Development Off the Grid

And, I mean way off…

Picture yourself in a small tropical village a few hundred miles south of the Sahara Desert. About 800 people live there. You are probably related in one way or another to most of them, but you don’t really know how exactly, beyond your own close-knit extended family. There is no electricity, no running water, no telephone.

During 6 months of the year when thundershowers pass over most afternoons, you work hard in your small fields taking care of cassava, corn, peppers, eggplant, okra, tomatoes, and rice, and look after your 9 goats. During another 2 months in the dry dusty season you have work to do tending your small orchard of mango, papaya, cashew, and orange trees. You are good at what you do, providing almost all the basic food you need, and have a surplus of almost 20% in products you can sell for cash. This covers the costs in supplies and uniforms to send you son and daughter to primary school.

A rocky, unpaved road passes half a kilometer from your home, the only one in and out of your village. Road from Kankalabe to Labe, Guinea, West AfricaDuring the months when you are not working in the fields you travel with your brother each week on his motorized scooter about 80 kilometers to the nearest town of 250,000 people. There you both hire yourselves out as day labor in construction or whatever work you can convince someone to hire you for. After expenses, and buying clothes, tools, a few small gifts for your family, and some things to improve your house, you have about US$35 to add to your savings, almost equal to the average monthly income in this area. Now, you might be able to add some meat or fish to your family meals a couple times a month for the next year, or pay the doctor should one of your children come down with malaria.

Your wife and daughter take care of your younger son and the home, bringing about 40 liters of water a day from the foot pedal pump located 500 meters down the hill from your house. Your daughter ventures into the forest every other day to collect a bundle of firewood, so she and your wife can prepare two meals a day. Your daughter attends school for 5 hours every day about 8 months of the year, but still works for another 3 hours around the home every day. Girl at Primary School in Village Outside of Labe, Guinea, West AfricaYou sent her to school over the objection of your parents, because even though you never attended school, you understood and agreed with the school administrator from the city who came to encourage families to enroll their girls explaining how health and economics for their future families can be improved.

You are comfortable in your village, although aware that you are only an injury or illness away from putting your family in a very difficult financial situation. You have voted in the last 3 elections, but there was only one person you knew anything about on the ballot, and he didn’t win. Your president, who has run the country for the last 17 years doesn’t even speak the same language as you do, when you hear him make speeches on the radio. You are aware of your poverty seeing families with nice houses, automobiles, electricity, and running water in the city where you work during part of the year. You’ve even seen a half-dozen western action movies during your time in the city, and know that those “rich” people in the city where you work, are poor compared to what is out there in the world. Yet, you continue farm the land divided with your brother that your father farmed, to feed and support your family, and hope for a better life for your children.

Development and progress need to reach this place. This, I believe, is how progress should be measured. Not in the bandwidth of high-speed internet access in the West, or in GHz of computer processor speed (although those are useful tools), but in the opportunity and security that the people in this village have. It is not a choice between one and the other. It is only a ruler, by which we can see whether our information, communication, creativity, innovation, science, and engineering are really accomplishing something beneficial and lasting. The choices are open to us as to what we do with our lives. Let us make those choices open to everyone.