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Does the environment cause poverty?

SESKwaleAfrican countries are blessed with ample cropland and resources, but suffer from crippling and unforgivable levels of poverty, have some of the shortest lifespans on the planet and the highest rates of infant mortality in the world. Meanwhile, Japan, Korea, Sweden, Switzerland and Singapore are wholly the opposite, yet mostly lacking in everything that Africa has. Clearly, the picture is more complicated than merely having access to a natural resources.

However, within countries, the picture might be different. African countries are complex and diverse places. Poverty is often confined to the most unproductive regions, areas with poor soils, poor rainfalls or dangerous terrains.

I was just working with some socio-economic data from one of our field sites, and noticed some interesting patterns (note the map up top). In Kwale, a small area along the Coast, socio-economic levels vary widely, but neighbors tend to be like neighbors and patterns of socio-economic clustering emerge.

Note that the poorest of the poor are concentrated to an area in the middle, which I know to be extremely dry, difficult to get to, difficult to farm and generally tough to live in.

I tried to see if socio-economic status (as measured through a composite material wealth index a la Filmer and Pritchett but using multiple correspondence analysis rather than PCA) was related to any environmental variables that I might have data for.

I fit a generalized additive model using the continuous measure of of wealth from the MCA as an outcome. Knowing that very few things in nature or human societies are linear, I also applied smoothing to the predictors to relax these assumptions. The results can be seen in the plot at the bottom.

A few interesting things came out. While it is hard to tell much about the poorest of the poor, we can tell something about the most wealthy. The richest in this poor area, tend to live in areas with the richest vegetation (possibly representing water), a high altitude (low temperature), high relief (no standing water) and in locations distant from a wildlife reserve (far from annoying and dangerous wildlife).

I’m not sure the wildlife reserve is meaningful (unless the reserve was an area undesirable for human habitation to begin with), but the others might be and represent a trend seen in other Sub-Saharan contexts. Areas without malarious swamps and ample farm land tend to do the best. Central Province, one of the most developed areas of Kenya, would be an example.

But the question has to be, does a harsh environment doom people to poverty, or do people self shuffle into and compete for access to more favorable areas? Is environmentally determined poverty (or wealth) an accident of birth, or the result of competitive selection?

Alright, back to work. Oh wait, this is my work. Well….

Results of GAM model of SES in Kwale. Y axis is the continuous measure of socio-economic status.

Results of GAM model of SES in Kwale. Y axis is the continuous measure of socio-economic status.

Links I liked, November 18, 2014

I liked so many things I read today that, rather than clutter social media, I’ll make note of them right here:

“Falling” by William McPherson – By far, the most depressing thing I have read in a while. McPherson is a Pulitzer winning writer and former editor at the Washington Post who chose a life of curiosity and is now paying the ultimate price. It’s awful that the brightest people have to be punished for thoroughly embracing life. So many people I know are going to go this way, it is possible that I might, too.

In India, Growth Breeds Waste NYT – Documenting India’s mounting problem of what to do with its waste. Europe went through their urbanization pains centuries ago. Unfortunately, developing countries are rising to the challenge fast enough. The problem, of course, is that elites are sheltered from the problems of waste and weak and corrupt government structures disallow people from demanding that their countries clean up. International environmentalists need to focus less on screaming about corporate polluting (though it is important) and need to start making demands for more boring things, like managing waste on a local level.

Stop calling me ‘the Ebola nurse’ – Kaci Hickox – This lady was a hero. She never had ebola, but was still illegally interned for having it because a few Americans don’t understand science. Anybody who supported her detainment should just stop speaking to me now. It was shocking how readily Americans were willing to lock people up simply because they were scared and even more shocking where the calls for her “arrest” came from. I give up. People like Hickox put their money where their mouths are. She did what most humans wouldn’t do and she was vilified for it. Unforgivable.

Ten Things that Anthropologists Can Do to Fight the West African Ebola Epidemic I think it should be required that every field research project include an anthropologist.

Q Fever Is Underestimated in the United States: A Comparison of Fatal Q Fever Cases from Two National Reporting Systems People are dying of Q, but much of it isn’t recorded.

Today is Jonas Salk’s 100th birthday

100 years ago today, Jonas Salk was born. As the creator of the inactivated polio vaccine, he not only changed the course of human history, he also ushered changed the field of public health forever. We can count the polio vaccines and the elimination of smallpox as probably the two great success of public health.

In its mildest form, polio causes a mild bout of diarrhea. In its worst form, the virus migrates to the spine, impedes development and causes debilitating long term paralysis. My grandfather was struck with the disease and had one of his legs stunted and weakened (though he managed to serve in WWII anyway as a Marine). A carpenter who worked for me a while back died due to long term respiratory complications from a childhood polio infection.

Polio is mostly foreign to anyone born in my generation. We were nearly all vaccinated, and the high levels of vaccination have destroyed opportunities for the virus to persist in the environment, protecting everyone, even those who don’t get the vaccine.

Unfortunately, though Salk’s achievements were great, medical care and attention to polio was hardly equitable and tainted by the racism of the time.

During the 1930s the systematic neglect of Black polio victims had become publicly visible and politically embarrassing. Most conspicuously, the polio rehabilitation center in Warm Springs, Ga, which Roosevelt, himself a polio survivor, had founded, accepted only White patients. This policy, reflecting the ubiquitous norm of race-segregated health facilities, was sustained by a persuasive scientific argument about polio itself. Blacks, medical experts insisted, were not susceptible to this disease, and therefore research and treatment efforts that focused on Black patients were neither medically necessary nor fiscally justified.[1]

It is likely true that African Americans experienced a lower burden of disease than white children. We now know that polio’s worst effect arise from the lack of acquired immunity to the disease. Repeated infections from infancy, most importantly during the first six months, when babies still have maternal antibodies to fight for them. Improvements to sanitation delayed exposure to the virus, so that children were not immune and thus more susceptible to the disease’s worst effects.

In short, polio is a disease of development, not underdevelopment. The horrible racism of the pre-civil rights medical system can’t be denied, but the observed disparities in disease incidence might have not been imagined given the disparities in sanitation and access to clean water.

Presently, we are fighting a battle to insure that all kids in Sub-Saharan Africa are vaccinated. However, there still exist pockets where the medical system so dysfunctional and the politics so chaotic, that vaccination rates are low and disease continues to flourish. In places like Afghanistan and Northern Nigeria, the hope of polio elimination is almost non-existent


1.    Rogers N: Race and the Politics of Polio: Warm Springs, Tuskegee, and the March of Dimes. American Journal of Public Health 2007, 97(5):784.


Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the language of NGOs

I just finished reading “Decolonizing the Mind,” a short book from perhaps Kenya’s greatest living writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Ngugi is an interesting figure. Born into a peasant Kikuyu family in the fabricated colonial village of Kamiriithu in Central Province, he managed to take advantage of new educational opportunities during the colonial period and attended Makere University in Uganda and eventually Leeds in the UK. He returned to Kenya and eventually became Chairman of University of Nairobi’s Literature Department.

Though highly critical of colonialism, having been in the heart of the worst of Kenya’s experience with it, he was even more critical of Kenya’s post-colonial trajectory. He started a political theater in his hometown and was eventually jailed under the dictator Daniel Arap Moi.

In “Decolonizing the Mind,” Thiongo seeks to dissociate Kenya’s literature from that of the colonialists. He seeks to create a new African literature, by and for Africans. He would eventually abandon writing in English, choosing instead to write works in his native Gikuyu. Despite Thiongo’s call for an African literature, his European pedigree can’t be denied. He is Brechtian in both rhetoric and action. Hs politics are wholly Marxist and it can even be noted that his medium itself (the novel) is decidedly un-African. Moreover, despite his clear hostility to Europe and the United States, it is interesting the he would be jailed by his own countrymen and then would receive asylum and employment from the US.

I found his ideas of language, however, quite interesting. The colonialists, like the Americans, worked to debase indigenous cultural practices to further an imperialist agenda. Locals were weakened through the apparent dominance of English as a language for communication and business, and the language itself was presented in such a way that social hierarchies were reinforced.

This phenomenon continues to this day. Children are taught from an early age, to greet white people on the street with a scripted “How are you?” “I’m fine, and you?” The formal distance between the stilted Kenyan English spoken in Palirament and the guttural Sheng spoken on the streets of Nairobi is hardly an accident. English the language of oppression, control and government exploitation, and Sheng the language of resistance.

Given my recent experiences at Governmental and NGO meetings, however, what strikes me is how language continues to be used as a tool of control, but hat this vocabulary has been internalized by Kenyans themselves. I grit my teeth now when I head the term “capacity building,” which basically implies that people lack the capacity to help themselves without the good graces of NGOs and governmental organizations. It implies that people are helpless without the assistance of formal authoritarian structures. This is, of course, untrue (though one has to allow for the possibility that people often do things that run counter to their long term self-interest).

People may argue that the term is innocuous, but in my experience “capacity building” is often used in place of “training.” To me, words matter, and where “capacity building” carries with it the implications that there is an inherent defect to be rectified, training implies that the capability exists, but the knowledge not yet there. To put this in perspective, I don’t think that anyone would call any of my academic degrees to have been an exercise in “capacity building.” I can’t help but think that white people are trained, while black people are “capacity built.”

Worse yet is “gender empowerment,” which implies that women weren’t sufficiently capable of managing their own affairs prior to the arrival of some dubious microloan project. Again, in my experience, women all of the world are sufficiently empowered. It’s the men who need to be de-powered. The term is condescending and fails to appropriately recognize the inherent capabilities of individuals while at the same time avoids challenging the paternalistic structures which created economic disparities reprehensible practices like FGM, the buying and selling of women and the inability for women to hold men accountable for violence. In essence, the term blames the victim.

Both “capacity building” and “gender empowerment” reinforce the weakness of the individual and offer that the poor of Africa’s only hope lie in international organizations and their own authoritarian though wholly inept governments. It’s worth noting that the strategy is very similar to that of Christianity, which requires followers to believe themselves powerless and to blame for whatever awful fate has befallen them.

Sadly, both of these terms have worked themselves so deeply into the consciousness of people in SSA, that questioning their validity is futile, which is exactly the nightmare that Thiong’o writes of in “Decolonizing the Mind”. Pointing out that “training” is a more appropriate term than “capacity building” to locals will be met with black stares.

Who pays for development?

I was just reading this on the Guardian’s Poverty Matters blog:

First, identify the most important issues. One of the main problems of the MDGs, as noted in countless analyses, was their failure to bring the major structural issues to the table. I know of no one who thinks that aid is the most important contribution that wealthier countries can make to development, but the vague terms of MDG eight allowed politicians to get away with aid promises (which in some cases they didn’t keep) rather than setting a bold agenda for transformational change in global financial governance, dealing with illicit financial flows, for example, taking bold steps towards international tax reform, and introducing fairer mechanisms for working out debt repayments.

Well, yeah, very true, but again this type of reporting skirts the issue of where those illicit flows are coming from and who took out the loans. The problem with the MDGs was that it failed to put any pressure on leaders of developing countries to stop being parasites. Worse yet, they didn’t allow for the provision and protection of basic individual rights to free expression, judicial rights and economic freedom, instead opting for a few vague and unverifiable targets which failed to address structural problems WITHIN developing countries.

In Kenya, at least, the government is bleeding the populace dry. Evidence from countries such as Botswana and Korea has shown that countries who want to develop can. The biggest obstacle (among all the other obstacles) to development is a lack of political will to do it.

To its credit, the article goes on to point out that domestic ag subsidies in wealthy countries are distorting the world market and preventing developing countries from being competitive on the world market. Eliminating these subsidies will be a real challenge, at least in the US. First, subsidies control price and market volatilities. The US electorate would go bonkers if the price of food went up and down like the price of corn does in developing countries. Second, Americans simply like subsidies and enjoy protecting agricultural interests at all levels. The right likes to pander to farmers for the rural vote while the left is somewhat bummed out because their favorite organic farms don’t have access to them. Though the left loves to pay lip service to ending ag subsidies, I can’t imagine they’d be all that sad if they were offered to their local hippie farmers. That’s speculation for another day, however, and I’m no expert on ag matters.

I hate to be pessimistic about development, but the barriers to progress are hobbled by forces both within and without developing countries and no one seems to be tackling the right issues to improve matters.

The need to look for more than just malaria

I was just reading a comment in the new Journal of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene “After Malaria is controlled, what next?”

Fortunately for all of our jobs, there is little to worry about. Malaria, as a complex environmental/political/economic public health problem, won’t be controlled anytime soon. As there’s no indication that many sub-Saharan countries will effectively ameliorate their political problems and also no sign that, despite the “Rising Africa” narrative, African countries will develop in such a way that economic rewards will trickle down to the poorest of the poor, malaria transmission will continue unabated. This is a horribly unfortunate outcome for the people, particularly small children, who have to live with malaria in their daily lives.

In all of the places it occurs, malaria is merely a symptom of a greater political and economic failure.

Indeed, we really know less about the causes of suffering and death in the tropics than many believe. Even vital statistics of birth and death are unrecorded in many areas of the world, much less the accurate causes of disease and death. Some diagnoses, such as malaria, dengue fever, and typhoid fever, are often ascribed to patients’ illnesses without laboratory confirmation. Under the shadow of the umbrella of these diagnoses, other diseases are lurking. I have found significant incidences of spotted fever and typhus group rickettsioses and ehrlichiosis among series of diagnostic samples of patients suspected to have malaria, typhoid, and dengue in tropical geographic locations, where these rickettsial and ehrlichial diseases were previously not even considered by physicians to exist.4–8 Control of malaria or dengue would reveal the presence and magnitude of other currently hidden diseases and stimulate studies to identify the etiologic agents.

This is the problem with our public health fascination with malaria. We are missing all of the other pathogens and conditions which case untold suffering in the poorest and most isolated communities. It can’t be the case that malaria acts in a box. In fact, it could be the case, that multiple pathogens coordinate their efforts to extract as many human biological and behavioral resources as possible to obtain maximum opportunities for reproduction and sustenance. A public health system only designed to look for and treat a limited window of diseases misses the opportunity to disrupt what is probably a vast ecological complex.

First, we have a problem of poor diagnostics. Facilities traditionally treat most fevers presumptively as malaria, dispensing drugs appropriate to that condition. However, conditions like dengue fever exhibit similar symptoms. While is it extremely likely that dengue is all over the African continent, particularly in urban areas, there is little ability to identify true dengue cases in the public health sector, and thus, in addition to mistreating patients, the extent of the disease burden is unknown. We cannot tackle large public health issues without proper data.

Second, we have the problem of all of the “known unknowns,” that is, we know for a fact that there’s more out there than we have data for but we also know (or at least I do) that there is a greater disease ecology out there. We know that many pathogens interact with one another for their mutual advantage or to haplessly effect significantly worse outcomes. The awful synergy of HIV and TB is just one example.

OK, I’m going to go and deal with my own pathogenic tenant which I think I’ve identified as an enteric pathogen of the genus Pseudomonas, which might have taken hold opportunistically through an influenza infection. This is complete speculation, however. Data quality issues prevent a reliable diagnosis!

Terror in Kenya and pathological domestic politics: a recipe for disaster

From the Guardian

From the Guardian

I’ve fucking had it. I recommend that all Americans live in a country where terror attacks are a common occurrence. 9/11 was a huge wake-up call for the States, but the daily threat of terror, with all of its unpredictability impacts every aspect of life, even in ways which may not be immediately obvious.

I’m not stupid. I know that I’m much more likely to be hit by a car in Nairobi than to be killed in a terror attack, but I can at least minimize the risks of being hit by an automobile. Terror attacks, on the other hand, come from nowhere.

The Kenyatta administration has proven itself completely incapable of dealing with issues of security. It’s pathetic appropriation of the Mpeketoni attacks for petty domestic squabbles is at least as embarrassing as it is dangerous.

From Think Africa Press:

Initially, al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for Mpeketoni killings through a spokesperson, declaring that Kenya was now “officially a war zone.” However, in a speech to the nation the next day, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta dismissed the notion that the Islamist militants were behind the attack, maintaining instead that it was “politically motivated ethnic violence.”

Though he did not explicitly mention names, local media outlets interpreted Kenyatta’s allegations as being aimed at the leader of the opposition, Raila Odinga. In response to these apparent accusations, Odinga in turn blamed the Kenyatta administration for failing to address the security situation since Westgate and called for the resignation of Joseph ole Lenku, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for the Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga, a seasoned Luo politician affiliated with the Orange Democratic Party, has been rattling the cage for the past few months, demanding a “dialogue” with the Presidential office. Kenyatta, who ran on a platform of unity, appears uninterested in engaging the Luo stalwart.

If he doesn’t engage Raila, we’re guaranteed a day of demonstrations and inevitable rioting on July 7th, the day celebrating the birth (return to?) multipartyism in Kenya during Moi’s disastrous Presidency. It’s going to be a bloodbath, and Kenyatta will be watching in the safety of the State House. Most likely, though, he’ll be quietly watching football. Regular folks will be blaming this or that tribe for the fallout and we’ll slowly return to the bad old days of tribal violence.

Most troubling is Kenyatta’s refusal to engage the West, instead trying to curry short-term favors from China. A new road to allow Kenyan elites to move around the outskirts of Nairobi is worth more than solid security assistance from the West. Even more troubling is the seeming lack of interest from the Obama admin to a spreading terror threat in East Africa. Recruitment among Kenyans has become even easier given Kenya’s growing political divide, providing a ripe breeding ground for violence which could spread far beyond Kenya’s borders and potentially destabilize the most important economy in East Africa.

From Think Africa Press:

A domestic threat
So far this year, there have been 14 attacks in Nairobi, Mombasa and the nearby coastal tourist area, according to data from Terrorism Tracker. By contrast, there were just eight such incidents in these areas in the whole of 2013. This also marks a geographical shift in the threat, with attacks now being more common in Nairobi, Mombasa and the coast than in the northeastern region bordering Somalia. Although al-Shabaab continues to mount infrequent mass casualty operations inside Kenya, it seems to be Kenyan militant groups operating from Nairobi and Mombasa that now pose the greatest threat.

So the line between Al Shabab and local “militant groups,” the nature of which is mostly unknown, the credit for which goes to a policy of non-communication from the Kenyan Government itself. The Americans are quite good at identifying the nature of the threats, though also quite adept at defining it thereby giving militant groups an opportunity to mold their images in the shape of how the West perceives it. Here, that opportunity doesn’t exist. On the surface, this seems like a destabilizing strategy for militant groups, but in reality, it merely exacerbates the threat by giving it no ideological boundaries to operate in. The violence becomes random, and hobbles the ability to politically engage these groups.


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