How Not to Save the World, or Why the LifeStraw Is a Stupid Idea Kevin Starr's PopTech Talk on Development Failures

Kevin Starr of the Mulago Foundation gives an eye-opening talk, eviscerating several of the most darling ideas in economic development.


Kevin Starr is an impressive speaker. And a pretty innovative philanthropist too. He oozes straight talk like he doesn't care what you think, because he probably doesn't. And that's a good thing, because he might lose a few friends after this talk at PopTech where he eviscerates some of the (ex?)darlings of development design like the LifeStraw and One Laptop Per Child.

Starr's point is that in our quest to save the world we need to pay attention to the actual impact of our work, not just the good intentions and theoretical potential. A big idea may fall flat if it isn't designed for real impact from the start with regular measurement built into the rollout plan. Too many bad ideas are eating up our limited resources he says, and that needs to change.

Starr heads the Mulago Foundation, a philanthropic fund that acts more like venture capital for upstart world-changers than a typical foundation. Mulago's Scalable Solutions Portfolio includes promising smaller development organizations like KickStart, Samasource, and the One Acre Fund.

One of Starr's examples of a failed development initiative is the LifeStraw. The LifeStraw was initially hailed as a potential game changer in the quest for clean water by letting anyone simply carry a filter straw with them, transforming any polluted water source into a potentially healthy fountain. Well, it's too expensive and too slow. The straw, Starr points out, only cleans 100cc of liquid a minute. A glass of water is 300cc, and as Starr demonstrates in a gulping display, you can drink that in six seconds. You’d have to be sucking through water for about 20 minutes a day to get all you needed from it. People just didn't want to do it. He lists other reasons it's impractical too.

Regarding One Laptop Per Child's $100 computers for kids, Starr argues the idea is flawed from inception: Kids just don’t need a laptop in poor countries, he says. He asks rhetorically, why would parents let their kids take the most expensive item they own to school every day? “It’s a need in our heads, not in their hands.”

Agree? Let us know what you think, especially if you work in the nonprofit world.

Full disclosure: GOOD has given a mix of coverage to the failed experiments he cites—ranging from quite positive, to more critical—so we are by no means exempt from some of his critiques.

via Honor Africans / Twitter

The problem with American Sign Language (ASL) is that over 500,000 people in the U.S. use it, but the country has over 330 million people.

So for those with hearing loss, the chances of coming into contact with someone who uses the language are rare. Especially outside of the deaf community.

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Looking back, the year 1995 seems like such an innocent time. America was in the midst of its longest streak of peace and prosperity. September 11, 2001 was six years away, and the internet didn't seem like much more than a passing fad.

Twenty-four years ago, 18 million U.S. homes had modem-equipped computers, 7 million more than the year before. Most logged in through America Online where they got their email or communicated with random strangers in chat rooms.

According to a Pew Research study that year, only 32% of those who go online say they would miss it "a lot" if no longer available.

Imagine what those poll numbers would look like if the question was asked today.

RELATED: Bill and Melinda Gates had a surprising answer when asked about a 70 percent tax on the wealthiest Americans

"Few see online activities as essential to them, and no single online feature, with the exception of E-Mail, is used with any regularity," the Pew article said. "Consumers have yet to begin purchasing goods and services online, and there is little indication that online news features are changing traditional news consumption patterns."

"Late Night" host David Letterman had Microsoft founder and, at that time the richest man in the world, on his show for an interview in '95 to discuss the "the big new thing."

During the interview Letterman chided Gates about the usefulness of the new technology, comparing it to radio and tape recorders.

Gates seems excited by the internet because it will soon allow people to listen to a baseball game on their computer. To which Letterman smugly replies, "Does radio ring a bell?" to laughter from the crowd.

But Gates presses Letterman saying that the new technology allows you to listen to the game "whenever you want," to which Letterman responds, "Do tape recorders ring a bell?"

Gates then tells Letterman he can keep up with the latest in his favorite hobbies such as cigar smoking or race cars through the internet. Letterman shuts him down saying that he reads about his interests in magazines.

RELATED: Bill Gates has five books he thinks you should read this summer.

The discussion ends with the two laughing over meeting like-minded people in "troubled loner chat room on the internet."

The clip brings to mind a 1994 segment on "The Today Show" where host Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric have a similar discussion.

"What is internet anyway?" an exasperated Gumball asks. "What do you write to it like mail?"

"It's a computer billboard but it's nationwide and it's several universities all joined together and it's getting bigger and bigger all the time," a producer explains from off-stage.

Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

The future generations will have to live on this Earth for years to come, and, not surprisingly, they're very concerned about the fate of our planet. We've seen a rise in youth activists, such as Greta Thunberg, who are raising awareness for climate change. A recent survey indicates that those efforts are working, as more and more Americans (especially young Americans) feel concerned about climate change.

A new CBS News poll found that 70% of Americans between 18 and 29 feel climate change is a crisis or a serious problem, while 58% of Americans over the age of 65 share those beliefs. Additionally, younger generations are more likely to feel like it's their personal responsibility to address climate change, as well as think that transitioning to 100% renewable energy is viable. Overall, 25% of Americans feel that climate change is a "crisis," and 35% feel it is a "serious problem." 10% of Americans said they think climate change is a minor problem, and 16% of Americans feel it is not a problem that worries them.

The poll found that concern for the environment isn't a partisan issue – or at least when it comes to younger generations. Two-thirds of Republicans under the age of 45 feel that addressing climate change is their duty, sentiments shared by only 38% of Republicans over the age of 45.

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