HOW A CUP OF TEA CHANGED THE WORLD

Some of the most ba­sic in­ven­tions and dis­cov­er­ies can have a pro­found im­pact on the well­be­ing of so­ci­ety. With the help of re­searchers and gov­ern­ment fund­ing, much can likely still be done to ef­fect change in the de­vel­op­ing world.

Finweek English Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Jo­han Fourie ed­i­to­rial@fin­week.co.za Jo­han Fourie is as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in Eco­nom­ics at Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity.

igot my first set of glasses at the age of 16. I vividly re­mem­ber sit­ting at the back of the physics class and squint­ing to read the for­mula on the black­board, and the em­bar­rass­ment of hav­ing to move to the front. I also vividly re­mem­ber the joy of fac­ing my friend in the nets when, wear­ing new con­tact lenses, I could fi­nally “read” his spin­ners.

In­vented in Italy in the 13th cen­tury, glasses were ini­tially used by scribes to al­low them to re­main pro­duc­tive long af­ter their nat­u­ral eye­sight had de­te­ri­o­rated. But the tech­nol­ogy im­proved over time, and has al­lowed me and many gen­er­a­tions of young and old, male and fe­male, doc­tors, sol­diers, clerks, truck driv­ers, com­puter sci­en­tists and ath­letes with hy­per­opia (far­sight­ed­ness) to re­main pro­duc­tive mem­bers of so­ci­ety.

But many mil­lions are not so lucky. The World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion es­ti­mates that at least 20m Africans are vis­ually im­paired, and hopes to re­duce this fig­ure by 25% by 2020. Many of these are chil­dren in schools, strug­gling to read the board or their pre­scribed books. This is an ex­am­ple, it seems, where de­vel­op­men­tal ef­forts should be fo­cused: an in­ex­pen­sive so­lu­tion with long-term ben­e­fits for the re­cip­i­ents.

A new study pub­lished in the Jour­nal of De­vel­op­ment Eco­nom­ics at­tempts to mea­sure the gains from just such a pro­gramme. Paul Glewwe, Al­bert Park and Meng Zhao re­port the re­sults from a ran­domised con­trol trial in Western China that of­fered free glasses to ru­ral pri­mary school stu­dents. Al­most 10% of pri­mary school stu­dents in these ar­eas have poor vi­sion, but very few of them wear glasses. The au­thors find that wear­ing glasses for one aca­demic year in­creased the av­er­age test scores of stu­dents with poor vi­sion by an amount equiv­a­lent to 0.3 to 0.5 years of ad­di­tional ed­u­ca­tion.

That is a mas­sive eco­nomic re­turn to a small in­vest­ment, which should raise the ques­tion: Why don’t par­ents make this in­vest­ment them­selves? For poorer fam­i­lies, it seems that glasses are still too ex­pen­sive. But other fac­tors mat­ter too: par­ents of­ten lack aware­ness of their chil­dren’s vi­sion prob­lems, and it seems like girls are more likely to refuse wear­ing glasses. Maybe it’s time to in­tro­duce more glasses-wear­ing fe­male char­ac­ters in chil­dren’s pro­grammes. (Apart from 78-year-old Carl in Up, I can think of few Pixar/Dis­ney movies with a lead char­ac­ter who wears glasses.) This type of re­search al­lows pol­i­cy­mak­ers to iden­tify the low-hang­ing fruit of de­vel­op­ment. Whereas more text­books, or higher teacher salaries, or even de­worm­ing pro­grammes (all poli­cies that have been tested in schools) can be ex­pen­sive, free glasses will, with a small ini­tial in­vest­ment, yield large re­turns for the (of­ten marginalised) in­di­vid­ual and so­ci­ety. Ini­tia­tives to im­prove health can have many other ben­e­fits too. Ran­domised con­trol tri­als have been done on the im­pact of every­thing from wash­ing hands and bet­ter toi­lets, to home-vis­i­ta­tion pro­grammes for teenage mothers and pro­mo­tion pro­grammes aimed at re­duc­ing open defe­ca­tion. South African re­searchers are mak­ing progress in iden­ti­fy­ing the low-hang­ing fruit for lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties. Ronelle Burger, Laura Ros­souw and Anja Smith, three re­searchers at Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity, are in­ves­ti­gat­ing the im­pact of the Thula Baba Box, a box filled with baby prod­ucts, clothes, in­for­ma­tion brochures, ba­sic medicines, toys and other items, given to young mothers. If the re­sults show a large, pos­i­tive im­pact on ma­ter­nal and child health, there is no rea­son why the Thula Baba Box can­not be pro­vided, free of charge, to all mothers in the coun­try. Not only is it mo­rally just, but it is a clever in­vest­ment strat­egy too. Some­times, though, the low-hang­ing fruit can be as ba­sic as a cup of tea. A new study by Fran­cisca Alt­man of the Univer­sity of Colorado-Boul­der in­ves­ti­gates the cus­tom of tea drink­ing in 18th-cen­tury Eng­land. One of the un­in­tended con­se­quences of tea drink­ing, which hap­pened even among the lower classes, was an in­crease in the con­sump­tion of boiled wa­ter. She finds that re­gions in Eng­land with lower ini­tial wa­ter qual­ity had larger de­clines in mor­tal­ity af­ter tea drink­ing be­came wide­spread. This “ac­ci­den­tal im­prove­ment” in public health, she ar­gues, hap­pened at the same time as peo­ple were mov­ing into cities, thus pro­vid­ing a healthy pool of labour needed for in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion. The next time you sit down with a cup of tea and a good book (re­mem­ber those glasses!), re­mem­ber the pro­found ef­fect those sim­ple “tech­nolo­gies” have had, and, with the help of re­searchers and gov­ern­ment fund­ing, is still likely to have in much of the de­vel­op­ing world.

Thula Baba Box, founded by Ernst Hert­zog of Ac­tion Hero Ven­tures, and Frans de Vil­liers.

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