Sasha Dichter has an interesting post about marketing and the poor – my initial reaction was annoyance, as I grow weary of the gratuitous academia-bashing that takes place in some corners of the aid world. The post is sullied by a few needless kicks to the academic straw-man that I found off-putting.  But, digging past that, I found myself largely in agreement with two big points.

First, Dichter raises and then dismisses an all-to-common frustrating assumption (that ties into one of my posts yesterday about the appropriation of qualitative research and findings by economists):

Ivory tower development practitioners don’t respect the poor, think of them as inanimate beneficiaries, and so practitioners don’t take real needs and aspirations into account.

As he implies, this attitude is neither useful nor really accurate – it doesn’t get us down the road toward explaining why things go wrong.  I made the same point about development agencies and workers in Delivering Development:

The vast majority of people working for development organizations are intelligent and good-hearted. They care deeply about the plight of the global poor and labor each day on projects and policies that might, finally, reverse the trends of inequality and unsustainability that mark life in much of the world . . . If these agencies and individuals are, by and large, trying their hardest to do good and have billions of dollars to work with, why are they failing?

So, moving forward with that sense of kinship, I found his next point spot on:

Ivory tower development practitioners are crappy marketers.

Enought with the “ivory tower” bashing, Sasha – you are obscuring a really good point here.  Way back last summer, when I got myself embroiled in a bruhaha over how members of the IPCC were supposed to communicate with the press that eventually made its way into the New York Times via Dot Earth, I found myself having email conversations with Rajendra Pachauri (who was actually very gracious and engaged).  In the course of our exchanges, I argued exactly the same point Sasha is making, but in the context of how we message information about climate change.

I am merely suggesting that there are people out there who spend their lives thinking about how to get messages out there, and control that message once it is out there. Just as we employ experts in our research and in these assessment reports precisely because they bring skills and training to the table that we lack, so too we must consider bringing in those with expertise in marketing and outreach.

I’m not sure how well I was heard on this, though they do have a head of outreach in the secretariat now . . .

In short, good point Sasha.  Now, could you go easy on the ivory tower bashing while making it?  Believe it or not, many of us know about this problem and would love to work with people with the expertise to fix it.