How Playground Equipment and Sippy Straws Could Save Millions of Lives

Access to potable water remains one of the most enduring problems around the world. Today more than 1 billion people do not have access to improved drinking water sources. This leads to 1.6 million deaths from diarrhea each year, the vast majority occurring in children younger than 5.

Multilateral development agencies have been working for decades to improve this situation. Early water projects were well-intentioned engineering gifts. The SCANWATER project, for example, simply installed gas-powered water towers on the highest hills around Cameroon. Because these projects didn’t develop local capacity to train technicians or to collect money for expensive maintenance, most of these water towers rapidly fell into disrepair.

So the key to sustainability is access, simplicity, good design and minimal maintenance. Two promising products are the Playpump and LifeStraw. As you can probably guess from the compound names, these products combine simple existing concepts with water sanitation development goals.

PlayPump is a water pump powered by children who play on a merry-go-round. The pumps are often located near
primary schools to take advantage of abundant free “labor.” Many primary schools in Sub-Saharan Africa have more than 100 students per class, so classes are taught in shifts. During this downtime, children can play on the merry go round ensuring a regular supply of water.

PlayPump in action

The PlayPump also takes advantage of the demographics that characterize developing nations, where half the population is under the age of fifteen.

In villages where girls are most often assigned the chore of fetching water, the PlayPump has the potential to reduce the distances walked for clean water, increasing the likelihood that girls can go to school.

Playpumps cost about $5000 each and can produce up to 1400 liters (370 gallons) per hour, enough water for 2,500 people. The water towers also can accomodate up to four billboard advertisements, two of which are normally reserved for public health messages, and two for revenue generation that provides for maintenance expenses. Currently a South African company is installing them with some help from the World Bank.

LifeStraw in actionThe second product is LifeStraw, which is produced by the Danish company Vestergaard-Frandsen. The LifeStraw is basically a lightweight handheld filtration device that can be worn around the neck. Any time someone need a sip of water, they can use this device to automatically filter out contaminants. The LifeStraw doesn’t require any spare parts, and it lasts for about one year or 700 liters. They retail in the developing world for $6, or about 1.6 cents per day. The company that produces LifeStraw has ambitious sales goals. The creator, Torben Vestergaard-Frandsen, said that, “We will be disappointed, if we do not sell at least 10 million LifeStraw a year.”

At less than a cent per liter of water filtered, LifeStraw is competitive with other water filtration systems in the developing world. That cost should come down as they ramp up production and realize economies of scale.

And lest you get the idea of ordering a LifeStraw for your homeland security kit or for camping, it’s still being reviewed by the EPA, so it’s not yet available in the U.S. One other caveat: it does not protect against Giardia, a nasty little parasite that Statastico really recommends avoiding.

What other ideas are waiting to be combined into a life-saving innovation? How about an electrical generator powered by soccer players? A playground slide that doubles as solar power? With more than 1 billion people around the world without access to clean water, invention is indeed the mother of necessity.

1 Billion without Access to Clean Drinking Water

Sources: Statastic research, WHO, United Nations

Why We Ignore Conflicts

Yesterday, the Washington Post ran an editorial that put the estimated death toll from the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo at 3.9 million, the equivalent of the entire San Francisco Bay Area population.

The war, which has involved as many as six nations, started in 1998 and continues to this day. The International Rescue Committee and The Lancet found that 98% of the deaths were due to treatable disease and malnutrition, largely the result of displacement during conflicts in the east. The remaining 160,000 deaths were a direct result of fighting.

The quality of the data in the editorial and the reports on which it is based are very impressive; the results are not. By comparing our response to the conflict in Congo with other recent wars and natural disasters, we find a discouraging record:

  • -On a per capita basis, 30 times more United Nations Peacekeepers were deployed to Kosovo, where 12,000 people died, than to Congo where 3.9 million people have died this far.
  • -The dollars of international aid distributed to Aceh, Indonesia in the wake of the tsunami was almost 100 times higher than the aid that has flowed to Congo.
  • -In 2005 the media reported on Darfur more than 5 times more often than on the conflict in Congo.

The lessons from the data are clear:

  1. 1. The media is more likely to report on wars that have been labeled genocide.
  2. 2. The media is less likely to report on festering wars with no apparent good guys and bad guys.
  3. 3. Media reports drive world attention. World attention drives donation rates, the reaction of our governments, and the deployment of U.N. Peacekeepers
  4. 4. Citizen donations are fickle.  Governments are ultimately responsible for addressing conflicts such as that in Congo.

To learn more about the war in Congo, visit the IRC web site. There is also a link to take action by writing your Senator (assuming you’re not a Washington, DC resident).

Percentage of Current Population Killed in Recent Wars

Sources: Statastic research, International Rescue Committee, Wikipedia, Washington Post.

U.S. Foreign “Aid”

Every so often, Jeffrey Sachs tries to humiliate the U.S. into increasing its foreign aid. It’s true: While we give away about $19 billion annually in foreign aid, it’s not much relative to our Gross National Income. The Dutch give away about 5 times more, and we’re usually toward the bottom of the rankings for industrialized nations.

But even our Official Development Assistance – grants that promote economic development in low income countries – doesn’t really get to the poorest countries on earth. The United Nation’s Human Development Index (HDI) helps quantify a country’s progress in areas such as health, education, and general economic welfare. One might think that this would be a pretty good guide to foreign aid benefiaries. But the five most under-developed countries on earth only receive $186 million in aid from the U.S., about 7% of what Israel receives annually.

At more than $10 billion in 2005, Iraq alone accounts for 45% of our total foreign aid. So the U.S. is spending about half of its development assistance solving a problem that we helped create. Actually, if you look at the top 4 countries that we give assistance to, it reads like a who’s who of failed U.S. foreign policies: Iraq is devolving into civil war, Israel has lost our roadmap to peace, Afghanistan cultivates poppies and terrorists, and we have outsourced Sudan’s genocide.

The bottom ten countries on the HDI index are miserable, conflict ridden places. But are they better off with or without our so-called aid?U.S. Foreign Aid and Human Development

Sources: Statastic, Wikipedia, United Nations Human Development Report

Notes: The “least developed countries on earth” is based on the 2003 United Nation’s Human Development Index.  Several countries that might have appeared near the bottom of the HDI were not ranked in 2003, many because of recent conflicts.  Statastico would like to give proper credit to the abject underdevelopment of the following countries that may have made the top 10 most miserable places to be a citizen, had they been ranked: Sudan, Iraq, Somalia, Liberia, Afghanistan, and Monaco.  Ok, maybe not Monaco.

A Fifth of a Penny for Your Thoughts

In 1972, the year Statastico was born, a penny was worth the equivalent of a 2006 nickel. Imagine if the U.S. Mint decided in 1972 to start making new coins called Fifths (with a portrait of James Monroe, naturally) and they were worth 1/5 of a cent. Well, we have them today and we call them pennies.

As recently as 2002, the U.S. Mint pulled in $24 million in seigniorage by producing pennies. No more. The Washington Post recently reported that because of rising zinc prices, the U.S. Mint is paying about 1.2 cents for every penny produced – not a very good return on investment.

Getting rid of pennies is a contentious issue. There is a pro-penny organization and people seem to attribute more value to a penny than it’s actual worth. Americans are frugal enough to pick a penny up off the street 76% of the time, though rich folks are more than twice as likely to leave that penny on the ground.

Indeed the mighty dollar’s biggest currency rival, the euro, also has 1 cent coins. However, businesses in Finland, the Netherlands and Greece commonly round to the nearest 5 cents to avoid those coins, so maybe the Europeans are onto something.

What about the rest of the world? Comparing a country’s most humble coins is a little tricky. A penny and a centavo both divide a major unit of currency by 100, but that’s where the similarity ends. First, you have to factor in the ebb and flow of exchange rates. Then it’s important to consider what a centavo buys locally, also known as purchasing power parity (PPP). One centavo might buy a whole mango in Guatemala, but it would only get you the mango’s stem in a U.S. grocery store.

So how worthless is the penny? Only the Chinese produce a more worthless coin (and we all know that their currency is undervalued). On the other end of the scale, the Japanese 1 yen coin is worth almost six times more than a U.S. penny in local wages.

And while we’re on the subject, have a look at our largest commonly used coin, the quarter. In coin-crazy Japan, they mint the most valuable coin in the world at currect exchange rates: The 500 yen coin is worth $4.33.

But once you factor in the lower local wages, it’s the Central and West African CFA (a vestigial franc from French colonial rule) that truly stands out. The 500 CFA coin – popular and convenient for highway bribes – is worth about 80% of the local hourly wage in Cameroon, the equivalent of a coin worth $16.50 in the U.S.!Lowest Denomination Coins in Select Countries Highest Denomination Coins in Select Countries

Sources: Statastic research; Wikipedia;; IMF

*Notes: These are the highest and lowest value coins that commonly used in these selected countries. Coin currency equivalent was converted to dollars using exchange rate as of 7.13.06. Average hourly wages were calculated using the PPP of GDP per capita, and assume that workers toil 50 weeks per year, 40 hours per week.

The Cost of Public Access to the Internet & Usage Rates in the Developing World

The Internet has been available in the developing world almost as long as it’s been here in the U.S. Internet cafes were popping up in Cameroon in the mid 1990s before the local Peace Corps volunteers even knew how to use them. Penetration rates, however, lag predictably behind the richer countries in the north. But the lack of telecommunications infrastructure is something of a blessing in disguise: developing nations have the potential to leapfrog technologies. Cell phones and VOIP prove easier than installing costly land lines, and there’s no need for telephone poles and copper cable if governments can create WiFi and WiMAX zones around burgeoning urban areas.

Wired Magazine recently featured a map with average prices for one hour of online access in Internet cafes around the world. Statastic used the average hourly price as a percentage of daily wages to provide a glimpse into the state of Internet access in a selection of low to middle income countries.

The chart below begs several questions. Could lowering the cost of public Internet access lead to higher usage rates? What is the demographic profile of the average Internet user in the developing world? Should multi-lateral donors subsidize the cost of public Internet access?

Among this small sample, D.R. Congo, Nigeria and Kenya are the three most expensive places for locals to access the Internet, relative to income. They also have some of the lowest usage rates. But these countries have several other characteristics in common: low literacy, high rates of corruption, and a high level of inequality. These countries may simply have a limited number of Internet cafes that cater to tourists, corrupt officials and the wealthy locals who are lucky enough to have an education and a job.

Brazil’s usage rates are surprisingly high. Perhaps Brazil’s high inequality can help explain how 14% of Brazilians have regular access to the Internet despite the fact that one hour in an Internet café costs nearly one sixth of average daily wages. Just who are those fortunate 14%?
Cost of 1 Hour of Public Internet Access vs. Internet Penetration in Developing Nations

WIRED Magazine, May 2006

Agriculture Subsidies and African Development

Agricultural subsidies criticized in the Washington Post… but not very well

The Washington Post is running a series of articles that expose some of the true costs of agricultural price supports in the United States. Agricultural subsidies are indeed very bad. These subsidies hurt developing nations by artificially depressing global agricultural commodity prices for the crops that developing nations are desperately trying to export. Proponents who claim that such price supports help smooth price fluctuations ignore unintended consequences, and political rhetoric about “saving the family farm” is empty… as are most of the family farms.

Although the Washington Post’s first two reports are well researched, their data is often misleading, incomplete or anecdotal. An example comes from today’s article about the failure of our current system of price supports, also known as Loan Deficiency Payments (LDPs):

One who played it right last year was Michael T. Sullivan, who produces a million bushels of corn annually with his three sons in Franklin, Minn. He thrived even during the depressed post-Katrina market.

Well before the storm, Sullivan said, the family had arranged to sell three-quarters of its crop to a local grain elevator for about $2 a bushel. The practice, called “forward contracting,” is increasingly common and helps insulate farmers from the market’s routine ups and downs.

On top of their contracted price, the Sullivans got the subsidy: $292,054 for that same corn, according to payment records.

Sullivan considers the LDP a godsend, given the uncertainties of farming. “Without it, Main Street Minnesota would have no money to keep the economy rolling,” he said.

Great, lots of numbers in there. A million bushels. $2 per bushel. And the hardest hitting of all: $292,054 in subsidies. Wow, that’s a lot of subsidies American taxpayers are shelling out.

Problem #1: The numbers cited are production and income based. How much did the family actually net in 2005? $292,054 sure seems like a lot of money in government subsidies, but relative to what? It looks like the Sullivans would have earned about $2 million had they 1 million acres at the market price of $2 per bushel.

Readers would be more sympathetic to the Sullivans if the inputs to produce those 1 million bushels cost them $2.25 million, netting them only $42,054 in income, and only being cash positive because of those government price supports. But what if their costs were only $200,000? Then the Sullivans would millionaires, netting $2.09 million in 2005.

Problem #2: How does the Sullivan family’s subsidy compare to the average subsidy for a corn farmer in Minnesota? How about compared to the U.S.? Is this the average corn production for a farm in Minnesota? A million bushels sounds like a lot to me. But is it? I mean, I probably only eat 200 or 300 bushels a year. (Statastico really likes corn.) Of course this doesn’t matter, because of problem #1: we don’t know anything about their income.

Cash for CornNext, the Washington Post produced a colorful map that makes Iowa look like price support central for corn. Sure, most counties receive more $10 million is price supports for corn. But how much corn does Iowa produce? Well if you’ve seen Field of Dreams or Children of the Corn, you won’t be surprised that Iowa produces 18.8% of all U.S. corn. So the map is colorful, but it tells a deceptively simple story.

Ratio of Government Support to the Value of Corn Produced

If you want harder hitting numbers, head to Iowa State University. Chad E. Hart reports that according to USDA projections, almost half of the market value of Iowa’s 2005 corn crop was made up of government payments. Now we can start to understand why those nations struggling to boost agricultural export walked out of WTO trade talks.

I’ll leave you with some data based in part on what the Washington Post Business section reported on Friday. If you take a look at how much the following countries pay in government support to farmers in 2005, you’ll see that every European paid $293.20 in agriculture support. Americans paid al total of $43 billion, or $145.40 per person. In contrast, the per capita GDP in Sub-Saharan Africa was only $575 in 2002. Statastico does not advocate transferring those agricultural subsidies to development. These subsidies should, however, be reduced to zero over time. Give Africa and other poor farmers around the world a chance to export, an incentive to develop, and above all, a level playing field.

Domestic Government Support to Agriculture (per capita) vs. African GDP (per capita)