Immersion Experience – Actualizing Dreams in the Developing World

Three students volunteered on a service trip to the Philippines during the winter break. We recommended ways of using the country’s hydropower efficiently to enhance rural electrification. One of our guides in the Philippines pulled me aside early on and said, “The Philippines is still a developing country with its flaws, but I wouldn’t change a thing about my country”. Given the difficulty of changing the mindset of people both frustrated and in love with certain aspects of their country, implementing change would prove more difficult than I imagined.

For three weeks over winter break, Tara Reeves (ND), Erica Harris (ND), and I worked on a research project sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development. Our study analyzed the strategy of micro hydropower electrification for rural households, and the establishment of community-based livelihood enterprises to be powered by the microhydro.

These communities are by American standards poor. They have a desire for electricity but are off of power grids. Many households operate LED lamps fashioned from disposable cigarette lighters, which provide illumination at night.

Electrification is something that most of us in America take for granted. But think of the meaningful advances that electrification brings to the development of emerging economies. For example, the potential benefits to human capital development are substantial tag heuer replica for sale . From as simple a thing as lighting a classroom, to enabling media and instructional aids such as desktop computers, internet access or overhead projectors, electrification brings significant benefits to schools. Lighting is also essential to helping children study at home, which is often considered neglected as secondary to outdoor working during daylight hours. And adult education is often only possible by working outside of core daylight hours – again, only possible with effective electricity.

Throughout our trip, we worked on our report for bringing about change to the energy infrastructure in rural Philippines. I found myself distracted at times by our immediate environment; the lack of wealth in rural Philippines is alarming. Many rural households in the Philippines put to work their children from an early age in the rice fields. Most of the rice is eaten at home rather than sold or traded. Houses are built locally and water is captured from local streams and rivers. Significant financial saving is not possible due to a lack of access to banks or credibility that the money will be returned after an investment is saved; this is part of a larger overall problem of enforcement of property rights.

Sadly, this lack of wealth is not unique to the Philippines. Half the world’s population – and roughly 40% of the Philippines – still lives on less than two dollars a day compared with an average of $125 a day in the United States. A billion people worldwide live on less than a dollar a day, go to bed hungry tonight and won’t get a glass of clean water to drink today or any day in their lives. A quarter of the world’s population that dies this year dies of AIDS, malaria, TB, or infections related to dirty water. Few people in America die of any of those things except for those whose AIDS medication doesn’t work or those who refuse to follow the prescribed prescription regime.

The people in rural Philippines – and the billion others like them around the world – are virtually tied to the area in which they are born due to monetary and family constraints. Many of the world’s poor, including the children working in the rice fields in rural Philippines, are trapped. If I had been born into one of these families in rural Philippines, I would still be tilling the land today; I certainly would not have fathomed attending Harvard Business School.

When the human genome was sequenced, scientists discovered that people are 99.9% identical genetically. This means that all of the differences that we draw from others – all of the distinctions in personality, character, and disposition are tied up in 1/10 of 1% of our genes. Yet we spend most of our time fussing about the 1/10 of 1%. In our cases, we search for evidence to find differences between protagonists that fail or succeed. We eulogize Jack Welch and vilify Bernie Ebbers – but the difference between the two rests in 1/10 of 1% of the human genome. When you look in the eyes of a Filipino farm boy, you see more or less yourself looking back at you. But you recognize how fortunate you are to have the opportunity to have your potential be realized. And you realize that chance benefits those who choose their parents and place of birth wisely.

President Obama said the struggles of the textile worker in Spartanburg are not so different than the plight of the dishwasher in Las Vegas; that the hopes of the little girl who goes to a crumbling school in Dillon are the same as the dreams of the boy who learns on the streets of LA. Let’s add that the dreams of the Filipino child who bends down every morning to grow rice are no different from the dreams of the child who happens to have been born in Boston rather than rural Philippines breitling superocean replica. But in a culture that prizes staying close to home and cannot enrich itself from trade, most people in rural Philippines remain close to their birthplace.

As Tara, Erica and I investigated the current operations of hydropower in northern Philippines, we learned that local governments owned and operated the plants. Government ownership of these plants led to inefficiencies in operations and lack of incentives and operational expertise to run the plants properly. Consequently, those in rural Philippines off the electricity grid suffered from frequent brownouts or a lack of electricity entirely. This problem is not isolated to the Philippines. In rural India, the telecommunications industry is left to the market whereas the government provides electricity. Harvard Economist Martin Feldstein stressed an irony in the Wall Street Journal (February 16, 2006): “Cell phone service is widely available [in India] at low cost because it was regarded as a luxury and therefore left to the market, while electricity is hard to obtain because it has been regarded as a necessity and therefore managed by the government”. Similarly, in the Philippines, cell phones are left to the market whereas the government regulates hydropower. Cell phone use is widespread and pervasive; even poor farmers in the Philippines have access to cell phones. How many goods and services do we consume on a daily basis that – while we deem them essential – were produced from the good fortune of private enterprise working hard to generate them rather than the government?

There is tremendous untapped potential in our world – the Filipino boy is just one example of over a billion people confined and unable to actualize their potential. So much talent and energy is ready to be released that is at least in part limited due to the inefficiencies of excessive government control, lack of the rule of law, and weak property rights rather than the 1/10 of 1% difference in human nature among the people of our world.

Sean Cameron was raised in Exeter, NH and Newton, MA and worked in New York prior to coming to HBS. This was his first trip to the Philippines.