A Blog of Interest

I really appreciate the journalism and photography of this acquaintance. I feel like the sum of her recent posts definitely rival F's Modern-Day Colonialism essay.

To try to relate this back to WeAlone, at one point I asserted that it's easier to invent a new technology to save the third world than it is to fix the political situations leading to poverty. I have been told that India's problems stem entirely from government inefficiency and corruption, impairing resource distribution and planning for off seasons, in a country that is otherwise resource wealthy. Is this actually the case ? If so, what sort of technology, if any, could tackle this problem ? Is this fundamentally a social, rather than a technological, hurdle ? And, if so, do we necessarily need to overcome such hurdles before we can claim to have moved into a new technology-dominated phase of society ?


  1. Expert opinion is that poverty is absolutely social, not technological in nature. If we could figure some way to transfer Earth's resources freely, no one would starve. Of course, the standard of living for the top 10% (everybody in the Western world) would probably drop as well, but the ethical upside would be worth it.

    Poorly applied technology just makes the problem worse. While the green revolution in agriculture has increased yields, population increases in turn, cutting into the improvements and make the whole system less resilient. Further improved farming/industrial techniques that don't change this paradigm wouldn't help much.

    Improving child mortality is one simple solution. Lower child mortality is shown to reduce birthrates over time, once the new standards have become integrated.

    For famine (as opposed to hunger), the two causes are crop failures and political violence. Some sort of cheap, non-weather dependent food source could alleviate famines. Some sort of genetically engineered fungus, maybe? There is as of yet no cure for political violence, like that responsible for the humanitarian disaster in Darfur.

  2. "Lower child mortality is shown to reduce birthrates over time, once the new standards have become integrated."

    I'm not sure what this means.

    I'm not certain that a cheap weather independent food source is possible without large scale infrastructure to move food from areas of surplus to areas of famine.

    I assert that it may be possible to correctly apply technology to alleviate some of these problems. For one thing, if the government could be made marginally more efficient using computing technology, maybe that would lower costs or help them do their job for once ? Or maybe the efficiency gains would be eaten by even more corruption.

    The other thing, which I'm still trying to understand, is how you have people with bachelor's degrees living on $2/day in India. I figure, maybe some of this is due to diluted or useless degree programs. Maybe some of this is due to high-tech training programs not being useful in rural areas. Maybe some of this has to do with $2 taking you further in India than it would in the united states. But, at some level, you have to wonder, if students are getting useful degrees in telecommunications, mechanical engineering, agricultural sciences, why these educated people can't just start employing each-other and generating a productive local economy. Either the skills aren't there, the motivation isn't there, or there are active forces at work preventing this emergence.

    Once friend has noted that a switch from oral tradition to forced learning of western traditions in a classroom has, effectively, destroyed a lot of very useful information on how to get good productivity out of local resources. You lose skilled tradesmen training everyone how to use Windows95, I assume.

    This is pretty far from my area of expertise. Maybe some day someone will explain to me the details.

  3. This is an amazing read, thanks for the link.

    One of the things that corruption does is increase the threshold of effort required to get anything done. Instead of following regulations that are maybe complicated but at least spelled out somewhere, an entrepreneur in India has to pay off some number of government officials and satisfy their obscure demands.

    Fixing corruption is hard, not only because it's a cultural thing, but also because it's an economic thing. You have to pay government officials enough that there's not a huge incentive to be corrupt, and for that you need money that then can't be channeled into other things. IIRC, teachers in Russia are simply not paid enough to live, so they have to take bribes.

    I have a feeling that the education system in India in particular is broken in that it strips people of initiative even if they had any to begin with. The stereotype of Indian engineers as hardworking but not really innovative is not accidental: this is the type of person their education system promotes.

    And yes, Biff is right to point out that no one in the world has to be starving, that it's all about misapportioned resources. The flip side is that the West doesn't realize that its own standard of living doesn't really have anywhere to grow (except perhaps in the direction of less labor; if America is moving in this direction, it is only kicking and screaming.)


  4. Reply to Everett: Bah, language fail. What I meant to say was that a child mortality decreases, birthrates also decline. While population growth increases in the short term, long term, parents realize that because more of their children will survive to adulthood, and have fewer children, leading to lower populations. Better medicine should be coupled with much better birth control, including 'morning after pills.' (Yet another reason to thank social conservatives for fucking over the planet.)

    An education is only as valuable as the skills taught. I can easily see a 40 year old Indian engineer working for $2 a day because he doesn't know anything about modern computers. The current generation of IT tech-support will be in for a shock when their jobs become AI complete (~5-10 years).

    And I agree with Feddy that corruption is a very serious problem. I have a relative in Ethiopia who has been trying to build a hospital for several years, and has been stymied at ever level because he refuses to pay a bribe as a matter of principle. And he's well-connected, living comfortably, and is engaged in obvious good works. For anybody else, it'd be much harder.

    Corruption is more than an economic problem, it's a moral tax at every level of society. When problems are best solved by baksheesh, the result is a two-tiered legal system, and the breakdown of trust between the governed and government. And it's so easy. Just one small bribe to get what you really need today (medicine for your kid, a business permit, whatever), and soon you'll be paying for even the most basic services of the state. No modern state can endure systemic corruption.

  5. Anonymous26.8.10

    First of all, thank you guys so much for taking an interest in my stuff.

    "Expert opinion is that poverty is social." This is very true, since technology is simply mismanaged through corruption. Any money that would go toward applying technology usually does not even reach the village level. And on the rare occasions it does, there's nothing guaranteeing that the money will be used for its intended purpose.

    But to even deal with the function of technology in combating poverty, I think it's important to consider what we mean by development -- does it mean turning everything into a city? Does it mean moving villages away from a dependence on farming? Or could it possibly mean making their way of life sustainable?

    As far as I can tell, the end result of economic development is stories like that of many immigrants to the U.S. You receive a technical education that allows you to obtain a job which requires less physical labor. Your income increases many-fold, and you've escaped poverty by all measures.

    Certainly, we've increased your life expectancy, your overall health, and supposedly, your happiness. But this assumes that higher income and less physical labor means happiness and that there is nothing redeeming about rural lifestyles.

    Can development mean improving the village to a place with higher life expectancy, better healthcare, educated farmers (and therefore citizens of a functional democracy), and generally making the village an attractive place to remain? Technological advances have indeed been made. The smokeless chulha (clay stove) has made it possible for women to cook without inhaling the equivalent of 200 cigarettes a day, but it is only used sporadically throughout rural India. How about pushing existing technologies like composting household waste, building a solar oven, solar power, and implementing irrigation (something this basic should not be missing in over 90% of arable land in Jharkhand). Would it be possible to make farming an attractive and respectable lifestyle?

    My original ideas of development in the form of education and higher incomes from white collar jobs were soundly challenged by the fact that you can find happiness and thriving communities in Indian villages.

  6. Anonymous26.8.10

    cont'd... (this is linm)

    What F says about corruption is also very true. It's a systematic cultural problem that is perpetuated at all levels. There is no one obvious victim because if given the opportunity, the people losing out in one instance wouldn't necessarily not cheat in another. I also don't think people cheat because they're not getting paid enough. Government jobs are known for very high pay and unassailable job security (government teachers are paid Rs 26,000/month while private ones get maybe Rs 4,000/month; government teachers will never be sacked because that needs a court case), and I'm pretty sure government officials share in these salaries. Indian Members of Parliament just got a salary hike of 300%: from Rs 15,000/month to Rs 50,000/month (renting a very nice flat in Delhi costs Rs 5,000/month, so that is amazingly generous). India's corruption is very different from Russia's and I think much easier to solve with greater accountability, which can be created by effecting enforcible punishments like firing someone and fining them and tracking government money through computers. Another solution I've heard is just trimming down the million hoops people have to jump through to get anything done. For example, why does a number define whether or not someone is poor. Isn't it enough that they are hungry and cannot afford food? The more guidelines you put on something, the more easily they can be twisted and deserving people can be turned away. Apparently, the states in which the public distribution system of grain have flourished are ones in which everyone has access to the subsidized grain at the same price.

    The Indian education system is making strides to remove the emphasis on rote memorization, so I wouldn't say it's broken. I would say that their teachers are overpaid and have no incentive to be good teachers.

    I suppose the most infuriating thing about India is that this is a government with so much money, so much potential, and the existing infrastructure needed to get things done. And yet it surpasses countries that have much less in the number of starving and malnutritioned people.

    As for cheap food source -- genetic engineering hasn't done anything for the world's malnutrition and hunger problems. The only case where it might have improved yields is apparently the ringspot virus resistant papaya. The problem is that food will always be weather dependent. Even in the U.S., our crop yields still depend on precipitation. Food sources do exist locally and freely. In Jharkhand, mushrooms and bamboo were two examples of this, and they were remarkable in that you would have colonies of mushrooms blanketing fields after a recent rain (literally overnight). And a bamboo shoot the thickness and length of your arm would also emerge after rain, enough to supplement the diet of a family of eight for two days. So "cheap" food sources exist naturally, but we haven't done a good job of preserving agrobiodiversity. As far as I know, efforts to cultivate bamboo and mushrooms have failed locally, due to poor interest and management. There's no need to look for genetic engineering when naturally, for example, hundreds of thousands of varieties of rice exist. The genes are there -- agro companies just have no incentive to diversify when their consumers don't know the difference.

  7. So we are looking for a thesis for the final article that stitches all the posts on theacademicvagrant together.

    Any ideas out there ? This is what I'm getting

    -- the west not longer understands what essential resources are
    -- education in India is not helping, because it simply moves people from the villages to the cities. education fails to transfer any useful skills for rural living. knowing how to use windows 95 does not translate into realizing you need to dig irrigation ditches.
    -- India's problem is a mis-placed faith that capitalism, within a corrupt and amoral population, will somehow even out the economy and take care of people. Thus, India, like the United States, can not excuse its starving population based on resource insufficiency or even lack of governance. ( lack of governance with integrity is not a valid excuse )

    so, I am sold on the "technology and education are failing" because of the nature of the how the technology is applied, and the content of the education.

    One thing mlin said was that the meaning of.. what was it "value" "progress" "growth" needs to change to more accurately reflect actual progress. Moving the entire countryside into the cities to do tech support is not, in any way, progress. It is a regression.

    but I feel like "rampant corruption, lack of ethics, laziness, and a misplaced faith in capitalism" are also major components of why India is not as great as it could be.

    hmm... and with respect to agricultural companies having no incentive to diversify : I imagine a well tuned advertising campaign for some sort of "150 different kinds of rice for maximum nutrition!!" deal might go over OK, although maybe everyone is tired of the "its got 11 different kinds of apples !" advertising pitch.