Apr. 17th, 2008

heron61: (Gryphon)
I was reading this excellent article on the impact of cell phones on lives of people in the third world and it made me think about the predicament of the third world. For the first time in the industrial era, how inequality between the first and the third world is (at last) decreasing. Increasingly inexpensive wonders like cell phones and cheap laptops are changing the lives of people whose parents may never have seen an electric light except in the far distance. This is amazing, powerful, and above all hopeful. When you add in the potential for 3-d fabricators to transform third world manufacturing and the fate of the inhabitants of all but the poorest and most desperate nations starts looking far better than it did 20 years ago. This is part of a progression we've seen before – 25 years ago, South Korea was an impoverished nation on the barest edges of the first world, and now their consumer electronics and life spans are better than ours in the US. Similarly, while its government is very far from ideal, China's middle class is growing very rapidly indeed.

I've read some pieces despairing about such changes and the loss of "traditional ways of life", to which my response is to both ask how many of us would willing give up electricity, indoor plumbing, or the internet. I'm reminded of a short bit on Anthony Bourdain's brilliant travel show No Reservations, where he talked to someone living in a traditional Amazonian village and who had regularly encountered first world tourists. When asked how he liked life in his village, the man answered by asking Anthony Bourdain how he'd like to trade. That's really what it's all about, people all across the world want real medical care, indoor plumbing, electricity, cell phones, and suchlike and these advances bring real and largely positive changes into their lives.

However, that's only part of the story. I'm deeply unimpressed with the various apocalyptic predictions about the first world – fuel shortages and the various similar problems are problems to be solved, that have a multitude of solutions – some good, and some not, but in 30 years we're still all going to have food, fuel, and all that. However, I've seen a number of predictions that indicate that the tropics (IOW the third world) is going to be affected considerably more by global warming than we are. It looks much like sea levels will rise 1.5 meters in the next 92 years, which will be a big deal for millions of coastal people in the third world, and even mildly higher fuel and food costs are going to have a major impact on people in the third world.

For me, one of the hardest parts of this situation is that we don't know the end of that story – will technical advances win out or will rising costs and environmental and economic problems keep these people living in conditions none of us really want to imagine. Also, there's very little that we as individuals can do directly. I started a career in international development, and gave up in disgust, because most people in the field were either fools or actively evil. What the residents of the third world need is engineers to help them solve their problems and more people like the person in the article about third world cell phones. What they definitely don't need academics discussing what they think the problems these people face are or how best to solve them, in part because such externally-lead efforts so rarely succeed. Given the growing negative reaction in Africa to various forms of international charity – it seems the best answers are various forms of fair trade efforts (as opposed to the ill-named predatory "free trade" that is so common and often so horrid) and foreign funding of local efforts like the astoundingly successful Bangladeshi microcredit loans. Imagine the world we might have if the US spent half the money it's wasting on its various wars on such efforts and on policing the various US-based transnational corporations so they were not brutal union-busting horrors overseas. I'm certain that in 30 years life in the first world will be amazing beyond our dreams, but I also hope that the residents of the third world benefit from those wonders considerably more than they benefit from the many wonders we now take for granted.

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