September 24, 2015

A case study – Nik-Mart in Subsistia

Filed under: Economics, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Don Boudreaux looks at the different effects of international aid and capitalist exploitation in a desperately poor, far-away country:

The far-away land of Subsistia is inhabited by people who are desperately poor, not only relative to the typical person elsewhere on the globe but also in absolute terms. For decades well-meaning, well-educated, and well-funded people from the United States and other wealthy countries have visited Subsistia to help raise Subsistians out of poverty.

Alas, while these efforts by governments, NGOs, and churches have been many and munificent, all ordinary Subsistians continue to live in deep poverty – that is, until recently. A few short years ago a large U.S. corporation, Nik-Mart, set up factories in Subsistia. The wages that Nik-Mart pays to its Subsistian workers, while much higher than the average wage in Subsistia, are only a tiny fraction of the wages that Nik-Mart pays to its production-line employees in America.

Nik-Mart sells the goods produced in its Subsistian factories all around the world. One result of Nik-Mart’s operations in Subsistia is that the real prices that poor Americans and Europeans pay for shoes, clothing, and home furnishings have fallen significantly.

Nik-Mart is consistently one of the world’s most profitable corporations. It is also one of the world’s most hated.

When word recently leaked out of Nik-Mart’s record sales revenues and of the healthy rate of return on Nik-Mart’s assets, protests erupted in all major capitals of the developed world. Washington, Ottawa, Santiago, London, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Rome, Prague, Moscow, Tokyo, Pretoria, Canberra – these and other cities were swarmed by protestors demanding “social justice” and criticizing Nik-Mart for exploiting workers. “Nik-Mart’s profits are in the billions,” screamed U.S. Sen. Elsbeth Walter, who gave a rousing speech to protestors on the Washington Mall, “and yet it exploits poor workers in Subsistia while it off-shores jobs from America, hurting poor Americans! Have you no shame, Nik-Mart? Have! You! No! Shame?!!” Sen. Walter rhetorically asked, her index finger pointing accusingly at an imaginary Nik-Mart executive presumably hovering, phantasmically yet bloatedly, before her.

The Sunday talking-head shows were filled with heads talking of little else. “It’s really unconscionable,” said Harmon Nicholson, a famous progressive columnist, “that Nik-Mart takes advantage of the freedom that this country gives it to produce the things it sells in America outside of America. It’s no wonder our jobs picture is so weak and that American wages have stagnated.”

Sen. Lawrence Greenham, a Republican from the south, chimed in: “I don’t normally agree with Harmon, but he’s right on this. American plutocrats are gettin’ richer an’ richer off the backs of America’s poor. It’s gotta stop.”

May 17, 2015

Real philanthropy, Slim style

Filed under: Humour — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

This report says that one of the richest men in the world is opening new frontiers in philanthropy:

Perennial contender for World’s Richest Man Carlos Slim announced Friday that he had reconsidered selling his Upper East Side home for $80 million, and instead was opening the Beaux Arts mansion to undocumented roomers. “Ever since I became the second largest shareholder in New York Times Inc., I’ve started reading the editorials,” explained the telecom monopolist. “And they’ve convinced me! What’s all this obsession with documents anyway?”

The Mexican oligarch continued, “If you can fool my doorman into letting you in once, or if you have the moxie to throw a brick through my window and crawl in over the broken glass, well, it would be inhumane to evict you. And if you have kids or parents, then they can come too because I wouldn’t want to stand in the way of family reunification. If I find you inside my house, then mi casa es su casa!

This is clearly too good to check (but I did verify that the story isn’t dated April 1st, so it must be true, right?

February 12, 2015

EU governments and GM crops

Filed under: Africa, Bureaucracy, Economics, Europe — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Last month, Matt Ridley ran down the benefits to farmers, consumers, ecologists and the environment itself that the European Union has been resisting mightily all these years:

Scientifically, the argument over GM crops is as good as over. With nearly half a billion acres growing GM crops worldwide, the facts are in. Biotech crops are on average safer, cheaper and better for the environment than conventional crops. Their benefits accrue disproportionately to farmers in poor countries. The best evidence comes in the form of a “meta-analysis” — a study of studies — carried out by two scientists at Göttingen University, in Germany.

The strength of such an analysis is that it avoids cherry-picking and anecdotal evidence. It found that GM crops have reduced the quantity of pesticide used by farmers by an average of 37 per cent and increased crop yields by 22 per cent. The greatest gains in yield and profit were in the developing world.

If Europe had adopted these crops 15 years ago: rape farmers would be spraying far less pyrethroid or neo-nicotinoid insecticides to control flea beetles, so there would be far less risk to bees; potato farmers would not need to be spraying fungicides up to 15 times a year to control blight; and wheat farmers would not be facing stagnant yields and increasing pesticide resistance among aphids, meaning farmland bird numbers would be up.

Oh, and all that nonsense about GM crops giving control of seeds to big American companies? The patent on the first GM crops has just expired, so you can grow them from your own seed if you prefer and, anyway, conventionally bred varieties are also controlled for a period by those who produce them.

African farmers have been mostly denied genetically modified crops by the machinations of the churches and the greens, aided by the European Union’s demand that imports not be transgenically improved. Otherwise, African farmers would now be better able to combat drought, pests, vitamin deficiency and toxic contamination, while not having to buy so many sprays and risk their lives applying them.

I made this point recently to a charity that works with farmers in Africa and does not oppose GM crops but has so far not dared say so. Put your head above the parapet, I urged. We cannot do that, they replied, because we have to work with other, bigger green charities and they would punish us mercilessly if we broke ranks. Is the bullying really that bad? Yes, they replied.

Yet the Green Blob realises that it has made a mistake here. Not a financial mistake — it made a fortune out of donations during the heyday of stoking alarm about GM crops in the late 1990s — but the realisation that all it has achieved is to prolong the use of sprays and delay the retreat of hunger.

January 1, 2015

Unintended consequences – charities suffer due to US anti-terror measures

Filed under: Economics, Government, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 11:31

It’s actually rather amazing how powerful the US government can be … and we’re not talking about military power here. US banking laws are being exported to other nations without their consent or consultation, and there’s nothing non-US governments can do about it:

Now here’s a real surprise. The various anti-terror laws, terrorist financing laws, know your customer, illicit money tracking laws which now festoon the financial system have costs. Really, who would have thought it that bureaucratic regulations have real costs out there in the real world? It’s something of an amusement that it’s a rather lefty think tank, Demos, that brings us this news. For, of course, it tends to be those who are rather lefty who tell us that regulation is the cure for all our ills and no, of course not, regulations never have any costs they only do good things. You know, the Elizabeth Warren approach, piles of regulations on finance will be just wonderful, no one will ever lose out.

It particularly interests me as I’ve a very vague connection with a charity, Interpal, that has been hit by these sorts of regulations. Not, I hasten to add, that I am actually connected with that charity, only that I was once on a TV program with the head of it discussing their difficulties in gaining access to a bank account. The basic problem was that the Americans thought that they were less than kosher (the charity themselves obviously disagree) and that thus they shouldn’t have access to the banking system. This shouldn’t be all that much of a problem as they’re a UK charity and they were looking for access to the UK banking system. But that isn’t how it all works. If the Americans decide that they don’t think someone should have access to the banking system then they tell the bank that, well, you wouldn’t want us to come looking at your American banking licence if you were to offer an account with your UK licence, would you? And thus there is the leverage required to extend US law to other countries.


It’s not particularly the British government that is causing these problems although they have a part in it, to be sure. It’s the general international rules over who a bank may deal with, what they’ve got to know about them and what they’re doing with the money. Everyone seems quite happy with this as it stops (or hinders at least) drug dealing, money laundering and tax abuse. But it does have costs. Absolutely any set of regulations will affect people who are not the target of said regulations. If you insist that banks make a large effort to understand what their customers are doing then the banks will simply reject some customers as not being worth the candle. If perhaps handling money for some Islamic terrorist means bankers go to jail then bankers won’t handle the money of anyone who might be an Islamic terrorist: nor anyone who wanders around in Huddersfield in Islamic robes and states that they’re raising money to help the poor of Gaza. The manager of, say, Lloyds Bank in Huddersfield doesn’t know what the heck is going on in Gaza, who is linked to Hamas, who is not, who is delivering food and who is doing other less reputable things. And there’s no reason why she should either. So, the laws to prevent the one will lead to the other not gaining access to a bank account. This is really simple, simple, stuff.

This is what happens when people regulate.

September 11, 2014

QotD: The real lesson taught by mandatory “volunteer” work

Filed under: Economics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

What about the rationalization that charitable extracurricular activities teach kids important lessons of moral engagement? There are reasons to be skeptical. A skilled professional I know had to turn down an important freelance assignment because of a recurring commitment to chauffeur her son to a resumé-building “social action” assignment required by his high school. This involved driving the boy for 45 minutes to a community center, cooling her heels while he sorted used clothing for charity, and driving him back — forgoing income which, judiciously donated, could have fed, clothed, and inoculated an African village. The dubious “lessons” of this forced labor as an overqualified ragpicker are that children are entitled to treat their mothers’ time as worth nothing, that you can make the world a better place by destroying economic value, and that the moral worth of an action should be measured by the conspicuousness of the sacrifice rather than the gain to the beneficiary.

Steven Pinker, ” The Trouble With Harvard: The Ivy League is broken and only standardized tests can fix it”, The New Republic, 2014-09-04.

April 20, 2014

Those dismal, uncaring economists

Filed under: Economics, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:39

Tim Harford found a recent assertion by a clergyman to be troubling:

‘Some research on students suggests economics either attracts or creates sociopaths’

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, recently bemoaned the way that “we are all reduced to being Homo financiarius or Homo economicus, mere economic units … for whom any gain is someone else’s loss in a zero-sum world.”

The remarks were reported on the 1st of April, but I checked, and the Archbishop seems serious. He set out two ways to see the world: the way a Christian sees it, full of abundance and grace; and the way he claims Milton Friedman saw it, as a zero-sum game.

Whatever the faults one might find in Friedman’s thinking, seeing the world as a zero-sum game was not one of them. So what do we learn from this, other than that the Archbishop of Canterbury was careless in his choice of straw man? The Archbishop does raise a troubling idea. Perhaps studying economics is morally corrosive and may simply make you a meaner, narrower human being.

However, the Archbishop appears to have been misinformed:

Economists did actually give more to charity in Frank’s survey. They were richer, and while they gave less as a percentage of their income they did give more in cash terms.

What about those hypothetical questions about envelopes full of cash? Were economics students selfish or merely truthful? Anthony Yezer and Robert Goldfarb (economists) and Paul Poppen (a psychologist) conducted an experiment to find out, surreptitiously dropping addressed envelopes with cash in classrooms to see if economics students really were less likely to return the money. Yezer and colleagues found quite the opposite: the economics students were substantially more likely to return the cash. Not quite so selfish after all.

Most importantly, classroom experiments with collective goods or the prisoner’s dilemma don’t capture much of economic life. The prisoner’s dilemma is a special case, and a counter-intuitive one. It is not surprising that economics students behave differently, nor does it tell us much about how they behave in reality. If there is a single foundational principle in economics it is that when you give people the chance to trade with each other, both of them tend to become better off. Maybe that’s naive but it’s all about “abundance” and is the precise opposite of a zero-sum mentality.

In fact, some of the more persuasive criticisms of economics are that it is too optimistic about abundance and peaceful gains from trade. From this perspective, economists should give more attention to the risks of crime and violence and to the prospect of inviolable environmental limits to economic growth. Perhaps economists don’t realise that some situations really are zero-sum games.

February 8, 2014

What happened to charities that actually concentrate on charitable works, rather than lobbying?

Filed under: Britain, Government, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 12:34

James Delingpole on the remarkable community of interest between charitable organizations (partly funded by governments) and the government agencies they lobby:

“To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical”. Thomas Jefferson, 1779.

One of the curses of modern life is the plethora of “charitable” lobbying groups demanding that the government take more regulatory action in areas where most of us believe the state has no business interfering.

Almost every day you read in the papers that some apparently grassroots movement, supposedly speaking for all of us, thinks more should be done to stop us drinking, smoking, eating sugar or salt, make us less sexist, force us to spend more on foreign aid or environmental issues. But if that wasn’t annoying enough, here’s the worst thing of all: we’re paying for these unrepresentative, mostly left-leaning lobby groups with our taxes.

This is the message of Chris Snowdon’s report for the Institute of Economic Affairs, The Sock Doctrine [PDF] — the third in his trilogy of broadsides against the lavishly state-funded “fake charities” industry. By 2007, he noted, a quarter of the UK’s 170,000 charities were receiving money from the state and approximately 27,000 received at least 75 per cent of their income from the state. If you share these charities’ predominantly liberal-Left-leaning aims you probably won’t mind so much. But if you don’t, you might be inclined to believe, as Fraser Nelson argued in these pages last year, that “Britain’s charities are nurturing a colourful, talented and efficient anti-Tory alliance.”

But, of course, there are opposing charitable organizations equally dependent on government funding and spending disproportional time and effort lobbying for their pet causes?

Well the problem is that they’re almost non-existent. The reason for this was identified in 1985 by US researchers James T. Bennett and Thomas J. DiLorenzo:

“Virtually without exception, the recipients of government grants and contracts advocate greater governmental control over and intervention in the private sector, greater limitations on rights of private property, more planning by government, income redistribution, and political rather than private decision making. Most of the tax dollars used for political advocacy are obtained by groups that are on the left of the political spectrum.”

November 28, 2013

The equine Range Rovers race

Filed under: Britain, Sports — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 09:02

Published on 24 Nov 2013

Five Clydesdale shire horses have taken part in a charity race at Exeter racecourse.

The horses thundered down the home straight with the aim of promoting the breed, which has been given “at risk” status.

The horses took part in the Devon Air Ambulance charity race 35 minutes before before the day’s main racing and were ridden by professional jockeys.

The two furlong race was won by Tom Parker, ridden by Michael Nolan.

July 30, 2013

The economic inefficiency of “fair trade” goods

Filed under: Business, Economics — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:26

Tim Worstall applauds you for wanting to use some of your economic surplus to help out the poor and less fortunate producers of various goods in the developing world, but points out that the “fair trade” method is incredibly inefficient at funnelling any of that extra money to the original producers of your coffee or other “fair trade” goods:

However, you might want to have a little think about this in the lights of these quite astonishing numbers:

    An interesting statistic is that in 2010, retail sales of fair-trade-labelled products totalled about $5.5 billion, with about $66 million premium — or about 1.2 percent of total retail sales — reaching the participating producers. There has to be a better way of helping poor farmers. Having only 1.2 cents out of every dollar spent on fair-trade products reach the target farmers is a hugely inefficient way of helping these people. If people wish to help these farmers there has to be charities out there that can transfer more than 1.2 cents per dollar to them.

It may well be that you are exercising your consumer choice as a way to make the world a better place. It’s just an incredibly inefficient method of doing so and thus you might want to reconsider that plan.

My own supposition is that the reason Fair Trade is so appallingly inefficient is the number of Interchangeable Emmas who have to be paid from that money supposedly going to producers. It takes very many poor coffee farmers’ incomes to pay for the PR bod advertising Fair Trade coffee from an office in central London. It might well be better to simply do as Madsen urges, and buy things made by poor people in poor countries. Then send the money saved by not paying the Emmas off to a charity of some minimal efficiency. Or even, if coffee farmers are really your thing, simply drink an extra cup or two a day and send the money by increasing demand for their production.

Update: In a marginally related item, Jonathan Katz explains why the policy of sending food to distant lands is less an attempt to ameliorate hunger than it is a corporate welfare policy to prop up US agribusiness:

The problem, says Christopher Barrett, an economist at Cornell University and one of the world’s leading experts on food aid, is that the U.S. has an entirely different goal when it comes to sponsoring humanitarian assistance. Feeding the hungry has never been its sole purpose.

Rather, the historical goal of food aid has been to stimulate U.S. businesses — the agriculture and shipping industries above all. Modern food aid was devised in the early days of the Cold War as a way to dispose of government-held surpluses, in order to regulate crop prices at home and create markets abroad. The main programs in the early days of food aid didn’t even give food away for free, rather selling it to foreign governments at a discount. “It just happened that this could get advertised as and provide humanitarian relief on occasion,” Barrett said.

Over time, things began to change. Surplus disposal became less important than other forms of domestic price control, and the cheaply sold food did not prove very effective in opening markets. When in the 1970s and 1980s, food donated during famine emergencies in Asia and Africa proved effective, free-food distributions took over as the dominant programs.

Today, the major players in food aid are nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as World Vision. But, because of how American laws are structured, domestic corporations still reap the much of the profit. Major U.S. agribusinesses can count on hundreds of millions of dollars in annual sales to the government.

Shipping companies do even better. Federal law mandates that at least half of all U.S. food aid must be shipped aboard U.S.-flagged vessels. With shipping costs taking up nearly 40 percent of any food assistance funding, the law guarantees hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts for shipping companies. The winner of the Mozambique shipment was no exception: Sealift Inc. has grossed $203 million in government contracts since 2011, mostly from the Pentagon, according to data at USASpending.gov. This benefit is not lost on the shipping industry: The sector’s leading coalition, USA Maritime, spent $250,000 lobbying Congress on food aid and cargo-preference laws in 2011 and 2012.

June 9, 2013

The new heckler’s veto – the called-in bomb threat

Filed under: Cancon, Law, Sports — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:39

A charity event in Halifax had to be cancelled due to a phoned-in bomb threat:

A bomb threat that forced one of the Canadian Cancer Society’s biggest fundraisers to cancel on Friday night is still being felt by other groups organizing their annual walks and runs this weekend.

Halifax Regional Police said someone called 911 from a payphone at the corner of Spring Garden Road and South Park Street and made threats that alluded to the Boston Marathon bombing.

Nearby, nearly 700 people were gathered at the Oval in the Halifax Common for the Relay for Life.

Police met with the organizers and the fundraiser was called off, ruining a year’s worth of work by dozens of volunteers.

“I would say don’t ever do this again because you are hurting people in their time of need,” said Barbra Stead-Coyle, CEO of the Cancer Society.

“Last night my heart broke for the volunteers who put their whole heart and soul into making last night’s events.”

January 20, 2013

Oxfam and the top 1%

Filed under: Economics, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:43

Oxfam is publicly blaming and shaming the top 1% of income-earners for their evil money-grubbing ways that deprive the worst-off and make poverty worse in developing countries. Simon Cooke explains why they’re wonderfully, gloriously wrong:

    “Concentration of resources in the hands of the top 1% depresses economic activity and makes life harder for everyone else — particularly those at the bottom of the economic ladder.”

And that top 1% isn’t you and me we’re led to believe — it’s those evil billionaire capitalists who are stealing the very bread from the mouths of the starving children. Let’s leave aside the fact that poverty is largely unrelated to inequality — people do not become rich by making others poor, however often Oxfam want to pretend that this is so. Instead let’s remind ourselves who the 1% are in terms of world development and poverty:

    The truth is that the entry level income for the world’s top 1% of earners is:


    That’s it, in real money not a great deal more than £20,000 a year gets you into the 1% club — sits you among the world’s filthy rich, among those to blame for all the sins and evil of the world. Capitalist scum.

Most of you reading this blog are in the top 1% sucking up all those resources — depriving the poor in Africa and elsewhere of the chance to grow, to get out of poverty.

Except you’re not. Sit back, put a smile on you face — punch the air with joy. You and me — capitalists both — have sat getting a little richer for thirteen years while a billion folk have escaped absolute poverty. All the international trade, all those businesses and those business folk filling the posh seats in aeroplanes flitting across the world — they’ve done that, they’ve lifted those people out of poverty.

Oxfam are wrong. Neoliberalism is making all the world richer. Even the UN celebrates that neoliberal success:

    “For the first time since records on poverty began, the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen in every developing region, including sub-Saharan Africa. Preliminary estimates indicate that the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 per day fell in 2010 to less than half the 1990 rate…”

This is what capitalism does. Isn’t it wonderful.

July 13, 2012

Nice little racket some Toronto stores have set up

Filed under: Business, Cancon — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:13

Charge your customers 5 cents per bag, beat them over the head with the message that the money goes to “charity”, then pocket the profits:

Another customer, who requested anonymity, said she now boycotts Loblaws, Shoppers and PharmaPlus. When Loblaws started selling plastic bags, she said it led to poorer customer service like cashiers refusing to pack her groceries.

“A bag was a courtesy given for shopping in the store and also a way for the store to advertise by putting their logo on the side of the bag,” she said in an email.

She also detests the World Wildlife Fund, which Loblaws funds with bag sales.

Metro spokeswoman Marie-Claude Bacon said Metro buys each bag for about 2.5¢. Most retailers won’t say how much plastic bag revenue flows to charities. Even when they do give, they recoup 33¢ of every donated dollar, Al Rosen, a forensic accountant, points out.

And he adds: “Overall, there are some who are being honest about increasing their donations and there are others who are just taking advantage of plastic bag thing to find another way of making the same donations as they previously made.”

June 22, 2012

Charities: the Trojan Horse for expansion of government

Filed under: Britain, Bureaucracy, Government — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 08:51

Some charities are still what they were twenty years ago: organizations that provide help to those in need. Others, however, have morphed into specialized entities that exist primarily to lobby the government for more funds … to allow them to lobby more efficiently:

The relationship between charities and the British state has been significantly transformed in the past 15 years. There is a gulf between the public’s perception of what is charitable – a traditional view still dominated by visions of self-sacrificing volunteers and jumble sales – and the third sector’s view of itself as a more caring, semi-professional wing of the state. The public can be forgiven for being confused about a ‘voluntary sector’ that, according to a 2009 report for the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), employs more than 600,000 people. The public might equally be puzzled by the plethora of ‘non-governmental’ organisations which require an Office of the Third Sector to preside over them.

Between 1997 and 2005, the combined income of Britain’s charities nearly doubled, from £19.8 billion to £37.9 billion, with the biggest growth coming in grants and contracts from government departments. According to the Centre for Policy Studies, state funding rose by 38 per cent in the first years of the twenty-first century while private donations rose by just seven per cent.

This surge in government spending coincided with a politicisation of the third sector which was actively encouraged by the state apparatus from the prime minister down. Traditionally, lobbying activity could not be a charity’s ‘dominant’ activity, but could only be ‘incidental or ancillary’ to its charitable purpose. In 2002, however, a report from the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit called for charities to increase their lobbying activity and for the Charity Commission guidelines to be made ‘less cautionary’: ‘Charities perform a valuable role in campaigning for social change. The guidelines on campaigning should be revised to encourage charities to play this role to the fullest extent.’

The Charity Commission duly revised its guidelines on campaigning two years later, allowing all non-party political campaigning in furtherance of a charity’s goals so long as this activity was not ‘the dominant method by which the organisation will pursue its apparently charitable objects’. A subsequent Cabinet Office report in 2007 called for the rules to be relaxed further still. Accepting that charities had ‘considerable latitude… for political campaigning under existing rules’, the authors expressed concern about the range of legal and regulatory restraints which ‘unjustifiably restricts political campaigning by third-sector organisations’. Stressing the right of charities ‘to undertake campaigns, regardless of any funding relationship with government’, the Cabinet Office argued that organisations whose purpose was wholly political should not be barred from charitable status: ‘Provided that the ultimate purpose remains demonstrably a charitable one, the government can see no objection, legal or other, to a charity pursuing that purpose wholly or mainly through political activities.’

There are still charities that do what most of us think of as “charity”, but far too many of them are just lobbying devices to accomplish political rather than charitable ends. There’s no reason to prevent organizations from political lobbying, but they should not benefit from the special tax status of genuine charities.

June 18, 2012

Legal pratfalls ensue

Filed under: Law, Liberty, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:33

Scott H. Greenfield at the Simple Justice blog on how the legal equivalent of “two 12-year-olds rolling in the mud” morphed into a lawyer beclowning himself in an epic fashion:

But Matthew Inman, who does the Oatmeal, put the lawyer Charles Carreon’s letter demanding $20k on the web, with his own special touches, in a masterful response, one aspect of which was that rather than succumb to Carreon’s demand, he would raise some money for charity.

[. . .]

Three things to note: First, Carreon started suit in his own name, not that of his client, which suggest that this is for the wrong done him by the mean children of the internet. Second, he’s sued not only Inman, apparently for “incitement to cyber-vandalism,” but the Indiegogo, which handles charitable collections, as well as the two charities to whom Inman’s collection goes.

This is nuts. For a fellow who foolishly stepped in shit, he’s doubled quadrupled down. My guess is that he’s included the charities as stakeholders or beneficiaries of Inman’s actions, and wants the money collected to go to him rather than to fighting cancer or saving bears. He wants money collected to fight cancer to go to him instead. It’s unthinkable [that] anyone could do such a thing.

May 6, 2012

Technology is not the panacea

Filed under: Health, India, Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:06

I’m generally very pro-technology, but the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) effort always struck me as putting the technology cart in front of the educational (and cultural) horse. A report at The Economist has examples of technological fixes that haven’t actually “fixed” the problems they were intended to solve:

The American charity has an ambitious mission — transform the quality of education in the developing world by giving every poor student a laptop. Targeting a $100 laptop, OLPC succeeded in creating a usable computer at a very low price point (the actual number was closer to $200). Unfortunately most of the attention in the project was focused on the technology and not enough on its efficacy. In the first rigorous evaluation of the programme, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) found little evidence that the laptops influenced educational outcomes. The study, conducted in Peru four years after the programme was launched, found no improvement in math or language. While the computers did lead to some gains in cognitive skills, the authors concluded that access to a laptop didn’t improve attendance. Neither did it motivate students to spend more time on their homework.

There is similarly disappointing news on cooking stoves. The World Health Organization estimates that indoor pollution from primitive cooking fires contributes to 2m deaths annually. One solution is to use clean cooking stoves. At a cost of $12.50, these stoves are an inexpensive way to reduce respiratory ailments and improve air quality. The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (GACC), a public-private initiative, is making a big push for 100m homes in the developing world to switch to clean stoves by 2020. But a new NBER paper by Rema Hanna from Harvard University and Esther Duflo and Michael Greenstone from MIT, questions the long-term health or environmental benefits from this programme. The authors evaluated a clean-stove programme in eastern India, covering 15,000 households over five years. Their study found that after the initial year, enthusiasm for the stoves waned and households didn’t make the necessary investments to maintain them. As a result, the programme had very little effect on respiratory health or air pollution.

Both these projects highlight some common misconceptions in using technology for development. For one, solving intractable social problems requires fundamental changes in the target population. It also needs a supportive institutional framework to reinforce the right behaviour. Technology can complement this process, but it is no substitute for the human element. In Peru, simply adding laptops to the classroom, without investing in teachers who were proficient in computer-aided education, meant that the academic impact was limited. The IDB paper rightly points out that in poor countries where wages are low, development money may be better spent on labor-intensive education interventions than on expensive tools.

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