An emerging science is helping Kenyans make smarter decisions about bargaining, sanitation and more.
Last year at primary schools in western Kenya, social scientists were busy performing dirty skits in front of hundreds of children. The script went like this:
The facilitator pretends to go to the bathroom behind a tree, then wipes using a thin leaf or piece of paper. But the leaf or paper rips, and she reacts with surprise upon getting (imaginary) feces on her hand. But she doesn’t wash her hands. Instead she wipes them on her clothes, then goes to shake the hand of one of the students, or picks up a mandazi – a doughnut – and offers it to a student to eat.
The students recoil in disgust, and the facilitator’s work is done: She has just implanted a “disgust trigger” into the kids’ brains – a simple, but powerful psychological reminder that forgetting to wash your hands is gross. And it works.
Welcome to behavioral psychology, the emerging science that seeks to nudge people to make smarter decisions.
Read the full story at U.S. News & World Report.
NAIROBI, Kenya — On a sunny afternoon in Nairobi, 37-year-old Francis Raymond Adika climbs into the front seat of a matatu, or public transit van, and slides next to the driver.
“I lost my brother in an accident,” says Adika. On August 15, 2001, a matatu was speeding down the wrong side of a two-lane road in Nairobi trying to pass traffic. When it swerved back into the correct lane it slammed headfirst into a truck. Adika discovered his brother’s body in the Nairobi morgue. He was 19, just days away from his high school graduation.
A Jesuit missionary who travels extensively across Africa, Adika says it isn’t just in Kenya where people lose their lives to reckless driving. “I lived in Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia – the carnage was just the same.”
Each year, 1.24 million people die in road accidents worldwide. By 2030 that number is expected to triple to 3.6 million, making road deaths the fifth-largest cause of death in the developing world – worse than AIDS or even malaria, according to the World Health Organization. Africa is the hardest hit, with 26 road deaths for every 100,000 people – nearly 50 percent above the global average.
But a series of scientifically rigorous, randomized control studies by Georgetown University may have found a simple way to dramatically reduce deaths on East African roads. By placing stickers inside buses and matatus that encouraged passengers to tell their driver to slow down, researchers discovered that the number of insurance claims fell by half for long-distance vehicles and by one-third overall.
Read the full article at U.S. News & World Report.
Randomized controlled trials are the popular centerpiece of an emerging data-driven approach to figuring out precisely the best way to end poverty. Can a return to the scientific method fix the global aid industry?
For too long, “accountability” in the aid industry has meant nothing more than ensuring that a donor’s money was spent the way an agency said it would be. Rarely did organizations examine whether their spending achieved a positive impact (improved access to water, for example), much less one that stood the test of time (meaning the well didn’t dry up).
But recently, many aid organizations, including theInternational Rescue Committee, a New York humanitarian aid group specializing in refugee assistance, have used RCTs to, among other things, evaluate methods for nudging parents in Liberia toward more effective parenting techniques and tocreate highly effective community savings-and-loan programs to combat poverty in Burundi. It’s easy to see why charities are attracted to RCTs: They can make an aid agency’s work more efficient and generate solid evidence of progress to show funders.
As organizations continue to conduct more of them, RCTs are disproving many myths upon which we’ve designed development aid for years, not least of which is our longtime preference for projects over cash. If the data shows, as the RCT of GiveDirectly’s Kenya program did, that it’s most effective to hand a family $1,000 with no strings attached, then that’s precisely what we should do.
Read the full article in the July/August print edition of Pacific Standard or online.
On an overcast morning in Nairobi, commuter buses drive down a crumbling road into Kibera, a densely packed slum. A sign at the bus station reads “public toilets,” but the doors are locked.
It’s estimated that Kibera has just one toilet for every 2,500 of its approximately 250,000 residents. Without toilets to relieve themselves, people “use any means, whether it’s a [plastic] bag or a can,” explained Fred Amuok, Community Liaison for a Kenyan rights-based organization called Umande Trust.
The World Health Organization estimates that 1.5 million people die every year from diarrhea, often the result of poor sanitation. There’s also a financial cost: studies show that Kenya loses US$324 million each year in missed work hours due to sickness brought on by poor sanitation. According to the sanitation company Sanergy, four million tonnes of fecal sludge escape into Kenya’s waterways and fields every year.
But Umande Trust has come up with an innovative approach to providing affordable toilets for Kibera’s residents and turning human waste into cooking fuel–one that’s already been working for more than a decade.
TSAVO WEST NATIONAL PARK, Kenya—When it comes to darting elephants from helicopters and fitting heavy GPS tracking collars around their massive necks, “a lot of things can go wrong,” David Daballen says. “An elephant can fall on its chest. Imagine, a six-ton animal just sitting on its chest—they crush their lungs.”
As dawn breaks, Daballen, who works with Save the Elephants, is leading a collaring team of a couple dozen people, including nine Kenya Wildlife Service rangers dressed in camouflage and brandishing rifles. They are equipped with a Cessna, a helicopter, and a caravan of Toyota Land Cruisers and other SUVs.
The Cessna, circling overhead, spots an elephant and radios the team. Within seconds the chopper swoops in low, disappearing behind the bushes and trees. A moment later it swoops upward, and the vehicles race toward the spot. Lying on his right side is a bull. His skin is brown and rough, with pokey black hairs.
The team sets immediately to work unrolling the collar onto the elephant’s neck and attempting to tug it underneath. Someone pours water on the animal’s side to keep him cool. Another puts a small stick into the tip of his trunk to keep the airway open.
After struggling 20 minutes to get the collar on, Daballen uses a socket wrench to tighten the two ends together. The job done, a man injects an antidote to wake the animal up, and the team hurries to their vehicles. Everyone is silent as they watch the bull rise. He stands, looks toward the vehicles, then he turns and walks swiftly in the opposite direction.
The bull was the first of 10 elephants the team tranquilized over a week to fit with tracking collars. Their mission: to see how well Tsavo’s estimated 12,000 savanna elephants traverse a new rail line that has recently split their habitat in two. It is the first time in history, Daballen’s organization believes, that elephants are being collared specifically to study how they interact with human infrastructure.
Read the full feature story at National Geographic.
Several years ago, when I was working as a reporter based in Haiti, I came upon a group of older Christian missionaries in the mountains above Port-au-Prince, struggling with heavy shovels to stir a pile of cement and sand. They were there to build a school alongside a Methodist church. Muscular Haitian masons stood by watching, perplexed and a bit amused at the sight of men and women who had come all the way from the United States to do a mundane construction job.
Such people were a familiar sight: They were voluntourists. They would come for a week or two for a “project” — a temporary medical clinic, an orphanage visit or a school construction. A 2008 study surveyed 300 organizations that market to would-be voluntourists and estimated that 1.6 million people volunteer on vacation, spending around $2 billion annually.
Read the full essay at the New York Times Magazine.
In Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the lakes are flooding farmland, swallowing communities and leading to deforestation, baffling climate scientists.
LETANT, Haiti—On a recent calm day, the surface of Lake Azuéi has no waves, not even any ripples. Pillars of pastel-colored concrete break the still surface, the tops of what once were houses. They are all that’s visible of the community that once thrived here.
Alberto Pierre, a skinny, wide-eyed 25-year-old, said the submerged village where he grew up wasn’t even near the lake. “The water used to be many kilometers from here.”
Lake Azuéi, the largest lake in Haiti, lies about 18 miles east of Port-au-Prince, the capital, nestled along the border with the Dominican Republic. Also known as Étang Saumâtre, the lake rose so much between 2004 and 2009 that it engulfed dozens of square miles.
“At first we put rocks so it wouldn’t come into our houses,” Pierre says. “But then the water just overran the rocks.” Families in the village of Letant began abandoning their houses, building huts on higher ground using wood, tarps, whatever they could find. By 2012, all 83 houses had been vacated.
“We don’t know why the water is rising,” he says.
In fact, nobody does. There seems to be no logic to the lake’s rise. Experts from the United Nations, a French engineering firm, a Dominican Republic university, a New York City college and many others have looked for clues to explain the rise of Lake Azuéi and neighboring Lake Enriquillo, just across the border in the Dominican Republic. But few of the theories seem to hold water. Some now hypothesize the phenomenon is related to climate change, but the evidence is counterintuitive: Unlike ocean levels, which rise with climate change, lakes tend to shrink.
Each year, individuals donate hundreds of billions of dollars to charities. Last month, GiveWell, the science-minded philanthropy evaluator, announced that in 2015, as a direct result of its research, more than $98 million in donations went to charities it found to be the most effective at doing good in the world. By reviewing randomized control trials and other studies conducted on different development aid programs across the globe, GiveWell recommends a few “top charities” whose methods have been scientifically tested to offer the most bang for our buck.
A control trial is an experiment that tests one variable at a time, and compares the results to a control group. Random means that instead of letting participants come to you, you go to them, assigning them randomly to either the test group or the control, to avoid self-selection bias.
This is the way that major pharmaceutical companies vet new medicines or advertising agencies test audience reactions to proposed TV commercials. The CDC wouldn’t approve a new drug from Merck simply because Merck says it works and can offer a couple of anecdotes to that end, but unfortunately, that’s how many charities appeal to individual donors. Why is it that when it comes to development aid, our standards are so much lower?
That’s the question being posed by a growing number of “effective altruists,” a term popularized by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer. “Effective altruism,” writes Singer, “is based on a very simple idea: we should do the most good we can.”
Read the full article at Columbia Global Reports.
On a sunny hill overlooking a valley of shrubs, yellow grass and maize, Deodat Madembwe watches a team of masons make bricks for an elementary school he’s building.
As a young man growing up in central Tanzania, Madembwe too was a mason. Back then the most popular way to make bricks was to mould them loosely out of dirt and clay and then burn them in a tanuru – the Swahili word for a kiln. But to heat the kiln was to wreak havoc on the local environment.
“People cut trees to burn bricks,” he explained. To burn enough bricks for about five houses, they’d have to fell 10, even 20 trees. Burning the trees releases CO², contributing to climate change, and deforestation means there are fewer trees left to combat it. As Tanzania’s population grew, more and more houses arose and the landscape suffered. “We [were] making a desert,” said Madembwe.
But today, on a sunny plateau above Mbeya, the masonry unfolding before Madembwe’s eyes is of an entirely different breed. Two men with shovels quickly mix dirt they’ve sifted with a bit of sand and cement. They add water and shovel the mixture into a small steel device. A third man closes the heavy metal lid and pulls down hard on a long green lever. He releases, and a perfectly rectangular gray brick rises up.
NGOs, governments and local cooperatives have been experimenting with so-called compressed stabilised earth blocks (CSEB), a green alternative to tree-consuming burnt bricks, on a small scale for years. But they may soon rise to global prominence, prompted in part by interest from an unlikely party: the largest cement manufacturer in the world.
In central Kenya, three of the world’s four remaining Northern white rhinos are stubbornly refusing to mate. Since 2009, conservationists have tried and failed to coax the animals together—and with the lone male nearing his 43rd birthday, too old to breed, extinction is inevitable. It’s a matter of time before the remaining beasts die off, one by one.
So in the meantime, in San Diego, scientists are working to resurrect them.
That’s a thrilling but distinctly unnatural approach to preserving nature. And some scientists and conservationists are asking if resurrection is really the right way to save the Earth’s threatened species.
“Until we make space for other species on Earth, it won’t matter how many animals we resurrect,” writes M.R. O’Connor in her book Resurrection Science. “There won’t be many places left for them to exist.”
“Paradoxically,” says O’Connor, “the more we intervene to save species, the less wild they often become.”
De-extinction is a uniquely self-gratifying brand of conservation. Resurrection reflects an urge to do something, O’Connor says, “before humanity relinquishes the existence of wild places and wild things in the world.” But it’s for humans, not for the animals. “It really doesn’t matter to a dead species whether they’re brought back,” she says. Perhaps, nostalgia for the great beasts of the world has clouded humans from realizing that what is truly natural may be to let them die out.
Read the full piece at WIRED.