Skip to main content

‘Vision’ for development practice education

David Zilberman, professor, agriculture and resource economics | October 29, 2012

In 2009 UC Berkeley received a grant from the Macarthur Foundation to establish a professional Master degree in development practice (MDP) and after overcoming all of the bureaucratic hurdles, the first cohort joined campus this fall.

The MDP is, in essence, an MBA in sustainable development. It includes classes in development and resource economics, project management, impact assessment, basics in natural and social economics, public health, community development and leadership, political economy and climate change. It also requires a ten week internship in the field in a developing country, working with practitioners on the ground in various area such as agriculture, public health, education, infrastructure among others. The first cohort includes 15 students, 8 international 7 domestic, including two MasterCard scholars from Kenya and Ghana.

Last week, we held our inaugural reception for the MDP. While we were planning for this event, we had a dilemma: who should be our keynote speaker? Conventional wisdom told us to enlist development leaders and policymakers. But we decided to go a different route, and to have an inventor and entrepreneur that would come with new ideas that can make a difference in the lives of many.

We selected Josh Silver, an Oxford professor of physics who invented self-adjusting glasses. The basic concept is simple; if you put liquid between two pieces of plastic, you can create refractory lenses by trial and error. But Josh’s genius is in the detail that makes this concept work. Tens of thousands of his glasses are already in use and his goal is to distribute one billion by 2020. The cost of the glasses is likely to be under $10.

This concept and its implementation, glasses for the poor, represent the essence of the MDP. Vision care is not a priority for public health or medicine, yet 40% of all people in the world need vision correction and most cannot afford it. This results in numerous deaths from car accidents, billions of dollars in loss of productivity if people are not able to work, and millions of dreams that are shattered if people cannot fulfill their educational aspirations.

The standard approach to vision correction, in developed countries, is to visit your local optometris, and pay the high costs of lenses and frames, not to mention the exam. When I visited my optometrist, I realized his motto is ‘you deserve Armani’. But the motto should be ‘you deserve to see’.

Transferring that model of vision correction is very costly and does not solve the needs of the poor. In some countries there is one optometrist per million people, but ingenious self-health, based on applying advanced science for a simple solution, is the essence of development practice. Actually, once it is applied I would not be surprised to see self-adjusting glasses in the developed world.

The Berkeley MDP aims to educate our students to dare to attack big problems, taking advantage of cutting-edge knowledge to bring forth practical and affordable solutions for the world.

Comments to “‘Vision’ for development practice education

  1. Your blog is really helpful for the readers. The important aspects of education that you have discussed here and the future it holds will surely prove beneficial for the students and the aspirants.

    Rai University, Ahmedabad

  2. Dear Mr. Zilberman,

    Your ‘vision’ for Development Practise is inspiring – applying science to simple solutions that can make a difference to the lives of many.

    Josh Silver’s self-adjusting glasses are a great example of a product that is not only cheaper, but also a more sustainable solution to vision care. The simple design allows for manufacture in scale and adjustment at point of use, thus eliminating several energy-intensive steps to achieving the motto “you deserve to see”.

    There are many other examples of products that similarly achieve a low cost and a low impact to the environment. The $100 laptop showcased for the first time by MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte at the UN net summit in Tunis in 2005 is ‘wind-up’ which negates the need for any wall charging. More recently, NURU Energy’s POWERcycle is the first cycle-powered generator.

    In developing countries where distributed energy is small to non existent, the solutions that will improve peoples lives will be sustainable solutions, which like the glasses may find a market in the developed world.

    It is not that surprising that there is a new breed of social entrepreneurs – for-profit ventures with a worthy cause to drive the bottom line. The developing countries are a huge untapped market.

    Lee Comerford MEng

Comments are closed.