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Interview with an academic: Ben Brucato

Ben+Brucato+n1071606991_419436_3461916Continuing my series of interviews with interesting people I know, this week I spoke with Ben Brucato, a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. You can read more by and about Ben at his website, www.benbrucato.com.

Tell us about yourself and what you do.

I’m a husband and father. I live in upstate New York because it’s where my doctoral program is located. I look forward to moving on. I’m currently a doctoral candidate and teaching assistant at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the Science and Technology Studies department. I have taught periodically as an online instructor in the Sociology department at Northern Arizona University, where I earned my MA. I’m about to start teaching as an adjunct at Union College in Political Science. I came to RPI to study with my advisor, Langdon Winner. I’ve been a musician since I was about 10 years old, and have played in all sorts of bands. I’ve been making noise as Clew Of Theseus (and other projects) since 1997 or so. I’m in a black metal band that’s trying to get off the ground. I started a label in around 2001 or so, called Cathartic Process, which releases noise and power electronics. Lately, it’s been a cassette-only label. It’s been very slow going the last couple years, though.

Every academic has a history. What brought you to this arena?

College was the expected thing to do after graduating high school. I intended to go to graduate school right away. Through my activist work, I met and became good friends with Joel Olson. He was just finishing his PhD and trying to find a job. Seeing that process put me off of my intentions to be a professor. I came back to graduate school after a nearly decade-long advertising and marking career. It was soul crushing and I hated everything about it except the paycheck. After the last place I worked was essentially liquidated and my unemployment ran out, I started considering other options. Spending a couple years being broke again changed my expectations. I knew I could go back to school and have a reliable but small income from stipends. It was a way to get by for a few years more than a stepping stone in a career trajectory. It would be nice if it ends up being the latter.

You have a black metal/noise history. What’s that about and does it inform your present work? Do you find extreme music to be helpful to your academic work?

I’ve been a noise artist for a while now. That was always more important to me than my professional life. Now that I’m finding more satisfying theoretical and topical issues to explore in my work, my studies and writing is more personally rewarding. But I don’t think these really inform my work that much. The themes in black metal and noise have me more attuned to the extreme, the pessimistic, and so on. I’m sure there’s something deep inside me that draws me to both fanatical politics and extreme metal, to cosmic pessimism and the bleakest industrial noise. I’d like to offer some more profound explanation, but any real connection is at an affective level that resists verbalization.

It might just be me, but I’m thinking that reports of police brutality are becoming more prominent in public discourse. First, is there evidence to suggest police brutality on the rise? Second, what do you make of the fact that, despite increased public awareness of police brutality and abuse of power, that no pubic representative (to my knowledge) has commented on the problem? Third, I feel that issues of police brutality were softened in the 90′s by TVs shows such as COPS, which forced viewers to watch through the perspective of officers, but that public opinion seems less empathetic to police in the YouTube era. Producers necessarily had to defer to the police to make the show. It’s my opinion that it very much matters who holds the camera. Do you find that the new trend of citizen produced (or edited video) is changing attitudes to police brutality? Or has nothing changed at all?

What counts as police brutality? What would it mean for police brutality to be “on the rise”? I don’t think there are clear answers, and that the terms discussing these have to be tentative, provisional operationalizations. They have to be tied to a context and to texts, to discourses and the places where they emerge. My research is mostly tied to the visibility of policing and its violence. Some researchers have addressed the idea that because police use-of-force is now more visible, the perception is that standard, ongoing police activity – including use-of-force – is becoming more prevalent, more invasive, more violent, and so on. The research on incidence and outcomes of use-of-force by police is incomplete, and there are few longitudinal studies. Without quality, national-level, longitudinal research, most assertions about these things are speculative. I am, however, comfortable claiming that use-of-force incidence remains stable, and I think there is some reasonably reliable empirical basis to support this claim. The bulk of my research is motivated by trying to understand, on the one hand, why the Rodney King beating prompted a national conversation and nearly led to a crisis for the policing institution as a whole. Yet, on the other hand, we are now presented with a new documentary video of a police beating or shooting about every week and without the same national conversation and crisis of legitimacy. What explains this? As I’m finding, there are many reasons for this that work together to explain it. I’d say the most common reaction I hear is that people are becoming “desensitized.” I think that has very little explanatory value. I’m sure it contributes, but that’s not an explanation I spend much time exploring. I think you’re on to something with the reference to COPS, which predates the Rodney King beating. I think we have a “toolbox” of codes and symbols we use to interpret these visualizations and representations of police violence. Reality shows like COPS, and all sorts of other cultural artifacts help people decode these images. Most of our toolboxes are full of lots of white supremacist and classist codes that are used in interpreting these videos. So, the purported objectivity of video – which the intentional and politicized monitoring of police in some ways relies upon – is suspended in doubt, here. The idea that video and cameras will change policing in some ways relies on the idea that these images will be received without any need for interpretation, that “what really happened” will be laid bare, and any reasonable viewer will be offended by the common violence the police rely upon.

I am interested to see the shift in public attitudes toward surveillance that has been occurring throughout the past decade. In the 00′s, there seemed to be a general acceptance that government would use any means necessary to weed out terrorists (for example). Now, it seems that the public is much more concerned about the issue. Do you think this shift can be sustained?

I think the issue is barely cut and dry. I think there is a lot of cognitive dissonance that occurs here. The less fascist people even have trouble squaring their demand for security – presumably which can only be supplied by the state, and violently so – with their desire for civility and democracy. Then, of course, you have the bold-faced authoritarians who love when cops beat Black bodies, and wish they would more frequently. More recently, vigilante activity seems to be on an upswing, as white supremacists – as they have been wont to do in the past centuries – have joined with state forces in doing this policing, i.e. George Zimmerman. But then there’s the inherent conflict in a class-divided society the police are first and foremost designed to maintain, protect, and administrate. I don’t think more people are aware and concerned as a result of consciousness-raising, more visibility, and so on, but rather as a result of more historically privileged people falling into the working class after the financial collapse. White folks are more frequently on the receiving end of invasive policing, surveillance, and so on. Some of them are quite happy to see the force of a racist regime demonstrated. Some white folks are offended that they occasionally are made subject to it, e.g. at TSA screenings in airports, roadside checks and searches, etc. Suddenly they speak up when the policing that people of color and sexual minorities have been subjected to is inflicted on them. But there are a handful of these folks who have either some class consciousness or moralistic defense of egalitarianism that inspires their feelings of offense as these situations are more widely spread and visible.

I see that you post frequently on issues of public surveillance, but not so much about issues of private surveillance. I personally think that the private sector often gets a free pass on issues of privacy intrusion, despite that the private sector might present as great a threat. Do you think that private sector surveillance has implications for the populace?

I’m generally not that interested in the theme of privacy. So we’re already past an area of discussion that I have much to say about. As for the distinctions between government surveillance and private surveillance, and how the latter contributes to invasions into our lives and affairs, and even the structuring of our navigation and negotiation of everyday life, I’m rather interested, intellectually, and concerned and committed politically. I think any blind spot here is simply a result of the fine-tuning of my own research that more obsessively focuses my attention to state violence and state surveillance. But both policing and surveillance are phenomenon that exist beyond the state, and particularly more so during the processes of neoliberalization. Private prisons, private police, and the like are just the tip of the iceberg.

What projects are you working on now, what should we look for, and where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I’m not so sure higher education will be very recognizable in 10 years. I’d like to say I see myself as a tenured professor, teaching a small load of courses of my own design while conducting smaller but long-term (and funded) research projects. But I think that’s not a very realistic projection even for those who are lucky, well-connected, and have a history of careful planning for such a trajectory. But if I entertain that fantasy a little, you could expect something like this: First would be a book on critical technology studies that takes the work of people like Mumford and Ellul as they were responded to and developed by Langdon Winner, David Noble, Richard Sclove, and others. It would characterize and develop their work, showing its relevance to understanding technology today. There would also be a book on surveillance and policing, focusing especially on the political fantasies and imaginations about transparency. The latter would obviously be based on my dissertation work. Ideally, I’ll be teaching in northern Europe, struggling to learn the local language, and be well along the way toward building a sustainable eco-village.

What’s up with the beard? I’m thinking that it’s a symbiotic living entity.

It’s a habit more than a symbol. Although, the statements it does make (except “I’m a hippy”) are generally ones in which I find more positive than negative.

US Bombing of Laos: 1965 -1973: I was there first

Actually, I was an infant, but as an adult, I wrote a blog post and made a cool video of the locations and magnitude of bomb drops in Laos from 1965-1973.

Now, Jerry Redfern & Karen Coates have written a great (I assume) book “Eternal Harvest”on the United States’ unbelievably devastating bombing campaign of neighboring Laos during the Vietnam War. I suggest that everyone go out and read this book immediately.

However, they created an accompanying video, which is eerily similar to a video I created, though theirs is embellished with narration and bookend explanations. I want to think that I helped inspire such a cool video. Or maybe this is wishful thinking. I don’t know. But it’s reassuring to know that this blog might have contributing something to the world.

Here’s theirs:

And here’s mine:

Interview with a warrior: Greg Pratt, homeless advocate

Pratt with the MISSION crew. Pratt is third from the right.

Pratt with the MISSION crew. Pratt is third from the right.

Today’s interview is with my friend, advocate for the poor and downtrodden and purveyor of loudness, Greg Pratt. Greg’s a great guy in just about a billion ways. This interview should tell you why. You can learn more about the group he works with MISSION A2, here.

Who are you and what do you do?

Greg Pratt. I am a social worker by training, an organizer and movement worker by necessity. The two primary foci of my work are material and political support.

I help people with resources for living outside, so propane, water, socks, tents, sleeping bags, batteries etc. I also help them organize politically [internal and external]. Sometimes, that manifests in a camp community [internal] other times that manifests in local ordinances like the Good Neighbor Amendment to the Ann Arbor Parks Ordinance [external]. This amendment waives the fee for organizations handing out free material goods to folks in A2 public parks.

The Camp Take Notice Good Neighbor Subcommittee worked on this from April 2013 until the ordinance passed its 2nd reading on November 18, 2013. The Subcommittee was comprised of 7-8 individuals and I believe everyone but myself was homeless or recently emerging from homelessness.

You have done a lot of work with homeless people in the Ann Arbor area. How did you get started doing that work?

I am an alcoholic. On December 31, 2001, I had my last blackout and was charged with my third DUI.

On July 3, 2001, I was sentenced to six months in Oakland County Jail. The first five days were spent in the middle section of a three-section holding tank area of the Oakland County Jail. Each section was 10’ X 15’, separated by plexiglass, and had anywhere from 10-15 individuals in each section at any given time. There was one toilet per section. We were let out once per day to eat.

After I got out of there I was transferred to the County Barracks across the street for the work release program. This was basically an army style, bunk bed living quarters. We paid weekly rent [I think mine was something like 160-70 per week] and were allowed out of the barracks, at most, 5 days/week. I was only fortunate enough to get out 4 days/week.

After getting out of jail, I spent six months on tether [house arrest]. At the same time, I began my probation which included many hours of community service.

I chose to do my service hours at SOS Community Services at the River St. Location in Ypsilanti, MI. I did their “empathy training” to become a volunteer crisis counselor. At the time, the River Street SOS location served as a place for people to get referrals to other services in the area, food distribution, and a 24-hour crisis hotline which people used for information or just to talk when things were getting a bit to much to handle. I only had one suicide call [fortunately] while we still had the phone lines in place. I continued on in my volunteer capacity at SOS for a year after I got my hours for probation completed. I really enjoyed the work and the community I was a part of as a result of being there two to three times per week.

Anyhow, that is how I became involved. My first social work mentor, from SOS, was Christina Oliver. She still works in the area as a disabled-persons’ advocate.

I haven’t had a drink of alcohol since February 19, 2001. My higher power is the collective consciousness of all living beings. I am not anonymous, but I practice the principles in my daily life.

Do you find that the situation for homeless people in Ann Arbor is getting worse or better? Is Ann Arbor becoming increasingly closed?

I think you may be asking the wrong person on this one.

I am going to give an answer that is the best I can with the information I have from the friends [I don’t use the word client or consumer] with whom I work.

Assessment
On the one hand Ann Arbor is great because of its manifold set of resources for low-income people struggling with mental/physical health, addiction, and unemployment. On the other, it has very little in the way of low-income housing that is near places of low-income employment. The bus system is ok, but has limited evening hours during the week [M-F] and pretty much zero hours on weekend nights. So, if you live in Ypsilanti and work in Ann Arbor and have no car, your options for hours to work are limited as a result of these limited transportation options. If you talked to the current VP of MISSION, Jimmy Hill, you may get a more comprehensive version of what it is like trying to navigate one’s way out of homelessness in Ann Arbor.

Is is getting better? I hope that in the wake of the forum hosted by the Ann Arbor District Library last week it will. Camp Misfit A2 [one of the groups interdependent with MISSION] has, through their activism and public actions, put the issue of lack of affordable, low-income housing on the radar of local politicos as well as the local human services industry. I am cautiously optimistic right now.

Ann Arbor, as a small and somewhat well to do area, likely does not have the social space or will to accommodate an underclass, but at the same time, would not like to be seen as exclusionary. Do you think that Ann Arbor will ever be able to rectify these competing problems?

Good question. For me, change will have arrived when “our” kids can play with “their” kids.

I don’t think that we will ever correct the problem given the current system of resource distribution in our society, Capitalism.

Capitalism is a system that is framed to encourage economic growth. In this system, there are winners and losers. It is not “survival of the fittest” that determines winners. It is more like a complex gambling system that is weighted toward those with more wealth.

So, I think for Ann Arbor to rectify these problems, we would have to end capitalism as it is practiced now.

Here is another point I want to make. This one is predicated on our capitalist system of resource distribution. Homelessness is not a pond we can drain, but rather a river that flows on beyond our time here on this earth. We can dam up the river and provide bridges at certain sections of the flow, but regardless of our actions to “stop the flow” it continues on just like the wind.

There are people who are “chronically” homeless. But, most folks struggle with this for a matter of months. At our camp out on Wagner Rd [RIP], the average stay was just under three months. The Delonis Center has a similar statistic, although I think stays have been increasing over the last couple of years there.

I’m finding it interesting that Ann Arbor is having discussions about whether to create and improve public spaces, based on a perception that homeless people will use them (like this is a bad thing). How much of these concerns is based on alarmism, and how much is justified?

I think that we need to plan those spaces in an inclusive way, all stakeholders at the table. If we were to take that tack as a community I think we might reduce some of the alarmism. But ultimately, I think the folks with capital to invest in this area would rather see sunshine and lollipops and yellow brick roads, than help people who are struggling to make it in our community.

What do you see ultimately happening?

For the time being, more sunshine and lollipops and yellow-brick roads to nowhere for the poor and to increased wealth for Rick Snyder and his Carpet Bagger Finance Capitalists.

You’ve also done work with the unions, specifically during the push to bring GSRA’s into GEO. What’s your history working with labor?

Ugh. What a nightmare campaign that was. Before that disaster, I helped nontenure track faculty at MSU and EMU build their unions.

Yes, I worked for AFT Michigan [American Federation of Teachers]. I was a member of GEO as a grad student at the UM School of Social Work and was interested in learning labor/political organizing. I became a member of the GEO Organizing Committee just as our 2008 contract campaign was ramping up in December 2007. This was the contract campaign wherein we shut down both the UM Stadium and Business school renovation projects. I was picket captain for the business school site.

That summer, I was hired by AFT to work on a campaign with non tenure track faculty at MSU. After we won that campaign, I was sent to EMU to help bring the part time lecturers into the existing full time lecturer union. EMU has about 120 full time lecturers and about 500-600 [depending upon the semester] part time lecturers. In order to accomplish this, we conducted a few well-attended sit-ins at President Martin’s office. Paul Horvath [Math Lecturer at EMU] was one of the key lecturers involved in that effort. Good times.

After that campaign, I went to work with GEO leaders on bring the GSRAs into the union. In the wake of that Rick Snyder signed a law that prohibited GSRAs from joining a union. I believe this law has since been found unconstitutional and is in some sort of legal limbo on appeal.

That battle was eventually lost. It seemed like a really not so controversial idea. What do you think was going on to make it blow up as big as it did?

I think that conservative anti-union folks in Michigan watched AFT organizing at many of the colleges and some community colleges across the state. Grad Students, Lectures and even some faculty were joining unions in large numbers through the dedicated work of organizers like Jon Curtiss and Lynn Marie Smith between the years 2003-2010. When Rick Snyder was elected, the republicans had every lever of our state’s government under their control. I think they saw an opportunity and put a lot of resources toward blocking this campaign.

That describes what happened on their side. I think it is more telling, what happened on our side [labor]. Our leaders, when planning this campaign, did not listen to the suggestion of leaders on the ground in GEO and in general on campus. We were internally divided. That made it easier for the Mackinac Center to pick us apart and stop the momentum we had while out talking to hundreds of researchers like yourself.

You eventually left. What happened?

Unions are great at the local level. But, as they get bigger, the organizational structure mirrors the organizations they are meant to regulate or keep in check. I didn’t want to compromise my organizing style in order to get a paycheck. I decided that the work needed to be done was the work for which there is no paycheck.

I had been teaching at UM School of Social Work in Winter 2012. I continued on as a lecturer there and at EMU until December 2013.

I am currently unemployed, but doing the work for which there is no paycheck.
[MISSION]

What’s up with your radio career? How does radio figure in to your worldview as champion of the poor and marginalized?

You are very kind to call it a career :)
How does it figure in? Well, I grew tired of complaining about the media and decided to become a part of it instead. Viva Jello!

What’s up for the future?

1) Kicking ass for the working class!
2) Getting a job with a paycheck.

What I’m reading now March 23, 2014

Well, it should really be, what I was reading two weeks ago, but… details, details….

TOEThe Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor Generally speaking, I like Bill Easterly’s views on aid and development. Easterly questions traditional models of development, arguing that top down strategies which rely on purely technical solutions rarely work, and often do more harm than good. Here, Easterly again makes the argument that the development world is full of bumbling technocrats, who fail to see the simplicity of the real problem of African development.

Note, however, that I do not share the views of uninformed cynics, which laugh at the “folly of development” and the evils of foreign aid indiscriminately. Easterly is often propped up by cynical opponents of foreign aid as a spokesperson for why we shouldn’t be given money to poor people, or by Ron Paul style non-interventionists who are quick to dismiss anything the United States does outside it’s borders, not to suggest at all that the United States alone is responsible for development. To me, and call me stupid, the issue is far too complex to boil down to a black and white view of a few self satisfied cynics. Debates over what works and what doesn’t work in development are far more interesting to me than debates of whether development is “good” or “bad.” But… I digress…

Easterly argues that what’s missing from the picture is the guarantee of true democratic rights, that is, legal restrictions on the powers of government. The reason democracy is faulty in Africa, is that most African governments equate democracy with merely having elections, when, in fact, democracy is a function of checks on the ability of government to stifle opposition and the guarantee that citizens are fully protected under the law. He is absolutely right. The structures of African governments (in general) were initially constructed to support a colonial model, which guaranteed that power would be held by a privileged (white) few. However, post-independence, few governments have made substantive changes to the ways in which they govern, despite having had, in most cases, nearly 50 years to do so. Easterly lays blame with development organizations, which offer highly technical solutions to basic problems, but are weak-kneed in demanding that governments work to guarantee basic rights to their citizens.

While I agree that democracy is about more than just having elections, and agree that basic rights must be guaranteed in order to have a free state, I wonder if he gets so caught up in the grand academic thought process, and misses some of the details. His treatment of Asia is quite limited, for example. There, most governments achieved their developmental goals without guaranteeing the rights of citizens and sometime achieved them under incredibly authoritarian and sometimes brutal one party systems. While I don’t think that the end of development is worth the means of authoritarian brutality, it must be pointed out that many governments (for example, South Korea and Taiwan) only loosened their grip after they had an educated middle class which demanded increased freedoms and rights (see the work of Ha-Joong Chang and Joe Stiglitz for a reasonable treatment of the subject). While Africa and Asia are two very different places, any discussion of development has to include both.

Easterly makes me feel good, though, in his preface. Mentioning anywhere that markets are good things in a discussion of development will have one branded as a rabid right winger, which is just a pathetically myopic view (or merely a by-product of total ignorance). The tired argument of market vs state which dominates political discussions in the US (and elsewhere) is merely a distraction from the real argument we should be having, which is over rights vs. non-rights. Are rights being protected or not? Is there proper representation or not? You can have any type of free market system you like or even a heavy welfare state, but if the guarantee of basic rights to free speech, assembly, expression and representation aren’t there, you don’t have a democracy and you probably don’t have continued development of the type that matters most.

But, I’m not a political scientist, and could easily rant on aimlessly for hours to no end whatsoever.

Politics in West Africa – Sir Arthur Lewis (1965) - Sir Arthur Lewis was a Nobel Prize winning economist from St. Lucia. He wrote this fantastic little book on the state of West African politics following independence in 1965. It’s just as relevant now as it was back then. His scathing criticism of authoritarian African governments and the multitude of missed opportunities for development for African countries were both timely and eerily prophetic. I’m particularly drawn to his criticism of viewing Africa through a Marxist lens, pointing out that, outside of a few foreign corporations, there are few true capitalists and that the plentiful nature of land compromises efforts to commodify it, and thus create a European style, class based system. He also points out the problems with the one party state, pointing out that the one party state was often created by force following independence, rather than consensus. In fact, the nature of the independence movements themselves compromised the creation of true constitutional democracies, which guarantee the rights of the minority. Independence movements were created to topple minority rule. Great book.

ATSAgainst the State: Politics and Social Protest in Japans I can’t put this book down. An excellent account of the fight to stop the building of Narita airport in the 1960′s, the implications of which were more than merely a struggle of some farmers unwilling to part with land. The struggle for Sanrizuka was a culmination of the coalescence of a wide variety of actors, many of which had little in common ideologically, reacting to an ever disconnected state. Apter rightly points out that despite strict rules on social behavior and self-control, Japan’s history is filled with examples of social change brought about not through discussion, but incredible and coordinated violence.

VOFCThe Violence of Financial Capitalism (Semiotext(e) / Intervention Series) I bought this book thinking it might be an interesting perspective on the financial crash and the events which followed it. I was somehow let down to find that the book didn’t really live up to it’s striking title. Marazzi views the crash as not an aberration, but rather another aspect of capital accumulation by financial elites, a tool of undermining labor and a method of creating conditions of social change which benefits a minority of privileged individuals. While I don’t really argue that these things didn’t (aren’t) occurring, the treatment of the subject was far too academic and disconnected for me to get behind. It is possible that I’m just not well informed on the particular academic perspective of this author. I will have to read it again.

Branko Milanovic weighs in on global inequality

Which isn’t suprising, given that’s what he does for a living. The NYT this morning had an interesting interview with Milanovic this morning, where he discussed issues of inequality both within and between countries, globalization, national policy and the simultaneous rise of a global economic elite and growing populism around the world.

The context here is that while inequality is rising in wealthy countries like the United States, on a global level, inequality in incomes and lifestyles is shrinking quickly, most due to the rise of China and India.

Inequality calculated among all individuals in the world, as if they were part of one single nation, has been edging slightly downward over the past 10 to 15 years, mostly thanks to very high growth rates in China and India. These relatively poor giants (particularly India) have pulled quite a lot of people out of poverty and into something that can be called “the global middle class.”

That is the key factor behind the decline of global inequality: The distance between their incomes and the rather stagnant incomes of the middle class in rich countries has diminished. Yet global inequality is still extremely high by the standards of any single country. It is, for example, significantly higher than inequality in South Africa, which is the most unequal country in the world.

Obviously, we still have work to do. Many African countries, due to an unfortunate poor hand of geography, internal ethnic struggles and an unforgivable failure of government still sit in the same mess they sat in around the time of independence. For these countries, the future continues to look bleak.

The contrast is between a globalized economy that largely determines our employment and income level, and political systems that remain national. This contrast was not nearly as strong before the 1980s, when national economies were not as interdependent and capital could not flow easily across the borders. Then, countries could more or less design the economic policies that suited them. Today this is no longer the case.

The danger is that these dynamics could lead to populism — a sort of a Luddite reaction against globalization — or to plutocratic rule. We can already see some hints of the latter. Rule of the rich would ensure the continuation of globalization, but it would deprive political democracy of any meaning. If I wanted to be somewhat melodramatic, I would have said that the challenge is to navigate between the Scylla of populism, which would do away with globalization, and the Charybdis of plutocracy. Our defining challenge is how to maintain both globalization and meaningful national democratic systems.

I fear the erosion of political rights of low and middle class citizens that has occurred in the context of rising inequality. I believe that I fear populism and it’s myopic focus on short term solutions to complex problems even more. A response to rising inequality in the US or Europe is not to close the borders or embark on destructive protectionist policies which benefit only a small minority of people.

My feeling is that domestic (US) inequality is best handled through re-distributional policies such as income subsidies, the provision of health care and investments in education and infrastructure. International inequality should be attacked through a combined effort to increase opportunities of movement of people to areas which present economic opportunities, through the encouragement of policies of good governance which reduce onerous and bureaucratic restrictions on economic development within developing countries, an increase in access to capital by individuals and policies which encourage the granting of true democratic rights and protection for citizens, something we don’t see a whole lot of in African countries. Looking at this, I’m realizing the solutions to inequality in in wealthy countries seem much easier to implement.

Malaria eradication makes the Economist

Not that the Economist has ever made a habit of ignoring tropical diseases. Far from it, the Economist as a British magazine is quite good at reporting on the Isles former colonies.

Here they’ve written on the issues of mass drug administrations as a tool in malaria eradication. Specifically, they focus on a Chinese group seeking to ramp up efforts to create a successful regimen of artemisinin and piperaquine to eliminate the disease by prophylacticly preventing infection, and interrupting the cycle of transmission long enough to eliminate the parasite entirely.

Dr Li’s approach is to attack not the mosquito, but the disease-causing parasite itself. This parasite’s life cycle alternates between its insect host (the mosquito) and its vertebrate one (human beings). Crucially, as far as is known, humans are its only vertebrate host. Deny it them and it will, perforce, wither away—an approach that worked for the smallpox virus, which had a similarly picky appetite. In the case of smallpox, a vaccine was used to make humans hostile territory for the pathogen. Since there is no vaccine against malaria, Dr Li is instead using drugs.

To date, the group has been running trials in the Comoros islands off the coast of Mozambique and had some success, but haven’t come close to full elimination. Elimination on islands surrounded by salt water (mosquitoes which transmit malaria breed in fresh water) should be a fairly easy proposition, but the issue of human mobility from the African continent guarantees reintroduction.

I’m personally involved in an island malaria elimination project in Kenya, but am under no illusions that results from an island are in the least bit generalization to the continent. Falciparum malaria is far too efficient and the lack of a winter renders transmission far too consistent to allow easy elimination. Add the issue of the intense mobility of Africans and one can’t help but be discouraged.

Dr. Li from the Guangzhou group seems to be optimistically under the mistaken impression that all it will take to eradicate malaria is the right combination of magic pills, but he’s gravely mistaken. The only thing that will consistently control malaria on the continent will be a full on, sustained assault using every tool known, along with intense economic development. The continent has only seen gains in malaria control during the 00′s, when incredible amounts of money and effort was thrown at the disease and, not coincidentally, when African economies finally started to take off. Eradicating malaria won’t be about a few pills.

More troubling to me are the ethical issues. Mass drug administrations require the participation. If even a small group of people refuse the medication, the entire effort might be for naught. Obtaining full, informed consent, however, is near impossible in these areas. While most people are willing to participate once the benefits are explained to them, the risks are often glossed over. Moreover, as communities will often follow the behavior of their neighbors or community leaders, it is difficult to judge whether people participate of their own volition or whether they are merely bowing to community pressure. Educational barriers might also compromise the ability to obtain truly informed consent.

Further, I don’t doubt the intent of the Guangzhou group, but I do wonder if Chinese institutions truly have the same level of ethical review and monitoring that United States’ institutions have (which isn’t even perfect and sometimes ill suited to developing countries). I’m sure that China would love to claim a success like malaria elimination, but I worry that a zeal for victory might lead to a violation of basic ethics and even a masking of failures, complicating the issue in the long term. I hope that I’m wrong.

Does Development Work? Observations on Gates’ Annual Letter

Infant mortality is down worldwide

Infant mortality is down worldwide

Asking a question like “does development work” is like asking “does policy work”: it depends. I seem to be fielding questions about development with increasing frequency. Mostly I find that the harshest critics don’t know a whole lot about development and haven’t been to many places in the world, complicating my ability to respond in an reasoned manner. Development is a complicated beast but, the truth is, that it didn’t come easy for us 1%’ers either.

Every year, Bill and Melinda Gates release a letter on the state of the Gates Foundation and the current situation of global development and health. This time Gates set out to dispel three common myths on development, namely that poor countries are doomed to be poor forever, foreign aid is a total waste and that development will just lead to overpopulation.

The first is the most cynical, but even for us development/public health folks, it’s easy to be discouraged. Pessimism aside, the data don’t bear out the assumption that developing countries are entrenched in poverty. Just about all Sub-Saharan African countries experience consistent economic growth throughout the 00′s and have seen rapid improvements in just about all of the common health indicators. People are living longer, fewer kids are dying and they’re making more money to pay for school and health care.

Over the past five years that I’ve been going to Sub-Saharan Africa I’ve seen this change on the ground. Cars are in better shape, there’s more goods on the shelves, kids are better nourished and security has vastly improved. Does this mean that all of the problems are magically going away? No, there are still vast challenges to infrastructure development, access to health care and affordable medications, educational quality, gender issues and basic business development. However, these improvements do signal that Sub-Saharan African countries are reaching a point where sustained development is possible.

I have a hard time disagreeing with Gates here, but I did find his “before” and “after” pictures of Nairobi a bit bizarre. Though Nairobi is currently going through a construction boom, I fail to see how it would look any different in 2014 than it did in 1969 after more than three decades of stagnation.

Gates second point and the hardest myth to dispel is that of the alleged ineffectiveness of aid. Bill Easterly has made a career out of aid bashing, and, unfortunately, given cynical politicians looking for policy scapegoats a point to scream to their angry constituents. In a broader sense, the screaming over aid is really a questioning of developmental policies themselves. Certainly, there are development failures. The neo-classically informed structural adjustment policies of the World Bank and the IMF during the 80′s and 90′s were, on the surface, colossal failures (Read Beyond the World Bank Agenda: An Institutional Approach to Development by Howard Stein for a great analysis). On a smaller scale, we can easily cherry pick misguided but well meaning development projects or plans that simply went awry for any number of unforeseen reasons. The recent takedown of Jeff Sachs (The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty) and the massive problems of the Millenium Village in North East Province in Kenya is a great example of the challenges a development project can face.

However, in ever insular post Iraq America, the question that is most often asked is why we should even care and does our presence merely serve to make things worse. The truth is, and the point most often overlooked, is that most development projects are international collaborations. Many projects are conducted with partners in target countries and, more often than not, projects often make up for shortfalls that hobbled governments are unable (or sometimes unwilling) to provide. Health care is one example.

Jeff Sachs wrote a nice article this morning on how effective free insecticide treated nets have been in reducing malaria incidence and mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa. Nearly half a billion free nets have been given out worldwide as of 2014 and a lot of kids are alive today who would have been dead had they been born ten years earlier. Malaria is 100% associated with poverty. Wealthy people do not get malaria, even in malaria endemic countries. Though some of the decline in malaria incidence has been due to increased affluence and urbanization of African countries, a major percentage of this decline has been due to aid programs which provide bed nets and have expanded access to life-saving malaria medications. Certainly, not all aid works, but nothing works 100% of the time, particularly when humans are involved.

Which brings us to the most cynical and offensive of Gates’ three myths. Some people truly believe that saving African kids is a bad thing. One day there will be too many of them and they will suck up the ability for the world to sustain life. Honestly, this view couldn’t be more wrong.

The poorest parts of the world are the areas which are seeing the most rapid population growth. The average Malawian woman has 8 children in her lifetime, often starting when she isn’t even yet 15 years old. It has been said that if Malawi continues on it’s current trajectory, that it will have a population equivalent to that of Japan’s by 2050. Women in water and food constrained pastoralist communities can have ten or more children. The most affluent areas of Africa are the places with the slowest population growth.

Even more incorrect is the assumption that poverty is less harmful to the environment than development. Malawi is almost entirely deforested due to extensive use of charcoal for heating and tobacco cultivation. Deforestation not only robs the earth of potential carbon sinks, but also reduces need biodiversity and directly impacts precious water resources. Africa burns unclean fuels such as charcoal and coal for heating, and the poor condition of vehicles make it a major potential source of greenhouse gases. The air in Nairobi on any given weekday is so filled with exhaust that one can become dizzy just walking around town. It is, of course, unreasonable (and stupid) to deny Africans transportation and cooking fuel, but well meaning though poorly informed armchair environmentalists in the United States would happily suggest doing just that.

Which bring me to my final point. The case against development is one that assumes that the status quo is somehow preferable to anything that might come after. The assumption is that Africans were just fine without Europeans and their planet destroying ways. There is, of course, little data on what Africa was like before Europeans started extracting resources from the continent. We do, however, know a lot about underdeveloped areas of Africa. There is evidence to suggest that some do fine. There is however, much evidence to suggest that other simply do not. The worst parts of Africa are the parts which are the least developed. They are the areas where the market doesn’t function. The areas where there is little education, no access to health care, no roads, no economy, kids regularly die, where old people are a venerated since they are so rare, where there’s violence and instability and people are entirely marginalized from any level of political participation. While development likely will never solve the worst problems (like those in Somalia), there is no case to be made that the current state of the ultra poor is acceptable on any measure, even to the poor themselves!

Alright, off to bed.

Don’t be gay in Africa: Uganda’s President Museveni refuses to sign “anti-homosexuality” bill

Eric Ohena Lembembe, Cameroonian gay activist who was killed and mutilated in his home

Eric Ohena Lembembe, Cameroonian gay activist who was killed and mutilated in his home

It’s pretty good advice. The Westboro Baptist Church may be waving signs and screaming, but they don’t break into people’s houses at night and bludgeon them to death with a hammer like someone did to David Kato in Uganda. They don’t break the legs of their enemies and them burn their hands and faces as happened to Eric Ohena Lembembe, a gay activist in Cameroon. They don’t break into lesbians’ houses and gang rape and kill them in the middle of the night.

Africa is an awful place to be gay, but, just as everywhere else, gay folks exist and do the best they can under adverse circumstances.

Happily, President Museveni of Uganda has stated that he refuses to sign a “anti-homosexuality Bill” sent to him from the Ugandan Parliament. It’s possible that he would have supported had he sensed that signing the bill would have benefitted him domestically, as Nigerian President Goodluck Johnathan (who’s luck seems to be running out) did just this week.

Wasting no time at all, Nigerian authorities have arrested and tortured dozens of people suspected of being gay. The methods are frightening:

Human rights advocates in Nigeria are reporting that dozens of gay men have been arrested under a new law that makes homosexual clubs or associations illegal. That law also criminalizes same-sex marriage. Gay men who have been arrested have reportedly been tortured into giving up the names of others. Michelle Faul with the Associated Press has been writing about this and she joins us now from Lagos.

And Michelle, why don’t you give us more details, what you’ve learned about these arrests and the reports of torture from human rights groups there.

MICHELLE FAUL: As we’re speaking, Melissa, we’re getting more reports in of more people being arrested in about six of Nigeria’s 36 states. I’ve spoken with human rights activists here who say this has not just happened since the bill was signed into law, but since there’s been noise about the bill. So the very idea of the bill has led to this persecution of people because of their sexual differences.

BLOCK: And in particular the reports of torture, what have you heard about that?

FAUL: That particular report comes from Bauchi State in the north of Nigeria, where it’s almost a case of entrapment. A law enforcer pretending to be a gay man went to a meeting where an AIDS counselor was speaking to men, who have sex with men, about how they could do this safely. He pretended to be gay, got the names of a couple of people, arrested subsequently one person, used their cell phone – this is illegal in itself for him to go through this person cell phone, contact another gay person and another gay person. Called them for a meeting, arrest them, take them to the police station and beat them up repeatedly and brutally until they gave up 168 names of people who were supposed to be gay.

But back to Uganda. Museveni has a thin road to walk. If he comes out on the side of Uganda’s very active gay rights movement, he risks losing crucial domestic support. If he would have signed the bill, he risks losing international support at a fragile point in Uganda’s development.

He plays it carefully, but offers a few bizarre ideas:

The President said a homosexual is somebody who is abnormal because the normal person was created to be attracted to the opposite sex in order to procreate and perpetuate the human race. He said, nature goes wrong in a minority of cases.

While in the Bill passed by Parliament there is no provision for killing homosexuals; the President said, “The question at the core of the debate of homosexuality is; what do we do with an abnormal person? Do we kill him/her? Do we imprison him/her? Or we do contain him/her?”

While the President said homosexuality is an abnormal condition that can be cured, he disagreed with the position of Western countries that homosexuality is an “alternative sexual orientation”. “You cannot call an abnormality an alternative orientation. It could be that the Western societies, on account of random breeding, have generated many abnormal people,” he said, adding that his acid test for rejecting Western position is that nature is purposeful.

The President said apart from the people who are abnormal, it seems there is a group of those that become homosexual for “mercenary reasons”—they get recruited on account of financial inducements. He said this is a group that can be rescued and that many of the youth fall in this category.

I’m not following his logic here. I seriously doubt Museveni does either. Though he says that homosexuality is a natural condition, he also tries to claim that young men become gay to make money. The former presents him with a problem. If homosexuality is to be considered an unfortunate genetic outcome, the state has no right to inflict punishment on the individual any more than on a person born with any other type of genetic defect.

The latter, I’ve heard before. NGOs allegedly come to Africa and recruit young men through promises of money and passports. There is no reason to discount the problem of prositution enabled by economic inequality. We’ve seen it elsewhere (a movie was even made about an Irish author’s disgusting sexual adventures in Nepal). Of course, the Ugandan and Nigerian Parliaments seem to be doing little to curb the much larger problem of female prostitution in Uganda and it’s difficult for me to understand how it’s at all relevant to the lives of people peacefully living their lives who happen to be gay.

And this is of course where the problem lies. Homosexuality makes for an easy target for Christian conservatives in Africa (often egged on by western missionaries and evangelicals). However, there is little outrage over extramarital affairs, child rape, and the buying and selling of women, an obviously greater social problem. But policy makers worldwide often like to pick on those who are unable to defend themselves.

How do the governments of Nigeria and Uganda have time for all this? In countries where half the population lives on a dollar a day, the problem of delivering food and health care would seem to be more pressing issues. Many people I know like to blame the West for all of Africa’s ills. Clearly, as these examples show, policy makers in Nigeria and Uganda aren’t in the least bit interested in the welfare of their people, preferring to weed out minor issues of “gays” than deal with important matters such as food, health and stability.

Sad.

Are we living in the age of protest?

ProtestsIt’s possible.

A working paper from the Initiative for Policy Dialogue tracked all protests from 2006 to 2013. The authors classified each protest according to the types of grievances and causes of outrage, the profile of demonstrators, size and the nature of opposition.

They found that protests are becoming more common worldwide and larger in size. The largest protests in human history (one exceeding 100 million people) have occurred in the past six years.

Increases in frequency are consistent across all types of protests, including economic justice, failure of political representation, rights and global justice.

Full on riots are fortunately few (only ~10% of all protests), but arrests and state violence are common. The biggest offenders include Iran, Russia, the US, Canada and Cameroon.

Developed countries account for the lion’s share of protests and the authors noted increased levels of “soft repression” in the form of surveillance and profiling.

More encouraging, they found that 37% of protests result in some kind of political change. These gains were mostly in the areas of political, legal and social rights. Global issues and economic justice, however, appear the most difficult areas to achieve change. No surprises here. These problems are vastly complex, entrenched, include numerous players and not easily solved.

I’ve written before on the issue of food prices and protest in South Africa and other authors have found similar trends in the Middle East. While the grievances of protesters often has little to do with food or issues of daily living, I’m wondering how economic pressures might be stimulating conditions favorable to demonstration. No doubt, we might look to solving the worldwide problem of volatile agricultural commodity prices and food availability.

Most interesting are the ubiquitous calls for “real democracy” or adequate representation of the populace in political matters. Policy makers would do well to respond to this simple and obvious call for inclusion. If not, we will see further unrest and potentially more violence and instability.

A few articles I’m reading 1/10/2014

That’s the first time I’ve typed “2014″ all year. Wow.

Here are some articles I’m reading this morning:

1. The news seems to be all over debates on the general shift toward the right in Europe (a feature in a recent issue of the Economist). Specifically, discussion of the tightening of immigration/migration rules are starting to heat up. One analyst has developed models to determine exactly what the long term impact of reduced migration in the UK would be on the overall economy. The results aren’t good.

Our results show that a significant reduction in net migration has strong negative effects on the economy. First, by 2060 in the low migration scenario, aggregate GDP decreases by 11% and GDP per person by 2.7% compared to the baseline scenario (Figure 1). Second, this policy has a significant negative impact on public finances, owing to the shift in the demographic structure after the shock. The total level of government spending expressed as a share of GDP increases by 1.4 percentage points by 2060. This effect requires an increase in the effective labour income tax rate for the government to balance its budget. By 2060 the required increase is 2.2 percentage points. Third, the effect of the higher labour income tax rate is felt at the household level, with average households’ net income declining because of the higher income tax despite the initial increase in gross wages due to lower labour supply. By 2060, the net wage is 3.3% lower in the low migration scenario.

Humans are more mobile in the 21st century than they’ve ever been in human history. Say what one will about globalization, but the reality is that it’s already happened. Cutting the cord on migration would see declines in income in both the developed (through loss of productivity) and developing worlds (through loss of remittances).

2. Niger and France have yet to come to an agreement to the terms of a contract to mine uranium by state owned multi-national giant Areva. Niger would like to increase their share from the current 5% to 12%. Areva is worried about profitability. Not knowing Areva’s operating costs and Niger’s track record of transforming mining revenues into public services, I’m not sure what to think.

France derives 75% of its energy from nuclear power and Areva gets 37% of its uranium from Niger. On top of this, Niger has few other options with which to generate money. The two parties have a lot at stake.

3. Krugman rails on the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. On the surface, it looks to be a bitter failure. Inequality is at an all time high and wages have been slipping for the bottom 25% for decades. Still, Krugman ends on a positive note. The pain we feel now could help spur a new progressive movement. I think he’s probably right. Amid the political circus, We’ve been quietly expanding social programs like Medicaid and it’s going to work out well for us. It’s really easy to be pessimisitic about American politics, but there’s potential light at the end of the tunnel, assuming that progressive can finally get their story straight and the right continues to shoot itself in the face.

4. Groups in Zimbabwe are gearing up to fight over who will succeed the old bastard. I think he’s already dead and we’re actually seeing a robot. I’m not confident that whoever succeeds him will be much better. It’s possible that his poison has been spread so thick, that Zimbabwe, once a rising economic star, will continue to be the inexcusable poster child for African political failure.

At the core of the long running struggle for supremacy in ZANU-PF are two factional groups led by Mujuru and Mnangagwa. Mujuru’s side, sometimes referred to as ‘the moderates’, is a purportedly pro-business and centrist bloc that is seen as attempting to push ZANU-PF politics to the centre and improve relations with the international community.

Mnangagwa’s camp, the so-called ‘hard-liners’ or ‘old guard’, is mostly made up of an elite group believed to have dominated Zimbabwe’s political scene since the 1980s; many assume that this faction would seek to continue Mugabe-style politics, anti-western rhetoric and policies as well as continued authoritarianism.

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