23 January 2006

The Human Element

Because legislation is not driven by the market it lacks information. If the president wants to cut aid to a poor nation he will almost certainly catch bad press, even if the money is destroying the country. A commonly given rationale for cutting foreign aid or restructuring it is that in its present form currupt government officials pilfer much of it... prepetuating the poverty and hence calls for more "aid." Tim Harford gives another reason why we need to rethink our aid strategy in the Undercover Economist. It could have come straight from a Human Factors Engineering journal, though in my opinion it belongs in Engineering Ethics:

Maintence requires two big jobs: keeping the dam in one piece, and clearing the canals of obstructions. This is a lot of work. Farmers won't bother unless they see the benefits, and this potentially leads to a problem. The problem is that while all farmers need the dam to be kept in one piece, farmers near the dam don't much care what happens to the drainage canals farther down the hill. So why should they bother to help with the drainage canals? Fortunately, most farming communities in Nepal have worked out a system of cooperation... the farmers downstream help maintain the dam in exchange for assistance on the canals. So far, so good.

...[However], if a big donor pays for a new dam, everything falls apart. This is not because the dam itself does; quite the reverse. Because the concrete dam needs much less maintenance than the traditional one, the cooperatrion aggreement, which maintained the entire irrigation system, no longer works...

Many modern irrigation systems in Nepal end in failrue because although the technical properties of the system may have been understood and improved, the human properties of the system have not been addressed at all.


Human Factors Engineering, which I am currently studying, is focused on understanding these human properties and adapting the system to accomodate it. Unfortunately, in this and other cases, that analysis either doesn't get done or it is done very poorly. I'm guessing this is because those in charge are more concerned with pointing to a dollar figure ("look how generous we are") than they are with the details. In too many cases these overlooked details, which I will admit would entail non-trivial cost, are what make or break the aid package. So instead of a slightly reduced package that is effective, our less fortunate neighbors get very little benefit (or postive harm) at great cost to us.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Where should the money go? I am everything but an economist so i look at the new concrete canal and think hurray the farmers can spend their time elsewhere while you look at it and say it destroyed the cooperation of a nation. Guess i just don't think on such a grand scale as you but in your blog you make it sound as if the farmers would be better left with problems. So, maybe a crazy idea, but should a company that fixes a canal also create another problem to distract, i mean unite, the people? Also i want to say while you sound rather professional and your writings are interesting, they would be even better if you offered solutions to the problems that you are talking about. It is one thing to bring attention to the problems and yet another to attempt to solve them with your creative genius. Okay companies want to invest, what should they invest in? Why not a concrete canal? What would be of more worth to the poor farmer? Schooling prehaps? I also think it will inspire more comments and more blogging from other sources. Good luck, we're all counting on you. ;)

Jeff Shepley said...

"...i look at the new concrete canal and think hurray the farmers can spend their time elsewhere while you look at it and say it destroyed the cooperation of a nation."

Sorry, perhaps my example was a little unclear as I took it out of context from Tim Harford's book. It turns out that the new dam is generally a great thing for farmers up stream. Outside of the cooperative agreement, which no longer serves their interests, they have less work to do and hence more time for other pursuits (leisure, family, making more money, etc.). However, it is postively terrible for the farmers downstream. Sure, they don't have to help with the dam anymore. But they now have to do a WHOLE lot more work on the canals, because the farmers upstream aren't helping out with that anymore.

"...you make it sound as if the farmers would be better left with problems. So, maybe a crazy idea, but should a company that fixes a canal also create another problem to distract, i mean unite, the people?"

In this case, the donor was not a company trying to turn a profit. It was aid, maybe foreign, maybe domestic. Probably foreign aid because they didn't realize the social/human impact the project would have, although there are plenty cases of domestic aid with the same problem.

The former system-- an older dam-- was not perfect. But replacing it with a new dam didn't have its intended consequences. Instead of building a new dam, how about just give a fraction of the money to each of the farmers. In this way, if they wanted to cooperate and create a new dam, they could. Only in this case, the dam would be built by and for the people using it... and when you are building something for yourself, you have a better idea of how it is going to be used. OR they could take that money and spend it on something else. Maybe they take it and leave for the city and start a business. Maybe they use it to buy medicine or food from another farmer. The point is, the donor helps those she intends to help and the recipent uses that aid according to her own desires.

Giving money payments may not be practical in all cases. So my point in this blog entry is to say, hey, let's take a little of the money and put it towards figuring out what the people really need. I would guess 9 times out of 10 that is going to lead to a different suggestion than would be given without considering the human element.

Sorry for the confusion. Let me know if that clarifies.