Solutions to Needs (alone) are Like Brussels Sprouts

Studying the Science of Marketing, there are three principles about which we learn early: need, want and demand. They are simple words and you all know their definitions. But, the relationship between them is critical when selling products to customers and, I would argue now that I’ve crossed over to the world of International Development, when giving away, subsidizing or selling products to beneficiaries. Let’s review:

need /nēd/ (noun) a requirement, necessary duty, obligation

want /wänt/ (noun) a deficiency, lack

demand /diˈmand/ (noun) an insistent and peremptory request

When we develop products to sell to customers, we often do research into these areas so that we understand what people will buy. It’s not necessarily logical. While most of the time, it’s easy to sell something that people need – like food, housing, or clothing. But, wants can dictate behavior that augments or changes the power of a need. It drives some of the credit crisis we face in America, someone may need to save, but they want to appear cool and so they buy a mobile phone, expensive clothing, or car. And just because a person needs or wants an object, he may not demand and actually buy it. He may want a to go on a cruise, but not have the money, the access or the will to do so.

This is true in fields of international development as well, people–rich and poor–are more similar than different in this regard (at least). A man may need food for his family, but he wants banana beer. A woman may want her children to be free from malaria, but since a bed net is too expensive for her to purchase on a given day, and saving her cash is difficult due to other needs, she will not demand or purchase one. A family living in a slum will demand a television, even though their children are still in need of education and healthcare.

All this is to say, that when individuals and organizations working in international development say they understand the needs of poor people, that isn’t enough. That understanding must be augmented with understanding their wants and their demands. We must spend the time to examine the desires that drive beneficiaries actions. Otherwise, the solutions may be like putting a plate of Brussels Sprouts in front of a five-year old hoping for chocolate ice cream; they might be what she needs, but good luck getting her to eat them.

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