Means and Medians

A few months ago, when it occurred to me that I was going to a country about which I knew almost nothing, I turned to the world traveler’s trustiest friend.  No, not Lonely Planet.  I mean the CIA World Factbook.

I’ve been infatuated with the Factbook ever since my sophomore year of high school, when I spent the summer in a sardine-tin of an office using it to make power point presentations about the geopolitical power of the former Soviet Union (ask me about this later).  I know that numbers and statistics can tell us little about how people live, but I’m fascinated by them nonetheless.  For, in just a few minutes, I learned that Ecuador is 123rd in the world for per capita income, at around $7,400.  Moreover, the factbook, in its infinite wisdom, told me that Ecuador is 101st for infant mortality and 52nd in cell phone ownership.  In short, aside from a few gruesomely pessimistic indicators—178th in educational spending, behind the Central African Republic—Ecuador is a decidedly “middle” income country.  Think mash up between Thailand and Namibia.

The things is, though, the Ecuador I see in Quito does not look very much like the Ecuador I learned about from the world factbook (shocking though it may be that the CIA might be wrong about something).  For the capital of a country that has “generally rudimentary” infrastructure and a “sharply contracted” economy, Quito looks and feels like a developed-world city.  The roads are paved, the electricity is reliable, and the public transportation system is better than Phoenix or L.A.  My most recent meetings – with well-paid NGO employees and government subsecretaries – have taken place in chic coffee shops, brand new high rises, and even a massive shopping mall – none of which would feel out of place in New York City.

Of course, practically any capital city in the world is going to have places where you can buy designer clothes and luxury cars–Kampala certainly did, and Uganda falls a lot lower on those same CIA rankings.  But unlike Kampala, the wealthy here aren’t closeted away in walled off, heavily guarded compounds with private electricity generators and back-up water tanks.  Here, you get the sense that the middle and upper class really own the place, and that, at least in the city center, poverty has been largely scrubbed away.  Indeed, I think that—if you were to stay away from the barrios on the outskirts and ignored the occasional funnily-clothed indigenous street peddler—it would be easy to convince yourself that you did not in fact live in a poor country.

It’s not surprising that the numbers in the CIA factbook aren’t a perfect representation of the reality I see in Quito.  But, at the same time, these numbers don’t entirely lie either.  If there are a lot of people in Quito living far above the average income and living standard I read about, it can only mean one thing—that there are also a lot of people living way, way below them.  It’s a scary consequence of the law of averages that makes me wonder what kind of grinding poverty I am going to encounter when I finally leave the city behind and head east into the selva.

We’re all dumb

Kristof has an interesting column in the New York Times today, subtly entitled “Moonshine or the Kids.”  In it, he describes a “politically incorrect, heartbreaking, frustrating, and ubiquitous” truth: poor people do stupid things with their money.  He cites two MIT economists—Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo (who is totally hot right now)—that calculated that even households living below the $1-a-day threshold of extreme poverty tend to spend a non-trivial proportion of their income (~10%) on things like alcohol, cigarettes, and prostitutes.

I’m not going to argue with Kristof that many impoverished sometimes people make frustratingly and inexplicable choices with their limited resources.  It’s a fact readily apparent on the Native American reservations near where I grew up, where you can see any number of people living in decrepit houses—that have satellite dishes.  In poor developing countries, the harmful impacts of these decisions are even starker: Kristof documents one Congolese father who can’t pay $2 for school fees or $6 for a mosquito net, but manages to drop $12 a month on alcohol.  There were definitely situations in Uganda where I just wanted to shake people and say, “Don’t you realize that you are too poor to be spending your money on that?!?”

So, all in all, Kristof makes a fair point: there is definitely some suffering out there that could be alleviated if only poor people, at times, prioritized better.  What bothers me, though, is how easily arguments like this descend into the claim that poor people are poor because they make bad choices, and, by extension, if they didn’t make bad choices, they wouldn’t be poor.  Although six months of development studies training hardly make me an expert, I have no qualms about saying that both assertions are nonsense.

This recent popularity of things like microfinance is rooted in the idea that the poor have the resources they need to develop themselves—they just need a bit of assistance in using them better.  As we are increasingly finding, though, there’s only so much that clever mechanisms like micro-lending and micro-saving can accomplish in contexts of extreme deprivation.  More small businesses aren’t going to help sub-Saharan African countries that have no internal markets.  Similarly, Foreign Direct Investment is not going to suddenly flood into Congo because parents stop wasting money at the bar and instead ensure that their kids get a primary education and don’t die of malaria.  Education and health are intrinsically good things, but as instruments for development, their power is limited in countries that are completely marginal to the world economy and have a GDP of $350 per head.

The other implication of choice-based narratives about poverty—that people are poor because they make bad choices—is something I find annoying on a personal, as well as academic, level.  It seems that we can test the idea that personal choices are the main cause of poverty by considering whether rich people make better choices with their money.  Obviously, my vantage point is skewed by having spent my last five years in the perpetual potlatch of elite universities, but I think the answer is no.  After all, if we’re talking about trade offs, why do we not have to take responsibility for spending multiple mosquito-nets-worth on a single cocktail?  I could offer endless examples, but I will let the reader judge my hypothesis, which is that poor people don’t make any dumber choices than the rest of us—they just have a smaller margin for error.

If I’m right, then maybe “wasting” money is a human universal.  Perhaps non-essentials—ranging from booze and hookers to more reputable forms of entertainment—are indeed “essential” to what people view as a minimal quality of life.  In that case, it strikes me that any development strategy that relies on people prioritizing what we consider the bare essentials of survival—food, health, shelter—is destined for failure.

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Jukebox: The Dead Kennedys – Kill the Poor

Smile! At least you’re poor!

So, here are some research findings with interesting implications for contemporary policy debates in the U.S.:

Kenyans—despite living in a country with nine times the infant mortality rate of the United States and living twenty-two fewer years—report being as satisfied with their health care system as Americans are.

Afghanis, for their part, are part of the fourth most impoverished nationality in the world.  They also report above-average levels of happiness.  In fact, Afghanis smile significantly more frequently than do the notoriously chipper Cubans.

I haven’t posted very frequently (or at all) on the things I’m learning on the academic front.  While my brain is certainly being stuffed full of all sorts of knowledge, I generally don’t see much aim in me publicly regurgitating it if I don’t have anything to add.  That said, I’ve made it a point to attend public lectures and seminars here, and some of them—like Carol Graham’s lecture on the economics of happiness today—are too fascinating not to share.

Some of her results are straightforward and unsurprising.  Higher income countries are, on the whole, happier than lower income ones, though the benefits to increased income fall drastically after a certain point (it’s not much better to be American than Portuguese).  Married people are a lot happier than unmarried ones (though the causality might run both ways—that is, happy people get married rather than married people get happy).  Education doesn’t have much impact on happiness either way, while unemployment has massive negative effects on self-reported well-being.  Happiness declines over a person’s lifetime until they are about forty-five, after which point it starts to rise.  People over eighty are the happiest people in the world.  Centenarians are pretty much living on cloud nine 24/7.

Five times as rich as Columbians, and we're no happier.

Okay, so no mind-blowing so far.  Where it gets interesting is in the adaptability of human happiness to stress, shock, and trauma.  Reported happiness in the U.S. dropped significantly in the 2008 economic crisis; if you superimpose a graph of happiness on the stock market, they track almost perfectly, until the start of 2009.  After then, happiness rebounded much faster than shares; in fact, Americans are now as happy as they were in the good times of 2007, even though they are materially much worse off.  The same inelasticity of happiness can be seen in more extreme examples: Afghans, for example, are relatively unaffected by corruption and crime, presumably because they’re so used to it.  On an individual basis, people who are victims of horribly accident and become paralyzed eventually make their way back to their previous level of happiness, despite facing disabilities we would assume would be quite depressing.

Before I go on, I should acknowledge that there are all sorts of problems with the study of “happiness.”  What, after all, is happiness, and what do people mean when they say they are happy?  Jackie’s students in Thailand, when asked, “How are you?” respond “I am happy” in the same way an American would say “I am fine.”  How people describe their happiness is heavily dependent on how you ask the question: the response to an open-ended question about happiness is very different from one in which a person is asked to compare their current life to the best possible life they can imagine.  People are much less like to say they are happy, in response to a survey, if the question is asked after queries about their job or home life.

Methodological problems aside, though, what I learned has some interesting implications.  The indomitable adaptability of human beings becomes inconvenient and confusing, from an international development perspective, when we apply it to economic growth.  People who bump up to a higher income bracket—either because they won the lottery or got a raise—are initially quite pleased but tend to “adapt” back to their previous level of happiness, as if nothing had changed.  More broadly, countries seem to keep to their previous level of happiness in spite of economic growth.  The United States has had a four-fold increase in GDP per capita in the last half-century, but we are no happier for it.  Japan’s income per head has quintupled over that same period, but there happiness has actually declined.  The process of economic growth itself actually seems to make people unhappy: as a species, we like being rich, but we don’t much appreciate the instability and change required to get there.

This brings us back to the contented Kenyans and the cheery Afghans.  There are so many reasons why I think it’s “bad” that Kenyans have nearly non-existent healthcare and Afghans lack basic freedoms and security.  And yet, from a utilitarian point of view, it is challenging to explain, why, exactly, these deprivations need to be corrected.  What, after all, is the point of development if it doesn’t make people any happier?  People seem to want clinics, schools, roads, and factories, but if these things aren’t ultimately going to make their lives any better, what’s the point?

From another perspective, there is something hopeful about the idea that more is not necessarily better.  As I prepare to go to London tomorrow to demonstrate against inaction on global warming, it is increasingly apparent to me that the implicit assumption of international development is a sham.  We like to envision a world where everyone can attain a Western standard of living, but it’s increasingly obvious that the biosphere could never support it.  At least now I know that giving up on this illusion doesn’t mean much, since it wouldn’t make us happier anyway.

A Moral Quandary – Audience Participation (?)

Before I arrived in Uganda, I expected that people in Africa would ask me for money or sponsorship all the time. I had heard my father’s stories from the Peace Corps in Peru, where people would simultaneously tell him “America kills babies!” and ask him to bring them back to the U.S. While I expected a similar experience, I didn’t get it. Aside from the occasional person who would walk up to me on the street and say “Mzungu! Give me money” (in a totally non-threatening manner), I was panhandled or asked for assistance practically never.

Why they thought all white people are rich was beyond me.

Why they thought all white people are rich is beyond me.

All this taken into consideration, I still wasn’t particularly surprised or taken aback this week when an acquaintance from Uganda – with whom I shared a house for a few weeks – wrote from out of the blue asking me for a few hundred dollars to help him pay university fees. I was, however, a bit thrown for a loop. You would think that, studying development, I would have some logical plan of action for confronting a real-world situation of third world poverty. The irony is that, while I might have had a ready answer a year ago, my experiences since then have made this sort of thing seem much more complex.

I like to think of myself as someone who is aware of his privilege and the obligations to others that privilege creates. The utilitarian in me knows that in the grand scheme of the universe, I am unlikely to gain more benefit from a few hundred bucks than this guy will, and the determinist in me knows that I have money and he does not by pure chance. It doesn’t particularly bother me that he is asking me, who he knew for only a few weeks, rather than any of the numerous other similarly positioned white graduate students who also live in the house (he didn’t ask either of the other research assistants, who were there at the same time I was). To some extent, it’s frustrating that he—like so many in Uganda—assumed that because I am from the U.S., my funds are limitless, but from his perspective, they might as well be. I do have the resources to help, if I really want to, and the things I would sacrifice to do so would be significant but not overwhelmingly so.

Peter Singer talks about the example of a drowning child; just because others could pull out the child, and do not, does not lessen your own obligation to help. Neither should it matter if the child is far away, nor if helping him or her requires you to be late for work or ruin a nice suit. It’s an argument that I find persuasive, and I remind myself of it anytime I am reluctant to open up my purse strings. I suppose that, a year ago, my bleeding heart and liberal guilt-complex would have led me to stretch my funds and wire him some money.

What I have realized in the last year, though, is that our moral obligation to give is not necessarily the same as someone else’s moral entitlement to get. In Uganda, I tried arduously to shut my eyes to the signs of dependence around me, but they were there. It was impossible to ignore the way people turned to white intervention as a panacea for their problems. In a sense, people in Africa may very well deserve assistance from Europeans; we have and continue to extract billions of dollars in natural resource wealth from the continent. At the same time, though, a knee-jerk assumption that white people will come on high and solve problems does create a sort of complacency and powerlessness that ensures that no assistance will actually work.

When I’ve mentioned my quandary to some of my friends, many of them commented, “You also have no idea if he’s actually going to spend the money to go to college.” I suppose I’m naïve enough that this concern never occurred to me, and it still doesn’t particularly bug me. I do, however, wonder about whether giving him money for an education will actually help him avoid having to come back to me again. A sad truth of Uganda is that there are far more degrees than jobs; this summer, I paid people with MBAs and masters degrees $10 a day to read surveys all day. This is not a matter of “teaching someone to fish,” as per the parable; it’s giving a fish.

I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea of writing about this publicly; perhaps a private request for aid should be kept private (though I am keeping this anonymous). But I am genuinely curious if anyone has any insights as to how to deal with this sort of a situation.

Two Days, Two Worlds

I made it back. While I realize this isn’t a particularly surprising statement, the fact that I was able to walk – rather than be carried – off the plane was a bit in doubt by the time I left Kampala. All in all, it’s absolutely fantastic to be home, and amazing to think of how different two places on the same planet can be. The U.S. doesn’t provide quite as provocative fodder for blogging, but I’ll be posting a few things I partially wrote in Uganda over the next few days.

The contrast between the U.S. and Uganda, I’ll admit, is a bit enhanced by my current location, a swanky beach house on the Oregon coast. It reminds me of something I consistently encountered during my time in Uganda: the U.S. is a really difficult place to describe. It’s not just that the U.S. is huge, though that makes it hard to capture too: I’m sure my enumerators thought I was completely schizophrenic about where I live, because at times I said I lived in a really hot desert (basically true, if you count Phoenix) but additionally – to their awe – told them I lived where there was snow (also true). It’s also that the prosperity of the United States is unfathomable. Even the richest Ugandans don’t enjoy the luxuries that most Americans do: paved roads, consistent electricity, reliable policing, or regular elections.

Sometimes I thought that if I tried to describe the wealth of the United States to my Ugandan friends, they flat out wouldn’t believe it. As if to try to mitigate the absurdity of the contrast – perhaps to make Ugandans feel not quite so bad about their place on the ladder of wealth – I often reminded them that there were poor people in the United States too. “The Navajo Nation is a developing nation too,” I told them. Maybe, and so is Mexico, but the comparison just isn’t there, something I realized when I remembered that over half of Navajos have telephones, two-thirds have running water (the stat for Uganda is something like 5%) and the majority own cars (not a single one of my twenty college-educated enumerators even had a license).

This is a slightly disconnected point, but the musings above reminded me of a debate I had with two of the other Research Assistants. We were discussing whether or not it was really terrible to be one of the farmers we were studying; I maintained it was, and they suggested I couldn’t rush to that judgment and could only maintain they were miserable by applying my own, western standard of “the good life.” They had at least some point, insofar as the farmers we were studying were living much like many human beings have for thousands of years, so it’s hard to suggest that they are truly in desperate straights. Aside from such things as AIDS and ethnic strife – which are simply objectively awful and relatively new – what distinguishes their situation from that of farmers over thousands of years is exactly the contrasts I’ve been talking about. It’s not just that the Ugandans have very little; it’s that they have little but know that others have a lot. I was continuously shocked to find that – despite their seeming isolation – the Ugandan farmers I met really understood their place at the bottom of the global hierarchy.

We tend to measure poverty versus some absolute standard; the very idea of a U.S. poverty line or UN “Extreme Poverty” measures assumes that there is a quantifiable amount of resources that constitutes the border between “poor” and “not poor.” But in reality, any real definition that captures the experience of poverty has to be rooted in measures of inequality and awareness of inequality. (This, of course, is exactly why it sucks to be poor in the United States, even when most poor in the U.S. are materially better endowed than the vast majority of the present world population and an even higher percentage of human beings throughout history – because to be poor in the U.S. is to be constantly exposed to people who have vastly more).

Strangely, I think with respect to poverty, ignorance is bliss, at least to an extent. But then again, any academic point on poverty is easy to make but impossible to really defend when you’re sitting in a beach house, eight thousand miles and a whole world away from the reality you are trying to describe.