DIY follow-up, part 1 of 5: How complicated can things really be?

Last week, I posted on this blog with my brief response to Kristof’s DIY aid article. On Tuesday, I posted a longer version on Foreign Policy’s blog. Since then, it’s been commented on, summarized, and re-tweeted by various people — including a tweet from Kristof.

My argument clearly resonated with some people. I appreciate the support they have expressed. But I won’t cover that here. Just know that it means a lot to a writer to hear: “Yes! Exactly!”

There were also some nuanced fence-sitters and a few strongly worded condemnations. Both of these are appreciated as well. In fact, there was very little written that I don’t agree with on some level. I want to deal with a couple key issues raised by the responses. To keep it from being too unwieldy, I’m breaking it into five parts (because of course, five parts will be easier to manage). Today, I present…

Part 1. Seriously, are things really that complicated?

Someone identified as “CHANGED”, commenting on the FP site, took issue with my claim that Kristof’s narratives make development seem simple. A few twitter comments hit the same theme, especially with regard to Scharpf’s work. CHANGED asked: “But if we look at Kristof’s actual article, does it seem simple?” CHANGED then quotes at length, and I agree that it’s worth doing so. From Kristof’s article:

Will banana-fiber sanitary pads succeed? No one knows. It is entirely possible that Scharpf will find that even if manufacturing goes smoothly — a huge “if” — there is simply not much of a market for sanitary pads in poor countries. Families may consider a 60- or 70-cent pack just as unaffordable as a $1.10 pack. Or suppose for a moment that everything goes perfectly, and pad franchises spread and families buy packets of pads for girls who are now missing school because of difficulties managing menstruation. Will those girls now stay in school? We can’t be sure of that either.

One study in Nepal found that while girls appreciated help with hygiene, they weren’t significantly more likely to attend school as a result. Menstrual cramps were more of an impediment than a lack of pads. And so aspirinlike medicines may need to be part of the solution as well. Research in Malawi by the Population Council suggests that bicycles would keep more kids in school than sanitary pads would. On the other hand, a study in Ghana suggests that supplying pads to rural girls there might reduce girls’ absenteeism significantly.

In short, it’s complicated. Scharpf is engaged in a noble experiment — but entrepreneurs fail sometimes. And anybody wrestling with poverty at home or abroad learns that good intentions and hard work aren’t enough. Helping people is hard.

So to answer the charge: Does this make development seem simple? I still say yes. The above looks pretty complicated, right? Lots of uncertainties inherent in their work? And yet I’m claiming it presents a simplistic view. That’s how complicated things really are.

Here are a few complications we could throw in there, off the top of my head. For starters, there’s no discussion of how this might impact gendered power relationships within households or perceptions of women’s bodies. Second, there are cultural difficulties inherent to marketing a product for such an “unmentionable” issue. Third, cultural differences threaten the validity of any conclusions extracted from distinct studies in Nepal, Malawi or Ghana. Fourth, school attendance doesn’t guarantee schooling quality or actual learning; this issue is tightly connected to many others in a community. The list goes on.

As I wrote before: even seemingly obvious solutions are more complicated than they appear. The ones that appear complicated? Well, they’re even more complicated. I didn’t point out the complications of Scharpf/SHE’s work in the FP piece because I really wanted to avoid the perception that I was attacking the organizations/entrepreneurs that Kristof described. I don’t have a problem with any of them. I don’t really know much about any of them. But — I’d be willing to bet they’re thinking about these issues and many more that I can’t see.

In fact, I’d be willing to bet that Kristof understands these complications as well. Here’s my complaint: he presents the work as if it’s complicated and hard, while glossing over many of the real complications and difficulties. And that’s a problem if it creates unrealistic ideas for donors and new-comers to this work.

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Further reading: If you can’t get enough of this issue, I recommend checking out Embracing the Chaotic: Cynefin and Humanitarian Response.

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Check out the full series: