November 9, 2009

Coca Cola and Global Poverty

I am a big fan of Coca Cola.  I know the company has a long history, full of problems and criticisms, but I still admire their product.  Not only do these folks know how to make carbonated high fructose corn syrup taste really good, but few other companies can compare in terms of global recognition and distribution.

Because of its widespread distribution, I've been able drink Coca Cola all over the world.  From the streets of Cairo, to the back alleys of New Dehli, or even in the heart of the Gold Triangle in Burma, you can always buy a coke.  It makes things easy when feeling a little homesick, because you don't need to take up precious space in the backpack, but can simply drop some change at any local shop.  There is no language barrier, because the brand is always pronounced the same, and no matter what the language, the iconic script and bold red are universal.  

Earlier today I found a blog where another aid worker had some observations on Coke in relation to public health development in Tanzania.  Coke is clearly a leader in logistics and her blog entry highlighted a few things the development community could learn.  It also inspired me to write down some of the thoughts that I've had for a few years on the role of this product within humanitarian and development work.

I've always relied upon Rapid Research Appraisal techniques when entering new communities although I never actually learned about this term until I was in grad school.  The idea is to simply recognize socio-economic indicators specific to that community and to map their geographic distribution to better understand how that economy and society function.  For example, I was told by a former professor that when working in the Philippines about 35 years ago, he noticed that the wealthier households would often have denim blue-jeans hanging on their clothes lines.  Likewise in Malawi he noticed that the richer households in often had more metal containers near the front door than other households.  By making these observations he could instantly map, either mentally or on paper, where the richest and poorest households were located within a community that might otherwise look completely homogenous to an outsider.  This can be very important as it might also provide important information regarding personal security or key issues in local conflicts.  Although I would never advocate that these techniques alone form the basis of policy decisions or project design, they nevertheless  important body of  data in a fast and fairly accurate fashion.

Although each culture, society, and economy will have its own custom set of indicators that must be distinguished and observed by the outsider, I've found that Coca Cola is an excellent universal indicator as a consequence of its globalized distribution and identity.  While traveling or working within some of the worlds lesser developed nations, I've  found Coke functions as a reliable indicator of regional security, poverty, and access to Western ideas.  The accessibility and cost of Coca Cola and Coke merchandise can serve as a excellent means to quickly analyze the social economic landscape of a new community.  

While Coke is always available within city centers, it is also available at an inflated cost.  As one travels further away from the city center, the cost will decrease until a certain point in which the inflated cost of the urban economy has subsided to the rising costs of transit.  As the distance increases from the city, the logistical expenses are compounded with the increased cost of electricity, the limited access to refrigeration, and the reduced access to populations who can afford the beverage.  The greater the distance leads to a higher cost and limited distribution.  At a certain point, one has ventured so far from the city center that Coca Cola is completely inaccessible until you advance into the distribution zone of another city center and the same price/access trends function in reverse.

I have never been anywhere in the world and discovered it untouched by this fizzy sugary beverage. This is no surprise as Coca Cola has plants everywhere, even Somalia!  I have found however that when the product is expensive and more difficult to access, it is also a place where outside/foreigners rarely visit.  In such places, the local population often has limited access to education, viable employment, or social mobility. These places might also be more dangerous, or might require great planning to access and later exit.  I've also had a hunch, though not been validated by any serious methodology, that in such places people are also less likely to be have a significant understanding or knowledge about western nations or people, because I have trouble seeing how reliable information about America could access a landscape barren of this ubiquitous American product.  Of course at other times I've seen people in such places secure access to satellite television, radio programming (such as the BBC), globally distributed cell phone networks with migrant relatives in other nations, and preciously handled newspapers from far away.  Consequently the value of Coke as an ideological indicator is only valid when assessed in relation to these other phenomena.

I've sometimes wondered, if I actually find a place that has never heard of Coca Cola, should I even be there?  There is no decent answer to this question, as its too circumstantial, but I think its worthwhile to ask anyway.