In Praise of Shopping

‘Tis the season that I would normally begin cursing our crass consumerist culture as the months of TV commercials featuring the fat bearded one build to their carol-filled crescendo. Mercifully, gift giving and the commercial side of Christmas has yet to catch on here in Zambia so it looks like I will get a bit of a ‘bah humbug’ pass this year.

That said, as you struggle through the stuffed streets, navigate the overflowing car parks, and fight your way into the shops trying to find something/anything your loved ones might need but don’t have, I would like you to do something that perhaps sounds a bit odd… I would like you to draw a breathe amongst the seething shopping masses and pause to admire the raw market forces that are being unleashed in front of you.

To be sure it is not the perfect time to admire the market, the amount of useless crap we buy each year is testament to that, but a busy department store is still an impressive demonstration of the feedback of the marketplace. Watch how shoppers flock to one counter that has got the mix of price and perception for a certain product just right and how, even in the busiest of seasons, the product counter which has missed its mark remains eerily quiet.

Shopping is a beautiful expression of how a consumer lets a producer know in the most meaningful way possible (by parting with their hard-earned) which products and services they appreciate and value and which they don’t. Those producers who get the answer right are amply rewarded and live to offer a new round of products next year and those who don’t quietly shrivel and die on the shelf. In this way, markets are imbued with that most powerful of tools – natural selection.

Now turn your mind to another activity that occurs a lot at this time of year – the review of projects from the past 12 months and the planning of activities for the year to come. That is exactly what I have been engaged in with my colleagues for the last week and it is where my sudden misty-eyed appreciation of the market is coming from.

In my old commercial life, we had sales data coming from every angle to judge not only our performance, but that of our peers and indeed the market as a whole. We could analytically and concretely judge whether we had had a good year and determine what we might need to make next year a better one.

In my new world we have none of that data to rely upon. Sure, we can measure what our activity against a certain project target was (how many children actually got their school fees paid, how many goats and chickens we distributed vs. the number we had promised etc.) but we have little or no indication as to whether any or all of it had its desired effect.

Can we be sure that the community groups we trained in psychosocial counseling really improved the lot of the children in their care? Can we be certain that the seed fertiliser we distributed really contributed to greater household financial security and hence family cohesion? Sadly we cannot.

Before I go any further, it is worth emphasizing that these observations are not specific to my organisation but to the challenges I see facing all aid and development organisations, both here in Zambia and beyond. The absence of a meaningful feedback loop from beneficiaries to those providing aid and development is an underlying flaw of the entire global aid model.

There are precious few ways for beneficiaries to report on whether the work we carry out in their name is having the effects we or more importantly they desire. To put it more bluntly, could we be sure that they would choose to carry on the same activities if we simply handed the cash directly to them?

In the absence of this feedback, our primary customer sometimes becomes our donor and instead of focussing on end outcomes, we focus on reporting activity in the hope that we can convince ourselves and them that it is worthwhile to fund another year of the same or similar activities.

At its most benign this means that things that we can reasonably assume to be useful (like paying school fees) carry on as before, a little bit more blind to their ultimate impact than they would like but generally in what we feel is the right direction.

At its worst however it can allow huge, expensive programmes that have no benefit or may even be actively damaging to the community to continue without any feedback to say stop. A major Abstain/Be Faithful programme that destroyed the healthy market operations of a local condom marketer spring to mind. To add insult to injury, it allows these mistakes to be replicated for multiple years or even across multiple countries.

Everybody knows this, from the big government donors, through the NGOs that implement their programmes and on down to the community and yet nobody seems to have come up with a good way of addressing the issue. Partly one suspects this is because attempts to measure behaviour change or beneficiary perceptions of interventions usually prove to expensive, difficult and ultimately inconclusive.

There is an awful lot of hot air talked about meaningful monitoring and evaluation but in my time here I haven’t seen a single metric or analysis that comes close to the brutal truth of cold hard sales numbers and the sometimes difficult decisions they require us to make.

A final feature of this time of year that will be familiar to many in the corporate world is the hurried spending of unallocated budgets, regardless of whether it makes sense or is appropriate, just to ensure that the end of year cash balances look as they should. Sadly this too is present in the aid world and yet without that feedback somehow less excusable to my eyes.

So the next time someone barges into you on a crowded street with eight bags of shopping or you are stuck in what seems like another interminable end of year sales review meeting, stop, smile and silently thank your lucky stars that markets provide feedback for decisions that, trust me, you would be much worse off without.

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