The Bottom Billion: The Head and the Heart together.

I really enjoyed The Bottom Billion. I read it after Stephen Lewis’s Race Against Time, which was a bit of a shift. According to most of the information we covered and books we read, what will fix the situation is more money. This book presents a different view of the efficacy of aid, and I think it has at least something to do with where the authors are coming from.

Stephen Lewis, as someone who works for the UN, doesn’t have a great deal of actual power. The battle he is fighting is for awareness, for the “hearts and minds” of people in power, so that– once won over– they can put money where he thinks it’s needed. Also, in Race Against Time he was dealing with a humanitarian crisis. In a medical situation money is very much needed to buy medical supplies, hire nurses, etc. His call is always for More Money.

And on the other side, we have Paul Collier, who has worked for the World Bank. (I know, that den of all evil. BOO, HISS… wait.) His position is not to make people aware of bad situations– there are people like Stephen Lewis to do that. Rather, his job is to look at economic situations and make sure that the money given helps as much as possible. It’s all about looking at the big picture, with all possible factors and positions, and making the best decision with what you have to do. The head and the heart together. The call is for Smart Money.

Unravel that at one stroke.

I like the big picture. I don’t really believe that problems arise in isolation, and I love seeing connections made between points. (Makes me feel like I understand what’s going on.) So yes, I really liked Bottom Billion. It doesn’t make me feel like I know WHAT to do, but at least I know more of the complexity of the situation.

What complexity, you say? WELL LET ME TELL YOU.

Paul Collier opens the book talking about how we’re used to hearing the world described. There are six billion people (at the time the book was drafted), and of those six one billion are in the “developed” nations. The other five are “developing,” and they need help. He says that this is not really true. Yes, there is a top billion, but of the “developing” nations, four billion of them are doing quite well at catching up. They have growing economies, and more importantly, they have a clear path forward to get to “developed” status. The problem lies in the bottom billion (ah-hah, seeing the connection with the title now, eh?) which are not improving. While almost every nation on earth has grown and improved over the past 50 years, these nations have just stayed put in miserable conditions. It’s the bottom billion where attention needs to be fixed, he says.

So, how do we go about helping? And how come these nations are stuck in the first place?   Fascinatingly, Paul Collier points out that these nations who have failed to grow are in one or another of a certain list of bad circumstances, and explains why these bad circumstances (he calls them “traps”) are a bad thing.
The traps are:

  • Conflict.
    • It is pretty self explanatory as to why this is bad for a country. People die, economies stagnate, disease spreads, a legacy of organized killing creeps into the culture, and other nations don’t want to deal with you.
    • But even worse, once a nation falls into a cycle of civil wars or coups, it just keeps happening. This is not to say that any nation that has a civil war is going to be stuck in an endless cycle of war, just that once you have one, you have a 50% chance of having another one within the next ten years.
    • 73% of nations in the bottom billion are either currently engaged in a civil war or have just been through one.
  • The Natural Resource Trap
    • At first glance this appears to be a good thing, so why are natural resources a trap? First of all, the high amount of resources being exported causes the country’s currency to rise– and other exports (including food, in many places) becomes uncompetitive. Oil (or diamonds, or lumber, or mining) is suddenly the only game in town. This is bad for the overall economy, and also bad for when the resource runs out.
    • The large amounts of natural resource money also floating around an economy also tends to make a democracy corrupt with startling rapidity.
    • Therefore; resources = good, only resources = bad in unexpected ways.
    • 29% of countries in the bottom billion have economies dominated by resource wealth.
  • Trapped inland with bad neighbours
    • Being landlocked severely restricts trade, both moving in and out. If your neighbours don’t feel like letting you use their roads, or they’re locked in another civil war (sadly common) or if the roads out are terrible, you’re just stuck. You can’t get things you need in, and you can’t get things you want to sell out. You’re just on you own.
    • Another factor to consider is that your neighbours are in many cases your prime trading partners. (As Canadians, we should understand that.) So if your neighbours are not buying, you do not end up looking like Switzerland, you end up looking like the Central African Republic.
    • 38% of countries in the bottom billion are landlocked.
  • Trapped in a small country with bad governance.
    • Basically, the opportunities for a government to improve a country are a bit hit and miss, but it is sadly easy for a bad government to utterly destroy an economy– and shortly after that to become a “failing state” and destroy a country.
    • Not all bad governments result in bad economies– he contrasts Chad and Bangladesh, which tie for “most corrupt governments in the world” (now that’s a title you don’t want) but which have very dissimilar economies. The difference is that Bangladesh is in a position where if it avoids making actively terrible decisions it can get along okay (it’s not stuck in any of the other traps), whereas Chad is landlocked, and its economy is based primarily on aid and oil. To get ahead it would need really good, non-corrupt government, which it emphatically does not have.
    • More than 75% of the nations in the bottom billion live in what can be defined as “failing states,” where the government is actively making disastrous decision, corruption is rife, and there is little or no way for anyone to get ahead.

These are all clearly bad things, but interestingly, they’re not issues that will be fixed with the straight application of lots of money. In talking about the resource trap, it’s pointed out that a great deal of aid money has a similar effect to a great deal of resource money, in that it tends to aid corruption. There’s also the stat that an estimated 60% of African military spending is funded by aid money– almost none of which was intended to purchase guns by the people who offered it. But the solution is not to just cut off aid money either, it does have an effect. That the amount of money that has come into the african economy because of oil is roughly equal to that which has come in for aid, and while the aid money has had a measurable positive effect on the lives of citizens and the economy as a whole, the oil money has had a negligible effect. Paul Collier’s main contention is that money is needed, but we can’t just give and assume we’ve fixed the problem that tugged at our heartstrings. We have to have “the head and the heart working together.” He then goes on to outline ways that countries can break out of the traps, and how we can (hopefully) help.

I’d like to stress here that this is not a summary of the book, it’s merely a teaser of how very interesting it is. There are so many more interconnected factors he talks about– for example whether poverty or oppression is more likely to spark civil wars, and the costs and benefits of military intervention in failing states. However, I am not here to take a possible book sale from an interested party, I’m just here to raise awareness. (Not as well as Stephen Lewis, I know, but he’s a master!)<

In conclusion, you should read this book. Yes, you. You will learn fascinating things.


Body Image II: Eating Disorders

Now I see all the spelling errors…

BUT OH WELL. Here is the slide show I presented about another facet of body image: eating disorders.

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My conclusion was that while an over-emphasis on body image is not the only thing that leads to eating disorders, it can be a strong symbol of distress in our highly appearance-invested culture. Moreover, as the trend for more urbanization and globalization continues, the factors that go along with them, (even apart from a startlingly homogenous and difficult to attain image of beauty proposed by the media), are quite possibly going to increase the incidence of Eating Disorders.

Race Against Time: Women and Children Last, UN Where?

[This blog post covers the chapters “Education: An Avalanche of Studies, Little Studying”, “Women: Half the World, Barely Represented” and “Solutions: A Gallery of Alternatives in Good Faith” in Race Against Time.]

The first two chapters of this book covered the AIDS crisis, and its magnitude. The rest of the book begins to talk more and more about possible proposed solutions. And that is when the role of the UN comes in a lot.

I really had not thought a great deal about the UN before reading this book. They appeared in the news expressing opinions a lot, but many of the people reporting the news didn’t seem to think that the opinions of the UN were terribly binding. I mostly wrote off the influence of the UN as being useful. However, since reading this book I am reconsidering. Whether or not they actually respect the influence of the UN, governments around the world pay lip service to it. They agree with the objectives (I’m thinking here specifically of the Millenium Development Goals), they promise to help, and then things don’t change.

In the book, Stephen Lewis lays the blame for things not changing on the “Developing World” and the UN. He uses the example of the the second Millennium Development Goal, Universal Primary Education. Governments, NGOs, and the UN are all in agreement that universal primary education is something with no downsides and many upsides. An educated population is less susceptible to civil war, they are healthier, they produce a faster-growing economy, and– in the case of AIDS– an educated population has an infection rate half of that of an uneducated population. And yet, it is projected that 88 countries will not have universal access to primary education by 2015.

The problem is school fees. With hundreds of millions of people living on under a dollar a day, those families can’t afford to pay fees to send children to school. (This is especially true in child-headed households. There is just no extra money to spend on education.) A family might manage to pull together the money to send one child to school, or even two, but not all of them. (This would also be why, of the millions of children not in school, 60% are female.) There are, of course, other issues which will stop children from getting an education. However, if schooling is without “user fees”– this has been demonstrated again and again– the number of children in school doubles. Especially importantly, many of the children who enroll when school is free are orphans without support. These are children with education as one of their very few avenues of escape from destitution.

What gets Lewis so angry is the fact that everyone has acknowledged that school fees serve as a significant impediment to education, and getting rid of them would be a fabulous idea. In 2000 UNICEF announced that their primary goal was the abolition of school fees. They then did not mention it again for five years. In that five years, millions of children continued to not have access to literally life-saving education.

At this point in the book Lewis, as a longtime employee of the UN, delves into the inner workings and machinations of that institution, and he does not like what he finds. In this particular instance (the issue of the strangely silent UNICEF head) it turns out that as soon as she returned from this announcement she was pounced on by people who felt that this movement wouldn’t be supported the nations who currently charged school fees. They didn’t have the infrastructure, they didn’t have the teachers– just cancelling fees like that would result in over-crowding and a poor education for the children. It would be better to wait until the infrastructure could support the inevitable influx of children wanting to be taught. So they said no more about it, waiting.

Lewis points out that many nations with school fees lost the school system under conditional loans in the 80s, and had not been free from debt long enough since then to build it back up. They still have the debt, therefore in the five years where nothing was said, nothing happened.

The issue of infrastructure is one of the things that he feels very strongly about. Even part of an education in an over-full school, he feels, is better than no education. (If it’s worth doing something, it’s worth doing it poorly.) However, he feels that either people in government are committed to only doing things if they can do them perfectly, or they’re just paying lip service to it.

The issue comes up again with the third Millenium Development Goal, Gender Equality. It is not happening in any sector, and Lewis again says the UN is responsible. As everyone has agreed that Gender equality enriches a culture, helps half of the population live longer and out of vulnerable employment, and is just the right thing to do, the UN should be there to remind them of what they said before and nudge them towards making political decisions that reflect that stance towards equality. And at the very least, the UN should be setting a good example of equality!

Within the UN power structure, only 5.5 percent of ambassadors are women. So that’s not working out so much.

As someone self-identified as a feminist and deeply involved with the AIDS crisis, the gender inequality issue just drives Stephen Lewis around the bend. Women are most often infected with AIDS by their husbands, who have been visiting prostitutes or simply cheating on them. And yet, even if they are sure that their husbands are being unfaithful, (before they are infected,) they have little or no means of protection from AIDS if they were to stay, legal support if they were to file for divorce, or financial support if they were to leave. So these women just have to play Russian Roulette. World wide, 50% more of children who are uneducated are women, and as previously mentioned, infection rates are twice as high in people without education. They simply don’t know how what the risks are.

*Cue Stephen Lewis tearing his hair out*

The issue of gender equality, while everyone can see that something is not working right now to achieve it, is very difficult to fix. People just don’t seem to care. Even people within the UN, those who claim to be fully committed to gender equality, don’t seem to care that much.

My opinion on the role of the UN is not fully formed yet. I feel like I don’t have quite enough information. He makes some very compelling points, but I’m not sure if we can lay ALL the blame squarely on one person or entity. I’m not sure if I believe in the power of the UN to influence that much, anyways.

Though, after reading the book one thing I am sure on is that there is an issue. The last part of the book is devoted to possible solutions. And interestingly, none of them are “If we just do this everything will be fixed!” They are small solutions, aimed at helping part of the problem. AIDS is not a Gordian Knot, to be cut with one stroke, it’s a whale, to be eaten one small spoonful at a time.

Race Against Time: Living Under Pandemic

[This blog post covers the chapter “Pandemic: My Country Is On Its Knees” in Race Against Time. I’ve got a bunch of those posts– I think the book has important things to say.]

The process of dying is not an easy one. Unlike what we see in movies, death is not tragically pretty, and it does not happen quickly. And this goes double for wasting diseases.  If you thought watching someone die for five minutes in a movie was hard, try watching them die over five days. Over five weeks. Over five years. With the prevalence rate of AIDS/HIV in Africa at this time, one would have to be very very lucky to not have to live through the long, slow death of a friend or a family member. In this book, Steven Lewis mentions that a growth industry in Central Africa is the manufacture of coffins; regular and child-sized.

So that’s one massive impact AIDS has had on the culture, the sheer prevalence of death. Another has been the manner of that death. Once someone has been diagnosed with a fatal disease, it takes money and medical attention to make the time till their heart stops as easy as possible. Morphine isn’t expensive, as drugs go, but it still takes about 8 dollars for a week’s supply for someone with severe pain. In Africa, there are between 400 and 500 Million people who survive on LESS than a dollar a day. So no pain medication.

And checking into the Hospital is a good option, in many places. In Lilongwe Central Hospital, in Malawi’s Hospital, there is one night nurse to deal with a ward holding sixty or seventy people. All of these people, by the time they go to the hospital, are in such a state they would be in intensive care if they were in Canada. Instead, they are packed in two to a bed, often with another person on the floor under the bed, all dying. They regularly wheel in carts to take out the bodies.

Malawi is a country with a 20% infection rate, as I’ve mentioned. Of your five best friends, one of them would be dying.

I feel like words do not adequately express the horror of the situation. Language is completely insufficient.

People lose friends, parents lose children, and children lose parents. So many children lose parents. It’s suggested that the last epidemic that left orphans in such numbers was the Black Death, and we have little data about how cultures dealt with the loss of parents in such numbers. Children are intensely indebted to their parents for support structure both physical and emotion, and reliant on their parents for teaching about everything from “how do deal with puberty” to “how to be a good person.” Instead, children of parents with AIDS have to be caregivers and wage earners, and then they have to bury their parents. They have to bury their parents when they are 14, or 12, or 8.

Again, words fail me.

And then after the children are left alone, what do they do? In some situations they are able to rely on their grandparents for support, but other times they are left alone. This happens frequently enough not to be a community-rocking tragedy, after all. So you have situations in which grandparents in their 70s and 80s are raising the children of their children. Sometimes they raise the children of several of their children. You also have situations in which children are the heads of their own households, again at age 14, or 12, or 8.

The emotional toll this takes on a country is bad enough, (horrifying enough), but there is also an economic toll. AIDS has been ravaging Africa long enough that two generations of wage-earners are decimated. Industry fails– and importantly– farming suffers. When your food is still chiefly grown in your back yard, not having people who can go out and deal with it means you starve.

So this is the magnitude of the issue Africa is dealing with.

Race Against Time: Context for a Crisis

[This blog post covers the chapter “Context: It Shames and Diminishes Us All” in Race Against Time. I have a series of these posts lined up.]

Stephen Lewis has had a 30-year career with the UN. Over that time he has been witness to absolutely horrible things. Before his role as the special envoy for HIV/AIDS, he was participating in a study on the Rwanda Genocide. None of that, he says, compares to the soul-destroying magnitude of the AIDS crisis. And the agony of the situation is all the maddening because the Western World, in the guise of helping, is making the situation worse.

So when I heard about aid being sent to developing countries, before this book, I had this naive idea that it was just given. Like a grant, you know? We see that people are in horrible situations, and so we GIVE money to help. But no. In this lecture I was introduced to the concepts of conditional aid loans.

Under this idea, the World Bank or the IMF will take money (which will be reported to us as “aid”), and loan it to struggling countries on the condition that they do some things to their economy. Usually these things involve privatization. For example, they would privatize their healthcare system, or put user-fees on their schools. There are “macroeconomic limits” on the amount of doctors and nurses that can be hired, and limits on the amount of GDP that can be spent by the government on the “social sectors.” Many of these loans were negotiated before the AIDS crisis impacted, (conditionality was very popular in the 1980s), but not all. And the World Bank refuses to relax those conditions.

So in the face of a 20% infection rate, the government of Malawi is not allowed to hire more nurses or doctors.

I think everyone, whether they think social services should be run by governments or the private sector in times of peace, can see that something is very wrong with that situation. You have a slow-wasting fatal disease, something that renders a formerly healthy person unable to work and removes at least that one person from the work force to be a caregiver, and those people are supposed to be able to just pay for medicines?

The amazing thing is that, even with economies crumbling under the weight of dead and dying bodies, the money was paid backBetween 1970 and 2002, African countries acquired two hundred and ninety four billion dollars in debt. This debt was mostly taken on by military dictators. (Because lending money to dictators to buy guns and palaces is the definition of the concept of “aid.) Over that same time, the amount of those loans paid back was two hundred and sixty billion. And of that, one hundred and ninety six billion went to interest, sixty four billion went against the principle and two hundred and thirty billion is still owed.

So we have: $294,000,000,000.00 loaned (for aid.)

Paid back: $260,000,000,000.00

And that breaks out to;

Paid on the principle: $64,000,000,000.00

Paid in interest: $196,000,000,000.00

Still owing: $230,000,000,000.00

Again, that just seems wrong, somehow. Something is not right with this picture. It’s hard to fight a massive medical battle with this as your standing point.

(This isn’t even counting the effects of agricultural subsidies. In the EU and US, in 2005, three hundred and fifty billion dollars ($350,000,000,000.00 USD) were ploughed into agricultural subsidies. That’s five times more than goes to foreign aid. Hard to attain a “global partnership for development” with an “open, rule-based, predictable, non-discriminatory trading and financial system” on that footing. I guess we’re giving up on that Millennium Development Goal.)

Language never gets easy.

I just survived a Philosophy Intensive, which means that in the last 30 hours, 12 of them were spent in a class covering Analytic Philosophy.

Huh, and when you put it like that it doesn’t look too bad. Suddenly I feel less hardcore than I did before I started this post.

Anyhow, one of the things were were covering in class was the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, specifically his work on language. (I wrote my paper on his Mysticism. And that’s the last you’re ever going to to hear of that paper, because for complete lack of excellence it ranks right up there with the stories where I mistook architecture for plot and finished conversations by people jumping down holes in the ground.) In addition to really kicking off Ordinary Language Philosophy, one of the things Wittgenstein worked on was the theory of private language vs. public language.

This is where it gets interesting, I promise.

Okay, so one of the things that has been thought about extensively over the last couple millennia has been how we acquire language. The general consensus was that language was something that arose internally. When we were children someone pointed to a cookie and said “cookie,” and so when we wanted that thing we went to the pictures in our minds, found that it was called “cookie,” and asked for it. Language is primarily internal, arising from private experiences and sensations we learn to put names to.

And then Wittgenstein came along with a bag full of wrenches and threw them at everything. He said that language arrises from shared experiences, experiences that we’ve decided on a name for. It is essentially public, and essentially experiential. Even in the example of the child pointing at the cookie, the important part is not that the child wanted to name the thing a cookie. The child wanted a cookie. (Speaking of shared experiences, pretty sure that one’s common…) We don’t walk around with a catalogue of names of things in our head, we walk around with a collection of actions in our heads.

From this it follows that language is essentially culturally constructed. (And if you add the fact that experience is filtered through “language,” experience is culturally constructed, and so is reality, but that’s a head trip I’ve barely even started synthesizing yet, much less decided if I agree.)

Speaking of experiences that make sense within culture…

So that’s interesting.

I had never gone into the issue as deeply as we did this weekend before, but I had thought of language as a cultural construction before. It’s one of the things that comes up if you move a lot. (Just trying referring to the boot of a car in California and see how far that gets you.) And it’s also something that comes up if you’re writing or studying writing. It’s why you often need to know where or when someone comes from before you interpret their work, or you’re left thinking as all those poets talking about courtly love as creepers who can’t even talk to women. Where if you know that the genders were entirely segregated at the time of the writing, you know that the poet isn’t a creeper for not talking to his lady love. (He’s a creeper for other reasons. :D)

One of the things I was wondering this summer was whether a common language is actually an impediment to communication in our world. We have so many people who speak English, and because of our shared media and art we all talk fairly similarly. There are, or course, exceptions– Singlish being one which comes to mind– but generally most people who talk English are fairly comprehensible to each other. However, we don’t all come from the same culture. Yes, we come from similar cultures, but our experiences range from subtly to very different. And yet, we all have the same words for things. So we assume we’re talking about the same things, when sometimes we really aren’t.

I beg your pardon?

I thought of this again when #Occupy protests started spreading around the globe. Because yes, in the USA when you say “Bank,” you’re talking about an institution which has some serious institutional flaws. More Regulation Needed, Please. However, that isn’t necessarily the same everywhere. In Canada while the USA financial system ours was the most stable in the world. So when people hear on the news that “the financial system is corrupt and flawed and needs to be changed,” and then they go out and protest it, they’re protesting an issue that might not even exist in their country. If it does exist, it’s certainly not going to be fixed with the same solutions here! But because the words are the same, we assume the experiences and references are the same.

tl;dr version: Define your terms.