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.


The following is a brief excursus on the social science disciplines which should be of interest to absolutely no one.  It should not be confused with the similarly titled article by Emily Sands ’09, who is brilliant.

I’ve already many times registered my frustration with much of the criticism of development coming from the academy.  With respect to offering un-constructive criticism, though, anthropology takes the cake.  Having now officially completed two terms of my course, I can definitively say that 90% of what modern anthropologists have to say about development seems to fall into one of three categories:

–         “[Theory] fails to account for local variation.”

–         “I think a correct understanding requires a more nuanced view, somewhere between [actually meaningful position] and [actually meaningful position.]”

–         “We need to complicate our discourse about [concept that is already way too complicated].”

These statements don’t bother me because they’re necessarily wrong.  In fact, quite the opposite: they annoy me because they are, almost by definition, correct.  When someone tells me that a theory “Fails to capture local variation,” I am almost tempted to respond, “Well, duh.”  The entire point of a theory is to simplify reality: inevitably, that means leaving something out.  You can always chart a middle ground between two theories: it’s the academic version of Zeno’s paradox.

Which brings me to economics.  My somewhat rocky relationship with economics started my sophomore year of college, when I signed up for Economics 101 naively thinking it would teach me something about the real world and not just the front page of the Wall Street Journal.  I still remember reading in the first chapter of the book, “studies have shown that rich countries are not appreciably happier than poor countries” and wondering why, then, the book spent the next nineteen chapters explaining how we can get richer.  It all struck me as somewhat mystical: countries get “richer” because there are more pieces of paper floating around; inflation gets higher because people think it’s going to get higher; and global inequality grows because some guy in London moved around some numbers on a computer screen.

I’m having a better go at economics this time around.  Partially, it’s because—thanks to the recent economic downturn—Hayek is out and Keynes is back in, so economics is taught like having high unemployment might actually be a bad thing (even if you have high economic growth!).  It also helps that our class teachers are relatively honest about their discipline’s foibles (“All the assumptions in this model are false but, well, suck it up”).  There’s also a part of my brain that has missed graphs and numbers, and finds it a welcome respite from reading endless pages of theory.

Deeper than that, though, I’m enjoying economics because it reminds me of why I enjoyed studying social sciences in the first place.  Economics is still taught as if social problems can be understood and solved; as if some policy choices are better than others; and as though what we do as researchers might actually matter to people outside our disciplines.  They do more than just talk about “discourses,” “problematics,” and Michel Foucault.  I don’t agree with most of the conclusions that mainstream economists come to, but I appreciate their aims.

This is not to say that I think the qualitative, more post-modern sciences are valueless.  I just think the real intellectual work is done by people advancing broad, bold theories.  Chipping away at them and adding nuance is important, but a lot of it strikes me as a cheap way to get tenure.

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Jukebox: The Voids – Capitalist

Killing Off “Dead Aid”

The book Dead Aid is totally hot right now.

Now, I realize this statement isn’t actually true, and that most people have no idea what I’m talking about.  While Dead Aid may have cracked twenty-ninth on the New York Times bestseller list, and its author Dambisa Moyo was labeled one of 2009’s most important figures, it would probably be an overstatement to say the book has taken the world by storm.  From my vantage point within the development community, though, it might as well have.  Dead Aid has caused loads of hand-wringing among development experts, given anti-aid pundits cause for celebration, and even prompted an angry response from Bono.  And, as you might have guessed, it is the subject of this post (and, I should note, about a zillion others on other blogs about development… but what’s the harm in one more?)

Moyo’s book starts with a bold hypothetical scenario.  What if, she asks, every African government received a phone call from its current donors, announcing that the pipelines of foreign aid would be shut off in the next five years?  Apparently everything in Africa would be better!  Her argument is, basically, that foreign aid has not just failed to fix Africa’s problems—practically everyone acknowledges that—but that aid is the problem, and that without it, conflict, corruption, and poverty would abate and gradually disappear.

There is plenty of room for nitpicking individual elements of Dead Aid. For example, Moyo validly points out that foreign aid short-circuits the usual relationship between states and citizens, since aid-dependent states are ultimately more beholden to donors than taxpayers.  It’s not clear to me, though, how Moyo’s panacea-of-choice, private investment, would fix that: is it better to be beholden to Goldman Sach’s than the IMF?  Her celebration of the wonders of international finance runs into a classic chicken-and-egg problem: no foreigner wants to invest in Africa, she points out, because most countries in Africa lack a functioning government and have decaying infrastructure.  How does she propose to fix them?  Foreign investment!  I could go on.  There is a cheap shot to be made against the book’s fatuous celebration of “benevolent dictatorship” as the ideal form of government for ramming through development programs (well, duh, but dictatorship is rarely benevolent), and the rest of the book is rife with factual errors.

My biggest criticism, though, stems from the very statistic at the heart of Dead Aid: that one trillion dollars has been given to sub-Saharan Africa in foreign aid since World War II, and yet Africa is still poor.  Without question, $1,000,000,000,000 is a lot of money: with that many dollars, you could bail out America’s banks, finance two wars in the Middle East, or (not) reform the U.S. health care system.  Still, relative to the size of Sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP, one trillion dollars over the course of a half-century is not that much: in fact, however poor we think sub-Saharan Africa is, it’s 700 million inhabitants produce more than a trillion dollars in output per year.  To put aid flows in perspective, the U.S. has given more aid to South Korea alone since World War II than to all of Sub-Saharan Africa combined.

It is difficult to find accurate numbers on yearly aid, but for the sake of argument, I’ll use Moyo’s.  Aid, she states, comes to a “staggering” $20 per capita per year in Africa—but that’s only about 2% of income.  Personal savings and foreign investment are, by comparison, much more significant components of the economy.  My own impression, from my time in Uganda, is that the reach of foreign aid is really quite limited.  While Kampala—Uganda’s capital city—is crawling with non-profits and aid organizations, in the countryside, most people have never been touched by a development project.  When compared to the reach of coca-cola, the catholic church, or telecommunications corporations, aid-finance development programs seem localized, scattered, and scarce.

While criticisms of how aid has been used may very well be valid, aid is, in truth, only a small part of the equation in Africa.  The urgency of Africa’s problems inevitably prompts the search for simple, actionable solutions, which requires a clear scapegoat.  Capitalism, corruption, AIDS, the IMF, tribalism, climate, colonialism, and foreign aid—all of these have, at one time or another, been considered the single root of Africa’s problems.  The reality, of course, is that all probably play a part.  To blame foreign aid for all of a continent’s woes is to miss entirely this complexity.

What then is—and should be—the role of foreign aid?  I am inclined to agree with Oxford economics Paul Collier that while aid may not have solved many problems, the situation in Africa would probably be far worse without it.  It is no coincidence that in the ’80s and ’90s, as foreign aid dropped by a third, Africa slid backward on a whole host of development indicators and experienced negative growth.  Whether or not aid has brought development, in the last decade, it has certainly delivered food aid, anti-retrovirals, and mosquito nets–and there is value to saving lives, whether or not it has come with industrialization and development.

Aid has not delivered prosperity to Africa, but as Jeffrey Sachs points out, “It is no surprise that there is so little to show for the aid of Africa, because there has in fact been so little aid to Africa.”  It should be a shock to no one that the .2% of GDP we transfer to developing nations per year is not sufficient to create development in a continent that has so many economic, ecological, and historical factors stacked against it.  While I think we should be cautious about the power of aid—and skeptical that it can achieve much without a radical reconfiguring of the global economy and a drastic reconsideration of how it is delivered—I don’t think we can blame aid for Africa’s problems when we have never, seriously, tried it.

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.

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.


I don’t have the greatest track record with summer jobs. In high school, I worked at Sandia Labs in Albuquerque. Aside from the obvious ethical downsides of working in a weapons laboratory, I had nothing to do and spent most of my days watching Home Star Runner (which now sounds almost as dated as playing with pogs) in a windowless office. After I graduated from high school, my desperation for work led me to Hastings Entertainment, where I spent 27 ½ hours a week (the short workweek had something to do with avoiding paying benefits) selling quilting magazines and porn while getting yelled at for refusing to give “guests” plastic bags for one-item purchases. I enjoyed the law offices I worked after my freshman and sophomore years of college, but last summer was a huge disappointment. Just like in high school, I felt like what talents I have went unused by the Vera Institute of Justice, which worked for “justice” only in the loosest sense of the term.

It’s hard to say how I will judge this summer’s job in retrospect, but suffice to say, it’s been tough. I had built this summer up in my mind as the perfect combination of time spent with friends, travelling, and challenging but interesting (and not soul-crushing) work. As usual, I was delusional: my time in Uganda has been unquestionably the most stressful seven weeks of my life, and I’ve probably worked more hours in total on this project than I did on my senior thesis. I don’t mind hard work, but after four years of hard work in school I was hoping for something a little different during my break.

Jennifer Aniston’s character in Office Space is probably right: most people hate their jobs and yet find ways to reach happiness anyway. My impression that work is supposed to be stimulating and empowering is a product of my extremely privileged background; for most people, it’s not quite like that. Still, though, I simply can’t face the idea that I could spend my life not enjoying the work I do, perhaps because I know I will be defined by it. The life of Alex-the-lawyer will be totally unlike Alex-the-professor, and not just for eight hours a day. As such, it’s a little disheartening to realize, through my time here, that perhaps I am not cut out for life in academia.

As usual, though, the situation in Uganda helps me keep things in perspective and reminds me of how lucky I have been to have consistent, well-paid, and (generally) intellectually stimulating work. And, whenever I’m really down on my job, I think of Shatya.

Most days when we are in Kampala, we work out of Guy’s apartment, a nice flat in a three-story building situated inside a walled compound in Minister’s Village, Ntinda. We typically arrive and leave at absurd hours. No matter what the hour, though, Shatya, the young woman who acts as the gatekeeper, is there to open the gate for us. She is literally on call every hour of every day; her home is a tiny 4’x6’ room attached the gate, and I have only once seen her venture outside the compound, and that was to walk to the corner store (typically, her relatives bring her food, so she doesn’t have to leave her post). I haven’t asked what she is paid, but I doubt it’s much.

In a sense, Shatya is lucky, because the unemployment situation in Uganda is pretty desperate. A huge number of people have no income whatsoever. But it’s the types of work people do have that frightens me more. Occupations here are so astonishingly trivial that it boggles my mind. When we go to restaurants, there are attendants to direct us where to park, even though everyone in the city takes mass transit and the lots are utterly empty. Masses of healthy young men wait by roadsides to re-sell used sandles or hawk fried bananas. Our five-room hotel has an assault-rifle wielding guard to protect a once again unoccupied parking lot. Imagine a woman using a wicker hand-broom to sweep loose gravel from a dirt road into a paper plate, and you have perhaps the best possible picture of what I’m talking about.

Whether or not others choose to value themselves based on the work they do – as do I – I think it is fair to argue that the employment people have reflects the value society places in them. If this is indeed true, I shudder to think about the worth society (by which I do not mean Uganda but the whole world economic and social order) places on someone like Shatya. Have we – through our support and participation in the present way of the world – really decided that someone’s life can be so worthless that they should spend their waking (and, for Shatya, un-waking) hours opening a gate for people who could easily do it themselves?

A final comment that has been bouncing around in my head for weeks, but I haven’t yet figured out how to articulate. A lot has been written about the dignity and pride of the impoverished, of the power of the human spirit to find meaning and fulfillment in adverse circumstances. Some might criticize me for suggesting that the work I here see is trite and trivial, when the people doing that work might nonetheless take pride in it. My own observation, though, is that people here know they are getting screwed. Shatya does not have the friendly subservience of an eager-to-be-exploited doorman. She quite clearly hates what she does and resents the very people who pay her.

All this fits into perhaps the biggest thing I am taking away from Uganda: poverty sucks. For all my attempts to see some silver lining to life in the third world, to note the advantages of a more laid-back way of life and the way people bond together to overcome adversity, the reality is that life here is a grind. The degradation people face on a daily basis is so much more than just being deprived of a few material goods. It is also being forced to watch your life tick away, doing something that you know is valueless and being treated accordingly.