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On Marketing in International Development

Dirty business isn’t it? No one likes to think of development as a business. But many have…and they’re right.

But this business, this industry, cannot market itself like those of ordinary products or services. The competition is between NGOs, contractors, and even between funders. NGOs and contractors compete amongst themselves and each other for public donations, money from funders and licence-to-operate at a local level, while funders compete for influence and political capital.

In an ideal world, there would be agreed metrics on which organisations could compete; the number of poor people’s lives improved in a sustainable way per dollar spent, for example – a return on investment for their investors. But measurement is difficult and open to manipulation. Procurement practices don’t allow for reputational transfer and, frankly, the aid system is far too disconnected for this to ever be realistic.

In other industries marketing consists of flashy ad campaigns which argue for the real or percieved value of one’s product or service when compared to that of others. That wouldn’t really wash in the aid industry – “95% of our poor people said they preferred our microfinance product to yours”. This is even more evident when you talk about systemic approaches which are attempting to leverage the interests of others to affect change.

The target of your marketing is the customer. NGOs have multiple customers which require different marketing strategies. “Just £2 a month could by Johnny a fishing net” for the public, while for the bi-lateral and multilateral donors from where the majority of NGO money comes it’s more “We can demonstrate effective programme management and on time service delivery as stipulated in our contract”.

What I want to consider here, though, is the softer side of marketing. The bit that most people don’t consider to be marketing. ‘Knowledge management and learning’ might well be the biggest misnomer in development.

The political economy of development determines that every funder, every NGO, and every contractor has a clear incentive to position themselves as a market leader, even if that market has to be concocted. I was told by a contractor recently “we need to generate some intellectual property”. What, just like that? Don’t you need an idea first before you decide that you want to protect it? You can’t just decide to have an idea!

If the majority of ‘innovations’ put out under the knowledge management and learning agenda were put under any external scrutiny then they would likely be rejected as derivative and not being cogniscant of the existing literature.

How many case studies of failed interventions have you seen with a mea culpa, splashed liberally with the branding of the organisation responsible? How many organisations have you seen using their mutliple and vocal communications channels to espouse the virtues of a new research, tools, methods, approaches of their competitors. Surely these would be a frequent occurrences if the intention were true learning and the management of knowledge?

A case then for some ‘independent arbiters’ of knowledge? However, where this approach has been adopted, these arbiters too have paymasters and targets. They are charged with producing something new where there might not be anything new to produce. Discussants on donor funded fora are far less likely to post an interesting thing they came across from another NGO than to use the platform as a way to tout their wares. There is also a political economy around who conducts donor funded research and whose apple cart they are willing to upset in doing so…as I said, dirty business.

Some of this is ignorance, poor research skills, and the sheer volume of content being produced. Some of it is deliberate. But the best you can say of it is that it’s a lazy and inefficient use of resources. Quite simply, every dollar spent postioning and repackaging and diluting existing good work as an innovation to advance the cause of individual organisations is a dollar that has not been spent doing good development – directly or indirectly.

Hark, is that the cynic from the crowd crying hypocrisy? But notice this of Springfield research - an emphasis on rigour and the citations of the work of others and the critical and often counter-commercial take we adopt to everything we do. What you won’t notice are the cases we refuse to write because they don’t meet quality standards, the partially written papers that don’t come out because we feel someone has done it better, or the self-funded and uncredited research work we do across a range of media. Anyway, this isn’t about us…

I’m not going to propose a way forward as such – attempting to alter political economy is a little tricky without major policy changes. But I can give a nudge to the consumers of ‘knowledge’; just give a thought to the incentives of its producers and apply your own standards in assessing its quality. And to the producers of ‘knowledge’, broaden your horizons. You’ve got two ears and one mouth as my primary school teacher used to say, and you’ve also got two eyes, so listen and read to see what’s out there that might help you.

So, please, innovate away. Development could and should be better and there are advances in knowledge which will help us do that. But please, engage with what out there first to make more meaningful contributions.


* this post was first published on the Springfield Centre website


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