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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.

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