Abigail Keene-Babcock

Bednets and the Demise of Social Marketing – What the NY Times Missed

NYT BednetsThe New York Times ran an interesting but rather incomplete article yesterday, discussing the split over anti-malaria bednet distribution strategies in Africa and the apparent demise of ?social marketing? as a legitimate approach to reducing illness on a large scale. The article focuses on an ongoing debate in the aid community over whether or not insecticide-treated bednets, produced by Danish and Japanese makers and purchased by aid agencies, should always be given way in mass quantities for free.

Evidence provided in the article points to the failure of ?social marketing? techniques (advertising, branding, and selling of essential goods with social value through local distributors, sometimes at heavily subsidized prices) to reduce local, short-term rates of malaria infection as fast as the massive free hand-outs of nets by aid agencies. Senator Tom Coburn (R) Oklahoma was quoted as going so far as to say that, ?We knew social marketing doesn?t work.”But let’s take a step back. First, who, in this case, is conducting the ?social marketing?? It’s the aid industry. What is the aid industry designed to do? Raise, collect, and then deliver charity to those in need.

On the other hand, what are enterprises designed to do? Produce, market and deliver desired goods and services efficiently, so as to be self-sustaining and maximize financial success. Which one has the greatest invested interest in making sure that people will actively seek out its products, and will continue to have access to them, over and over again?

When we remove the marketing from the producers of bednets, incentives to market effectively and to maximize distribution begin to dilute, become inefficient, get lost. And, for all of its very good intentions and valuable contributions to alleviating human suffering, the inefficiencies of the aid industry and its large contractors are well known. It is also well known that the aid industry cannot promise the renewal of massive grants for the same project or purpose.

So, what will happen when malaria is not the hottest issue in aid? What will happen in five years when the nets wear out and need to be replaced? And what happens to those communities that the temporary ?armies of workers who are paid a few dollars a day? were unable to reach within the week or two that they were hired to conduct mass handouts?

The article in the Times missed many important points, but instead of an academic discussion of sample sizes, location bias, and selectivity problems, I’d like to direct attention to a for-profit enterprise that could have been an interesting counter-point in the article.

A to Z is a family-owned producer of long-lasting anti-malarial bednets located in Tanzania. Recently, it has received patient capital to expand its production capacity; A to Z now produces 7 million nets a year, and it has become the third largest employer in the country. Its production costs are the same or lower than those of foreign bednet makers. Due to its proximity and familiarity with its target market, transportation costs are much lower and knowledge of the local environment and market dynamics is superior.

A to Z sells some of its nets to development agencies, but the company is also designing and undertaking its own social marketing campaigns and distribution experiments to educate people about the benefits of its product, to make the nets increasingly accessible to the poor in rural areas, and to create a long-term market for the nets.

No doubt, there is and will continue to be a need for life-saving nets to be distributed for free to those who otherwise would have no access. However, to write off the potential of social marketing techniques to help create sustainable mechanisms that produce and deliver basic goods and services is dangerous. It not only condemns businesses that could potentially employ thousands of local workers and offer long-term solutions that will be there when aid money is not, but it permanently paints poor people as objects of charity, without the luxury of choice or the capacity to help themselves.