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Why ‘choice’ is at the centre of what we do

22nd February 2023

By Dr Simon Batchelor (Gamos Ltd., Loughborough University).

This blog is a reflection by the MECS Research Coordinator on how a focus on ‘choice’ informed how the MECS programme was designed. 

The intended outcome of our research programme is that it leads to “A market ready range of innovations (technology and business models) which lead to improved choice of affordable and reliable modern energy cooking services for consumers.”

No one wants to have to choose bad fruit because they cannot afford the good ones; and to get the best variety and range of fruits, the markets need a supply chain of quality goods. However, improving people’s choices when their options and freedoms are limited by circumstances and situations, is more than ‘market development’. 

Amartya Sen, the winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences framed development as being about choices and freedoms.  Since his work was a comment on a complex socio-economic system, it is not surprising that his writings are also complex.  Essentially, he challenged the idea of rational choice which underpinned the economic theories of that time, and he started to combine the internal ability to choose with the ideas of agency, options and capabilities.  Perhaps the simplest summary is here although I suspect he and others later expanded these views and I am not up to date nor an expert on the economics of choice.  (An interesting critique of it focuses on how individualism is a core assumption and a weakness in Sen’s work).

What I have learnt over the years working with poor communities is that choice is strongly influenced by both our internal capability to make a choice and the external environment.  So, in order for people to have a real choice, they need both the awareness that such exists and may benefit their lives, and the external availability of that choice (let’s say in our MECS case a supply chain of EPCs, available to them with an affordable business model, perhaps with PAYG business model).  However, even my binary use of the words external and internal are in themselves a weak description of how people make choices, and choices are in themselves a complex process.   An intention to do a particular behaviour (i.e. make a choice) is influenced by both our beliefs and by social norms, i.e. influences (real and imagined) from peer groups, intrahousehold and community dynamics.   Whether that intention to make a choice translates into a behaviour, it is then strongly determined by the external control factors.  The combination of these influences is perhaps best described in Icek Ajzen’s Theory of Planned Behaviour (TOPB) which we have used within the MECS programme to develop discrete choice modelling surveys to try to understand where the key influences of choice are. 

I tried to capture some of these nuances in this blog and associate working paper on a consumer journey to acquire a modern energy cooking service.

Amartya Sen framed his narrative on choice as ‘freedom’ and he noted 5 dimensions (political, economic, social, security, and transparency).  We often have to hold multiple dimensions of a system in our plans in order to cover real situations.  For me, the Livelihoods model was very helpful. It tried to tease apart the multi-dimensional assets we all have and as a model it is helpful.  It notes different assets and how they work together – social capital being reminiscent of the social referent in the TOPB.   However, the core flaw of the livelihood model (which DFID focused on for many years) assumed people would act (make choices) to maximise capital.  It described the situation and the assets available for the household or individual, but not their motivation.  Try applying the model to a Franciscan Monk – it doesn’t work!

So how can we hold all these different models together in a simple guiding statement? When I worked in Cambodia and SE Asia in the 1990’s, I conducted about thirty 3-day development weekends1, with over two hundred professionals and amateurs, of many cultures, discussing what ‘development’ really means. We regularly settled on a very similar guiding statement which for me (and many of those involved) works as a way of assessing their work.

The statement, (vision, plumbline, definition, whatever you want to call it), was that development was: to increase people’s ability to initiate change and make choices towards an environment of loving relationships.

There is a lot in this single sentence, so let me unpack it and show how it applies to the MECS research programme and highlight some elements.

Increase – we want to leave people with something more from our encounter.

People’s – all people regardless of their race, gender, and core abilities.

Ability – ability is one of those words you end up defining by circular definition.  It is the combination of their beliefs, social referents, intention, and control factors.  So, to increase someone’s ability to make a choice might mean giving them information that nuances their existing beliefs, working with them and their community to understand together the new opportunities, it might mean changing their circumstances by market development. 

To initiate change – is an important caveat to the ability – are we increasing agency, freedom, or is our process of changing their ability taking away initiative and agency? 

And make choices – so they can make their own choices – not that we are imposing our ideas, but sharing ideas in such a way as they can choose.

Towards an environment of loving relationships – this may feel a bit ‘hippy’ but one needs this point to distinguish benevolent actions from horrible actions.  We were debating this in the context of our work in Cambodia and in one sense the Khmer Rouge who killed one quarter of the population ‘initiated change and made choices’ by removing other people’s ability to initiate change and make choices!  Equity, equality, leaving no one behind, all depends on a positive disposition towards others, and the best term we could find was ‘loving relationships’.

So, when MECS was being designed, we were seeking to create an action research programme, that increased people’s ability to initiate change and make choices.  Doing that is not just about technologies and fuels, nor even about political economies and markets, but about ensuring that we contributed into complex systems in such a way that it enabled choice, or as Sen puts it ‘Freedoms’.    

1 The weekends were mainly discussion after a creative starter – no monologues from experts, an intense use of safe place role playing games, and a personalisation of the subject validating feelings.

Featured Image credit: Image by Freepik (

Opportunity: Women in Modern Energy Cooking (WMEC) initiative launched