Notes on Strategy

Assessing the Need for Development Actions

There is a tendency to make generalizations such as, `People are poor, and hence there is a need for intervention’ or `people don’t have a source of safe drinking water, and hence the need for action’ or `people don’t use safe child-delivery practices and something has to be done about it’; and so on. And though these can be important starting points for development actions, there is a need to assess the requirement of such actions with respect to specific contexts.

Practice Insights > Notes on Strategy

Assessing the Need for Development Actions

By: V Santhakumar 


1. Introduction

There is a tendency to make generalizations such as, `People are poor, and hence there is a need for intervention’ or `people don’t have a source of safe drinking water, and hence the need for action’ or `people don’t use safe child-delivery practices and something has to be done about it’; and so on. And though these can be important starting points for development actions, there is a need to assess the requirement of such actions with respect to specific contexts.

There can be two ways of identifying the need for intervention – the first is based on what is `demanded’ by the people; the second is when the ‘interventionist’ feels that there is a need for intervention even if people concerned are not demanding it. We consider each of these in detail in the following sections.

2. Assessing Demand

There are different ways of articulating the demand for development actions. First is through a political process, whereby people express their need through political representatives and they, in turn, communicate it to the governmental or development machinery. This process is, by and large, adequate where democracy is functioning well; most citizens have access to political representatives, and; politicians, in general, are accountable to the electorate.

The citizens have two options in such contexts to correct the political functionaries if the latter do not respond to the demands of the former. These options are, Voice and Exit. People may ‘voice’ their demands and their frustrations through memorandums, protests, sit-ins and so on. Voting out a political representative and electing a new one is the exercise of the `exit’ option. However, even in a well-performing polity and well-functioning democracy, it is difficult to assess the needs for development actions merely through such political processes. Professional assessment of each context may be needed to design specific actions benefitting specific groups of people. For example, the electorate may be demanding a better road through their elected representatives but the exact nature of the road to be built based on the real `demand’ of the people may require a professional assessment.

Broadly, there are two ways of assessing what people want. (Here we assume that the external development actor/development practitioner has a real interest to know what people want. There are cases where incentives, ideology, and ignorance may work against this interest).

2.1 When people say what they want
The first route of assessing what people want is based on what they say they want. This may be by way of informal discussions or interviews, or through the conduct of quantitative surveys, qualitative appraisals or assessments and different forms of participatory processes1 that avoid a merely top-down approach (as attempted conventionally by the government officials) in understanding the need for a development service.

There is a need to be cautious in interpreting what people want as expressed through political or other participatory processes. Do people have the incentive to `demand’ what they really need? There may be instances where they do not demand actions desirable for them in the long run (better schooling for their girl children) if they are unaware of the need for it.

However, the more problematic issue is the social cost or the opportunity cost of the ‘demand’ (as against what else could have been achieved with same resources) when the people who demand it do not have to bear the cost of it. When people demand something, do they consider the real social `cost’ of providing it? This is crucial due to the scarcity of resources –whether these are public money spent by the government or charitable funding provided by an external non-governmental organization. Given that people in any context have multiple needs from limited resources, it is ideal to spend these on the basis of a prioritization. Therefore, the important issue is whether participatory methods can lead to such a prioritization. Let us assume that people have expressed a wish to have a small irrigation project. This wish should not be taken at its face value because the general expectation from public service in India is that the beneficiaries themselves are not going to bear full or part of the cost; that it will be borne by an external agency – government, NGOs or charity organizations – and so there is a tendency to demand something that is not the most important requirement.

What is the problem in providing such a service, even if it is not the top priority for the people? Let us take a simple example here. There is a program to distribute free saplings/plants in schools. A student may take more than one plant willingly and when asked if they have a need for it, they may respond in the affirmative. However, the plants may not be a priority for the student. For plants to grow, additional care is needed. But since the plants are not important to the student, they may neglect it and the plants may ultimately die. The money spent on growing and distributing these saplings has been wasted. This is a social waste.

Similarly, for an irrigation scheme to be effective, people have to take other appropriate actions, like proper use of seeds, fertilizers, and water. In the absence of the corresponding work that the people need to do, the irrigation scheme will fail. This is more likely to happen when the irrigation scheme is not an important felt need. What people demand, when they know that they do not have to spend money on, is not always a felt need.

2.2 Inferring demand from revealed behaviour
The other route to understanding what people want is to analyse their current behaviour. If the people of a locality are using a source of water, which is clearly unhygienic and causing health problems, there is a clear need for a source of safe drinking water. A similar inference for development initiatives may have to be taken in other situations, for example, if women or girls in a village have to walk miles to fetch water (probably, which too is not potable) or women have to use the services of traditional midwives during childbirth which may not be safe. There is a clear need for intervention which we have gauged from their revealed behaviour.

In this case, before planning an irrigation system, a good strategy would be to study the cultivation behaviour of the farmers. If they are getting water from a deep or a distant source, it may be a clear indication that they will use the proposed irrigation scheme effectively. If some of them have a private source of irrigation (like a well) whereas the others cannot afford it, this could be a case for making a source of irrigation accessible to all.

The other strategy used in Economics that does not work well in all contexts is to ask the potential beneficiaries through a properly designed and administered survey, how much they would be willing to pay for having such an irrigation system. Even if they are not required to pay, this would instil a cost consciousness in them. This is so because there is an opportunity cost for providing any public service and a clearer picture of the felt demand of the people emerges when they demand something with the knowledge that by doing so, they are losing something else. However, designing a suitable willingness-to-pay survey, and analysing the data collected, requires expertise.

3. When outsiders supply product or service not demanded

Sometimes an external agency or person can provide a socially useful item or service even when people have not sought it. This happens when the benefit of a product or service is unknown to the people. If the people in a village are not sending their girls to high schools and instead preferring to get them married, it is possible to have an intervention there.

The efforts made by the interventionist may demonstrate to the people that something `better’ is possible, for example, many poor people who are managing without safe drinking water, clean toilets, electricity, vaccination, contraception and similar goods or services, switch over after a demonstration of the benefits. However, the sustained use of such goods or services will depend largely on the willingness of the potential beneficiaries. Otherwise, the intervention needs to be carried out by the government, which has some coercive power over the people to ‘consume’ (or not to consume) certain services. It may also require interventions for behavioural change, for example, advertisements which attempt to instil shame among those who go for open defecation.

If such an intervention is made by a social entrepreneur or by an altruist, they may discontinue the effort on getting the signal that the beneficiaries are unlikely to accept such a service. However, because many such efforts are funded or carried out by governmental or non-governmental organizations (including international funding organizations), who themselves may not have the incentive to stop these interventions even when there are adequate signals that people themselves are capable to procure such service on their own or that these efforts of external agencies are not effective, it can lead to the wastage of resources.

Even though monetary profit is not the prime concern of social entrepreneurs, they need to take all the precautions that are taken by a profit-seeking entrepreneur while providing a service. If profits are not an incentive, for example, because a funding agency is underwriting their losses, they must consider the trade-offs, including their personal sacrifices in achieving the social goal.

4. The Need to Consider Future Scenarios

In certain cases, the future scenario of the need or demand also has to be carefully considered. For example, if the intervention is to address the drinking water problem for a set of people, the demand/need for water may change over a period of time. It may be better to design a project which can cater to the increasing need for the next 10-20 years, rather than creating new projects when the demand increases. Hence, the forecasting of future demand is needed.

Though this is more important for large-scale projects, usually designed by the governmental or public-sector agencies, the need to consider future demand and the factors that may influence it is important in small-scale interventions too. Usually, for services like water supply, the potential growth in population is an important consideration. In the case of providing schools or healthcare services, the demographic features of the beneficiaries, the number of children and the number of older people requiring medical facilities, respectively, should be the primary consideration.

In addition to the population, the other factor that could influence the demand is the change in income. For certain goods and services, there will be an increase in consumption as the incomes increase. This could be in the case of domestic water supply – with the increase in incomes, people may use more water-consuming devices like flush toilets and showers. This need not be the case for all other goods. For example, people may not start consuming more quantity of food grains (say, rice or wheat) when their income increases, even though an increase in consumption may be seen in fruits, vegetables or meat products.

Another reason for considering future demands is because people may not have adequate information and awareness about the use of a service. The demand for it may increase as part of this awareness creation or education. Creating such awareness could be the purpose of an intervention. By considering all these factors, one can reasonably well assess the future demand for the service to be provided.

5. Assessing the Causes of a `Problem’

In certain cases, what is identified either from people’s behaviour or based on what they report need not be within the plan or framework of an intervention, like, for example, girls not attending school; high incidence of fever in a village, high indebtedness among farmers. All these are problems requiring intervention but these require an additional assessment of the potential causes of the problem. Many times, the apparent causes of the problem need not be the real ones. This is true in both scenarios – when people demand a public intervention, and also when socially-concerned citizens, including development practitioners, try to solve a problem.

Identifying the causes of certain problems may require professional knowledge and development practitioners may need to take the help of experts. For example, when a village reports a number of infant deaths, and midwives there are not trained, a non-medical development practitioner should not automatically attribute the deaths to the lack of trained midwives. There could be issues related to poverty, undernourishment, lack of hygiene, and other such factors leading to the deaths of infants. Hence, development practitioners must consider all potential factors that may lead to a problem and seek expert knowledge and advice when required.

The instances where development practitioners, including government officials or generalists, have gone ahead with their pet ideas without consulting experts are numerous – sericulture was promoted in areas where its productivity was low; tube wells are dug without first assessing the groundwater table; biogas plants were set up without checking if enough waste was available. Effective use of technical and scientific knowledge is needed and cross-checking of the expert opinion is also desirable.

There are also several underlying economic, social and cultural factors that affect outcomes and not considering these leads to a wrong diagnosis. A classic example is the practice of dowry. Many people thought that this practice can be avoided by legal prohibition. However, since there are other socio-economic and cultural factors that feed this social evil, it could not be mitigated even through legal prohibition. The practice of not sending girls to secondary school (not due to the absence of a school) is another example where opening a school may not be the solution.

Many development practitioners approach problems with pre-conceived ideas and fail to look into the contextual, social and geographic conditions which limit the effectiveness of their interventions. Effectiveness should be an important concern for all development interventions. Discussed below is how ‘correctness’ of a problem is established.

Research in Social Contexts: A Sample

How is research in social contexts (and not in laboratories) to find out the causes of a problem conducted? For example, some farmers commit suicide in a district. How will we know the reason for these suicides? Is it enough to talk to the family members who may report problems like poverty, poor health or debt? Is it reliable information on which to conclude the reasons for the suicides?

Attribution Error

If there are a number of farmers who can be broadly categorized together based on certain similar features like locality, family size, land-holding size, cropping pattern, religion, caste, and education background and if some of them have committed suicide and others not, then one may be in a position to compare these two groups and look for the differentiating factors which may have prompted some to take the extreme step. Such a possibility rarely exists in social contexts since these features vary from person to person (even among farmers in the same locality).

If among a large number of farmers in a locality, a not-so-small number have committed suicide, one can collect information on a number of issues from several farm families (those whose heads are alive and those whose heads have committed suicides) through a survey. These could be, religion; caste; family size; land-holding size; debt; cropping pattern; other incomes; educational background; diseases within family; other family issues; participation in community life; and so on. These are called independent variables. Then, one may be able to relate this diverse set of data and see some relationships. The relationships are likely to be of the following nature: whether the household head has committed suicide (0) or not (1) can be taken as the dependent variable. Through the data analysis, we try to identify whether a dependent variable is related to any of the independent variables by keeping the value of all other independent variables constant. For example, let us consider land-holding size. Through the analysis, one may get a significant negative relationship between land-holding size and the dependent variable. This shows that the likelihood of committing suicide increases as the land-holding size decreases. If so, then, we may safely assume that suicides are more prevalent among those with smaller sizes of land-holding. Similarly, one can identify all such variables which have a significant positive or negative relationship with the dependent variable. This will provide information about the social, household or personal features which may have some connection with the propensity to commit suicide among the farmers in the region.

This description should not give the impression that only exhaustive quantitative data can give insights into the causes of problems. Insightful qualitative information can also provide valuable details. Assume that an external researcher develops a rich narrative of the life experiences of a person who has committed suicide for a period of one year before the tragic event. This account may be useful. However, it is possible that some other farmers too may have gone through similar experiences but have not committed suicide. Hence having `a control group’ of farmers who have not committed suicide may be useful even if qualitative methods are used. We are not presuming that it is possible to pinpoint accurately the reasons for an event like suicide through social research. There can be numerous other reasons, like the psychological condition of the person at that point of time; his perspective of the support or non-support of his relatives or neighbours; or, his ideas and norms regarding the behaviour of a person facing a situation such as his. However, the purpose of social research is to identify certain visible or tangible factors that may have a bearing on an event or outcome and to assess if and what intervention would be effective.

However, not all development actions have to be based on such rigorous research. If the development practitioners have a close association with the community, they may obtain valuable clues regarding the possible causes of a problem.

It is important to have self-reflection and openness to minimize the influence of one’s own prejudices, ideas, beliefs and ideologies on the reading of a social situation. Since such influence cannot be avoided completely, it is fine to go ahead with designing a development action on the basis of just one reason that is identified through the close and reflective reading of the situation. However, the reasons and actions and their linkage should be articulated openly and clearly so that others can judge their appropriateness too. A logical framework of any development action would be as outlined below.

Let us consider this example. Twenty per cent of girls between the ages of 6-16 years do not go to school in a village. There can be several reasons reported (through a detailed study as mentioned earlier or through close observations of both the set of people who are sending girls to schools and others who are not) – mothers are not aware of the importance of schooling for their daughters; distance to school; absence of a lady teacher; and so on. A practitioner may decide to intervene in creating awareness among the mothers. In this case, there is a need for a clear articulation of the logic for intervention – the girls are not going to school for which the lack of mothers’ awareness is one probable reason, and hence we intervene in this `particular’ manner to enhance their awareness so as to have the desired impact, which is seeing more girls in school compared to the pre-intervention situation. The logic can be wrong, or only partially correct but it can be seen by others and they can question or verify it.

Problem statement: Twenty per cent girls between the ages of 6-16 years do not go to school in a village.

The logic for intervention:

6. Conclusion

There can be time-consuming or costly ways of establishing the sources or causes of an identified problem. We do not advocate spending too much effort or cost before designing every development action. There are situations where such costly understanding of the problem is appropriate and must be pursued. However, for many small-scale development actions, there are other ways of understanding the causes. A close or intimate association of the development practitioner with the people and place of the intervention and an open approach so that the practitioner is aware of the traps of his/her own ignorance, ideology, and incentives and is ready to pick up signals counter to these, may be adequate to identify the potential sources of a problem.

V. SanthakumarProfessor, Azim Premji University.


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