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.
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 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.