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The 50 Most Effective Ways To Transform The Developing World

Students use tablets in a classroom in Mae Chan, a remote town in Thailand's northern province.
Christophe Archambault
AFP/Getty Images
Students use tablets in a classroom in Mae Chan, a remote town in Thailand's northern province.

There are so many projects in global health that sometimes it's hard to figure out which ones are the most important.

So Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory set out to list the 50 breakthroughs that would most transform the lives of the poor, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Shashi Buluswar, an author of the study, spoke with Morning Edition's Renee Montagne. Here's a sampling:

A low cost, fuel-free way to desalinate water. Many people in the world do not have enough fresh water to grow crops, and more and more fresh water runs off into oceans. Desalination creates usable water out of salty or brackish sources. "Right now it's tremendously energy intensive and expensive," Buluswar tells Montagne, "so trying to come up with a much more affordable, scalable and energy-efficient way of desalinating water would be tremendous."

Vaccines to control and one day stop HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. Treating people with these diseases is a huge burden for low income countries. But researchers only know so much about the pathogens that cause each one. Take malaria, for example. "A lot of money has gone into it right now, but the malaria parasite is such a complicated beast that it's been very difficult to come up with something," says Buluswar. "It's quite likely that in the next couple of years there'll be a partially effective vaccine, but we're still a long way from vaccines for HIV/AIDS, malaria and TB."

Electronic textbooks that adapt to user's skills and language ability. An affordable tablet would help students connect to the Internet and tailor material to their needs.

Affordable smartphones. The best ones would support Internet and require minimal electricity to charge. "We've all heard stories about how mobile technologies and mobile phones have really made a tremendous improvement in the lives of the poor in places like sub-Saharan Africa," says Buluswar. "But there is increasing recognition that the functionality you get with a smartphone ... really could make a substantially greater difference."

New materials for building durable, lightweight, affordable homes. Many of the urban poor live in homes made from recycled materials, but ventilation is minimal and there's rarely running water or sanitation. Upgrading these homes can reduce the spread of TB, diarrhea and pneumonia, among other diseases.

Low-cost fertilizers that don't depend on natural gas. It's expensive to turn nitrogen into fertilizer, and it can only happen near natural gas sources. Right now African farmers have to buy their fertilizer from international sources, which makes the food they grow very expensive, especially when fossil fuels jump in price.

Cheap, fast mini-grids that could provide energy to rural areas. Buluswar and his colleagues envision a "utility-in-a-box," a bundle of parts that would be easy to set up and run on renewable sources.

A groundwater sensor to find water and a cheap drill to build a well. Wells are expensive to dig, especially if you drill in the wrong place. "If we were able to build a sensor that could tell you how deep water is under the ground," says Buluswar, "that can make digging, and hence irrigation, much more affordable."

A low-cost, DNA-based rape kit. Without evidence, it's tough to hold perpetrators accountable for their acts. "Now, if you could actually go to a clinic and have a clinician, a nurse, or someone like that, actually collect the evidence, it is no longer a case of he said, she said," says Buluswar.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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