What Does It Mean to be Demand-Responsive?

For our water and sanitation program we’ve become convinced that need and demand are not the same, and that demand is the key to sustainability. We appreciate what the folks at Aquaya have to say about consumer demand versus our conception of need . Although our work focuses on different audiences- Aquaya focuses on promising business people in urban communities in the developing world, while Nuru targets poor farmers living in remote, rural communities in the developing world- we’re learning a lot from their innovative approach.

People of course need clean water; otherwise they’ll die in large numbers from water-related diseases. A common response is to build projects for communities to address their need for clean water. But, if there isn’t demand in the community for clean water or if the community members do not prefer the particular technology used in the project, the health of the community will not improve, despite a very costly investment.

This fact that need and demand are not the same thing and that a needs-focused approach will not solve the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) problems is often overlooked and might in-part explain why despite massive investments in WASH interventions,

2.2 million people in developing countries, most of them children, die every year from diseases associated with lack of safe drinking-water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene. (WHO, UNICEF, 2000).

These needless deaths motivate us to find a better way and take a truly a demand-responsive approach in our water and sanitation program. This terminology is used a lot, but what does it really mean?

My Kenyan colleagues and I turned to MacMillan for insight, and it turns out there are quite a few definitions for demand.

Demand Has Several Definitions

Demand, the NOUN has 3 different definitions:

  1. Demand: a very firm statement that you want something
  2. Demands: the things that need to be done in a particular situation
  3. Demand: ECONOMICS the amount of a product or service that people want, or the fact that they want it

Demand, the VERB has 2 different definitions:

  1. Demand: to say in a very firm way that you want something
  2. Demand: to say that people must have something that you consider necessary

Choice Not Force

Given that the demand is so key to our program’s success; our team took some time to dissect each definition with our program leaders.

My Kenyan colleagues agreed that here in the remote, rural community of Kuria, Kenya most people understand the word demand to mean “to say in a very firm way that you want something”.  And furthermore, most Kurians are not aware that the word has other definitions. This is very helpful for us because our staff members need to completely comprehend what we’re trying to do, and we know that we need to “start with what they know” when explaining concepts.

We agreed though, that this definition is not the one we’re centering our Water and Sanitation Program around. We also agreed that we are not talking about “the things that need to be done in a particular situation”.

When we got down to the economic definition “the amount of a product or service that people want or the fact that they want it” and “to say that people must have something that you consider necessary”. The conversation got very interesting.

One definition is about what people decide for themselves that they want and another is about what we think people need and therefore must have.  But, as mentioned above, need is not the same as the demand, and demand is the key to sustainability.

My Kenyan colleagues made a very poignant point: most of the time demand is about forcing, but the economic definition of demand is not about forcing at all. To be in demand, Macmillan says, is “to be wanted by a lot of people”. It’s not up to us as WASH program leaders but it’s up to families to decide what they want.

Have you ever experienced a situation where there was a need and yet no demand for your WASH intervention? Have you encountered any demand-responsive WASH models that are making lasting impact? Please share!


About Nicole Scott

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