Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Wheels for Welfare

In my day job I pursue questions of significance in development economics and design field experiments to empirically test competing answers offered by theory. It is very rare for a project to pop up on my radar for reasons that are not entirely academic. Indeed, journal editors would likely not understand or appreciate a study of the psychological benefits of triathlon training no matter how much I plead otherwise!

Open water swims are... exciting :)

Having said that, I recently became aware of a really cool organization whose mandate is to distribute high quality, durable bicycles in poor African regions - World Bicycle Relief (WBR).

As a passionate pro cycling fan (save your puns about doping) I can probably recite recent winners of all cycling monuments probably as well as I can explain how to run regressions. So in one of my recent doodlings on the internet, I popped onto the SRAM website (SRAM being one of the leading bike component manufacturers) and discovered that SRAM is a main sponsor of WBR. The more I read about WBR the more interested I got in their operations and the more my academic brain started churning ideas for testing impacts of bicycle relief.

The fundamental question is what's a bicycle worth? For us in developed countries, a bicycle is mostly a pursuit of a passion, be it triathlon, road racing, mountain biking, cyclocross, what have you. At a more basic level, college students use it for commuting but alternative transport generally is available.

In poor countries, however, it can be a means of significant economic empowerment. A farmer can use a bicycle to reach farther markets, carry substantially larger loads, and deliver products quicker and with higher frequency. For these reasons alone, the value of a bicycle in a rural farm household is economically non-trivial.

The WBR bike
So it would be really cool to carefully estimate the value of a bicycle. But before diving blindly into an evaluation, the question needs to be better refined and a few caveats addressed. For example, if bicycles are so important and valuable, why isn't there a market for them already? What are the preexisting constraints? Is there supporting infrastructure available (repair shops for example) to facilitate and sustain inexpensive bike ownership?

With these questions and a few design ideas in mind, I am currently in the process of discussing possible evaluations with WBR in Zambia. The people running the show are very interested in rigorous evaluation, a rarity among such organizations.

Hopefully in due time I'll be able to report back on this forum with our findings!

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