KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

20 (deceptively) low cost ideas for development

with 13 comments

Alertnet recently issued a piece “AlertNet’s top 20 big ideas that don’t cost the earth” which highlights a number of proven, low-cost, mostly low tech or easily replicable tech development solutions. This includes traditional items such as  bednets, breastfeeding and handwashing to some more recent development innovations such as mobile health or solar power.

On reading this I had three reactions, in this order:

1. Wow isn’t this a great list. Imagine what the potential could be if these simple approaches could be widely adopted.

2. Wait, if these are so good how come they are not used more widely already. Some are new, but some of these have been known about for a long time already – why are they not being used more?

3. Are they really as effective, simple and low cost as they are being presented in this list?

For some of the examples given, dissemination might well be a problem – as of yet they are not widely known by developing country governments and aid agencies, or perhaps even if they are known, there is still need for greater technical documentation on how exactly they work. And here both communication, and knowledge management have a role to play in order to raise general awareness and interest in the approaches and then share the technical details needed to make them work.

In quite a number of the examples given, the ideas are not new, and the technical side is well known (e.g. manufacturing specs for TB detecting paper), but nevertheless they are still not as simple as they first appear.

Let’s take the well documented and well discussed example of bednets. On the one hand there is general agreement that  sleeping under an insecticide treated bed net is an effective means to help combat malaria. Check. On the other hand getting this to happen is a little bit more complicated than it appears on the surface. Let’as take a (very simplistic) look at how bednets get there and get used to illustrate this.

Step 1: Manufacture – where should we do this? Do we buy in bulk from overseas to ensure quality, regular supply and good price (assuming we can persuade the government not to charge import taxes)? Or do we foster local manufacturing to better stimulate local markets, employment and possibly demand?

Step 2: Delivery/distribution – how do we get the bednets to the people? First challenge might be logistics, how to get the bednets transported to the most remote areas. especially in conditions of insecurity? Second – how about distributing them – where/how should this be done? Should they be distributed in healthcentres, or should they be distributed door to door, or sold in the market, given out at schools?

Step 3: Use – how do you persuade people to use bednets, especially if they are not familiar with them, don’t believe they work, don’t like sleeping under them, or perhaps believe it makes more sense to sell them, or use them for something else. Bednets also have a limited lifespan and need to be replaced every 4 to 5 years – less well documented is how best to get people to consistently replace them when they are no longer effective.

Bonus step – Money. Although cheap, bednets still cost around $5 each (and I’m not sure if that includes all the costs of distribution and marketing) which makes them unaffordable to the poorest (or at least perhaps not on their top priorities for a highly constrained household budget). So who should pay for them? should the money come from governments, from donors, NGOs, should the bednets be distributed free of charge or should some part of the cost be paid by the user? How does the cost effectiveness of this compare with other interventions for malaria, or for that matter in health or development more generally.

And just to say of course that in fact these four steps are not in reality distinct but they all influence each other, sometimes in unknown ways.

So while a good idea such as bednets may in of itself be relatively cheap, and proven to be effective, making it happen in practice is rarely simple or easy. Many of the challenges in doing this are not in the technology itself, but lie in developing systems (wouldn’t it be much easier to distribute bednets if you have a well functioned, adequately financed  health system) and in changing human behaviour.

While “awareness raising” about the potential of these approaches is valuable – I’m not sure that giving the impression that they are easy technological fixes is quite so helpful. And from the perspective of a knowledge manager – the innovations and knowledge that seem most valuable to share are not the technologies themselves, but rather what did it take in terms of policy, politics, systems, procedures, behaviour change and participation that enabled these technologies to be adopted and used successfully, and whether or how can these be adapted to work in different contexts.


Written by Ian Thorpe

January 10, 2011 at 9:46 am

13 Responses

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  1. Yes! Well put, Ian.

    It’s a different field entirely, but your post reminds me of this:

    Dave Algoso

    January 10, 2011 at 10:36 am

  2. The question of user-payments has been addressed by various and J-PAL studies – charging even small user-fees dramatically cuts usage:


    January 10, 2011 at 10:44 am

    • Yes, the consensus seems to be going in this direction now, but this was hotly debated until quite recently, and there are still some arguing that a combination of free (for some) and subsidized socially marketed nets (for others) might also be a viable option. Here’s one study on this:
      You can probably find recent articles from different researchers and different country cases arguing both sides of this, and efficacy is probably not the only issue entering the debate. My point here is that the simple answer isn’t really all that simple.

      Ian Thorpe

      January 10, 2011 at 11:03 am

    • Lee, I remember that J-PAL post because I actually blogged about it — back before anyone except my mother read my blog. My basic complaint is that the studies looked at demand as a function of price, and ignored the effect that price has on supply (which may not work as effectively at a price of 0).

      My full The full post is here:

      Dave Algoso

      January 10, 2011 at 1:38 pm

      • Dave that’s a good point – but I think the issue is the sheer gradient of the demand curve. Demand drops off so quickly at even very low positive prices that non-subsidized supply simply isn’t going to achieve any kind of scale. And we know this empirically because these markets don’t exist.

        The dilbert blog point is also important but not entirely relevant. Delivering bednets and vaccines will always stand a better chance of cost-effective positive impact than say, providing free electronic games consoles.


        January 10, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    • I agree, we know empirically that non-subsidized supply does not exist. But we don’t know much about how supply reacts to partially subsidized prices. Experiments that only tell us the demand side only give us half the story. What’s our bar for external validity on health intervention pricing? 6 studies of 5 *different* interventions in 3 different countries hardly seems like enough to conclude that demand always drops off too quickly for supply to matter. I think we need a better understanding of both sides before closing the book on the question. What worries me is that J-PAL (at least looking at this one post – I admit that I’m not familiar with all of their work) doesn’t seem to even acknowledge the supply question.

      (And yeah, the Scott Adams bit was just about ideas v execution in general. Not meant as a comment on the bednets supply issue.)

      Dave Algoso

      January 10, 2011 at 2:18 pm

      • Love it that you guys are illustrating my point so well by arguing about the evidence and what it means in the comments 😉

        I wasn’t trying to make a point specifically about bednets. I think one could have made a similar analysis of the uncertainty and complexity surrounding any of the 20 examples given in the Alertnet piece.

        Ian Thorpe

        January 10, 2011 at 2:19 pm

  3. […] more here: 20 (deceptively) low cost ideas for development AKPC_IDS += "9229,";Popularity: 50% […]

  4. There is NO deception about breastfeeding. It is natural, no extra supplies, health benefits to both mother and baby, reduces infant mortality. We need to get rid of the baby formulas.
    The only deception is that in some cases it is already happening…oh wait didn’t Nestlé’s tell some women that their formula was better and then literally and figuratively left them dry.


    January 11, 2011 at 12:05 am

    • @MamaGallo3 The benefits of breastfeeding are indeed compelling. But even while it is “free”, the challenge from an aid agency or government point of view is persuading people to do it and ensuring a supportive environment from hospitals, health centres, workplaces, families and communities etc. This part is not so simple. While progress has been made there is still some way to go.

      Ian Thorpe

      January 11, 2011 at 6:04 am

  5. […] about his work in knowledge management, aid and development. Some notable recent posts include 20 (Deceptively) Low-Cost Ideas for Development, Outside-In Development and […]

  6. […] about his work in knowledge management, aid and development. Some notable recent posts include 20 (Deceptively) Low-Cost Ideas for Development, Outside-In Development and […]

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