Waste Not, Want Not?

A small child, having eaten the tastier offerings on his plate, picks unenthusiastically at his vegetables. An exasperated parent tells him that he should eat his food because there are starving people in China.* The child points out that there is no way anyone can transport his broccoli to China, and thus his decision is not really related to world hunger.

Just last week, the UN Food and Agriculture Association released a report stating that “Latin America and the Caribbean Could Eradicate Hunger with Amount of Food Lost and Wasted.” Usually I don’t bother writing blog posts to pick holes in an argument that a truculent four-year-old could identify. Yet because commentators persist in not just seeing a connection between food waste and hunger, but asserting that in addressing one we could address the other, I feel the need to extent the pre-schooler’s logic a bit.

The argument that we could address hunger by directly redistributing wasted food crumples with a whiff of logic and data. For starters, what gets thrown out is not what people need: in the U.S., nearly fifty percent of discarded calories are added sweeteners and fats. The model of food banks which the FAO trumpets for Latin America has been developed to its zenith in the U.S.—and yet hunger has actually grown since the explosion of private charity in the 1980s. The recent National Geographic feature on hunger inadvertently offers a pretty damning portrait:

By whatever name, the number of people going hungry has grown dramatically in the U.S., increasing to 48 million by 2012—a fivefold jump since the late 1960s, including an increase of 57 percent since the late 1990s. Privately run programs like food pantries and soup kitchens have mushroomed too. In 1980 there were a few hundred emergency food programs across the country; today there are 50,000…One in six reports running out of food at least once a year. In many European countries, by contrast, the number is closer to one in 20.

Food banks are a terrible way to address hunger because, as sociologist Janet Poppendieck documents, the food they offer is often insufficient, culturally inappropriate, nutritionally inadequate, unreliable, and heavily stigmatized. Flooding food banks with the subsidized corn-and-sugar-based “edible food-like substances” will not change this.

The more sophisticated commentators—like Tristram Stuart—accept that food waste does not directly snatch food from the mouths of the hungry, but claim that it still indirectly causes food insecurity by raising global prices. This, at least, squares with the basics of economic research on hunger and famine: that poor people do not go hungry for lack of food but for lack of money to buy food. One in six Americans is not going hungry because they walk into a grocery store and find the shelves unstocked; it’s their pockets that are empty. Hypothetically, if all the food currently going to waste were instead put on supermarket shelves, the supply would be so huge (since the world produces 4,600 kcal/person/day) that prices would plummet, and the poor could eat. Huzzah!

Of course, basic micro-economics also tells us that if the price plummets, so does production. It is a common trope that food waste happens because food is too cheap; yet, in truth, the overproduction behind food waste—and the overproduction that would underpin any redistributive scheme—actually depends on the artificially high price of food. If producers, distributors, and retailers could no longer pass the cost of waste onto consumers by inflating the price of what they sell, they would simply produce less. Adam Przeworski plays this thought experiment out and convincingly shows that there is no scenario under which we could feed everyone through a free market mechanism, and that feeding everyone would invariably undermine the free market.

Thrift non-wasting practices, eating your leftovers, faith in God, volunteerism and charity, and unbridled free markets do not feed people. Adult discussions should start from the premise that there are two basic ways to address hunger. One is to increase the purchasing power of the poor to buy commodified food. We already do this, to an extent, with food stamps, but do so by reinforcing an unjust private food system (and subsidizing retailers like Wal-Mart, which pay their workers so little they qualify for SNAP). The alternative is to de-commodify food—that is, create a right to food not dependent on individual’s capacity to pay or participation in the labor market. This has been tried in socialist countries and, more recently, in India. History suggests that it may help feed people, but at the cost of inefficiencies and the loss of the abundance, excessive choice, and convenience that a capitalist food system gives (some of) us.

“Food waste” is a powerful symbol of the dysfunction of our food system, and the coexistence of hunger and waste is as visceral a reminder as any of the insanity of free-market capitalism. But as a kind of “slack” which we could use to eradicate hunger, minimize our ecological footprint, and address socioeconomic inequality? Well, sometimes waste really is just garbage.

* I don’t know why it was always China for me. China ranks 42nd in food security. Better to say “Democratic Republic of the Congo,” or the post-industrial neighborhood by your suburb.

Gleaning the Gleanings

As much as I like to think dumpster diving is in some ways inherently political, there are times when the whole thing can feel incredibly self-involved. And so, in the perpetually problematic desire to “give back”, I’ve been volunteering in food redistribution (again).

I like this charity, even though it’s a charity and not a “movement”, more than many, because it continues a long European tradition—gleaning—and provides food that is actually healthy. Every Sunday, the “Gleaner’s Tent” takes the leftover produce from one open-air market in the 19th and distributes it to an eclectic group of punks, retirees, and immigrants.

There’s one step I left out, though. After we get the food from the distributors, we sort it. The head of the tent is proud that the food we give out is (almost) as good as the food people are buying a few meters away. But it doesn’t come that way when we ask suppliers for their leftovers. On Sunday, we had a hyper-abundance of mangoes (hey, it’s better than cake), and I was assigned to cull the good from the not-so-good. And so I did, chucking the truly desultory and inedible fruits into a rapidly-filling organic compost bin behind me.

When I thought I was nearly done, another volunteer—a migrant from West Africa—looked somewhat bemusedly at my work. She clearly knew more about mangoes than I did, and began grabbing fruits that I thought had made the cut. A split-second of contemplation determined that two-thirds of them were unfit for human consumption, and they joined the rest in the bin. I didn’t know what to think. There were hungry people, and we didn’t have nearly enough gleanings to feed them all.

When the line finally started moving, though, I had a better understanding. Just like at the food bank, people—that is, hungry and poor people—did not just take what they were offered. They reached for the brightest, the biggest, and the freshest, and haggled and traded to get something better than what we pushed onto them. There was a lot left over—so much, in fact, that I wound up gleaning the gleanings, reaching into that compost bin and taking a half-dozen mangoes that I had been convinced someone would want but which had been left behind.

I’ve been thinking a lot about questions of “value” as it relates to waste. Originally, like a good Marxist, I concluded that we waste because, under capitalism, food is a commodity valued based on its capacity to be exchanged, not its ability to be used. I’m ready to concede that this was is a jejune and simplistic point. Sure, maybe we waste food because we don’t “value” labor, animals, the environment, or nutrition. But we also waste it because of what we do value: taste, appearance, convenience, abundance. Waste starts to seem more intractable when you look at it that way, as a “positive effort to organize the environment”, as anthropologist Mary Douglas puts it.

The mangoes were edible. They were probably even nutritious. But they tasted pretty bad. And maybe it’s only from a position of privilege that eating the crappy leftovers seems like a good idea.


The decay spreads over the State, and the sweet smell is a great sorrow on the land. Men who can graft the trees and make the seed fertile and big can find no way to let the hungry people eat their produce.  Men who have created new fruits in the world cannot create a system whereby the fruits may be eaten. And the failure hangs over the state like a great sorrow.

The works of the roots of the vines, of the trees, must be destroyed to keep up the price, and this is the saddest, bitterest thing of all.  Carloads of oranges dumped on the ground.  The people came for miles to take the fruit, but this could not be.  How would they buy oranges at twenty cents a dozen if they could drive out and pick them up?  And men with hoses squirt kerosene on the oranges, and they are angry at the crime, angry at the people who have come to take the fruit…

Burn coffee for fuel in the ships. Burn corn to keep warm, it makes a hot fire. Dump potatoes in the rivers and place guards along the banks to keep the hungry people from fishing them out. Slaughter the pigs and bury them, and let the putrescence drip down into the earth.

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange…

And in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath…”

- John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

Everywhere you go, it’s the same story. Homeless recyclers in San Francisco who eke out a living by redeeming aluminum cans claim they’re being stopped and cited for rooting through the garbage. Food Not Bombs claims that more and more stores that once furnished the ingredients for free, collaboratively prepared, vegan meals are installing trash compactors. An itinerant Hungarian diver I spoke to recently told me, “No matter where you go, it’s getting harder.” Capitalism is reclaiming its waste.

On the surface, it seems absurd that anyone would bother to guard their garbage. But, in various guises, it’s happening. I’ve seen it particularly acutely in New York. First, employees at the Trader Joe’s on 14th Street started harassing divers outside the store and threatening trespassing tickets. The hot food bar on the Lower East Side no longer let the freegans come in and take what they were about to pitch. And then the D’Agostino’s on 38th and 35th started rushing their garbage out to the curb just a few seconds before the sanitation truck arrived.

Still, I always thought the tales about stores pouring bleach on their food were apocryphal. That was, until this Saturday. I opened up a dumpster legendary for an unfathomable smorgasbord of pre-packaged foods only to discover that every yogurt, every pack of meat, every loaf of bread, every plastic container of fair-trade vegan organic quinoa salad, had been methodically and meticulously slashed open. And, in the deep wounds that marred every item of the otherwise unblemished food, there was the unmistakable smell of bleach.

I should say at this point that I’m ambivalent about whether I should be a dumpster-diver. Although my current income is low (hovering around $0/month), I still have the sense that—as someone with means—I should be “voting with my dollar” for some positive alternatives. Food doesn’t grow in dumpsters, and for local, vegan, organic food to become affordable and available, people like me need to support it. The fact that I sometimes listen to my iPod on the walks home from my dives makes me inconsistent; the fact that I occasionally buy food from the same stores I’m diving just makes me a hypocrite.

When I’m diving, though, I meet people who really seem to need the food. For some, dumpster diving gives them a sense of autonomy and self-reliance they could never get from food stamps. Others, I’m fairly sure, would just go hungry were it not for the stores’ surplus. On Saturday, I gazed at the yogurt graveyard alongside an elderly couple: they were, not incidentally, the ones willing to brave the health risks and eat the bleached food.

My last post was a long tirade against supermarkets, so why not pile on a little more criticism. Stores usually claim that the reason they don’t donate food is that it’s too time consuming and expensive (they’d probably proffer the same excuse for why what they do donate is sometimes inedible crap). But individually slashing hundreds of yogurts takes longer than putting them in a box for the food bank. Stores aren’t trying to save time or money; they’re trying to ensure that food remains a commodity that we can only have access to if we buy it.

Pouring bleach on the garbage is another striking admission of guilt. I’ve been told to my face by supermarket managers that they donate “everything that’s still safe for people to eat” to charity. The corollary is that anything in their dumpsters must be spoiled, rotten, and dangerous. But if this were true, there’d be no need to pour bleach on it: why add poison to poison? The reason dumpsters have to be locked is not to protect us: it’s to protect the proverbial bottom line, by convincing us to buy what we could once get for free.

As for the rest, well, if not cake, let them eat bleach.

Mendigos and Some Development Naivety

If I actually had the wherewithal to draw up a budget for this trip, I think I would have to include a byline for what I give to mendigos (Spanish for “beggars”). As sure as it is that I will go to Café Amazonica every day in Coca—they get the whole vegetarian thing, and have a multi-course breakfast for $2—it is equally predictable that I will be greeted by the debilitated man on the stoop outside my hotel and supplicated by the destitute mother of two on the block adjacent.  And, being a bleeding heart, it is also assured that I will hand over some change; only the quantity is in doubt.

I’ll be the first to admit it, I’m a bleeding heart.  When I lived and worked in New York, giving to panhandlers was a constant financial outflow.  In Oxford, “begging” is institutionalized by The Big Issue, a social-entrepreneurship venture that provides magazines for homeless people to sell.  It’s actually a decent production: the problem is that there is a vendor on every corner, and I am really only interested in buying one issue a week.  Still, though, when I here them call out to me, “Big Issue, please, help the homeless,” I have trouble justifying why I should sleep in a bed and they on the street.  And so goes another 15 pounds a week.

In our research methods class this year, we were required to do a short qualitative project.  A group of us decided to talk with Big Issue vendors about their interactions with different populations in the Oxford Community.  As tends to be the case with ungraded assignments, we didn’t work too hard and as a result didn’t uncover anything too surprising.  Indeed, our number one discovery was blatantly obvious: the vendors hate being ignored.  As one of them put it, “I’d rather people say ‘fuck you’ than just walk by.”  And so, I came to a personal compromise, to reconcile my pocketbook and financial reality.  I would keep my spare change in my pocket, but I would always acknowledge with a smile, a nod, and a no-thanks.

The problem is, this strategy doesn’t work.  Not at all.  The vast majority of people, of course, just walk by panhandlers, and do their best to pretend that they do not exist.  As soon as we do admit that they are there, it’s hard not to sense some sort of moral obligation to do something.  As soon as I make eye-contact, it seems, I have passed into this latter group; there is, all of a sudden, an expectation; guilt kicks in and I reach into my pocket.  There is, it seems, no middle ground.  As much as I’m sure the mother on Calle 12 de Octubre appreciates the recognition, here kids don’t seem to be able to eat kindness.

Which brings me (naturally without any awkward and disconnected logical leap) to development.  This hopeless middle ground—acknowledge, but do not act—seems to be the path that Oxford is pushing me to take.  In my fieldwork, I am supposed to meticulously follow and document the injustices of the world around me; at the same time, though, I am trained to think that these problems are intractable.  Any effort to solve them, after all, would oversimplify complex local variation, ignore important historical contexts, and involve the subtle exercise of discursive power to construct third world subjects. I am, in short, instructed to become an expert at observing injustice, but will remain impotent with respect to doing anything about it.

There are, I admit, really good reasons for not trying to help people in developing countries.  For one, developing countries are not beggars (any metaphorical suggestions from this post aside).  Not everyone wants to be “helped,” and not every good intention to help people translates into positive results.  This seems to be dawning on the development community more and more: our new fad is randomized experimention, which has the novel consequence of allowing us to know whether development programs actually do what they are supposed to.  That more of aid budgets are going to evaluation and research is, I think, probably a good thing.  What scares me, though, is that, perhaps, when we finally do find something that works in development, we will be too cynical to acknowledge it—it must be a flaw in our evaluation design!  Aid can’t work!  Injustice is immutable!

This brings me back to beggars.  As much of reservoir of what liberal guilt as I am, I don’t think I give just because I feel bad.  And I certainly don’t give because I think that fifty cents is appreciably improve anyone’s life.  I do give—and, more broadly, continue with my naïve aspirations to save the world, or at least a chunk of it—because when I do figure out how to do something, I don’t want to be so blinded that I no longer see injustice and so jaded to think there is nothing I can do about it.

Festive, If Ugly

Coca is shitty.

I mean, it could be better I guess.

Believe it or not, I chose this adjective to describe the town where I am staying—also known as Puerto Francisco de Orellana—carefully.  It would not, for example, be fair to say that Coca is poor.  In fact, according to my interviewees, Coca is, thanks to oil money, pretty well off, a claim that seems corroborated by a high number of new pick-up trucks and preponderance of electronics stores.  It would be similarly inaccurate to say that Coca is particularly dangerous, at least compared to Quito or Guayaquil.

That leaves shitty.  The city has grown explosively in recent years because of an influx of highlanders who came to the rainforest looking for work and land.  The city is bursting out of its seams, a chaotic and jumbled mass of shoddily constructed buildings and half-paved streets, with no central square or parks to speak of.  I’m fairly sure that if someone vomited on a topographical map, played connect the dots with the splatter, and built roads along the lines, the result would be a more logical layout.  I suppose Houston Texas doesn’t have zoning either, but Coca seems worse thanks to the stark contrast between the natural beauty of the selva and the excrescences of human creation.

I suppose that as long as I’m heartlessly ripping into the city, I might as well put it all out there.  As a ‘fronteir town’ in Ecuador’s Wild Wild East, Coca has something of a rough edge.  The city is absolutely filthy, one part thanks to a careless citizenry and another part thanks to a constant drizzle that turns everything into mud.  The hotels are all chucked into the center of town, where the noise of tanker trucks and buses crossing the Napo River to the south is just constant enough to drown out the non-stop shouting and reggaton of the bars catering to oil-boom bachelors.  My position on the city is further biased by the utter absence of any food that isn’t greasy fried chicken.

While I’m on some level writing this just for the sake of description (I’m in the Amazon—which is awesome—so I’m not really expecting much in the way of sympathy), I’m also writing because tonight, Francisco de Orellana is celebrating.  I’ve yet to really get a handle on what this festival is about, though I think it is marking the time when two administrative cantons were combined to create the present jurisdiction (Can I get a “hell yes?”).  Whatever the reason, though, the Coco-ans seem to be having a good time: the streets are full of food stands and beer carts, music is blaring, and a nearby deserted lot has been turned into a gigantic dance floor.

AidWatch—the blog of NYU Professor and development-hater* William Easterly—had a great post recently about how poor people in rural Ghana do not, primarily, think of themselves as poor people.  They think of themselves, above all else, as Christians.  That’s not to say that they are ignorant of their disadvantaged position in the grand scheme of the world; just that they don’t identify by it.  I suppose the same could be said of the Orellanans.   Perhaps when I see them, I see residents-of-a-really-shitty-town, but if I asked them, I’m sure they would describe them as De Oriente or Catholic or Kichwa or Ecuadorian or any number of other things.  They may know that their town isn’t the greatest, but tonight they are celebrating it anyway, because it’s theirs.

That’s enough thought for now.  The Meringue is heating up—it’s time to make like Freshman Year at Princeton and go awkwardly dance with myself.

* Three-fourths kidding.  Everyone should read Easterly’s book, The White Man’s Burden.

One step forward?

It’s always exciting when something is published in the popular press on my research interests, and even better (academically, at least) when it is sufficiently off the mark to make me think that people really need to know about what I’m discovering.

I’m fairly sure everyone in elementary school hears about how the rainforest is being cleared at a rate of 1½ acres per second or a bazillion football fields a day or some similarly disturbing statistic.  As it turns out, though, in places like Brazil and Indonesia, the deforestation rates are slowing.  Reports the New York Times:

Signs are growing that international efforts to clamp down on illegal logging and strengthen timber harvesting regulations are succeeding in slowing the destruction of these forests.

Good news, right?  Sure.  But what is the cause?  Has Brazil’s much vaunted development succeeded in lifting Amazonian farmers out of poverty to the extent that they no longer need to resort to slash-and-burn agriculture?  Have developing world governments succeeded in convincing their populaces that the natural environment is worth protecting?  Or, perhaps, have wealthy countries created some mechanism to compensate erstwhile loggers for protecting these natural resources?

Apparently not.  According to the article, the slow in deforestation rates is almost entirely due to legal enforcement and police action.  It’s roughly analogous to a strategy that has “worked” to protect endangered species in many African National Parks: shoot poachers and relocate local populations to god-knows-where.  Unfortunately, this conservation seems to leave at least one species hanging.  One scientist reports from Brazil:

“You had tens of thousands of loggers who were out of work — people were not happy,” Mr. Walker said in an interview. “A lot of the sawmills went broke. I was amazed to see it.”

It’s moments like these where I get extremely excited about Yasuní-ITT.  However flawed, the proposal at the very least represents a sincere search for a mechanism of “sustainable development” that protects the environment while simultaneously providing something more substantive for affected populations than a handful of jobs guarding parks or guiding tourists.  Genuine conservation happens when people start to attach intrinsic value to the natural environment, not when we teach them to resent it by making conservation the cause of unemployment and poverty.

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

Oxford, at the margins

There are times when Oxford and Princeton seem eerily similar.* Case in point: the Oxford bubble.  As I am prone to do, I occasionally gripe to anyone within earshot about the apathy and inactivity of the student body here.  The other day, when I was whinging to my housemate, she sighed and said “Oh, I guess you haven’t heard about the Oxford bubble, have you?”

Technically, no, I hadn’t heard about the Oxford bubble before.  But I have definitely heard about the orange bubble—that invisible barrier that somehow prevents Princeton students from taking an interest in the world around me–and I must say, the Oxford bubble sounds remarkably similar.  I found the concept annoying as an undergraduate, and I find it equally problematic now.  I don’t mind that universities are, to some extent, isolated from the world around them: that’s part of what makes them unique.  What bothers me, though, is the implication that we are somehow trapped inside by forces outside our control, that deep down, we’d really like to get out into the world, but for now we’re stuck in the bubble and just can’t get out. It’s as if the only way to escape is to drop out and become a full-time volunteer at an orphanage in South Asia.  The reality, as I’ve been reminding myself, is that the bubble is easy to puncture, and I only have to go a few hundred meters to do it.

Abstract, moralizing now out of the way, I should say that, for me, I’ve been perforating my own Oxford bubble for a few hours a week, volunteering for a local charity called Food Justice.  It’s nothing world-altering, and I certainly can’t take credit for playing any part in organizing it: I just sit in a van and pick up food that has passed its shelf-life from grocery stores and help redistribute it to local charities around Oxford.  Although averting food waste obviously appeals to my freegan side, I have no pretensions that Food Justice is doing anything radical.  If anything, it’s a bit depressing to juxtapose the few half-full crates of food the stores donate with the veritable mountains of food headed for the trash compactor (no dumpster diving here).  In the grand scheme of what Britain’s new Prime Minister is describing as “savage” cuts to social services, moving around a few loaves of bread is a drop in the proverbial bucket—and while I know I should do more, I don’t (“sorry, I’ve got exams”).

What I do like about Food Justice, more than anything else, is that it shows me a chunk of my community that I wouldn’t see otherwise.  We students tend to think of Oxford as the center of the universe, and the town surrounding the university as a place that exists solely for the purpose of providing cheap ethnic restaurants.  Food Justice takes me to homeless hostels, soup kitchens, mental health clinics, and drug rehab centers—all totally invisible to the student community, but also incredibly close to where we students live and study.  It’s a harsh reality, but one that I think is worth seeing, if for no other reason than that it is an integral part of the community where we live.  Not outside the bubble, but in it.

* Albeit, never when I am dealing with university bureaucracy… moments in which I inevitably miss Princeton terribly.

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Jumping back to the topic of Oxford-Princeton parallels, I recently encountered another one.  I got back my grade for my second assessed essay today (which counts for something like 10% of my mark for my final degree).  It wasn’t abominable, but it certainly wasn’t up to the standard I expect from myself.  When I complained to a friend about it, he told me, “You know what they say: Oxford University, where your best hasn’t been good enough since 1248.”  Of course, they say that at Princeton, too; just with a different date.  The unfortunate thing is that, at least at Oxford, the statement feels like it’s true.  We don’t receive any comments on our essays—just grades—and the markers are anonymous, so there’s no clarity as to why I didn’t perform up-to-snuff.  The result is I catastrophize, thinking that it’s not just an essay that has been judged, but me as a intellectual being—and I have been found wanting.  As I constantly vacillate between wanting to go into academia and thinking I’m not cut out for it, it’s a little dispiriting to think that I can’t even get a 5,000 word essay right.

Anyway, thanks to my poor mark, I was feeling a bit of ennui and melancholy as we embarked on our Food Justice run today.  One of our stops was a crisis center for at-risk teens.  One kid standing outside struck up a conversation with me about how boring being stuck in a home was, how much it sucked to be on methadone, and—briefly—our mutual appreciation of punk rock, which he seemed to bring up in response to the fact that—wearing all black with plugs and an eyebrow stud—I did not quite look like the typical Oxford student.  As I walked away, he commented on the hoodie I was wearing, which has the logo for the band “The Unseen” on it.

“Hey man, you are not unseen.  You are totally seen.”

Somehow, that was exactly what I needed to hear.

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Jukebox: Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon

Zero Sum Development


It’s a weird paradox of academia that sometimes you are too busy studying something to actually spend any time learning about it.  One of the joys of having a six week break from my Development Studies program has been that I’ve had a little time to actually think about development. The result is this bit of inchoate and incoherent theorizing that has been stewing in my brain for the past half-year.  This is long, but since I don’t feel like writing a proper term paper (or maybe it’s dissertation?), this is not nearly long enough to full tease out or justify my ideas.  Read at your peril – on reflection, it’s really drivel.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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While I was in Barcelona, I finally got around to reading Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky, which was easily one of the biggest popular books on development published in the last year (admittedly, a low bar).  Kristof’s columns in the New York Time get bashed a lot for over-simplifying complex issues, but I found the book to be surprisingly nuanced and even-handed.  That said, the main theme of Half the Sky can be summed up pretty succinctly: women are good.  Kristoff and WuDunn’s central message is that the key to defeating global poverty lies in empowering women, particularly through micro-finance and education.

Here’s the thing, though: to those of us in the academic development studies community, women are so five years ago.  Empowering women was an exciting idea in the ‘90s, but since then, the academy’s enthusiasm for development centered on women has ebbed.  It has already been shown that micro-lending creates huge inequalities within low-income communities, that high repayment rates are often only sustained through recourse to traditional (and usurious) village lenders, and that micro-finance, for whatever reason, doesn’t seem to work nearly as well in Africa as in South Asia.  (Even the New York Times jumped on the microfinance-critique bandwagon a week or two ago).

As for education… well, here’s an anecdote: when a speaker came to our department and claimed that increasing levels of education were going to drastically reduce global poverty, my micro-economics professor hung his head off his desk and started muttering to himself, “This is all wrong.  It’s all wrong.”  I can speak from my own experience in Uganda to say that our traditional metrics of providing education—putting more children’s butts in chairs for more years—does not translate into success in places were economic opportunity is non-existent.  There were no shortage of masters degrees in Uganda, and yet still people with masters degrees were desperate to be paid $5 a day to read surveys.

One of the biggest critiques of the popular development community’s newfound enthusiasm for women, though, is also the most obvious: empowering women often means disempowering men.  Many of the abuses documented in Half the Sky—forced marriages, domestic violence, prostitution, female infanticide—involve males exercising control over female bodies and female lives.  It’s practically inevitable, then, that rectifying these abuses requires taking away privileges that men, on some level, have previously enjoyed.  And while in developing countries these fathers, brothers, and sons might be patriarchs with respect to women, they are often otherwise politically, socially, and economically marginalized, so it seems counterproductive to make things worse for them.

The goal of development, in its most simplified and idealized form, has always been to make everyone better off.  Women-centric development strategies fail in this respect, because these strategies often have clear winners and losers.  They are, in short, zero sum, a label that might as well be the kiss of death in the development world.

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I was struck a few months ago by a column written by Paul Krugman, in which he bluntly stated that China’s monstrous economic growth has been inextricably bound up with rising unemployment in the U.S.  His argument was persuasive, but disconcerting: China—perhaps the greatest success story of poverty reduction in modern history—has done well by creating poverty in specific sectors of the U.S., particularly inner cities and manufacturing centers like Detroit.  And it got me wondering—can there be such a thing as positive-sum development?

Thirty years ago, “development” was defined as “economic growth.”  Since the possibilities for economic growth seemed limitless, so too did the possibilities for development.  As long as development is equivalent to GDP, then it seems like we needn’t rob Peter to develop Paul—ecological constraints aside, there is seemingly limitless potential for technological advancement and greater productivity.  By all account, even most people in sub-Saharan Africa have access to more material crap than the average American did a century ago.  All in all, a growth-centered definition of development is an optimistic one.

At some point in time, though, we realized that development was not, in fact, captured by GDP.  Instead, as economists like Amartya Sen points out, “development” entails a broad array of individual capabilities and freedoms: access to knowledge, freedom of cultural expression, control over one’s workplace, a voice in government affairs, etc.  To get rid of jargon, development is, in actuality, power over ones own life.

As soon as we adopt this definition of development, though, it seems to me inevitable that we have to accept that development is inevitably going to be zero sum.  If a woman in the developing world is given access to family planning and gets to decide when (or if) to have kids, then by definition someone else—often a father or husband—isn’t.  The same applies for almost any dimension or scale.  Peasants and workers can only have control over their economic situation when employers, elites, and western consumers give up cheap labor and the right to dictate working conditions.  And third world countries are only truly sovereign when international financial institutions give up their prerogative to dictate their economic policy or Western countries stop treating them like military playgrounds.  What I’ve realized in the last six months is that helping people is really, really hard, because development is—by definition—simply not a game that everyone can win.

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I suppose these ideas could come off as incredibly pessimistic (or maybe just banal and obvious?), but I don’t quite see it that way.  People can be simultaneously empowered and disempowered in various spheres of their life.  The third-world men who are the villains in Kristof’s narratives, for example, many very well deserve to lose much of their power over their household.  At the same time, though, we should acknowledge that at the root of their violence towards women is their profound economic and political disenfranchisement, which deserves redress in its own right.

This, of course, is all very abstract, and says nothing about how development actually happens. I do think, though, that there is something valuable about accepting that development inevitably has both winners and losers.  Rather than perpetually wringing our hands, we should accept this, figure out who we want to help and harm, and move on.  And before we talk about all the privileges we’re going to grant those desperate, needy people in the Third World, we should first look inward and think about the privileges we are willing to give up to make it happen.