The Coverage Paradox

PHS Japan 1997-2003 (Willcom, NTT DoCoMo, ASTEL)
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Andrew Sullivan highlights an article on cellphone coverage:

Despite anemic economic growth rates, limited agricultural progress, and overwhelming poverty (85 percent of the population lives on less than $2 per day), Nigeriens are now more connected than ever. More than 60 percent of them have mobile phone services—no small feat in a country three times the size of California, with bad roads, unreliable postal services, and two landlines per thousand people.

This has been occurring across the African continent, and more generally amongst poor states, and there’s real data to back up the claim that this is changing people’s lives for the better. With the cost of information falling rapidly, the market becomes much more efficient; one example given is fisherman from the Indian state of Kerala: “fishermen’s profits increased by 8 percent, and consumer prices declined by 4 percent.” By allowing fishermen to sell off surpluses and consumers to find the cheapest products, resources were more intelligently allocated across the board.

Still, the obvious contrast between the general infrastructure of these countries and the massive influx of technology raises a question about when the twain shall meet. It’s a question taken up by Paul Romer: the will to learn, change and take advantage of markets is clearly widespread across the Third World. How can we deal with the fact that all these massively adaptable people are trapped in societies that don’t allow for an equitable government to let the market do its thing?

Romer’s suggestion is charter cities: setting up places like Hong Kong and Dubai where a foreign, secure government like Canada can work hand in hand with locals to put a constitution in place to ensure new urban bastions of prosperity. But for us on the ground, all this is a little pie-in-the-sky. What can we teens do to improve the lives of those trapped in closed societies?

For one, we should advocate for change. The government is a cumbersome thing, unwieldy and hard to turn. But as Matt Yglesias points out when talking about the Gates Foundation, the government has enormous power and perhaps the best use of money is to leverage the government into making widespread change. Consider: the Gates Foundation, the largest of its kind, is .07% as large as the annual expenditures of the US Government.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, we need to contribute to those efficient charities which can alleviate poverty on a day by day basis. Aid is bad at a lot of things like institutional change but it can be good at saving lives. By improving things on the margin it can allow people to concentrate on things like getting education – or being able to save up for that cell phone. Giving to places recommended by Give WellCharity Navigator and others like them allows our money to go where it’s needed and will be spent well – not where we can have immediately tangible but ultimately wasteful feedback.

Finally, we should keep those around us informed and active. The more people know about symbols like the zero rupee bill the greater effect they can have.

And what can accomplish all these things? We at Teens for the World think that charitable events like athletic competitions and bake sales, while not the most efficient funds raisers, are the best way for teens to raise awareness and money and bring change – and help unleash the ability of the Third World to help themselves.

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One response to “The Coverage Paradox

  1. Pingback: Rich Countries Have Been Sending Aid to Poor Countries for 60 Years « Teens for the World Blog

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