A recent article was published about the causes and effects of the spreading incurable disease, called konzo in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The author commemorates the Swedish epidemiologist and statistician Hans Rosling, who in 1990 first pointed out the connection between the epidemics of permanent paralysis and a staple crop called cassava which can contain cyanide. Besides this definitive scientific discovery, Mr. Rosling also emphasized those negative external impacts which contribute to konzo becoming one of the main sources of death from foodborne disease in the African Region, namely the political instability, the economic underdevelopment, the lack of infrastructure and malnutrition in DRC. All of these work to increase the social discount rate – in this case to such high levels that a week of waiting for safer food is too long.
Cassava is cultivated as one of the main food crops in the Democratic Republic of Congo, especially during the dry season (which happens between June and September, South of the Equator and December and March, North of the Equator). The concern with consuming cassava is that it has to be soaked in a stream for a week before it is processed, in order to wash out the accumulated cyanide from the tuber. Although this practice can enhance the safe use of this staple crop, locals usually cannot follow this simple-sounding procedure due to militias’ prowls which carry violence and devastate infields, as well as to a lack of both information and infrastructure.
The social discount rate (SDR) concept is used by economists in cost-benefit analysis of social projects for calculating the present value of future costs and benefits that arise throughout the lifetime of the project and making them comparable to the initial investment costs. Its goal is to capture the intertemporal tradeoffs inherent in having to wait for the acquisition of goods and services, often in the forms payoffs from social investments. The future expectations can highly influence SDR, as increasing uncertainties raise the discount rate, while the “positive” prospects decrease it. When the social discount rate is higher, the present value of future benefits decreases, therefore these social projects become less economically attractive, just as on the individual scale, waiting for cassava to be safer becomes less attractive.
But discussion of the concept of SDR in the context of untreated cassava includes more than just the parallel of expensive waiting.
Although konzo is an incurable disease today, there exists a treatment of cassava, which can prevent the further spread of the epidemic. However the above discussed external factors do not allow locals to consume the crop in the right way. Neither on short nor on the long-run. It is straightforward that the everyday violence makes it more difficult for the farmers to wait until the tuber is soaked and becomes edible, since the present toxic consumption is overrated against the possibly foregone future healthy meal. Moreover, the lack of information about the proper treatment of the crop further deepens the problem, and even if the knowledge is shared, those inhabitants who are already affected by the disease – and can barely walk – are not able to approach the streams in order safely treat cassava.
While uncertainty and insecurity has adverse impacts on the short-run, the high discount rate of individual’s impact on health and population is transferred to the social discount rate and makes it less feasible to invest in social projects on the long-run – e.g. infrastructure and education – which could stop the further spread of the disease. It indicates that the society is in a downward spiral which has to be halted – not only with the operative, essential infrastructure projects – but also by overcoming the local militias and therefore by restoring public security and confidence.
In a safer environment a lower social discount rate can increase the willingness to invest in those projects that can contribute to raising the quality of life in DRC.
“Fear is the path to the dark side…fear leads to anger…anger leads to hate…hate leads to suffering.” (Yoda, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace)
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