3 new ideas for working alongside the world's poorest people

Surprising and unorthodox strategies – board games, nail salons, membership health clinics – are showing promising results in addressing the needs of those in extreme poverty.

Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
Mercy Corps and its partner, BanKO, help Filipinos set up mobile cash transfers in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.

Board games in the Philippines, nail salons in Zambia, and subscription clinics in the Democratic Republic of Congo: These are just a few of IDEO.org’s poverty-fighting weapons.

Jocelyn Wyatt, IDEO.org executive director, shared what these seemingly unrelated ideas have to do with one another at a public lecture at Mercy Corps earlier this month, sponsored by Global Envision. What she underscored was this: They all use the power of “human-centered design,” a strategy marked by working alongside those it aims to help.

This is the value proposition of IDEO.org, the nonprofit arm of global design and innovation firm IDEO, when partnering with nonprofit organizations, social enterprises, and foundations to address the needs of the poor. The results are as surprising as they are promising:

• In the Philippines, a ‘chutes and ladders’ style roll-of-the-dice board game gives insight into how people view risk.

After Typhoon Haiyan last year, Filipinos, of whom only 20 percent have a bank account, struggled to bounce bank: If all your cash is tucked under your pillow and a natural disaster destroys your home, that money is gone for good.

In an effort to bolster both financial inclusion and disaster resilience, Mercy Corps started by partnering with BanKO, the Philippines’ first mobile-based bank, to provide relief funds for tens of thousands of Haiyan survivors through mobile savings accounts. Nokia flip phones and a $90 starter fund help these Filipinos get their feet back on the ground.

But the aid agency saw that small businesses needed more to get back up and running and traditional money lending—borrowing from family who were also wiped out in the storm or dealing with loan sharks charging high interest—wasn't doing the trick. 

Seeing the opportunity to make a longer-term impact, Mercy Corps and BanKO teamed up with IDEO.org to explore whether its "human centered design" approach could create a better loan product for Filipinos. IDEO.org created a board game to better understand what Filipinos wanted from their banking product, and how they might react to different levels of risk.

The resulting loan, with its 5.6 percent interest rate (about a quarter of what a loan shark would demand) made repayment more manageable. After the initial pilot, happening now, BanKO will determine whether the product has legs and potentially expand it to more clients.

• In Zambia, teen girls learn about reproductive health at a pop-up nail salon. 

IDEO.org teamed up with Marie Stopes Zambia and the Hewlett Foundation to rethink family planning. How could they frame it in a way that was more inviting to teens? The resulting strategy is a far cry from the awkward way sexual health issues are typically dealt with.

To promote a more candid dialogue about sex, the team invited teenage girls to a lively pop-up nail salon for free manicures – and an introduction to contraceptives. At the salon, the girls sit together, and the staff let the flow of conversation guide discussion. While focusing on their nails, the girls can easily divert their eyes while they discuss more intimate topics.

The girls leave with a booklet containing information on services, and that booklet introduces them to another IDEO.org creation: “The Divine Divas.” The Divine Divas are five colorful, charismatic characters, each representing one of the five different birth control methods available in Zambia.

In fact, “The Divine Divas” is inscribed on the sign in front, and nothing more, ensuring that the center’s function is unclear to all but its clientele. Staff members, who are around the same age as the girls they serve, follow up via a personalized phone call or text.

In Zambia, these efforts are especially critical: Like most of the world, the vast majority of Zambian teens are sexually active. While over 14 percent of adults are HIV positive, only about 7 percent reported using condoms in their most recent sexual encounter.

Childbirth is risky, too: Less than half of births are attended by a skilled health worker, and maternal mortality is nearly 600 per 100,000 live births. In fact, childbirth is the leading cause of death among girls aged 15-19 in low-income countries.

• And in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a shiny new health facility based on a subscription model has sparked change.

IDEO.org worked alongside the American Refugee Committee to develop a market-based model, Asili, which allows community members to subscribe to a membership to receive discounts on services like health care and daily drinking water, to high-quality seeds. The prices are posted and remain consistent, an improvement from the fluctuating fees that vexed people in the region before.

Since it opened in July 2014, the Asili health clinic has seen more than 500 patients. This is invaluable in a country where even the most basic health care is a luxury, and the average life expectancy is a mere 50 years.

These three programs provide sustainable solutions whose effects will continue to be felt for years to come. Not only that, but their beneficiaries have a voice in the process, and agency within the solution. That, it seems, is the recipe for success.

• To learn more, visit IDEO.org here. And get the human centered design toolkit here.

This article originally appeared at Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.

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