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My Favourite Development Stories — Part 4: Doubling productivity.

This is a difficult story to write, because I do not want anyone to come away making sweeping generalizations based on it.

I was in a Berber village in rural Morocco, up in the Atlas Mountains. To construct buildings, people would ideally make bricks using cement, sand/soil and gravel. Cement, in practice, was expensive and in short supply, and the last time a bag of cement was obtained for the construction of a public good, a classroom, portions were siphoned away until so little cement remained for the bricks that the room ultimately collapsed. Building public goods like roads and schools was a task assigned to teams of local men, in rotation.

Now a new classroom was being built, and I saw the bricks being made. The crew it fell to had brought out wheelbarrows, shovels, and two old, metal molds – boxes with two sides cut out. The molds were of the same size but had different sides cut out, giving them a slightly different appearance.

A lot of concrete had been mixed and was waiting to be shovelled into the molds. However, only one mold was being used, causing a bottle-neck. I inquired why.

The villagers were unaware that their two molds – that they had been using for construction for as long as anyone could remember – were the same size.

When I think of productivity gains, sometimes I remember this story.

My Favourite Development Stories — Part 3: Careful where you place your toilets.

This story was also told to me at Oxford and may be somewhat famous:

An aid group tried to ensure that the toilets it was building would be used by everyone in a community in India. This meant that they carefully mapped out where members of different castes lived. They put the toilets right in between two groups, reckoning that it might be a neutral area and members of both castes could then use the toilets.

The opposite occurred: the members of the upper caste did not deign to use the toilets, and the members of the lower caste avoided them as well out of propriety.

My Favourite Development Stories — Part 2: Building a school to get running water.

This story was also told to me at Oxford:

An aid agency wanted to listen to the needs of the local community. It invested a great deal of effort into holding village meetings and trying to elicit what villagers thought of potential projects.

The answer was unanimous: build a school.

The school was built in the centre of the village, right beside the village chief’s house, which happened to also be in the centre of the village.*

Later, it was discovered that the reason the village had requested a school was because the villagers had seen the aid group work in nearby areas and knew that when it built a school it would seek to pipe running water to it. The village chief, of course, wanted running water by his house, and the other villagers went along with his desires.

*I may be mis-remembering the story; it is possible the scheme was discovered before the school was built. Maybe someone out there has better knowledge than me.

My Favourite Development Stories — Part 1: The bottle of Jack Daniels used as the sole determinant of PPP.

I’m going to start a new feature on this blog, partially to get it going again.

I am not going to be able to properly attribute all the stories here, and it is possible that some urban legends will slip in. Nonetheless, I either experienced these stories myself first-hand or was told them by a reputable source.

This story is attributable to either Stefan Dercon or Christopher Adam, professors at Oxford.

The story is simple: during one of these professors’ lives, he got to see the inner workings of how PPP (purchasing power parity) was set for a small African country. The problem was that in order to calculate PPP, you need to be able to find a basket of goods which is comparable in both the country of interest and the base country (usually the U.S.).

Unfortunately, for Small African Country, the only comparable good for which they had good price data was a bottle of Jack Daniels. So the bottle of Jack Daniels, alone, set PPP for the entire country for several years.

Looking back on the Kickstarter


• “Likes” were not highly correlated with pledges. Sometimes, you would see likes but no pledges; other times, you would see pledges but no likes. Of course, likes could have still been instrumental in getting pledges from others. But overall, facebook was responsible for less than 10% of the total.
• Major blog coverage was crucial.
• Others helped out so very much. I had no idea how much people would advocate for it. In the end, only $1,440 of the $11,631.25 came from people I knew (even as acquaintances) before the Kickstarter. Strangers gave much more than friends both in absolute terms and on average per person, about which I am very glad because I don’t think the point of a Kickstarter is to bankrupt your friends.
• 5% came from people who found it through Kickstarter itself, most towards the end.

All in all, I would not recommend it as a fundraising tool so much as a social networking tool (!). There are probably easier ways of getting the money, given how very much time it takes. But the connections made were invaluable. Via the Kickstarter, might have found something like a business partner, along with many collaborators and people interested in similar ventures.

The other aspect of the process that I didn’t anticipate and turned out to be one of the best benefits was that many of the pledges and people’s efforts were very touching and humbling. When you know someone hard up still supported it…. When you see total strangers (or former total strangers) working so very hard to promote it…. Those are the things I will take with me for life.

Thank you.