Turning Maslow’s Hierarchy on Its Head

Why international development should appeal to higher-order desires

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.

But what if we’re starting at the wrong place? What if our persistent focus on necessity is actually preventing us from designing for the bigger picture?

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.

The Diva Centres in Lusaka, Zambia, are reframing the conversation about contraception from what girls need to what they desire.

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.

In many cases, “unnecessary” values like identity and aspiration are left out of products that cater to bare needs. Facebook, on the other hand, offers them in spades. And it’s a prime example of looking holistically at people’s needs and behaviors — of starting at the top of Maslow’s pyramid, not the bottom.

In an early prototype of the Diva Centre, the team designed five Diva characters, each meant to appeal to girls' goals, not their most basic physical needs.

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.

With our partners Marie Stopes International and the Hewlett Foundation, we looked at this problem from a new perspective. We found that teens simply assumed that contraception wasn’t meant for them.

So we changed our approach. We stopped asking why teens weren’t using health services they needed, and instead started asking why they didn’t want them.

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.

At the Diva Centres, bright colors, cheerful characters, and a free manicure replaced scary side effects as the way to start the conversation about contraceptive services.

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.

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