Jun 11 2009

Local Tastes Better

by at 3:36 pm under Uncategorized

“Challenges help us more than they hurt us.” My grandfather would say such a thing whenever I found myself without a solution to my current problem. I am reminded of such a problem when I think of the complexity of third-world development. When I was around twelve, I found a relatively inexpensive computer case for sale. Without thinking, I spent my little saving on this worthless item. Of all the parts that make up a computer, the case is usually one of the cheapest. Yet, over the next year of my life I slowly built up my own computer piece by piece, problem by problem, through side-jobs, gifts from my family, and bargaining. I fixed so many little problems along the way and built up the institutional knowledge of computer hardware while expanding my social capital in order to acquire more parts. When I was done, I had something truly my own. Far from perfect, the computer was still one of the most reliable I have ever owned and the knowledge has served me far beyond my wildest expectations.

If someone where to ask me what I learned in “Networks and Development,” I would point them to Jane Jacobs. Her explanation of cities as nodes of economic development and currency as the primary feed-back system of economies (albeit now flawed feed-back system) perfectly sums up the challenges of complexity in development. Her case-studies also illuminate the benefits of a complex system. One decision can have externalities completely outside of all expectations. Yesterday I was remembering an incident my freshman year of high school. I had gone to audition for a play and I was practicing my audition piece minutes before I was to be called on stage. I distinctly remember how I wanted to just go home and forget about it. No one would have cared and my family would have understood. There would always have been another play or club to occupy my time. But for whatever reason, I stuck it out. I was cast as the lead in that play which led me befriend a teacher who became a mentor for me in competitive speech contests. Those contests paid for much of my first year of college and may have been the deciding factor for why I was accepted at Georgetown. Because I went to undergrad at Georgetown (and because of my computer knowledge from a rash decision as a twelve year old) I worked at UIS and attend CCT. And because of that, I am now learning about complex systems and the challenges of development and writing this blog post. The externalities of life, much like economies, can seem completely random.

What does my life lessons have to do with development? Economic development is much like personal development. It doesn’t come cheap. One doesn’t expect to give their children strong characters; we all know those must be earned. Just as I had to sweat through the difficulty of building my first computer, developing nations will face my challenges of their own on the road to strong economies. Putnam and Narayan explain how the networks of cooperation are fundamental to success. Without using every resource at my disposal, my computer would never have been built. It was a combination of work, charity, and trade that led me to acquire all the pieces of the puzzles. Developing nations will need all the same avenues of support. North shows that agglomeration makes everything easier (and cheaper) than going after everything as individuals. I could have ended up here in CCT through other paths, but by working with my personal resources instead of others expectations, I succeeded. And Rogers says that diffusion can be used to spread positive behaviors through social norms. My personal journey may have inspired others just as others inspired me. All of these lessons were present in my own life and in the economic life I hope to work for in the developing world.

“Local” is the new buzz word in the food industry. Just a few years ago, “local” might have sounded cheap and unappealing. Why not “foreign” and “exotic” foods? Recently my sister and some of her college friends went to Nicaragua to work on houses. I computed that they had spent around fifty dollars per man-hour when costs of travel were included. This did not incorporate the lost wages for local workers. The lesson is that we cannot expect gestures of support to be good enough. We have to analyze the true costs and benefits whenever we deal with economies that are not functioning well on their own. My sister’s group failed to take this into account.

“Theories are like clothes. Try them on and see how they fit.” Professor Garcia’s advice is a sound method of interacting with theory. I hope to follow this as I work on my paper concerning the digital divide. My story of building my first computer reminds me of the lofty aspirations of the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) Project. The thought was that the children of the third world will learn from each other in their own networks and dramatically alter the knowledge divide that technology creates between the wealthy and poor. Yet it has failed. Private interests have taken over the “market” for computers to the poor. The lesson of this class have shown why OLPC was destined for failure. It failed to act locally for global change. Sustainability was never considered. And wishing that the project would be immune to market forces was naive. The question now is how to apply the lessons of agglomeration, externalities, and networks. I think no single theory will be the key for success.

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