In Box

What's an African Life Worth?

What crocodile-infested rivers and hovercrafts tell us about how people value their own safety.

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 $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. 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, for example.

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

In Box

The Middle-Class Syrian Refugee

What do you carry when you've left a life behind?

Abdel Baset Bushi, 56, hails from the Syrian city of Binnish, in northern Idlib province. Before the war, he used to travel regularly between Beirut and his hometown for both work and play. These days, however, he finds himself stuck in the Lebanese capital. "I've been here for one year," he says, sitting on a bench along Beirut's seaside corniche.

Bushi and his family fled Syria last year, when the regime's bombardment of Binnish became too intense. In his hometown, he was the owner of a photography and video business. But in Lebanon, he is unemployed and lives with his family of four grown sons and their children in three small rooms of a flat in Beirut's Borj Abi Haidar neighborhood. "It's cramped, but the most important thing is that we're not afraid of the artillery, the warplanes, anymore," he says.

According to the U.N., more than 800,000 Syrian refugees are in Lebanon. The scope of the crisis has put an enormous strain on Lebanon's domestic politics, its humanitarian assistance efforts, and the local economy. "The cost of living here is impossible," Bushi says. "We used to receive food vouchers from the U.N., but they stopped them."

These days, Bushi has taken up a cost-free hobby. To pass time, he walks across Beirut, including along its beautiful Mediterranean coastline. He says he does not support the rebels or the regime. "Both sides are bad," he says, looking out at the sea.

Home, for now, is where he ends up. He hopes to be resettled along with his family somewhere in the West, but isn't picky about his final destination. "We would go anywhere, really."