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Not me.

We mostly know the solutions to fixing the most oppressed or otherwise defective parts of the world; we just don't find it worthwhile to implement those solutions. I could solve 90% Equatorial Guinea's problems for <$10mm and a promise of immunity from prosecution or extradition by major world powers (i.e. places I'd actually be, afterward). Scaling that up for other countries is possible, too. For problems not requiring a ballistic solution, Bill Gates is doing a seriously effective job of solving the polio problem, and major headway into malaria.

The solutions to the most defective countries are all pretty straightforward and widely known; it's figuring out how to turn decent but not ideal countries like Pakistan into really stable first-world countries which would be hard, or figuring out how to stem the long-term decline in the US. (Yes, there are implementation difficulties in a place like Somalia, but it's because the benefit isn't worth the expense in blood/treasure. The cheap solution is to let the 1% of people who could make their lives a lot better by leaving do so.)

The skills required to solve the harder sociological problems don't really have much overlap with the skills to send people to Mars.

Bringing those places up to standard doesn't really give you anything new, although it does help those people. Putting humans on Mars is something we've never done before, and could lead to amazing technologies and opportunities for humanity. Just like I'd rather be a medical researcher than a family practice doctor, I'd rather push the limits of what's possible vs. contribute to more widespread adequacy, although both bring up the mean. I'm glad there exist both kinds of people, though.




> I could solve 90% Equatorial Guinea's problems for <$10mm and a promise of immunity from prosecution or extradition by major world powers (i.e. places I'd actually be, afterward). Scaling that up for other countries is possible, too.

Oh really? What's your plan? How do you intend on ensuring that culture is preserved while you implement this plan? Or do you believe that Western culture is superior because it has been more successful in the last 100 years (forgetting that segregation ended less than 50 years ago, if you must include the eradication of entire populations as "successes," we can call it 500 years)? Even Bill Gates will admit that his solutions are imperfect at times.

The tricky part is a sustainable solution. Sure, you can throw money at problems, but how is the solution going to last? Like you said, there is already a lot of money involved (e.g. Bill Gates) in philanthropy, yet the problems haven't been solved yet. This indicates that the solution is trickier than you think. And if there is someone smart enough to engineer a solution, I would like to think Bill Gates is very qualified for such a position.

EDIT: Mainly, if you don't account for the culture of a place, a solution will likely not be popular enough to work (HIV prevention and treatment suffers from this problem).


Ryan - I'm on the Epidemiological Modeling team funded personally by BillG. I concur that the skillset required to solve problems on our planet (eradicating infectious diseases in our case) is completely different than those required for inter-galactic exploration. Perhaps the only overlap would be Mathematics, but that's the foundation for pretty much everything.

Shantanu - You're right. Simply throwing money cannot solve global issues and no single person including Mr. Gates and Mr. Buffett combined have the monetary resources at their disposal to tackle even 5% of global issues. However, they're the right kind of people to take on sociological challenges and eradicating diseases because there's a lot more to the problem than that. For instance, bureaucracy, corruption, beliefs, natural causes, etc. I was really surprised (shouldn't have been) to learn that a significant portion of their funds are allocated for dealing with corrupt governments for our mission to globally eradicate diseases like Polio, Malaria, HIV, TB, etc. With my limited experience in that realm, I can state that the problem is definitely way more complex than it appears at the surface (and I think you get that as well).


I don't think I could do a particularly good job running the country, and wouldn't try (beyond a few weeks/months in transition). There are plenty of other African leaders in other countries, particularly elected in the past ~10 years, who are far better. I don't think there's any reason why EG wouldn't be able to come up with some domestic political leadership which was better than what they have now. The problem is the nexus of oil wealth and foreign support has allowed Obiang to remain for decades.

The less violent solution would be a trade embargo of the country (at least, not allowing them to sell oil).


Practically speaking, how do you ensure that the new government doesn't become corrupt in a year or two? Or more importantly, how do you restore the people's faith in their government so that they participate?

Also, how would a trade embargo "fix" a country? Perhaps it would force a dictator to lessen or hide civil rights violations, but it would not repair the economy or necessarily give people more confidence in their government.


> Practically speaking, how do you ensure that the new government doesn't become corrupt in a year or two? Or more importantly, how do you restore the people's faith in their government so that they participate?

Here's how I'd do it: pass laws specifically forbidding these actions by government officials, the punishment being death. And then when someone violates the law, you kill them. You wouldn't have to do this too many times before the problem magically disappeared.

I think this would both fix the corruption problem as well as restore faith in government.


> Here's how I'd do it: pass laws specifically forbidding these actions by government officials, the punishment being death. And then when someone violates the law, you kill them. You wouldn't have to do this too many times before the problem magically disappeared.

All that would do is wind up killing a bunch of 3rd party candidates and anti-establishment types. You can't simply place a law and then expect it to be 100% accurate let alone the people determining guilt be 100% ethical. A corrupt judge could kill a whole lot of people with this type of law.


My assertion is that there are different levels of corruption. If EG ended up being just as corrupt as Nigeria after the eliminating of the current regime, it would still be a victory for the people. They might even do better than that.

And maybe structurally changing how oil revenues are handled; not allowing any new leader to directly control them for personal benefit.


that only works if the corruption hadn't reached the courts. and how does the average citizen check that? corruption has to be fixed from a third party.


> that only works if the corruption hadn't reached the courts. and how does the average citizen check that? corruption has to be fixed from a third party.

You are 95% right. The problem is, the third party always decides it might be a good idea to take something for themselves, and we're right back where we started.

But I don't buy the idea that it's not possible, it's just never been tried before.


Probably this is one area where an oil embargo would be more helpful in combination with removal of the government. An external power could enforce an embargo against oil unless a substantial percentage was spent on domestic infrastructure and programs, vs. funneled into a dictator's personal accounts.

"Oil for food" in Iraq in the 1990s was a horrible fiasco, but there have been cases where natural resource wealth hasn't been strictly a curse.

For ongoing security and government assistance, probably the only entity able to credibly do anything in EG is the AU, which has become a lot more credible in the past 5-10 years.


I think you vastly underestimate the difficulty of "fixing" a country. I think Russia is a good example: communism fell, but that doesn't mean things have necessarily gotten better for the average citizen. You could replace the entire government of Equatorial Guinea, but that won't address the problems like poor education that underlying many poor country's problems.


I agree entirely for middle tier countries (which Russia was -- and, honestly, Iraq under Saddam was). For really defective places (NK, Somalia, EG, maybe Afghanistan under the Taliban, ...), your odds of killing the leadership and randomly replacing are much more likely to give you something adequate. It doesn't always work out, and it's hard when you have set yourself up for failure (like the US did in Afghanistan, for a variety of reasons, but I don't think just eliminating AQ and some of the Taliban leadership was doomed to turn out badly), but in a lot of cases it's beneficial.


You discount so many variables that go into making a place a "good" place to live that it's actually a little humorous to read these posts.

Look, EG is, I'm pretty certain, almost 90% Fang. That probably doesn't mean much to you but for Africans... tribal affinities matter. The idea that you would get rid of one government, and another would govern appreciably differently in EG is fanciful. Add to that Oil and then unexploited Gold and Zinc deposits, and anyone who is familiar with Africa, and especially EG, would laugh heartily at your assertions.

Places like the MidEast and North Africa also have more issues than can be solved by changing governments. For instance, the reality in Somalia, or indeed even Egypt, is that there are hard Bio-Physical resource constraints that are not going away. Desertification and Soil Salination are mother nature's method of breathing. And she doesn't care about governmental edicts. Egypt's population is around 80M I think... and I'm pretty sure the arable land is right around 2% and it drops every year. Somalia is what... 10 maybe 15 million? With MORE diversity (ie - tribes) and even LESS arable land.

One of the first things I learned working at Halliburton was that if a nation is importing energy AND food... it's in trouble. Nation building is much more than Civil Affairs. If the requisite people and materials aren't there ... it doesn't work. Full Stop.

"Bad" governments, for a given definition of "bad", are symptoms of problems. Not the problems themselves. The Taliban and the NA are manifestations of the lack of resources in Afghan land and the lack of trust among Afghan people. These are difficult problems to solve. And certainly simply changing the government will not make them go away.


I agree the culture in EG is probably fairly stunted at best, and probably inadequate to the task of self government (once the ruling elite is gone). However, Obiang is an outlier. Getting rid of him is necessary but not sufficient to fix the country, and it's one thing AU won't do (because they're afraid of slippery-slope), and something the people can't do themselves.

The "stratfor" "geography drives political destiny" thing isn't predictive for small oil-rich countries. I mean, look at the smaller Gulf states. The issues in small oil-rich countries are essentially down to leadership. A broad democratic government is probably not the achievable goal, but something like Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, most of the Emirates, or Kuwait is far superior to EG.


What exactly do you mean by a lack of resources in Afghanistan? I've always heard that it was one of the richest places in the world of unexploited minerals. Does it need to be more specific than that?


Afghanistan has high amounts of mineral wealth locked away, but while it had decent irrigation and farming in the pre-Soviet period (near Kandahar; it's really shitty to fight in btw due to old irrigation channels and just enough cover/concealment to hinder UAVs), decades of war have really hurt the agricultural sector.

More importantly, decades of war have also essentially eliminated any societal reserves of trust, so corruption at all levels is the default. The only functional unit is the family or clan, and very minimal ties to higher units of a tribe -- not to the state. Individual governors, mayors, and police chiefs rule by personal charisma and graft, and bringing their pre-existing tribal relationships in. Organs of the state end up used to settle personal vendettas, too.

There's a lot of literature that national resources (extractive, with low local labor involvement) are a curse -- the "resource curse". Norway has done ok with its oil. Gulf societies have in some ways succeeded but in other ways oil has crippled them. African countries with mineral wealth usually end up relatively fucked compared to countries with productive agriculture or a vibrant commercial sector (Nigeria minus oil is actually pretty decent; Kenya is great. Ghana until recently had no resource based wealth and is basically the Chile of Africa).


That is a historically naive assertion. Take a look at the list of countries in this article - most of them are still in pretty serious shit. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Covert_United_States_foreign_re...

It very rarely works out.


The US government's interest in intervention is not "fix things for the residents" but "US interests" (which, during the cold war, essentially just meant opposition to the USSR and some basing rights or access to resources). Admittedly even by that metric, most of the US interventions have been failures.

There are a few cases where US/NATO intervention has been sort of helpful. Panama is probably better now that we got rid of Noriega, although we put him there in the first place. The Balkans at least didn't turn into a pan-European or WW3. French intervention in Mali seems at least not to be making things worse, and while they went into Rwanda late, they did at least settle things down. Australian forces actually did a lot of good in PNG/ET from what I've read, although I don't know too much about it.


I am from Balkans, Balkans conflicts were largely influenced and made worse from the outside, I would even say that they would not happen if there were not desire from Germany and other powers to make as much mess as possible.

Somehow Balkan conficts never got critical review from journalists and rosy propaganda stayed even to this day.

For example in present day Croatia there is only 7% of people who would actually stay to live there if they could go and live somewhere else. Danke Deutschland indeed.


"I am from Balkans, Balkans conflicts were largely influenced and made worse from the outside, I would even say that they would not happen if there were not desire from Germany and other powers to make as much mess as possible."

Would you mind saying which country you're from? I ask because I have recently met Serbians who seem like very good and reasonable people, but who have very different views on the conflict from the accepted view in the States and "Western" Europe. In particular, they are very nostalgic for Yugoslavia, and seem to think that yes, some bad things happened during the war, but that no one in particular was more genocidal than anyone else.

"For example in present day Croatia there is only 7% of people who would actually stay to live there if they could go and live somewhere else. Danke Deutschland indeed."

This is very surprising. I would love to see the source. Croatia is the only Balkan state now part of the EU… perhaps they'll find it rather easy to emigrate where they please.


The Slovenians seemed to have the right thing set up -- closely allied with Austria, well defended, and basically stayed out of the whole mess. Also the only Balkan state I've visited, and aside from a tragic lack of vowels, an awesome place.


Where would people from Croatia go? All the ones I've met have been either KBR people in Iraq/Afghanistan or people in the US, and they seemed smart, but they were probably outliers. Germany, or US, or elsewhere?


I assume, and Australia, but the point is that no-one likes living in what Balkan turned out to be, not only in Croatia, others as well have similar situation, Bosnia probably has even worse, I happen to remember this number from recent study which is shocking.

My point is that those conflicts were stirred by industrial lobby's, not by genuine need to protect or save anyone.


How exactly did "Germany and other powers" cause the 1991-1995 war?


> I could solve 90% Equatorial Guinea's problems for <$10mm and a promise of immunity from prosecution or extradition by major world powers (i.e. places I'd actually be, afterward).

How so? And why is immunity required?


Assassinating foreign heads of state, particularly those who have business interests closely allied with US corporations, isn't legal. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo doesn't deserve something as clean as a bullet, but for reasons of practicality, it'll do. (and, realistically, you'd have to eliminate the entire leadership; it's essentially a corrupt group who pocket oil wealth and rule through fear and oppression. However, they sell oil relatively cheaply to the US, so they're good guys.) Mark Thatcher, son of the former UK PM, essentially tried this in 2004, but was undercapitalized.


> Assassinating foreign heads of state

But who will replace them? Didn't we try something like this during the Cold War multiple times and end up introducing even more totalitarian "democratic" governments?


The cold war was a special case, as we had ideological reasons to pick replacement governments who basically sucked even worse than those they replaced. In a country where most of the decent people who could go into government are somewhat leftist, replacing a hard-line communist with someone who will resist the other leftists (for your own ideological reasons) is a lot more likely to produce a situation like Pinochet than just replacing a criminal despot with virtually anyone else.

I don't think the US really tried replacing with "democratic" governments, either -- just with US allied dictators. We supported a lot of really evil people because they brought stability and nominal pro-US interests. I'm not advocating that; I'm just saying get rid of some bad leadership with virtually anyone else, with no ongoing agenda. That is a far lower bar to cross.


> Bringing those places up to standard doesn't really give you anything new, although it does help those people. Putting humans on Mars is something we've never done before, and could lead to amazing technologies and opportunities for humanity.

I take issue with this. Technological advancement over the last few millenia has been driven by how many smart minds we have at the table thinking of new ideas and new solutions to old problems. To get more folks at the table, we need for them to stop worrying about how to avoid gulags, and get them start training in emerging fields. People in Vietnam studying computer science will bring more technological marvels to your world than sending a rocket and biodome to Mars, the problems of which could mostly be tackled by first building biodomes in harsh environments on Earth, or by finding ways to conquer disease and get fresh water to more of the world's poor.

Build me a sealab and irrigate the Sahara, you don't need Mars to start working on those problems, and those problems could probably help you learn really important skills for Martian exploration (and eventual terraforming) while providing more immediate technological benefits to humanity.


That's the strongest anti-Malthus/population-or-resource-bomb argument. I'm not sure if I ultimately agree with it myself (mainly because of the middle-income trap; I think having marginal SFBA-engineer level people would help advance science, but it's unclear if taking 500mm people from dirt-poor to $5k/yr income helps science, if it stops there, which it often does.)


> The solutions to the most defective countries are all pretty straightforward and widely known.

Maybe you really do know the best solutions to every country's problems. Or maybe you know enough "rules of thumb" to get each of these countries to start moving in the right direction. That is not my point.

However, one "meta" problem is that most people are convinced that they know the solutions to the world's problems, and if everybody else would let them execute their solution, the world would be fixed.


Take note: this kind of thinking is what being purely an "ideas guy" leads to.




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