The meaning of choice in a Delhi slum

Helen Trevaskis returns from her third trip to India this year both dazed - following visits to slums in Bangalore, Delhi, Agra and Bombay where poverty coupled with generosity and curiosity lurked at every turn - and amazed at an unexpectedly positive response to two of the hygiene products her fledgling social enterprise is testing there. 

So, an inspiring and productive trip? Yes… But while I should be focused on distribution strategies, business plans and next-stage funding I find myself fixated on the notion of choice. Not choice in a ‘Blimey! There’s just so much of it these days, I can’t cope!’ way but rather in the sense of ‘What the heck is it?’ and what morality should one apply to influencing it? Particularly where that choice relates to how people who have very little money spare spend that money
Choice. Not exactly a novel topic in the world of social change, given the recent popularity of behavioural economics. In a nutshell, current discourse debunks rational choice theory, which assumes individuals always make decisions based on their highest self-interest and peddles choice architecture – the way in which decisions can be influenced by how choices are presented – as a tool for social influence.
Nor is choice a novel topic for me as I’ve spent most of my agency and consulting career messing with people’s choices, although I’ve found it best not to label it thus when pitching for work. It’s also something that troubled me as a student when Danny Sheehan expounded a view that 25 years ago I’d never heard before, “We are all responsible for the choices we make”, a view brought back to mind recently in a conversation with a friend and colleague on the role of personal choice in obesity. 
There are too many things during my trip to India that fuel this contemplation. 
My slum-visit travelling companion Nalini recounts turning up at the house of a migrant construction worker to be greeted by his wife holding a newborn she’d had perhaps an hour before. Faced with this woman alone in her makeshift, ill-equipped home, Nalini and her social worker colleague offer to take the woman to the hospital immediately. The woman refuses repeatedly. So they leave knowing the health complications she is likely to face but feeling they must respect her choice.
Our research agency in Bangalore reports how a young man they met in a slum uses a skin product costing way more than his monthly salary. The product promises whiter skin, fuelling his dream of a better marriage and better job opportunities: what would life be like if only he was not so darn dark?! His choice.
I’m told during a visit to an NGO how some of the poor Delhi families displaced by metro building and the Commonwealth Games choose not to relocate and house-build on the plot of land they have been offered and purchased from the government. Instead they sit on it, realise its value, then move to another Delhi slum where they are closer to work, schools and fragments of the social infrastructure demolished with their homes but where they have no tenure, no security and could be uprooted again soon. Their choice. 
Applied to these examples I find ‘choice’ a baggy, lazy, one-size fits all concept with little value and the notion that people have ‘free choice’ – laughable. 
So what about the ‘choice’ Clean Hands Inc needs Indian urban slum dwellers to make if the social venture is to thrive? Inevitably this lies at the heart of my troubled contemplation.
To achieve our social goal we need households to add an extra product - our hand cleansing product - to the list of those essential for daily life and to use it in a particular moment every day. If they do, evidence suggests it can help cut sickness and even save lives among the most vulnerable. We want them to do this despite the fact that our target consumers largely believe that what they do now is fine, thank you very much. While we will make it affordable, appealing and effective, we know that ultimately it’s a ‘push’ product we must persuade people to want using all the tricks up our marketing sleeves. To influence them so that they choose it because it’s not necessarily the choice they would make.
This is marketing - my job, my career! So why after decades working on much less worthy choice manipulation (snacking, boozing, gambling, diamonds for god's sake) am I only really worrying about this now? 
On my return from India a neighbour quizzes me on the project. Not for the first time I listen as someone wonders aloud if it’s ethical to foist products on the poor because we think they will do them good. I mumble something about saving children’s lives. An awkward silence follows.
But enough. Right now, what our fledgling social enterprise needs is clarity of vision, ambition and action, not navel gazing. So I tuck this troubling train of thought into a corner of my mind – where it will not be alone, and face the fact that whatever the truth of the notion of choice (and we can talk about ‘truth’ next time) there’s work to be done. 


Photo by Vinoth Chandar