domingo, 5 de junio de 2011


I am lying on my bed in Kampala city, the power just went off! Kibale Buzibo (No problem in Lugandan). It is just like those nights in Mexico right before the delivery of a project for school. You can't do anything. You get the candles from the kitchen, and think about the lives of previous generations and how they coped with life before electricity and in general cheap energy. I wish I was doing that right now, but the fan went off also and now it is kind of a furnace inside my mosquito net (adding some mexican exaggeration to the situation). 

Tomorrow the road into Terra Incognita will really begin, tomorrow I will travel to Mbarara, the second largest city in Uganda, some four hours west towards the famous rift valley. Nervousness is back, not only of what I will find over there, or how the experience might affect me. The main reason is that this internship was one of the main reasons to select Columbia's university program over the other alternatives I had in mind just one year ago. And now potential energy will be transformed into kinetic energy. It's sort of the feeling you get when you use a joker in a game and wonder if this was the adequate hand to throw it in or if you should have waited a little more to optimize the impact. This feeling of doubt, of second thoughts, are part of a double edged sword that has followed me for over ten years now. 

On one hand you avoid making mistakes due to too much security in the incorrect answer but on the other hand you are never too sure when you think you have found an answer. Before possibly hitting another wall in Ruhiira (The rural area where I will be working on Monday), I wanted to mention some of the controversies that I am constantly thinking of.

Climate Change versus Poverty Alleviation:

When I find myself in doubt I tend to come back to the main thought that got me out of my comfort zone. Our development paradigm and economical system has led us to a possibly irreversible impact on the Earth Systems that could prove fatal for our societies and their welfare. For many years, I believed that this is the main problem that needs to be solved, we have to reduce our negative impacts on the atmosphere, the oceans and biodiversity. Even if the costs of mitigating climate change appear to be a threat to our economic system, if we do not take swift action development and economic growth will be affected anyway. 

But, at the same time, cheap energy has allowed us to step into our modern style of life. Going back is probably not an option and in any case those who do want to support a reduction in the gains in GDP per capita achieved after the industrial revolution are probably committing political suicide. Hans Rosling and his TED talk on the wash machine opened my eyes, there are still 5 Billion people in the world that still wash their clothes by hand. He ends his very energetic presentation asking to environmentalists: you might stop using your car but how many of you have sacrificed your wash machine in the name of mitigation to climate change? I still believe that trying to reduce poverty can prove inefficient if the climatic crisis is not addressed soon. What is the point of building a dam in a river that runs dry because of climatic change? Climate change will affect those that do not have the means to invest in adaptation strategies, usually the poorest of the poor. This is quite unjust because the CO2 concentrations have been mostly affected by the richest groups in the world. This is the largest externality that we have encountered in the history of man. So what do we do about it.

Going further, not only is the subject of poverty important but in general we are talking about development. In order to truly solve the issue at hand we must aim at achieving sustained economic development. Protecting the environment will only be considered true sustainable development if there is space for continuous economic improvement of the livelihoods of the majorities in the world. Switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy will not be a walk in the park and nobody wants to pay for the broken dishes. We will not solve the environmental crisis with ethical goals of preserving the planet for future generations. We will solve it with market signals and government regulation. Internalizing the externalities in economic jargon. Or as some people are saying today: privatize the commons (common non-exclussive goods like the atmosphere, fisheries)!

I bought my government permit to see the Gorillas today, the Ugandan government charges 500 USD to have a one hour access to see the gorillas in some of the most amazing national parks. You can only pay these amounts by cash and you don't get full refund if you don't get to see the Gorillas. The deal is quite bad for the tourist and yet the national parks are fully booked for the summer (we got the last four places to do it). SO the willingness to pay for tourists is high enough as too maintain the market equilibrium at full supply (the government cannot create more gorillas). Of course the situation ends up being a government monopoly. They are the only ones that offer the service of seeing Gorillas, probably if they charged less the demand would be higher. Yes, this might be more efficient from an economic standpoint, but the Gorrilla populations and the environment they depend on would become damaged if the demand was higher. The outcome of this situation is that tourists complain but still pay, the government has a very large inflow of money that can be used for government expenses, the jungle is still there and the Gorillas too. So even it appears that the situation is not optimal from an economic viewpoint it seems that everyone gets what they want. In the end it seems like a quite sustainable solution to conserve the Gorilla species and their environment (Jungle). But this only works when there is willingness to pay for an ecosystem service, we are all interested in paying for services that will provide us with water, paying for pollination services will probably be in our best interest. What happens in the case of the Polar Bear for example, melting the poles will result in more oil fields and faster shipping routes. The willingness to pay of society to conserve Polar Bears and their environment will never be higher than the profits to be made from this changes in global trade.

To wrap up this idea, I find that it is quite hard to tell poor people to stop cutting their trees when they depend on them to cook and heat themselves. Sometimes environmentalism can be lethal to the poorest of the poor. But in the long run they will die anyway if they loose all of their forests. See the case of Haiti that deforested all of its forest and has now severe issues of erosion, soil impoverishment, landslides, lack of water and soil degradation. The impacts have been tragical, so back to the question in what amount should we invest both in the environment and poverty alleviation. (I did not speak about distribution or consumption of those who are above the airline (see Hans Rosling--- can be seen as the rich people) because that is another subject that I will not be working on in Ruhiira, but think on the following: can there be infinite growth in a planet with limited resources? Can we have a linear system of production/consumption that will allow for constant growth of GDP per capita?).

Sustainable Development against Humanitarian Aid

This subject might take ages to cover and I want to be brief. Humanitarian Aid is focused on short term interventions to "stop the bleeding", they tend to send doctors and other personnel to areas that have been stricken by disasters, conflicts or other calamities. They are like a band aid on the wound but usually never go into the root causes of the wounds. Why did the country enter a hunger episode? Why where they not ready to cope with it?

Usually the answer has to do with poverty, and solving the root causes is much harder and less glamorous than sending quick relief to suffering populations. I am quite sure that young doctors working for MSF are more attractive than bureaucratic personnel from UNDP. It is more romantic.

But I believe that marriages live long not only because of the romantic details and the dramatic passion that usually help movies to become blockbusters. Intense, romantic affairs attract us more than dull histories of couples that sacrifice and work everyday to make their marriages last. Yet marriages last because of hard work and perseveration. Development works in the same way, yes you need to intervene when the hurricane/earthquake destroys the city but the long term work is for me as important. In this sense, I find that long term projects designed to address in a holistic manner the root causes of poverty are much more attractive than the short lived emergency action interventions. 

My work starting on monday will be to collect all the geographical data from the project to measure access to services and perform spatial analysis to detect areas that are underserved by infrastructure and coverage in sectors like health, education, water, energy, sanitation, agriculture, business development. It is not the romantic job in the field saving lives but it is as important, a backstage job measuring and analyzing to provide with long term decision planning strategies to have a long lasting impact and work towards sustainable development.

The following table will be self-explanatory on the reasons that I selected Subsaharan Africa as the region to start my analisis on the poverty alleviation side. 

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