As dawn breaks, nine Kenya Wildlife Service rangers dressed in camouflage and brandishing rifles assemble at an airstrip. They are equipped with a Cessna, a helicopter, and a caravan of Toyota Land Cruisers and other SUVs. Their mission: find, tranquilize, and collar Tsavo’s savanna elephants to see how well they traverse a new rail line that has recently split their habitat in two. It is the first time in history that elephants are being collared specifically to study how they interact with human infrastructure.
Biologists Could Soon Resurrect Extinct Species. But Should They?
“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, the more we intervene to save species, the less wild they often become.”
In 2007, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said it was committed to eradicating malaria across the globe.
It was late to the game. That year, Chinese scientists working with a Chinese philanthropist had already begun eradicating malaria from the small African nation of Comoros. Now they’re setting their sights on a more ambitious location: Kenya, the East African nation of nearly 50 million people.
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.
Kenya’s hospitals have almost ground to a halt, with millions facing a third month in a row without healthcare as doctors strike over low pay and poor working conditions.
The public healthcare system has long been overburdened and underfunded, but has now virtually stopped functioning after 5,000 doctors walk out in December after attempts to reach a compromise with the health ministry stalled.
“The machines break down frequently, the doctors are overwhelmed. The patients, they are so many that they are lying on the ground,” said Dr Judy Karagania, an ophthalmology resident at Kenyatta National hospital (KNH) in Nairobi, who is taking part in the industrial action.
Karagania and her colleagues are refusing to return to work until the government makes good on a 2013 agreement to dramatically increase salaries, hire thousands of new doctors and address drug and equipment shortages.
As the standoff drags on, Kenyans are suffering from the lack of care.
“The army doctors are turning away patients,” said Karagania, who normally works as a resident medical officer at KNH. “They’re only handling the emergencies of emergencies.”
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.
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.
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.
HISPANIOLA – On the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, home to the sovereign nations of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, two large lakes are rising dramatically.
Lake Azuéi in Haiti submerged an entire community; across the border in the Dominican Republic, Lake Enriquillo has risen nearly 33 feet in just 10 years. As their land flooded, many farmers began cut-ting down trees to make charcoal to earn a living, leading to deforestation.
Scientists from across the globe have tried to solve the mystery behind the rising lakes. Some think climate change is to blame, arguing that warming sea created more evaporation and clouds, which led to more rainfall. But if true, that would be strange, because in most of the world climate change is causing lakes to shrink.
The phenomenon is spur- ring calls for more research to help explain – and mitigate – the situation. Until scientists are able to identify the cause and work toward a solution, thousands of farmers on this Caribbean island will have to adapt.
GiveDirectly makes unconditional cash transfers to people via mobile phones—this man in Western Kenya used the money to start a business raising and selling chickens. Photo by Jacob Kushner.
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.”
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.
Phyllis Omido receives the Goldman Environmental Prize Monday, but the battle for justice is only beginning.
In the coastal city of Mombasa, Kenya, a rogue lead-smelting factory has left a path of destruction in its wake: at least three dead workers, hundreds of failed pregnancies and stillborns, and more than two dozen children suffering lifelong health effects from breathing in polluted air and stepping in toxic runoff.
The damage might have continued were it not for one Kenyan woman who fought to close down the plant and save an entire community—even amid death threats and an attempted kidnapping.
Today, 36-year-old Phyllis Omido is being honored with the Goldman Environmental Prize, given each year to six exceptional individuals—one from each continent—who undertake “sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk.”
The prize is the beginning of yet another journey for Omido: She plans to use the $175,000 award to sue the government agencies that knew about the problems at the smelting plant but did nothing.
“As long as there is no justice, we will keep pushing,” she says.
To get the fuel she needed to cook her food and warm her home, Kenyan Nancy Wambui, 54, used to buy charcoal made from chopped-down trees. But recently, she was given a new set of briquettes to try, that looked just like regular charcoal but worked even better. The secret ingredient? Human poop.
These briquettes just might be a promising new way to curb deforestation, reduce the daily expenditures of low-income families, help solve an energy deficit facing the country, and support sanitation improvements in areas where they are desperately needed. More than 2.5 billion people in the developing world lack access to toilets, and a child dies every 15 seconds from diarrhea, usually the result of food or water becoming contaminated by human waste. Each year, 200 million tons of the world’s poop also goes completely untreated, ending up directly in lakes, rivers, and oceans.
Schoolteacher Loice Anyango Ocholla, 24, of Amudho, Kenya, received a cash grant through a new development program. (Photo: Jacob Kushner)
The Western Kenyan village of Nyawita is a dry, sparse place. In the mornings, wives tend to small plots of corn or cassava near their mud-wall homes. Husbands shepherd their few cows around, searching for patches of grass. Children attend a local school if their parents can afford to send them.
Victor Ochieng has spent almost his entire 39 years here farming corn, tomatoes, and other crops. Until recently, it was all the father of six could do to scratch out a living for his family. He wanted to buy pumps and pipes to irrigate his crops with water from his well but couldn’t afford it.
“Farming has so many challenges, and one of the biggest is that rains disappear,” he said. “I wanted to farm even during the times of drought, so I could take my crops to the market while the price is high.”
One day last year, a couple of out-of-towners showed up in his village. They walked from house to house, chatting with the locals. When the visitors, Kenyans like Ochieng, arrived at his home, they told him something astonishing: Some Americans he’d never met wanted to give him and nearly all his neighbors a fortune. Not a loan, a giveaway. With no strings attached.