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What The Martian teaches us about the value of a statistical life

David Evans's picture

This weekend, the movie The Martian opens. It’s based on a book by Andy Weir, the most exciting one I’ve read this year. In the very near future, a mechanical engineer and botanist turned astronaut named Mark Watney gets marooned on Mars, with little hope that he can survive long enough for a rescue team to reach him. The narrative proceeds on two paths, with Mark showing amazing resourcefulness to extend his survival on a barren planet, and the U.S. National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) at home, scrambling to come up with a plan to save him.

The Martian | Official Trailer

At one point, Mark ponders a big question: “The cost for my survival must have been hundreds of millions of dollars. All to save one dorky botanist. Why bother?” (He gives an answer, but I’m pretty sure it’s wrong.)

The Martian, bookThroughout the book, I pondered the same question. The researchers at estimate that you can save a life through a long-lasting insecticide-treated mosquito net for $3,340. A program of community health promoters in East Africa is estimated to save a child’s life for $4,400. By those estimates, instead of saving Mark Watney (and let’s assume that it cost just $100 million), NASA could have saved almost 30,000 people with mosquito nets or almost 23,000 children through community health promoters.

Beyond the requirements of a thrilling piece of science fiction, why would we make that choice?

Get smarter: A world of development data in your pocket!

Nagaraja Rao Harshadeep's picture
Many dinner conversations and friendly debates proceed in a data vacuum: “The problem is big… very big!” How big exactly? Most likely your friend has no idea. 

It is often said that we live in a new data age. Institutions such as the Bank, UN agencies, NASA, ESA, universities and others have deluged us with an overwhelming amount of new data obtained painstakingly from countries and surveys or observed by the increasing number of eyes in the sky. We have modern tools such as mobile phones that are more powerful than old mainframes I used to use in my university days. You can be in rural Malawi and still have access to decent 3G data networks.
Open data for sustainable development

Tourist trap? Investing in tourism infrastructure

John Kjorstad's picture
What is infrastructure? It’s a fairly simple question with no distinctive right or wrong answer. A text book, or in this case Investopedia, might define infrastructure as “the basic physical systems of a business or nation”—such as transportation, communication, sewage, and water and electricity networks for a start. One’s definition of this asset class is often dependent on their appetite and understanding of risk.

Caring for our common home, Pope Francis and the SDGs

Adam Russell Taylor's picture
Pope Francis became the first Pope to address the UN General Assembly and US Congress

It has been a fascinating time to be in the United States and watch as the media and American public were transfixed by Catholic Pope Francis’ whirlwind three city sojourn to Washington DC, New York City and finally Philadelphia.

It was a trip of firsts. Pope Francis became the first Pope to address a joint session of the US Congress and then a day later marking another first in addressing the UN General Assembly just before member states unanimously adopted Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

It was fitting and profound to have the Pope frame the global goals’ agenda with his remarks, since in many ways his recently released encyclical, Laudato Si, embodies the integrated and indivisible nature of the sustainable development agenda.

It puts both environmental protection and social inclusion as part and parcel to ending poverty and extending dignity instead of being an add-on or at worst an afterthought. 

Is your ‘emerging market’ securely fashionable?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Traders crowd the post that handles Morgan StanleySo-called ‘emerging markets’ might as well be styles of frocks and blouses in the world of haute couture; they are in and out of fashion with similar unpredictability. One moment a market is all the rage; the next moment it is in the pits of despond. It is an all too familiar if sorry tale. You know that an emerging market is in fashion via the global business press, especially when reporters, pundits, analysts as well as paid boosters and carnival barkers, all produce pieces on the market displaying breathless admiration: What a wonderful place to be this is! What astonishing prospects!

If the emerging market is particularly blessed it will feature in one of the fancy acronyms of the day: BRICS, MINTS, the Breakout Nations, etc. Investment bankers are proving fecund when it comes to dreaming up these meaningless acronyms (if they did not have such real-world consequences!). For once an emerging market is deemed ‘hot’, money flows into it. Investors and hustlers pile in. People who express doubt, urge caution or circumspection are drowned out by the frenzy of adoration and boosterism.

Eventually, inconvenient facts that are too significant to ignore begin to emerge regarding the much-fancied emerging market.

Jobs and conflict: solutions from Andhra Pradesh

Sanjay Pulipaka's picture

Counter insurgency operations have a development component. The states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh in India have adopted a three pronged strategy to create jobs. These have helped sharply reduce the incidences of Naxalite extremism in their territories. A mix of policies aimed at grass roots employment, infrastructure investment and private sector support have paved the way for a sharp reduction in the fighting. 

Weekly wire: The global forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture
World of NewsThese are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

Projecting progress: Reaching the SDGs by 2030
Overseas Development Institute
This month the United Nations launches the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a global plan to spur action across the world on areas of critical importance to humanity. With 17 goals and 169 targets, the SDGs replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which end this year. The SDGs will significantly shape development efforts for the coming 15 years. But are they really achievable? And what can we do to improve our chances of success? Our SDG Scorecard 2030 is the first real attempt to project where the world will be in 2030 across the SDG agenda.

The Politics of Media Development: The Importance of Engaging Government and Civil Society
Center for International Media Assistance
In the field of media development, the public sector is often viewed as a barrier to the development of independent and sustainable media. Although governments do frequently pervert and capture media sectors in countries around the globe, the enabling conditions under which media can achieve and maintain independence are nevertheless reliant on institutions of government. Therefore the media development community must rethink its approaches to public sector engagement in efforts to improve the environment for media systems in emerging and fragile democracies. This paper outlines the key role of political support, the need for more nuanced understanding of political context, and how donors and implementers can more effectively engage drivers of change in the public sector to build support for media and media development work.