Complexity 101: behind the hype, what do we actually know?

November 5, 2013

Complexity 101 – part 2: Getting to the So Whats

November 5, 2013

Should India be sending a rocket to Mars when 40% of children are malnourished? Vote now.

November 5, 2013
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We interrupt complexity week with a quick question – what do you think about India’s Mars space  project? The Indian SpaceIndia space launch Research Organisation today launches a rocket which it hopes will get to Mars before the Chinese space programme – BRICS in space.

Cue lots of outrage – in a country where 40% of children are malnourished and half the population have no toilets, wouldn’t the mission’s $70m budget be better spent on feeding the hungry? Or on fixing the energy system – more than 600 million Indians were hit this week by the world’s worst power cut.

And of course grist to the mill of aid opponents – how can we justify the UK’s tiny aid budget to an India that so misallocates its resources?

But then I got to thinking. Isn’t the opposition a bit reductionist – like saying poor people should spend all their cash on food and drink, and never have any fun, or celebrations, or ritual life of any kind? We’ve moved on from that, thinking about wellbeing and the multi-faceted nature of living in poverty (including not having enough fun). Remember cash for coffins?

So why shouldn’t that apply to countries too? The money is tiny ($70m is just a drop in the ocean of India’s welfare spending), and the impact on national identity, sense of possibility etc might be substantial, with unpredictable knock-on effects on governance, accountability etc.

So what do you think? Should India scrap its Mars mission and spend the money on reducing poverty and feeding the hungry? Vote now. (And yes I fully realize voting on this is just as daft as asking blog readers elsewhere to vote on UK or US government spending decisions, but I’m just interested in what you think).

Update: for an altogether more vituperative response, check out this fantastic rant from Balaji Viswanathan [h/t Makarand]


    1. The international space program? cost? billions, purpose? minimal
      Landing a man on the moon? cost billions, purpose? unknown, considering the US invaded Vietnam the following year and left the nation in debt.
      Mars direct program of 2001? cancelled, thanks to NASA’s internal bureaucracy.

      The cost of any space program will always outweigh the generation of new products being commercially released a later while billions spend in war will surely only create debt for future generations.

    2. Helium 3, mined from the moon’s surface would pay for the entire US space program, not including the sheer amount of new commercially applicable technology this new space race would create down the line.

      what the hell do I know, lets invade Iran instead and steal their wealth, then jack up student tuition rate to create even further undergraduate college debt so future generations can pay for our mistakes.

  1. ‘We interrupt complexity week with a quick question’ – you ARE being funny here, right? Made me laugh anyway.

  2. Is it too naive to wonder why a project to send a rocket to Mars impacts national identity ,gives sense of possibilty etc but a project to give everyone access to a toilet doesn’t ?

  3. The bigger question is can India put all that money in a leaky system that has failed to provide nutrition or education or raise awareness to use toilets (we’ve built the toilets, we just can’t get people to use them)? Without building capacity to spend, monitor and evaluate, is the money better used to orbit Mars. (Cue: complexity theory?)

    1. America should learn to stay the hell out of other nation’s internal issues and mind their own problem. (Chicago, New Orleans, Ferguson, just to name a few).

      2015, USA, a nation where undergraduate college loan debt is now higher than that of personal credit card debt and yet only 40% of the population hold a undergraduate degree, many even an degree in sciences. India space program is a fine example of what happens when nation born foreigners, stop immigrated to the USA for employment, and choose instead to stay at home in their own nations.

      India now has their own silicon valley, they own internally built navy, nuclear power, space program, and a population well over that of the USA. India graduates more Engineers in one single year than the USA does in a decade. India is today industrially and economically where the USA was in the early 1940’s … for a former colony, they are doing damn good.

      The West (US/Britain) will always complaint what they can’t control. Face it, if Indians where to stop immigrating to the USA for a fictional better life, US corporations would crumble.

    1. America’s space shuttle program was a complete financial blunder and it only managed to reach low orbit. When it shuttle program was shut down, US astronauts had to hitch a ride in Russian rockets.

      The International space program cost billions and what did it really accomplished? How many billions has the USA spend the last decade building new military toys for all their branches only to realize it would cost billions to ship them back home? F22 program, F-35 program waste of money. How many billions were used to bailouts all the american banks? list goes on.

      If India could print money out of thin air like the USA does, or had all the money the USA wasted in the last decade in war, they would have put a man on mars by now…. like the war on drugs America, enjoy that everlasting war on terrorist that will only plunder your nation into more debt.

  4. As someone who has criticized the US space program as – largely – a waste and a boondoggle for big engineering contractors, I would say India could do more useful things with its. money. I suppose a space program is innocuous and maybe even has some use, when compared to other aspiring super-power bling, like nuclear weapons or hosting the Olympics. But even still, the research and engineering dollar – which are very scarce – could deliver much bigger returns in fields like medtech, vaccines, agriculture, etc etc etc.

    national pride is valuable. I’m proud the US achieved what it has in space. But, happy to move on to newer and bigger challenges right here. India could show us the way.

    1. The US space program was NOT a waste!

      Where the hell do you think inspire the an entire generation of engineers that created things like the microchip, satellites, cell phones, GPS, computer, …. They all came from a generation of ppl living during the first space race.

      Sadly today the US focus on more stuff like Gauss cannons while nations like Japan use the same technology to improve their mass transportation.

      India is sending rockets to mars, china wants to put an astronaut on the moon, japan is to follow, Russia is not far behind, the EU and the US are stagnant with their wars.

  5. When U.S went to the moon 21% of the U.S was below the poverty line. How come folks conveniently ignore this question? Well, lets face it, just because someone does not have running water, it does not mean they cannot dream.

    1. Double standard BS that has plagued a western dominated world for centuries.

      Americans new media cry about Vietnamese consuming dogs for food while the US SPCA euthanizes 90% of the straight animals caught in streets of America, or while they slaughter 40 million cows every year for food.

      double standards.

      Mining the moon for Helium 3 which will one day power fusion reactors could pay for the entire space program, but easier to just invade nations on earth and steal their wealth while we continue to further pollute our world and expand the GMO markets through IMF international loans (Ukraine).

  6. I love voting so mine’s a ‘Yes!’. The cost is about 5% of the Indian government’s annual spend on emergencies alone – nothing. Does India have a domestic term for their space-people that adds to the cosmonaut, astronaut, taikonaut collection?? It’s all hugely exciting…

  7. Not only India, any country who have unfed children, elders or unemployed generation, should not spend on such issues.

    1. Spain had poverty when the Spanish crown financed Columbus exploration … had they listened to you, … where would we be right now.

  8. The Indian Space Research Organisation has focused primarily on developing satellite technology, which as well as being vital for mapping its natural resources and for advancing its burgeoning communications industry, also allows it to earn money from launching satellites on behalf of other nations. The fact that it is estimated that US economy gains $8 for every $1 of tax payers money invested in NASA’s budget shows that this is a legitimate investment for such a large developing economy.

    It is all about leveraging current resources to generate enough income to make a genuine difference.

    I have written about this subject at some length at

    1. If the USA was to mine the moon for helium 3, it would pay for the entire program and then some.

  9. Nothing but veiled racism at display here. How dare Brown people go to space when we are cutting our spending on shuttles. Solve your potty problems first. Become a poverty superpower. How dare you innovate and aim for the sky? Its White mans world. ….

  10. We could say the same of many “First World” countries. Australia has failed its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people miserably despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the world and a relatively equitable one.

    Poverty and human rights in the so called “Third World” countries have become big issues of concern to Britain and other Western countries ever since they lost direct control of their colonies. Isn’t it ironic that Amnesty International was set up by a British lawyer after the Brits got booted out of India and elsewhere?

    This is not to excuse the failure of India and other countries to address inequities and poverty but this does not not excuse Western stances.

    And speaking about aid has anyone done a cost-benefit analysis of who benefits more, the recipient or the donor countries (in terms of “aid” creating a market for goods and services)?

    1. The aboriginal people need to help themselves first. They get more government help than non indigenous people and squander it on alcohol and drugs.

      From an Aussie.

          1. I would like to see you respond.

            Why does colour divide how much government assistance people get?

            If Australia is a first world country then shouldn’t indigenous people be able to live and make a contribution to society the same as non indigenous?

            As i said before:
            Why should the government payment be any different ?

          2. I think you are working on the assumption that the so-called First World countries are fully equitable, with no barriers faced by any group. For a start, let us remember that the wealth of so-called First World countries depends to quite a extent on exploiting so-called Third World countries (the name invented for former colonies after the Brits and other Europeans were booted out).

            Australia is one of the more equitable countries in the world, which is why the position of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is so concerning. Other comparable countries such as Canada, New Zealand and even the US have done far better in reducing the lifespan gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. None of these countries had to have a referendum to decide if the First Nations could be considered citizens, a bizarre situation considering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have lived in Australia for 60,000 years and are considered the oldest living culture in the world!

            Re spending: the concerns are about how the money on Indigenous programs is being spent not the amount.

            Indigenous people share these concerns. I wonder if you are aware that many have never been paid for the work extracted from them by white employers: the issue of the ‘Stolen Wages’ is not well known.

            About excessive alcohol and drug: the reality is that the percentage of Aboriginal people who drink excessive alcohol is lower than whites. ‘Work hard and drink hard’ is the Aussie way. There are many Indigenous groups including the Grandmother’s groups in the Northern Territory who have formed self-help groups to control the damage done by alcohol and supported government measures to keep communities dry.

            Yes of course Indigenous people should be able to live and make a contribution to society the same as non-Indigenous, the same as people with a disability and people with a mental illness who are also very marginalized. Are you going to argue that there should be no National Disability Insurance Scheme or services and supports for people with a mental illness? Should women stop asking for equal pay for equal work and protection against domestic violence and child abuse?

            I think the aim is to work with groups (rather than for them which doesn’t work) to lift them up. The many fine Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health, education and other professional and community leaders that I have had the privilege to meet and sometimes work with all espouse this. Unfortunately their achievements are not well known to the wider public. The media (both print and non-print) doesn’t help, neither do groups like OXFAM which should have responded to your message.

        1. I love how everything you have written which you are taking as gospel is from the Internet.

          I live here and see it first hand every day.
          What you have said about “work hard and drink hard” is the typical Indian view of Aussies and cannot be further from the truth. I know more about this than you may think…being married to an indian and all…

          If there is no problem with alcohol in indigenous communities then why has tbe government banned sales of alcohol in certain towns to curb the indigenous people drinking?
          Do you know about petrol being banned as well due to substance abuse?
          Yes our government made mistakes in the past, but they have given the indigenous aussies more than they deserve.
          Who else gets free cars to help them out only to trash them a week later and ask for another one?
          Try finding that on the net mate.
          Maybe step out from behind the keyboard and come here and experience it first hand and then tell me i am wrong…
          Btw I am happy to not be an “anonymous aussie” and give you my email if you really want to discuss this further.

          1. Yes I am aware of the issues of alcohol and petrol abuse in Aboriginal communities as well as high rates of violence and child abuse, I was simply saying that the rates aren’t higher than others. I say this from several years of experience of working in the area of Aboriginal health with white and Aboriginal colleagues in Australia, being married to a white Australian who shares our concerns and also working in a generic health promotion area where alcohol consumption and its links to violence and abuse in all communities has become a real concern. The only reason I gave an internet link was that its easiest to access.There’s plenty of well researched evidence on the AIHW and other Australian sites to support what I’m saying.

  11. I think the Indian government have their priorities mixed up.
    Beyond comprehension in fact !
    When their people are living in poverty, they are disregarding their responsibilities to their people by engaging in a misguided attempt at a show of power.
    Contemptuous, incredulous and bizarre !

      1. Thanks Indrani, I suspect that even if this happy event occurred, Oxfam India, (which is 100% Indian run btw and as far as I know is the only part of Oxfam working there) would still have plenty of work to do on caste, gender, inequality etc. Not handing in their notice quite yet….. for more

        1. No doubt, but I prefer to support Indian NGOs like the Voluntary Health Association of India and SEWA to name just a couple.

          1. I think you are evading the hard questions asked Duncan. It would have been good if you had responded to the Anonymous Aussie claiming Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are being given special favours and that they are solely responsible for the miserable conditions many of them live. Now if Indians had claimed that the positive discrimination legislation in India which along with democratic voting traditions has enabled a small group of marginalised members of Indian society (including the present Prime Minister) to overcome the barriers posed by caste, class, gender and religion, was discriminatory, we would have had a plethora of articles by OXFAM etc. on the big bad Indians.

            The silence on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander status is disappointing but not surprising. I understand Community Aid Abroad which was the previous incarnation of OXFAM-Australia only started its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs after being queried by Indian NGOs about why they had nothing for their own Indigenous peoples. My Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander friends and colleagues who have worked tirelessly to improve the lot of their people, have mixed feelings about the worth of OXFAM programs. Many still consider it a top-down carrying the white man’s burden sort of enterprise.

            I agree that inequities in India will persist for a long time, but Indians have to find their own solutions. One last query: if you are concerned about gender inequities, why do you deify white missionaries like Mother Teresa who has done good palliative work, but was strongly opposed to women participating in the paid workforce or even having access to contraception and MTPs.She also seemed to have no qualms about collecting money from dictators and supported the infamous Emergency!

            Could ask lots more questions but would be wasting my time I think.

    1. So why do you keep inflicting the antics of the British Royal Family on the rest of the world but ignore the facts of British and other Western exploitation of millions of people around the globe? And how do you explain that despite its overpopulation and poverty India has been far more generous in accommodating millions of refugees than wealthy countries like Australia?

  12. Would OXFAM have been established if India had remained a British colony? It is ironic how poverty and human rights in India, Africa etc. have become huge issues for the West and spawned a massive Save the Third World industry.

    And how many of people who rabbit on about poverty in India, Africa etc. would be willing to pay a fair price? I refer to both Indians and Westerners.

  13. Why is it that when india does something like this, the whites bring up poverty.
    Why don’t they do the same when india buys fighter jets and weapons worth billions.
    You guessed it. It is in the western world interest!
    I remember when UK was pushing india to buy the Eurofighter, all the poverty and sanitation problems were conveniently forgotten.
    Space programs create jobs and enhance ancillary industries.
    If nothing else, it will inspire the young people to aspire and take up science.

    1. Hear Hear! You’ve hit the nail right on the head. Who cared about poverty in India and elsewhere when they were colonies?

  14. What a ridiculous question ! Especially when the USA and its partners have made no use of the international space station which cost BILLIONS and years to build. FYY, remember Mars Direct program established by those 2 engineers? Their project castrated by NASA bureaucracy. India has achieved with less money what America & Britain puppeteers didn’t want to do.

    (how much money does the west spend invading nations illegally only to steal their wealth?, while they further impoverished their own citizens? Over 40% of the US population live in food stamps, while the USA continues to spend billions in new weapons).

    Planet earth is in need of a second space race, which ppl today using cell phones, GPS, computers, and electronics take 4 granted.

  15. India has had a space program since the 1960s – most of it dedicated to launching satellites for things like remote sensing, agriculture, communications, disaster warning etc. That space program has done more for India’s poverty alleviation than all the altruism in the world.

    For decades India has channelled huge chunks of its GDP into fuel, food, power and shelter subsidies for the poorest of the poor and none of it has worked. If poverty is the ABSENCE OF WEALTH, then the ONLY way to fight it is to CREATE WEALTH. And that means progress, development, industrialization… and space programs. This Mars Mission is just part of India’s investment into its future – and is exactly what will lift that country’s people out of poverty very soon.

    Quid pro quo – some other misconceptions about India:
    India’s F1 grand prix is the only race in the world that has 100% private investment with no government assistance whatsoever. SO do not bring that up.
    Also, If a poor country like India with a democratically elected government has to scrabble for funds to spend on expensive things like fighter jets and aircraft carriers – you can bet your last dime that those are indispensable for that country’s security scenario.

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