Face to face with the law of unintended consequences

Recent experiences have reminded me of one of my favorite economist’s terms, the so-called “law of unintended consequences.” It is not a law in the literal sense, but refers to the idea that actions of people—and especially of organizations—often have effects that are unanticipated or unintended. Economists and other social scientists have long understood this, but organizations and individuals often ignore it at their peril. I am not sure why, but when I am in South Asia, I think about this more often than I do at home.

A couple of nice explanations of the ideas behind the “law” can be found at: http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/UnintendedConsequences.html and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unintended_consequence Although I never studied economics in college, as I have aged, I have developed a new appreciation for the social science that is often derided as “the dismal science.” At its best, economics is the science of decision-making. Since making decisions is a daily feature in almost any aspect of life, it seems to me that any effort to rationally evaluate how decisions are made (and what are the consequences of such decisions,) seems like a good idea. Two examples of the law of unintended consequences come to mind in terms of my experience in South Asia.

The first incident happened in 2005 when I was photographing in Sri Lanka during my second Fulbright fellowship. I was working along the southern coast near Galle, Sri Lanka, one of many places devastated by the 2004 tsunami, which killed an estimated 230,000 people across Asia. I was talking to a fisherman, through a translator, and we were discussing the tsunami. He told me about losing friends and relatives, but no immediate family members. I suggested that the tsunami, while devastating for others, was not too bad for him. He said it had in fact it all but destroyed him, despite sparing his life and that of his family.

He then told me a long story that started with the fact that most of his fellow fishermen had lost their boats in the tsunami. He was “fortunate” that his boat was spared, or so he thought at first. During the post-tsunami recovery period, NGOs and other foreign aid groups rushed in and helped the other fishermen who had lost their boats. Those who had lost their boats to the tsunami ended up with newer boats with better, faster outboard motors. The fisherman I was talking with explained how his peers, who were now fishing with better boats, had leapfrogged ahead of him technologically. Less than a year after surviving the tsunami unscathed, he was using one of the oldest, slowest and most inefficient fishing boats in the local fleet. His older boat is one he now wishes had in fact been destroyed in the tsunami. When it came to the good works of the NGOs and other foreign aid groups, he was clearly on the wrong end of the law of unintended consequences.

A more recent example of the impact of that same “law” confronted me during my most recent trip to India. Back in 2001, when I was starting my project on globalization in India, I spent time with a Bangalore auto-rickshaw driver named Vijaykumar Nair. You can see the article on the Indian Middle class that I produced with the support of an Alicia Patterson Foundation fellowship, at: http://www.aliciapatterson.org/APF2001/Wells/Wells.html

The rickshaw driver, Nair, was barely able to afford private school tuition for his children, but like other middle-class parents in India, he saw education as a way for children to advance. These same Indian parents usually send their kids to what are called “English medium” schools, meaning that English, not the local language, is the language of instruction in the school. In terms of the children’s career prospects, they are much more likely to advance if they speak English, especially in Bangalore’s technology industries.

English medium schooling has become such an integral part of the Indian middle classes, including the lower middle classes, that an interesting side effect is now taking place. The adults in the lower-middle classes are slowly improving their English, learning from their children who are ever improving English speakers. Lately, auto-rickshaw drivers and other lower-middle class workers have been practicing their slowly improving English on foreigners, like me. This can be viewed as a positive unintended consequence, on one level. The downside is that as children, and increasingly their parents adapt to English they drop their local tongue. In the Bangalore area that language is called Kannada. Yes, there is a strong movement for preserving the local language and culture. Still, if English medium schooling becomes the norm, the use of local language will be eroded.

In neither case would I advocate that things be done radically different than they have been done. Fishermen who lost their boats in Sri Lanka needed new boats in order to make a living. Rickshaw drivers who learned English from their kids see increased opportunity for themselves and their children when embracing English.

In both cases, something was lost, because of the law of unintended consequences. Not that anything can be don about it per se, but it would be better if people and organizations, when acting, keep the “law” in mind. Good intentions can lead to strange results. Just ask the fisherman and the auto driver I dealt with in South Asia.

One response to “Face to face with the law of unintended consequences”

  1. Similar unintended consequences happen after a major coastal storm. Insurance pays to rebuild only to put structures back in harms way for the next storm to destroy. The unintended consequence here is that building in an untenable area is perpetuated and peoples lives and property are placed at risk.

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