Giving a child an Ant farm covers many bases in early childhood development. Ant farms teach biology and keep children engaged while they gain a sense of responsibility as they watch over their little pets.
The Ant Farm is really a child’s version of a formicarium, or laboratory used to study ant life. Children’s ant farms include whimsical scenes of buildings and trees and have sold in the millions throughout the years. But the study of working ants in a formicarium is really an important part of both social and biological science.
Myrmecologists (they really do have a name for ant researchers) are serious about their study of ants, and they are particularly interested in how ants work to get things done…
Containing ants inside a formicarium can be a challenge. Many ant observers use slippery surfaces to make escape difficult, while others have found that isolating ants with a water moat is the most effective way to keep the ants “down on the farm”. Despite these efforts, some species of ants can build bridges of debris or dirt over the impediments and mount an escape from the confines of the farm. Billions of ants exist working under the watchful eye of some caretaker, and ants never escape the farm because they don’t know any other life. They remain trapped.
Now, let me share 27-seconds of workers observed in the modern internet formicarium we call YouTube:
Sadly, in the poorest nations, we treat local construction observations like a child would do while watching the ants in the farm. We find the teamwork and ingenuity fascinating, so we share our findings with our friends. We say things like “they are working like an army of ants” or we observe the workers demonstrating a “quaint traditional practice” that they only use in poor countries.
Our attitude seems to conform to the thinking that ants will always work like ants, and the poor will always work like the poor. Even when we observe several problems on the “farm”, we still surround the ants with restrictive moats because it is just so interesting to observe this behavior. In fact, many times we jump at the opportunity to volunteer our labors to join the work of the “ants”. We take pictures of our effort and share them proudly when we get back home. Unfortunately the workers of poverty are trapped in their environment and don’t have an easy way to escape.
In a labor discussion, we say that ants work cheaply and don’t seem to complain much. We find it easy to say that labor is cheap in developing countries, so we will just throw more bodies at the project rather than attempt greater efficiency. We justify the “ant farm” labor practices so that we can say we are creating many jobs for the poor. But in some cases more hands do not make better work, they just make more problems.
These problems are nowhere more evident than within the cement-based production systems in developing countries. Armies of workers use traditionally poor practices to create blocks that crumble and foundations that fail. And yet, we watch and sometimes even participate in the failed work. We surround this failed system with a moat filled with justifications and complacency.
We trap the poor in homes and buildings that are built upon a foundation of failed hope, created by thousands of hard-working hands and good intentions. Then we sit back and watch the farm until the next disaster.
Escaping the ant farm will require a change in thinking from both the ants and the observers. They will need a change of mind that suggests that it is OK to innovate and improve efficiency even among the poor. An understanding that strong structures and sustainable economies are built when opportunity is offered and enthusiastic workers participate.
With the new government vision developing in Haiti, we suggest that leaders rise up and create an escape route from the “ant” mentality of poor reconstruction thinking and build a solid bridge across the moat.