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 León 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?
León 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 León.
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
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. The U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency values a life saved at $7.4 million when assessing projects
related to the Safe Drinking Water Act; the California Department of
Transportation weighs the $2.7 million VSL
against the cost of, say, building a safer freeway.
There are far fewer estimates for developing countries, but the
need for them is no less pressing, the study's authors explain. "When you look
at Africa, there are massive amounts of foreign aid that are flowing in," León
says. "The governments have money, and they have to decide where to put it. If
you don't have policy instruments such as a reliable VSL estimate, you might be misallocating."
Putting their new estimate at
policymakers' disposal, the authors argue, goes some way toward justifying
investment in a new $300 million airport on the Freetown side of the river; the
present value in future lives saved accounts for about 20 percent of the cost,
The flip side, of course, is
that sometimes investments that could save lives, when put to the test, don't
justify the costs. Policymakers and academics have puzzled over why there
appears to be reluctance in developing countries to invest in lifesaving health
measures such as deworming and water quality protection. Greater understanding
of VSL could tell us why.
The authors note that as
African incomes continue to rise, riding the continent's economic boom, logic
dictates that investments in lifesaving technology will grow to encompass
everything from malaria eradication to monorails. In the meantime, if you're
flying into the Lungi airport, brace yourself for a bumpy ride into town.
Illustration by Mitch Blunt