Magazine article Foreign Policy

What's an African Life Worth?

Magazine article Foreign Policy

What's an African Life Worth?

Article excerpt

THE JOURNEY BETWEEN SIERRA LEONE'S LUNGI International Airport and the country's capital, Freetown, isn't your average commute. Travelers must cross the Sierra Leone River--roughly 10 miles across at its widest point. But there's no bridge and no real ground transport options to speak of. Instead, travelers must choose among four--ferry, helicopter, water taxi, or hovercraft--none of which are particularly safe. The river can be rough, and at night, many crossings are made without lights or proper navigation systems. Newspapers are littered with stories of near misses between overcrowded ferries, while the helicopters are old and unreliable (one 2007 crash killed 19, including a Togolese government minister).

Economists Gianmarco Leon of Spain's Universitat Pompeu Fabra and Edward Miguel of the University of California, Berkeley, looked at this unique urban-planning challenge and saw the makings of a natural experiment to address the question: What do travelers' transport choices say about the value they place on their own lives?

Leon and his staff collected data from Sierra Leone in 2010 and 2012, crossing the river on all the various modes of transport. "It was an adventure," says Leon.

They looked at who chose the cheap, slow, but safer ferry option; who opted for the pricey, fast, but crash-prone helicopter; and everything in between, in an effort to gauge how travelers weighed safety against both price and time. What they found was a disparity in measures of the worth that the average traveler places on his or her life--a figure that economists refer to as the "value of a statistical life" (VSL): African travelers' VSL was $577,000; non-Africans' was $924,000.

Getting an accurate measure of VSL is more than just an academic exercise or a line on an actuarial table; it's a commonly used, if somewhat morbid, cost-benefit analysis tool used by everyone from urban planners to environmental engineers in order to justify investments. …

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