Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

'Vision' for development practice education

By David Zilberman

In 2009 UC Berkeley received a grant from the Macarthur Foundation to establish a professional Master degree in development practice (MDP) and after overcoming all of the bureaucratic hurdles, the first cohort joined campus this fall.

The MDP is, in essence, an MBA in sustainable development. It includes classes in development and resource economics, project management, impact assessment, basics in natural and social economics, public health, community development and leadership, political economy and climate change. It also requires a ten week internship in the field in a developing country, working with practitioners on the ground in various area such as agriculture, public health, education, infrastructure among others. The first cohort includes 15 students, 8 international 7 domestic, including two MasterCard scholars from Kenya and Ghana.

Last week, we held our inaugural reception for the MDP. While we were planning for this event, we had a dilemma: who should be our keynote speaker? Conventional wisdom told us to enlist development leaders and policymakers. But we decided to go a different route, and to have an inventor and entrepreneur that would come with new ideas that can make a difference in the lives of many.

We selected Josh Silver, an Oxford professor of physics who invented self-adjusting glasses. The basic concept is simple; if you put liquid between two pieces of plastic, you can create refractory lenses by trial and error. But Josh’s genius is in the detail that makes this concept work. Tens of thousands of his glasses are already in use and his goal is to distribute one billion by 2020. The cost of the glasses is likely to be under $10.

This concept and its implementation, glasses for the poor, represent the essence of the MDP. Vision care is not a priority for public health or medicine, yet 40% of all people in the world need vision correction and most cannot afford it. This results in numerous deaths from car accidents, billions of dollars in loss of productivity if people are not able to work, and millions of dreams that are shattered if people cannot fulfill their educational aspirations.

The standard approach to vision correction, in developed countries, is to visit your local optometris, and pay the high costs of lenses and frames, not to mention the exam. When I visited my optometrist, I realized his motto is ‘you deserve Armani’. But the motto should be ‘you deserve to see’.

Transferring that model of vision correction is very costly and does not solve the needs of the poor. In some countries there is one optometrist per million people, but ingenious self-health, based on applying advanced science for a simple solution, is the essence of development practice. Actually, once it is applied I would not be surprised to see self-adjusting glasses in the developed world.

The Berkeley MDP aims to educate our students to dare to attack big problems, taking advantage of cutting-edge knowledge to bring forth practical and affordable solutions for the world.