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Turning Attention to the Real Third World

Matthew R. Zedler

Last month, Hurricane Katrina sent the city of New Orleans staggering backward to the extent that many deemed it at a “third-world level” of development. Estimates now suggest that approximately 700 people died because of the catastrophe, riots and looting were widespread, and economic shocks rippled throughout the world thanks to the destruction of oil and gas refineries.

At the time, I was in Lesotho, a “third-world” country in south Africa. This landlocked country, about the size of Maryland, is home to over two million Basotho, one of the most ethnically homogenous populations on the planet today. The country itself is beautiful, with majestic mountains, brilliant blue skies, and some of the most amicable people I have ever met.

Of course, Lesotho is home to a few minor problems. Average lifespan has nearly halved to approximately 37 in the past quarter-century thanks to HIV, with official UN estimates stating that one in three Basotho is affected by the disease. Food production is falling because of overgrazing, climate change, and a lack of understanding about the effects of monoculture. Land degradation is an enormous problem, especially since 86 percent of the population survives on subsistence agriculture. Wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few urban businessmen and politicians, while the majority of the people lack clean water and electricity in their homes.

Officials estimate that the population of this country will actually fall by 200,000 in upcoming years because of this combination of problems. While such losses would be almost 300 times greater than those of the United States, a vast majority of the human tragedy could be prevented with the introduction of basic technologies. What happened in the United States was a natural disaster that could not have been prevented; what is happening in Lesotho and much of southern Africa is an avoidable humanitarian crisis.

What sort of “technologies” could prevent such a disaster? I do not refer to the latest and greatest innovations that many here at MIT are perfecting but instead highlight appropriate technologies that address local needs in simple and effective ways using local skills and materials. Consider the following technologies:

A stove that uses a reduced amount of biomass to cook, preventing further solar erosion and land degradation while reducing the amount of time the owner spends collecting wood.

Simple processes that can be used by rural farmers to preserve food during the harvest season so that it is available for consumption at other times of the year.

A system of small loans that would allow local entrepreneurs to secure the capital needed to start their own business (more commonly known as microfinance).

While such products or ideas may seem exceedingly trite, they would allow the rural poor to advance economically to a healthy level where they can be a productive resource for rather than a hindrance to their developing country.

Here at MIT, we do not spend our time focusing on such technologies because they are far distanced from us. The benefits of turning our attention to such solutions are large.

First, many of the problems being considered in developing countries are practical ones that could easily be addressed by undergraduate students. Such projects are small in scale and reinforce key concepts learned in the lecture hall. By using one’s hands in addition to one’s mind, a student learns how to practically apply otherwise useless theoretical knowledge.

Second, the end-user of the technology must be directly involved in the problem’s solution to make it culturally appropriate and effective in the long-term. Technology development would be a rare opportunity to develop communication skills and an awareness of global cultures.

Third, 90 percent of the world’s engineering is currently being done for 10 percent of the world’s populace. Therefore, products that are marketed to the currently underserved rural poor stand to sell at a high rate. Think of the potential profits to be gained if a product that serves the rural poor could be effectively marketed and sold at high quantities. Finally, there is an intangible social reward that results from helping others to advance themselves.

The one remaining question is how to get involved with such projects. Recent program introductions have made it much easier for the undergraduate student to contribute today. Classes, such as Amy B. Smith’s D-Lab and the Edgerton Center’s Public Service Design Seminars, allow students to learn about international development, appropriate technology, and engineering for the developing world.

Service UROPs and public service fellowships give students funding to continue the work started in those classes. The new International Development Initiative helps provides a repository of information about such opportunities at MIT. There are no longer the excuses of distance and inaccessibility that once prevented many from getting involved in the development of appropriate technologies.

While President Bush’s response to the crisis in Louisiana that killed so many may have been delayed, there is no excuse for you as a student to wait any longer to assist those who need our help. Get involved today.

Matthew R. Zedler is a member of the Class of 2007 at MIT. For those interested in the current technologies being considered in Lesotho, The MIT-Appropriate Technology Services collaboration Web site (http://web.mit.edu/ats) contains project descriptions and methods for contacting engineers and students working in Lesotho.