Wednesday, February 26, 2014

It’s what you say, not just how you say it

What do they call it?
I work at BRAC Centre, 75 Mohakhali Ave.  Every morning when I hail a rickshaw, I say, “How much to go to TB gate?”  The office is next to the Chest Disease and Lung Hospital, hence “TB (Tuberculosis) gate.”  If I said “BRAC Centre” or “75 Mohakhali Ave,” who knows where they would take me—likely for a long ride that ended will an expectation for a nice, big payment.  Maybe BRAC University or BRAC bank, if I’m lucky.  But “TB gate” works any time, except on the rare day when I get a rickshaw driver on his first day in Dhaka.
There’s a whole informal language of landmarks in Dhaka. Some of them are still there, but others are remnants of names long gone.  To the rickshaw drivers, the International Centre for Diarrheal Disease is the “Cholera Hospital,” as it was called decades ago.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Is death the best measure, or the easiest?

Few things are more energizing than teaching a bright group of young people.

Last Sunday I led a session on “natural hazards and health: application of the problem solving method”.  Frankly all I know on natural hazards I learned while writing the paper for the Lancet.  So I was a bit nervous about getting up in front of a group of students and teaching them about the subject.  What if they had questions?!

But what I’ve realized, having taught a fair numbers of times now, is that the instructor has an incredible amount of power in directing the class in various directions.  Most classrooms have a “teacher as expert” feel, where knowledge and information flows one way.  Students are recipients of knowledge.  I prefer a more egalitarian classroom, where the goal is to draw on the collective knowledge and analysis of the room, and enable a discussion of critical thinking.  I’m most interested in showing the students that in 99% of cases, there is no easy “right” answer or decision.  Rather one is always faced with imperfect information, resource constraints, and trade-offs.

Case studies are a great tool because they let the students get into the shoes of various characters in a complex environment.  Students can analyze the situations and decisions, and through the help of a good teacher, see the pros and cons of multiple strategies.  I first began to appreciate this when I saw Michael Porter teaching at the business school.  At first he’d let the class paint a picture of why one option was the obvious right choice.  Then he’d let us convince him that in fact it was incredibly stupid.  And we’d do this for a few different strategies.  Students walked away not convinced of an answer, but stimulated in terms of understanding the complexities of decision making.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The middle isn’t always evil

I was out at dinner with a friend in San Francisco a few months ago, and when we were leaving, he pulled out his i-phone.  Using the Uber app, he called us a taxi.  A guy showed up in his own car, we climbed in the back, and off we went.  This is insane, I thought.  I just got in the car of a total stranger. And yet, Uber like many other online companies, Airbnb, Amazon, Etsy, and so forth, has realized that if they can gain the trust of both drivers and riders, both will become heavy users of their system.  They hold the money until the transaction is complete.  Drivers and riders rank each other and that information is shared with the entire community, creating some social accountability and potential consequences for poor behavior.  Everyone wins—except of course the vested interests that are being disrupted by this new service.

In development, we would call Uber a middleman (dalal in bangla).  It’s not a compliment. And they would have lots of company.  Poor public infrastructure, limited regulatory capacity, and weak property rights give rise to ample opportunities for creative services.  Want to get a driver’s license?  Good luck, unless you have “a guy”.

This is not the same as a bribe.  A bribe is an extra tax on a service.  Anyone can still get the service if they are willing to pay.  Dalals are about access; if your access is dependent on a third party, that’s the situation I’m talking about.  Often they are related, but in many ways, bribes are much simpler problem to address than one with social networks, multiple stakeholders, and so forth.