If you haven’t already read Atul Gawande’s latest New Yorker piece on why some ideas spread fast and other spread slow, get to it:
In the era of the iPhone, Facebook, and Twitter, we’ve become enamored of ideas that spread as effortlessly as ether. We want frictionless, “turnkey” solutions to the major difficulties of the world—hunger, disease, poverty. We prefer instructional videos to teachers, drones to troops, incentives to institutions. People and institutions can feel messy and anachronistic. They introduce, as the engineers put it, uncontrolled variability.
But technology and incentive programs are not enough. “Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation,” wrote Everett Rogers, the great scholar of how new ideas are communicated and spread. Mass media can introduce a new idea to people. But, Rogers showed, people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.
Much of the material is Gawande’s essay won’t be new if you’re already interested in or working on maternal and child health, but Gawande presents it incredibly well. His comparison of spreading social innovation with the work of salesman also reminded me of another parallel: the parallels between diffusing secular, health-enhancing ideas and missionaries’ evangelistic techniques.
If that last sentence scares you off, hold on a moment for some background. I grew up in a small religious town in Arkansas and my first trips to developing countries were as a missionary. Over time my interests shifted from the preaching and teaching side of things to the medical side, and eventually to health and development policy as an entirely secular pursuit. When I first got to grad school for public health this resulted in some awkward moments, as many conversations would start with “so what first interested you in global health?” If I led with “well, I grew up wanting to be a missionary” I would often get one of two reactions: immediate skepticism of my motivations from my secular liberal classmates, or enthusiastic endorsement of my work (as they misunderstood it) from religious classmates. All that to say: while I think there are very good general reasons to keep public health and missionary efforts as separate as possible, both in theory and praxis, there are several things we secular liberals can still learn from the more devout.
One example is the neverending debates amongst evangelists between those who seek technological shortcuts and those who stick with old-fashioned person-to-person contact. This is a frequent topic at missions conferences (if you didn’t know such conferences existed, it might be an interesting google). You can view the rise of Christian radio broadcasts, followed by Christian TV and televangelists, as the great technological shortcuts: they give a single preacher the ability to reach millions, and if the message is just as good as when delivered in person, why shouldn’t it be just as effective? Some people are persuaded by televangelists, of course, but the effectiveness of the individual doesn’t scale easily to mass media. Likewise, in recent years there’s been much enthusiasm for social media and its potential to save more souls — but the results rarely pan out. So despite all of the advances in mass and social media, most evangelists still harp on the importance of individual contact, of building relationships. One of the most effective (in terms of growth rate) groups in the world are Mormons, who, no coincidence, devote years of effort to one-on-one contact.
Gawande’s essay tells the story of how BRAC precipitated oral rehydration solution in Bangladesh, and I couldn’t help thinking of their campaign as a sort of especially successful roving gospel meeting. And here’s Gawande’s closing, where he talks with a nurse who was convinced by a younger, less-experienced trainer to adopt some best practices for safe childbirth:
“Why did you listen to her?” I [Gawande] asked. “She had only a fraction of your experience.”
In the beginning, she didn’t, the nurse admitted. “The first day she came, I felt the workload on my head was increasing.” From the second time, however, the nurse began feeling better about the visits. She even began looking forward to them.
“Why?” I asked.
All the nurse could think to say was “She was nice.”
“She was nice?”
“She smiled a lot.”
“That was it?”
“It wasn’t like talking to someone who was trying to find mistakes,” she said. “It was like talking to a friend.”
Shortcuts are nice: in public health, unlike evangelism, it’s usually actions rather than beliefs that ultimately count, so I’m all for technological shortcuts when they’re available and effective. But they’re too few and far between, and much of the low-hanging fruit in global health has already been picked. To climb the next step require a lot more effort at improving the “messy and anachronistic” processes of people and institutions.