There are more people in the world today who own a mobile phone than a toothbrush. This may startle you, but its true, at least according to 60secondmarketer.com. There are 4 bn mobile phone users in the world. The annual sales of toothbrushes is 3.5 bn.
This won't surprise you if you read the excellent book, Poor Economics, by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo. My good friend Ravi, who often comments on this blog, very kindly gifted it to me and it makes fascinating reading. It was named as the Financial Times Business book of the year. As the byline says, its a book about rethinking poverty and the ways to end it. The book destroys many myths about poverty and provides fascinating insights into the behaviour of the poor. Its no surprise then that they would rather own a mobile phone than a toothbrush.
One of the big insights is that things that make life less boring are a priority for the poor. The quote from Oucha Mbarbk, a poor Moroccan villager sums it all up "Oh, but television is more important than food !" In country after country, the researchers have tried to analyse why the poor eat so little, and sometimes bad food, even when they have the money. Food spending is actually declining in a poor country like India. Its because food is not a priority !
Another fascinating area of research is health. The largest killer of children in world is actually diarrhea. Two cheap and easily available miracle drugs can save the 2 million children who die of diarrhea before their 5th birthday - chlorine bleach and a rehydration solution of salt and sugar. And yet many do not use it even when given free. They want an antibiotic or an intravenous drip. Prevention is frowned upon. An expensive cure, often in the hands of a quack is preferred.
Another deep insight - poor are like hedge fund managers; they live with huge amounts of risk. They manage this by a typical hedging strategy - diversifying activities. A striking fact quoted from one survey - the median family had three working members and seven different occupations. And you would expect that in a high risk enviroment, insurance in some form or the other would be popular. Wrong. Nobody seems to want insurance.
The book is full of amazing tidbits of research. For example , in Kenya, one of the largest levers for ensuring prosperity for your child was actually giving her deworming tablets. Children who were given deworming tablets for 2 years instead of only 1 year earned 20% more every year for their entire lifetime !!
There is , of course, no silver bullet for eradicating poverty. You mustn't expect one from this book. But it offers many fascinating insights that would make anybody think again about poverty. I heartily recommend anybody with an interest in this subject to read this book.