Few laws are more powerful than the law of unintended consequences. Change anything in a complex system – or even a relatively simple system – and something unexpected and possibly unwanted is almost bound to happen.
What could be better and more straightforward than giving solar chargers to village malaria workers in rural Cambodia? By keeping their phones charged they can send an SMS immediately on learning of a new case, rather than waiting a month or more for paper records to be collected centrally. This allows for the tracking of potential outbreaks in near real time, as well as better management of anti-malarial drug stocks.
Prior to the solar chargers, the malaria workers, like the other villagers of Snay Anchit, got car batteries charged by the owner of a generator driven by an internal combustion engine, who was paid for the service. The car batteries charged phones and lit lamps in the village, which has no grid electricity.
The chargers, the result of a collaboration of the Cambodian government, the World Health Organization, and the Malaria Consortium . are also sufficient to power a small lamp, bringing light to the malaria workers’ homes.
What’s not to like?
Substituting green energy for hydrocarbon-based power – not to mention forgoing lugging car batteries around – would seem like a great idea. Unless you’re the guy who owns the generator, who suddenly sees his income cut*. Thanks a lot, WHO. Or you’re a villager who isn’t a malaria worker – which is presumably most of them. You’ve got to keep on lugging your battery and paying to charge it while your neighbor enjoys a donated solar panel. And what happens when a malaria worker sets up as a competing charging station, selling excess capacity?
These are not necessarily reasons not to distribute solar chargers if it helps eradicate malaria. But they are reasons to consider carefully the ramifications of even the best sounding ideas.
* By how much is unclear. I have no hard data on what village phone chargers get for their services. One article on a solar program in Tanzania suggests a typical fee is about US$0.30 for a charge. Assuming $0.30 cents for one battery charge a week, which is probably conservative, the generator owner would lose $15 per year for every foregone customer. Cambodia’s per capita GDP is around $900, so this is non-trivial. More qualitatively, is it a great idea to undercut developing country entrepreneurs?
For a view of some other NGO mobile activities in developing countries, see Second Screen Prospects in Developing Countries: The NGO Market