on society without thinking through their consequences is at the very least naive, and at worst dangerous, though typically it, and the people that do it are just boring. This site is a pause for reflection in our planet's seemingly headlong rush to churn out more, faster, smaller and cheaper." For me, my employer, our clients, understanding what drives people, users, constituents and consumers is the first step in creating meaningful products and services and eventually creating a sustainable business. That a single financially constrained consumer gives up some of his or her very limited income to purchase that product is quite possibly the highest accolade.
The poor can least afford to purchase poorly designed products and services, and they can least afford to investment in those that fail to deliver. The real design imperialism comes from those people who assume that the world's poor are not worthy of the attention.
This essay started with a skeptical question from an audience at the Pop!Tech conference in the fall of 2011, so it seems only fair to end it with something from the same event. It's all good and well to want to think in terms of heroes and villains if that's your thing, or to buy into the media-amplified "debate" (yes, this includes many of the media organizations that have covered my research) and critique always has a role to play even if at times it appears endless, and occasionally self-serving (and me having just penned a 6,000 word, four-part essay on the topic). Far, far more interesting are people who peel themselves away from their screens, get off their butts, and put something of themselves on the line in order to change the world out there.