Rattling the cage

Friday, April 2, 2010

Sometimes things just fall into place, without any conscious effort on one's own part - and that happened to be for this, the last official (i.e. will be marked) post, after 8 months of Beyond Borders classes. It's nice when things work out that way.

On Tuesday I attended a lecture in given by one of the co-founders of Engineers Without Borders, an organization that was started by University of Waterloo Engineering graduates. EWB recently celebrated its 10th anniversary of existence, and in the lecture the founder talked about the development and possible future directions of his organization. He touched on many different development issues and ideas that we have discussed and come across in our courses so far this year, and I wanted to speak to that.

Just a bit of background: Engineers Without Borders was founded in 2000 by Parker Mitchell and George Roter, two graduates of UW Engineering with the goal of addressing issues in the developing world by combining the technical skills of engineers, engineering students and others with the grassroots work of NGOs to help alleviate the most crushing forms of poverty in the developing world. EWB works in Africa, focusing on enabling rural Africans to access clean water, generate income from farming, and access critical infrastructure and services. In Canada, EWB and its student chapters at universities work to engage Canadians, government and businesses to become aware of development issues in Africa and makes choices to promote human development. For more information about EWB, please see this link.

In his hour-long discourse and question period, Parker Mitchell used examples and reflections on EWB’s development over the last 10 years to bring to life questions and examples of many different development issues that we have discussed and considered so far this year, including:
-what should be the goal of development?
-what does developmental success look like?

You will notice that I said “brought to life” and not “provided complete and satisfactory answers to” because there really weren’t answers, only situations that he had encountered that served to deepen mine and the rest of the audience’s understanding of how things work in the intricate interactions between some of the world’s poorest citizens, the generous and interested people from industrialized countries who donate their time and resources, the governments of these respective peoples, and the organizations that strive to end the worst forms of poverty. Here are some of the issues we have considered so far in Beyond Borders, along with examples from Parker’s experience.

The success of different technologies, and top-down vs. grassroots development
Parker discussed several examples of people (usually “experts”) from the industrialized world using new technology to try to solve problems in African countries, and completely and utterly failing in this regard due to societal and other considerations. Here are a couple of examples:

A pump/merry-go-round combination
The goal of this design was to use the energy from a spinning merry-go-round that children from a village played on to pump groundwater to the surface, where it could be collected by villagers. In this example, when international organizations “drove up in their air-conditioned SUVs” to look at the experimental well, they always saw children playing on the merry-go-round, and water being pumped to the surface. However, an audit later revealed that the merry-go-round pump was providing much less than the required amount of water to satisfy the villager’s needs – which greatly confused the international workers who had always seen children playing on the merry-go-round whenever they had visited the village.

As it turned out, the merry-go-round needed to be operational at least 8 hours a day to provide enough water for the village, and the children had other things to do during their regular day – such as playing soccer or other games, or doing income-generating activities such as herding goats. The children never spent more than two hours a day playing on the merry-go-round, so the pumping was, in the best case, still 75% short of the village’s requirements. The explanation for the fact that all international workers had seen the children on the merry-go-round was that the children knew what they were there to see, and made sure that they saw what they were hoping to see.

Parabolic light reflectors
The goal of this invention was to provide heat for cooking from the sun’s rays by concentrating them into one spot. However, several problems emerged from this design:
-Much of the cooking done in Africa is not done in the middle of the day, when the light reflector would be most useful
-The cooking area is difficult to access when surrounded/shielded by a large reflector
-There was little knowledge in the local community of how to fix/maintain the parabolic shield in the event that it was damaged or broken

Unsurprisingly, the parabolic shield heat source failed to take off in the way its early proponents had predicted it would.

Interestingly, Parker stressed that despite their eventual failure, these inventions were worthy experiments that were worth trying. In retrospect, it appears that both of these ideas were doomed to failure, but it is also possible that these inventions may have become widely accepted for other, unanticipated reasons. In general, however, Parker said that for every 10 inventions or new ideas, 1 will generally work quite well, 1 will be partially successful, and 8 or so will be completely unsuccessful. However, there are ways to increase the chances of success - the major one being to first become involved in the community you are targeting and make sure that whatever you are coming up with can be integrated into everyday life in that community. Parker contrasted the failures mentioned above with an EWB initiative in Mali, which sought to simplify aspects of the process used by women to make shea butter by using locally available knowledge and resources, such as improving the strength and durability of some of the devices used in the process and by replacing some metal devices with ones that could be made from wood, which was more readily available to the women.

Cell phones
In contrast to the stories described above, Parker discussed how cell phones have become one of the massive technological success stories in modern Africa. Cell phone penetration recently reached 50% in the African continent, and in some communities nearly everyone has one. The use of cell phones as phones and other creative ways has brought major improvements:

-As phones allowing for people to directly communicate over long distances, cell phones have increased economic efficiency since people can have answers without walking so far to get them. A profound example of this advantage is seen in a new pilot program in Ghana, where for a set fee per minute, users can get a doctor on their phone and describe their symptoms to a doctor, who can either provide a possible remedy or, in the case of serious symptoms, recommend that the caller go to a hospital. In countries where hospitals and doctors are few and far between and getting to a hospital can be a major endeavor, it pays not to miss time that could be spent generating income in hours spent traveling to a hospital, and allows doctors to focus on the most serious cases.

-As a way to access the internet, cell phones are a relatively cheap and compact way to access information, and require less power than computers. For example, farmers in poor countries can easily access weather data and meteorological predictions, allowing them to make better choices about how to run their farms.

-As a way to do banking, cell phones have made transactions smoother and easier to track. Given that transactions with cell phones can be monitored much more easily than transactions, they may provide a new way for farmers to access loans. Previously, farmers looking to borrow money from banks were denied on the grounds that roughly half of farmers are unable to repay loans provided to them, and there was no good way to differentiate between those farmers who would be able to repay the loans from those who would not be able to. With the rise of cell phones as banking tools, banks may now be able to find a profile for borrowers who will be successful in repaying loans, providing a potential cashflow for farmers where none existed before.

It was really exciting to hear about all the different ways that cell phones are being creatively used by Africans, in ways that further the possibility that “the most crushing forms of poverty might be eliminated within our lifetime,” in Parker’s own words.

More unintended consequences
Another “food for thought” moment for me came at the very end of the talk, when Parker was asked to address a criticism of EWB – specifically, that its work benefitted the strongest members of poor communities, often the leaders, much more than it did for the weak or marginalized people within these communities. To the surprise of many in the audience, Parker did not defend himself from this criticism, but then launched into an explanation that justified his organization’s actions.

In one small Ghanaian village, an NGO had set up a program of free vouchers for fertilizer for widows in the community. The idea of the program is that it would benefit the most disadvantaged members of the community (unmarried, often elderly, women). However, Parker witnessed a 20-something young man buying fertilizer one day, and asked him where he had gotten the coupon – which the young man explained he had been given by his aunt, herself a widow. Thinking that he had uncovered a serious abuse of the system, Parker was somewhat distraught until another volunteer explained to him that maybe what was happening wasn’t so bad.

At the risk of revealing that I really don’t know that much about growing crops, apparently the application of fertilizer in agriculture is a very precise process – for the fertilizer to be used to its maximum effect, it must be applied at the right time, in the right quantity…and the people who are most likely to use the fertilizer to the maximum effect are young farmers, not older widows, who may be experiencing weakness and/or health problems, miss a day in the fields, and not use the fertilizer to its maximum effect. Therefore, in terms of the whole community, the abuse of the system that Parker had witnessed would likely provide more food for everyone. Furthermore, family ties in African villages remain strong enough that the aunt who gave her nephew the fertilizer voucher would, as a family member, receive more food than she otherwise would – showing the system to be a success at supporting the widowed population, albeit not in the way originally intended…and as an added bonus, there would be more food for the entire community. The farmer’s personal initiative and ambition would have trickle-down effects for the people around him.

This example really made me think…especially since it touched on an internal debate that has been raging within me for most of my politically conscious life, and even more so in the last 8 months, since I started the Beyond Borders program. That debate is political, and it can be portrayed as left-wing vs. right-wing, economically conservative vs. economically socialist as they are spoken about in the media. To present the various sides of the argument I’m going to present this in a point vs counterpoint form. Please keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list of ALL the pros and cons, but just the way I have considered them.

Point1: Classical economics (free markets, economic conservatism, etc) provides, in theory, the most efficient allocation of resources – as long as certain assumptions are met (access of all participants to information, lack of coercion, etc). The selfish pursuit of individual interests actually benefits everyone, since people looking for money will do so by creating products and services that are in-demand and avoid producing products and services that other people don’t want. Thus, without any central organization or planning, capitalist societies achieve near-optimal efficiency in their actions.

Counterpoint1: The basic assumptions behind classical economics are rarely, if ever, found. There has never been a society where all participants had ready equal access to information, for example. Generally, the rich access information better than the poor (or uneducated), thus widening the gap between classes. When society is left to its own devices, the most disadvantaged tend to become more disadvantaged. Inequalities of opportunity seem to be inevitable with free markets.

Point2: Relying on yourself to do things, and not the government, can lead to creative solutions that a reliance on government and government handouts often cannot. One of the most powerful and exciting experiences in a human’s life is independence…and independence can be crushed when governments get into meddling. When you take your own skills, and what you have to offer, and get out there and make some money with them, the world’s verification of you and your contribution to society is seen in the money that you make…or the money you don’t make.

Counterpoint2: What might be considered “meddling” is often the government’s attempt to redress often-inherent inequalities. For example, some people are introverted and others are extroverted, but extroverts have an advantage over introverts in business because they relish the encounters and small talk with others that are the prelude to almost any business deal. In the long run, these inherent differences will predictably result in extroverts dominating in the business world. While this is just one example, there are plenty of other ways that capitalism inherently disregards certain groups of people – especially the weak (eg. the elderly, the sick, the disabled) who do not contribute to the system as easily as do the strong – as Jean Vanier so eloquently described in “Becoming Human.” The readings we did last term by Paul Farmer, which discussed “structural violence” towards poor, rural Haitians show that these individuals are not in any sense on the same footing as wealthier Haitians, or with poor Canadians. There is simply no way that they would not be exploited by free markets.

Point3: While the strong will come out on top in a free-market society, it does not mean that the weak will necessarily languish – benefits will often trickle down to all members of society. Parker’s story shows an example of this, with the Ghanaian aunt benefitting from her “strong” nephew. Another example of the trickle-down approach in Ghana: Parker says that he and other in the development community joke that if many NGOs had had their way, cell phone technology would have first been brought to the most isolated and impoverished Ghanaian villages…and the technology would have failed – there wouldn’t be enough paying members to support the network, there would be no one to communicate with, etc. Instead, the first cell phone towers were established in Ghanaian cities, at the behest of the wealthy classes, who initially were the only ones who could support the high costs of cell phones. As the technology gradually took hold, costs fell and more people could access the phones, thus allowing more and more people to access the phones…eventually, they spread to the countryside, where cell phones are now able to provide all the benefits described above in the “Cell Phones” section.

Of course, this internal argument is far from any resolution. However, to the credit of the Beyond Borders program, I have been forced – through the readings, discussions and volunteer work that we have done – to further develop these points and counterpoints going back and forth. It definitely is a much more sophisticated debate than before. Many thanks to Parker Mitchell for providing ammo for both sides!