The title of this blog Designing Better Futures reflects an idea. The idea is that Design (the thoughtful act of production) might help make the future better for many. I am interested in design with a high ROI in sustainable economic development for poor countries. My beliefs are more in line with William Easterly than Jeffrey Sachs. To put it simply Easterly wants it aid to accountably to work, while Sachs wants to throw money at it until it works and feel good about it.
If you really want to make a difference, please think before acting. Feeling good about yourself and doing good for others aren't necessarily the same thing. The best results rarely are the ones that make you simply feel good. Real development impact is unsexy hard work, like building or designing a latrine to reduce infant mortality.
Read Easterly's fantastic book, The White Man's Burden and then compare it with the feel good money pit approach from Sachs entitled The End of Poverty. Another thoughtful book on world problems is The Copenhagen Consensus.
In looking for high payoff sustainable development ideas, I have been very interested in micro-nutrients, iodized salt, Vitamin enhanced golden rice etc.
Basically I look for cheap projects with huge positive externalities,mega-bang for the poor persons buck. These are things that can cheaply add years to life capabilities or raise the collective IQ of a village sustainably without creating aid dependencies etc. The trick is in the distribution and self sustaining of the enhancement in the poor's lives over time.
Another high value add, that I am deeply committed to is Property Rights and the wonky delegation of those rights via efficient registration processes. Recognizing Dead Capital* as defined by Hernando de Soto and properly bringing it to life could create Trillions of $'s for the world's poorest and enfranchise them in their own political systems. An enfranchised middle class is a powerful force.
To that end, the unsexy stuff needs technical help. Forget the easy emotional appeal of feeding babies in times of crisis, put the unsexy infrastructure (soft(bureaucratic) & hard(project based)) in place to mitigate mass starvation in the first place.
Medecins Sans Frontier (doctors without borders) is very high profile do good stuff, but what could even be more important would be plumbers, engineers, lawyers and tradespeople without borders. The resources (motivated people) are probably there, the organized charities aren't.
Imagine plumbers or civil engineers or Quality Assurance people helping out in countries on the "soft" infrastructure, either training or jsut learning about it. My own goal would be land registrar consultants without borders. I view it is a $9 trillion unsexy problem.
A good example of an unsexy but important charity is Reporters sans frontiers. Good reporting acts as a feeback loop and curb the abuses that may lead to socially inflicted humanitarian disasters.
The video below hinting at the need for Bureacrats without borders, warning it dry and wonky. A council on best practice for bureaucracy inter governmental with benchmarks such as the World Bank's excellent doing business report would be a very good thing as it measures the "output" of a govt. service and allows for govt and citizens to hopefully seek best practices from peers.
Imagine the same for the planning processes for infrastructure, planning and deployment of basic govt. services. Bureaucrats without borders sounds horrible, but could be wonderful, it may even get rid of some corruption which acts in some instances as the only effective way to progress in some states.
*Unbelievably there is no wikipedia entry for such an important concept as "Dead Capital".
Full disclosure Bernard Kouchner, founder of Medecin Sans Frontiers spoke at my MBA commencement in Paris and my undergrad at the U of Iowa was anthropology where I independently focused on economic sustainability in West Africa.