The story of Plumpy’Nut – peanut butter fortified with vitamins and minerals and sweetened for taste, which allows children with severe malnutrition to be “treated” at home – raises many issues, but two of them stood out to me:
– Why is there no mechanism by which patents such as this can be bought up in the public interest, either by governments or by foundations? I’m delighted that the folks who figure out how to make the stuff and get it to market are getting rich; allowing people to get rich is one way of encouraging them to solve problems. The implicit message that it’s OK to get rich making crap rich people like, but not serving the desperate needs of poor people, strike me as morally disgusting. But, on the other hand, monopoly rents are always inefficient compared to lump-sum payments. If an agency or a foundation can figure out what sort of innovation is needed, it can offer a prize for developing it, and put the patent in the public domain. But where, as in this case, the invention comes out of the blue, there ought to be a negotiation where the patent-holder takes a lump sum in lieu of monopoly rents.
– Can’t we get rid of the rule that American foreign aid has to deliver American-made products? Losing the political muscle of foreign-aid vendors in support of the aid budget would be a problem, but the current rules pointlessly inflate costs and deprive the aid effort what ought to be its complementary goal of stimulating economic activity in countries poor enough to need aid.