A human-centered approach to private sector development.

Anyone would acknowledge that development aid is not as effective as we would want it to be. The shift in mindset from development as charity to development as business is by and large based on this recognition. Focus is now on supporting the development of emerging markets. If you are able to build stable business in those markets, then you will be set to profit from a large and upcoming cycle of growth.

This is a promising outlook, which is bound to bring refinement to the way development is practiced. However, from the work that I have been doing with Niti Bhan over the past month I have come to an important realization on the task which lies ahead for attainment of a business focus in development.

The focus in development has always been to addressing the needs of people; beneficiaries. Business, rather, attempts to create or latch on to aspirations and desires; those of its customers. It takes a broader perspective by also considering peoples’ wants. So, if we aim to bring a business focus to development, then we need to emphasize empathy, and broaden our perspective to addressing the full spectrum of both needs and wants. This is the actual shift, which needs, and is yet to take place.

There are two major benefits, which will come from more lateral thinking in development project design. Firstly, when you immerse yourself in a lateral view of what your intended target groups (your customers) want, then you will become naturally attuned to humility in your attempt of placement and adoption of your ideas in your customers’ pattern of living. Why would they care for your idea? Can you ask them for some of their time to listen to what you have to offer? If you offer your idea, would they buy it, and use it in the way you intended? These questions lead to better problem definition, and will most likely result in better formulation of solutions.

Secondly, your target groups are transformed from beneficiaries, who are recipients, to customers, who are active agents. The big difference is that customers give out signals about your activities. This type of engagement creates feedback loops during the course of a project, which weren’t there before. If they care for your idea, then they will compliment if it’s good, or complain if it isn’t; performance feedback you’ll never catch in a beneficiary survey.

We have lost touch with a human-centered focus in development in some way. It’s high time we regain that, and start approaching our beneficiaries as customers!

Over the coming months Niti and I will be looking further into the processes by which private sector development is organized, and reflect on what place there could be for human centered design in this category of development projects.

4 thoughts on “A human-centered approach to private sector development.

  1. Leuk om te lezen Bart. Eindelijk komt marketing (de vraag wat mijn klant eigenlijk wenst) de ontwikkelingswereld in. Weg met onwillige oude denkers, en weg met de lelijke kant van kapitalisme. Hoe ver be je met de nieuwe uitdaging? Ben beniuewd. Abraco.


    Op 14 okt. 2012 om 01:30 heeft Value Chain Generation het volgende geschreven:

    > >


  2. Very nice points made. I have seen the shift from beneficiary to customer perspective being made in some projects that I evaluated the past months. It gave the projects some very positive and empowering side effects. However it was a pity that the ‘customer’ approach was not really part of the project design but something that happened unintentionally. Hope that this will the starting point for more projects in future… good luck with the work and keep up the writing. Very nice blog!


    1. Thank Gertjan! Indeed it would be a vey good idea to intentionally experiment with different modes of project design that utilize empathy to understand problems and design solutions for target groups. I gather this is an emerging topic with NGO’s, from for instance this blog at Oxfam: http://www.oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/?p=11608

      This is a topic I will be exploring more in this blog space the coming time.




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