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Links I liked, November 18, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Piketty in Nairobi

IMG_1814-e1394200875155I just got back from Bookstop in the Yaya Centre shopping mall in Nairobi, one of my favorite bookstores in the world. It’s an Africanist’s paradise. My bank account is always a bit lighter and my suitcase a bit heavier after I visit.

Today, a customer was coming in to pick up Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a 700 page economics tome which has been topping the best seller lists everywhere and probably one the best economics books to appear in the past 50 years. The gentleman looked a bit intimidated by its size.

A bit later, a younger Kenyan woman came in with a bag full of books that she was hoping to trade for her copy. The book costs the equivalent of about $70 in Kenya.

The owner apparently ordered 100 copies, but was only able to get 25. He says he has orders for all 100 copies, many from Kenyan college students which he sees as an encouraging sign. I have to agree.

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

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

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

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

Here’s theirs:

And here’s mine:

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 I’m reading now

While I was in Kenya, I picked up a number of books from Kwani?, a Nairobi based publisher which (mostly) specializes in Kenyan writers.

Established in 2003, Kwani Trust is a Kenyan based literary network dedicated to developing quality creative writing and committed to the growth of the creative industry through the publishing and distribution of contemporary African writing, offering training opportunities, producing literary events and establishing and maintaining global literary networks. Our vision is to create a society that uses its stories to see itself more coherently.

At the very least, reading these books allows one to see Kenya somewhat more coherently.

one-day-i-will-write-about-this-placeOne Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir Binyavanga Wanaina is now famous for bravely having come out as gay in an area famous for conservative and often violent attitudes toward homosexuality. He should be more famous for his books or at least for taking the prize money from one of his literary accolades and starting Kwani Press.

“One Day I Will Write About This Place” is a memoir of growing up in a middle class household in central Kenya, following some of the country’s most tumultuous social and political upheavals. Wanaina experiences Kenya on the periphery, looking in at Kenya through the lens of reruns of the Six Million Dollar Man, formerly colonial schools, local libraries and the staggering complexity of Kenya itself. Wanaina even makes several attempts to leave Kenya for good, jetting off to South Africa for law school during apartheid and after, even coming back to Kenya for the disastrous and bloody 2007 elections. His descriptions of the latter and of supermarkets sold out of pangas are no less than chilling.

Kenya has long been a mystery to me. While the country was set to become on of the world’s economic success stories, it’s progress was rapidly squandered due to a combination of demographics and bad politics. Wanaina might be even more perplexed.

If anything, the book needs to be read for Wanaina’s excellent prose. It doesn’t matter whether one understands or knows anything about Kenya (though it helps). His writing is engaging enough to keep ones attention even without understanding the details. This is one of the best books I’ve read in years.

kwani7Kwani? 4 Kwani? is a series of collections of Kenyan writing from both writers within and without Kenya. This volume focuses on subjects of travel, emigration, immigration and the lives of the Kenyan diaspora. Discussions of Africa must recognize that Africans are some of the most mobile people on the planet.

The experience of the diaspora is essential to understanding the state of present day African people, who often lay on the front lines fighting for survival in a world which mostly doesn’t want them, while providing support for all the people who depend on them back home. Immigration nightmares, the loss of connection with home, and the shaping of new identities make up this great collection of stories, poems and artwork.

(Note that the link is for Kwani 4.)

the-stone-hills-of-maragoli The Stone Hills of Maragoli – Stanley Gazemba I have not finished this one yet (“reading now”), but I was excited to pick up something from Gazemba, who bills himself as a humble gardener living in a slum outside of Nairobi. He is clearly much more than that. He is a prolific writer and journalist, whose works have appeared in many of the major Kenyan newspapers, New African and the New York Times (where I first became aware of him).

“The Stone Hills of Maragoli” follows Ombima as he overcomes his morals to find that stealing food from a garden is delightfully empowering. Mostly, the book is about life in a rural area of Western Kenya, filled with the complexities of daily life and a tightly knit, though deeply divided society.

The book won the Jomo Kenyatta literary prize in 2003. Gazemba apparently has frou other novels waiting to see the light of day.

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

What I’m Reading Now

GodwinThe Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe It will be a great day for the world when Robert Mugabe dies. His reign over Zimbabwe has been disastrous for the country. Once known as the “breadbasket of Africa,” it is now known as a governmental basket case of seemingly inconceivable proportions.

Godwin travelled to his home country of Zimbabwe at great risk during the 2008 Presidential elections. He documents, in a literary style a pattern of voter intimidation and unfathomed violence by Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party. The profiles of torture victims, some of whom are Parliament members and high profile party members of the opposition MDC party, are gut wrenching. While it’s hard to doubt the lengths that Mugabe would go to to maintain power, the zeal with which his supporters violate basic standards of morality is mind-boggling.

Most interesting is Roy Bennett, a white Zimbabwean former Parliament member who once justifiably physically assaulted another MP during session. Despite being beaten, tortured, humiliated, having his farm ripped violently from him during Mugabe’s land redistribution scheme and despite even having his wife beaten so badly that she lost the child, Bennett fights on for Zimbabwe’s freedom and maintain an amazingly high level of public support. Bennett eventually becomes pegged to be the Minister of Agriculture under a power sharing scheme, directly undercutting Mugabe’s racist narrative which helps keep him in power.

Godwin pulls no punches in “the Fear,” but at times the violence and inhumanity are so extreme as to be somewhat implausible. I don’t doubt the accounts of torture and targeted beatings he lists here. There are so many episodes and the nature of the violence so extreme, that even if the book were 90% lies, the situation would be one of the worst on the planet.

The book, however, is more saddening than revolting. How an educated and well endowed country like Zimbabwe, which was so full of potential following independence could sink to such low depths is not only perplexing, but thoroughly depressing. An excellent read. (BUY HERE)

JunkyardPlanetJunkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade A son of a junkyard owner grows up and decides to be a journalist, then goes back to the family scrap business, then writes a fantastic book about the history and current state of the worldwide junk trade.

I remember when recycling became a part of American life, but it was sold as a new phenomenon. Americans were portrayed as living a wasteful existence before recycling campaigns, throwing otherwise useful items into landfills to be buried and forgotten. Minter digs deep into the history of scrap in the US, noting that during the Depression, many people made good livings pulling and sorting trash and selling whatever was useful to whoever was willing to buy it.

The problem, apparently, isn’t in recycling or the willingness of business to reuse goods, but the costs of sorting and resorting, a problem which requires innovation. Minter points out that many innovations in recycling come from the bottom. Those willing to brave the junk heap to find gold are the most motivated to find new and efficient methods of extracting it. Even more challenging is the volatility of commoditiy prices and the sudden changes in demand for specific substances or components. The trade requires a speedy willingness to adapt, a quick sense of what buyers want and a collection of connections to link them to supply. It’s a cutthroat, though exciting business.

Though the domestic recycling and scrapping industry is a multi-billion dollar business. Now, the economics of junk span the entire glove. China, with its large supply of cheap and efficient labor has taken on a good portion of the scrap world. Minter addresses the potential hazards of scrap, much of which is sorted by hand under minimal regulation, but notes that the work is consistent and offers a way out for a lot of rural Chinese already living under squalid conditions. His easy to read assessment of the global junk trade is as much a story of the potential hazards of globalization and first world consumption as it is a celebration of the ingenuity of the bottom to offer market based solutions to the problems of potentially increasing scarcity of certain commodities. (BUY HERE).

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