Saving the World on the Cheap
You know the statistics. Well, if you don't, you should. They're pretty bad.
- 1 billion people on $1 a day
- 3 billion in rural areas, mostly subsistence farmers
- 1 billion without access to clean water
- 1 billion living in slums
- 10 million deaths a year from dirty water and smokey cooking fires
Some (unlucky) indviduals appear in more than one category
The problem comes when you start thinking about what the numbers mean.
- if you make $36,500 a year, 100 or more of the world's poorest are trying to live on your salary
- That's right. Every dollar in your pocket is one cent in theirs.
- 3 billion in rural areas, mostly subsistence farmers means there ten people living only on the food they grow for every American
- 1 billion without access to clean water, which means a quarter of their kids are dead by the age of five
- 1 billion living in slums means three slum dwellers for every American
- 10 million deaths a year from dirty water and smokey cooking fires is a Holocaust every two years
How Far Does Money Really Go?
With the best will in the world, we can't buy people out of this.
There are two ways of looking at money. The conventional approach is what is used by most aid agencies and charities: "only $20 will give this child food for a month" or whatever the project is.
This is a "feel good" approach. It suggests that, maybe, the problem is financial. Somebody with enough money could possibly save them.
And that works, right up until you do the accounting.
Here's the problem.
|Dollar Value||Dollers per Head
So unless you're willing to spend in "Iraq War" units, you really don't have enough money to solve these problems.
That's not immediately obvious, until you look at it this way.
|Dollar Value||Dollers per Head
|Percentage of Income
at $1 per day
Ignore all other problems. Just divvy up the money among the 1bn poorest. It just doesn't go very far. 20% more income on "practically nothing" is a bit more rice, maybe lentils more often, but it's a really, really small improvement in quality of life. And that's the education budget.
Now look at the aid budget line. 6% more money. That's one additional spoonful of rice a day, more or less. We are not buying anybody out of anything.
Of course, now you look at that top line. And you say three times their annual income? Well, yeah. Two things - firstly, that's our spending over several years. Secondly, that's $4000 per American or roughly $12,000 per American tax payer.
So, sorry, no matter how much you want to help the poor, it's not going to be done through direct aid and buying power, particularly of the kind so common in the Kleptocracies of the poor world, aided and abetted by the World Bank etc.
Patching Capitalism: Addressing Market Failures
Let us say that the 1bn poorest each put one dollar of their annual income (0.3% of their annual income, say $100 for you) into a pot to pay for research to fix their fundamental problems.
That pot is $1,000,000,000.
Compare with, say, the cost of stamping out polio, which is around $700,000,000 per year and you begin to see that the poor actually have quite a lot of money because there are so many of them.
The problem is that there's no way to efficiently pool the resources of the very poor into collective action on their basic problems. The transactional costs through mechanisms like tax collection simply swamp the available budget.
The "Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid" model suggests that maybe capitalism is efficient enough to scrape together a few pennies from these folks and turn it into research and development of the basic servics they need, and associated infrastructure build out.
I'm waiting to see on that one, but I think that we're going to find two problems: cash siphoning out of their informal economies, and very little research going into certain fundamental, unfashionable, unprofitable problems like effective birth control.
Ok, Smart Guy...What's your plan?
How much is germ theory worth?
How much is Linux worth?
How much is arithemetic worth?
There's a fixed cost to teaching arithmetic or germ theory, or how to use Linux. But the products of these systems of understanding are free or at least have their costs amortized over an enormous area.
What do I mean by that? Well, arithmetic is cognitive infrastructure and it has a cost - teaching years, school buildings, and all the rest of the physical structures required to teach arithmetic, generation after generation, to little humans.
Those costs are amoritzed over every transaction in the global economy which requires counting to conduct successfully.
This is why we educate: the return on investment is so vast that we do not really care who pays for it as long as it gets done right.
My contention is that the development of certain sets of tools is so important and has such an enormous return on investement that we do not care who does it, as long as it gets done right. I have a provisional list of starting places.
This is a Little Abstract
Education is expensive because you have to pay for every individual educated. It's slow, it takes time, it may take generations for certain kinds of co-emergent habits like "studying" to be translated into the culture. Simply making the changes in lifestyle required to allow people that many economically unproductive years is plenty to take a long, long time.
So let's go back to the linux analogy. You can use it without knowing how it works. The amortized cost of learning how to use the tool is vastly lower than the cost of learning how to make it.
We don't remember the original costs of inventing arithmetic, but I'm willing to bet it was several generations of extremely smart thinkers reasoning out the basics of number. We know a lot more about where Geometry came from, and it's that same kind of cultural-level investment in figuring things out.
So here's what I'm talking about. Teach germ theory, where possible. Everywhere else, encapsulate germ theory into a user interface people can cope with, like solar water pasteurization indicators. Drop it in the water, put it in the sun, when the green stuff moves to the bottom, the water is safe to drink. If you want another green thing because yours stopped working, have somebody phone the number stamped on the back of each unit. That, right there, is billions of dollars worth of R&D plunk-pressed out in a one dollar indicator.
This is The Plan - systematically leverage the knowledge base and engineering resources of the developed world to help the poor out of poverty.
The problem is, who pays?
Because of the aforementioned market failure due to the problem of getting the tiny bits of money the very poor can afford regularized into a stream sufficient to do R&D on, particularly given that the resulting products are likely to be immediately cloned or simply too simple or too old to be protected by patent law, we have to find a new funding model to take care of these people.
We take care of the engineers, and the engineers take care of the poor.
Why Can't Conventional Charities Do This?
Conventional charities ask you for $20 to feed one child. The implicit contract there is that they're going to do it.
Engineering is an uncertain business, much prone to failure. A charity has to choose between paying $20 to feed one child, or paying for a little of an engineer's time to work on a problem, possibly without success.
Charities cannot absorb risk.
A dollar spent trying something which fails is person they did not help in their stated mission. What this creates is a cultural desire to play it safe, and keep solving the problem the same way it was solved yesterday. Although there is a broad range of innovation in the charitable world, compared to high technology and engineering, charities are barely innovating..
So what we need is a new class of entities - not a charity, not a business, not a conventional educational institution. The closest models we have are free/open source software projects where many people throw in a little of their time or money to create something together.
In free/open source software, the risk is absorbed in two ways. Firstly, the licenses mean that your work is never absolutely wasted because, even in the event of project failure, the code remains available for other uses. The second risk absorber is that people invest spare cycles in free/open source projects most of the time, rather than working on it with the expectation that it will oe day take care of them.
The big issue is this: for the most part, nobody is dying waiting for their free/open source software to be completed, so spare cycles are enough to get the job done. Plus big companies have the ability to profit from some kinds of free/open source activites, so they are willing to pay and to absorb risk.
So What Do We Do?
We need activity directed at building engineering solutions for the developing world, from entities which are not among the current classes of social infrastructure we have (.gov, .mil, .edu, .org) because these bodies have had at least 20 or 30 years since the discovery of appropriate technology, and have done very little to actually roll out the solutions we all know are on the table, hidden somewhere in the laws of nature themselves.
These new entities provide risk management solutions to engineers who wish to dedicate their lives to working on free/open technology solutions to the pressing and urgent needs of the developing world.
I want your help defining what such an entity would look like, and then building one.