Fringe Planning: Doing More, Faster, and Better

In March of 2012, the Malian Army took control of their country’s government, ending 21 years of democratic rule. While the impacts of this coup, including the Tuareg secession and the resultant Maghreb militant takeover, are familiar due to popular media, it is always the smaller stories that fall through the cracks.

After the Mali coup, the former government no longer existed. This meant that all government agreements, plans, and funding no longer existed.

One of the many small, yet extremely valuable programs which were negatively impacted by this was the Africa Indoor Residual Spraying Program (AIRS), an intervention which protects millions of people across Africa, including those in Mali, from malaria. Without a government, AIRS no longer had a formal structure to rely on for funding and implementation. The AIRS program, which required a lab to test residual spraying techniques prior to the start of the rainy season, seemed doomed to non-existence.

But instability in governments, even if they are coup d’états, can help provide new opportunities for innovation.

AIRS insect lab

An entomology lab on a shoe-string

In response, the Bamako AIRS office bought a 40’ x 8’ shipping container and, in three weeks, converted it into an “insectary-in-a-box” – an entomology lab on a shoe-string – for less than $20,000. The lab helped Malian scientists collect data on the effectiveness of the program’s techniques, so that the initiative could be implemented in the field.

Between July and September of 2012, only three months after completion of the shipping-container lab, the AIRS team was able to spray over 200,000 structures and protect more than 760,000 people from malaria. The lab is now being hailed as a mobile-anti-malaria model, and may soon be implemented in other regions.

40’ x 8’ shipping container turned “insectary-in-a-box”

40’ x 8’ shipping container turned “insectary-in-a-box”

However, the lab construction was only the first hurdle.

In order to spray 200,000 structures, AIRS needed to hire and pay for 780 seasonal workers. Unfortunately many of the workers did not have bank accounts, it was a huge security risk for AIRS staff to travel through certain regions with large amounts of cash payments, and it was difficult and time consuming to meet and pay for all the seasonal workers in the field.

Instead of giving up, paying for armed escorts and security, or missing their rainy season deadline, the AIRS team partnered with the pan-African Ecobank to distribute funds. When payday arrived, AIRS transferred the allotted funds to Ecobank, and then organized buses to take the workers to the closest banking locations. There has yet to be any accounts of fraud and everyone was paid on time.

Preventing counterfeit medicine with text messages

Preventing counterfeit medicine with text messages

And on the subject of malaria, you may not know, but counterfeit drugs are an extremely dangerous racket, especially for those who unwittingly take them for their ailments. Luckily cell phone use is growing rapidly, and is now nearly ubiquitous worldwide. So a company called mPedigree, based out of Ghana, has found an ingenious solution to combat counterfeit drugs: text messaging. Drug manufacturers can now add a unique code on their products, and after scratching off the silver covering with a coin (like a lottery scratch-off ticket), the user can text the uncovered unique ID to a free service, which will then text back either “OK” or “No. Please Recheck Code.”

So while we are all feeling really chipper about doing more with less and enacting change at the local level, I will leave you with this thoughtful (infuriating) essay about the frailties (uhm, uselessness?) of the modern urban planner, written by Professor Thomas Campanella of UNC Chapel Hill for the Design Observer Group (I highly encourage any of my fellow bloggers to take a stab at this essay, too).

Perhaps we all, as planning professionals, should take a look at some of these really innovative and simple concepts, like those in Mali and Ghana, and rethink what our roles as planners should be. Today.

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