By Layla Abi-Falah ’17
Layla Abi-Falah ’17 and six other William & Mary students found themselves in the middle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Morss Hall, surrounded by some of the world’s greatest students, entrepreneurs, innovators, development experts and field practitioners. Since 2013, the Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN) – a partnership between USAID and seven universities channeling the ingenuity of students, researchers, and professors toward global development – has held an annual Technical Convening (TechCon), uniting development enthusiasts to share and improve solutions for critical challenges. This was TechCon 2016 and seven W&M students and ten faculty and staff members were there to experience it all.
They met a student from Pretoria who created a brick made of paper, designed to aid the fight against poverty and homelessness in Sub-Saharan Africa. They met a woman from Kampala who developed a foot-operated water tap as a no touch, cost-effective solution to save water and reduce the spread of diseases. Abi-Falah was especially moved by Betty Ikalany, a social entrepreneur. In Uganda, her home, she saw the lives of women and children threatened by toxic fumes from firewood and other fuels. Ikalany wanted the women of Uganda’s Soroti District to ‘stop crying’: so, she founded the Appropriate Energy Saving Technologies (AEST Ltd.), an organization that sells cooking stoves and charcoal briquettes made from recycled agricultural waste as a safer and more efficient alternative.
Students, including Abi-Falah, competed in TechCon’s Innovation Marketplace. Abi-Falah was one of four W&M student teams seeking USAID’s funding for an innovative insight or solution to a development issue. Abi-Falah works as a research assistant for Professor Phil Roessler and the Center for African Development in search of an explanation to the observable phenomenon of sub-national spatial inequality – extreme subnational variation in levels of development – that plagues Sub-Saharan Africa.
Abi-Falah brought to Morss Hall their new study that uses an innovative, first-of-its kind dataset of the economic footprint of colonialism to analyze the effect of armed conflict on primary commodity production, illustrating how post-colonial civil wars have largely erased the localized path-dependent effects of colonial extraction. They found that uneven development is rooted in the organization of colonial states and the specialization in a few primary commodities, which has had a path-dependent effect on current day development. Cash crop production spurred the need for cultivation, extraction and processing, provision of electricity and other public services, infrastructure for export of crops and minerals, and public administration in limited areas, but left most of the state marginalized and underdeveloped. After independence, colonialism’s legacy led some countries to experience large-scale political violence.
This project, much like the work of Aili Espigh and Caleb Ebert, Leigh Seitz and Graeme Cranston-Cuebas, grew out of the work of various Institute for the Theory & Practice of International Relations (ITPIR) projects. ITPIR is a perfect example of the bridge between academia and the policy world, and that bridge was what TechCon’s Innovation Marketplace was all about. It should come as no surprise that winners of ITPIR’s Shark Tank research competition, Aili Espigh and Caleb Ebert, were finalists at TechCon 2016 for their work on open source aid tracking during humanitarian crises.
In the heart of MIT’s campus, W&M students, faculty, and staff made their voices heard on the global development stage. They contributed to a range of important issues from the use of mobile phones as development tools, to the importance of making data-driven decisions when facing pressing development problems – seventeen out of hundreds of participants from all over the world to share their successes, findings and questions.