It’s not developed versus developing

One thing that naturally affects what kind of abundance we’ll experience in future is: how many people will have to share what we have? This has led to much fear and many generalizations over the rapidly growing poor parts of the world.

There are many oversimplifications in this thinking. One important observation on this comes from the former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government:

We are today at the point where the average woman on the globe is having only one female child. We’re still committed by the momentum of population growth to see population increase another 50%. But within the developing world there are huge differences, where some countries, not in a coercive way, but with culturally sensitivities, have empowered women, and given them the ability, made available control over reproductive choices. Other countries have done absolutely nothing or even opposed, and you see fascinating patterns.

When India was partitioned… originally, Bangladesh had about 5 million more people than Pakistan. They have had three decades of culturally sensitive, information rich, resource rich empowerment of women. Pakistan’s done nothing. By the middle of this century, Pakistan will have 60 million more people than Bangladesh.

So it’s not first world, third world; it’s not developed, developing. It’s the governments within the developing world, and in many countries in the developing world, their models that act better than we do.

That’s Lord Robert May, transcribed from a Lowy Institute video. (Quote is from 3:26 – 5:24)

Usability in blogs and stoves

Design prototypes in Myanmar. Which is cooler?

Over at 3brick design, a project spawned from Stanford’s Extreme Affordability class, they take user-centered design seriously, and respect the dignity of the people they’re trying to serve. The examples they’ve displayed so far look elegant and functional – I’ll be interested to see what they come up with.

One thing is sure: it’s unlikely to be a single design. As the context changes, the appropriate technology for the situation tends to change as well. Do the users mainly frying or do slow cooking, for example?

Showing that they think about their users in more than just a cooking context, the project has chosen a nice lean blog skin for WordPress called Darwin, designed to be fast-loading and easy on the eye. Good work.

Picture credit: “3 bricks. Many users.” at the Stanford Cool Product Expo blog.

Appropriate technology guru tackles infant mortality.

What’s the number one cause of death in children under 5? Waterborne diseases? Diarrhea? Malnutrition? No: “Breathing the smoke from indoor cooking fires – acute respiratory infections caused by this.”

Indoor cooking with commonly used stoves causes a lot of smoke contributes to deforestation, erosion, flooding.

There are lots of efforts to improve cooking fuels as well as the stoves. Some have been successful, many haven’t been appropriate to the needs of the users. Amy Smith, a remarkable thinker, inventor and doer in appropriate technology, shares some exciting developments:

Amy Smith also founded and leads the International Development Design Summit.

Pandemic panic – what have we learned?

In the recent swine flu scare, the World Health Organization (WHO) went up the pandemic scale surprisingly quickly. Now it looks clear that it won’t be a pandemic after all: far fewer people have died than die during a normal flu season – and far less than regularly die around the world from malaria, dirty water, or smoke from indoor cooking and heating, week after week and year after year.

Preparedness for pandemic is important, and the time to get ready is well before a pandemic occurs, and the time to start handwashing and mask-wearing is when a potential outbreak first occurs. Emphasizing the seriousness of the situation is good and wise. But you can emphasize preparedness with the pandemic scale is at 2, rather than 5. (Or even zero for that matter – if the WHO makes announcements on potential pandemics, the fear factor means that many people will pay attention.) As a public health layperson, I’m hesitant to criticize the professionals (I studied public health engineering, rather than public health per se; and my focus is on knowledge sharing, rather than knowing everything myself). But these questions need to be asked. The WHO made out that there was a high likelihood of pandemic, when it appeared to me and many others that there was no good reason to do so. Were they boys crying wolf, and what does this mean for the next potential pandemic?

I still believe the risk of a 1918-style pandemic happening again is very low, as I’ve argued with my friends in the development field. We’ve learnt much since 1918, our communications are many times better, and the conditions of 1918 (international war, troop movements, trench warfare, widespread poor nutrition even in rich countries, less advanced diagnostics and treatment) just don’t exist today. But I’d be a fool to say it’s impossible. We’ve built a better public health infrastructure, and the nasty virus DNA may just form into a more challenging virus.

The point is to be prepared – to develop strategies such as the Flucode, and develop freely available information on making oral rehydration solution and simple masks. Be prepared for an outbreak of something nasty, and be ready to deal with it quickly – these are what we need. We’ll also have side-benefits in being better able to deal with regular influenza (a sometimes deadly disease but without the headlines) and other diseases.  Action, not panic.

Am I being harsh on the WHO?