Protests in Focus: Venezuela and the Ukraine

Friday, February 28, 2014

The popular uprisings in Venezuela and the Ukraine have both gotten really ugly, really fast. They were sparked and perpetuated by different factors, but both have received somewhat spotty media coverage (which occasionally even mixes up the two). American meddling has also been heavily implicated in the two (which is as likely true as not). There are so many neglected crises in the world right now (the Central African Republic comes to mind), but I thought I would close the week by shining a light on two of the newest ones.

The unrest in the Ukraine, now popularly referred to as Euromaidan ("Euro" being short for Europe and "maidan" refering to Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, in Kiev), began last November in response to the Ukrainian government walking back on plans to sign Association and Free Trade Agreements with the EU. According to Wikipedia and most major news outlets, the Ukraine has been tugged back and forth between Europe and Russia, which has historically had very close ties with, and a lot of influence in, the country. The agreements with the EU were supposed to be first steps toward European integration. However, the Ukrainian government put the brakes on after Russia halted the importation of all Ukrainian goods and after receiving an offer for an IMF loan with harsh terms.

The protests began at the end of November and grew in December, with tens of thousands of protesters taking to the streets in increasingly violent demonstrations. At the end of January, activists began taking over and occupying government buildings. After enough politicians defected, the opposition finally had enough votes in parliament to oust President Viktor Yanukovich, as well as remove police from Kiev, cancel anti-protest operations, restore the 2004 constitution, and free political prisoners. According to documents recently obtained by journalists, Yanukovich, who fled Kiev on Friday, was planning to use deadly force to quell the demonstrations.
Although its authenticity could not be confirmed, parliamentary deputy Hennadi Moskal, a former deputy interior minister, published a document online detailing a plan to surround Independence Square – the cradle of the uprising – with snipers and open fire on the protesters below.

Armoured vehicles and about 22,000 police would have been involved, including about 2,000 Berkut riot police, if it had been fully enacted, the document showed.
There have been at least 79 people killed and 570 injured, according to the Wikipedia article. There is now an interim president, with elections scheduled for this May. Somehow I feel like we have seen this before.

La Salida, the protests in Venezuela, could not be more different. The country's monstrously high inflation (currently the highest in the world) and severe shortages of basic household goods have been in the news for weeks. Economic hardship combined with high crime rates and ruthless oppression of free speech and press boiled over in early January. In Venezuela, however, President Nicolas Maduro is carrying the torch of the Chavez personality cult, which has resulted in equally large pro-government rallies and clashes between pro-government and opposition protesters. Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez (who tried to seize power in a 2002 coup) was arrested at the culmination of a highly publicized opposition protest.
Valencia, Venezuela. Photo Credit: Twitter.

Maduro has been shutting down media and using paranoia and scare tactics to try to control the country. He removed the Colombian channel NTN24 from public cable after it covered opposition protests, denounced AFP for "manipulating information," and tried to eject three CNN journalists. Opposition news channels have had their licenses revoked. They even shut off internet access for a million people in San Cristóbal. Alas for Maduro, the repression seems to only be making things worse.
And while the demonstrators condemn a wide range of perennial problems, including rampant crime, high inflation and shortages of basic goods like sugar and toilet paper, the intensity of the protests has been fueled by something more subtle and perhaps stronger — a sense that the spaces to voice disagreement with the government are shrinking and disappearing.

“You have a government that increasingly, since the time of Chávez but even more with Maduro, has practically closed the channels of communication,” said Margarita López Maya, a historian who studies protest movements. “If you have a society that has no institutional channels to raise its complaints, make demands, form policy, the tradition in Venezuela and in Latin America and I think throughout the world is to take to the streets.”

Nifty Infographics Galore: Information Geographies at the Oxford Internet Institute

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Holy moly, I love Oxford. My infatuation began with my discovery of Forced Migration Review, a journal on forced displacement published three times a year by the university's Refugee Studies Center. The journal was a great knowledge resource for me when I first took an interest in refugee issues (and I even got two articles published in it!). Now, to the delight of my inner social media/information junkie, I have discovered the Oxford Internet Institute's Information Geographies project, a magical wonderland of all kinds of nifty infographics, most of which you would never think to compile.

For those of you who might be wondering, I have not in fact been paid off by Oxford to sing their praises. I just think they are awesome.

The infographic that initially caught my eye was this one, "Internet Population and Penetration," which shows the total number of Internet users in a country as well as the percentage of the population with Internet access, based on data from the World Bank.

But there are dozens of others on the site as well. Many of the maps focus on Wikipedia (not exactly sure why; maybe because it's easy to get data from it?), but several others look at media coverage, usage of social media (e.g., Twitter and Flickr), internet accessibility, health, and gender. It's fabulous stuff.

Right Group Implicates Myanmar Government in Crimes Against Humanity in Damning Report

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The human rights-focused NGO Fortify Rights, which is based in Southeast Asia, has released a damning report on the Myanmar government's treatment of Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic minority group that is not considered one of the country's "recognized minorities" (the government considers them illegal migrants from Bangladesh). The government's longstanding oppression of this particular group is systematic and suffocating and has been going on for years (in fact, it was one of the issues that first got my attention and inspired my special interest in human rights in Myanmar), but this report is one of the most comprehensive on the subject and severe in its condemnation:

A report entitled “Policies of Persecution: Ending Abusive State Policies Against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar”, released by Fortify on Tuesday, implicates authorities in crimes against humanity by virtue of explicit targeting of Rohingya Muslims in policies restricting marriage, childbirth rights and movement.

“The policies explained in this report appear to be designed to make life so intolerable for Rohingya that they will leave the country, and indeed many have,” reads the executive summary.

The 79-page report is based on 12 leaked documents, eight of which were made public for the first time in the publication. Four remain undisclosed for security reasons, said Fortify.

Three regional orders disclosed in the report detail restrictions on the rights of Muslims to marry, reproduce and reside, establishing strongly prohibitive registration and approval processes. Addenda to the orders detail and intensify restrictions, explicating punishments for offences. Some carry prison sentences of up to ten years.
You can read the full report here.

Foreign Policy magazine excerpts "Who Shot Ahmed?", DAWNS Digest's first ebook

Friday, February 21, 2014

Who Shot Ahmed?, the first ebook produced by DAWNS Digest, has been excerpted in Foreign Policy magazine! (Disclaimer: As you might have guessed from the button on the right-hand side of my blog, I work for DAWNS.) Below is the official DAWNS announcement.

Three years ago this week a peaceful protest broke out in the small Persian Gulf Kingdom of Bahrain.

It was brutally suppressed.

The events surrounding Bahrain’s Arab Spring provide the backdrop for the first e-book published as part of DAWNS’ humanitarian reporting series. Who Shot Ahmed? A Mystery Unravels in Bahrain’s Botched Arab Spring by the journalist Elizabeth Dickinson is a gripping story about one victim of this violence and his family’s quest for justice.  Foreign Policy ran an excerpt our book to mark the third anniversary of the uprising.

Who Shot Ahmed? is available on Amazon for $2.99 from the Kindle Single store. Please buy the book. Learn about an under-reporting topic of global import. Support this kind of reporting. And share Ahmed’s story with the world.

As always, thank you all for your support.

-Mark and Tom

Turkey's unique (and expensive) refugee camp for Syrians: the perfect refugee camp?

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Last week, the New York Times magazine ran a special in-depth story on Kilis, one of Turkey's camps for Syrian refugees fleeing their country's civil war. Kilis is absolutely nothing like what we know of other refugee and IDP camps: it's clean, (comparatively) safe, and efficient; there are no tents; groceries are cheap and haircuts are free. The residents express effusive praise and gratitude toward the Turkish government, while diplomats and aid workers praise it as the best refugee camp they've ever seen. Is this a sustainable model for future refugee camps?

Maybe and maybe not. In several ways, it's a huge improvement on the more "typical" refugee camp set-up. The schools are well-built and well-staffed. Instead of receiving handouts of rations, families buy food at on-site groceries stores with debit cards provided by the Turkish government, which (as acknowledged by a WFP worker, is much more efficient). Families live in trailers with locks, rooms, and satellite TVs with hundred of channels. The streets are well-lit at night, and violent crime is rare.

There are two main differences that set Kilis apart from other refugee camps. The main one is that it is run entirely by the Turkish government, rather than UNHCR (the UN branch that deals with refugees), and it has only a few NGOs in minor support roles.
Rather, Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency, or AFAD, asked the U.N.H.C.R. for its camp guidelines — minimum distance between tents, and so on — and then designed its own. ...This approach, while costly, has given the Turks a measure of control over every detail — including who is working in their country. Typically, camps are serviced by a number of NGOs, and there can be overlap — or gaps — in the services they provide. The agencies may fight among themselves or clash with local leaders; each has its own hierarchies and staff members, drawn from an unlimited number of nations. Running a camp that way, the Turkish government official speculated, would be complicated: “There’s too many people coming and going. It’s not secure. And it’s distracting.”
This cuts out a lot of the inefficiency and overlap that we see so often in humanitarian crises, where there is little coordination and NGOs rush in, often fighting with each other for resources and control. However, there is also a legal loophole here: the refugees in the camp are not technically considered refugees, due to a legal loophole.
Technically, the 14,000 residents at Kilis are not refugees but “guests” of Turkey. This is not just semantics. The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees prohibits states from forcing them back over borders into danger and guarantees their right to work, shelter, travel and public assistance. Turkey signed the agreement but did so with a “geographical limitation”: Its mandate applies only to refugees from Europe.
This has the potential to create problems if the Turkish government has a change of heart toward the refugees in the future, due to political unrest or shifting of popular opinion.

The other major barrier to sustainability is the cost: operating a camp in this manner, while providing an enormous improvement to quality of life from typical tent camps, is extraordinarily costly.
But operating camps this way is expensive. “This has cost them,” Batchelor says. Expenditures at the Kilis camp run to at least $2 million a month. By the end of 2013, the Turkish government had spent $2.5 billion on its Syrian guests, primarily in camps — a figure that has created resentment among Turks.

Suicide among the elderly in East Asia on the rise

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Suicide is a major social and public health issue in many East Asian countries. As teachers in South Korea, suicide among adolescents and young adults (our students' age) was often a topic of conversation in the expat community, both as a growing crisis and a phenomenon that we could not easily relate to because of vast cultural differences. Individualism is highly prized among most Westerners, so the concept that excessive social pressure and inability to meet the expectations of relatives drove people to kill themselves was alien to most of us.

Suicide rates per 100,000 by country. Image credit: Wikipedia.

A recent article from GlobalPost, however, focuses on a slightly different demographic: suicide among
the elderly. Paradoxically, however, the rising rates of suicide in this group are not going up in poor countries but in rich ones. The WHO found higher rates among the elderly of China, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea and Singapore, rather than less-developed ones like Vietnam and Sri Lanka.

There are general reasons in addition to country-specific ones. In many of these countries, a sharp drop in the birth rate has led to younger generations being disproportionately burdened with care of the elderly, whether the rates fell naturally (e.g., Japan or South Korea) or through governmental efforts like China's one-child policy. Older people also struggle with the disintegration of the family unit that comes with rapid economic growth - China again is an example where younger people migrate to urban centers, leaving the elderly in the rural villages, often without caregivers. Certain other scenarios are country-specific, like the SARS outbreak in Hong Kong, which saw the elderly committing suicide so as not to be a burden on their families. Japan also has a long and somewhat unique history of honorable suicide. The article goes on to examine the some of the strategies to address the issue, like ramping up social services and activities for older populations.

On a rather shocking side note, some research on the internet led me to the factoid that Greenland has the world's highest suicide rates among both men and women.

Nifty infographic of the week: Press freedom around the world

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

This week's nifty infographic comes from Reporters Without Borders, which released its 2013 World Press Freedom Index last week. Below is a map taken from the report, which shows the countries of the world color-coded by their level of press freedom (or lack thereof).

As usual, Scandinavia, New Zealand, and Canada (along with Namibia, which was surprising to me) lead the pack, with China, North Korea, Eritrea, and Turkmenistan bringing up the rear. The US has a "satisfactory situation," but the report notes that there were significant setbacks last year.

UN (finally) releases a damning report on human rights abuses in North Korea

Anyone who looks beyond the annual springtime media hysterics as North Korea threatens to destroy the world each year knows that atrocities and human rights abuses have been systematically carried out by the government on a massive scale for years. There is no free speech, no semblance of a free press, and no religious freedom. Citizens are assigned jobs that they must work, and they have to pay the government if there is no work to do. Political "dissidents," along with their families, languish in gulags where children are born and grow up, knowing nothing of the outside world. Peasants starve and ordinary citizens pass meth around to suppress appetites for lack of enough to eat. Paranoia is a way of life where neighbors are encouraged to denounce each other for dissidence.

And yet, until now, the international community has primarily preoccupied itself with the regime's embarrassing missile launch attempts and pathetic nuclear tests.

DPRK Propaganda Poster of Kim Il-Sung. Image credit: Wikipedia.
But now - finally - all that is about to change. Last year, the UN Human Rights Commission set up a panel to collect and review evidence of human rights violations in the Hermit Kingdom. Their findings, which were released in full on Monday, are damning on a scale hitherto unseen from the typically-reserved UN. Leaked information includes "an account of a woman forced to drown her own baby, children imprisoned from birth and starved, and families tortured for watching a foreign soap opera."

Remind me not to go to North Korea; I love Brazilian soaps.

At work since last March, the panel has gathered information from "satellite imagery, evidence and testimonies from more than 100 victims, witnesses and experts regarding North Korea" and includes information collected by Amnesty International.
"This may actually be the best chance we've had in a long time to raise the profile, to get more attention to the grave situation inside North Korea and to actually put pressure on the government at the UN and by other governments to make change on the ground," Roseann Rife, East Asia research director at Amnesty International, told Al Jazeera on Sunday.
Naturally, the North Korean government has refused to cooperate with the investigation, dismissed all who testified as "human scum," and dismissed the whole exercise as a US-led conspiracy. The human rights advocates who are most excited about this report also acknowledge that it won't carry much weight in the UN. Still, they acknowledge that it is an important starting point.
China, the North's major ally and main benefactor, stands ready to veto any attempt to mobilise the UN Security Council to open an investigation against North Korea, a non-signatory to the International Criminal Court.

"Nobody is as naive to think that this could mean change overnight, but it has to be this increased pressure, this ongoing look at and shining the light on what's going on inside North Korea that will eventually have an impact," Amnesty International's Rife said.

For Valentine's Day, the Economist looks at condom innovation

Monday, February 17, 2014

According to the Economist's smart and not-so-subtly cheeky nature, the magazine published an article on condom innovation, funded by the Gates Foundation, for Valentine's Day last Friday. The article briefly examines some proposals that were awarded seed money from the foundation and then discusses the practicality of the push for reinventing the world's oldest contraceptive.

Photo credit: Wikipedia
Some of the proposed innovations are quite fascinating, actually. Proposals include everything from using graphene or collagen to strengthen them, using polymers to allow it self-lubricate or bind spermicides, or using different materials to make it easier to put on or help it stay in place. The main targets for improvement are efficacy (to make it less likely to break, obviously) and, for lack of a better word, "sexiness" - because researchers widely acknowledge that stopping the fun to put one on is a real mood-killer.

The more interesting question, however, seems to be whether or not a better condom will be of interest to the Gates Foundation's target populations in developing countries.
According to the Population Reference Bureau, an American think-tank, 20% of married couples in rich countries use condoms, while 18% prefer the pill—and these two methods are the most popular forms of contraception in such places. In poor countries, intrauterine devices and sterilisation are the most popular methods, and the respective figures for condoms and the pill are 4% and 7%. Moreover, the rapidly falling birth rates in most poor countries suggest that, for family planning purposes, radical change is not needed. So the paradox is that if a better condom does emerge from all this effort, it may be enjoyed more by the rich world’s inhabitants than those of the poor world at whom, at least in Mr Gates’s eyes, it is aimed.
Putting contraception aside, the condom is still one of the best tools for preventing the spread of HIV, so the research will certainly not go to waste.

Radio stations in India offer support to the country's gay community

Friday, February 14, 2014

I have always been a fan of "Radio Free [insert country here]"-type projects and radio stations that provide information and support to underserved communities, so I thought this story from IPS was particularly cool. It focuses on two Indian radio stations, both based in Bangalore, which support India's highly-stigmatized LGBT community.
In her small four by four-foot studio, Vaishalli Chandra, channel manager of QRadio which is dedicated to the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community, is in conversation with Ankit Bhuptani, a 21-year-old gay youth from Mumbai.

...

Thanks to opportunities to network, unburden themselves and celebrate, radio is clearly emerging as the choicest media of the LGBT community in India.

Priyanka Divakar hosts a show for the queer community titled “Yari Ivaru (who is this person?)”, aired on Radio Active, a Bangalore-based community radio station that started in 2010 that broadcasts on an FM channel, rather than through the Internet. Divakar comes from the same LGBT community that her programme is for.

Born a man, Divakar underwent sex reassignment surgery to become a woman after suffering for years what most LGBT people face in India: lack of civil rights, social ostracism, stigma and mockery. Gay sex is a criminal offence in the country.

Both Chandra and Divakar firmly believe that their shows increase freedom of expression by giving LGBTs a platform to be themselves. Guests here talk about their identity struggle, the reaction of their families to their sexuality and the opposition of society.

Myanmar (Burma): Still not winning on free speech or free press

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Line up to get slapped! In news not from the Onion, Myanmar's Minister of Livestock Breeding, Fisheries and Rural Development flew off the handle during a meeting with some villagers who had the audacity to complain about lack of access to water and threatened to slap them. Yes, to slap them. He'll dare slap anyone! It's the international way:
The former military general and current MP for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party met with residents of Magwe’s Thityargauk village on 28 January, where he became irate over complaints about access to water. Locals questioned him about ministry plans for assistance to the remote village, which led to the outspoken minister’s tirade.

“I am General Ohn Myint and I’ll dare to slap anyone in the face,” he said. “I will attack anyone who insults the ruling government and if I cannot attack them verbally, I will throw them in jail – this is how it’s done internationally – if you oppose the government, you go to jail and only come out when we’re out of office.”
That's right, general! You tell those ignorant villagers exactly how democracy works. Here is the whole video from DVB.


In other news, an MP "may be responsible for defamation" for suggesting that local police were complicit when a group of Arakanese Buddhists set fire to Rohingya Muslim homes in Muangdaw, and several journalists were thrown in jail over an investigative report of a chemical weapons site. No wonder critics are calling out the Obama administration for getting too cozy with Myanmar's generals.

Insurance for social ills...Teacher, what?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

This story, while somewhat weird, struck close to home for me after having lived and taught in South Korea for almost two years. As part of new President Park Geun-hye's efforts to address these pressing issues in South Korean society, Hyundai will now begin offering insurance for what have been dubbed the "four evils" of Korean society: bullying in school, adulterated food products, domestic violence, and rape.

Teacher...what?
"Municipalities would be able to take out insurance on behalf of its citizens, and schools would be able to do so on behalf of students," FSS non-life insurance division director Yoo Byung-soon told CNN.

"This insurance comes out of voiced needs to rescue those who cannot pay for insurance themselves," said Yoo.

Instead of payouts being customized on a case-by-case basis, a predetermined compensation will be given once the insured meet the necessary criteria, as laid out by the company and the government.

The new policy will also cover psychological damage to some extent -- a landmark move as insurance coverage for psychological services have been notoriously difficult to obtain in the past, to the point where it is widely believed that seeking psychological help will hurt insurance premiums and have a crippling impact on any future coverage.

Far from being a sales gimmick, the new insurance policy is a studied reflection of the issues facing modern South Korean society.
I certainly support measures to address these issues; obviously, as teachers, we constantly had to watch for and address bullying, and I know that sexual assault is highly stigmatized in Korean society as well. This seems like an innovative way to help institutions to provide treatment for victims, though it is uncomfortably reminiscent of the "rape insurance" debacle a few years back. I would like to see emphasis on prevention and public education as well.

Handing over ownership to local NGOs already placed in the community

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Here is an interesting piece posted in the Guardian Professional's Global Development Professionals Network. The CEO of a former INGO that focused on child care and protection, explains the organization's shift from directly-funded programs to its establishment as a hub to connect a series of locally-placed organizations in different countries in order to facilitate the sharing of expertise.
EveryChild is shifting its funding away from the delivery of direct programming to funding a new global alliance of national NGOs, Family for Every Child. The alliance pools the expertise of up to 50 organisations that specialise in providing child care and protection. Instead of spreading funds across 15 direct delivery programmes, EveryChild will fund the sharing and amplifying of members' expertise so that they can improve their own programmes and collectively have more influence.

The move to an alliance model is not only to achieve greater scale and reach, although growing from 15 partner organisations to 50 members is not to be sniffed at. It is also about development principles and an acceptance of change.
She then goes on to discuss why more international organizations don't do this, since they spend so much time talking about it.
If local organisations working closest to communities have the best knowledge and are able to respond most appropriately to needs, why don't more INGOs genuinely transfer power rather than just talk about it?

I think it's because there is a conflict of interests. The INGO federal model in particular has been very successful – organisations that use it spend billions of dollars and their programmes reach millions of people. Global brands like World Vision, Oxfam or Save the Children have immense power. They can access governments, and their representatives are the first to be asked to attend regional and national consultations. Their reluctance to give up this power and influence is because they fear that local NGOs might not be able to replicate it easily.

...

The other challenges to working in an alliance exist in any global organisation, for example overcoming barriers of different time zones, languages and cultures. If you add requirement to achieve member sign off and consensus, there is a risk of slowing down response times and watering down policy positions. In our research, these practical considerations came top of the list of risks.

But probably the biggest challenge is overcoming prejudices and the mutual suspicion between INGOs and national NGOs. The assumption held by many in the north – including initially EveryChild – is that national NGOs in the south don't have the skills and experience to play a more significant role in international development and that their weak systems are vulnerable to corruption and mismanagement. And the assumption by many NGOs in the south is that INGOs are full of empty rhetoric who will never give up power because of self-interest.

Global food security vs. poverty and dignity: Resurrecting an old debate

Monday, February 10, 2014

Last week I saw a very interesting post on the Guardian's Global Development Professionals Network. It is a great piece about improving the infrastructure and increasing access to financing and technology by small-scale farmers. The post's central question, however, is not one of resources but of age: what can we do about the fact that the average age of the global farmer keeps rising?
Aside from these well-known hurdles, what is less often discussed is the demographic challenge that could limit global food production. Farmer populations are ageing rapidly. Worldwide, the average age of farmers is about 60, including in developing countries, and many amongst them are women and poorly educated. Older farmers are less likely to introduce new, transformative production techniques.

One could expect their children to do so, especially in developing countries where 60% of the population is under 25 years of age and most living in rural areas. The problem is, however, that few rural youth see a future for themselves in agriculture. At the same time, by 2030, 60% of the world's population is projected to live in urban areas. As urban populations consume higher-protein food, the demand for meat and processed food is rising, which is expanding land use for livestock production, further accelerating deforestation and increasing greenhouse gas emissions by agriculture.

Can these challenges all be addressed simultaneously? Yes, but only with concerted efforts on a number of fronts. Key for change will be a focus on supporting farmers to design their own programmes and engaging young farmers.
I take absolutely no issue with looking to small scale farmers for ideas or innovations. No one can argue that they have a wealth of knowledge, experience, and insight into agriculture and are an invaluable resource to the farming collective. But does the key to global food security really lie in enticing young people to get into small-scale agriculture? As I read this piece, my memory was jogged to recall a blog post by Owen Barder for World Food Day back in 2010, when I was first wading into the aid and development blogosphere. Ah, those were the days.
[T]he fact that the majority of the world’s poor work in agriculture means, [according to the agricultural lobby], that the best way to improve the incomes of the poor, and so reduce hunger, is to increase agricultural productivity. More adventurously they claim that more effective agriculture can drive the whole process of development, by increasing farm incomes, leading to rising savings and investment and so kick-starting industrialisation.

This is a plausible story, but it is not as persuasive as the alternative interpretation of the high correlation between poverty and agriculture: the fact that most poor people work in agriculture suggests that the best way to escape poverty is to get out of agriculture.

When people leave farms and get jobs in manufacturing their incomes are both higher and more secure. Demand for food in the cities grows; the number of people working in agriculture falls; food prices rise; and the remaining farmers get higher incomes. Rising incomes enable farmers to invest more in irrigation, fertilizer, machinery and seeds. Agricultural productivity rises, not as a consequence of direct efforts to improve agriculture but as the indirect consequence of industrialisation. On this view, industrialisation will drive improvements in agriculture, rather than the other way round.
Barder certainly doesn't mince words here. Though it was quite a while ago, his take on the issue had obviously stuck with me (since I remembered it almost four years later), so I decided to re-visit the mini-debate inspired by his commentary. Oxfam's Duncan Greene responded with a very eloquent counter-argument:
Firstly, the ‘springboard argument’, namely that countries need to increase productivity in agriculture so that they can then transfer the surplus into industrialization, has a lot more historical foundation than Owen’s ‘just dump agriculture and start building factories’ version. As the FAO notes, “Growth originating in agriculture, in particular the smallholder sector, is at least twice as effective in benefiting the poorest as growth from non-agriculture sectors.” See also Ha-Joon Chang’s excellent paper on the history of farm policy in take-off countries such as Vietnam and Chile.

...

The point here (and I imagine Owen would agree on this one), is that the way the world tries to feed the nine billion is crucial. A technological magic bullet route that ignores small farmers and farm labourers in favour of large high tech solutions will drive up poverty and inequality, whereas a focus on labour intensive and small scale agriculture will boost incomes for the poor, help ensure their families are educated and well nourished, and (should they so wish) enable them in due course to leave for the cities as a matter of dignified choice, rather than as an act of desperation.
And therein lies the conflict. If the primary goal is to ensure "global food security," then the priority should be on promoting large-scale industrial farming to increase productivity through economies of scale. If, however, the emphasis is on improving the lives and livelihoods of the poor - in this case, farmers - in a way that allows them to retain their dignity, then the strategy is entirely different.

Aid Thoughts summed the debate up beautifully.
The important point out of this explication is not that more labour is moving to urban areas: that can and does happen without any increase in productivity as population growth in agricultural areas is accompanied by stagnating forms of ownership, often favouring smallholdings that eventually can no longer be subdivided. The important issue is rather that productivity increases out of the movement away from the small-farmer model into the large, powerful commercial farming model. It’s not ‘fair’ in that many farmers lose their land in particularly unpleasant ways, even if they are legal. But this redistribution, however it is achieved, seems to be necessary.

Women's rights in Afghanistan take another step back

Friday, February 7, 2014

Well, this is discouraging. An article in the Guardian details how a seemingly small change to Afghanistan's criminal prosecution code will effectively bar victims and key witnesses from testifying against their abusers in cases of domestic violence.
The small but significant change to Afghanistan's criminal prosecution code bans relatives of an accused person from testifying against them. Most violence against women in Afghanistan is within the family, so the law – passed by parliament but awaiting the signature of the president, Hamid Karzai – will effectively silence victims as well as most potential witnesses to their suffering.

"It is a travesty this is happening," said Manizha Naderi, director of the charity and campaign group Women for Afghan Women. "It will make it impossible to prosecute cases of violence against women … The most vulnerable people won't get justice now."

Under the new law, prosecutors could never come to court with cases like that of Sahar Gul, a child bride whose in-laws chained her in a basement and starved, burned and whipped her when she refused to work as a prostitute for them. Women like 31-year-old Sitara , whose nose and lips were sliced off by her husband at the end of last year, could never take the stand against their attackers.

"Honour" killings by fathers and brothers who disapprove of a woman's behaviour would be almost impossible to punish. Forced marriage and the sale or trading of daughters to end feuds or settle debt would also be largely beyond the control of the law in a country where the prosecution of abuse is already rare.
Unlike other countries like India, where violence against women often plays out on the street, the strong tribal nature of Aghanistan's social structure means that violence usually happens inside the home - so, if relatives can't testify against one another, there is essentially no way to achieve justice.

Nifty infographic of the week: Women's rights by country

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Here is a nifty interactive infographic from the Guardian of women's rights by region and country. You can view the chart proportionally (by population) or equally by region. The images below are screen captures.

Once a region is selected, you can see how individual countries fare in specific areas.

Examining coups, protests, and the ups and downs of democracies: the Arab Spring

Political scientist Jay Ulfelder blogs about the use of statistical analysis to predict political events and turmoil like coup attempts, mass atrocities, and other phenomena related to political (in)stability. Though I am not a statistician and most of the finer points are way over my head, I find a lot of what he covers to be really fascinating. Here, he offers reflection on a recent piece that discusses why some Arab Spring movements resulted in government overthrows while others didn't.
Last week, the online magazine Muftah ran a thoughtful piece by Scott Williamson and Caroline Abadeer about “why Arab Spring protests successfully produced regime change in some countries but not in others.” As they see it,

Understanding the outcomes of the Arab Spring uprisings requires answering the three interlinked questions about the region’s unrest posed here. First, where did protests transform into uprisings that could sufficiently threaten the regime’s hold on power? We have argued monarchies and oil-wealthy regimes can erect more barriers to prevent protest escalation, and thereby protect the government. Next, we asked why militaries abandoned regimes in some countries where uprisings occurred, but cracked down violently on the opposition in others. We have suggested that a military tied to the regime by familial, tribal, ethnic, or sectarian connections would be more likely to support the regime. Finally, in cases where the military repressed the opposition, we asked why such repression was successful in some countries but not in others. Because resources are important in this regard, we have argued that oil-wealthy regimes were more likely to successfully repress their opponents, and that resources brought to bear by foreign powers for or against the regime could also have a significant impact on the outcome.

Their essay is grounded in careful study of relevant theory and the societies they describe, and the array of contingent effects they identify all seem plausible. Still, I wonder if the authors are too confident in the explanatory power of their discoveries. As it happens, the Arab Spring has largely followed gross patterns in democratization from the past century or so. Popular uprisings rarely occur in consolidated authoritarian regimes, and when they do, the regime usually survives. When authoritarian regimes break down, another autocracy usually ensues. In cases where an attempt at democracy does happen, it usually fails, either by military coup or by the ruling party’s unfair consolidation of power.
The bit in italics is a section that he quotes from the article he referenced. I got kind of "Inception"y for a moment there.

Anyway, I highly recommend reading the whole piece (and following his links) for a discussion of assumptions made by scientists, where they serve and where they fall short, and the utility of examining these types of political phenomena.

Celebrities and aid: the ongoing debate

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

This was cross-posted to the IH Blog.

The aid and development blogosphere loves to debate (and often hate on) celebrities lending their names to aid. Whether it is starting their own charities or becoming ambassadors for existing ones, there is no dearth of commentary on whether celebrities help or hurt the cause, whether they have a place stepping into the fray, or whether they are worth the hassle or the cost of keeping them on payroll.

After a reporter from the Telegraph painted a painfully ignorant picture of Elizabeth McGovern on her World Vision-sponsored trip to Sierra Leone (who was subsequently tarred and feathered by aid commentators here and here) in December, the issue was in the public eye most recently when Oxfam and actress Scarlett Johansson parted ways over the latter's affiliation with SodaStream, a company that makes machines to carbonate drinks. This week, a smug and witty editorial in the Guardian made ample reference to the former story when commenting on the latter, and threw in references to handful of other stars that have made names for themselves in the world of development charities. It is an interesting piece that explores the relationship (and occasional conflict) between celebrity sponsorships of charities versus consumer goods.

Upon closer inspection, however, it seems to me that the question of "Are celebrities good for aid?" is a somewhat complicated question, much like, "Does aid work?" Any aid commentator to whom that question is posed will (after rolling their eyes) explain that there are many different types of aid and thus no one single answer to that question. Throwing Elizabeth McGovern or Scarlett Johansson in the same category makes as much sense as comparing either or both of them to George Clooney, Madonna, or Bono.

Should celebrities start their own charities? I am going to go with probably (or even definitely) not. This was painfully obvious during last year's fiasco surrounding Madonna's visit to her project in Malawi, or Oprah's school in South Africa.

It seems logical to me that the advice to zealous well-intentioned do-gooders of "don't start your own NGO" should go for celebrities as well: there is already an over-abundance of them, some of which are well-integrated into your target community, so putting your name and/or funding on something that already works. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

But should charities bother with celebrity sponsors? As far as I can tell, that question should be answered by a cost-benefit analysis. Sure, it's painful for those of us who are immersed in aid and development to see a charity like World Vision put so much funding into a visit for a celebrity who is kind of an airhead, but the general public would probably be more forgiving of her ignorance - if they learned about it, which they probably won't. If it helps World Vision raise more money or their profile, then from their perspective it is certainly worth the investment, and are we right to hold it against them? The Guardian editorial cites research that explores the impact that celebrity engagement has on media coverage and social values. One study, instigated (ironically) in part by Oxfam, argues that "campaigning by charities brings the risk of promoting individualistic and consumerist values at the expense of collective action and citizen engagement." On the flip side, other research shows that celebrities can raise the profile of otherwise neglected issues if they work through well-established frameworks (i.e., George Clooney in Darfur). There is a lot of commentary on whether charities are promoting the "right values" by slapping famous people's faces on their ads, but their primary concern isn't to change the way the public in wealthy nations perceives the developing world - it's to raise money to continue doing their work. Which I don't think is entirely unfair.

On a different note, I think there is more Johansson's parting from Oxfam than meets the eye. Upon digging a bit deeper, I discovered that the reason for the split was because SodaStream (an Israeli) runs a factory on an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. They employ about 500 Palestinians and (at least, according to Johansson) treat and pay them well. However, Oxfam is unequivocally opposed to any Israeli settlements or businesses in Palestine - so, because of the organization's very prominent political position, they had to let the actress go.

Perhaps the more pertinent question for Oxfam, rather than, "Are celebrities worth the trouble?" might be "Are politics worth the trouble?" Which, incidentally, is its own very interesting question.

Mobile education programs offer schooling to children in Myanmar (Burma)

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Here is something interesting. I have seen two stories on different mobile education projects in Myanmar (also known as Burma). The first, called the Myanmar Mobile Education Project (MyME), provides lessons and materials to children working in teashops by way of mobile buses. The six-month pilot project was launched this year.
Around 120 young teashop workers have attended classes in the school buses since a six-month pilot programme was launched on 18 January. So far myME has enrolled the employees of two teashops, who commit to two hours of study each day, six days a week. Their employers are compensated for the leave.

The solar-powered classroom is fitted with 20 desks and four teachers, who offer basic education and computer skills training. Curricula are designed by combining materials from the government’s Education Research Bureau and international textbooks.

If the pilot programme proves successful, Tim Aye Hardy says they will go on to serve restaurant workers in Rangoon, and eventually move into some of Burma’s remote ethnic regions, where access to education is often extremely limited. The myME is planning to suit up four more buses.

“We have already reached agreements with five more teashops to offer classes at their places,” he said.

Most of the children working in the teashops dropped out of school to support their families because of economic hardship, said Tim Aye Hardy. Many, he added, have shown great interest in resuming study – some of them even attended class wearing their old school uniforms.
The other program, which is featured in the video below, has been running for much longer. Platform Classroom, founded in 2009, provides classes and after-school tuition for about 40 children in Mandalay.
[Platform Classroom] is set up on a sidewalk next to the Mandalay Central Railway station. It has become the learning centre for almost 40 children – many of whom are homeless and shelter at the station.

Sein Win, founder of the programme, says the biggest challenge is the weather.

“I think it would be impossible to rent a place because apartment rental fees around here are between 500,000 and 800,000 kyat [US$500-$800) per month and we don’t have that budget”, he said. “Also, if it rains we need to stop the classes and take shelter. If it keeps raining, we must send the kids home and call a substitute class later.”

The seven teachers who work here are volunteers - the classes are dependent on donations, which subsidise tuition fees for a few older students, as well as the school entrance fees and learning materials for all the younger students.
I think these types of education facilities are incredibly innovative, akin to the "floating schools" in Bangladesh and certainly more effective that the haphazard building of random classrooms, à la Three Cups of Tea. There are, of course, issues with retention and sustainability, but that goes for any aid project that relies on volunteers and donor funding.

Surprise! North Korea Still Short on Food

Monday, February 3, 2014

Happy Monday! I took last week off because I was traveling (I recently finished up a contract in Korea, so now I am taking some time to travel in Japan), so I thought I would welcome myself back with this (not at all surprising) news item from my former northern neighbor, complete with a delightfully snarky title. "Here's a shocker: North Korea is going to be short on grain in 2014" from the GlobalPost:
North Korea is likely to face a shortage of 340,000 tons of grain this year, a report showed Sunday, which would mean another year to its chronic food scarcity.

The report contributed to the Korea Development Institute said Pyongyang is estimated to need some 5.37 million tons of grain this year.

...

It said while North Korea is making efforts to cultivate food from all arable lands, the country is suffering losses in productivity due to soil erosion and floods.

North Korea suffers from chronic food shortages with the average amount of rice and corn consumed by the people said to be only half of the daily consumption recommended by the United Nations.
While no one will be surprised at this news, there will undoubtedly be plenty of hand-wringing and consternation when the North begins this year's round of warmongering to pressure the international community into giving aid. Despite the obvious pattern - and the fact that Kim Jong-eun, who continues to court Dennis Rodman and recently defied international sanctions to build a luxury ski resort, obviously has no desire to go out in a blaze of glory - the annual threats never fail to scare the wits out of international media every spring. Meanwhile, average North Koreans are offering up meth, kind of like tea, to improve concentration and suppress appetites.