Poverty 101

Dutch publication De Correspondent has an excellent primer on global poverty that everyone should read.

Poverty 101: How can we end global poverty once and for all?


For more…

Reading list

Learning list

The Challenge of World Poverty: Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo


Effective Altruism

Recently, I discovered the Effective Altruism movement. It’s an exciting approach to giving, and using our first-world resources for maximal good for our planet. Here’s how you can learn more about it.

Start here. Philosopher Peter Singer explores talks through some surprising thought experiments to help you balance emotion and practicality.

Next, learn more about what EA is at the Center for Effective Altruism.

Use GiveWell to direct your dollars. GiveWell is an organization that identifies high impact giving opportunities that are supported by in-depth charity research. Their analysis is very rigorous, very readable, and extremely useful.

Later, explore the following:

Further reading… a good debate on Effective Altruism.

The Paleolitic Jarawa Tribe

The Jarawas are an indigenous people of the Andaman Islands in India. They live in parts of South Andaman and Middle Andaman Islands.


The Jarawas, who number about 400 and whom one geneticist described as “arguably the most enigmatic people on our planet,” are believed to have migrated from Africa around 50,000 years ago. They are very dark-skinned, small in stature and until 1998 lived in complete cultural isolation, shooting outsiders with steel-tipped arrows if they came too near.

The New York Times has published a series of fascinating articles about the tribe and India’s interactions with it. Reading the articles caused me to pause and reflect on the fact that while I, and others Silicon Valley-ites like me, live to drive humanity into the future, not all human civilizations want technology or will benefit from it.

Breakthroughs for Global Development

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory developed this amazing report in 2014 that identifies the 50 most critical scientific & technological breakthroughs required for sustainable global development.

The report is a very useful blueprint for technologists and entrepreneurs looking to solve the difficult problems of our world. In particular, it provides two views for analyzing the technical complexity and commercial potential of the identified breakthroughs.

Technical Complexity


Commercial Potential


Top Ten

Here are the top 10 breakthroughs (in no order) identified in the report.

#1. A new method for desalination: scalable, low cost, and using renewable energy.
Water scarcity is one of the most critical problems the world is facing today, and this problem is likely to get significantly worse in the coming years. An increasing amount of the world’s freshwater is becoming brackish, and more is being dissipated into oceans and other bodies of unusable water. Reclaiming this seawater and inland brackish water through desalination will need to be a significant part of the larger solution to meet the needs of the growing global population. Current forms of desalination (e.g., reverse osmosis) are prohibitively expensive and energy-intensive.

#2-4. Vaccines that can effectively control and eventually help eradicate the major infectious diseases of our time—HIV/AIDS, Malaria and TB.
Collectively, HIV/AIDS, Malaria and TB kill almost 4 million people a year, and represent a significant disease burden for low income populations in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Effective vaccines for these diseases do not exist yet due to the intrinsic complexity of the pathogens causing them, and a lack of understanding of the specific mechanisms through which our immune systems protect against these diseases.

#5. ‘Smart’ electronic textbooks which dynamically adapt content for different skill levels, languages and other user specific needs.
Education for low income students is fundamentally constrained by the absence of qualified teachers and adequate instructional tools. As smartphones and tablets become increasingly affordable and feature-rich, and as so much of the world gets connected to the Internet, there is a tremendous opportunity to leapfrog current education methods, and create new models of content development, content delivery and instruction. ‘Smart’ electronic textbooks will require curated and up-to-date content, ‘wiki’ interfaces for vernacular and other locally relevant and gender-inclusive material, visual and dynamic learning tools for students, interfaces and tools for teachers, student-teacher interaction
and peer-to-peer collaboration.

#6. Biometric ID systems, linking birth registry, land title registry, financial services, education history, medical history, and other information critical for ICT enabled services.
Individuals born in industrialized countries have formal IDs, which are linked to a range of services vital to their wellbeing and empowerment, and are an intrinsic part of their day-to-day lives. ID systems are inadequate in most developing countries, in part due to the absence of the institutional framework necessary for issuing and using IDs for individuals and businesses. This is one of the reasons why a majority of citizens in many low income countries operate in informal economies, cannot assert all the rights they are entitled to, and cannot hold their governments accountable for services. Biometric technologies can enable developing countries to bootstrap ID systems, empowering individuals to assert ownership of land and other assets, have accurate medical, educational and financial histories available to service providers, and truly become part of formal economic structures. Stringent safeguards are required to ensure privacy, and to protect individuals from being targeted by repressive regimes.

#7. Affordable (under $50) smartphones that support full-fledged Internet services, and need limited electricity to charge.
The recent penetration of mobile phones across the broader developing world has been nothing short of dramatic. However, most low income consumers still use basic phones which do not offer advanced functionality beyond voice and SMS text. For true digital inclusion, we believe that smartphones—with their ability to exchange information via a range of modalities (e.g., touchpad, voice-driven control, various ports), and their ability to support a wide array of Internet-based services—are essential. Unfortunately, today’s smartphones are too expensive for low income users.

#8. A new generation of homes with advanced construction material, especially for the urban poor: durable, lightweight, and affordable, with integrated solar-powered lighting, ventilation, and toilets.
The majority of the poor—particularly in urban areas—live in densely packed shacks made with found material, which have very limited light or ventilation, and no running water or sanitation. This contributes to a range of health problems such as TB, diarrheal disease, pneumonia, and other respiratory conditions. Improving living conditions by reinventing the home for the poor, with the characteristics listed above, can significantly improve quality of life and is critical for improving health outcomes in developing countries.

#9. New methods to produce fertilizers to replace current processes, which are extremely capital intensive and have significant environmental footprints.
Production of synthetic fertilizers—a mainstay of agricultural yields for many decades—depends on processes that are very capital intensive (manufacturing plants and mines costing hundreds of millions to billions of dollars), and in the case of nitrogen, extremely dependent on natural gas (nitrogen fixation factories must be located close to natural gas sources). As a result there are no fertilizer manufacturing plants in sub-Saharan Africa, and this creates a cost burden for African farmers who must buy fertilizer from international sources. From a more global perspective, current production processes have a large ecological footprint, create dependence on fossil fuels for food, and introduce volatility in fertilizer and food prices tied to volatility in fossil fuel prices. New research is required to explore options like simulating natural nitrogen fixing mechanisms (found in crops such as legumes), foliar nutrient uptake (instead of roots, to reduce fertilizer runoffs from farms), etc. In addition, it will be important to improve the safety and effectiveness of existing sustainable methods like composting biological waste.

#10. A ‘utility-in-a-box’ for making it simpler, cheaper and faster to set up and operate renewable energy mini-grids.
Currently, setting up mini-grids in rural areas is time consuming, complex and costly, due to weak and fragmented supply chains, poor roads, a lack of skilled workers, and the absence of standardized, modular components. A ‘utility-in-a-box’—a bundled package of mini-grid components that can be easily integrated and installed, and whose parts work seamlessly, making operations simpler—would make mini-grids much more attractive to both service providers and investors, and significantly reduce barriers to expansion. In short, it would make the business of running rural mini-grids more profitable and less risky.


Featured image from NPR: The 50 Most Effective Ways To Transform The Developing World

Design Problems in Global Development

Women in Sudan. Courtesy: UNDP

Alex Dehgan’s new Coursera offering on the Innovation and Design for Global Development has led me to see that many of the challenges in creating effective international development efforts are very similar to the challenges of launching successful technology products. Both are design problems, and there are numerous examples of failed efforts in both domains. Let’s explore two cases, both involving the use of products to solve for development challenges.


PlayPump was built a water pump for African countries. It was designed by a South African entrepreneur as a merry-go-round connected to a ground water pump. As children played on the PlayPump, water was pumped from the ground into an elevated water tank. The children had fun. The village got water. The walls of the water tank were even used for revenue generating billboard advertising.

PlayPump generated a lot of enthusiasm. Many donors got involved, including Laura Bush–the then first lady of the United States. Soon, PlayPump expanded to many African countries.

“A real disaster”

In 2010, Frontline produced a follow-up report and summarize a study of the PlayPump.

A report commissioned by the Mozambique government on the PlayPump that was never released, cited… [many] problems… – women finding it difficult to operate; pumps out of commission for up to 17 months; children not playing as expected on the merry-go-rounds, and maintenance, “a real disaster,” the report said.


Tiny Spark wrote a great story on the Soccket, so I’ll quote them here:

It’s a story about a pair of young Harvard graduates who said it was possible to harness the world’s love for soccer to generate electricity for poor kids.  They called their product the Soccket, formed a for-profit company, and began selling it to corporations and foundations in the U.S. and around the world. Co-founder Jessica Matthews launched the Soccket back in 2008, saying she had helped develop a soccer ball that converts kinetic energy into power. Just a half hour of play would generate three hours of light.

“The third day, the light went out”

The balls didn’t work in real-life conditions.

Failure to Understand the User

The failure of many development programs can be traced to a lack of true understanding of their targeted users. In the cases of the PlayPump and Soccket, solutions were developed by well-meaning outside agents who did not understand the full problem space that their products were intended to work in. More specifically, they did not appreciate the complex layers of needs, wants, and constraints that define their users’ lives and environments.

PlayPump solved for how water can be pumped while kids play. Soccket solved for how kinetic energy of soccer balls can be used to generate electricity. The result was that while the products did solve for their use-cases (quality problems not withstanding), they weren’t actually useful in the broader context of their users’ lives. In other words, the products were not designed well.

So how can products be designed better? How does a product designer understand the multitudes of needs, wants, and constraints, both explicit and latent, of their target users? Well, I think a design process centered around users is the only real way to design good products.

Human Centered Design

Here’s what IDEO says about the Human Centered Design technique.

It’s a process that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor made to suit their needs. Human-centered design is all about building a deep empathy with the people you’re designing for; generating tons of ideas; building a bunch of prototypes; sharing what you’ve made with the people you’re designing for; and eventually putting your innovative new solution out in the world.

We will explore HCD and Design Thinking further in future blogs.