William Kisaalita 2017-06-28 00:41:41
The first goal in the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere.” Several other goals of the 17-goal list are related to this first goal, especially in low-resource settings (LRS), which includes the majority of sub-Saharan African countries. There is no lack of solutions for the problems in LRS; one only needs to access the repositories of organizations like Engineers without Borders for proof. The challenge is turning these solutions into innovations. In this article, I offer some reasons behind the low rate of diffusion of proposed solutions. I also make an important distinction between solutions and innovations: a solution becomes an innovation when it is widely and sustainably adopted. To provide some background for these insights, I first illustrate the complex relationship between poverty, the poor, and useful interventions. What is poverty? A framework that brings together previous work on understanding poverty is shown in the accompanying diagram. The state of poverty is a consequence of environmental factors and genetic factors. Examples of environmental factors are unfavorable climate, soils, or government policies, while genetic factors include susceptibility to diseases, such as endomyocardial fibrosis, for which poverty is a risk factor. The state of poverty can be measured in different ways, the simplest of which is daily household income. The negative effects of poverty have been thoroughly documented. Research has also shown that alleviation of poverty has positive effects on psychological well-being and related measures, such as certain mental disorders, unhappiness, and anxiety. As shown in the diagram, an increase in poverty leads to stress and negative affective states, which reinforce the poverty state (inner circles). This feedback loop (poverty causes stress, which prolongs poverty) has been hypothesized to be due to the influence of negative affective states on risk-taking. Studies based on psychological research have shown that fear and stress cause higher levels of risk-aversion and that the poor easily forego higher future gain for a low present gain. In economic terms, this short-sightedness is an increase in time-discounting. A successful intervention has the opposite effect and can lead to a decrease in poverty (reducing the size of the outer circle). The question marks in the diagram indicate that while many studies have demonstrated these causal relationships, some of these studies were conducted in the laboratory, and some field studies did not establish the suggested causality, calling for continued field work. Context is the key Poor understanding of the context in which a solution is applied is probably the main reason why so many promising solutions never get anywhere. Context is a broad concept and includes difficult-to-quantify factors, such as gender roles, cultural values, household decision-making processes, and anthropometric characteristics, among others. The failure of the playpump is an example of a misunderstanding of the cultural context. The playpump was designed to pump groundwater to a storage tank, from which the water would be distributed to water-starved communities. The energy for pumping was to be supplied by children and/or women in the community while they “played” on a merry-go-round structure that operated the pump. One reason for the failure, aside from the fact that the children were at school most of the day, was that it was not dignified for women to “play” on the merry-go-round. One way to avoid such context issues is to co-create solutions with the primary users as equal partners, followed by pilot-testing with a handful of users. This approach is a hallmark of human-centered design. Context also includes anthropometric characteristics. New or better hand tools have potential to alleviate poverty, but only if they are well designed. Optimal design of hand tools requires body dimensions and strength data for the intended users. Although many anthropometric databases are available to inform tool design, such data may not be applicable for designs that target sub-Saharan women. For example, the widely used anthropometric databases of the Aerospace Medical Research Laboratories in Dayton, Ohio, were derived from U.S. military personnel. A recent study of Ugandan women from two ethnolinguistic groups (Bantu and Nilotic) revealed differences between the two groups, but both groups were significantly different from American women. Use of existing anthropometric data based on western women for the design of a hand-operated device could have yielded a non-optimal tool. The Uganda study also revealed that even within the same ethnolinguistic group, in this case Bantu, individuals may differ by specific location, probably because of differences in nutrition. A case can be made for more robust statistical testing of body measurements among populations, as well as for development of models that more accurately predict body size using easily measurable dimensions as independent variables. Technology and the value chain The intervention strategies in the accompanying diagram are characterized as technological, value chain, or a combination of both. For example, breeding and successfully introducing a high-yielding rice variety is a technological intervention, while building a network of local buyers and export markets is an intervention based on the value chain. It is likely that the incomes of women working as smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa will only be increased if both types of interventions are implemented simultaneously. In many instances, a technological intervention meets the immediate need, but a poor choice of the value chain or business model results in a failed solution. A good example is the motorcycle ambulance. Numerous studies have shown that motorcycle ambulances improve healthy baby deliveries in LRS, but none of these projects has transitioned to a self-sustaining business. The main barrier has been the value chain, which is typically modeled after urban automobile ambulances. Because the service is provided by a hospital or clinic, it is it unaffordable for its intended users. In fact, successful projects often provide their services for free for this reason. In the case of the motorcycle ambulance, the technological intervention could be modified into a “car-seat” device that could be firmly secured on a boda boda, the private bicycle or motorcycle taxi service that started in Uganda as a spontaneous entrepreneurial response to the increased availability of bicycles and motorcycles in the 1990s and then spread throughout East Africa. This transportation system provides connections between rural and remote populations and peri-urban centers. The car-seat could be owned collectively by several boda boda operators who are paid by the households that need the ambulance service. This would remove the layers in the current business model that make the service too expensive. Ending poverty “in all its forms everywhere” is possible, but it requires new solutions. It also requires rethinking the old solutions, and unloading those that do not succeed as interventions. ASABE member William Kisaalita, Distinguished Faculty Scholar and Professor, College of Engineering, University of Georgia, Athens, USA., firstname.lastname@example.org.
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