The Question Before This House

Fix the problem, not just the follow-on.

The Common Problem . . .

Is people who base their decision-making and problem-solving on correcting the immediate symptoms, and never progress to the cause-and-effect reasoning necessary to address the actual problem. Tarping a leaky roof prevents any more moisture from coming in and causing further damage, but it only fixes the symptom of stuff getting wet. It does nothing to solve the problem, that something bad happened to the roof and it needs to be repaired. Boarding up a broken window will prevent any more damage, but no one has fixed the problem until they have fixed the window.

The developed world sends aid to developing countries, but there is no investment in solving the problems that created the crisis in the first place. There is eternally an emergency, where someone is waiting for the charity cavalry to ride in with pallets of food and bags of clothing and crates of shoes. Yes, you first prevent further damage from the immediate problem; the next step is to prevent further damage from the problem recurring again. Developed nations rarely need emergency food aid 2 and 3 times in a generation. The industrialized world, despite the habit of consumptive consumerism,  typically doesn’t run out of resources on a national level. Western Civilization is far better than most other cultures at addressing the lowest levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Safety and security and food and shelter are all necessary precursors to a stable and healthy existence. The industrialized nations of Western Europe, and the former British colonies allied with them, and a few other nations which have followed the same path of economic growth to raise standards of living, all consistently have more resources than any of them actually need. Human progress depends on the presence of that excess. Only civilizations with surplus are able to help other civilizations.

The solution to national, and even continental, poverty lies in discovering how socioeconomic and demographic shifts relate to the growth of an economic surplus, and the ability to trade that surplus to other regions for raw materials. If we are going to avoid the mistakes of economic colonialism or outright mercantilism, then we have to focus on the internal changes. Fortunately, a man named Walt Whitman Rostow already publicized the answers as a theory of social development he called the “Demographic Shift.” Improvements in health care, clean water, a lower incidence of childhood diseases, all cause a significant drop in the death rate. For a number of generations, the birth rate is vastly higher than the death rate and the total population rises sharply.  The social and economic incentives to have as many children as possible diminish. Before the shift, it might require having 5 to 8 children to ensure that 2 or 3 lived to adulthood, to maintain the size and strength of one’s own kin group. After the shift, people do not need to invest as much of their resources into raising children; in fact, raising more than 3 or 4 children results in an appreciable portion of those invested resources moving away from home, seeking available housing and employment. People voluntarily reduce how many children they have, and the per capita birth rate drops until the population roughly stabilizes. Birth and death rates are lower, but the total population is much higher than before the demographic shift.

From Rostow’s work, we know the mechanism to affect the social portion of socioeconomic progress. We can determine the economic side for ourselves by use of simple logic. If the food supply grows faster than the population, you have surplus food. Some agricultural workers naturally shift into the broader workforce, and the surplus food allows more of those workers to benefit from economic specialization. Only people with surplus food have the time to stack bricks and make a city. Cities have the population density necessary to support artisans and merchants and traders. Value shifts from young, strong laborers to semi-skilled and a large number of skilled workers. They both create demand for new and additional products, and provide the labor necessary to successful economic development and investment. This large population creates demand for large industry and heavy agriculture. The resulting large tax base means funding for roads, bridges, and public utilities. Those utilities may be as simple as a well and a mill, or they may be the power and water and telecommunications of a major 21st-century city.

Socioeconomic progress requires at least 5 channels of simultaneous development. Most foreign aid efforts focus on 2 or at the most 3. Even the most minimal of health care starts with ready access to water free of diseases, contaminants, and other hazards. The next step up can be “injuries, infections, and infants” or “accidents, bacteria, cholera, and diarrhea,” but that consistent access to health protection does more to drive the demographic shift than the other 4 combined. Secondly, people need a stable supply of calories and nutrients. There are literally dozens of techniques to improve agricultural yield without impairing other local resources. These address water use, soil protection, adding nutrients, deterring pests and diseases, crop selection, and pairing livestock with crops to localize the nutrient cycle. Once families have the spare food to spare hours, the next step is education. People who understand how their new tools work, who can maintain them and build more, are literally holding a renaissance in their minds. Widespread literacy is the staircase from the medieval world into the modern age. However, none of this is going to move past tent cities without major buildouts of supporting infrastructure. A modern nation depends on pipes to move water and sewage, electrical supply so schools and homes have light to read by and hospitals can run their equipment, roads and bridges so people and goods can move freely, and so many other large projects that make the rest possible on a national scale. That fourth channel of infrastructure leads into the fifth, investments. Who has access to the infrastructure, and who is responsible for repairs? Replacements? Expanding the system to meet needs 10, 20, 50 years in the future? Someone has to have both a sense of ownership and a legal ownership over the project. A lot of that will initially come from outside sources, but if it done as business partnerships with local communities and regional groups, the local population and local economy will gradually build an ownership position. As local workers gain experience, they can start their own services companies to maintain and repair the infrastructure.


The Uncommon Solution . . .

Don’t create more root problems by only treating the symptoms. Make a change that makes a difference, and do something to keep the problem from recurring. Base crisis response on relationships with local institutions like schools and churches, and community leadership, that were there before the crisis and will be there after the crisis. Use what is already known about how nations grow and develop organically, then fast-track the undeveloped world to a modern quality of life.  It took Western Civilization about 400 years to go from normal, everyday people being peasant farmers to factory workers or store clerks, living on a paved street and their children likely to survive a broken arm without being handicapped for life. Even with the best plan and highest funding, no society is going to make that jump in 40 years. Five generations instead of fifteen? That sounds like a goal worth pursuing. Make that the focus of foreign aid and large charities.

Copyright 2016 by J.D. Lewis

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