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Mfangano (and missionaries in Kenya)

White lady comes to save African children from themselves by having her photo taken with them.

White lady comes to save African children from themselves by having her photo taken with them.

I went and checked out Mfangano, an island close to here that’s home to about 25,000 people (or 16,000 depending on who you ask). It is famous for some 2,000 year old rock paintings done by the Twa people, a group of hunter gatherers whose range historically extends all the way over to Western Africa.

Unfortunately, the Twa are long gone from the island, which is now occupied by Suba and Luo people, though the Suba are quickly being assimilated into the Luo through marriage.

It’s an odd place. They’ve got a small tourism industry, are currently installing new power lines and have recently gotten true ferry service from the mainland, but the roads are still terrible.

We ran into a group of missionaries on the way back. I always feel somewhat violated after talking with missionaries in Africa. What are they doing here? This looked like some polygamous group of Mormons but it turned out they were from Alberta and Kansas.

One of them asked us what we were “lonesome for.” I didn’t know how to respond so we asked them what they were lonesome for, to which they said “Wal Mart.”

While I hate to judge, it was telling that they all introduced themselves to us, but not Victor, an employee of the Kenyan Medical Research Institute who was standing right next to us. I’m convinced that they don’t see the locals as people.

What developmental role do missionaries play? They make no demands on politicians to solve pressing problems of political dysfunction, infrastructural weakness, employment, a lack of access to capital, crippling bureaucracy, corruption, graft, nepotism and terrorism. None of these problems can be solved through missionary activities which emphasize odd moral codes more fitting to white, rural Kansas than complicated and chaotic Kenya.

A day to celebrate JICA toilets in Nyanza, Kenya

DSC_2057Today I went along with some of my colleagues to not one, but four, dedication ceremonies for a JICA sponsored clean water project.

It’s been an extremely long day.

Nearly 80% of people in this area of Kenya practice open defecation. They don’t use toilets. Of course, fecal matter washes into the lake, which happens to be where they all get their drinking water from. Diarrheal disease is, of course, out of control.

As a public health professional, I’m justifiably annoyed that there are people out there who can’t handle even the simplest sanitation solution: shitting in a single hole. However, it is what it is.

JICA has sponsored the construction of put latrines and the installation of water tanks at several schools in the area. These interventions are dirt cheap, but are way beyond the financial reach of impoverished communities along Lake Victoria. While we would assume that the Kenyan government would be expected to contribute money to help protect their children, the reality is that this area has been politically marginalized since independence. Schools can’t depend on the government to provide even sufficient wages for teachers, let alone sanitation infrastructure. Given the political problems between the current Kikuyu government and the Luo, it’s unlikely that the funds would be provided, even if they were available.

One of the schools we visited is 100% community funded. While it was a rudimentary facility, the locals have to be commended for taking matters into their own hands. I just wish they’d take sanitation more seriously.

Talked to a great bunch of people, listened to some great stories and drank 7 bottles of Coca-Cola. Off to bed.

Do malaria interventions cause human suffering through population growth?

041614_1200_Theimpactof3People often ask me this. I mostly find the question annoying since a dead kid is, well, a dead kid.

The thinking, however, isn’t entirely illogical and can, of course, even be traced back to Malthus himself. Malthus believed that helping the poor would only increase their misery through worsening conditions of crowding and starvation. If Malthus had lived in 2013 and were concerned with welfare policy, he’d probably be a card carrying member of the Republican Party.

For the record, I despise Malthus (and his spawn, Paul Ehrlich). I can’t think of a more cynical and heartless thinker. It’s disturbing to me that his ideas continue to permeate today, despite being wrong at best and simply hateful, at worst. More disturbing is how eagerly his ideas are absorbed by even otherwise well meaning people.

“It’s obvious,” I’ve heard people say while implicitly suggesting the some lives (ours) are worth more than others (theirs). As cliched as it may sound, I think that every human has both a right to live and the right to a life that is healthy and meaningful. Not saving kids from malaria compromises the ability to do either.

So far, though, no one really knows whether life saving interventions in developing countries fuel population growth. Does saving a child’s life simply increase the number of mouths to feed, thereby straining resources and insuring misery for everyone? David Roodman, a public policy consultant working on behalf of GiveWell, a group which does analyses on the effectiveness of charity programs, has searched the published literature to find the answer.

I think the best interpretation of the available evidence is that the impact of life-saving interventions on fertility and population growth varies by context, above all with total fertility, and is rarely greater than 1:1. In places where lifetime births/woman has been converging to 2 or lower, family size is largely a conscious choice, made with an ideal family size in mind, and achieved in part by access to modern contraception. In those contexts, saving one child’s life should lead parents to avert a birth they would otherwise have. The impact of mortality drops on fertility will be nearly 1:1, so population growth will hardly change.

He goes through the available data and finds evidence to suggest that averted child deaths are associated with a decrease in the number of births over the lifetime of a woman. This is somewhat non-controversial. It has long been noticed that economic development and increased access to medical care is associated with decreased lifetime fertility.

Where things become controversial is in the case of developing countries, where saving a child’s life might not have the same effect on reducing births overall. This might be true in the short term, and Roodman finds evidence to suggest this. A short term reduction in child mortality might not yield immediate results.

The issue might be more nuanced, however. Merely providing malaria interventions such as insecticide treated nets to prevent disease without increasing access to quality health services might lead to a situation where population increases quite rapidly. I would think that this might explain why some of the most malarious countries in the world are experience the most rapid population growth. Malawi would be an example.

The strategy, then, is incomplete and Roodman’s analysis might suggest that we need to take a holistic approach to include both malaria prevention and reproductive health services.

I would, however, suggest that the problem is more complicated, particularly when reflecting on Kenya, where the most effective method of reducing fertility has probably been the imposition of school fees. The issue then isn’t merely a matter of saving kids and Depo shots, it’s also a matter of finances. If people can’t afford kids, they won’t have them, but the only way to arrive at economic barriers to reproduction is to have an economy, which is exactly what a country like Malawi doesn’t have.

OECD social indicator report: not much in the way of good news

FoodSecurityThe new OECD “Society at a glance” (paywall) report came out today. It’s part of a series of policy papers assessing the social implications of the economic crisis and its aftermath, and offers a list of policy recommendations on a yearly basis.

The picture is never good.

The financial upheaval of 2007-08 created not just an economic and fiscal crisis but also a social crisis. Countries that experienced the deepest and longest downturns are seeing profound knock-on effects on people’s job prospects, incomes and living arrangements. Some 48 million people in OECD countries are looking for a job – 15 million more than in September 2007 – and millions more are in financial distress. The numbers living in households without any income from work have doubled in Greece, Ireland and Spain. Low-income groups have been hit hardest as have young people and families with children.

The financial crash was one of the most important events that occurred within my lifetime, but still some people don’t seem to get how far reaching its impacts have been. The American Republican Party seemed to mostly bury its collective head in the sand, perfectly willing to sacrifice the welfare of poor people for the sake of a few narrow political goals.

The paper is filled with interesting data and charts, but the are some other gems here. Food security:

While federal food assistance programmes in the United States now support roughly twice as many households as in 2007, the number with inadequate access to food at some time in the year has nonetheless climbed from 13 million (11% of all households) in 2007 to 17.6 million (15%) in 2012. Rates of food insecurity were substantially higher among households with children (20% in 2012) and lone-parent families were particularly affected (35%). Forty-one percent of all food-insecure households received no support through federal food assistance programmes.

As someone who grew up in a food insecure household, I take this quite seriously. Right wingers who have a stocked fridge don’t get what it’s like to have an empty fridge. It’s easy to say that SNAP benefits foster “a culture of dependence” with a bulging stomach. Perhaps they don’t know that in food insecure households, the last people to eat are the kids. Of course, they don’t care.

To “crisis-proof” social policies and to maintain effective support throughout the economic cycle, governments must look beyond the recent downturn. First, they need to find ways to build up savings during upswings to ensure they can meet rising costs during downturns. On the spending side, they should link support more to labour market conditions – for example, by credibly reducing benefit spending during the recovery, and by shifting resources from benefits to active labour market policies. On the revenue side, they should work to broaden tax bases, reduce their reliance on labour taxes and adjust tax systems to account for rising income inequality. Second, governments need to continue the structural reforms of social protection systems begun before the crisis. Indeed, the crisis has accelerated the need for these. In the area of pensions, for example, some future retirees risk greater income insecurity as a result of long periods of joblessness during working age. In health care, structural measures that strip out unnecessary services and score efficiency gains are preferable to untargeted cuts that limit health care access for the most vulnerable.

If GWB 1 is any indication, the Republican Party dislikes savings and when they get a surplus they seem to squander it. There’s no reason to believe that the future will be any better. I’m thinking about the dichotomy of labor taxation versus capital taxation. Republicans have made it quite clear that they dislike capital taxation and prefer labor taxation. But what this does is create a gated community of capital holders, who exert vast political control without having to take responsibility for, well, much at all.

While I do advocate for a national sales tax to pay for transfers to create an income floor for American wage earners, we also need to tax the hell out of inheritances. There’s no reason that Bill Gates’ son (does he have one?) deserves a leg up any higher than he’s already got it. If America wants to foster innovation, it has to start by bolstering it’s labor classes. Forcing them to go without meals and scramble around to meet basic health needs only creates a dog eat dog culture of basic survival, and leaves little room for good ideas.

Alright, happy zombie day.

Articles I liked 4/12/2014

Here’s a few articles I’ve been reading this morning that I liked.

Intellectual Property Rights, the Pool of Knowledge, and Innovation by Joe Stiglitz (National Bureau of Economic Research)

We began by noting that some observers of innovation have claimed that a more important determinant of the levels of investment in R & D and the pace of
innovation than the intellectual property regime is the “opportunity set,” the knowledge pool from which applied researchers can draw. Knowledge, it is has long been recognized, is a public good—a
common resource from which all can draw (see, e.g., Stiglitz 1987).32 Intellectual property provides a way of appropriating the returns to investments in knowledge, but in doing so, effectively privatizes a public good. But every innovation draws upon prior knowledge, and the boundaries of “new” knowledge are inherently imprecise. Patents inevitably enclose what would otherwise have been in the
public domain. In doing so, not only do they impede the efficient use of knowledge, but because knowledge itself is the most important input into the production of further knowledge (innovations),
they may even impede the flow of innovations.

Democracy does cause growth (National Bureau of Economic Research)

Our baseline results use a linear model for GDP dynamics estimated using either a standard within estimator or various different Generalized Method of Moments estimators, and show that democratizations increase GDP per capita by about 20% in the long run. These results are confirmed when we use a semiparametric propensity score matching estimator to control for GDP dynamics. We also obtain similar results using regional waves of democratizations and reversals to instrument for country democracy. Our results suggest that democracy increases future GDP by encouraging investment, increasing schooling, inducing economic reforms, improving public good provision, and reducing social unrest. We find little support for the view that democracy is a constraint on economic growth for less developed economies.

Abe’s Law: Domestic Dimensions of Japan’s Collective Self-Defense Debate (HERE)

The Edutainment Industrial Complex (Africa is a country)

So this is their strategy? Ask a bunch of relatively wealthy, globally-mobile pop superstars to tell rural youth to not participate in the flashy urban lifestyle they (the artists) usually promote–to stay in the countryside and participate in the resource extraction side of global capitalism? As Sean pointed out to me over email, the video isn’t unlike the type campaign some dictatorship (South Africa’s racist regime was fond of it) might use as a tool of “national development” or to fight crime or build national morale.

Is this a surprise? Western liberals have long romanticized rural poverty and encouraged Africans to simply do nothing about their developmental problems. Sorry, I had to put on my curmudgeon hat for a while.

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.

What will replace the Millennium Development Goals when they expire in 2015? Will the UN’s new benchmarks finally include the private sector?

The Millennium Development Goals, a set of eight developmental benchmarks which the world should achieve by 2015 are set to expire. Though there have been many gains, most notably in the worldwide reduction of extreme poverty since 2000, successes between countries remain uneven. Many people are wondering what set of policy recommendations will come next.

I’m reading “A Framework for Sustainable Development,” a document from the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which aims to bring together a number of experts from a variety of fields with the goal of developing partnerships and creating innovative solutions to new developmental problems.

The Solutions Network mobilizes scientific and technical expertise from academia, civil society, and the private sector in support of sustainable-development problem solving at local, national, and global scales. This Solutions Network accelerates joint learning and helps to overcome the compartmentalization of technical and policy work by promoting integrated approaches to the interconnected economic, social, and environmental challenges confronting the world. The SDSN works closely with United Nations agencies, multilateral financing institutions, as well as other international organizations.

The document suggests the creating of 12 thematic groups, each of which will bring experts and institutions together to work on specific problems. These include themes such as macroeconomics, health, sustainable industry, oceans, forests and governance, among others. They all address very real problems the world is facing that will require the collective knowledge of a variety of stakeholders to successfully solve.

The last group struck me:

Redefining the Role of Business for Sustainable Development (synthesis of ideas, including from the other Thematic Groups, on how business in key sectors
can contribute to sustainable development; ways for business and financial markets to internalize externalities such as environmental damage and support a shift
towards the polluter pays principle; management of non-sustainable “stranded assets” as part of a shift to a socially and environmentally sustainable economy)

It’s interesting that the private sector seems to be almost an afterthought. This, or course, follows a general pattern. Policy groups and NGOs often take an adversarial approach toward business. The MDGs adressed nothing regarding the private sector and business development. The “thematic group” here, doesn’t really appear to wish to engage with private business at all, apparently offering a top down approach to dictating how business should participate.

This is a grave mistake. Though it is entirely true that many of the world’s greatest environmental challenges are directly attributable to capitalist activities, pushing the private sector to the margins is no way to engage multinationals in working toward a sustainable future. If businesses can’t be convinced (rightly) that the long term health of the planet and the equitable development of human resources is in their long term interest, then they will continue on a path of destruction. Moreover, there is no evidence to suggest that the private sector is a monolithic entity. Private businesses are a varied in intent and practice as NGOs.

Pharmaceuticals to treat malaria, HIV and TB don’t appear out of nowhere and despite the role of the public sector in encouraging and supporting basic research to create life saving drugs, governments are in no position to bring such innovations up to scale and market them successfully.

Even stranger to me, is that a list of themes that allegedly purport to deal with global welfare would not include business development in developing countries. Rapidly urbanizing and dynamic countries in Sub-Saharan Africa faces unique challenges to bringing people out of poverty, one of which is the development of domestic economies. Lack of access to capital, a paucity of banking services and regulatory handicaps keep African entrepreneurs from growing and potentially improving the lives of everyone involved. Again, the MDG’s did not address the problem of business development. Here again, we see the same pattern.

It was interesting that the tone of a document, A NEW GLOBAL PARTNERSHIP:ERADICATE POVERTY AND TRANSFORM ECONOMIES THROUGH SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT written by leaders of two developing countries, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and and Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia (well, David Cameron’s in there, too), would be so different from the UN’s Framework:

3. Transform economies for jobs and inclusive growth. We call for a quantum leap forward in economic opportunities and a profound economic transformation
to end extreme poverty and improve livelihoods. This means a rapid shift to sustainable patterns of consumption and production–harnessing innovation, technology, and the potential of private business to create more value and drive sustainable and inclusive growth. Diversified economies, with equal opportunities for all, can unleash the dynamism that creates jobs and livelihoods, especially for young people and women. This is a challenge for every country on earth: to ensure good job possibilities while moving to the sustainable patterns of work and life that will be necessary in a world of limited natural resources. We should ensure that everyone has what they need to grow and prosper, including access to quality education and skills, healthcare, clean water, electricity, telecommunications and transport. We should make it easier for people to invest, start-up a business and to trade. And we can do more to take advantage of rapid urbanisation: cities are the world’s engines for business and innovation. With good management they can provide jobs, hope and growth, while building sustainability.

The UN’s new development framework clearly has Jeff Sachs at the helm and certainly the group intends to influence policy. But policy without the acknowledgement and inclusion of the private sector, both on a macro and micro level, is doomed to fail.

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