Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Why the World has Poor...

Before I even begin this blog post, I must renege on my offer to explain the current water problems in Gujarat, India. Deepest apologies to those who were expecting a summary of our project's main design problem, but I assure you there is a reason for this delay.

As I was collecting my thoughts and findings from Indira Hirway's essay on the above topic (note: check my last post for more info on this essay), I found that my conclusions quickly spawned dozens of questions to which I knew no answer:

Why are people poor?
What causes poverty?
Have developing nations always been poor?
Why can't the United States just sent money to fix the water crisis in Gujarat, India?
If India had money, wouldn't they just be able to "buy" their way out of these ridiculous water problems?

As you can imagine, one single question quickly led to ten more questions, which grew into an entire grocery list of topics that encompass my complete naivety on the topic of world poverty. Though Indira Hirway nicely outlined the local factors leading up to the water problems in Gujarat, he did not examine the fundamental underlying issue: Why is India poor?

Though I'm sure there are hundreds of theories answering this four-word question, I decided to check out our nation's top economist on world poverty, Jeffrey Sachs. A professor at Columbia University, Sachs is a Special Adviser to Kofi Annan (United Nations Secretary-General) and an author of the UN's Millennium Goals to end world poverty. Sach's book, The End of Poverty, not only explains why some countries are poor, but also outlines a practical and attainable plan to end world poverty.

On the first day of class, Dr. Oerther waved a copy of the book in front of my classmates and I as "suggested reading" for those of us who need a crash course on world economics. Though ignoring his recommendation at first, I eventually bought the book after realizing that I know absolutely nothing on poverty. To summarize my naivety, my main idea of poverty was:

"The poor are poor because they refuse to help themselves."

The scariness of this view, however, is that a large number of people in the upper- and middle-class United States think this statement is fundamentally correct. Unfortunately, this view couldn't be further from the truth. Rather, we should view world poverty as follows:

Some are poor because they are economically unable to rise above poverty. Others are poor because they seek to rise out of poverty in unsustainable ways.

I'd like to start off this discussion by answering the following question: Has the world always had poor?

Surprisingly, no. The concept of poverty is actually a relatively new phenomenon. Prior to 1820, all regions of the world were comparatively poor. The ratio of per capita income between the richest region (United Kingdom) and the poorest (subsaharan Africa) was only 4:1. True, the world had its share of wealthy nobles, but these lucky people were far and few between.

So what happened after 1820? Think back to your high school history classes, and you might recall one tiny earth-shattering era known as the Industrial Revolution. With the invention of the coal-powered steam engine, the United Kingdom single-handedly became the leader of economic growth and prosperity.

Why the U.K.? To be honest, England just had a stroke of pure luck. At this time, the United Kingdom was just coming off the Renaissance Era, which encouraged open thoughts and social reform. Soon before then, the British abolished serfdom, allowed free speech, cultivated new scientific ideas, and revolutionized property rights. Add in factors of climate, natural resources, and geography, and you might begin to realize that England was ripe for rapid economic growth. Luckily for us, the United States was able to piggyback on England's success mainly due to our colonial ties to Britain. In a sense, we were pretty lucky too.

As England's prosperity continued to climb, ideas of the Industrial Revolution began to spread to British colonies (U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) as well as other parts of Western Europe (Spain, Germany, France, etc.). In addition to technological advancement, these countries also began adopting British views on public policy (e.g. free speech, property rights, abolition of slavery, and so on).

This economic and technological development caused changes in urbanization, social mobility, gender roles, family structure, and division of labor. For example, people prior to the Industrial Revolution were middle-class farmers. Just to break even, these farmers needed to be a "jack-of-all-trades" in that a single person would be somewhat skilled in carpentry, metal-working, agriculture, animal husbandry, business practices, finance, and the list goes on and on. Though admirable, this system can be inefficient in that farmers were often required to work long hours just to complete this diverse array of tasks before dusk.

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, job specialization began to occur with more people being trained on a single task and relying on others to meet their other needs. This job specialization encouraged more people to move to cities where their services were needed and their other needs could be met. By landing jobs in factories and shops, these "specialists" were now guaranteed hourly pay rather than gambling on a crop surplus. Guaranteed wages allowed for greater social mobility as people were now able to save and spend as desired. At this time, women also began working in factories and sweat shops, thus earning their own paycheck and changing their role in society. As more women sought work, the average family size decreased and women were decreasingly expected to stay at home to rear children.

Unfortunately, these drastic cultural changes caused upheavals and resistance in several areas of Asia and Africa. Asian culture has always viewed tradition as "vital" to society. Observing the changing gender roles and family structure, nations such as China, Japan, and India (to name a few) resisted economic development in order to maintain the delicate balance of their traditional culture. By contrast, most areas of Africa sought to blot out the "white man's influence" that had exploited them into slavery and adopting the typical European way of life. Viewing the recent economic development as another way that Europeans could continue to control and exploit their tribes, most Africans chose to close themselves off from any outside influence.

Thus, world poverty was born. From this point onward, Africa's historic choice to close itself off from the world (albeit encouraged by poor European and American exploitation) led to the gap between rich (USA) and poor (Africa). Today, this gap has widened to a 20:1 ratio of per capital income between the US and subsaharan Africa.

Continuing on with this historic timeline...

Cultural and economic upheaval eventually led to the outbreak of World War I, which essentially ended the era of European-led globalization. Also at this time, Russia chose to end centuries of monarchy and gravitate towards a Lenin & Stalin dictatorship.

After World War I, economic instability led to the Great Depression of the 1930s, which contributed to the rise of Hitler and consequent outbreak of World War II. Three main economic consequences arose as a result of World War II:

(1) National currencies became virtually non-convertible.
(2) European imperialism finally ends (i.e. basically, no more colonies).
(3) Russia officially distances itself from the world during the Cold War.

To fix the above problems created by World War II, the United States, Western Europe, and Japan reconstructed an international trading system, which lead to eventual conversion among currencies. However, other parts of the world chose not to join this trading scheme until decades later, thus widening the poverty gap once again. The USSR (i.e. Russia) and 3rd-world countries (Asia minus Japan; Africa) distrusted the global market and sought to be self-sufficient.

By resisting global influence, unfortunately, this isolating scheme ultimately failed because it limited the flow of ideas and technology into these countries. In addition, the high-cost local industries in the these countries could not compete internationally and the lack of competition in isolated industry fostered corruption.

In a nutshell... whether we like it or not, we are all CONNECTED.

By the early 1990s, the USSR, most of Asia, and Africa desired to enter the global economy. By this time, the poverty gap was vast and very evident.

So where do we stand now?

Compared to pre-Industrial Revolution, we have a much higher standard of living (except in Africa where the standard of living has stagnated). However, huge gaps between the world's richest and poorest now exist. The richest nations have enjoyed ~200 years of steady economic growth while developing countries are behind the curve due to colonization, polices, resources, location, and several other factors.

The good news is that there are practical solutions to end poverty despite no one "magic" way of doing it. If you want to know more about some of these economic solutions, I encourage you to check out Sach's book, The End of Poverty (Penguin Books, 2005). Quite frankly, it would take me dozens of additional blog posts to summarize every piece of useful knowledge in this book... even though it is quite a good read.

How does India fit into this whole model of economic development?

Currently, India is grouped into a category known as the "BRIC" nations (acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, and China). These nations are presently on the climb to economic prosperity. Rather than the entire nation being poor, some cities have flourished while other areas are still trying to jump above the poverty line. The area in which we will be traveling, Gujarat, is one of the less affluent areas of India.

The BRIC nations desire to develop and catch up with the US, but they are unsure of how to do it. While the US has had two centuries of trial & error with respect to economic development, India has had mere decades of growth without the same learning process. Therefore, many areas of India build and develop unsustainably to rapidly increase their wealth and gross national product. This unrestrained growth depletes natural resources (i.e. ground water) and causes rural areas to experience severe poverty while some regions are moving upward. Rather than learning from past development mistakes in the US during the Industrialization Era, Indians are creating more problems by implementing unsuitable technology to encourage uncontrolled growth.

Since we can't simply wait around for a growth period of 200 years while India kills its citizens with unsustainable technology, it is our social responsibility to share current knowledge of appropriate, sustainable technology in order to halt the spread of disease, poverty, and social injustice.

Bold words? Perhaps, but the big picture is that we can't allow people to die simply because they don't have technology that keeps us alive.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Family Ties

After a few lectures introducing us to world water issues, our class squabbled a bit on where to start with India’s daunting water problem.

As an interdisciplinary Honors class, everyone had their own expertise by training. Business majors were more concerned with marketability of water technology, India’s current financial situation, and economic poverty. Designers and architects typically want to jumpstart the project by beginning the building process. Engineers consider only seemingly feasible technologies while the environmentalists would like to spend some extra time evaluating ecological impact of the project on the local area. Sprinkle in a few pre-medicine biology majors trying to grasp how everything relates to global health issues, and we’ve created a standstill on where to even begin.

After thirty minutes of voicing opinions on how to split into groups, it became apparent that there were two main options for tackling this project: divide into interdisciplinary teams with each group studying every aspect of the water project OR split into specialized teams with each group focusing on a single topic to be later shared with the class as a whole. Each scenario had its pros and cons, and as expected, the class vote turned into a deadlock. By this point, it seemed obvious that an executive decision would need to be made if we were ever going to move forward.

Thankfully, Dr. Oerther suggested that the class split into interdisciplinary teams with the option of changing the group dynamic at a later date if the project required such a move. Finally moving away from group logistics, we were free to start discussing how India’s water problem has spiraled into the crisis it is now today.

So what do we need to know? Posing this question to the class, we began brainstorming a list of background topics that need to be researched before clearly identifying the problem we wish to solve in India. Is the water situation caused by lack of education? Government policy? Scarcity of resources? Climate? Developing economy? Water contamination?

As you can probably imagine, the list goes on and on.

Feeling overwhelmed by the scope of research required to answer this grocery list of questions, I wasn’t quite sure where or how to begin.

Then I remembered a resource that I hadn’t yet considered… family.

About ten years ago, one of my cousins married a woman of Indian descent. The wedding itself was a cultural experience unlike any I’ve ever seen. Though a traditional American Christian, I was impressed by the elaborate Hindu wedding ritual even though I had no idea which god was receiving prayers or incense at any given point in the ceremony.

Though I had rarely seen my cousin’s wife (a.k.a. Tina) over several years, I decided to send a short email mentioning that I would be traveling to India to work on a water project in Gujarat. Surprisingly, her response was rapidly quick as she excitedly explained her immigration to the States from Gujarat during college. Interestingly, her parents recently retired to their hometown in Gujarat after Tina’s father spent many years working on water systems in Kenya. Thanks to amazing internet communication, Tina forwarded my email to her father (a.k.a. Dinesh) who thereafter sent dozens of articles on Indian water issues as well as information on local problems concerning the region where we will be traveling in December.

Clicking my heels at this sudden stroke of luck, I posted these articles online for my other group members to read before throwing together a five-minute presentation due by the end of the week.

Wading through piles of population statistics, census reports, and basic geographic information, I eventually came across a paper sponsored by the World Health Organization based in New Delhi. Written by Indira Hirway, the 46-page report carefully outlines the progress of Gujarat water resources from availability to depletion as well as the cultural, political, and industrial factors affecting this decline.

Well-written in an understandable manner, the content of this paper requires a separate conversation of its own. With that said, I’d like to give my deepest apologies for postponing these background findings until the next blog post… I tend to be slightly long-winded when setting up a particularly good story.

(Discussion to be continued…)

Saturday, 11 October 2008

An Evolution of Thought

So 10,000 people will die today from preventable water-borne diseases…

Alright… so what do we do now? Is there anything we can do? Why should we care? Since people die every day, will it really matter in the giant scheme of things?

To be completely honest, I’m still searching for these answers myself. At this point, I don’t really know what I can do, if my actions will have any significant impact, or whether this project will sink or swim. In the back of my mind, I’m still trying to grasp the overwhelming question: Will it even matter?

During one of our first class lectures, Dr. Oerther asked everyone to anonymously write their definition of “appropriate technology” on a small sheet of paper to spark discussion on possible solutions to the current water problem in Gujarat, India. To paraphrase, my definition read something like this:

Appropriate Technology: a method or tool that improves the quality of life with minimal intrusion on environmental, social, or environmental norms”

As a social conservative, I usually prefer the “hands-off” approach with the idea that most problems will solve themselves if given enough time. Is this view ethically responsible given the fact that 10,000 people are dying daily from water quality issues? Probably not, but at the time (and still somewhat currently) I’ve had difficulty wrapping my head around a possible solution for India’s pressing water problem.

Throughout my collegiate training as a biomedical engineer, the design process is fairly straight-forward: identify the problem, determine what the user wants, look for similar current technologies, design, prototype, analyze, and implement. In the end, the engineer has created a nifty gadget that may or may not make the physician’s job easier and fully complies to FDA standards on documentation and pre-clinical trials. This design process works very well on small-scale projects, but the model is difficult to fit to large-scale world issues.

Naively going into this project, my plan of action was to figure out the problem, design some sort of sustainable object that would clean people’s drinking water, build a prototype, and test it in India. Unfortunately, I think my expectations were a little skewed…

Starting my third week of this class, I have come to realize that this problem has deeper roots than simply designing a little filter to remove nasty germs and chemicals from the drinking water. With that said, I’m still trying to figure out what and if there is anything that we as a class can do to fix Gujarat’s lack of drinkable water supply.

One thing that I have learned, however, is that we cannot simply do nothing. Whether Indian government policy needs to be shifted, appropriate funding be allocated, or new technology implemented, it is not socially responsible to allow a nation to drink itself into extinction.

Okay, so I’ve now taken the first step: realizing something must be done to help.

Where do I go from here? Now I need to start figuring out how India got into this mess in the first place.

We cannot search for an answer without first knowing the question.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

The World As We Know It

In 1999, the six billionth person was born.

In 2008, more than 50% of the world's 6.6 billion inhabitants will live in urban areas.

By 2030, more than 5 billion people will live in cities and nearby surrounding areas.

Today, ten thousand people will die from preventable water-borne illness. Over half of these people will be children.

Pour a glass of water. Go ahead... take a sip. Refreshing? Be thankful you live in a country that gives you clean drinking water. At least, you won't die today from diarrhea, hepatitis A, or typhoid fever. Unfortunately, someone else isn't as fortunate.

Depressing? Yeah, it sounds a little dramatic. Accurate?? Yes, unfortunately.

I'm not one who wants to guilt every living American or European into reading about or donating for a cause that they don't truly understand. Rather, let me learn along with you about world water issues and what we can do to make a difference.

First, let me explain where this journey begins...

My name is Julia Jones, and I am a senior biomedical engineering major at the University of Cincinnati located in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. A few years ago, I was where the majority of Americans find themselves now -- pleasantly oblivious to life outside American borders. With typical days filled with class, studying, and meeting up with friends, I was basically content.

Then sophomore year hit...

Swamped with piles of mid-term reports and exams, I became frustrated with my self-involved life and began to wonder, "Is there something more I could be doing with my time?"

Surfing through dozens of Facebook profiles of long-forgotten acquaintances, I felt a twinge of jealously while flipping through study abroad pictures from Paris, Prague, and St. Petersburg. Never leaving the country (except for the occasional trip to Canada), I began to think to myself, "Honestly, what's stopping me from seeing a bit of the world?"

And that was how I was bitten by the "travel bug"...

A year later, I found myself sitting on a direct flight heading from Cincinnati to London Gatwick Airport. Traveling with a fellow classmate, Bill, neither of us knew what to expect of our semester at the University of Surrey in England, but we were both ready to tackle the unknown and backpack across Europe while juggling a full and challenging class load. Though England may not be all that different from the United States, Bill and I spent several weekends country-hopping to Ireland, Spain, Germany, France, Belgium, Italy, and Scotland. Picking up the languages as we traveled, we both had a blast trying new foods, seeing historic sights, and dabbling in dozens of famous museums. (You can read about it all on my European travel blog:

Returning home 15 weeks later, I suddenly found myself uncharacteristically interested in global issues. Reading about foreign politics, economics, and humanitarian issues of the places I had previously visited left me feeling somehow connected to these countries that had shown me great hospitality during my visit. Rather than being cured of my "travel bug", I suddenly found myself wanting not only to travel again but also do something meaningful while abroad. Soon after, I met Dr. Dan Oerther.

Dr. Oerther is a Civil and Environmental Engineering professor here at the University of Cincinnati. Having spent many years abroad, Dr. Oerther has led several clean-water projects in developing nations including Kenya, Tanzania, and India. Pairing up with the University of Cincinnati Honors Program, Dr. Oerther and his colleague, Dr. Eric Maurer decided to offer an interdisciplinary design class to evaluate and implement clean-water technologies in Gujarat, India. At the conclusion of this 10-week class, fifteen students would travel with Drs. Oerther and Maurer to Gujarat to work with the Sadguru NGO (i.e. non-government organization).

Seeing not only an opportunity to travel again but also a chance to work with a prominent world-health issue, I petitioned to turn this class into my senior design project by picking up a few extra hours of independent study. Eventually receiving approval from the Biomedical Engineering Department, I found myself digging around my apartment for my passport and penciling in travel plans on my student planner.

So where does that leave me now? With two weeks into class, I find myself starting to pick up the basics of water technology, Indian population demographics, and cultural design parameters. Working with a team of architects, marketing majors, and engineers, our research has already begun. Will we be able to save the world? Probably not, but perhaps we'll be able to do something that makes a difference.

So there you have it... I'm not much different from the average American reading this blog. I have no experience in water technology, and I've never even seen Asia outside of my favorite Chinese restaurant. You may not be able to fly to India on a whim, but I encourage you to learn with me. Read along during the following weeks to discover more about world health issues, the culture of developing nations, available water technologies, and how even small improvements can save lives.

I have no idea where this project might lead or what we may accomplish at this point... but trust me, the journey to the end is half the fun!