Smart People Aren't Smart Enough To Do Good

Command-and-control never fixes problems.

We've discussed the difficulties that Western aid agencies and private foundations face in doing actual good in Africa.  Oprah Winfrey's girl's school in South Africa nearly fell apart in personnel difficulties.  The Gates Foundation is close to a low cost malaria cure, but curing malaria won't make it any easier to feed all the extra people who won't die.

A German professor named Dietrich Dorner wrote a book, The Logic of Failure, which explains how a series of small, well-meaning, and logical-seeming steps can lead to catastrophe.  He tells of a town whose residents complained about traffic noise and pollution.

The town council took the obvious solution and put in speed bumps to slow the traffic.  Unfortunately, shopping trips now took longer so cars spent more time in the downtown area which made congestion far worse.  Cars driving more slowly generated more noise and more pollution.  Drivers started going to a more distant mall in another town so merchants and tax revenue suffered.

When the weaker merchants went out of business, no tenants could be found for the newly-vacant stores.  This well-intentioned, obvious-seeming solution led to disaster.

The Inevitability of African Famine

Dr. Dorner constructed computer models to demonstrate just how difficult it is to make constructive improvements in people's lives, even in simple societies.  He and his students modeled a nomadic African tribe of Moros who wandered the semi-desert Sahel seeking pasture for their cattle and raising a little millet for extra food.

The Moros had low life expectancy and high infant mortality; tsetse flies killed so many cattle that the herds couldn't support any more people.  The situation seemed ripe for improvement by well-funded aid agencies bearing modern technology.

Dr. Dorner invited renowned economists, aid agency heads, and others of the great and the good to try to improve the lives of the Moros.  Whether these participants in his simulations drilled new wells, set up health care clinics, or killed off the tsetse flies with insecticides, their "solutions" inevitably led to catastrophic famine within 15 to 20 simulated years.  The causes of these catastrophes were much easier to see during a two-hour simulation than over a 20-year period of failed development.

Suppose, for example, that health care clinics were set up.  With fewer infants dying, the population shot up.

The Moros wouldn't limit family size, however, because having lots of children was a sign of worthiness; worldwide efforts to limit the spread of AIDS show that it's hard to persuade people to change their reproductive habits in less than several generations unless they are also becoming vastly, visibly more wealthy than their still-living parents.  Famine came when the population grew beyond the capacity of the millet farms and cattle pastures.

If aid started by eradicating the flies, the cattle population rose quickly.  The cows ate all the grass, then the cow population crashed.  Without enough cows, the people starved.

Some participants started by drilling wells to increase the amount of pasture.  That didn't help until the flies were eradicated, but then cattle population increased.  Some of the water was used to grow more millet.  With both food sources increased, the human population increased.  The farmers sold surplus millet and earned back most of the cost of the wells.

Everything looked rosy until the water ran out because the wells took water out of the ground faster than rain put it back.  Water which had accumulated in the ground over centuries lasted long enough to build both the cattle and human population to the point that a major famine resulted when the wells ran dry.

Even if foreign food aid could defer the immediate problem, population had increased so far beyond the land's carrying capacity that aid would be needed essentially forever.  Good intentions led to the creation of a large population of people who were permanently dependent on international generosity.

The difficulty with using medical technology to help the Moros live longer was that each extra year required an extra year's worth of food and other resources.  We're seeing exactly the same problem in the US and in Europe as people live longer and impose greater pension costs on society.  Our government won't admit it, but the only solution currently on the table is to cut medical spending enough that enough people die to save the retirement system from bankruptcy.

Reducing Moro infant mortality had the same effect as increasing life span - the more mouths there were to feed, the more food they needed.  Developers who realized that they had to increase the food supply along with the population succeeded, but only until the water ran out.

The major point of the simulations was that rainfall put an immovable upper bound on the population: when there were too many people for the average annual rainfall, disaster ensued no matter what you did or how you'd gotten there.

Famine would have come even if the planners had been able to persuade the Moros to practice birth control as infant mortality dropped, because any medical technology that reduces infant mortality also helps adults live longer.  The Chinese needed a drastic one-child policy involving forced abortion to prevent famine, even though at the same time they increased agricultural production by using imported fertilizer.

There's simply no way other than famine to get rid of excess population as adults suddenly start living longer, even if fewer babies are born, unless agricultural yields can be increased without requiring any more water.

The Coming American Famine

Americans are pushing the limits of our water supply.  California is so short of water that farms are being dried out to save water for endangered fish.

Even if the fish were abandoned, evidence from tree rings suggests that the the past 100 years were unusually wet compared to California's long-term average rainfall.  If the California "drought" is in fact not a drought, if it's a return to normal after an unusually wet period over the last 100 years, California is in for serious difficulties.

The same is true of the area around Atlanta, Georgia, which is experiencing serious water shortages.  Nobody knows whether the current shortage is an anomaly or a return to normal.

Getting Water Takes Energy or Money or Both

Water shortages can be mitigated through use of technology, but it's neither easy nor cheap.

Most of California is close enough to the ocean that the problem isn't a shortage of water exactly, it's a shortage of salt-free water.  Ocean water can be desalinated, but at enormous energy cost.  The energy requirements of desalinating enough water to make up any appreciable fraction of the California water shortfall are simply too great to be met with conventional generation systems - the only solution is to use nuclear power.

Governor Schwarzenegger is worried enough to ask the legislature to borrow $12 billion to build canals and aqueducts to get more water from the rainy north to the parched south.  Even in these economically difficult times, this is probably an easier sell than nuclear desalination.

The difficulty with paying back the $12 billion is that nobody wants to charge Californians the real cost of supplying them with water.  Most water used in California is heavily subsidized, particularly water used for farming.

Dr. Dorner didn't say so, but part of the reason the Moros ran out of water is that the well water was given away to individual farmers.  As with health care, when water is free or sold too cheaply, demand becomes infinite.

California isn't close to starvation due to water shortages, at least not yet.  If Californians start to pay water prices which are closer to the cost of desalinating water or prices high enough to pay for Gov. Schwartzenegger's canals, swimming pools, lawns, and golf courses will shut down due to cost, no rationing or government regulations required.

In point of fact, if the legislature would price water at cost, they wouldn't have to borrow $12 billion to build canals.  If the municipal water systems offered to pay market prices for water, private businesses would build the canals post haste.

Higher prices would not only increase supply, market pricing would release water which could be used for agriculture, but the resulting crops would be far more expensive than they are now.  If water were priced a bit over the cost of producing it, people would find it more economical to import water-intensive crops such as kiwi and lettuce from water-rich countries such as New Zealand than to grow them locally.  So much for the "Eat Local" movement.

Doing Good Is Hard To Do

Dr. Dorner's models show what happens when the human or animal population increases past the limits imposed by average annual rainfall no matter how hard people try to do good.

The fact that their efforts cause more people to die doesn't stop liberals, of course.  For them, the point is to try to do good.  Most liberals seem to believe that intending to do good is good enough regardless of whatever evil may occur.

Feeling Good is Easy

I once confronted a state senator on the issue of counseling sex offenders while they were locked up.  Statistics showed that counseling made no difference, the only way to effectively reduce repeat offenses was to castrate the offenders as they were released.

When I pointed out that she and her colleagues were wasting our money, she said angrily, "Even if it doesn't work, we have to do something!"  It didn't matter to her that the laws she helped pass didn't do any good: doing something, even if it didn't work, made her feel better.

In the case of the Moros, the extra starvation caused by do-gooders is part of what Alexander Solzhenitsyn called "a humanistic and benevolent concept according to which there is no evil inherent in human nature."  We're sure that the aid people didn't intend to cause a famine and that they felt good about "saving lives" with improved health care and by drilling wells, but famine resulted nevertheless.

Doing good is hard to do, but starting expensive programs to make liberals feel good is easy.

In our case, California can reduce water consumption by eliminating lawns, golf courses, car washes, and other aspects of the "good life," but no matter how many canals they build, there will come a time when we either have to use nuclear power to desalinate ocean water or see people starve.

Will the environmentalists let us build the necessary nuclear reactors?

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Environment.
Reader Comments

Even Google can't do good

Google Finds It Hard to Reinvent Philanthropy
In 2004, Google promised to transform philanthropy. That goal remains elusive.

January 30, 2011 8:10 AM

NYT about a program that does do good. It is NOT government, it was started by ONE PERSON who cared enough to go there and live there and help patiently over time:

I came to Kenya partly to help make a PBS documentary about empowering women as a way to lift families and communities — men included — out of poverty. And I promptly met a prostitute-turned-businesswoman who epitomizes that theme.

Jane Ngoiri is a 38-year-old single mom who grew up in a slum and dropped out of school after the eighth grade. She married at age 18, but when she was pregnant with her second child, her husband informally took a second wife (polygamy is common for Christians here as well as Muslims), and she was nudged out. Jane soon found herself with small children, no home and no money.

To survive, she sold her body for the next five years. It was a perilous existence in Mathare, a collection of dangerous slums in Nairobi. The area, a warren of winding, muddy alleys, is consumed by crime and despair.

Regular jobs are rare, and many men self-medicate in ways that perpetuate self-destructive cycles of hopelessness. Social workers estimate that one-third of the slum’s men get drunk every night — spending about $1.50 an evening, which could otherwise finance their children’s education. Poverty becomes self-replicating.

Then in 1999, Jane joined an antipoverty organization called Jamii Bora, which means “good families” in Swahili. The group, founded by 50 street beggars with the help of a Swedish woman, Ingrid Munro, who still lives in Nairobi, became Kenya’s largest microfinance organization, with more than 300,000 members. But it also runs entrepreneurship training, a sobriety campaign to reduce alcoholism, and a housing program to help slum-dwellers move to the suburbs.

In Jamii Bora, Jane was pushed to save for the future, to lean forward. There is growing evidence that the most powerful element of microfinance is not microlending, but microsavings, and that’s how Jamii Bora starts: it encourages members to save small amounts, perhaps just 50 cents a week. Then members are coached to use those savings, coupled with loans and training, to start tiny businesses.

Jane learned to sew, left prostitution and used her savings and a small loan to buy a sewing machine. She began buying secondhand wedding gowns and bridesmaid dresses for about $7 each, and then cutting them up to make two or three smaller dresses.

Jane’s business flourished, and she used her profits to buy a small home in a safe suburb and to keep her children in school. Her eldest daughter, Caroline, became the first child in the family to graduate from high school and is now taking computer classes.

The intellectual star of the family is Anthony, the second child, who is ranked No. 1 in his class of 138 pupils at a good boarding school with much richer students. Anthony, a star soccer player even though he has no soccer shoes, hopes to go to college and become an engineer. He told me that when he gets his first paycheck, he’s going to buy something beautiful for his mom — and his eyes glistened as he spoke.

Another child, Cynthia, a seventh grader, has just been chosen by teachers to become head girl of her school next year, a tribute to her grades and leadership. Jane hopes to send Cynthia, who dreams of being a lawyer, to a good boarding school as well, but it’s difficult to see how she will pay all these tuition costs.

Careful research by Professor Esther Duflo of M.I.T. and other economists suggests that microfinance can chip away at poverty but is not a panacea. You see that in Jane’s life.

After I finished my interviews, catastrophe struck. Cynthia’s big toe was mangled in a traffic accident, and ultimately it was amputated — a disfigurement in a country where people routinely wear sandals. Jane devoted every scrap of savings to medical costs — leaving Anthony unable to return to school.

September 16, 2011 7:19 AM
Add Your Comment...
4000 characters remaining
Loading question...