When tackling massive problems like poverty, it’s easy to take Abraham Maslow’s theory to heart. Basic physiological needs usually take priority over loftier ones like love, belonging, self-esteem, self-actualization, and everything else you’re more inclined to worry about once you’re fed, sheltered, and out of harm.
In the social sector, we tend to put necessity first and assume we’ll move up the hierarchy of needs once we build the right foundation. But in the seemingly intractable work of poverty alleviation, we never seem to advance to the next level. We mistakenly assume that there’s no way a person can or should possibly worry about self-esteem if they’re hungry.
Many travelers to rural areas of the developing world are stunned by the proliferation of Facebook. From big cities to small villages, people seem to know, use, and like Facebook. Even in spots with low smartphone ownership and limited access to basics like sanitation and clean water, Facebook’s appeal is immense.
And when you think about it, it’s obvious why. People in low-income settings enjoy Facebook for the same reasons we all do. By updating their statuses and sharing ideas, they reinforce their identities and connections to online communities. Though young people often lead the way, folks of all ages find ways to use Facebook, borrowing friends and family members’ phones or visiting Internet cafes.
Perhaps surprisingly, we’ve found Facebook to be pretty popular in places such as rural Tanzania. In these same communities, “important” things like mobile financial services are often slower to catch on. It’s not because the financial products and services are bad — many are aimed squarely at real needs of low-income people.
Naturally, there are many factors at play here, and you can’t overlook Facebook’s marketing and user experience. But there’s something else to keep in mind: products that are narrowly focused on necessity often don’t take into account how and why people want what they want. Necessity is reductive. Desire is complex.
We recently had the chance to put this theory to test. In sub-Saharan Africa, one in five girls becomes pregnant before she’s 19. Complications from birth are among the leading causes of death for these girls. And sadly, a young woman’s position in poverty is pretty much cemented if she has a child while she herself is a teenager.
The reproductive health field has made great strides to make contraception accessible across Africa. But condoms, IUDs, the pill, and other contraceptives are usually positioned around their physiological benefits — and too often, their drawbacks. And as a result, teens just aren’t showing up at the clinic.
Accordingly, we shifted from talking about the factual benefits of contraception to positioning birth control in the context of what teens cared about, their future selves. To Maslow, needs like love, belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization sit at the highest levels of his pyramid. That’s exactly where we went.
We built messaging and brand campaigns that connect contraception to girls’ futures. We began providing contraception in a way that felt designed specifically for them, their lives, and their aspirations. Girls can come to the clinic with their friends, do their nails, read fashion magazines, and get services on their terms.
Since launching the third Diva Centre in late 2015, Marie Stopes International is seeing more than twice as many girls in the 15–19 age group. And 85% are getting contraceptive services. By switching our focus to what young women desire instead of simply what they need, we’ve been able to help Marie Stopes deliver services more effectively.
The challenges of poverty are incredibly complex, and the sector does a great job of analyzing the full breadth of these problems. But when it comes to solutions, we too often get stuck on the bottom rungs of Maslow’s ladder. Imagine what could happen if we were to consider a person’s basic physical needs while simultaneously taking into account the qualities that make us all human.
This story originally appeared on The Development Set.