The dark side of Dubai (the wet dream of the Dilli politicians who created Bhawana?)

There are three different Dubais, all swirling around each other. There are the expats, like Karen; there are the Emiratis, headed by Sheikh Mohammed; and then there is the foreign underclass who built the city, and are trapped here. They are hidden in plain view. You see them everywhere, in dirt-caked blue uniforms, being shouted at by their superiors, like a chain gang – but you are trained not to look. It is like a mantra: the Sheikh built the city. The Sheikh built the city. Workers? What workers?

Every evening, the hundreds of thousands of young men who build Dubai are bussed from their sites to a vast concrete wasteland an hour out of town, where they are quarantined away. Until a few years ago they were shuttled back and forth on cattle trucks, but the expats complained this was unsightly, so now they are shunted on small metal buses that function like greenhouses in the desert heat. They sweat like sponges being slowly wrung out.

Sonapur is a rubble-strewn patchwork of miles and miles of identical concrete buildings. Some 300,000 men live piled up here, in a place whose name in Hindi means "City of Gold". In the first camp I stop at – riven with the smell of sewage and sweat – the men huddle around, eager to tell someone, anyone, what is happening to them.

Sahinal Monir, a slim 24-year-old from the deltas of Bangladesh. "To get you here, they tell you Dubai is heaven. Then you get here and realise it is hell," he says. Four years ago, an employment agent arrived in Sahinal's village in Southern Bangladesh. He told the men of the village that there was a place where they could earn 40,000 takka a month (£400) just for working nine-to-five on construction projects. It was a place where they would be given great accommodation, great food, and treated well. All they had to do was pay an up-front fee of 220,000 takka (£2,300) for the work visa – a fee they'd pay off in the first six months, easy. So Sahinal sold his family land, and took out a loan from the local lender, to head to this paradise.

As soon as he arrived at Dubai airport, his passport was taken from him by his construction company. He has not seen it since. He was told brusquely that from now on he would be working 14-hour days in the desert heat – where western tourists are advised not to stay outside for even five minutes in summer, when it hits 55 degrees – for 500 dirhams a month (£90), less than a quarter of the wage he was promised. If you don't like it, the company told him, go home. "But how can I go home? You have my passport, and I have no money for the ticket," he said. "Well, then you'd better get to work," they replied.

Sahinal was in a panic. His family back home – his son, daughter, wife and parents – were waiting for money, excited that their boy had finally made it. But he was going to have to work for more than two years just to pay for the cost of getting here – and all to earn less than he did in Bangladesh.

He shows me his room. It is a tiny, poky, concrete cell with triple-decker bunk-beds, where he lives with 11 other men. All his belongings are piled onto his bunk: three shirts, a spare pair of trousers, and a cellphone. The room stinks, because the lavatories in the corner of the camp – holes in the ground – are backed up with excrement and clouds of black flies. There is no air conditioning or fans, so the heat is "unbearable. You cannot sleep. All you do is sweat and scratch all night." At the height of summer, people sleep on the floor, on the roof, anywhere where they can pray for a moment of breeze.

The water delivered to the camp in huge white containers isn't properly desalinated: it tastes of salt. "It makes us sick, but we have nothing else to drink," he says.

The work is "the worst in the world," he says. "You have to carry 50kg bricks and blocks of cement in the worst heat imaginable … This heat – it is like nothing else. You sweat so much you can't pee, not for days or weeks. It's like all the liquid comes out through your skin and you stink. You become dizzy and sick but you aren't allowed to stop, except for an hour in the afternoon. You know if you drop anything or slip, you could die. If you take time off sick, your wages are docked, and you are trapped here even longer."

He is currently working on the 67th floor of a shiny new tower, where he builds upwards, into the sky, into the heat. He doesn't know its name. In his four years here, he has never seen the Dubai of tourist-fame, except as he constructs it floor-by-floor.

Is he angry? He is quiet for a long time. "Here, nobody shows their anger. You can't. You get put in jail for a long time, then deported." Last year, some workers went on strike after they were not given their wages for four months. The Dubai police surrounded their camps with razor-wire and water-cannons and blasted them out and back to work.

The "ringleaders" were imprisoned. I try a different question: does Sohinal regret coming? All the men look down, awkwardly. "How can we think about that? We are trapped. If we start to think about regrets…" He lets the sentence trail off. Eventually, another worker breaks the silence by adding: "I miss my country, my family and my land. We can grow food in Bangladesh. Here, nothing grows. Just oil and buildings."

Since the recession hit, they say, the electricity has been cut off in dozens of the camps, and the men have not been paid for months. Their companies have disappeared with their passports and their pay. "We have been robbed of everything. Even if somehow we get back to Bangladesh, the loan sharks will demand we repay our loans immediately, and when we can't, we'll be sent to prison."

This is all supposed to be illegal. Employers are meant to pay on time, never take your passport, give you breaks in the heat – but I met nobody who said it happens. Not one. These men are conned into coming and trapped into staying, with the complicity of the Dubai authorities.

Sahinal could well die out here. A British man who used to work on construction projects told me: "There's a huge number of suicides in the camps and on the construction sites, but they're not reported. They're described as 'accidents'." Even then, their families aren't free: they simply inherit the debts. A Human Rights Watch study found there is a "cover-up of the true extent" of deaths from heat exhaustion, overwork and suicide, but the Indian consulate registered 971 deaths of their nationals in 2005 alone. After this figure was leaked, the consulates were told to stop counting.

At night, in the dusk, I sit in the camp with Sohinal and his friends as they scrape together what they have left to buy a cheap bottle of spirits. They down it in one ferocious gulp. "It helps you to feel numb", Sohinal says through a stinging throat. In the distance, the glistening Dubai skyline he built stands, oblivious.

Why thinking in products invites failure

One problem is that having a cheap, clean technology is no guarantee that it will be properly adopted. In a new NBER paper, economists Rema Hanna, Esther Duflo and Michael Greenstone note that there’s been very little evidence on whether these stoves work in the real world. They looked at a randomized control trial that handed out cleaner stoves to 15,000 people in Orissa, one of India’s poorest rural areas, and tracked the results over five years. The stoves were a bargain, costing about $12.50 a pop, and they used a chimney to keep smoke away from the users.

What Hanna and her colleagues found is that in the first year of using the stoves, households saw a serious drop in smoke inhalation. The cleaner cookstoves were working exactly as they did in the laboratory. But in the years after that, the stoves stopped working effectively. “We find no evidence of improvements in lung functioning or health and there is no change in fuel consumption (and presumably greenhouse gas emissions),” the authors write.

So what went wrong? Basically, none of the earlier evaluations of the clean cookstoves had taken into account how households in places like India would actually use the things. In early tests, there were trained technicians on hand at all times to inspect and repair the stoves. Not surprisingly, households used the stoves frequently. But when the technicians departed and the owners had to clean the chimneys themselves, they lost interest over time. People were spending too many hours conducting repairs and eventually just preferred to switch back to indoor cooking fires.

Without considering the larger system, especially when dealing with communities that are vulnerable (socially, environmentally, economically) you invite failure. Upper middle class designers create beautiful, smart, lab-tested products, successfully implement them during one year and then leave. What happens? Reality strikes.

Just as thinking in products is creating the basis for an environmental (and often economical) overconsumption hangover to come for the rich communities across the world (and that goes for the rich in Delhi as well as in New York), applying this thinking to poor communities is resulting in equally disappointing outcomes.

Maybe it’s time to stop thinking about selling this or that product to the poor and rich alike and instead think long and deep about what it is that we really need and how we design systems that provide for those needs. Sure it’s neither as easy to touch and feel, nor as sexy or cool as a fancy new gadget, and yes it might cause us to ask some uncomfortable questions about ourselves, our lives and how we might need to redistribute wealth in the world (hint: not by selling the poor gadgets so that they can become as awesomely wasteful as the rich).

Microfinance – contribution on poverty reduction: zero

Development agencies have promoted microfinance — the provision of small financial loans to poor people — because it is supposed to help poor people move out of poverty. After a comprehensive review of existing studies, with particular focus on recent randomized control trials, Roodman says that just isn't true. "On current evidence, the best estimate of the average impact of microcredit on the poverty of clients is zero," he argues.

Roodman does find, though, that the while microcredit isn't a successful approach to poverty reduction, "it's not the financial equivalent of cigarettes." Wow. That's comforting.

Another reason for justifying microcredit is that it offers poor people, particularly women, greater control over their financial lives. Roodman says the evidence is mixed on that count too. Some women may have been empowered, but others have been forced to repay loans when it wasn't best for them. Cross-collateralization groups become burdensome, not emancipating, and at their worst, they lead to situations where people rob from each other to pay off their debts.

The third benefit is that microfinance represents a new industry that generates jobs and services. Roodman does say that the evidence is generally positive here. Microfinance institutions do "compete and innovate, cater to poor people, create jobs, and enrich the national economic fabric." According to Roodman, the cumulative amount of subsidized capital in microfinance by 2009 was $15.7 billion, and that has helped create a new industry. That's nice.

However, those billions could have helped create jobs in other industries, some of which — such as health, water, and sanitation — may have had a bigger impact on poverty than microfinance has had. To make a judgment, a comparative cost-benefit analysis would be necessary. And we couldn't throw in the benefit of poverty-reduction as a mitigating factor since that doesn't seem to be happening.

Let them eat cake.. or, umh, 3d printers…

Even more ambitious, a community of inventors has been working on producing a 3D printer that prints copies of its own parts—i.e., a self-replicating printer. This initiative is known as the RepRap project, and has an open-source policy. Many of these inventors pursue the project as a hobby, and thus hesitate to spend a few hundred dollars that might advance the project. A prize could cause team formation and resource pooling, accelerating the technology. Furthermore, the material used in the 3D printing process under RepRap need not be expensive; it can consist of some of the plastics causing environmental problems. Twenty seven million tons of plastic waste produced each year can be redeployed toward the productive use of personal manufacturing.

Like the editors of The Economist and increasingly many others, I believe that this technology could cause a massive paradigm shift in how low-cost manufacturing is done. A machine that could print just about any basic solid object of daily utility, and even print electrical circuits, is useful enough. If the same machine also could print 90 percent of the parts needed to build a copy of itself, then mass distribution of this “personal manufacturing” machine would be extremely efficient.

The K Prize for Personal Manufacturing will be awarded to the innovator who can produce a self-replicating 3D printer. The prize seeks to encourage collaboration and sharing among participants in the RepRap project. The prize of up to $100,000 will consist of an interim prize of $20,000 awarded at the end of 2012, and a grand prize of $80,000 awarded at the end of 2015. Please visit for details. I intend to demonstrate that with the right vision and incentives, a great deal can be accomplished to reduce poverty and spark an innovation economy in the developing world.

Here’s an idea. Let’s spend $20 000 (and eventually $80 000 more) on developing self-replicating 3D printers. Why? Clear as Delhi mud: so that poor people can use their non-existing electricity supply to produce recycled products from their non-existing supply of pelletized, easily re-processable recycled plastic waste. It will create a new base of the pyramid “personal manufacturing industry” where all those poor people can produce plastic items and thus get out of poverty! Yay! Score!

Now let’s have some cake.

Read the full hilarity at…

The Taxing Cost of Being Poor

Then there’s credit. The poor don’t have it. What they had was a place like First Cash Advance in D.C.’s Manor Park neighborhood, where a neon sign once flashed “PAYDAY ADVANCE.” Through the bulletproof glass, a cashier in white eyeliner and long white nails explained what you needed to get an advance on your paycheck — a pay stub, a legitimate ID, a checkbook. This meant you’re doing well enough to have a checking account, but you’re still poor.

And if you qualify, the fee for borrowing $300 is $46.50.

That was not for a year — it’s for seven days, although the terms can vary. How much interest will this payday loan cost you? In simple terms, the company is charging a $15.50 fee for every $100 that you borrow. On your $300 payday loan — borrowed for a term of seven days — the effective annual percentage rate is 806 percent.

The cost of being poor is apparent everywhere.

Can slums be good news?

The reversal of opinion about fast-growing cities, previously considered bad news, began with The Challenge of Slums, a 2003 UN-Habitat report. The book’s optimism derived from its groundbreaking fieldwork: 37 case studies in slums worldwide. Instead of just compiling numbers and filtering them through theory, researchers hung out in the slums and talked to people. They came back with an unexpected observation: “Cities are so much more successful in promoting new forms of income generation, and it is so much cheaper to provide services in urban areas, that some experts have actually suggested that the only realistic poverty reduction strategy is to get as many people as possible to move to the city.

While slums clearly are places where living standards often are way below what we think is adequate for humans, and there are huge challenges to informal urban living to be faced, they might be a positive phenomenon.