Wed 13 Oct 2010
Well, they pulled all 33 miners out of the hole. This is an absolutely staggering feat – first, finding the miners nearly a half mile underground in the first place, and then drilling a precision shaft all the way down to them that was straight enough to accommodate a rescue capsule – which then worked flawlessly 33 times. It never got old watching the miners come out of the ground. And certainly the Chileans have a lot to be proud of these days.
But this whole experience has caused me to think again about development and our persistent inability to get things done in a consistent manner for the world’s poorest people. This rescue was, in many ways, everything that modern development is not. The Chileans never asked about the cost – in fact, nobody knows what this cost, besides a hell of a lot. The government didn’t parse options and try to pick the most cost-effective rescue – they ran three plans at once, to see which would work best. It was expensive, but saved time and probably saved some lives. In short, the Chilean government didn’t even try to assess the value of a human life here – by any economic measure, they’ve probably spent a lot more saving these men than the miners will ever earn or spend in the Chilean economy, so the rescue was an economic loser all along – the government decided that saving these men was necessary at any cost, that the value of their lives was not calculable.
When I see that attitude, with this amazing result, I am appalled by the piles of monitoring and evaluation red tape that development organizations must wade through to justify their activities – was that the lowest bid? The most cost-effective intervention? All of that accounting misses the point – there is no such thing as a good intervention that leaves people behind in the name of efficiency or cost-effectiveness. Human lives cannot, and should not, be valued that way.
Second, this rescue was innovative and risk-taking. They ran three plans at once. Nobody had ever done any of them at this sort of depth. There were huge risks of failure. And they plowed forward anyway – two of them did not work out, but the third (actually, plan B) saved 33 lives. There are so many of us in development who carry around the desire to try innovative things, to risk failure, learn and try again . . . but the culture of development with its budgeting and monitoring chokes off these sorts of efforts for interventions that produce easily measured results. When we take risks and fail, the accountants take the money away. So we go for easy, safe results, even when those results have little meaning for the people at the receiving end of the intervention. What does it mean to say that this year we trained 25 judges in country X? Have we really improved the judicial system, or the standard of living for those subject to it? That number does nothing to help us understand if what we are doing matters at all . . . but we keep working on this sort of project because it is a measurable outcome that is of relatively low risk.
Contrary to what Jeffrey Sachs keeps preaching, we DO NOT know what works in development. If we did, there would be a hell of a lot less suffering in the world today. We do know, however, what produces measurable results that look good, and we keep pounding away at that sort of work because we can rejustify our budgets each year. Development is pathetically risk-averse, from the top down, and those that would take risks cannot find the funding or support to do so.
Chile just pulled 33 men out of a hole in the ground a half-mile deep. They did it with help from mining and drilling experts from more than a dozen countries and with advice from NASA specialists on living in isolated conditions (if there were any doubt of the value of a human spaceflight program, here is yet another spinoff value that we have gained. NASA’s unique expertise in this area surely contributed to the safe recovery of many of these men). This was an international partnership to try to do the impossible, making it up as they went along. And they did it.
Surely we can reimagine development in the same way, and with the same spirit. But with much more urgency. There are a lot more than 33 people down this hole.