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The Big Push and the Quest for More Money: Putting the Cart Before the Horse

December 18, 2011

By Fiorenzo Conte

One of the concept in vogue in the development industry is the big push idea. According to this concept, a complex network of bottlenecks  holds people in a vicious cycle of poverty. These bottlenecks are intertwined so they need to be tackled all at the same time. The corollary of such construct is that what you need fundamentally to spring all htese bottleneck is  money: people are poor and therefore they do not have savings; if they do not have savings they will not invest in the economy, being that health, agriculture or any other sector. What you have  is in other words a financing gap. The next step of such theory is that more money in the form of aid can induce investment and therefore growth. Despite such idea has been discredited by the history of the last decades, vestiges are still present in the development arena. If one wants to see this idea in practice one can look at the example of vaccines: poor countries cannot afford some of the vaccines because of the costs therefore children die of treatable diseases. If one gives money to purchase them then children will be vaccinated.

There is a problem however with this line of thoughts: the money bottleneck is only part of the story; functional supply chain, political buy-in and local demand and utilization are also part of the equation which determines the outcome. Such variables cannot taken for granted, as they big push theorist sometimes do. To go back to the example of vaccines, as Sarika Bansal on Forbes explains, the lack of funding and the high price are only few of the obstacles to get people vaccinated. There are problem on the supply side: for example a shortage of medical staff able to administer the medicine and the lack of a cold chain infrastructure to deliver vaccine across distance. Similarly, there might be additional bottleneck on the supply side: a lack of demand for such vaccines (parents do not know what these vaccines are for) or parents could not see the advantage of such preventive cure and therefore continue to procrastinate. Simply putting more money won’t fix all these intertwined problems.

The very same problem of take-up was experienced in the Millenium Development Project (villages were the big push idea is being piloted) where some of the farmers living in the MVP and provided with agricultural inputs were just not using them. MVP evaluated the intervention to be successful insofar as those whoe actually using the inputs experienced a rise in the yileds compared to the farmers who were provided with the inputs but were not using them. The point is that you cannot take for granted that farmers will actaully stick to the guidelines provided:  demand and buy-in determine the feasibility of the implementation and if one does not get the former the latter will not materialize either.

The risk associated with such simplistic link between cause (money) and effect (development) is that the systematic failure to materialize the result could disenfranchise people from donating money, which in some context IS what one needs. During the famine in the Horn of Africa, the Kenyan civil society mobilized in an enormous effort to raise funding to purchase food to deliver to distressed area. The reasoning behind was once again: all is needed is money. However, a functional system to check the quality of the food was not in place and for this reasons poisoned food turned to be part of the food distributed. To avoid people to become disillusioned one should avoid to put the cart before the horses.

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