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Living on a Dollar a Day

There is a fascinating (and moving) story on NPR on what it is like to “live on a dollar a day” in Malawi. Many development experts talk about the tens of millions of people on the planet who live on one or two dollars a day. But it’s hard to feel the full force of the numbers without looking at the “balance sheet” of a poor family like the Phiris.

Stories like this underline the urgency of events like the Yale Access to Knowledge Conference. While knowledge on topics like agriculture may be of the most relevance now, I think the extraordinary poverty of families like the Phiris should also lead to more consensus on the ideal of not charging (or charging very nominal amounts) for IP that might improve their lives.

As Nicholas Kristof’s excellent review of recent books on the topic suggests, a skeptic might worry that “free IP” policies have bad unintended consequences, such as undermining local creators and retailers of IP. I can understand tragic tradeoffs between short and long-term welfare in, say, the farming sector; aid now may well undercut the development of farming long-term. But the extraordinary privation of a family like the Phiris illuminates how hard it would be to squeeze extra money out of people like them for things like computer software, music, or wireless equipment. Given their poverty, time-limited and targeted relaxations of IP protections might vastly improve their life prospects, while only trivially reducing incentives to create and invent.