Tuesday, July 22, 2008

When the Solution is the Problem

While volunteering in Nepal, Lizzi and I met a couple from The Netherlands, who had volunteered with VSN two years ago. In fact, it is through their fundraising efforts when they returned to Europe that VSN was able to build the orphanage we stayed in. On their return visit to Nepal, they brought with them two humongous crates of things that were donated by various corporations. One of those businesses donated a pair of freakishly high-tech Bugaboo strollers. The hope was that a quick photo of the orphaned kids being pushed around in their new Bugaboos would result in instant "social responsibility" points for the company. Of course, neither the VSN coordinators nor the orphanage caretakers knew what to do with a set of pushcars for babies. Because, here's the punchline: Nepali people don't use strollers. Moreover, during our entire time in Asia, we didn't see a single Asian person pushing any type of device that could be remotely construed as a stroller. Asian women (at least in the countries we visited) primarily carried their children in their arms. Of course, the sentiment was fine, and the folks at VSN were grateful. But let me tell you what they didn't need: a pair of $1,000 baby strollers they won't use, when the orphanage didn't even have a single flashlight for the eight hours a day when power is out.

At the time, the whole incident of the Bugaboos got us talking about how VSN needed more appropriate donations. Moreover, we discussed that a lot of the talk we'd been hearing at home about what the developing world "needed" just didn't make sense once we were there. Computers and the internet aren't going to solve illiteracy in developing nations because most schools still don't have power or educated teachers. In general, throwing "developed-world" technology at developing world problems creates more problems than solutions.

So what technology be more appropriate? I don't know, but some folks over at MIT seem to be on the right track. Amy Smith, a lecturer in engineering at MIT, actually holds an entire course of study in appropriate technology. She and her students have come up with some amazing and appropriate inventions for parts of the developing world. To me, she absolutely has a dream job: she travels around the world and improves the quality of life for thousands in the world's developing communities through technology. Maybe on our next trip to Nepal I'll be packing an appropriate-tech water filtration system to provide clean drinking water instead of a couple of $1,000 strollers.

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