What Sort of Social Impact (If Any) Are We Actually Having Anyway?

24 Aug

It’s a good question, and what we brought on Amanda Meng from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy to find out.  Here are her thoughts on the matter.  (We will let her introduce herself, we are linking interested people to her personal blog about her experiences in India, and we are so sorry for taking so long to post this Amanda!)

If there’s something just as fashionable as social enterprise these days, it’s impact evaluation (especially of the RCT variety). So it makes perfect sense that NextDrop would request some of the great minds at Berkeley to design a rigorous evaluation that could isolate change caused by the information service.


The first phase of an impact evaluation is preliminary qualitative research, aiming to answer one question: Is there measurable, socioeconomically relevant impact?


Enter me.


Last year I was an economic development M.A. student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. In August I’ll move to a Ph.D program at Georgia Tech to dig more into an earnest curiosity in how Information Communication Technology can affect development and democracy outcomes. When my advisor mentioned this opportunity, I jumped at the chance to join the inner, elite Berkeley circle and participate in an evaluation that might explain how access to water delivery information can overcome a lack of access to said water.


After outlining a utilization focused evaluation question, nailing down NextDrops’ assumptions of change, and four weeks of focus groups and guided interviews, I’ve discovered how and where we can find a social impact from NextDrop’s service. And from this reservoir of information, my own concerns of the danger in the hype for social enterprise in the development realm have floated to the top.


Finding Impact


Countless chais, puzzled looks, dosas, and inviting smiles later, I began to better understand users, non-users, and the context that NextDrop’s service lives in.


Based on discussions, interviews, and direct observation:


Users range from lower income slum areas to upper middle class, majority falling in the middle class. Highest potential  areas (in terms of subscription renewal) are middle and upper middle class. Water comes to these individuals every 2-5 days. Households are generally able to store sufficient amounts of water until the next supply cycle in underground tanks and/or roof tanks. Having enough water to make it to the next supply cycle depends on size of storage containers and how intermittent water supply is. Middle and upper middle class households all have underground and/or roof tanks. Upper middle class users reported occasionally missing supply cycles without a problem because they had sufficient water stored. Users and non-users claim to be aware of the water schedule, which is printed in the newspaper. They have expectations of which days water should come and those expectations are usually met. Most users and non-users across classes are not worried about having enough water and have little stress caused by water supply. The lack of stress across class is best explained by the ubiquitous practice of women staying in homes at all times (easily able to collect water) whether it is a housewife, mother-in-law, teenage daughter, middle-aged mother, or maid.


So why do people use? They like the convenience of knowing, whether they are 10 feet away from the tap, or a kilometer down the street at the market.


From this research emerged an archetype of users that could exhibit socioeconomically relevant impact, but it requires a few quite particular “If” statements that I imagine may be hard for NextDrop to isolate, reach, and tailor an impact evaluation to.


Socioeconomic impact exists…

  • If NextDrop service is on-time
  • If all members of the user household are out of the house (work/school) and the household can’t afford help or don’t have neighbors to rely on
  • If water supply is sufficiently intermittent that missing a supply day requires the household to go to other supply sources (coming once every 5 or 6 days)
  • If water collection methods are limited (in some sort of proportion of size of water collection containers to number of members in household) such that the household is pressed to not miss collecting waters on days of supply


If these conditions hold, then impact can be measured with

  • hours of work/school missed
  • number of times forced to collect water from alternative sources
  • loss of disposable income due to cost of alternative source
  • health impact due to quality of alternative source – self reporting of water related illnesses (doing a baseline survey of how different water sources are used… drinking v cleaning v laundry could give an idea of vulnerability to water born illnesses)


I am still in the process of estimating how large this population is in urban India. In this search I have found the following interesting statistics: 20.45% of Indians fall into the lower middle class which consumes 2$ – 4$  per person per day (2005 PPP) – this would be the income bracket that I think the impact archetype falls into. Partly because from observation, this is the group that doesn’t have underground or overhead tanks. Additionally, studies show that the higher a husbands educational attainment (which is correlated with income), the less likely their wives are to be employed. Which brings me to another relevant statistic: the female labor force participation rate (LFPR). It has hovered at around 23% for the past few decades. If you include women in school, the rate jumps to 32.3%. Urban women’s LFPR is consistently lower than their rural counterparts.


This leads me to my developing concern of the hype and hope the development world has placed in social enterprise.


When we think about water systems and development, the real challenge is access – access to water. This lack of access most certainly frustrates what we call development symptoms/outcomes. They are our indicators: health, hygiene, efficient time use, income constraints, empowerment, livelihood opportunities. In this case, outcomes are impacted by the coping mechanism adopted (ie – households have to pay for water to be trucked in; use of alternative, contaminated water sources; members of households stay at home to wait for water and therefore cannot use time efficiently). And, yes, NextDrop may impact these outcomes for a certain user profile. But what this social enterprise doesn’t change is the system that creates the symptoms. Communities don’t have 24/7 water for reasons like infrastructure, technology, corruption, or perhaps resource constraints. These are the system inputs that NextDrop likely can’t and won’t touch.


Consider lack of access as a power issue. On the street level, power may manifest as bribes to valveman or other water utility employees to open certain valves more often or for longer periods of time. At a government level, this power struggle has more to do with priorities and the voice of constituents to set government priorities. A community culture of accountability and power structures in the home and the community also play a role. What I am getting at is, a social enterprise that offers a service to make a lack of access more comfortable, does not change the systems’ power structure, is not development, not systemic change, and it may even be dangerous.


Why is it dangerous? To affect the system, constituents or utility workers have to be empowered to hold their public servants accountable. A big part of empowerment and accountability is the ability to envision change. What if NextDrop’s service of sending a text on the water schedule makes households more complacent with the water schedule? more complacent with the poorly performing water utility? and effectively lowers their expectations?


That’s dangerous.


NextDrop becomes merely a crutch for coping. It doesn’t impact the system, and in fact, it needs the broken system. If and when water is 24/7, the service would not be needed. So in terms of market and the all powerful incentive, a social enterprise that relies on revenue from a text on water delivery may be particularly incentivized to have the water utility never offer 24/7 water.


If we look away from the user side, we can see one, unproven opportunity for NextDrop to create system change. And that is through the valvemen. What if calling in to NextDrop’s IVR system is acting as an accountability mechanism for vavlemen? If it is, does this mechanism improve timeliness of water supply? These are questions that might point to a system change.


To those on the elusive quest, I offer caution in how we identify the work of development. And the way I see it there are systems of inequality that allow lack of access and  poverty to thrive. Any organization, enterprise, government, or person that does not recognize this symbiotic relationship between the system and symptoms of poverty and inequality and is not working to change that system, is not working in development.


3 Responses to “What Sort of Social Impact (If Any) Are We Actually Having Anyway?”

  1. Patrick Huang September 17, 2012 at 12:17 am #

    Great post! As for-profit social enterprises strive to achieve both financial returns and social impact, these enterprises’ effort to define (and measure) their social impact is challenging and I think inviting insight from different perspectives will only move the discussion forward. To your point about the danger of NextDrop’s service, I would argue that NextDrop has not only identified a market opportunity with customers willing to pay but is also valuable and drives some positive impact on its users.

    To your point about the incentive for NextDrop to maintain this “broken” system, I would argue that NextDrop’s social mission would not allow for this. NextDrop might need to develop an entirely new service based on a new market opportunity like say, real-time water access to utilities, and consider cannibalizing its current SMS-based service. For any for-profit enterprise – social or otherwise – change in your market, customers’ preferences, and so on is inevitable and changing your product/service/model/strategy leads to a more successful enterprise.

    Also, I agree that creating system-wide change is definitely needed but I would argue that NextDrop should look to develop partnerships with NGOs (or create its own) and government to define and implement this change. One option would be for NextDrop to provide this service while collecting important customer data that then feeds into designing a better system.


  1. On the Quest For More Social Impact, Scaling, and Big Picture Things « NextDrop - August 26, 2012

    […] smart people  tell us that we’re not making the social impact we really hope to be making, we usually tend to listen.  So then the next obvious question: What’s our next move? […]

  2. MediaShift Idea Lab . NextDrop Starts Small to Make a Big Impact on Water Supply in India | PBS - September 19, 2012

    […] smart people tell us that NextDrop's isn't making the social impact we really hope to be making, we usually tend to listen. NextDrop informs residents in India via cell phone about the […]

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