American sociologist Robert K. Merton popularized the term unintended consequences, meaning the unanticipated or unforeseen outcomes of purposeful actions, in the twentieth century. Unintended consequences can be positive, but many times they are disastrous.

giant-african-snailThese consequences can be seen in all aspects of life. In nature, there are examples like the introduction of the giant African snail to Hawaii. The snails, at first prized, quickly became major pests throughout the Hawaiian Islands. The Hawaii State Department of Agriculture introduced the rosy wolf snail to curb the giant African snail population, only to find that the carnivorous rosy wolf snail had hunted all of the local snail species almost to extinction, including the indigenous Oahu tree snail.

For analysts, unintended consequences are one of the biggest hurdles they face while doing their jobs. For any decision they make, analysts must not only speculate on what the unintended consequences of an event might be, but must also determine how to lessen or circumvent their impact.

Recent news articles have touched on the unintended consequences of terrorist violence, which has pushed refugees into countries that cannot support these immigrant populations, causing not only a strain on the refugees but also on the hosting countries’ populations.

Another recent example of unintended consequences in the news is the Ebola epidemic. Ebola was a hot issue in the United States for about a month, in which time we saw only a few cases of Ebola in the US. However, in Africa, the unintended consequences are just starting to emerge. When Ebola was shown to be spreading beyond its original borders, many countries refused to allow traffic to and from these places. This isolation hampered the medical community, making it harder to get medical supplies and practitioners to the places that needed them the most. It also impacted the economies of the countries most affected by Ebola. The African Development Bank expects the disruption in trade caused by these isolation measures to cut GDP growth in the three hardest-hit countries by 1.5 – 3.4 percent.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization says the epidemic is endangering harvests and raising food prices. The creation of quarantine zones has created labor shortages, hampered cash-crop production and led to panic buying. Countries that already have less money are now unable to import resources they need for their populations—populations that now have a higher unemployment rate along with the inability to secure the resources that they need to live.

Every day, we see news reports about events like these all over the world. While some of them are interesting and sometimes scary, a lot of the time it’s hard to care because these events are happening so far away. Many times it’s hard to see how these things might affect us, but it’s important to remember that the chain of events leading from a single decision can affect not only the originally intended populace, but you as well.

~ Sierra Payne, Analyst Team Lead

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