Why is it so hard to make priorities in development?

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Originally published on Humanosphere

British trains used to ‘slam doors’, metal slabs that swung outward, a latch on the outside. If the train was pulling into a station, passengers could reach out through the window, swing the door open and hop off without waiting the extra few seconds for the train to come to a full stop. During long delays, they could lean out, have a cigarette and shut it again when the train started moving.

The downside of the slam doors was the accidents. Every year, a few people fell off the back, pulled under the wheels. Passengers waiting at train platforms got bashed in the face by the doors as they swung open. The trains put up signs, of course, don’t open this, watch your step, but every year, the doors caused between 5 and 10 deaths, and dozens of injuries.

The need for replacing the doors seems obvious, but for decades, the UK stubbornly refused. Updating the doors would have required designing an automatic opening mechanism, then paying workers to replace each swinging door with a sliding one. With hundreds of trains, thousands of doors, the cost was in the billions. So Britain did nothing. It left the doors as they were, cleaned up the mess from the fatalities but did nothing to prevent them.

I spent last month in Seattle. The city has been in a decade-long debate about what to do about the Alaskan Way Viaduct, an elevated waterfront freeway, one of the city’s busiest north-south arterials. In 2001, an earthquake rattled the viaduct, weakened it. Even after the city added extra steel and sensors to all the weak points, everyone knows it’s not going to survive the next earthquake. As my friend, a Seattle city planner, puts it, ‘the next time someone sneezes on that thing, it’s coming down.’

And again, it seems obvious what the city should do. Close the viaduct, tear it down, build a safer one. But they haven’t. Fourteen years now, it simply remains, carrying just as many passengers as before. When the next earthquake happens—and in Seattle, it is indeed a when, not an if—a not-insignificant number of people will die in their cars, crushed by concrete and steel. There’s even a road underneath the viaduct, a popular tourist area, bike lanes, hot dog stands. Those people, if the earthquake is during the day, will probably die too.

Countries have a formula they apply to these sorts of problems, it’s called the value of preventing a fatality, of VPF. In Jonathan Wolff’s Ethics and Public Policy, where I read about the train doors, he notes that in the UK, the value of a human life is £1.4 million. In the United States, it’s apparently $6 million.

What that means is, since the train doors killed up to 10 people a year, Britain was willing to invest up to £14 million in retrofitting them. If the cost went over the VPF, it would leave them. It did, so it did. In Seattle, tearing down the viaduct, spending years rebuilding it, would interrupt the commute of millions of people, would cost billions in lost productivity. Whatever mayor or governor decided to do it would be voted out of office.

I’m not even sure I disagree with leaving the viaduct up. I biked beneath it almost every day in Seattle, I took that photo standing right under it. A small chance of, say, 60 people dying in exchange for keeping a major urban arterial might actually be a worthwhile trade-off.

What’s interesting to me isn’t that we make these choices, but that we are only allowed to make them invisibly. A politician who stood at a podium and said ‘saving 10 lives isn’t worth more than £14 million’ would be seen as a monster. Yet that is indeed the decision Britain’s politicians reached, and the one we live with intrinsically in things like our drinking age, our speed limits, our pharmaceutical regulations, our sentencing laws. At the population level, almost every decision means lives lost. Since 1979, 10 people have apparently been killed by Bic cigarette lighters. Is banning them worth the inconvenience of millions of people taking slightly longer to light their cigarettes? Meh, probably not.

This month, the international community will come together to sign the Sustainable Development Goals, an ambitious framework to end poverty, achieve gender equality and improve global health. As I’ve written before, it’s a mess, a soup of unmeasurable indicators and undefined targets, things like ‘halve per capita global food waste’ and ‘encourage companies … to adopt sustainable practices’

One of the reasons it’s so bad, I’m convinced, is that in development, we aren’t allowed to talk about these trade-offs, the kinds governments and citizens make every day. With the viaduct, with cigarette lighters, we traded a small risk of fatalities for the inconvenience of preventing them. With train doors, Britain decided there were more pressing risks to spend its resources on, more passengers it could save for its pounds elsewhere.

Yet in development, we never talk like this. One of the main criticisms of the Millennium Development Goals, the precursor to the Sustainable Development Goals, was that they neglected some development issues in favor of others. Domestic violence, human trafficking, corporate tax evasion, all of them got left behind.

I remember a meeting at my last human rights job. We were a department of four people, trying to plan our activities for the next year. We brought in a strategy consultant, he gave us each a matrix of organizational priorities, stuff like land resettlements in Africa, foreign direct investment in Myanmar, sexual harassment in the Middle East. He asked us to rank them in priority from high to low.

After a few minutes of scribbling, one of my colleagues reported that she had marked every issue as ‘high priority.’ The consultant looked confused. ‘Those are all really critical issues,’ she said, ‘with profound impacts on peoples’ lives. We should be working on all of them.’ I looked around, everyone else in the department was nodding.

It’s understandable, this. No one wants to argue that one development issue is more pressing than another, to stand up and declare ‘state surveillance of political dissidents affects fewer people, and less severely, than human trafficking. Lets prioritize the latter.’ No one wants to admit that working on one problem leaves all the other ones in place.

When you work at Nike, when you have to decide on launching an ad campaign for sandals instead of sneakers, you’re allowed to make arguments why one should take precedence over the other. But in development, lives on the line, you can’t. So we say yes to everything, we plan our years without differentiating between priorities, we stretch ourselves thin. And we fail, again and again.

I don’t know what’s going to happen with the Sustainable Development Goals. Maybe governments will pick the ones they want to reach, will defend the choice to leave others behind. Maybe they will be honest about the choices they make, we make, all the time, the trade-offs that come with resource constraints and political realities.

But I think, I fear, that they won’t. That the international community will fail to make the decisions that governments do every day, that we will give developing countries rules and principles, but no tools for choosing between them. That we will, once again, tell poor countries to replace their train doors and rebuild their viaducts all at once.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Why is it so hard to make priorities in development?

  1. Cristina

    It is reality… original article!

  2. Hi Mike I was only saying the other day that I can recall life before we got involved with the EU (happy days)!!!
    However having seen this experiment unfold Ive always felt that the UK have been a light player with the EU. Making constant demands with various confernces Maastrict is one that stands out. Cameron now is wanting to water things down and get assurances, so that he can get his back bench doubters to embrace the EU.
    At the present time theres a 50/50 split amongst the electorate. If and when we get a vote I actually think that it will be an exit. Unless theres radical moves on policy with immigration and such like.
    I myself despite many arguments being put forward, is firmly with the exir camp.

  3. luluscities

    Hey there! I really liked what you said here, although there’s something I picked up which is the sad truth and a pattern within what you are saying and what is happening. The reality of the matter is that unlike the Nike company who can transparently justify one action over another due to profit; in development, neither government nor the UN can actually justify anything using the ‘profit’ argument. Or the resources one really. At the end of the day there is no justification for poverty and all that it implies. So yes, you are absolutely right, governments will probably not be very honest or transparent about the trade-offs but….do you think the whole ‘development’ effort would get much support if they were honest? I mean say you are a victim of sexual violence and your government openly claimed that they had chosen to invest in education because in the long-term that might has a direct effect on the country’s growth which is more of a priority; and also claiming openly that they’re crossing their fingers that it might have an indirect effect on the country’s level of sexual violence… but can’t really promise anything… how would you react? People are just not rational enough n’or ready to hear the truth… and the SDGs need the support of the people.

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