September 2011 Archives

I first met Bob Freling at a board meeting of the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) in San Francisco several years ago.  At the time, I felt that here was an NGO doing innovative things but not getting enough visibility for their work. They were solar way before solar was cool. 

What struck me is how informal and close the board members were.  One of the board members - Larry Hagman (good ol’ J.R. Ewing) - did a brilliant set of solar commercials which I think says a lot about his character and wanting to make the world a better place (quite the opposite of his TV character!). But I digress.

The story here is that SELF pioneered the use of solar power to fight “energy poverty” across a spectrum of applications with their “solar integrated development model” - from clean water, to drip irrigation to improve food security, to electricity for health clinics, schools, and micro-enterprise.

In his blog post about the $300 House Energy Challenge, Bob explains:

“It’s simple really. First, solar energy powers pumps and filters for clean water. This also enables drip irrigation for critical crops. Once people have those necessities, the solar energy is used to power health care facilities which can power equipment and refrigerate vaccines, for example. This increasingly healthy population can then open schools which are powered by solar to provide computer and Internet-based learning. Finally, these well-fed, well-cared for, well-educated villagers can begin community and entrepreneurial activities to grow their economy.”

Bob’s optimism is tempered with reality. The Millennium Development Goals won’t be achieved without energy access, he explains in another blog post.  In case you forgot what the MDGs are (as I often do) they’re listed as:

1) eradicating extreme poverty and hunger;
2) achieving universal primary education;
3) promoting gender equality and empowering women;
4) reducing child mortality;
5) improving maternal health;
6) combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases;
7) ensuring environmental sustainability; and
8) building a global partnership for development.

Note that they are interrelated, ecosystemic problems - and that from Bob’s perspective, energy is the key factor which makes all of them feasible.

With the $300 House project, my eyes have been opened to the fact that the approaches for dealing with the poor are often not very constructive, and sometimes end up doing more damage than good.  That’s what  $300 House adviser Stuart L. Hart is talking about when he says we need to create smaller problems. It is also a concern of our critics on the $300 House. When I spoke to Matias Echanove recently, he was concerned that mass produced housing could in fact disrupt the local economy - the small businesses that are based in informal slums around the country. I hear him. 

Our $300  House project is exploring ways to integrate services and jobs into the ecosystem as well, and we’re reaching out to talk to the leaders in the communities that are interested in this approach. In India, we’ve just completed a survey - with the help of THL - that covers 15 villages in three of the poorest states in India - Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Jharkhand.  I’ll go into more detail in a later post.

For me the question is quite simple - we see an explosion of interest in  developing integrated  townships for the middle class in India, but why is there nothing comparable for the poor? To borrow a phrase from the US, why can’t we build “master-planned communities” for the poor?

Is it too much to ask that governments, NGOs and development institutions, and businesses work together with the communities involved to build integrated solutions?  

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Unfortunately, there are far too few examples of collaborative development. This is something we all need to look at urgently.  There is also a problem of ownership.  The development community, NGOs, and most governments think they “own” the problem.  Unfortunately, without a business mindset to make solutions scale, their is so little real progress.

The poor remain poor. 

And that’s why the work Paul Polak is doing is so important.  He’s looking at making small changes at the bottom of the pyramid; small changes that make a big difference in the earnings of the poor. This is also the approach advocated by Esther Duflo and Abhijit Bannerjee in Poor Economics.

At a much larger scale, we see an example in the Gates Foundation’s approach - which is all about examining the ecosystems of poverty.  A common criticism of the Gates Foundation goes along these lines: “How can people like Gates, living in a different universe, help people at the bottom of the pyramid?”  This is a false and damaging argument, but answered quite well by Sam Dryden:

“Some people may ask how my team and I—working at the world’s largest foundation located in a prosperous corner of a rich nation—can relate to a subsistence farming family in Ethiopia or Bangladesh. This is a very reasonable question to ask. The farmer has a direct connection to the land and we are considerably removed, both by distance and culture. We begin by realizing these differences and humbly listening to farmers and their families, learning and respecting their cultures, ways of living, and knowledge of place and home. The solutions we seek are those appropriate and welcomed in this context, not those imposed by distant values or interests.”

And finally, perhaps there is an alternative to the giant top-down programs, and incremental bottom-up “Let the Poor Do It Themselves” approaches we’ve encountered. 

With the $300 House, we’re thinking micro-development - is it possible to build integrated micro-solutions at the village level?  And in cities, at the neighborhood level? 

Why not?

The Ecosystems of Poverty

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When I first started working on classifying online ecosystems, I had no idea that my thinking there would influence my thoughts on the $300 House. But now it seems like the systems approach to understanding wicked problems is pretty much the only way to go.  None of this is new, of course, but I'm still impressed at the power of ecosystem thinking.

Here's how Nobel prize laureate Gunnar Myrdal was thinking about the problems of race and poverty:

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The "vicious circle" has not yet made its way into our political thinking though, if we judge the policy makers of today's Congress. Heck, they can't even bring themselves to accept the effects of global warming - in no small part thanks to our lobbyist friends.

The idea of poverty as the outcome of a dysfunctional ecosystem is explained here as well:

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Note that this applies to poverty in the US as well, not just the emerging world.

So, part of tackling the issue of affordable housing for the poor is to try to understand the interconnected nature of these problems.  I tried to draw causal arrows between the various problems, but gave up. In essence, we have a problem of insecurity, in which all of these factors must be addressed simultaneously if we are to change the vicious cycle of poverty, disease, and suffering.  Here's what I ended up with:

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The poor live in an insecure, unbalanced universe. 

I'm calling it the "ecosystems of poverty."

Next we'll look at the idea of integrated development (another old idea) which fell out of favor, but must be re-evaluated in today's light if we are serious about poverty alleviation.

What's Good about the USA

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Despite all the whining about the decline of the USA, and charts showing the downsizing of the American dream, today's a good day to reflect on why we still hold the promise of Abraham Lincoln's words in 1862: "the last best hope of earth."

A few thoughts:

1. The individual can still make a difference:  Check out Paul Farmer, Paul Polak, Michael Moore and, yes, Barack Obama. Give me an example of any other country in the world where someone like Obama could even remotely hope to be elected president.  See what I mean? Of course, the flip side of this is that you have corporate puppets like Sarah Palin and Rick Perry, but I'll take the voice of the individual any day.  What's the alternative? China.  Enough said.

2. The rich aren't all money-grubbing pirates. More than any other country on earth, our rich turn to philanthropy to leave a legacy.  Check out the Gates Foundation or the Clinton Global Initiative.  Where else do we see this kind of private philanthropy at the individual level - from both rich and poor? Have you seen what happens in Bangladesh?  Note: I know, we do have folks like the Koch brothers who are busy strangling democracy while they protect their "freedom."  What about India?  Nope.

3. The United States is the world's largest source of humanitarian aid. Yes, despite all the whining, our government is still the largest donor by far. We can do better, but hey, you don't see anyone else even close in real dollars. This type of comparison is a statistical game.

4. We're far less sexist than Europe.  Seriously, that's a fact.

5. Class and caste barriers are far lower here, and can be overcome.  See point # 1.

6. Customer Service.  If you think customer service is bad in the US, you should see the rest of the world. Speaking from plenty of experience, we are in another league.

7. Independent thinking.  Not so widely seen on Fox, but still here.  The sheep to thinker ratio is far healthier in the US. 

8. Tolerance.  We are a tolerant nation. It's kind of funny when the most intolerant group we have is the atheists.

9. Melting Pot of People and Ideas. True in business, but also in social terms.  I'm still a fan of E pluribus unum.

Keep on keeping on, America. And may tomorrow always be better than yesterday.

Bin Laden lost.

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The story is captured in this snippet borrowed from a larger infographic from the New York Times. The middle class is under historic assault in the US, explains Robert Reich, and this bodes badly for democracy, not just here, but all over the world. 

Here’s the money quote:

Look back over the last hundred years and you’ll see the pattern. During periods when the very rich took home a much smaller proportion of total income — as in the Great Prosperity between 1947 and 1977 — the nation as a whole grew faster and median wages surged. We created a virtuous cycle in which an ever growing middle class had the ability to consume more goods and services, which created more and better jobs, thereby stoking demand. The rising tide did in fact lift all boats.

During periods when the very rich took home a larger proportion — as between 1918 and 1933, and in the Great Regression from 1981 to the present day — growth slowed, median wages stagnated and we suffered giant downturns. It’s no mere coincidence that over the last century the top earners’ share of the nation’s total income peaked in 1928 and 2007 — the two years just preceding the biggest downturns.


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We’re losing our competitiveness, as well as our ability to lead.

There’s a growing sense in the business community that we must find a way to work together again. To do this, we have to reject political terrorism - the political brinksmanship which prevents us from finding common ground or even beginning to look for honest solutions. Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, recently created a stir when he suggested that it was time to halt all political donations. Warren Buffett did the same with his no-nonsense plea to raise his taxes.

Welcome to the third world, America! Looks like we’re headed on the fast-track back to serfdom.  Brought to you in large part by the GOP and corporate Democrats.

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