Archives For poverty

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Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Why is NASA spending $2.5 billion to land a rover on Mars when there are poor people still starving on Earth and the national debt has to be paid down? I’ve posted about this again and again, but it bears repeating. If you’re someone who thinks that we shouldn’t peruse high budget, high stakes science because there are starving orphans in the world, then you simply don’t understand math or science, and may well be a hypocrite to boot. Allow me to explain. How many of those who expect us to equate a Martian rover with starving children have a roof over their heads, food in the fridge, and computers on which to vent their frustrations at NASA’s “waste” in news story comments and on Facebook? Why do they not give up most of their possessions and give them to the needy? Why bother with a computer when half of all people on Earth can’t read? How do they justify a trip to the grocery store to buy fresh produce when more than a quarter of the world’s population has to go to bed hungry? And if they take vacations, what possible excuse can they make for such luxuries when a third of the planet is mired in abject poverty?

Seems a little ridiculous to be so demanding, doesn’t it? Well, it’s equally absurd to argue that we need to give up advancing the species forward until Earth is a utopia where no child goes hungry and no adult falls victim to a terrorist or a secret police of an authoritarian thug. Ultimately, there’s only so much we can do about poverty in general and this well-meaning effort to save the planet despite the fact that throwing money at poverty and hunger won’t solve these problems alone, can’t become a giant anchor around our neck. The Martian rovers are generating jobs and technology we can use in the future. Manned space exploration helps us discover more about our bodies and come up with new ideas for treatments of degenerative diseases, the kind that almost invariably kill or hobble us. To forgo this research so another wad of cash can end up in the greasy palms of some neo-feudal warlord or dictator, as it so often does, is a far greater waste than even the worst scientific experiment. At least we’d learn something from that.

And when we tackle the idea that ditching Curiosity could’ve helped us pay down the national debt, that’s when things get really asinine. Do the people who advocate this know how big the debt is? Do they realize that they’re talking about the equivalent of helping to pay off the mortgage on a modern luxury apartment at the London Ritz Carlton with change they find on a street corner? The entire budget of NASA amounts to one tenth of one percent of the debt, a rounding error barely even worth mentioning in the same breath. But then again, Americans think that NASA’s funding is on par with the Department of Defense despite the fact that if the space agency had a tenth of the defense budget, it would be so ecstatic, it would redefine what is it to have a multiple nerdgasm. If those were the figures with which we were dealing, humans would be flying to Mars on plasma rockets on a routine basis by now and we’d be taking vacations on the Moon. In fact, NASA provides such an amazing bang for our buck that to start ridiculing it for “wasting” $2.5 billion on building and landing a nuclear-powered SUV on another world while helping thousands of jobs in the process, is utterly absurd.

The national debt is as bad as it is today not because we flew to Mars just a few too many times but because more than a trillion dollars were spent on war (some necessary, a good deal not so much, to put it mildly), another trillion plus was spent on bailing out banks which gambled with the mortgage market, lost, and threatened the public into a lucrative bailout, and many billions were spent trying to induce them into hiring more people in the bizarre belief that companies will magically give people jobs if they get more tax cuts, tax incentives, and tax havens rather than do what’s in their best interests and pocket the profits. At no point in American history has the nation spent so much on science that it didn’t have enough money to buy ammo and issue social security checks. Likewise, no nation that I can think of was ever held back by investing in science and technology. Muslim sultans and European kings didn’t lament that astronomers found better navigation techniques, engineers built better roads and more advanced weapons using algebra, optics, and new advances in physics, and more soldiers could be treated by medics who found new medicinal uses for herbs that would make their way into modern medicine. We constantly underfund science and education, and yet it helps us move the world forward on a pittance. To lament that even this is too much is simply not a sane or informed argument.

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space elevator

Considering that SpaceX is now really close to establishing itself as the first private company to launch a craft capable of docking with the ISS, one would think that Elon Musk should be proud. After all, he invested a lot of money into space exploration expressly for the purpose of helping humans reach space faster and easier. As we venture into space more often, we’ll create more high tech jobs, more commercial spin-offs, and possibly even boost the economy through the partnership between competitive private startups and NASA. But this investment in space is apparently just a waste of money according to an editor at Foreign Policy, who would like to see Musk’s cash fund poverty and disease relief efforts across the world. Never mind that billions upon billions are committed to that goal. Never mind that politics often get in the way of development projects so no matter how much money was committed, it’s bound to go not to the poor who need it, but to a warlord who wants it. Musk is apparently supposed to donate to charities in the developing world, not build the future…

One of the unfortunate truths about the world is that there will always be problems. There will always be child deaths from preventable diseases, there will always be poverty, and there will always be war. Of course that’s not to say that we shouldn’t try to alleviate this sad state of affairs, but we also have to think about the future. I know there are starving people around me and I donate to food banks and soup kitchens. But does that mean this is all I should be doing until no one in my city ever goes hungry? Likewise, does this mean we have to be so concerned with turning the world into a utopia, we need to skip on moving forward? Believe it or not, we do have an abundance of food and medicine to help the poor and starving, and we do have enough money for an infrastructure upgrade in the world’s poorest nations. However, we can’t use all of this money and when we’re trying to throw billions at a problem, things get better until they plateau since all that influx of cash and help will not create a local economy to keep sustaining the population, gets stolen by corrupt officials, or misused by a committee of well meaning development planners at NGOs who think they know best but really don’t. There is such a thing as too much aid and we can leave people dependent on hand outs, not helping hands.

All of the efforts named by Keating already have the world’s attention and there are mountains of donations all around post-industrial nations committed to resolving them. So why can’t we have a few billionaires building the economy of the future in countries not sure where to go now? Why try to shame them into adding cash to a big pile and dismiss their lofty efforts as unnecessary and irrelevant until we help the entire world? Investing a lot of money in space exploration and the technology necessary for that to happen isn’t any less important, it’s just a longer term project which will provide jobs, help fund education, and stimulate new ideas we would need to consider to turn the developed world’s economic doldrums around. Of course investing in space isn’t a panacea for all the financial problems we have today, but they’re a part of the solution, and it comes at what can only be described as a bargain, regardless of what you hear otherwise. At some point we have to worry about what will happen to us rather than appoint ourselves the saviors of the world and realize that when tens of billions of dollars are streaming into poverty-alleviation projects, we’ve provided enough help to turn to what we will need to stay successful. Giving until it hurts is an appropriately passionate appeal to good casues, but actually doing it is a terrible idea. Who are we going to help if we went broke doing the helping?

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Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at an international development think tank, has a column arguing that we’re not necessarily improving the developing world when we rush to give broadband to the poor and that there’s plenty of other things to fix before billions are raised to lay fiber and open internet cafes. If you either have very good memories or just use the search function around here, you may remember that I had similar thoughts on this very subject when talking about a plan to give developing nations satellite-based internet access and my stance on the issue hasn’t changed. Obviously, information exchange is good and it helps everybody who can efficiently exchange data to do so. However, when talking about IT in the developing world, what we need to be concerned about most isn’t broadband but energy and infrastructure because without those two, having broadband is pretty much meaningless. This is an issue of capacity vs. throughput and any international aid groups thinking that extra capacity will boost an economy are forgetting that they need to ensure that there is a real economy to boost in the first place. And throughput is what helps to establish and foster that economy.

Here’s the deal. Your standard, broadband optimized web page is about a megabyte in size and loads rather slowly on dial up and 3G wireless modems. But that web page is also littered with big graphics, ads, and all sorts of background scripts that make it look pretty and let the links change color when you hover over them. I would venture to guess that a Third World farmer looking to see for how much he can sell his wares over at a local market doesn’t need to log on to a major website to do it and a stripped-down mobile version or a black and white SMS will do the trick. A text message can be less than a kilobyte in size and travel across even the slowest network with no problem. As long as you have a signal, you’re good to go. The only problem is if you’ll be able to get a strong signal and ensure that the texts can keep flowing. Using a broadband connection will not give the farmer in question any real boost in performance. In fact, he’ll probably never notice the difference because the text will arrive in mere seconds. However, his country now has an excess capacity that might be going to waste and concentrated in urban areas where it will be likely used for entertainment. Broadband is a premium, leisure product that lets you play games and watch videos, not a basic necessity.

What is a basic necessity however, is to make sure that access to crucial data is reliable and that whatever a tower or a network of wires needs to keep transmitting data packets is being generated. That means a better energy grid and the infrastructure to support it, and crews who’ll do the regular maintenance and updates. If a foreign investor sees that data services are reliable and robust enough to conduct day to day business in any city of a developing nation, it will have a much stronger business case for making an investment there than in nations where some cities have world-class broadband services and others have a patchy, outdated network of poor cell phone and data coverage. Of course that said, data along doesn’t drive an economy. There should be roads, sanitation, good housing, security, and an educated workforce. Developing nations won’t benefit by being given whatever is the latest craze in the development community as a magic bullet because a nation is ultimately its economy and institutions working together. When you can increase school attendance and then use the gains in pupils to improve the population’s basic education levels, you’re doing more for the economy than laying down miles and miles of fiber ever would. And believe it or not, it seems that the former costs less than the latter and is logistically easier to implement. Maybe we should focus on that first.

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If you listen to the perpetual End Times crowd that’s so persistent in Western culture, every major event in the news involving unrest, natural disasters, or disease is a sign that the world as we know it is about to end and any minute now, the war between angles and demons will descend on Meggido after they’ve been sent upwards to Heaven. And really, at first, their claims that we’re living in an ever more violent, tumultuous world seem hard to dispute. I mean after all, according to foreign policy wonks, there are about forty armed conflicts of various intensity going on around the world right now and three of them are constantly making international headlines. Though war is formally over in Iraq, tensions are still high, the country is still unstable, and there’s still a contingent of troops there. Afghanistan has been engulfed in wars for decades now and shows no sign of calming down, even as American involvement there nears its ten year anniversary. Libya plunged into a civil war, now with international involvement, as unrest sweeps the Middle East. And while all this is going on, the developing world is still ravaged by rampant poverty, ethnic strife, disease, and hunger, at the same time as a second enormous quake in two years rocked Japan and triggered a major nuclear crisis. Bad omens, huh?

Well, that’s actually all relative, especially when it comes to disease and war. What sends us into shock may have bored our ancestors who usually lived half as long as we do in conditions we would consider unfit for a human, and grappling with lethal diseases for which we have a wide arsenal of treatments. Today, having an infection won’t lead to death from septic shock nearly as often as it did even a few hundred years ago, and a case of tuberculosis is terribly unlikely to kill you if you have access to halfway decent medical care. And that’s not to mention the fact that the greatest infectious killer in human history responsible for snuffing out millions of lives over thousands of years, smallpox, has been driven to extinction, and polio seems to be slowly but oh so surely heading the same way. We’re living longer, healthier, and safer lives thanks to modern technology, science, and education, and we can see how well they work when we compare developed countries where a newborn is now expected to live into his or her 80s and spend nearly a decade and a half on formal learning, to nations where the same kind of educational, medical, and logistical infrastructures don’t exist. We do have much of the technology we need to extend the lives of the world’s poor and help lift them out of poverty, it’s just that the scale of the task and the political complications involved means that it will take many more decades to reach those in dire need and this technology will not be a panacea. But it would help quite a bit.

So what about all the wars and armed conflicts raging across the world? Well, believe it or not, in the days of the ancients, war was a pretty regular event. Emperors filled coffers with the spoils of war from the conquered territories they inherited and acquired, and often, the measure of a ruler was his success in the many military campaigns he would launch. You doubtlessly know Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and you’ve probably at least heard of Hannibal. Why? Because they were accomplished conquerors and lead the kinds of military campaigns that history books were invented to record. But I’m sure you know what that must mean for those they conquered. How many people as a percentage of the total global population died when a couple of empires brutally expanded their territory and demonstratively butchered thousands just to show the newly conquered populace who’s boss? I’m willing to bet that it was far more than when we’ve built weapons that allowed us to efficiently murder millions of people, since major wars occurred on a nearly constant basis and the conquerors were expected to rape, pillage, and exterminate much of the populace when they’d finally broken through enemy lines. The Mongols built entire pyramids out of human remains and marched armies of enslaved prisoners into their targets’ line of fire during an initial advance. Today, brutality on this scale is an international war crime which will immediately trigger nearly all of the world’s advanced militaries to descend on your head. Back then, it was the modus operandi, recorded in almost apathetic footnotes.

Still, why does it seem that we’re living in such a brutal and tumultuous world besieged by war, famine, death, and natural disasters while our ancestors lived in what many of us today would consider a world in which the unrelenting and horrific war crimes were set against entire city-sized cesspools of disease and desperately unsanitary conditions that couldn’t possibly exist outside the gates of Hell itself? Because we have the kind of communication tools that the ancients couldn’t even envision. When a massacre happened in 350 AD, all the people heard were news that someone just conquered someone else and that all those caught in the conflict were probably either dead or enslaved. Today, the death of a protester at the hands of an authoritarian thug is uploaded to the web and sent viral within minutes after it happened in shocking detail. Genghis Khan did not exactly sit on his horse and use his smartphone to Tweet: “sacking Beijing. guards fired all their arrows in my prisoner army, lol!” before uploading fresh pictures from the slaughter and his soldiers posing alongside the mutilated cadavers of those they indiscriminately butchered on his Flickr account and Facebook. Today, one soldier just posing with captured enemies in pictures available to the public causes a global PR uproar, and pictures of soldiers actually abusing prisoners triggers a media firestorm that lasts for months. Our access to instant information has given us unprecedented glimpses at the mechanics of war and drastically lowered our tolerance and acceptance of civilian casualties and violence, a very positive change for the world.

And the same information technology which lets us get up close and personal with the victims of war is also letting us communicate the scale and magnitude of disasters like the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the 2010 quake in Chile, and the recent tremor which severely wounded Japan. Even fifty years ago, we would’ve heard only a few statistics and a brief mention of a tsunami. Today, we’re almost immediately presented with a live feed to the unfolding disasters and kept up to date on what’s going on across the world in real time. We know more about the disasters and we know about them faster, which is why it seems like there are more of them. It’s easier to remember a video of a tsunami surging miles inland, carrying houses on fire and pictures of one, huge, crippled nuclear power plant on the verge of meltdown than it is the brief headline that a magnitude 9.0 quake killed 10,000 people and generated a 30 foot tsunami which is left at that for about a week. Nature will continue to function as it usually does and there’s nothing we can do about it but to be prepared. And while it seems like we’re living in constant decline thanks to how much misery we can now transmit through the net, the reality is that we’re actually much wealthier, much more peaceful, far healthier, and live much longer than we did in the past. Far from getting worse and more chaotic, the world is actually a better place to live now in the grand scheme of things, and I don’t remember the Tribulations implying a better world before the end…

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As we all know, the developing world faces plenty of challenges from widespread and endemic corruption at pretty much every level of government, epidemics of various diseases, ethnic conflicts, and crumbling or just plain nonexistent infrastructures. But while billions of people in developing nations are struggling to find jobs and provide for their families, and hundreds of charitable NGOs are raising billions to bring in vaccines, start construction projects, or fight corrupt officials, a former rocket scientist from SpaceX decided that what’s really needed in the poorest and areas of the world is to quench the people’s thirst for information. And to ensure that subsistence farmers and residents of far flung slums don’t have to forgo internet access, he’s buying an old geosynchronous satellite owned by a company in major financial trouble to use as an access point for a wide swath of land close to the Pacific Rim. I suppose that when your greatest fear is losing access to news on your smartphones and being unable to read your e-mail, your project for the developing world is bound to come with a hefty share of tech evangelism and be better suited for an effort slated in the next two decades…

Before you start thinking that it’s rather ironic that someone whose work absolutely requires a stable, reliable internet connection is criticizing a plan to bring free internet to the masses, let me say that I don’t think that it’s unnecessary to give developing nations the capability to get online. If anything, it could be a benefit for foreign direct investment because companies can build factories and set up offices knowing that they’re going to get an internet connection even in the middle of nowhere. But the big stumbling block to internet access, and one it seems being looked over by the NGO in question, A Human Right, is that to get online, you’ll need a steady flow of electricity and internet-enabled electronics. In countries where electricity is a luxury and blackouts and brownouts are fairly common, internet access is going to be sporadic at best, and limited only to people who already live in cities with decent grids and can actually afford a computer, something most of those who exist on less than a dollar or two a day are very unlikely to afford. We can say the same thing about a wi-fi enabled mobile device. Mobile phones are one of the most widely used pieces of hardware and they’re often deployed in areas with very little communication infrastructure, but most of them are not exactly iPhones or BlackBerrys, just very simple and cheap phones meant only for texting and making calls.

One of the NGO’s justifications for wanting to provide internet to the masses is that 7 out of 10 people are not able to get online. All right, so how about the fact that a third of the world doesn’t even have basic sanitation? We’re going to change societies by giving them information when they don’t even have toilets or running water to wash their hands or take a shower? Many developing nations have alarmingly high illiteracy rates, meaning that even if we were to distribute free laptops across all the poorest areas of the developing world, something like half of the new potential web surfers can’t even read, and all this access to information would be useless to them since they’re illiterate. So before we start thinking of how to give developing nations their free internet, raising tens of millions for a satellite, maybe we should spend some of that money on helping existing efforts to teach them how to read and provide them with running water, medicine, electricity, and food? I understand that a rocket scientist with lofty goals probably isn’t too worried about having the basics necessary for survival and essential sanitation, and probably has his head in the clouds, inspired by tech evangelists’ speeches on the power of the internet to change the world, but in reality, there are more than 2 billion people who struggle with the very things he doesn’t even have to think about when he wakes up in the morning. And I’m sure they would much rather have a decent roof over their heads, a bathroom, and some food in a fridge before they’re worried reading the latest news online. Provided they were fortunate enough to learn how to read.

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It’s one thing to pledge to end poverty within a decade and a half in an ambitious meeting which tackles every shortfall in every facet of developing nations at once, channeling tens of billions of dollars to advance primary education, women’s rights, basic infrastructure and sanitation, healthcare, sustainable industrialization, and global trade in the world’s poorest countries over the last ten years. Actually accomplishing that goal is a very complicated and thorny problem. So while the Millennium Development Goals project has managed to make great strides in helping to lift tens of millions out of destitution, more than a quarter of all humans subsist on just $1.25 a day, nearly a third lack access to basic sanitation, and millions of people die from preventable and treatable diseases every year. So what does it take to eliminate poverty and could we ever succeed?

According to the people who keep track of these things, if you ever managed to find yourself in the supremely privileged position of having all the money in the world to allocate to every person on our planet, you would be sitting on a pile of some $61.1 trillion, which seems like a lot until you divide it by the 6.7 billion of us, giving a seemingly generous $9,119.40 to every man, woman, and child on Earth. But the problem is that much of the money in question is virtual, already belongs to people who need it to build multi-trillion dollar infrastructures, hoard it from others, use it to build war machines and acquire the resources they need to keep their countries going, and so on. In the end, the resources we can allocate to the poor are limited and without a strategic and long-term approach which tries to make sure that developing nations get up on their feet and stay that way, an enormous monetary blitz against disease, hunger, and slums may end up doing more harm than good. Local economies may never develop, local resources mined out, or used as untouchable hedges for the future and a pitch for more money. In fact, this is what’s happening in much of Africa.

But the unfortunate part of all this, is that the more money is poured into alleviating poverty, the more of it ends up with corrupt politicians or dictators who use it to help maintain their stranglehold on nations where typical citizens have little access to things those of us in developed nations consider essential to daily life. If we want to create a more open, democratic world in which trade and local industries provide a steady supply of cash, and access to basic resources for everyone, there needs to be some meddling. Dictators would have to keep being knocked off their perches. Kleptocrats would have to be arrested and the money they stole and spent on themselves and their families recovered and put back into the system. Cultures would have to be re-educated to accept women and those with other faith as equals. You would need strict global controls over government bodies and monetary policy. Sovereignty would have to be partially traded away for global stability and groups a lot like the much prophesized and feared New World Order would have to be put in charge. Otherwise, it’s going to be very difficult to make any poverty-fighting goal legally binding over the long term. Though having to give up your cultural heritage, the ownership of your finances, and your independence, is almost certainly way too steep of a price for building a truly, genuinely, poverty-free world.

Today, humans are far, far more divided than they are united, and no one will be willing to trade their wealth or political and military power for the sake of helping the world’s poor any more than they want to help. And that’s why we will always have poverty and even with projects like MDG, all our efforts will do is make it slightly less miserable for the billions who have to endure it. Of course at the same time, we would hope that things won’t get worse for the world as a whole as even more people will be vying for even more limited resources, but it does look rather likely that we’re beginning to reach the limits of our population and if anything, the usually expanding numbers of humans will slowly begin to level off if not dip over the next century or so. And what the world of the future may be willing to do to end poverty once and for all is something that could be debated for a very, very long time. Though it’s pretty much a given that the messes they’d need to untangle would be similar to the ones we see today in developing nations across the globe.

[ illustration by Phillip Straub ]

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Many of those who read this blog are students or involved in scientific research. And as you work on new and exciting innovations, remember that there are plenty of people who think your work is over-rated and the cash used to fund it should be used for curing diseases, eliminating poverty and improving our cities instead. It’s a good old false dichotomy which manages to combine good intentions with the kind of short-sightedness that would place technological advancement and scientific research on the absolute bottom of the priority list. Oh, sure we can go into space or conduct experiments out of sheer curiosity, hoping to discover something new and useful. We just have to do it after feeding all the hungry, curing cancers, Ebola and AIDS, and modernizing the world’s cities. Then, after humanity is living in luxury, you can have a few dollars to play mad scientist…

Yes, there’s a lot of poverty, crime and illness in our world. And yes, there’s always something we can do to be of help to the sick, the needy, and the unfortunate. But that’s the catch. There’s always something wrong and if we devote all our efforts to tackle a never-ending laundry list of problems, we also take away money from vital research and development projects that can help us create jobs, establish new economies, cure disease, or even set up new infrastructures in the developing world. How are you going to modernize cities when instead of developing new generations of cars and smarter, more affordable buildings, the money is being spent just to stay stagnant? How will you cure diseases when you’re not financing the required R&D? And if you will, how would this money get there? What’s more important, helping the poor or curing them of their illnesses?

Or let’s think about this. If the sick in the developed world could afford homes, water and food, they wouldn’t be so sick in the first place, right? But for that to happen, they need good, affordable homes and money to pay for clean food and water. So why shouldn’t an expansive infrastructure project to build new housing centers and attract companies who’ll create jobs take priority over that too? Armed with all these good intentions, we could argue about that’s a better use of our money to help the world until the cows come home. In the end, we’ll still need to solve all these problems and all of them are important. That’s why this approach is a false dichotomy. It’s not either space exploration and science, or helping the world’s less fortunate. Asking how many starving orphans in Bangladesh the money spent on a space station would feed is disingenuous and manipulative in ways that are difficult to describe with words alone. The fact that using this space station to solve a biological mystery that could lead to a new treatment to control mosquito populations would help the very same orphans as well, never gets brought up by the advocates of this approach.

We need to keep things in perspective here. Eight in ten humans live on less than $10 a day and 50% live on less than $2.50. Need more disheartening statistics? About 72 million kids don’t go to any sort of school and this is probably a very optimistic estimate. Almost 15% of the planet is illiterate and 38% live without sanitary facilities we consider to be absolutely basic. How much money and effort will it take to make even a dent in all these depressing factoids? And how will we help them if we decide to hobble scientific progress that could be harnessed to provide solutions to develop new and better infrastructures or medical treatments? If anything, it should be our top priority to invest in R&D and apply the lessons learned to helping the world. Creating a Dark Age in the name of lifting the world out of poverty isn’t going to help anyone and implying that every dollar that’s not being invested in complex, high tech science projects which only the experts can analyze for concrete and applicable benefits to the outside world, is going to help feed the homeless, is just plain wrong. Unless you’d want to make the argument that things like learning how to better focus beams in radioactive treatments for a whole range of cancers from a number of particle collider experiments, are a needless waste of money…

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