Poor Economics: The Family

Story time. The following is an excerpt I found particularly interesting today from Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo’s book, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty (Chapter 5). Yes, it’s a book about economics and data, but what it does very well is tell very human stories about how we behave, in different places around the world under different circumstances. I highly recommend it. In addition, Banerjee and Duflo have created a rich accompanying website full of additional data, photos, graphics and stories, studies, teachings and resources.

The Family

For the sake of their models, economists often ignore the inconvenient fact that the family is not the same as just one person. We treat the family as one “unit,” assuming that the family makes decisions as if it were just one individual. The paterfamilias, the head of the dynasty, decides on behalf of his spouse and his children what the family consumes, who gets educated and for how long, who gets what kind of bequest, and so on. He may be altruistic, but he is clearly omnipotent. But as anybody who has been part of a family knows, this isn’t quite how families work. This simplification is misleading, and there are important policy consequences from ignoring the complicated dynamics within the family. We already saw, for example, that giving women access to a formal property title is important for fertility choices [how many children to have], not because it changes her view on how many children she wants but because it makes her views count more.

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Research vs. Journalism

In this thought-provoking presentation at TEDxBoulder, Leslie Dodson, a researcher and journalist discusses the shared traits and objectives of researchers and journalists and how they inherently clash, and she challenges us to be more discerning in how we represent other people in any field.

I really enjoyed her point about researchers and journalists and I hadn’t thought about that before.  They both seek out information in the form of data, observations, interviews, and photographic evidence.  And they both collect, compile and present that information.  Both seek to tell a story through collected data, but the journalist needs that information to be personal and to sate the appetites of readers and viewers consuming a story, sometimes as entertainment, sometimes as an appeal for support.  The researchers want anonymity, to remove the personal and keep it objective.  As a researcher and a journalist, Dodson must compartmentalize each and make sure she doesn’t corrupt the research while keeping the journalistic storytelling interesting.

As designers, we also have both tasks.  Research must be objective in order to inform us accurately, so that we can then work to create solutions that succeed.  But we also need to tell a compelling story in pitching our designs to clients, funders, and even back to the people and communities we researched.  There is a challenge in not over-simplifying or reducing people or whole populations to caricatures or cartoons and taking away their power by taking away their complexity.  We do have to generalize based on samples of populations and collections of personal stories, and in selling, creating characters is often a useful tool.  But we must remember to be careful riding that line, so that we continue to help the people and communities we serve, not undermine them by representing them in over-simplified ways.

In addition, Dodson points to the popularity of oversimplification in NGO communication materials, especially graphic representation, catchy names and slogans.  As iconic as the shape of the continent has become, it might even feel like just one country with one people and a few major issues we can tackle quite simply if we all just pitch in a few bucks.  But Africa is a continent with over 50 countries, over 2,000 languages, and a whole spectrum of issues, from disaster to prosperity.  Oversimplification is misleading, and may work against the needs of the people on that continent.

The tough part is that we see examples where simplification helps donors feel like there is hope in a manageable situation succeed.  So the question remains for each designer to continue asking themselves through every stage of their work, whether applied to Africa, development around the world or to any community we’re trying to serve: “in this case, does simplification help or hurt the cause?”