Snakes and Ladders

The cobra effect.

The Cobra Effect got its name during British colonial rule of India when the British were trying to figure out a way to reduce the number of venomous cobras in the region. They decided to put a bounty out on the snakes thinking that the local people were so poor they would happily go out and kill deadly snakes for money. While many of the people did just that, the British made the same mistake many politicians make today: equating being poor with being uncalculating. As can be expected shrewd Indians quickly realized that it was much simpler to breed the cobras and then kill them for the reward, instead of going out and hunting them. By the time the British realized they had been outwitted there were massive numbers of cobra breeders making a living out of ‘hunting’ cobras. To correct this the British announced they were no longer going to pay for the dead snakes resulting in all the breeders letting their stock go free, no doubt with the hope the British would change their minds. The exact amount of snakes there were before and after this is impossible to to know but it is not hard to see why the problem was made worse by the very thing that was meant to be the solution. Giving rise to the term the Cobra effect.

There were many other government funded programs that had similar outcomes. The Cobra Effect refers to anything where the attempt at a solution to the problem actually makes the problem worse.

South Africa is full of failed government incentives that never seem to achieve what they are meant to. But we are not talking about unintended consequences in the broad sense but rather consequences that are diametrically opposed to the intended aims.

The following case is from Cape Town and while not fitting the bill perfectly on its own it is not hard to imagine this becoming a full Cobra Effect situation.

In 2009, the Department of Social Development gave people infected with tuberculosis a temporary disability grant. The intention behind the grant was that people who were infected with TB would not need to go to work and would not infect more people. Rather, thanks to the grant, they could focus on getting well. In order to be eligible for this grant people had to produce a card from their local clinic confirming they had TB. They got this card by giving the clinic a sample of their TB infected saliva.

The conclusion those with and without TB came to is that there is now a very real market price for TB-infected saliva thanks to the grant. Those who had TB sold their saliva to those who did not, who in turn went and gave it to the staff at the clinic to receive their card and subsequently their disability grant. This illegal buying and selling of TB-infected saliva was well documented in the media late in 2009.

Shortly after the saliva trade was uncovered and reported on in newspapers, the Department of Health issued a press release, saying that the policy of automatically awarding disability grants to TB patients had been stopped. They also appealed “to healthcare workers to be vigilant when supervising the collection of sputum so that any wrongdoing in TB testing and treatment can be corrected.” The idea was that healthcare workers weren’t supposed to accept containers with saliva from the patients, but should have supervised patients producing fresh saliva samples from the patients’ own mouths.

However, according to a doctor consulted for the purposes of this blog post, healthy patients wanting to do so could still test positive for TB by, shortly before having to produce their “own” saliva, pouring the infected saliva into their mouths and spitting it out again at the health care practitioner’s prompt. This would of course put the previously healthy patient at great risk of becoming truly TB infected. It is not hard to imagine that some people did this anyway, wherever health care practitioners were indeed “vigilant.”

Here we have the makings of what could have been a perfect Cobra effect: some people have TB; a state disability grant is put in place to encourage them not to go to work and not infect other people; the grant actually encourages TB infections under vigilant health care providers requiring patients to produce saliva from their own mouths; the scam is discovered and the grant is stopped; the former recipients have to go find work again; more people end up having TB and infecting their colleagues at work now that they don’t get a grant anymore, possibly leading to higher infection rates than before.


About Donnevan van der Watt

I am a senior Repro Artist for one of SA's biggest magazine publishing houses. I do the image work for more then 30 magazine titles. I am also a keen student of all things Austrian. I study through the Mises academy when I can, and devour all information I can get my hands on. My current subjects are economics, philosophy, history and Latin.
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  • Craig

    Fascinating. Actually I think the Indians were rather enterprising :) Poor snakes :(

    • Donnevan van der Watt

      History is full of similar stories. One that comes to mind is when the French wanted to get rid of rats so they paid per rat tail. The guys caught them, cut off their tails and let them go so they could keep breeding. :-)

      • Craig


  • Simon Watson

    Great post Donnevan! Important to have a good name for something.

    The Cobra Effect – sounds like a mortal combat move!

    • Donnevan van der Watt

      HAHA it does now that you mention it.