Go Box

The toyota land cruiser is to all cars as X is to set of x. And things about Panama

Monday, April 21, 2008

Dani Rodrik on developement

Every Sunday the national paper here in Panama , La Prensa, publishes a pull out digest of the New York times from the previous week. A couple of months ago I saw an article with a quotation the really struck a cord:

“Like most Turks of my generation I thought I would end up doing engineering,” he said. But at Harvard, “a new world opened for me and I started to understand that the problems of underdevelopment were not technical problems in the sense of a lack of engineers or a lack of doctors. It was a problem of social organization.”

NYT, January 30th, 2007 LOUIS UCHITELLE

My experience in the Campo is similar, it is not lack of knowledge always that keeps people down, but problems in organization, lack of leadership, and fighting between families that keeps them from working together that results in ´underdevelopment.´

Useally, seminars on technical stuff are more important because they let farmers get together from different areas and get to know each other. This becomes much more valuable than the actual technical knowledge they gain from the seminar, getting to know each other and gaining trust between each other allows them to organise better, and gives them confidence to trade information and share experience.

For example, last January I helped to put on a seminar on drying. About thirteen farmers came to the seminar to learn how to better dry their coffee. Two of those farmers went and taught farmers from Neighboring towns the techniques that they had learned, which helped to strengthen connections between the farmers. It is hard to quantify the output or results from this work, but it is probably the most important and sustainable work we do in Peace Corps, basically being an excuse for people to get together and get to know each other better so they can have better organisations.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

asus computer

Saw a girl at a hostel typing away on a tiny little computer, perhaps the gobox of computer, at $400 no less.

here is the link.

Thursday, March 06, 2008


I´ve realized that for me the big work is to see if I can make a significant difference in the dryness of the coffee with the communities I work with, or a significant difference in the knowledge of the farmers on how to dry thier coffee.

This is the biggest problem with the coffee from farmers I work with, it's not dry enough, and therefore it gets damaged, and then it can't be exported, so it gets a lower price.

My goal for the next year is to have a campaign in the area where I live to get the coffee dry enough, one big push to try to see if farmers can get their coffee to a high enough quality to sell internationally, and if the price is worth it for them to do the extra work to get the coffee down to that dryness.

more to come...

Sunday, October 14, 2007

MIG fighters and Coffee Farmers

The most exciting thing to happen to me in a this week occurred when I climbed up to my neighbor's house and found this :

A week earlier I dropped off plans from my boss. My neighbor said he would get the materials ready and we would build it together. When I arrived on the day we had planned to build the depulper, it was almost done.

One of my goals is to figure out what the minimum amount of capital or resources a farmer would need to produce high quality coffee and thereby increase his or her income. This depulper usually costs a couple hundred dollars, but Hermonigo , pictured above, is figuring out how to do it for about $40. Depulpers are necessary as the only way to process coffee without damaging the it is to depulp by hand, which is very time consuming.

In addition to making me happy, the wooden depulper made me think of an article I read before coming to the Peace Corps.

A couple of years ago wired magi zine wrote an article about a rich guy who had started buying MiG fighter jets from the former soviet union. He then outsourced planes flown by hired pilots to the Navy for their pilots to practice and train against. One quotation has helped me think about my work here:

"Kirlin owes his operation to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the elegant crudeness of its technology. "When the Soviets built an airplane, they intended it to serve for 50 years, maintained in the middle of nowhere by a kid who could barely read, using a tool kit not much bigger than a box of fishing tackle." By comparison, he explains, a US warplane is designed around one parameter - performance. Price and complexity are barely considered. "All Americans want is a thoroughbred, but the Russians, they want quarter horses. And lots of 'em. Their whole design philosophy is based on simplicity and reliability."

Builing your own airforce, one mig at a time

I´ve found that this idea of elegant crudeness has helped me to design projects and think through problems, along with the idea of simplicity and reliability.

Likewise, many of the commercial farmers that we learn from are not under the same financial constraints as the farmers i work with who are in extreme poverty. The speciality coffee industry is more like the United States during the cold war, with the pursuit of quality at nearly any costs, as those costs in the market are almost always recouped. I live in a place that is much closer to soviet Russia, better yet Siberian Soviet Russia, in terms of available resources. In order to produce quality coffee we have to get more resourceful and creative under more constraints.

Monday, September 03, 2007


Someone commented on my post, and here I thought I was writing to myself. So here goes my response. Thanks for commenting, Daniel.

Ed, I am wondering about the nature of this poverty trap and some comments that you made about the erosion of the soil. Is the race for education capital being run against the land?

I don´t think "The race for education" runs against the land. Traditional farming where I live essentially means clear cutting rain forest, burning it, and then planting rice, beans,corn, or root crops on it. Planting coffee involves cutting down some of the underbrush, but the canopy remains intact, and much of the habitat for animals.

For soil errosion, coffee trees are permenant, and are much better at holding back soil than beans, or rice or clearing it for anything else, and if you mix in some soil errosion barriers to stop the errosion, even better.

Clearly diminishing returns off of the farm because of erosion would be a terrible burden. what is the general effect of growing coffee on the land? i ask this question for all those liberal folks loving their 'sustainable' coffee in the morning.

Coffee trees, and coffee harvesting, are better for the people economically, and in the long run better for the land. They can make enough money to buy as much corn, rice or beans as they would had they planted those crops on the same space , and still have some money left over. Also the soil errosion is much less and the large shade trees are left so the land is still worth more and more productive.

also could you comment on the possibilities of education? as you indicate that is the way out of poverty. is it sending children off to boarding school and then hoping that they stay in the city to work?

Yeah, they either have to board at a highschool, or they have to go to a city and live with a family as a house keeper, or live with older brothers or sisters that already live in the cities if they want to go to highschool. The only highschool that goes to 12th grade is a 6 hour walk away and it only offers agricultural. There are more courses of study offered off the reservation. If a student finishes highschool and maybe some college he or she can hope to get a job in the city and send money back, or get a job with the state working for one of the agencies or for the school system on the reservation.

Thanks a bunch for the comment, I hope this helps to answer some of the questions!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Go Box Coffee and "The end of Povety"

Can a poor farmer grow coffee and increase his income to such a degree that he can escape extreme poverty? That is the question that I am trying to answer for myself during my Peace Corps service. What would a farmer have to do and how many hectarias of coffee would he or she have to have based on a family size to generate enough income to escape extreme poverty?

First off, what does it mean to escape extreme poverty? WHen you have enough to eat, to build a shelter, and to take care of your health.

The next step is to get out of the "poverty trap," which Jeffery Sachs defines as an economic state where your capital depriciates faster than it is accumulated. For example, with the people I work with, as they grow beans and corn on their hillsides, the rain errodes the top soil and the fertility of the land is decreased. The income from the land is not enough to invest in the farm so each year the farmer and his family are poorer than they were the year before.

The hope is that with a product like coffee, they could make enough money to invest in thier family and farm to escape the poverty trap. For example, by selling coffee, the family could have enough to buy enough food for the year, necessary medicine, and have a nice house, and on top of that send one of thier kids to school plus extra education so they might get a job. Once the son or daughter graduates, they can send back money, either to invest in the farm, or so that his or her brothers or sisters can also go to school. This way, the capital of the family, in this case the educational capital, is growing and is growing at a rate faster than other forms of capital. The family is now out of the poverty trap and is on "ladder" of economic developement, as Sachs puts it. At least that is the idea anyway. I´m working to see if it can become a reality.

Thursday, August 23, 2007