A few weeks ago I wondered whether the yellow water bucket that we associate with poverty might actually symbolize respect for a limited resource.

Today I’m wondering whether places that lack “conveniences” are actually better off than we are. What begins as convenience ends up as infrastructure, like the one that locks us into using too much water every single day. So many interests are invested in this system that changing it is very, very difficult.

In the yellow bucket world, infrastructure is scarce and innovation is abundant. Greenfield is an emerging term for a place with little infrastructure. Says Wikipedia, “the analogy is to that of construction on greenfield land where there is no need to remodel or demolish an existing structure.”

In mobile technology, the African continent was a greenfield.  With few telephone poles and landlines, African countries quickly adapted cell phone technology, and today lead the world in mobile commerce. In places like Uganda, you can do all kinds of cool things on a phone—transfer cash, check the market price for your fish, text money to your family—without signing up for a pricey two-year contract!

In mobile commerce, African countries have leapfrogged many developed nations.

Leapfrogging is the process through which developing countries can actually develop faster, notes Wikipedia, “by skipping inferior, less efficient, more expensive or more polluting technologies and industries and move directly to more advanced ones… avoid environmentally harmful stages of development and [without needing to] follow the polluting development trajectory of industrialized countries.”

In other words, our “less developed” companions in ministry are poised to leapfrog, from their greenfields, right over us and our well-entrenched, wasteful, polluting ways!

So, who advises whom? Do we go on raising money to “fix problems” in other places, or do we start confessing that we’re stuck in a system that consumes too much of absolutely everything, and open ourselves to learning from—and celebrating—the leapfroggers? I’ve been feeling pretty pleased about the new, high-tech solartube in my roof, designed to brighten a dark hallway with daylight instead of a lightbulb. Looking around for examples for this post, I discovered that a plastic water bottle would have been just as effective, and cheaper. Wow!

Wouldn’t it be nice if, every time we launched a faith-based “development project,” we started by searching for leapfrog technologies to see what we could learn? Instead of raising money for 100 wells in African countries by actually wasting water (dunk tanks, throwing water balloons), could our next campaign give equal time to–or even showcase–the wisdom of companions on how to replace systems and habits that waste water  with something more efficient and respectful?

Yesterday, the New York Times posted a blog post called “What We Can Learn from Third World Healthcare.”  The theme is the same. We spend billions on medical bells and whistles, yet our health metrics are simply terrible. Concludes the blog’s author: “In other words, we have yet to deploy what could prove to be the most powerful weapon in the fight to contain costs and improve the quality of health care: our own humility.”

The world is telling us we’re not so very wise. Instead of being defensive about our way of life, shall we smile and join the leapfrog game?


Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity