Could Westgate Have Been Part of An Increasing Trend in Violence in Somalia?
I’m sure it’s obvious that I’m still trying to process the recent events in Kenya. I became interested in knowing if the attack was perhaps part of a greater trend of violence in the region, particularly Somalia.
The Armed Conflict Location and Events Database logs all conflict events around the world in one location. Events are recorded from newspaper reports, NGOs and self reports from people on the ground. I downloaded the latest version of the data and restricted the dataset to only Somalia.
It turns out, that violence has been on the rise in Somalia since at least 2005, with a small break around the time of the global financial meltdown, then rising consistently from 2010. The Kenyan military, who have been blamed for the attack, didn’t arrive in Somalia until October of 2011. Sadly, their entry hasn’t been associated with a decline in events.
It’s worth noting that Doctors Without Borders exited Somalia last August due to kidnappings and violence, part of a greater trend of attacks on aid workers. Even before that, news reports were telling of increased attacks around Mogadishu.
The Economist reported increased numbers of attacks in Iraq and speculated that it was part of a wider, global trend. If this data on Somalia is to be believed, the world should start bracing itself for even more carnage. Again, I’m quite conflicted on what might be the causes of this violence, most of which is waged on targets that have little to do with Americans (despite what Ron Paul would like you to believe). I’m also at a loss as to what to recommend to do about it, but ignoring this worsening problem will not improve the situation at all.
More Scam Science: OMICS Group “Advancing Scientific Discovery”
Just got an email from the OMICS Group, whose tagline is “Advancing Scientific Discovery:”
Dear Dr. Peter S Larson,
The purpose of this letter is to formally invite you, on behalf of the Organizing Committee, to be as a speaker at the upcoming 3rd World Congress on Virology during November 20-22, 2013 at DoubleTree by Hilton Baltimore-BWI Airport, USA.
The main theme of the conference is Exploring Novel Approaches on Virology which covers a wide range of critically important sessions.
Work Shop on What Type of HIV Vaccine Research Should be Promoted?
Life Science conferences
5716 Corsa Ave, Suite110
Westlake, Los Angeles
Toll No +1-800-216-6499 (USA & Canada)
Of course, it’s entirely odd that they would invite me to speak on viral diseases given that I have never done any work at all on them.
OMICS, in addition to sponsoring numerous scam conferences and workshops, can also proudly claim to be the publisher of more than 300 journals, none of which I’ve ever heard of. They can also proudly claim to have one of the most scathing Wikipedia entries I’ve ever seen. Numerous articles have questioned OMICs’ legitimacy, and even the US Government has asked them to cease listing any affiliations with the NIH and the HHS.
Of course, they do appear on the black list of scientific publication houses at the Scholarly Open Access blog, which tracks the world of scam publications and conferences. Avoid at all costs.
Update: It’s worth noting that OMICs shares a building with a PayDay Loans place, a shady credit card company, and a company that will help you get out of paying speeding tickets.
Violence in Africa, a continuing threat
African countries are certainly no strangers to violence, thought the past few years have seen an extended period of relative peace. The incredible bloodshed of the 90’s seems a distant dream at this point.
However, since the awful attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi ten days ago, it’s possible that other groups have been emboldened to stage dramatic attacks on weak civilians.
Boko Haram, an Islamic separatist group in Northern Nigeria, shot and killed more than 40 students at an agricultural college in Nigeria. They arrived in the middle of the night and shot them all while they slept. The college could not afford proper security, though it’s doubtful that the even would have been fully prevented. Security details in Africa, particularly for Africans is sadly lax.
It is certainly possible that the attack had nothing to do with Westgate at all, though it isn’t coincidental that in both cases, high profile symbols of Western style development were targeted. While past attacks included embassies, ports and high profile targets like New York City, I fear that global terrorism might be moving to easier and smaller targets in Sub-Saharan Africa. This, of course, puts us involved in global health and development at awful risk.
During my conversations with my colleagues over the past week, the most common phrase has been “these are the risks we take.” While it’s certainly risky for us, for Africans trying to improve the lot of their countries, it’s entirely worse.
I think of those 40 students, who were guilty only of trying to educate themselves and perhaps become successful farmers or entrepreneurs. It’s entirely sad.
Iimura Takahiko, Media Artist
We went out and saw a set of movies last night by experimental filmmaker, Iimura Takahiko, part of a series of film events sponsored by the Studies and Observation Group in Ann Arbor.
Iimura, now in his late 70’s, was an influential media artist who had worked with Yoko Ono, long before she became famous for breaking up the Beatles and Fluxus artist, Takehisa Kosugi. iimura has written a number of books on media arts and produced countless films.
It had been a really long time since I’d sat and watched films run through a projector. It’s a pleasant experience listening to sound of the projector whirring through it. Having to wait while the projectionist fixes the feed makes it even better.
Mostly, being at the event is like entering some weird counterfactual to my present life. I had originally intended to go to graduate school to pursue cinema studies, with a particular interest in Japanese film. That didn’t happen and as a result I have a rough time keeping up with discussions on the humanities. I will simply have to work harder.
Unfortunately, my favorite of the films shown last night isn’t on YouTube. Maybe Iimura isn’t so keen on making this works known on the internet? That would seem rather odd. Here are some others:
More Reflections on the Nairobi Massacre
A second attack is likely. I can’t imagine that Al Shabab or any other terror organization is going to let this success lie. This was probably merely a test. And as Jeffrey Gettleman pointed out in the NYT this morning, a second attack will devastate the Kenyan economy.
If there is another major terror attack here, it will be devastating. Kenya will be branded as insecure and expatriates will leave in droves. The billion-dollar tourism industry will crash, and everyone from pilots to safari guides to the maids at the wildlife lodges will be jobless. Tourists eager to see spectacular game and life-changing vistas will go to other African countries, and thousands of Kenyans will go hungry.
I am also thinking of all the research projects that will shutter and move to safer Tanzania, Zambia and Malawi. Though those countries desperately need those projects, it will be a great loss of livelihood to all the capable and dedicated Kenyan researchers, survey workers, staff, drivers and security guards.. and their families. People sometimes become quite cynical about development and research dollars, but even the most uninteresting of projects means food for a family or education for their kids.
As awful as it is to say, I can’t help but reflecting on the political controversies surrounding the use of drone attacks to combat terror groups. Though drone attacks aren’t without their own civilian costs, I can’t help but wishing one of them might have killed the 10-15 individuals who stormed Westgate Mall before they had the chance to shoot toddlers gathered on the roof to make a childrens’ movie.
Al Shabab is a real threat to the world, to Kenyans, and particularly to Somalis. It’s hard to argue that letting them simply do what they like in Somalia in the name of isolationism and vague notions of anti-imperialism would have ever been a good plan, given that this massacre is precisely what they wanted to do. I don’t think there are any easy answers or solutions here, but to do nothing is an entirely misguided solution. Actually, it’s not a solution at all.If a recent Economist article is to be believed, the Westgate attack is merely part of a worldwide trend of increased terror activity in 2013. After reflecting for a while, I realized that terrorists in 2013 are of a completely different generation than those of 2001. The complexities of global terror are well outside my field of expertise, however, so I will refrain from commenting further.
The upside of all this, is that the event may draw Kenyans together as they never have been before. The long lines to donate blood and outpouring of support from everywhere across the country are nothing short of inspiring in a nation as fractured and divided as Kenya. My friend Karim posted some great photographs of Kenyans queuing to give blood and voicing support.
Africa Rising: The Continent Formerly Known as Hopeless
Now, barring data quality problems (which undoubtably exist), this pattern should be incredibly encouraging. Deaths from one of the biggest killers of children worldwide are finally falling after years of consistent increase. For a person involved in public health, this is a reason to rejoice.
Of course, I already knew this. Standing up in front of a classroom explaining how great this trend is stuck me, however.
I have no idea what students’ views and impressions of Africa are. For those who have been there, it’s pretty safe to assume that their impressions are relatively positive and realistic. Of course, most have not been there. What is impressive to me is how this positive change deviates quite far from traditional narratives of what Africa is about.
Africa is “supposed” to be a hopeless place of endless suffering, with no real means of lifting itself out. Discussions of “overpopulation” are often predicated on the assumption that Africans, their huge families and uncontrollable sexual urges are irresponsibly destroying the earth. This to me, reflects the horribly negative impression that even well meaning liberal Americans hold.
In part, we are to blame. In attempting to generate funds and support for intervention in Africa, we present the bleakest picture imaginable. This is really quite unavoidable. It’s difficult to get people to open their wallets if you show them pictures of Kenyan kids sharing photos on Facebook with their smart phones.
Actually, I’m often under the impression that many people even think that the growth of connectivity and consumerism are negatives, nostalgic for the days when Africans led “traditional” lifestyles. Certainly, there are a few academics, particularly those who work on pastoralist issues, that hold this view (I would argue, though, that “pastoralism” is a false concept created by academics and has little basis in reality).
The image of hopelessness isn’t without merit. The Economist rightly labeled the continent as “hopeless” back in 2000, and rightly so. The outlook for the continent back then was pretty bleak.
The data in 2013 have largely refuted the doomsday claims of 2000, but when presenting the great gains in reducing malaria deaths, decreasing new HIV infections, increasing cel phone connectivity, tripling GDP in a decade, lengthening life and halving infant deaths and a host of other positive indicators, one runs the risk of being an over positive Africa proselytizer. Things almost seem too good to be true. Jeff Sachs article is today’s times seems so positive as to be completely unrealistic.
The trouble here, is that the negatives aren’t all that easy to explain and revolve around problems that are untenable in the short term. Low diversification of the economy and an over-reliance on resources. Government dependence on donor groups to (unsustainably) fund their health systems. The mass quagmire and complexity of Africa’s most corrupt crony governments, to name a few.
The reality can’t be denied, however. Things are looking great for many, many African countries. Our trouble as people interested in Africa, is probably that we try to throw all African countries into a mixed bag as conversations of Africa have traditionally done (do we ever assume that France and Poland are the same? or France and Turkey??). This is, at best misleading and at worst, a disservice to the resilience of so many people in Africa who are doing so many great things.
We are not rich because Africa is poor (and vice versa): Part 1
I took serious issue with the statement, tried to make my case, but was unable to convince the participants that Africa’s poor economic performance cannot exclusively be blamed on western exploitation. I consider the statement to be completely uncontroversial. Someone even suggested that I might be a racist (!) after I insisted the point.
So, I make part of my case here, with the caveat that I am going to talk about Africa. It’s debatable whether all “developing countries” can be generalized through Africa, but it’s not debatable that there are a lot of developing countries within Africa.
Going that route, we have to subject any conversation about Africa to a bit of skepticism. Africa’s diversity rivals that of even diverse Europe or Asia. Home to thousands of languages, one of the most diverse ecologies on the planet, a large landmass with a non-uniform distribution of resources, a multitude of governmental systems, histories and peoples, Africa is probably the most difficult to generalize area of the planet.
Not unlike Asia, what the countries and peoples of Africa do share, is a history of warfare, political upheavals and colonization. In contrast to Asia, the economy of the continent as a whole has fared poorly for much of the past 50 years.
I will not develop a deep history of the continent and its economic woes. I will, however, in three posts,
1) dispel the common myth that Western exploitation is exclusively to blame for Africa’s generally poor progress using Botswana as a test case,
2) show that growth in East Asia in the past decades has not resulted in a depressive effect on developed economies, showing that the West does not lose when others gain,
3) finally, argue that the west loses more from a poor Africa than it gains.
So here we go. Though I feel that I will gloss over a lot of points (for space), I also recognize that this can get really long and windy, so forgive me.
Rather than focus on Africa’s failures, which, on the surface, seem entirely deterministic in nature, let’s for a moment focus on its successes. This approach will make sense, since we can learn a lot about failures from the things that people get right.I want to take us to Botswana. Bostwana was born facing some serious challenges:
1) it’s landlocked so it has trouble trading goods
2) it’s mostly desert so it can’t really grow anything
3) it has hardly any people so it can’t draw on large amounts of human resources.
Botswana was formerly colonized by the Brits, gained independence in 1966 and, at the time, held the dubious distinction as one of the poorest countries on the planet and even Africa (per capita GDP of $70 (current)). At independence, it was in the bottom ten of all economies in the world, had only 12 km of paved roads, and a nearly 80% illiteracy rate.
Worse yet for Botswana, is that is cursed with ample reserves of diamonds and other minerals. But where other resource rich countries such as Angola descended into warfare and economic chaos, Botswana claims consistent growth since the time of independence and is now an upper middle income country with a per capita GDP of nearly $16,800 in 2012, 6000km of paved roads, and a nearly 90% literacy rate. Bostwana’s Gini index is still quite high and it’s been hit hard by HIV, but despite the negatives that every country has, it can still claim to be one of the most successful countries on just about every indicator in all of Africa.
How did Botswana maintain consistent economic growth while (almost) every other country in Africa has approximately the same GDP in 2013 as it did in 1960?
A *really, really* simple list:
1) It reinvested its money. Bostwana leveraged its diamond resources to develop infrastructure and human resources all across the country.
2) It created systems which fortified property rights among its citizens, reducing the likelihood of conflict.
3) It maintained a policy of saving of surpluses to hedge against inherent volatilities in commodity prices.
4) It actively encouraged the development of other sectors, making the assumption that one day, the diamonds will run out.
5) It managed its banking sector to benefit its population. The Bostwanan central bank lends considerable amounts of money at favorable terms to encourage various sectors. It can do this because of 2) (collateral) and 3) (money to lend and decreased risk to the state’s finances) and which supports 4) (diversification of the economy).
Note that all of these are policy decisions. Even if Botswana were receiving unfavorable terms from mining companies, Botswana, with its policies of transparent banking, government reinvestment and the maintenance of savings would still have allowed it to maintain consistent growth over time. Remember, Botswana started from the bottom. ANY gain, even at the most exploitive level of terms, would have been an improvement and would have led to consistent growth.
It’s worth also noting, that, since the Botswanan government is more effective, that it can also leverage better terms with potential investors. It’s also important to note that Botswana’s resource boom didn’t come until the 80’s, when it signed a contract with South African diamond mining giant De Beers. It had more than 14 years before its diamond boom to get it right, and it did.
The moral here?
1) African countries are not doomed to poverty.
2) Pro-development government policies are possible, even in economies which rely on resources.
3) Most salient, even if De Beers had offered the most awful and exploitive of terms, Botswana’s economy would still have grown consistently over the past five decades due to Botswana’s pro-development government.
4) Assuming the successes of Botswana can be extrapolated to the failures of other resource rich countries (like Angola and the DRC), resource exploitation is not the reason African countries’ economies have been (mostly) stagnant for past decades.
I’m convinced that metal is associated with economic growth (you need electricity to have metal) and Botswana has it.
Assault at Westgate Mall, Nairobi, Kenya
Today I’m reading the new reports on yesterday’s gun assault on Westgate Mall in Nairobi. The numbers killed and injured keep rising. Last I checked, there’s around 50 dead and nearly 200 injured.
This was a horrible, inexcusable event. Al Shabab, a Somali terror/warlord group aligned with the collection of groups we refer to as Al Qaeda, has claimed that the massacre was in retaliation for Kenya’s cooperation with the Somali Army to out Al Shabab from the territories it occupies. It is unclear how this strategy is to work, given that Kenya entered Somalia in response to a series of terror attacks by the group.
It is likely that As Shabab intend this as evidence of their continued existence and a way to obtain recognition from other groups that might support them. Admittedly, my knowledge of the complex dynamics of Islamic terror groups is lacking.
The shooting as Westgate was particularly depressing to me. I’ve spent time in Kenya, and grew rather fond of Nairobi this past summer. I have many Kenyan and Japanese friends and colleagues in the area.
In Africa, only certain people can go to upscale places like Westgate. On any given day in Westgate, Ya Ya Centre, or any of the other upscale malls, you might be sharing space with Kenyan politicians, a prize winning African literary figure, brave human rights and relief workers, corporate kings, diplomats from all around the world, and a host of others.It has already been announced that Ghanaian writer and former ambassador to the UN Kofi_Awoonor is among those killed.
It is really easy to be cynical about an upscale mall in a developing country from afar. I’m positive that disparaging comments have already been made, but I will not search for them.
Places like the Westgate Mall, however, are sanctuaries in a place like Nairobi. Though I only rarely visit malls in the United States, Westgate is a place where people like me can escape the stigma of “otherness” and constant objectification, be free of the constant touting and begging that unfortunately occurs far too often in Nairobi and be in a place where one doesn’t have to look over one’s shoulder at all moments. It may sound quite awful to hear a wealthy, educated and white American complain, but in Nairobi, sadly, all of these things are a given. It becomes extremely exhausting and places like the Westgate happily provide them (along with excellent bookstores).
The worst outcome of this shooting will be that security will become even more intense. The divisions between the wealthy and the poor will become ever clearer. On the one hand, a secured area creates safety, on the other, it creates awful divisions. Nowhere is this clearer than the United States, whose history is filled divisions.
I am wishing the best to all in Nairobi right now. I’m sure that everyone I know in Kenya knows one or more people that were in that mall yesterday.
Brucellosis: My New Bacterial Tenant
For those keeping up, you may remember that I spent the summer in Kenya, working with a team extracting blood samples from camels, cows, goats and sheep. We were in contact with all of these animals on almost a daily basis. We weren’t wearing any protection at all, but it’s inconceivable to wear a full hazmat suit while taking blood from goats in a Maasai community. You’d get laughed out of town.
My days right now are running in a fairly predictable pattern. I wake up, feel pretty good, eat breakfast and drink some coffee. At about 10-11 a.m. I begin to feel dizzy, sweat somewhat, a low grade fever kicks in and a horrible taste develops in my mouth. My peripheral vision is limited and I have trouble focusing on distant objects. It gets progressively worse throughout the day, but improves before dinner. After dinner, I feel worse than before. I’m positive that the brunt of the physical symptoms are associated with anemia. It’s like a low grade malaria.
The psychological effects are fascinating. Again, in the morning, I feel fine. As the day progresses, I am less and less able to string coherent sentences together (not that I’m good at it in the best of times), lose thoughts in mid sentence and can’t remember important vocabulary words. I’m stuck in an existential funk where the thought of tomorrow is dark, I’ve forgotten the past and the present isn’t all that meaningful. I often find myself staring into space and time passes quickly.
Though I have no other negative physical effects and am able to leave the house and move around, I’m finding this incredibly debilitating. Even writing this blog post is a challenge.
From the pathogen’s standpoint, this situation is ideal. It doesn’t immediately kill the host, and the bacteria tends to incubate in cells so that it can avoid the body’s immune response. If I were a herd animal, eating and defecating in the same space, I would be able to transmit for, conceivably, the rest of my life. The low grade anemia keeps the animal mobile, yet impedes its ability to evade predators, allowing transmission to occur from herbivorous ungulates to carnivorous animals.
Again, because the bacteria hides out in cells, it’s a bear to kill. I have two months of two types of antibiotics to look forward to, both with different schedules and dietary requirements. One causes awful nightmares (doxycycline).
If left untreated brucellosis can include abscesses in the joints, spinal problems, blindness and inflammation of the testicles. It is anecdotally associated with elevated rates of suicide in veterinarians. I’m wondering how much chronic brucellosis there is in pastoralist communities in Sub-Saharan Africa. The burden must be quite severe.
This is going to be rough, but it’s better than a lifetime of these symptoms. I’m certainly finding this scientifically interesting, though I will be happy to have it gone for good.
Is antibiotic use in livestock killing humans?
This morning, I awoke to several “news stories,” suggesting that low level and regular antibiotic use in livestock is contributing to widespread antibiotic resistance.
An example from SFGate (a San Francisco local news and entertainment portal), entitled “Report links antibiotics at farms to human deaths”:
“The Centers for Disease Control on Monday confirmed a link between routine use of antibiotics in livestock and growing bacterial resistance that is killing at least 23,000 people a year.”
Other headlines, mostly from websites promoting vegetarian diets and opposing “factory farming,” state emphatically that the CDC has “discovered a link” between the administration of antibiotics and antibiotic resistance:”
“Antibiotics Used to Make Livestock More Profitable May Be Killing Us” – Truth Out
“Farm Antibiotics Linked to Human Deaths: CDC” – NewMaxHealth
I took the time to download and read the actual report (crazy, I know), “Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the US: 2013”. Within the report, there are statements of concern regarding risks of low level antibiotic use on factory farms. The CDC suggests that the practice should be phased out.
However, nowhere in the text does the CDC attribute any of the (estimated) 23,000 yearly deaths from drug resistant infections to livestock farming specifically. The report provides no indication as to what percentage of deaths are due to antibiotic use on farms, nor to any other specific cause.
This is, of course, for good reason. No one really knows.
What I found interesting, was a graphic that illustrates how drug resistant bacteria (and fungi) emerge and infiltrate the human population. In the graphic, there are two possible scenarios:
1) Resistance develops within the human gut, and resistant strains of bacteria spread through institutional environments by way of contact with fecal matter and due to improper cleaning and sterilization procedures.
2) Resistance develops within the animal gut, and drug resistant bacteria enter the human population through improperly cooked meat and through poor management of animal discharge with contaminates vegetable crops which humans eat.
The first scenario, is, of course, an operational problem. Out patient procedures are becoming more common to minimize the possibility of spreading resistant bacteria within institutional environments, but obviously it is impossible to contain every possible pathway at all times.
The second is more interesting, but again, this is also an operational problem. The first pathway, contact with uncooked meat, is a fairly easy problem to solve on an individual level. Cook your burgers or buy your horse sashimi only from places you can trust. Of course, there is no failsafe here.
The problem of discharge management is also an operational one. Farms have to maintain standards to insure that animal waste does not contact, say spinach farms as happened back in 2009.
I cannot say whether antibiotic use is good or bad for raising livestock (having no expertise in the field), though I will take many of colleagues words at face value and assume that it is not necessary and that the potential costs outweigh the benefits. The jury seems to be out on the issue, however.
However, it would appear from the CDC report, that the greater potential for harm comes from operational issues, which should be resolved in any case. Though resistant bacteria are a threat to human health (and potentially detrimental to the long term economic health of the food industry), there are many other threats that follow the exact same transmission pathways. The e. coli outbreak in California spinach in 2009 is a great example.
Though I understand that those who oppose meat eating or factory farming wish to use what I would call a distortion of the fact and the CDC report to further a particular political position, it would seem that those interested in protecting human health would be far better off calling for more stringent standards within the livestock industry.
So, to answer the question in the title: “Is antibiotic use in livestock killing humans?, ” I have the following responses:
1. It is not clear from the CDC report that any of the 23,000 deaths have anything to do with livestock.
2. Assuming that any of the deaths have anything to do with livestock, the problem would appear to have more to do with how food is cooked (dumbass factor) and the poor management of animal waste (both of which also come with other threats to human health).
Now, before anyone accuses me of trying to minimize the problem, it is true that antibiotic resistance is a serious, serious problem. Antibiotics are over prescribed in the United States to humans, and new antibiotics are not being developed (mostly). We’ve run out of options to fight existing bacteria and as long as doctors are willing to hand antibiotics out like candy, the problem will only become more severe.
NOTE: Now, this blog post is not a defense of the livestock industry, nor a call for greater use of antibiotics. In general, however, I take issue with misuse and distortions of data for political aims on any part of the political spectrum. Call it a weakness of mine.