Archive | February 2014

Kenya Day 8: Full of complaints

We went and visited Kwale, a relatively small community of Duruma and Digo in Eastern Kenya. I’ve been to so many of these African towns that I’m honestly somewhat bored. Five years ago, I might have been more excited. Perhaps I’m just tired.

People speak Swahili here. For real. In the rest of Kenya, Swahili is a language to connect disparate tribes, Kenyans happily mangle and make a mess of Swahili, but it does its job well enough. Here, I’m struck that even the kids speak Swahili, something you never see in other parts of Kenya.

I keep running into people who don’t speak anything but Swahili forcing me to communicate as best I can with my limited vocabulary. Fortunately, it’s all easy to understand out here.

But, to be honest, it’s quite boring out here. Life is fairly content, it lacks all of the huge and obvious problems of economics and health that persist in the rest of Kenya, and the ubiquity of Islam makes is a safe and tranquil place, if one is willing to ignore the oppressive patriarchy.

We spend the day at the hospital, meeting person after person. I’m growing agitated. Lunch is being pushed back later and later. I’m so bad at this, but its necessary and everyone is well meaning and kind.

Why are we doing this? All of Kenya’s problems are a failure of government. It’s not fashionable to say, but you can’t help but be annoyed when people spin the tired old narratives of colonialism and corruption. You guys voted these assholes in.

We finally get to lunch. I order pilau (mixed rice and beef) and some fried goat, knowing that it will be quick and we can be back on the road. Since he’s not paying, our Kenyan host orders to most expensive thing on the menu, the thing they never have prepared, the thing you have to wait an hour for. It’s hard not to be annoyed, but you just let it slide.

People are telling me what a great President Moi was, claiming that everything was ok during his reign. It was at the beginning, thanks to his predecessors, but his awful policies pushed Kenya to a horribly repressive one party state and spurred a complete collapse of the Kenyan economy, leaving the mess for his successors to clean up. In politics, timing is everything.

Now the entire health system has been devolved to the provincial governments. I’m thinking this is going to become a disaster of epic proportions. While the devolution of powers to local governments makes some sense in diverse and fractured Kenya, health problems usually don’t recognize political boundaries. A failure of health policy in HIV and malaria infested Nyanza could have devastating effects for Nairobi.

We’ve stopped in a tiny market center in the middle of nowhere. I say “shikamoo” to an old man, a respectful greeting reserved for elderly people. He asks me for 20 schillings. I’m having fun saying “shikamoo” to people younger than I am. It confuses the hell out of them.

The area is partially semi-arid and partially forested. Elephants come out of the national park and wander through the streets, I’m told. Baboons rifle through the trash. The areas close to the forest are doing better than the other areas, but there’s no real economy out here and the wildlife and igneous terrain prevent people from doing any substantial agriculture out here. The houses are in great shape, some even have power, but there’s malnutrition everywhere. The markets are mostly devoid of decent food outside of bags of rice trucked in from other areas. There are signs of American food aid and a World Food Program truck passes us.

A Japanese group is doing a survey on diet and malnutrition. It’s explained to me, but I think it’s pretty stupid. We already know that a lack of food causes malnutrition. They say they want to help. While I’m listening, though, I’m thinking that it’s a colossal waste of time and money. Perhaps it might be more helpful to come up with a better plan.

I realizing that this post is full of complaints, but here not every day is full of wonder and excitement.

We get dinner. It’s nyama choma (BBQ) again. I’m not disappointed but the conversation turns to Japanese academics. I can’t help but remark that I find a lot of it horribly uninteresting. I’m not sure why many of these groups do projects here, and even less sure what the tangible results will be, outside of raising the domestic status of ineffective Japanese researchers. Public health research really has to do one of two things. Either it should push science forward, or provide meaningful public health services to developing countries. The projects that are being described to me fail on both points. My anxiety level is high.

It’s time for me to stop complaining, though complaining is healthy and sometimes leads to substantive change. I’m getting ready to go to get some Ethiopian food at one of my favorite spots in Nairobi, Queen Sheba, which is run by Ethiopian refugees who fled the war there some years ago. Fortunately, it’s not expensive, unlike other places in Nairobi. See, the complaints never stop.

Kenya Day 7: The long wait

I’m having a hard time keeping up with the days. We’ve moved on the Kwale, located on the coast of Kenya, not far from Mombasa. I’m warned that this area isn’t safe for white people, but there seem to be an abundance of German and Italian tourists. I’m wondering if they missed that particular State Department warning.

There is no doubt that this area is filled with Al Shabab leaning fundamentalists, or so I’m told. There was a terrorist training center near here back in the 90’s. This is no joke. Mombasa is famous for terrorist attacks and kidnappings, but they don’t seem to discourage the droves of Western tourist which play an important role in the local economy.

We are hungry. The field manager, Juma, takes us to a place to eat along the beach. Apparently, this is where the rich from Nairobi come to relax and drink beer, but there’s no one here at all. As soon as we place our order, I realize what’s to come.

In Africa, if there are no customers, you will have to assume that the kitchen staff hasn’t cooked anything at all. You might even assume that they have to find, purchase, kill and feather a chicken for you. The wait might get so long that you begin to think that they are tracking down and slaughtering a cow for you. At the two hour mark, you start wondering if they might be raising the animal from birth, waiting until it gets big enough for you to eat.

And this is exactly what happens. We wait… and wait…. while listening to the torturous sounds of every Disney soundtrack reinterpreted by famous American R&B artists, or maybe these are the originals, I wouldn’t know.

Juma hates music. Juma is Islamic and makes sure to tell you about all of the hard and important rules of Islam whenever he can, which seem to mostly be about having sex with his wife. No dancing. No music. He claims that Christians are crazy and don’t value their wives. I agree that Christians are crazy, but keep my opinions on the craziness of Islam to myself. In listening to his constant moralizing, which rivals the constant moralizing of African Christians,

“He lives by the forest that runs along the valley.” These are apparently the lyrics to a song which was corrupting Kenya’s youth. He says he is lucky that his daughters are too young to understand it.

We can’t really figure out what he’s talking about and he can’t figure out why we don’t get it. But then I strain and finally realize what it means.

“Ahhh…” Still, I’m the only one who gets it.

This is a place where old Italian and German women come to hook up with large, athletic young Kenyan men. The signs are even in German. The roads are in great shape, until we get to the places that normal people live, the places I assume the “beach boys” live with their families.

We’re talking and It turns out that Shimada and his wife were communists who met while taking lunches to jailed student protestors in the era of the resigning of the military treaty between Japan and the US. I’m pretty impressed. I’ve never met anyone who was directly involved in the Japanese student protests of the 1960’s.

We stop by a drug and rehabilitation center to see a computer programmer whose help is badly needed. His parents have committed him because he cut his own throat after a week’s long bender. We actually stop by two of them. The first one is in town. There’s a Pakistani kid and two Kenyans there watching TV (though the Pakistani kid might be Kenyan, too).

While we wait they invite me to sit down and they start rattling off the drugs that they’ve done. I listen, somewhat fascinated by the variety of drugs available here. In the west toward Lake Victoria, it’s just alcohol and weed. Here, given Mombasa’s status as a major port city with extensive connections to the Middle East and Asia, just about anything imaginable is available. If the local addicts can’t find something better, though, they’ll just huff glue like they do in Nairobi.

These guys look really bad. They repeat AA slogans and talk of addiction, but it’s painfully rehearsed. I’m wondering what kind of shit they’ve put their parents through to have them stuck in a $700 per month rehabilitation facility, and then wonder if some of them might not be addicts at all, but rather just a nuisance to their families. It’s hard to say. I really hope these guys make it.

The second facility we go to is a bit more upscale. Someone is reading Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” I remember that I really don’t like addicts at all. I find the air of feigned sympathy distasteful, given the horrible wreckage they leave in their wake. Addicts can be emotional black holes, sucking the life out of everyone around them. They can’t be trusted, I remind myself. I want to get out of here as soon as possible.

Kenya Day 5/6: Kwani Press, Bookstores and Litchi Juice

I’ve now been here a week this time. The hectic travel schedule leave me disoriented and immune to the passage of time.

I finally got the Remmy Ongala CD’s for my friend The driver who delivered them to me is excited. “Do you like music?” he asks, not knowing the the CD’s aren’t for me. “Yeah, of course, who doesn’t?” I ask to which he starts beaming and listing off the names of a hundred enticing musicians and groups I’ve never heard of.

“I don’t like that white Christian music that the religious people are always listening to.” See, Kenya has an odd identity complex. While a lot of Kenyans are comfortable in their own skin, some breathe a mixture of white admiration and self-loathing, the worst of which is encapsulated in the saccharine white sounds of suburban Christian America. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs.

Can’t they at least check out some Al Green?

As evidenced by the marijuana leaves and the names of old-school reggae superstars embossed on the sides of the ubiquitous matatu, not everyone shares this love of the worst of American culture. Those missionaries from Iowa must be proud, though.

But I digress. I’ve become addicted to reading books from Kwani Press, a publisher devoted to present day Kenyan writers. It’s unfortunate that while rural poverty and warfare gets so much airtime in the Western Press, the dynamic and exciting arts scenes of Nairobi gets almost none. These are folks carving out a space in a complicated country which is sadly unaware of their mostly obscure output.

The efforts are mostly self-funded, with small doses of funds injected by well-meaning international donors. The language is as informed by the West as much as it rejects much of it, favoring a homegrown vocabulary plied from the multitude of modalities that a complicated country like Kenya has to offer.

It is exhilarating in every respect but I’m still trying to figure out how to connect with the Nairobi metal scene, which, happily, exists.

The airport bookstores consistently stock books from Kenyan writers, next to old copies of Marie Claire and US Weekly. I am looking for the latest copy of the Kwami Writers’ Anthology in the Kisumu airport bookstore. The store clerk excitedly taps me on the shoulder and pushes a giant, plastic wrapped tome in my hand. “This is the latest one.”

“Do you read?” I ask, quickly rephrasing the question which sounds horribly like I’m asking if she can read into “I mean, do you like reading a lot?”

“Yes!”
“What do you recommend?”

“Ngugi Wa Thiong’O, you should read him.” She’s suggesting the great Kenyan academic who wrote “Decolonising the Mind: Literary Studies in African Universities,” which sounds either reactionary or overly academic, but is actually a fascinating and reasoned piece on constructing national literatures in formerly colonized states, no easy task.

I remark that I’m a great fan of Thiongo’O but don’t push her for anything else for fear of being annoying because I seem to be really good at being annoying.

I’m looking up and I’m noticing that someone has drawn swastikas on the foreheads of all the white people in the in-flight magazine for Air Kenya.

There’s Litchi juice included in the lunch the attendant just passed me. Who drinks Litchi juice? I’m thinking that no one does. After pulling all of the orange, apple and mango out, the remainders are then distributed to hapless air travelers.

Kenya Day 3/4

I’m going to try to write this in the 15 minutes I have before I go check out the sunrise on Lake Victoria, one of my favorite activities. Last night, the magic was unfortunately blocked by an annoying Dutch guy.

A few things happened before then.

First, we’re pulling out of a Nakumatt in Kisumu and are blocked by a truck attempting to perfectly line itself up between two yellow lines. We attempt to drive around it, taking advantage of a tiny amount of space which leaves us cockeyed between the rows of cars. The truck stupidly backs into us and our driver jumps out, annoyed. An argument begins.

Eventually, it gets worse. A large woman in the passenger seat jumps out, baby in hand, screaming at the top of her lungs in a furious mixture of Luo, Swahili and English. It turns out that if Kenyans really want to insult one another, they’ll use English, after all, tribal languages are for families, Swahili is for brotherhood, and English is the cold language of business and government.

“You are a stupid and useless man!” I’m laughing at the comedy of the flailing woman and a crowd of men is quickly forming. This could get back really quick. I’m thankful that the angry lady hasn’t brought me into this.

I’m half asleep on the way back. Returning to Lake Victoria and Luoland is always exhilarating. People are so incredibly friendly out here, despite the poverty and decades of political marginalization. I’m hearing that support for Odinga is slipping and the Orange Democratic Movement, which once claimed unified support from the Luo, is set to split. This could be disastrous for one of the poorest parts of Kenya.

Still, it’s great to hear the sing song tonal sounds of the Luo language and it’s odd fascination with sleep. It’s a great contrast to matter-of-fact and mechanical Swahili.

It’s hot as hell out here. The contrast in weather from Nairobi to Nyanza is staggering.

I have to get to all of those other things that happened, but time’s up and I have to go and see the sunset…

Kenya Day 2

It’s now 5:30 in the morning. Today I woke up and 2:30 rather than 2, a real feat. It’s hot, so I’m taking three showers a day.

I spent the day with the Japanese people, sitting at meetings and wondering why everything has to be so formalized, and why we have to endlessly repeat things that everyone knows. Can’t we just get to the point? Eventually, things relax and we start to talk about more interesting things.

I’m wondering where the tea lady is. In Kenya, there’s always a lady who brings tea. I’m feeling somewhat restless waiting for the tea lady, but this is Japan, not Kenya.

We discover that birth control works. The Luo in Nyanza are watching their fertility rates decline rapidly. This is a welcome change in one of the densest and poorest areas of the planet. My colleagues strangely believe that the respondents are lying because the health centers claim to be busier than ever. Fewer people are birthing at home, I say.

I run into my friend Kambe, a 67 year old graduate student and celebrity veterinarian. His father was the author of some famous Japanese children’s books. Kambe is great at self-promotion and appears regularly on Japanese TV as an ambassador of Kenya. We make plans for dinner at a cheap Ethiopian place across from his house.

I’m invited to go and see a presentation at the JICA headquarters. There’s about ten people there. I’m mostly ignorant of lab things, and hearing about it in Japanese makes me feel even more ignorant. Mostly, I find the lab sciences unnecessarily tedious. It’s a way of not having to do anything, while projecting the image of doing something.

This is all programmatic. I’m wondering what the conclusion is.

My friend Toda is presenting on a cell phone based reporting system. I’m interested, but curious about the anthropology of people who work in health facilities. From here, they are kind of faceless. They are looking for disease outbreaks. I’m wondering what defines an “outbreak” and who’s looking. I’m also realizing that Kenya’s devolved system of government is as problematic for public health and the US’ federalist system.

Kenyatta loved America. It’s why Kenya has a real economy, despite an ineffective government.

I go with a professor, another colleague and her son to eat Chinese food. We drive up and the gate to the restaurant looks more like a Chinese prison, miles of barbed wire and broken glass drape the 20 foot walls. Inside, it’s somewhat better. I hear a lady singing Chinese karaoke.

This used to be somebody’s house. The English wall paper betrays the house’s origins. Every group of customers gets their own room. I feel like I’m eating in an unfurnished Southern house.

I get up to go to the toilet, but really just want to check out the rest of the house. For some reason, the Chinese owners have decided to paint some of the walls blue. With the cheap fluorescent lights, it makes for a weird neon effect, like something out of a Wong Kar Wai movie.

There’s a beautiful young Chinese girl talking on the phone. She’s dressed fashionably, perfectly completing the Wong Kar Wai vibe. I’m wondering how people end up here, in Kenya. Where are these people from? What’s their story?

A Chinese kid with a mohawk keeps walking into our room. I’m betting he was born here.

We’re discussing JICA projects. The Japanese confirm all of my suspicions that people on the ground are vague on project goals, and often have to make it up as they go along. The rigid hierarchy prevents communication between teams, who often repeat each other’s work. JICA doesn’t engage other development groups enough. There are no Japanese NGOs because private industry refuses to fund them so JICA sits in its corner, alone.

Eventually, the conversation turns to film. Conversations with Japanese people can be frustrating. The conversation must be kept light, so I dodge the questions of favorite films and actors. Actually, I dodge nearly all the questions about nearly everything, something I’m good at.

Mostly, I’m not sure what to say.

Kenya Day 1: Mini Skirts, Donkeys and the Land of No Pirates

I’m not sure why I number these from “1.” I must have a multitude of “1’s.” Perhaps I should just start a continuing, yet even more unsearchable, series.

It’s 4 in the morning, I’ve slept probably a total of 2 hours in the past 72 hours, but being awake after the stasis of international flights and the crossing of time zone is like a sleep of its own. It might be like that creepy Russian Sleep Experiment story, though, where you’ve stayed awake long enough to arrange your entrails on the floor in an artistic fashion.

What I did today. First day is always hectic, shopping to be done. This time it was a quest for hand shaking, an extension on a research permit to suck more blood from animals, a new phone and as many Remmy Ongala CD’s as existence would allow.

Remmy Ongala is a legendary Tanzanian musician. I was told that one has to go to a special part of town to get Remmy Ongala CD’s. The place where there are no pirates, but apparently, I’m not allowed to go. See, all of the other people on the street selling Jean Claude Van Damme films and Jay Z CD’s are pirates. The Americans can never catch them. Remmy Ongala, however, must have protectors everywhere, because his CDs aren’t available. At least not in the 99% of the country where the pirates live.

I get a call from my friend Tirus. He’s apparently gone to that-place-I-should-not-go and found everything (even a video) for the crushing price of $3.00. He asks me to pay double for his services. I talk him down to a total of $4.25. I ask him how the land of no pirates is.

I buy a new phone. My old one was terrible, though it was recommended by another friend, simply because he has it. It’s supposedly a “smart” phone, but it was one of the stupidest pieces of technology I’ve ever owned. Out of loyalty, I try to buy a Japanese phone, but find they don’t exist, so I opt for one of the former colonies, thinking that they must own everything anyway, kind of like how the Brits still own everything in Kenya (well, not really, but it sounded good).

The lady at the phone store knows everything about all of the phones she has. I’m impressed by the authoritative air with which she answers my questions and her insistence that I tell her what I hated about my other phone. I intentionally play a game with her, asking more and more difficult and probably unanswerable (or so I thought) questions and she doesn’t bat an eye. Best sales lady I’ve seen in a while.

You see, in America, they just want to sell you the most expensive thing they can and get you the hell out of the store so they can sell another. Here, a sale is a sale because there’s 500 more people within a 1 km radius selling the exact same thing for the same prices.

Tirus asks me about America and why it’s so hard to get a visa. I tell him that Americans are scared of Africans because they work too hard. I tell him that there are Americans who want to turn out the lights and force everyone to go back to the farms to keep them from selling cell phones and driving taxis and writing books and networking and succeeding in America or anywhere else because they are so good at all of them.

Though I’m half joking, I’m half serious, but half complaining and Tirus senses it. I buy a hat because I left mine at home.

Uganda has banned mini-skirts. Museveni is apparently paying a political price for refusing to sign the anti-gay law, so, like a good dictator, he’s turned to victimizing another group who can’t defend themselves. Hashimoto Toru would be proud. The irony, of course, is that the law merely makes Museveni even more powerful as Uganda barrels forward to becoming an frighteningly autocratic state.

The social conservatives are nodding their heads, saying that such a law was overdue. “The women are out of control. It’s time for the police to step in.” I remark that I’ve seen more evidence that the men are the one’s who are out of control. It’s amazing how deeply female sexuality is both respected and feared here. Fortunately, the voices are reason are screaming loudly, at least in Kenya.

We eat Nyama Choma (grilled meat). I eat more than I intend and have gained 10 pounds again. I blame the chips. Apparently, though, the big news is that Kenya is falling apart because someone is opening a restaurant which serves donkey meat in Naivasha. The Chinese are blamed. I remark that I’ve never seen a dead donkey on the side of the road (as opposed to dogs and cats) and ask where do those donkeys go? Everyone laughs.

I’m eating my favorite Salticrax. OK, back to bed.

The next Millennium Development Goal: Justice

I was just reading a piece by Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese/Brit mogul who transformed the African continent by pioneering access to cell technology in developing countries and then moved on to be an major voice for good governance.

As the debate on the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals unfolds at the United Nations this year, it is my fervent hope that African governments will endorse the inclusion within these goals of measurable targets for access to justice. To be sure, the dominant themes that are emerging in the UN discussions – jobs, economic growth, infrastructure development, and poverty reduction – are all still desperately needed across the continent. But the rule of law is a fundamental principle that does more than promote economic growth, and it would be a serious mistake not to include it in the SDG agenda.

Uhh… yeah? For all of the traditional developmental talk that went into the original UN MDGs, there was little mention of demanding that countries install formal and reliable legal protections for their citizens. In fact, the MDG’s asked very little of governments at all, offering benchmarks and encouraging funding for projects, but avoiding the bear of requiring that countries get their political houses in order.

Though the MDG’s made sense at the time, they were inherently paternalistic and offered little to protect the welfare of those whose sad condition was a result of a lack of reliable political representation and legal protection. Amartya Sen famously pointed out in the late 90’s that famines do not occur in functioning democracies with legal protections for free expression, underscoring the role that political development can play in protecting the public health. The new SDG’s would do well to recognize that human development cannot occur simply by throwing pharmaceuticals and money at the problem.

Though the failure of the original MDGs to address matters of broad policy can’t be divorced from the neoliberal context which informed them, it’s hard to say that their weak nature wasn’t wholly unreasonable. The 80’s and 90’s were a time of chaos and decay and a universal approach which bypassed bigger issues of institutional development was likely the only way forward. However, in 2014, the Sustainable Development Goals (the replacement for the MDG’s) will have to address issues of legal and fiscal policy along with, as I’ve repeatedly suggested, encouraging private sector business development.

The law is the basis upon which all other policy stands. Without an equitable and dependable foundation, issues of land rights, distribution and provision of services and citizen representation will be impossible to rectify.

Results of the Tokyo gubernatorial election

Percentage share within age groups for (L to R)  Yoichi Masuzoe, Toshio Tamogami, Kenji Utsunomiya and Morihiro Hosokawa

Percentage share within age groups for (L to R) Yoichi Masuzoe, Toshio Tamogami, Kenji Utsunomiya and Morihiro Hosokawa

I’m checking out the results for the Tokyo elections yesterday. I’m not so surprised at the result, but surreal nature of the election should have everyone scratching their heads. Much is made about the insanity of American politics, but I would have to say that Japan’s are worse.

Masuzoe, the presumed winner, is a “expert in international affairs,” but once stated that women shouldn’t hold sensitive political positions because they menstruate. Apparently, he is unaware that several major economic powers have female leaders. I’m thinking that the only reason he won is due to his many (annoying) appearances on Japanese talk shows. Since the only people who seem to watch television anymore are past retirement, the data here could support this idea.

Hosokawa was prime minister at one time (but retired from politics to do pottery), and Utsunomiya is a favorite of the Japanese socialist and communist parties. Both of them ran on anti-nuclear platforms. It’s worth noting that Masuzoe is also opposed to nuclear power, but doesn’t think that Japan is ready to give it up any time soon. If you think this sounds a bit like he’s trying to appeal to both camps while doing nothing, you’re probably right.

The most perplexing is Tamogami, a disgraced military general, who once wrote an op-ed claiming that Japan’s entry into WWII was the fault of Chang Kai Shek and FDR. Tamogami is an unabashed revisionist and would normally be worth on immediate dismissal, but his batshit ideas play well to Japanese right wingers. Apparently so well, that he was even able to run for Tokyo’s gubernatorial seat.

What I’m perplexed by is his disproportionate amount of support from young people. It appears that old people weren’t’ interested at all. Are the youth of Japan really this conservative?

Tokyo’s GDP is bigger than that of many countries including neighboring Korea. One would think that the electorate would take the seat a bit more seriously, but clearly we don’t live in a rational world.

What I’m Reading Now

portfolios of the poorPortfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day People (even experts) commonly accept that the ultra-poverty can be defined as living on “a dollar a day,” but rarely question what that means exactly. This book attempts to expose the financial lives of the world’s poor, which are vastly more complex than one would assume. For one, life on a dollar a day does not imply that households receive a dollar on a daily basis. According to this book, if they did receive regular and reliable payments, their household finances and strategies to preserve them would be vastly different.

Like the poor everywhere, families in the slums of Bangladesh South Africa pull money from a variety of sources which pay irregularly and with varying amounts. Often lacking access to formal banking services, they cleverly participate in strategies to lend money to friends, consider investment in a number of service based businesses and will participate in local finance cooperatives protect their meager earnings. Small finance cooperatives will even act as lenders to extract profit from their savings, acting as small, functioning banks. Poor people will paradoxically borrow rather than save, preferring to pay a premium for access to lump sum payments and prefer being compelled to pay back a loan, rather than risk having to discipline themselves to not spend savings on daily needs. and will even take loans in lieu of saving, paying a premium for lump sum payments which relieve them from having to save.

Local moneylenders charge absurdly high interest rates when calculating them on an annualized basis, but the authors find that people rarely hold the loan more than a month, so that the “interest rate” can actually be viewed more correctly as a fee for service. Micro-lending (which really amounts to unsustainable charity) is seen as less preferable than micro-finance, as poor people need not only access to capital, but also safe places to park their savings and the possibility of earning interest on them. The people in the surveys were often found to have assets which exceeded liabilities and nearly all households were found to be saving and investing wherever possible.

The authors point out three major problems with the finances of the poor the first of which is that incomes and payments are small. Second, they note that it is important to recognize that cash flows are unpredictable and the timing of payments uncertain. If people can’t plan, if they don’t know when the money will come. The most important factor hobbling the finances of the impoverished, is that the financial insturments available to them are insufficient to address either of the first two problems. Better financial tools would go a long way to improving the lives of the poor, who are often proactive with their finances.

In short, the financial lives of the poor are vastly more complex than one would assume, and the savvy and rationale of impoverished households far deeper. A great read if you are interested in issues of poverty or finance. There are, of course, lessons here for how we view poverty domestically. BUY HERE

Elusive_Quest_for_Growth The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics I like Easterly because he doesn’t coddle developing countries. Though he’s quick to criticize Western aid efforts in Sub-Saharan Africa without recognizing aid’s successes (and deep complexity), he has interesting insights into why developing countries often fail, the reasons for which are sometimes rooted in domestic problems. Too much of the development literature infantilizes developing countries and excuses stupid behavior in favor of blaming the “Evil Empire,” rather than taking a hard look at why some countries continue to fail and why others succeed. The worst disservice we can do to poor countries is to assume they are like the starving, helpless children presented in advertisements to raise money for charitable causes.

I also like Easterly because he recognizes that private sector development is absolutely essential to growth in developing countries and that the current model of development, which often relies on an assumption that the poor are happily poor and should remain as such, spare the occasional handout of antiquated technologies and inefficient top-down ideas. While I like Easterly’s perspective, I can’t say that I agree with much of the anti-aid literature that’s spring up around him, which is often myopic to the other extreme, and follows a typically tired narrative which paradoxically again denies developing countries of their own agency. BUY HERE

brecht Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic I’m digging back into my past. For some odd reason, I have a German Literature degree, which means that I have a stack of famous works from the great Germanic writers and a few books on German theater. Brecht was always a favorite.

His confrontational ideas on the theater as a means for inspiring leftist political change may have gotten him exiled from Germany but they still resonate today. Were he alive, Brecht would have still found Hollywood in 2014 bankrupt and empty for it’s emphasis on the “magical” the presence of “hypnotic tensions.” Brecht sought to alienate his audience rather than involve them. To do this Brecht encouraged cigar smoking in theaters as a means of keeping it real. BUY HERE

Odd claims that biofuels were responsible for skyrocketing commodity prices

The blog Uneasymoney, posted an article this morning claiming that policies which encouraged the production of biofuels was responsible for the crazy run in commodity prices throughout the 2000’s and was ultimately responsible for the 2007/2008 crash.

The post refers to an article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, which I am reading now but the results of which are summed up here:

the research of Wright et al. shows definitively that the runup in commodities prices after 2005 was driven by a concerted policy of intervention in commodities markets, with the fervent support of many faux free-market conservatives serving the interests of big donors, aimed at substituting biofuels for fossil fuels by mandating the use of biofuels like ethanol.

And then:

What does this have to do with the financial crisis of 2008? Simple. ..the Federal Open Market Committee, after reducing its Fed Funds target rates to 2% in March 2008 in the early stages of the downturn that started in December 2007, refused for seven months to further reduce the Fed Funds target because the Fed, disregarding or unaware of a rapidly worsening contraction in output and employment in the third quarter of 2008. Why did the Fed ignore or overlook a rapidly worsening economy for most of 2008 — even for three full weeks after the Lehman debacle? Because the Fed was focused like a laser on rapidly rising commodities prices, fearing that inflation expectations were about to become unanchored – even as inflation expectations were collapsing in the summer of 2008. But now, thanks to Wright et al., we know that rising commodities prices had nothing to do with monetary policy, but were caused by an ethanol mandate that enjoyed the bipartisan support of the Bush administration, Congressional Democrats and Congressional Republicans. Ah the joy of bipartisanship.

So then, what I’m gathering here is that the Fed was obsessive about commodity prices fearing inflation, despite the fact that the Fed was in no position to influence commodities markets. This distracted the Fed from focusing on the real causes of the crash and the Lehman disaster, making a bad situation worse.

I’m not sure that this correctly connects the dots, given that there is little evidence that the run in commodity prices had anything to do with biofuels. Even as biofuel consumption increased throughout the 00’s, overall production of corn and yield per acre also increased. Assuming that commodity prices are in part dictated by supply, I would (from an armchair economist perspective) assume that prices should remain somewhat constant.

I’m interested to see that the article disregards financialization of commodities, following a loosening of rules of speculation on ag products in the 90’s and the move toward commodities following the equity bust of 2000 as not being a major factor in the rise in corn prices. This is particularly strange when we consider that non-energy commodities also exhibited rapid price increases and violent fluctuations throughout the 00’s. I fail to see how energy policy could result in increases and volatility in, for example, copper.

It’s a tempting thesis, and made more tempting by the explicit identification of individuals who suggested and implemented such policy, but not one borne out by the data, in my limited, amateurish opinion. The list of potential factors which influenced the run in commodities is a long and confusing one (climate change, increased demand from China and India, global instability, etc. etc.), but I don’t think that the effect of Wall Street greed can be discounted as a major determinant. Interestingly, despite the overall themes of the paper, the author does a poor job of discounting the effect of financialization in the creating of commodity price bubbles.

In reading this paper now, I’m somewhat confused. On the one hand, he confirms many of my initial suspicions that the rising price of food is unrelated to supply and demand factors as growth of both supply and demand were more or less constant, despite localized climate shocks. On the other, he seems to blame a rise in prices during the crash to a shift in energy policy toward biofuels, while overlooking that commodities were already volatile and rising, beginning with the crash of the tech bubble in 2000. I am thining that much of the rise in commodities during 2007/8 was due to panicky speculation as real estate markets tumbled, not to any change in energy policy. Certainly, it may be the case the the policy influence traders to try to exploit potential areas of growth, but it’s hard, then, to discount the effect of financial speculation in commodities outright.

I can at least agree with this:

The rises in food prices since 2004 have generated huge wealth transfers global landholders, agricultural input suppliers, and biofuels producers. The losers lobal landholders, agricultural input suppliers, and biofuels producers. The losers have been net consumers of food, including large numbers of the world’s poorest ave been net consumers of food, including large numbers of the world’s poorest peoples.

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