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Congratulations Mr. Sachs

March 12, 2010

Hey something positive in the news, and it is about a project that I worked on last year! A recent article in the NY Times highlights one of the villages taking part in the Millennium Villages Project (MVP). Sauri, Kenya, is one of many villages throughout Africa chosen for the MVP’s holistic approach based on an understanding of societies’ interdependencies and implementing proven interventions. Health, agriculture, education and infrastructure are addressed simultaneously with regard to their synergies and cross-sectoral issues such as gender disparities, environmental concerns and community development. The MVPs midterm reports are currently being produced and from what I know they should be encouraging. Of course with the good news there has to be a “Debbie Downer”. In this case it was Bill Easterly who was quoted in the article. Yes, the politics of development are never far off whether discussing a failure or success. His assertion is that scalability is not possible. Scalability is most certainly a concern for all involved, but to categorically write off the progress the project made to this point without an attempt to reproduce the results on a large scale is just ideological grandstanding. His legitimacy as an author and aid critic would be tarnished if the MVP actually proved successful in scaling-up regionally or nationally. He has a vested interest in seeing it not prosper. This is the dark secret shame of all who ascend in their respective fields by aiding in its polarization and politicizing its different approaches: you will allow your field to fail as a whole rather than help your rival succeed. Otherwise why wouldn’t Easterly come up with an ingenious way to incentivize governments to act in the people’s best interest if this project were to scale-up?

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More on Food and Industrialization

March 11, 2010

I found this interesting Freakonomics blog entry by James McWilliams, which speaks directly to some of the comments I made regarding the industrialization of food and the movie “Food Inc” in my last post.  It was especially interesting that just an hour before I was in a conversation with my room mate about various sub-cultures in our society that shun most things contemporary in favor of embracing some imagined lifestyle from the past.  Their engineered lives are created from old material culture and a limited reading of history.  You may see them wearing their Navy styled  coats, favoring rye cocktails and waxing about an author they admire from pre-1950s.  In these circles the past is good but the modern is approached with wariness.  I admitted to my room mate that even though I hold some admiration for those with these romantic idealized lifestyles, I believe they are living in a past that never was.  If given the choice between being born into a time and social class to which they pay homage and being born in their cosmically ordained time and place, while having a true understanding of each reality, the majority all choose to stay where they are. 

At first when I read “The Persistence of the Primitive” I realized when it comes to food I am one of those people.  In my last blog I was lamenting the trends of the food industry in the last over the last 60 years.  I want ingredients lists on packaged foods short with substances I recognize, produce from local farms when possible, and animals treated ethically; like they used to be, right?  I identified with McWilliams’ narrative of a time and place where food was simpler and healthier in the U.S., but then became industrialized and unhealthy.  McWilliams is correct to point out the errors myself and others make when looking at the past for answers to today’s problems.  Our vision can get a little rosy.

Still, models for change may often be based imprudently on the past, but contemporary criticisms of our food industry are substantive and not just wistful longings for “simpler times”.  Even though McWilliams states that back in the 1860s food may have been adulterated with “sawdust, engine grease, plaster of Paris, pipe clay and God knows what else”, to imply we are better off, he is missing the point: our food is unhealthy.  If production and processing methods were suspect in the past then the problems are what is persistent.  Also, if looking back for answers has not made the desired changes, it does not necessarily mean these flawed solutions have no merit.  I don’t think small organic farms are a panacea, but they are an alternative that is currently economically viable and socially supported. 

In his defense, I don’t think McWilliams is trying to necessarily paint all those with a desire to change the food industry with the same brush.  He even alludes to the complexity of the issue.  The issues as well as the people involved are complicated and varied.  At the extremes I am sure there are luddites who would like to see an exodus back to the land as well as those who would like to just take a pill for nourishment.  I enjoy going to upstate NY and picking strawberries as well as daydreaming about vertical farms in a Manhattan that could produce its own food without pesticides and chemical fertilizers.  I envision a future where both of those things exist but the current harmful industrial farming practices are extinct.  A best of both worlds in a future the romantics will have helped to create with imagined ideals that are worth our aspirations.

Foodie Inc-ie

March 3, 2010

Well I did it.  I went to see “Food Inc.” yesterday.  My room mates, tuned to my sensitivities, knew it would come to no good.  It was shown at an event hosted by the Bushwick Food Coop and held at Tandem Bar.  The food coop is searching for a physical home and the human resources to manifest itself into a real cooperative food store.  The night started with started a couple of presentations.  One from Ecostation:NY and one from a representative of Diana Reyna, the City Council member of the 34th District.  Props.  They both support the work of the Bushwick Food Coop and other efforts to improve the quality of life in Bushwick.  It was a well attended community gathering of like-minded citizens and it seemed to portray a swelling of ground support for local green initiatives. 

As you might have guessed by the name, “Food Inc.” is a movie concerned with the industrialization of our food.  The over-arching narrative maintains that a handful of companies have come to control an overwhelming majority of our nation’s food production and processing.  In their never-ending quest for profit and efficiencies they have created a system and products that are unhealthy for the workers, consumers, and our environment.  The problem is compounded when the power that these corporations wield is able to sway the one organization that has the capacity to regulate them: the U.S. government.

 Most of the information was not necessarily new or surprising, but when packaged with some revealing behind the scenes footage of farms coupled with human interest stories, it was pushing all the right buttons.  Even the crying mother telling the story about her child who died from food poisoning had my support in her efforts to affect U.S. Law.  Let me explain.

I am guarded against the easy emotional ploy of a documentary maker interviewing a mother who has lost a child.  I do not think there is a faster way to get an audience to be empathetic to your cause.  It made me a little suspicious and I did some research after the movie to put her story into context.  I wanted to see if the most emotional story was conveying the most pressing issue.  According to the Center for Disease Control E. Coli rates are down 25% since 1996, though there were sharp increases between 1996-1999 and 2004-2006.  Over the same period, some foodborne illnesses have increased and some decreased.  The volatility and a reported lack of progress to meet targets over the last three years would suggest she is right in her prescriptions for more regulation of the food industry even though a clear trajectory of decline in food safety is debatable.  I could not find data from 1950 to 1996 as this would be enlightening to the look at information for the entire time period with which the film makers were concerned. 

There were many other instances of abuse by the wielding of might of the few most powerful meat producers and packagers as well as a seed distributor.  They hire illegal immigrants but face no legal repercussions, they shut down small businesses they deem a threat through expensive litigation and provide the food that is a source of obesity and diabetes.  Through their associations and organizations they are able defeat any legislation designed to regulate them and through their dollars are able to undersell or acquire any competitor.

I’ll admit, this at times seems to be an untenable situation.  After the movie I was instant messaging a friend in Alabama who is a lawyer for death row inmates.  I told her it seems like a waste of time for people to work towards issues of social justice or human rights.  The odds are stacked in the favor of those in power, whether it be large multi-nationals or their partner governments.  I explained that efforts to address injustice looked at from a wider perspective never seem to change the status quo.  She represents death row inmates and helps them in their appeal process, but that will never change the fact that the death penalty is codified in our justice system.  We may address a symptom but the overall system remains intact.  I even feel that the work she does and that I do can legitimize the very systems we work to change.  At that pessimistic moment I told her I felt like a kind of sad clown that leaders of our country can drag out on stage in order to defend our governmental and economic structures.  “Look at this guy blogging about injustice; this is exactly this kind of freedom that makes our country great!  I’m so proud to be an American!”  But it is only a show; he knows I have no real power.

She reminded me of the small victories that we have to hold on to, that keep us going everyday.  That I should remember that I had just met some inspiring members of my community who have the ability and desire to create change locally.  Even though we may live in the shadow of others we can grow, and with that growth comes hope.  I’m sure one day civil rights seemed as far away as eradicating extreme poverty in the world seems today, but luckily times do change.   

At the time of watching the movie I was too crestfallen to take to heart in the market-based directives for change it supported even though I do agree that this is the way to change these industries; we can shape them by the way we spend our money.  Stonyfield was one of the companies portrayed as the alternative back-to-basics kind of farm and organization that had made it mainstream.  They produce organic milk products and treat their animals ethically.  They can now be found in Wal-Mart.  I know some anti-capitalists and environmentalists who would say they have sold-out, but I think this kind of movement of the conscientious business into the larger marketplace is our only hope for change in an increasingly global capitalist economy. 

The capitalist system is bereft of values except for the numerical kind.  It can only compute inputs as they relate to numbers.  If a company is going to save a tree in the process of creating its product it needs to know how much it cost them to save the tree and how much the customer will pay to have that tree saved.  Businesses are machines; their beauty is in efficiency.  They do not have board meetings for the purpose of discussing morality but to discuss earnings and profit.  This singularity of purpose also means they are easy to manipulate.  In order to change how they operate and what they produce we only have to pay them.  They make what we want and what we pay for.  The onus lies on our shoulders, so lets put our money where our mouths are and support local producers and businesses that are socially, economically and environmentally responsible.

And Another Thing…!

February 26, 2010

Someone characterized my blog as a rant the other day.  It does seem that it has become an outlet for me to share my unsolicited opinions into the world for whoever wants to read.  Admittedly, not many people do yet, and the lack of pushback on anything I say is like tacit acceptance encouraging me to go further; to write more opinion and less facts.  To say what I damn well please!  And after all, this is a BLOG and by definition is meant to have a personal point of view, to express my own personal voice on the subject matter of my choosing!  Now you’ve made me angry. Oh No! (Shirt rips) What’s happening!  HULK SMASH!  

But seriously, I do feel that I use logic, reasoning and data within my posts and if someone would like to point out an error or refute any of the premises of my arguments; I welcome the feedback.  As I stated in the beginning, the original intention was for this to become a public forum to discuss philosophies and practices in the realm of international development.  Hopefully it will still become that.  There is a learning curve that goes along with starting your first blog and I am just now beginning to give it a public face.  I imagine that as those working in the field discover the blog it will begin to function as intended.  People will leave comments and dialogue will begin.  Right now it is like having a one man debate, so I guess until other people speak up you can expect more ranting and lame pop culture jokes!

A Clarification

February 26, 2010

I was talking with my friend Kat the other day and I realized I should probably clarify something.  When I write about international development for this blog I am referring to contemporary development efforts  born out of the rubble of WWII.  In order to address the reconstruction of Europe the Bretton Woods Conference was convened and new ideas and agencies were employed to oversee and finance this great undertaking.  After the initial successes the same agencies and ideas were plied to developing countries, the majority of which were former colonies.  The ensuing mess is what we are still dealing with 60 years later.

She was responding to my entry “If I Knew Now What I Knew Then”.  Her point was that if we look at human development over the recorded history of man we have been very successful.  I would agree.  Who can argue with longer life expectancies, the renaissance, indoor plumbing and the ipod?  These are all good things in and of themselves, but when we consider the externalities, the systems created and employed to produce these outcomes, we again see people’s inability to create the future they would really want.  Take the production and processing methods that have revolutionized manufacturing in order to make everything from pharmaceuticals to consumer goods increasingly affordable to most people.  These same production and processing methods are destroying our quality of life by consuming resources at alarming rates and polluting the environment.  I think most people would give up some of the “advances” they have come to live with if the industrial revolution could have developed with humankind’s current environmental concerns as an influencing factor.  Maybe “most” is more my hope than the reality currently, but I imagine in the next fifty years this will be true.  Thanks for the food for thought Kat.

Excuse Me, Is That a Trojan You’re Wearing?

February 20, 2010

Being that it is the end of fashion week in New York and Valentine’s Day just passed, I thought it would be appropriate to share an article about a fashion show in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in which all the designs were made out of condoms.  A bit of a gimmick, yes, but it did get my attention and hopefully that of style and culture makers of Ethiopia.  Condoms and family planning are key tools to aid development efforts in all countries.  Promoting them is the morally correct choice and the use of targeting youth and at risk populations through popular trends and media should pay large dividends in developing countries.

It is not questionable that the use of condoms and other contraceptives will reduce the amount of unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.  By not utilizing these devices health outcomes will be worse for men, women, and children.  Women will have children before they are ready physically, emotionally and financially.  Children will be born into families not capable of caring for them and even expecting a number of them to die.  Men will contract HIV and spread it to other partners.  This is what happens.  There are myriad reasons and circumstances that construct these outcomes.  I am not going to give anecdotal case evidence because these are public health facts.  I would rather talk about the broader morality issue; that of beliefs and religion.

The majority of Africans are Christian and Muslim, just like Americans, and not coincidentally views on sexuality seem to be the similar.  In both religions the belief is held that sex is to be performed under the sanctity of marriage between man and woman.  All else is sinful and at least not condoned, if not punished.  Within this mode of thought condoms and family planning outside of one life partner, and sometimes even inside that unit, are immoral and encourage acts against God. 

I understand this theological point of view, but by denying development dollars to aid family planning programs in lieu of supporting ineffective abstinence only programs means a quantitative increase in human suffering and death.  The question I would pose to the abstinence only supporter such as former President Bush is what they feel God would want them to choose between preventing a sin or preventing a death?  Figure in to this equation that according to Christianity we are all sinners.  We all have sinned and will sin; the wage of our sin is our eventual death.  But nowhere in the Bible does it say a person should punish another person with death, sickness or hardship for engaging in pre-marital sex.    Another question I would like to ask those who would deny support to family planning: if you ever had a child who made a poor choice and had pre-marital sex, do they deserve to get pregnant or contract a life threatening life-long disease?  If you say yes I would say sadists probably don’t make the best parents.  I believe most people of sound mind would want their child to use protection, not to condone the act, but to protect them. 

In the same way you would want to protect yourself and family why wouldn’t you want to protect other people’s families?  In the case of Kenyan men raped in jail and returning to home; women who work in a fishing town in which men expect to trade goods for sex; and men who spend years abroad as migrant workers and return to their wives after being unfaithful, is it just that their partners have to suffer for their own transgressions?   

It is not a little latex balloon that causes people to have sex and promotes promiscuity.  As for here in the United States it is a culture that obsesses over the physical prowess of nubile young women and virile young men.  It is media that sells us sex all day long but then just delivers overpriced consumer goods.  Those that want to promote healthy sexual practices and change public opinion need to utilize the power of media and those with cultural cache.  Anyone who listened to the radio or watched television in the early 90’s remembers Salt-n-Pepa’s “Lets Talk About Sex”.  That one song probably did more to raise discourse about healthy sexual relationships in young people than any sex-ed class.  For better or worse, celebrities have a lot of power with people of all ages, but especially youth.  To change sexual behavior our only real hope is by reaching young people.    

The condom fashion show that was the catalyst for this post was organized by DKT; a seemingly savvy social media organization promoting contraceptives to fight HIV/AIDS.  They have enlisted the former Ethiopian beauty queen, Hayat Ahmed, as a spokesperson and partner for the Bellissima coffee shop in Addis Abbaba that serves up cappuccinos with a side condom in place of a mint or chocolate.  They have recently held an eight ball pool tournament in order to reach out to pool hall patrons as they work towards engaging youth and sexually active populations.  I am happy to see that one of their partners is the Ministry of Health in Ethiopia and it seems they have been pretty successful in getting their message heard.  How far out of Addis Ababba this message travels through Ethiopia and whether or not it is empowering women by addressing the power disparity in making decisions regarding sex remains to be seen.

If I Knew Then What I Know Now…

February 12, 2010

I have recently begun to read “Stumbling on Happiness” by Daniel Gilbert.  I picked it up at a bookstore in Union Square as I was looking for something new in my life that didn’t require too much commitment.  I was intrigued by its self-description as an attempt to explain why people are unhappy rather than how one can find happiness.  The majority of self-help “Make the Life of Your Dreams” books, with requisite chapters on how to become rich and fabulous, tend to be a little too positive, heavily marketed and full of fairy dust for my taste.  As I am only a handful of pages into “Stumbling on Happiness” I am in no position to review the book, but do find the initial premise an interesting meditation on many levels, from interpersonal to international. 

The idea is that one of the reasons we are not “happy”, or content with our current states of affairs, is that we are poor judges of the person or people we will become.  We can not accurately predict what will make us happy in the future.  People spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about, making decisions and working for our future selves.  Most of us sacrifice on a daily basis the things that we want in order to reap some future reward.  We incur our opportunity costs and participate in self-denial.  The only problem is we are acting in order to achieve what we want right now, not what the person that we will evolve into will want.  I write this blog in the hopes that my voice will one day be heard by those who work and make decisions in the field of international development.  But that is what I actually want right now.  In ten years it is possible I could care less.  The self is not static, we are constantly changing and so do the things we desire in life. 

I think this idiosyncrasy of brain function makes for an interesting exercise.  Think about development.  Take a second and think about a developing country you are familiar with and have visited (and if you have not visited one you need to get out more).  Now think about it as a developed country.  What does it look like?  For me, I see some of the same colors and textures but more order to the physical structures.  Buildings are made of stronger materials and have more a “planned” aesthetic.  Electronic devices such as cell phones and computers are ubiquitous.  There are permanent medical clinics in all towns and villages and most people have access to them.  Roads are paved and cars are not just second hand cars from other richer nations.  People complain about work because most people can relate to having a job and it consuming a majority of their days.  I see the developing country becoming more concerned about the environment and quality of life as the majority of basic needs are met for its citizens.  So basically, I see it as I perceive current developed countries.  I think those in the development field, no matter if you are from the North or South, commonly fall into this modality.  We imagine and work towards a developing country’s future to shape it into what will be a developed country’s past.  Rostow studied the past, created his growth model and it became the future of development efforts.  Then we learned growth did not deliver all that we wanted as we lived with the past’s instructions for the future and found the results lacking.

Ideally we all wish we could see 10, 20 or even 100 years into the future and plan accordingly.  We could all be so much more successful because we would know who we will be, what we will want and what capacity we will have to get those things.  Just imagine a developing nation’s poverty reduction strategy paper if the authors knew what technologies would be available to them, what exchange rates would be and whether or not violent conflict would arise in their future.  It would be a harmonious intersection of our fates with our efforts.  But, alas, of course we cannot predict the future and this is why we resort to imagining it as a glorified present which it will never be.  We are presently working towards a future of the past. 

So what is the lesson to be learned, how does this mental exercise help us?  I think it gives a little insight as to why the international development field has found success in creating a “healthy and happy” world so fleeting.  How we personally define these constructs and what is required to achieve them is always in flux.  So the pragmatic question is how do we account and build our models to change as quickly and fluidly as the world around them?  Good question, let me finish the book and get back to you on that one.