Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Commenting on Wall Street Journal Article

Does Helping the Planet Hurt the Poor?

Empower Design's comments...

(1) "Sometimes we should choose to protect the environment and the nonhuman animals that depend on it, even if that denies economic opportunities to some people living in extreme poverty."

My opinion: Economic opportunities are how we define it. What is our willingnesstopay. The problem with the economic opportunities argument is that we define it in terms of what they are willing to sell instead of our willingnesstopay. They live in a barter system which is historically sustainable, but has decreased life span (the only real limit to their cultural life style that I can measure). If we moved from a monetary system to a barter system, economic systems would potentially be tribal/community-focused instead of individualistic. In Uganda, people are choosing two methodologies for the bicycle electric generator: a public good model of sharing electricity for the bicycle electric generator deep in the bush where people barter and as a private good which you purchase in a construction management type contract in the more urban areas.

(2) "Even when economists ignore environmental concerns, their usual method of assigning a value to human lives leads to the ethically embarrassing conclusion that the poor count for less because they earn less and cannot pay as much to reduce life-threatening risks."

This is a great point and one that I deal with in my in-review article with how much should a back-up hand-crank surgical lamp be worth in Uganda given their risks associated with unreliable electric grids. In the United States, the surgical lamp would be worth more and people selling it would get more money for their innovation, but in Uganda the surgical lamp would not be worth as much and people selling it will no get as much money as them selling to the Unites States. It is a hard ethical decision for us to make in terms of how big (lumens of light intensity and battery storage capacity) the back-up surgical lamp should cost.

(3) "I wish that Mr. Lomborg were right that $100 billion a year could provide the world's poor with clean drinking water, sanitation, food, health and education, but that figure is wildly optimistic."

I completely agree with Singer. Throwing money at anything is not the solution. Appropriate technology has failed for the last 30+ years even on the small scale. Making this a bigger scale issue will reinforce the dependence which must be broken.

(4) "Let me end by agreeing with Mr. Lomborg on the need for more investment in research and development for green energy."

This is the key issue: research and development. However, they are missing the forest by focusing on specific trees... the poor need research and development programs which invest in their future - not aid and not investment in our future (or worst what we want their future to be). Our future is different from their future locally. What makes sense in the US may or may not make sense in Uganda. Clean water is true, but how to get clean water should be different. We use chemicals (takes shorter amount of time - pay people less labor time), but there are natural processes which will cost different their because their labor costs are MUCH lower (takes longer time - pay people more labor time) - see Technology for Tomorrow's bio-sand filter (co-author on paper). Green electricity is true, but how we get electricity should be different. Their optimal system for deep in the bush is human power system because labor is cheap and demand for electricity is extremely high - however, they are using it as a public good. In the US,our electricity systems have demanded a private good with minimum policy (mainly to insure the utilities continue to get a profit and we have increased reliability). In the US, It would not make sense to have human powered electricity (except at gyms) because it would mean electricity would cost MUCH MORE than $1/kWh.

The problem I have is assuming that outsiders have more of the answer and should let us design for them. Instead of "Design with the Poor" we have created a national and international fad of "Design for the Other 90%". We call the poor - "the other" and we design it for them - why? Because we own the patents and we make a living off of them.

Sorry, this article touches on many key points and I ramble. I still think it has good points and needs to be out there for others to read. However, it needs to go deeper and not just from our point of view. For example, I have heard the saying many times: "You cannot kill a goat who has a slit throat"... if they view their society and culture as dead, then it is survival minute-to-minute. What we need is to quit talking about them as poor and having a slit throat.... they are brilliant... innovative... and we steal their ideas and patent them (design for the other 90% examples). We never publish with professors in developing countries because we are the smart ones - even though they collected all of our data and guided us in the research. My colleagues in Africa and I are working on an article for Foreign Policy that will look at 50 African lecturers/professors and the US/European researchers who ask for them to do the majority of the research and benefited from their guidance in all kinds of academic investigations and research questions, but they were NEVER on an academic publication.

Yes, GHG emmissions must be dealt with now. However, are they prisoners stuck in our game or are both of us prisoners and we must collaborate. I worry that they are prisoners stuck in our game and we define and set-up the rules and potentially only pit them against each other.

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