The World’s Biggest Problem

Currently, we think of problems at the surface – we look in the short term and at immediate consequences. I want people to think of the long term, keeping an open mind as they examine the unintended consequences of actions.
Take the current international aid effort. If we should teach men to fish, our current model is the equivalent of unloading fish into local markets and crushing the local fishing industry. After the Haitian earthquake, the western world sent in planes and boats loaded with food and other aid. No one denies this was a good thing to do, but its implementation was flawed. In reality, Haiti had enough food to feed those affected by the earthquake but that food was in the country, and the market mechanism which should have brought it to the city failed. Instead on flooding the Haitian market with free food we could have brought the Haitian-grown food to the market. Instead, we left Haitian farmers without an income and let all the food they grew rot away. Six years later we are still sending emergency aid to Haiti. While these programs are motivated by good intentions they do not bear beneficial results. They bear unintended consequences which keep the Haitian economy from developing, making the people reliant on aid instead.
American economic journalist Henry Hazlitt wrote, “The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.” The way we think is important, but the way we think is often disregarded. How we think is more important than the thoughts we have, and the framing of our thoughts will influence what we think. By only thinking of the immediate effects we will ignore the long-term effects — leading to disastrous consequences.
In truth, the best way to start helping people is by making sure you know the best way to help them. You can only understand what kind of help people truly need by thinking correctly about their situation. When you go to the hospital with a problem, your doctor does not just throw antibiotics at you. He systematically diagnoses you with proven methods and with a proven process. Today, as a society, we choose a process that mirrors the former when discussing our problems. In current debates over every issue, each side picks its own evidence, declares its opinion as facts, engages in name calling and only looks at the effects for certain groups. This is a result of a breakdown in how we systematically think about and address issues.
To use another example from Haiti, ENERSA is the only Haitian company which designs and manufactures solar panels. Started and based in Haiti, it provides good jobs and a variety of products for Haitians. The primary product ENERSA produces is street lights powered by solar panels—they sold 50 solar panels a month prior to the earthquake. It was a success story of native-born, Canadian-educated Haitians who came back to develop their nation and provide good to their countrymen—mostly men from bad areas. A month after the 2010 earthquake the company almost went bankrupt because the market was flooded with free solar power lights from the developed world—ENERSA sold only five lights in the next half year. By examining the situation thoughtfully from all angles and considering the long term, this unfortunate situation could have been avoided.
It was this reactionary response that arguably hurt Haiti more than it helped. If the officials and organizations seeking to help the country had stopped for a second and thought about it, they could have avoided the negative consequences. A proper thought process leads to both maximizing positive results and minimizing negative results. Issue after issue, basic changes to the thought process can consistently avoid bad results. It is not that we just avoid helping people; we can help, but we hurt people by failing to think through our actions. We hurt farmers by flooding Haitian markets with food and we hurt Haitian workers by almost eliminating their jobs. By making sure our policies are thought out, we avoid bad policies led by good intentions. Like the great 20th-century economist Milton Freidman said, “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.”

One thought on “The World’s Biggest Problem

  1. This is a very good and interesting article, and I would agree with you on it. Im just curious if some people disagree with this (the Haiti example) and what would their argument be.

    Liked by 4 people

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