Dispelling the Poverty Monster

The Peery Foundation is excited to introduce Jade Gray as our third guest blogger. Jade stewards partnerships that align with IDEO.org's mission to alleviate poverty through human-centered design. Jade is passionate about innovative, people-first approaches to global poverty relief. She joined IDEO.org after three years at Land O'Lakes International Development Division, where she worked on USAID international development programs and new business efforts in the agriculture and enterprise development sectors. 

By: Jade Gray

I was an hour and half outside of Kisumu, Kenya talking to 130 young men at their school when I heard something that surprised me –

“Should your girlfriends and female friends take contraceptives, to protect themselves and their futures?” I asked.

“No. Contraception is for older people, if girls take it they will be infertile and more promiscuous,” said Victor, a 21 year old student.

“Ok. What about your sisters? Can they take contraceptives?”

“Yes,” He said. And the group of boys overwhelmingly agreed.

“Why?! Why is OK for them but not the others?”

“If they take them they will stay in school.”

My mind started racing.

My colleagues and I had been traveling throughout Kenya with Marie Stopes International for two weeks, identifying opportunities to improve sexual and reproductive health service delivery for adolescents. We spoke with youth, elders, students, parents, clinicians, sex workers, and anyone else who would talk to us about youth and contraception.

Victor’s response was the first of it’s kind, and illuminated an important insight. His distinction between the need for contraception for a sister (as opposed to a girlfriend) represents an opportunity to engage boys in a new kind of conversation, hopefully one that will improve access to health services for girls.

Insights like these are the seeds of great design.

This issue of who is allowed to take contraceptives in Kenya isn’t a new one. Birth control is widely perceived as a method for birth spacing, only appropriate for mothers and married women. Worse yet, misinformation is pervasive. In countless interviews, we heard myths that the hormones in birth control lead to infertility and that condoms cause cancer. These perspectives have contributed to an alarming and unchanging teen birth rate in Kenya, where pregnancy and delivery complications remain the most common cause of death for adolescent women. (reference: KDHS 2009)

I left Victor’s school hopeful, armed with information that could help our team develop new health services in this community that cater specifically to youth. What we heard at the school was a surprise, but the feeling was familiar. At IDEO.org, our human-centered design process hinges on moments like these, where in-depth conversations shed new light on age-old problems.

Because human-centered design is about understanding the unique needs of the people you’re trying to serve, it’s those small details, the a-ha! moments and personal connections that allow us to design interventions that are both effective and delightful.

When I started working at IDEO.org, I was familiar with challenges like those I witnessed in Kenya. Between my childhood in rural Maine and a career in international development, I had seen poverty in many forms. Each time, it felt like a big, menacing monster that we needed to attack.

In practicing human-centered design, I’ve come to appreciate that poverty isn’t so much a monster as it is a quiet, creeping presence. It’s amorphous, sneaky, and incredibly complex, and progress requires fresh eyes and new voices.

Solutions to the challenges of poverty are hidden in the day-to-day lives of the people in the community. In order to uncover them, it’s our job to ask the right questions.