31 August 2012

Sachs, Easterly, Duflo, Collier and Rodrik, Oh My!

In 1934, Carl Hubbel of the New York Giants took the mound as the starting pitcher for the National League. He walked the first two batters of the game and faced arguably the best hitter in the history of baseball, Babe Ruth. Things only looked worse with fellow future Hall-of-Famers Lou Gehrig on-deck and Jimmie Foxx in the hole. Hubbel proceeded to do the unthinkable. He struck out all three and started off the next inning by striking out to more players headed for the Hall, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin.

If there was an equivalent of all star game for aid and development academics, surefire starters would include Paul Collier, Bill Easterly, Jeff Sachs, Dani Rodrik and Esther Duflo. Naturally,there would be some variance based on what people prefer in the vote. Some might take Moyo, others are big fans of Karlan and you can't forget the rabid Blattman fans who would stuff the ballot boxes.

The bad news for development nerds is that there is no all star game for development academics. The good news is that the Institute for International Economic Studies has put together a panel that features a formidable lineup not seen since 1934 (a pinch of hyperbole).

Wednesday, IIES is celebrating its 50th anniversary with an all star panel to discuss the question, "how can policy and aid help in bringing down world poverty." Timothy Besley of LSE has the challenge of moderating the panel of Collier, Duflo, Eaterly, Rodrik and Sachs. It might not go the same way as the 1934 MLB all star game, but a panel with this group may only happen once.

Genocide Scholars Call Attention to South Kordofan and Blue Nile States

A group of 66 genocide experts wrote an open letter to President Obama calling to attention the humanitarian crisis faced by people living in Sudan's South Kordofan and Blue Nile states. The authors implore Obama to launch a humanitarian intervention into the region. "The continuing multiple atrocities amount to at least crimes against humanity. This, in and of itself, is alarming. According to the tenets of the Responsibility to Protect now is the time to protect the targeted population," they write.

“It has become impossible for us to remain silent. We exist to remind the world that genocide is not a crime merely found in history books, but something we must stand strongly against in both word and deed right now. If we do not stand with the victims, then we are automatically standing with those who commit such crimes. We urge the Obama administration to take a stand against these atrocities now for this very reason; otherwise, history will be unforgiving for further inaction,” explained Samuel Totten, genocide scholar and professor at the University of Arkansas.

The experts say that attacks by the Sudanese government has displaced 200,000 to 300,000 people who are taking shelter in the Nuba Mountains.Recently, attacks by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement-North in South Kordofan displaced roughly 3,000 people. OCHA reports that relief was provided to those displaced by UN partners.

Projections by FEWS Net show that food security will remain a problem in South Kordofan at the end of the year. The good news is that it is an improvement over the current food security situation, but a lot will depend on the response, whether people can return home and crop yields.

Further problems are being caused by flash flooding. The majority of the problems are taking place in Darfur, but there have been problems in South Kordofan. In sum, the flooding has affected 100,000 people.

All these factors add up to a concerning situation in southern Sudan. The scholars are forceful in their wording, making it clear that they believe that R2P applies to the situation.
Although we welcome your efforts to aid the refugees who have found their way to camps in South Sudan, we must point out that as world leaders you have the moral authority granted by the UN’s unanimous 2005 declaration of the Responsibility to Protect to demand delivery of aid to those inside Sudan. As guarantors of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed that same year, moreover, you have not fulfilled your legal and moral obligation to sanction violators of that agreement. 
The Sudanese regime continues to slaughter its own civilians, while denying them access to aid and in defiance of various international treaties and conventions it has signed, not to mention the Sudanese constitution.
To ensure that aid can make it to South Kordofan and Blue Nile, they want the US to establish a a humanitarian corridor, work with the SPLM-N forces and include Sudanese officials in observing the distribution process.

Appeasement makes an appearance to characterize the US response thus far. They conclude that they are right and immediate action is necessary by appealing to a historic view saying, "If your administration chooses to stand with the victims of Sudan’s continuing campaign of ethnic cleansing, then history will accord you respect and honor. If you do not stand with the victims, history will be much harsher."

The same mistakes that were made in Darfur should not be made again, said John Hubbel Weiss of Cornell University. “The world witnessed this during the north-south war and in Darfur, so we should not be surprised that Bashir’s cronies are using it again. This is a calculated action meant to annihilate those who support the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North political and military movement. At the local level, this means that many people are automatically targeted based on geographic location and ethnicity regardless of their true political affiliations,” explained Weiss.

Read the full letter here.

Editing Carr: "Celebrity Activism and the FWD Campaign: What you endorse matters"

Last night, I teased Ed Carr that he writes great posts but they are too long. I said I would cut down his 858 word post on the FWD campaign and celebrity advocates. Here is my 559 word edit. I think it loses some of Ed's voice, but gets to the thrust of his argument and is in some ways more assertive. Comment away on the comparison and the ideas presented.

In response to the Horn of Africa famine, USAID and several partner organizations stood up a campaign called FWD (Famine, War, and Drought) to raise awareness and funds for relief. The use of celebrity in the FWD campaign illuminated just how thin celebrity authority can be and still produce an “acceptable” message.

Television chef and food critic, Anthony Bourdain, lent his expertise saying, “chefs understand . . . not only how important it is to eat, but how awful it is when you can’t.” It is unclear how chefs might have any greater understanding of how awful it is to be food insecure than any other person. Furthermore, this presentation hides the fact that the importance of food to Bourdain is rather different than its importance to a Somali forced to flee across the Kenyan border to find food.

Food is very important to Bourdain, but not in the same way as a mother in Somalia trying to feed her child dirt or dry grass; anything to keep the child from dying. Bourdain has never visited an area suffering from severe food shortage on the show, nor has he extensively interacted with someone who is acutely food insecure to experience their diet and context. Eating exotic food around the world does not make him a food security expert.

Pathfinder vs Researchers: Disagreement Over Use of Misoprostol for Postpartum Hemmorhage

When women experience postpartum hemmorhage (PPH) the drug Oxytocin is the first line choice to reduce or stop bleeding. It is an important drug because PPH was responsible for 1/4 of the 358,000 maternal deaths that occurred in 2008.
In resourced strapped areas, a new oral drug called Misoprostol provides help to mothers who experience PPH. While Oxytocin is the preferred choice, there are many cases where women give birth outside of a hospital or the hospital itself is unable to carry the drug.

Misoprostol is so important that the WHO Expert Committee on the Selection and Use of Essential Medicines added it to the Essential Medicines list for use when Oxytocin is not available. They wrote in 2010,
For PPH prevention, WHO recommends that “in the absence of active management of the third stage of labour, a uterotonic drug (oxytocin or misoprostol) should be offered by a health worker trained in its use for prevention of PPH. For misoprostol, this recommendation places a high value on the potential benefits  of avoiding PPH and ease of administration of an oral drug in settings where other care is not available, but notes there is only one study. The only trial relevant to this recommendation used 600 μg of misoprostol.6 The efficacy of lower doses has not been evaluated. There is still uncertainty about the lowest effective dose and optimal route of administration.”
A recent paper raises some questions about the evidence that supports the use of Misoprostol. The abstract says:
This article describes and critically appraises clinical trials assessing misoprostol effectiveness in preventing primary postpartum haemorrhage (PPH) in home and community settings in low- and middle-income countries. Of 172 identified studies of misoprostol use in labour only six fulfilled the inclusion criteria. All trials used 600μg misoprostol in the intervention arm; three assessed misoprostol alongside components of active management of the third-stage labour (AMTSL), two used expectant management of labour and one allowed birth attendants to choose management practice. The three AMTSL studies showed no significant differences in PPH incidence or referral to higher centres and only one study showed significant decrease in severe PPH using misoprostol. One expectant management study and the choice of management by birth attendants study found significant decreases in PPH incidence with misoprostol. All studies showed significantly increased risk of shivering with misoprostol. Studies were biased by use of alternative uterotonics in the control arm, confounding management practices, and subjective assessment and, with one exception, exclusion of high-risk women. PPH incidence fell in both the control and intervention groups in both the landmark papers that informed the World Health Organization (WHO) decision to admit misoprostol to the Essential Medicines List. This suggests factors other than misoprostol use are crucial. Current evidence does not support misoprostol use in home and community settings in low- and middle-income countries for PPH prevention. WHO should rethink its recent decision to include misoprostol on the Essential Medicines List.
Pathfinder International disagrees with the assessment by the study's authors. Pathfinder questions the methodology of the authors of the study by saying that little information is provided as to how they analyzed the various studies. They outline other points of disagreement writing,
[T]he paper criticizes one study that used visual estimation of blood loss (VEBL), suggesting that blood loss
could have been underestimated. This is a valid critique of VEBL, as it is known to underestimate blood loss. However, there is no reason to suspect that VEBL was applied differently in the two study groups, so under-estimation is equally likely in both the intervention and control groups and would not differentially affect the findings. In other words, there is no reason to think that the differences the original study reported are the result of VEBL.

Finally, the authors criticize a number of the studies that they reviewed for having had extensive exclusion criteria. We, however, believe that the criteria used in the original studies are completely reasonable. For example, it would not be possible to include in a study people who refuse to participate or, in this case, women who did not have access to the intervention or control because either the drugs or the person to administer them was not available at the delivery. No study can include potential participants who do not have access to the study intervention.
Pathfinder recommends that no changes be made to current guidelines. They admit that the use of Misoprostol is not an end, but a way to address present health constraints in resource-deprived settings.

30 August 2012

Beyond Pandering and Talking Down to People

Ed Carr was struck by the fact that his students did not know about the famine in the Horn of Africa that took place last year. He followed up with a conversation in his next class and blogged what he learned.
Students (or at least some students) don’t need to be spoken down to – they can handle hearing that a crisis has complex causes, that it is often difficult to identify anyone who is to blame. In short, they are looking for the opposite of the FWD campaign, which shied away from the really complex, big causes of the Horn crisis. Complexity, unto itself, will not scare students off. Instead, if you can get people to give clear, concise, interesting reviews of the complex causes of the crisis, this group of people will get more engaged. Think about it – not everyone is into Africa, or into food security, or into relief work. So when we yell “African famine!”, we are yelling to a small but dedicated fanbase. If, however, we unpack the causes of the Horn crisis, we find out that we have to address climate change/climate science, global markets, the politics of failed states, the regional geopolitics of East Africa, the workings of the US Government, the international politics of aid, etc., etc. In short, when we engage complexity, we find there is something that can draw in almost anyone on their terms. After the conversation with the students today, it seems really clear to me that they would like to be engaged in this manner – stop treating them like apathetic idiots who just don’t/won’t understand.
I tend to believe Ed is right on this point. The beauty of new media and social media are that they can present information and stories in varied ways that can capture different audiences. My personal hope is to find ways to put them to better use and come across others who are doing it already.

Should the SEC have Played a Role in Conflict Minerals?

Steven Davidoff argues that the SEC overreached by being involved in the decision regarding Dodd-Frank Section 1502 (aka the ban on conflict minerals). He explains in the NY Times Dealbook:
But even beyond their expense and complexity, the real question is whether these rules are appropriate. Transparency and disclosure appeal to everyone. Who can argue with companies being more transparent?

But disclosure can have perverse effects. In the case of executive compensation, more disclosure likely allowed executives to know what others were paid and demand higher pay for themselves.

In this case, disclosure may impose substantial costs on companies without corresponding benefit.

Along these lines, an S.E.C. commissioner, Troy A. Paredes, wrote that he voted against the rules because they failed to assess “whether and, if so, the extent to which the final rule will in fact advance its humanitarian goal as opposed to unintentionally making matters worse.”

Rediscovering the New Bottom Billion

Voice of America is picking up on Andy Sumner's research about global poverty with a recent research. His 2010 paper, Global Poverty And The ‘New Bottom Billion’: What If Three-Quarters Of The World’s Poor Live In Middle-Income Countries? upended the idea that global poverty was concentrated in low-income countries.

The reporting makes it seem like it is new news, but better late than never. Sumner explains why it is important in the interview saying, “Many countries over the last decade, in particular, have gotten much better off in average income. But poverty hasn’t fallen as much as one might expect or hope. All of this speaks to a lot of the current debates about the rising importance of inequality around the world and whether debates around the U.N. poverty goals that are due for renewal of some kind in 2015 – whether issues about inequality – ought to have much higher focus."

Going forward, countries will move into middle-income status and poverty will be a problem that will need to be dealt with differently.
Sumner said that with the “distribution of global poverty away from the poorest countries to middle income countries, a new approach to understanding and tackling extreme poverty is required.” He added that this includes a more equitable distribution of the “benefits of economic growth and public spending…on the chronic, long-term poor wherever they live.” 

The Changing Landscape of Development Assistance

The landscape and distribution of aid donors has shifted rather dramatically from 1990 to 2011. In 1990, the main players were the UN and countries like the US, France, Sweeden and Japan. The United States gave over $900 million in development assistance representing 15.66% of the total given in 1990.

The introduction of large funding bodies like the Global Fund and GAVI, a rise in money invested in NGOs provide a different picture in 2011.

Other players grew quickly during the late 90's and early 00's, but the United States came back around beginning in 2003 to a point where it provided $7.5 billion in development assistance in 2011 and represented 27.3% of total money given.

29 August 2012

Guinea Worm Nears Eradication

Cases of Guinea worm are down by 50% of 2012. With just under 400 total cases and the majority concentrated in one country, South Sudan, the end appears to be near.

The decline in cases of Guinea worm has been remarkable. According to the WHO there were 3.5 million cases in 1986 which fell to 829,055 cases in 1986 and declined further to 25,217 by 2006. The rapid rate of decline continues to today and is well on its way to zero.

396 reported cases in the first half of 12 is more than half the number of cases during the same period last year. Eradication will be conferred on countries that do not have new cases for at least three years. Three countries stand on the precipice of eradication, Mali, Ethiopia and Chad, while South Sudan still has a little bit to go.

What makes Guinea worm unique is the fact that there is no vaccine. Donald Hopkins, director of health programs at the Carter Center in Atlanta, explained the challenge to the Washington Post. “In an immunization program, as soon as you vaccinate, you protect. It’s ‘touch and leave,’ ” he said. “For Guinea worm, the only thing you can do is persuade people — many who are very isolated and tradition-bound — to change their behavior.”

Addressing the Problem of Violence Against Women and HIV/AIDS

The problem of gender discrimination is closely linked to violence against women.The connection goes further in areas where HIV/AIDS is a significant problem as women are at an increasingly higher risk of experiencing a cycle of violence and discrimination that is brought about due to gender and heightened by HIV.

A UN Women report outlines the problem and makes suggestions as to how to deal with the issue of violence against women and HIV/AIDS. It is important because discrimination against women has a negative impact on the development of countries.

“Legal reforms, economic incentives and community mobilisation are critical to rectifying this social discrimination and economic injustice,” said Carlos Alvarez, Deputy Director of the OECD Development Centre at the July release of UN Women's Social Institutions and Gender Index. The index accounted for gender discrimination in countries around the world finding that half of women surveyed believe domestic violence to be justified in certain circumstances. Other obstacles include child marriages and discriminatory inheritance practices.

28 August 2012

The Consequences of the RNC's Disagreement with Obama's "Homosexual Agenda"

Updated to reflect that the RNC has in fact adopted the section.

The Republican National Committee published its party platform today. The foreign policy section is appropriately titled American Exceptionalism. The majority of the time is spent on the issue of national security. ThinkProgress points to a section in the document that criticizes the Obama administration's 'cultural agenda.'
The effectiveness of our foreign aid has been limited by the cultural agenda of the current Administration, attempting to impose on foreign countries, especially the peoples of Africa, legalized abortion and the homosexual rights agenda. At the same time, faith-based groups — the sector that has had the best track record in promoting lasting development — have been excluded from grants because they will not conform to the administration’s social agenda. We will reverse this tragic course, encourage more involvement by the most effective aid organizations, and trust developing peoples to build their future from the ground up. (emphasis added)
Ironically, there is a section that focuses on human rights but it appears that the platform considers only religious rights worth protecting given its stance on gay rights.

Exercising credibility: why a theory of change matters

The following post is by Howard White, Executive Director of the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation and originally appears on the 3ie blog.

Recently the Chris Evans breakfast show on UK’s Radio 2 picked up a news story on a Danish study reporting that half an hour’s exercise a day is better for you than one hour. Like me, the radio presenters were puzzled by this finding and wanted to know more.

Middle aged men of reasonable fitness were randomly assigned to two groups, one doing half an hour a day and the other a full hour. After three months the group exercising less had lost more weight. The half hour exercise group lost eight pounds compared to six pounds for the one hour group; about one kilo more weight loss.

The study was widely covered in the press; partly because it has a message most people would like to hear, but also for the novelty value of counterintuitive results. Indeed, the researcher himself is at a loss to explain why this should be so.

27 August 2012

Sachs Doesn't Buy Why Nations Fail's Thesis

Foreign Affairs finally got around to publishing a review of Acemoglu and Robinson's Why Nations Fail having tapped Jeffrey Sachs to share his thoughts on the book. It is no surprise that Sachs disagrees with the argument set forth by the authors.
Acemoglu and Robinson's simple narrative contains a number of conceptual shortcomings. For one, the authors incorrectly assume that author-itarian elites are necessarily hostile to economic progress. In fact, dictators have sometimes acted as agents of deep economic reforms, often because international threats forced their hands. After Napoleon defeated Prussia in 1806 at the Battle of Jena, Prussia's authoritarian rulers embarked on administrative and economic reforms in an effort to strengthen the state. The same impulse drove reforms by the leaders behind Japan's Meiji Restoration in the late nineteenth century, South Korea's industrialization in the 1960s, and China's industrialization in the 1980s. In each case, foreign dangers and the quest for national opulence overshadowed the leaders' concerns about economic liberalization. In their discussion of the incentives facing elites, Acemoglu and Robinson ignore the fact that those elites' political survival often depends as much on external as internal circumstances, leading many struggling states to adopt the institutions and technologies of the leading states in a quest to close economic gaps that endanger the state and society.

Are We Ignoring the Story of Africa's Emergence?

To Ian Birrell, the answer points to yes. His Sunday article in the Guardian garnered quite a bit of attention (and by the number of tweets, support) soon after it was published online. His overall thesis is that African countries are getting better, but stories are not reflecting he change.
Unfortunately, this message is failing to filter through to the west, where too many people remain locked into stale narratives of Africa as a land of suffering in need of our salvation. This is to our long-term detriment, especially in Britain, with such strong historic ties, a common language in many countries and the soft power strength of pop music and Premier League football. Twenty years ago, there was virtual economic dependence on Europe; today, half of Africa's trade is with other developing nations – and not just China. 
The continent is on the edge of economic takeoff similar to those seen so dramatically in China and India. For all the problems that still exist, a recent survey found investors in Africa are overwhelmingly positive, while those not there are unfailingly negative. These anachronistic attitudes reflect the west's myopic view, but we cannot afford to cling on to them in a world changing so fast. It is time to recognise the emergence of the new Africa.
Many will remember that The Economist devoted a recent issue to Africa rising this summer. While I agree that the majority of the stories are stuck in the Live Aid paradigm, the stories are slowly changing to reflect what is happening on the continent. An important indicator is that more articles are being published that discuss the very problem of how Africa is portrayed.

24 August 2012

Two Weeks on Humanosphere...What You Missed

For the last two weeks I had the pleasure of standing in for Tom Paulson on his Humanosphere blog. If you didn't make your way over to the blog, here is what you missed with a clip of the opening paragraph. My personal favorites include a comparison between Romney and Obama on foreign aid, a recap of reactions to the SEC's decision regarding conflict minerals, an interview with Jonathan Katz on the cholera situation in Haiti and my attempt to connect college football offensive innovations with aid transparency.

Enjoy reading, have a great weekend and regular programming will resume on Monday.

Bangladeshi PM Ducks Human Rights Abuse Questions - Host Stephen Sackur asks some hard questions about the human rights record of Bangladesh. Specifically, he cites a UN report that says, “human rights violations continue unabated in Bangladesh. Including extrajudicial deaths, torture and cruel treatment in law enforcement custody.” Hasina ducks the question by blaming the previous government. Attempts to push the issue further by Sackur are met by repeated denials.

Making Data Accessible to Affect Policy: Will it Work? - Brookings has compiled a series of data that they consider to be Development, Aid and Governance Indicators. The data is meant to support “evidence-based policy analysis and foster discussions about trends in foreign assistance, governance and global development.” To do that, Brookings took the data and put it into an interactive and open dashboard.

Nobody Appears Happy with SEC's Conflict Minerals Decision

The long journey through the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) of Section 1502 in the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Act has come to an end. A 3-2 vote adopted the provision that will force mining companies to detail their operations in conflict regions.
For consumers, this means that large electronics companies will be put on the spot to show that they are sourcing their minerals from conflict-free sources. The section has elicited a very strong debate and neither side was very happy with the final decision on Wednesday.
Supporters of the bill say it is a way to reduce the power of armed militias in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. If companies are unable to trade in conflict regions the areas will be forces to make changes in order to enjoy the benefits of international mineral trade. The decline in power will provide more safety for the people who have been brutalized for years.
Despite the SEC ruling in favor of the supporters, they were less than pleased by the decision to include a 2 year phase-in period. “Although the rule appears to have been weakened to placate the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, the threat of a lawsuit by these associations remains,” wrote Sasha Lezhnev and Darren Fenwick of the Enough Project shortly after the bill passed. Fellow Advocacy group Global Witness called the phase-in a “big fat loophole for companies” in a tweet while the SEC was discussing the matter.
Though it was a vote in favor of the section, the decision is by no means the end of the debate. The US Chamber of Commerce looms large with a potential lawsuit that could cause further delays or strike down the legislation altogether.
Read the rest of my article on Humanosphere.

20 August 2012

Come Hang Out and Talk Water Transparency

I'm still at Humanosphere for the rest of the week. Will be back here in full swing next Monday.

In the lead up to World Water Week in Stockholm, several organizations are coming together to draw attention to the critical issue of water sector transparency.  I have the pleasure of joining the online discussion hosted by Water For People on a Google+ Hangout. You can tune in Tuesday morning at 11AM EST to the discussion and even participate through twitter and YouTube. 

I will be sure to keep up a window for twitter (@viewfromthecave) if you have some ideas, comments or questions that you want to get into the tight discussion. There will be a big list of people with only a little time to speak. In the discussion I will lay out why I find the water industry so interesting. Yes, it has something to do with transparency.

More details

On Tuesday, August 21, 11:00 AM-12:00 PM EST, watch the video broadcast LIVE.

Sector leaders participating in this event are:
·         Jae So, Water and Sanitation Programme (WSP)
·         Patrick Moriarty, IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre
·         James Leten, Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI)
·         Ned Breslin, Water For People
·         Jennifer Platt, WASH Advocates
·         Alexandra Malmqvist, Water Integrity Network
·         Rachel Cardone, Independent Consultant
·         Tom Murphy, A View from the Cave
·         Anthony Franco, EffectiveUI

We will discuss themes such as:
·         The shifting transparency debate: from expenditures to lasting impact
·         How increased transparency improves the quality of our work
·         Tools/techniques the sector is embracing to increase transparency

Don’t forget to tune in on the 21st at 11:00AM EST.  You won’t want to miss it!

15 August 2012

Preview: Obama vs Romney on Foreign Aid

My main post today over at Humanosphere is an attempt to compare how the Romney and Obama camps view foreign aid. It is not as straightforward as I would like since Romney has provided little information to work with. However, the entry of Paul Ryan adds a bit more clarity, and a strong point of comparison, to the picture.

Here is an excerpt. The post goes live at 11 AM EST.

We had the opportunity to hear Romney's thoughts about foreign aid thanks to the fall Republican debates. He said in October:
Foreign aid has several elements. One of those elements is defense, is to make sure that we are able to have the defense resources we want in certain places of the world. That probably ought to fall under the Department of Defense budget rather than a foreign aid budget. 
Part of it is humanitarian aid around the world. I happen to think it doesn’t make a lot of sense for us to borrow money from the Chinese to go give to another country for humanitarian aid. … 
And finally there’s a portion of our foreign aid that allows us to carry out our activities in the world such as what’s happening in Pakistan where we’re taking - we’re supplying our troops in Afghanistan through Pakistan. 
But let me tell you: We’re spending more on foreign aid than we ought to be spending. And Congressman Paul asked, is there a place we can cut the budget? Let me tell you where we cut the budget. Discretionary accounts you bring back to 2008 level. We … cut federal employment by at least 10 percent through attrition. And finally, we say to federal employees: You’re not going to make more money than the people in the private sector who are paying for you. We link their compensation.
Aid also does not make an appearance on the Romney website as well, but he does devote a sections on Africa and Latin America that emphasize trade.
Global demand for Africa’s natural resources will grow. Demographics indicate that by 2050, Africa’s population will double to two billion and one in four workers on the planet will be African. These trends, when coupled with robust economic growth, point to the emergence of stronger economic actors on the world stage and greater partnership opportunities for the United States. While Africa is changing, global competitors like China are taking advantage of these changes and are rapidly outmaneuvering the United States by making strategic inroads throughout the continent and gaining an economic and political advantage over the United States.

13 August 2012

Bangladeshi PM Ducks Human Rights Abuse Questions

The Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina
Host Stephen Sackur asks some hard questions about the human rights record of Bangladesh. Specifically, he cites a UN report that says, "human rights violations continue unabated in Bangladesh. Including extrajudicial deaths, torture and cruel treatment in law enforcement custody." Hasina ducks the question by blaming the previous government. Attempts to push the issue further by Sackur are met by repeated denials.

On the question of the April disappearance and death of activist Aminul Islam, Hasina questioned if he was even activist and said that it was the Bangladeshi police who found his body. She neglects to say that the body was dumped near a police station in Ghatail. Islam's brother told the New York Times, “We found several marks of wounds from his waist to his foot. His big toes and his ankles were smashed.”

From the perspective of development, Bangladesh has come under greater focus over the past year. The ouster of Nobel Prize winning economist Muhammad Yunus from the Grameen Bank was orchestrated by the Hasina government. She made it clear in the past and continues to do so today that she considers Yunus to be an opportunist through his microlending scheme calling him a 'bloodsucker of the poor.' She tells Sackur that it is unfair to charge as much as 40% interest.

Read the full post on the Humanosphere blog.

Stepping Out of the Cave for 2 Weeks

For the next two weeks I will be manning the Humanosphere blog. I will stand in for Tom Paulson during the time. A Tom for Tom switch seems only appropriate.

There I will continue with my regular posting with a mix of traditional posts that would appear on the blog. I will try to put up some links here so you can keep up to date with the new content. The bad news is that this will largely be a dead space during the next two weeks. The good news is that I will be producing much more total content over at Humanosphere. Namely, you will get a round up of links I think are worth checking out each day. In addition to that, I will provide quick pointer posts that provide a quick thought or summary of an interesting article, OpEd, blog post, etc.

10 August 2012

Women and the Olympics

While criticisms of the coverage of the Olympics by NBC has been widely panned has grabbed the spotlight, the issue of gender again takes a back seat. The use of media in the games has helped to highlight the imbalances in gender coverage and the way that people respond to female athletes. Gabby Douglass, the winner of the women's all-around, was criticized for her hair. Then there is the deservedly maligned "Bodies in Motion" video that featured female athletes at the Olympics competing in events such as undressing, stretching, hugging and wearing as little clothing as possible. Oh, they do dive and stuff, but it is in slow motion for added effect.

You wouldn't know that the US women are carrying the load when it comes to bringing home the medals or the fact that an American teen from Flint, Michigan took home boxing gold yesterday. Or how about that all American beach volleyball final? Did you know that Canada's Christine Sinclair scored a hat trick against the world #1 US women's soccer team; orchestrating what arguably should have been a tremendous upset win? Maybe you saw Ireland go crazy when Katie Taylor won boxing gold? How about that photo finish at the women's triathlon? Did you know that Angola nearly upset the Russians in the opening day of handball?

To take a break from all the mess, here is an excellent video released by Nike as a part of the games. It takes the problem of gender and sports head on to show how it drives some of the top American athletes.

HT Linda

The Issue of Complexity and Kony 2012

Just stumbled upon this video from vlogger Hank Green that was posted shortly after the release of Kony 2012. He discusses the trouble with complexity in terms of a response to the problem of the LRA and the way in which the video was able to make the problem and solutions seem so simple.

It is one of the smarter looks at the debate from an outsider. While much of the criticisms were from people already involved in aid and development, Green is someone who is more of an outsider. His perspective is useful as it points out the problems with some of the criticisms about the video and with the video itself.

Yea, it is a bit late, but worth sharing and watching.

Sierra Leone: Cholera Concerns Rising

Fetching water in Cockle Bay, Freetown Sierra Leone October 2009
Children fetch water in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Credit
A cholera outbreak in Sierra Leone has worked quickly to kill dozens of people and make its way into the capital city of Freetown. The health ministry reported 62 deaths in the period between June 23 and July 17. "Emergency referral centres have been set up and hospitals and health clinics have been boosted with drugs to combat any escalation of the problem," the ministry said in a mid-July statement.

In the weeks that have followed, the government and NGOs have ramped up operations to reduce the spread of cholera. The Red Cross deployed 400 volunteers and MSF announced it would open two additional centers in Freetown at the start of August. “Our present cholera treatment facilities are stretched to the limit with patients. The patients that we see are of all ages, so it’s not just children or already weak people that are at risk,” said Karen Van den Brande, MSF head of mission in Sierra Leone.

However, it appears that present efforts have been insufficient. Both the Health for All Coalition (HFAC) and WASH-Net have recently called on the health ministry to step up its response effort. HFAC said in a press release, "We wish to commend officials of the health ministry, World Health Organization, UNICEF and other partners for their efforts in controlling the spread of the disease in the country. The fight against cholera must be intensified. We therefore call on all and sundry to join hands with MoHS, partners and HFAC to rid our country of cholera and other deadly diseases."

WASH-Net said largely the same thing in its release adding, "We feel there are still more to be done and hence we call on the ministry to continue to support Blue Flag Volunteers who administer basic first aid and give out lifesaving rehydration salts to people suffering from severe diarrhea and cholera."

The concerns are built upon the rising number of cases and complaints from civil society members that  certain communities are being ignored by the response. The local Concord Times reported on the Susan's Bay district of Freetown where poor sanitation makes it a hotbed for cholera.

Mohamed Conteh, chairman of Susan's Bay community, expressed his concerns with the problem and the response to the Concord Times  "Our authorities are not serious in addressing Cholera because since the outbreak, nobody has visited this community to sensitize us about the preventive methods. We are only being protected by God," he said.

Neighbor Guinea is also dealing with a cholera outbreak that AFP reports today has killed 60 people since February. MSF is also responding to the problem by working to up the number of hospital beds. All of this, as pointed out by AFP, is exacerbated by the drought across the Sahel which is leading to higher rates of malnutrition.

Clinton Passes PEPFAR Baton to South Africa

A version of this originally appeared on the PSI Impact Blog.

Secretary of State Clinton is in the middle of her tour across Africa. Stops so far have included Senegal, Malawi and South Africa. Clinton delivered remarks at each of her visits, but health came to the forefront in South Africa.

Specifically, Clinton commended the work of South Africa in the fight against AIDS and signaled a new way for ward for PEPFAR's work in the country. "South Africa is taking the lead, and I want publicly to commend your minister of health and his associates who are widely being given great admiration around the world for the success of their efforts," said Clinton.

According to Reuters, Clinton signed a deal with South Africa that would give the country the ability to have more discretionary spending power over PEPFAR funds.

09 August 2012

Shah on Death of USAID Staffer in Afghanistan

Release just came across email. Here it is in full: 
On behalf of President Obama, Secretary Clinton and the American people, I have sent my deepest condolences to the family of USAID Foreign Service Officer Ragaei Abdelfattah who died yesterday in Afghanistan along with several members of the International Security Assistance Force and Afghan civilians during a terrorist attack in Kunar Province. This tragedy is a testament to the deep commitment and sacrifice of our dedicated staff who serve in conflict countries like Afghanistan around the world. 
 Ragaei recently began a voluntary second tour in Afghanistan in order to continue his critical support of Afghanistan’s stability and long-term development.  His hard work has helped to bring key services and improvements to the people of Afghanistan such as schools, health clinics, and electricity to the citizens of Nangarhar and Kunar provinces.

Prior to joining USAID, Ragaei had more than 15 years of professional development experience both in the United States and overseas. He was also working to complete a PhD in Planning, Governance, and Globalization at Virginia Tech University.

Safety and security is an Agency priority for USAID staff on the frontlines of poverty and conflict across the world. Ragaei gave his life in service to our country and our Agency’s mission of providing help to those in need and advancing our national security.  His sacrifice and the ongoing commitment of our staff in Afghanistan is building on progress from the past decade and helping to make both Afghanistan and America safer.

Ragaei is survived by his two teenage sons and wife. Our thoughts and prayers are with them in this tragic time

Getting at the Behavioral Side of Development

While Esther Duflo is often the name most associated with J-PAL up at MIT, it is her co-founder Sendhil Mullainathan who continues to deliver some of the most interesting lectures. In short, Mullainthan is interested in the behavioral side of economics in policy determinations and evaluations. The determination side is the focal point of the talk that he presented recently at the Center for Global Development.

"The diagnoses we have for a problem implicitly or explicitly leads to the solutions we design. And I think the most important aspect of behavioral economics is not clever little designs, it's changing the way that we diagnose what the problem might be," he argues. In doing so, he sets up an interesting conversation going beyond the talk itself.

This was most apparent when David Roodman asked Mullainthan about microfinance in terms of understanding self-control and how to strike a balance of good behavior all around. Rather than discuss what the studies have determined, Mullainthan hones in on the interventions themselves.

Reflecting on his personal work in microfinance, Mullinthan expressed, "I had a bias towards design, and I didn't have enough of a bias towards having an appropriate diagnosis of the underlying problem." He continued to say that the biggest problem of microfinance is that the present model does not appropriately build on the finances of the poor.

What exists, he argues, is a predetermined idea of how microfinance should look like with a wrinkle of behavior change aimed at maximizing positive outcomes. He compares the finances of the poor to juggling where each immediate issue is addressed and tossed into the air only to come back down some time later creating what he calls a 'patchwork' of finance.

That tells him that there is a messy portfolio, rather than a single product. Pay-day loans, to him, address a problem right away but do nothing more than toss another ball into the air.

The video is well worth the 86 minutes. If you are short on time skip ahead to the hour mark for the answer to Roodman's question which gets at the heart of Mullainthan's talk. It leaves me wondering how to realize such a shift in thinking towards understanding the underlying problems. The area becomes far more complex and interesting. Ultimately, how will such a shift in thinking, if possible, change the design of interventions like microfinance?

A Post-MINUSTAH Haiti? Not So Soon

The UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) has experienced a tumultuous relationship with the island nation over its 8 years of existence. A peak moment was reached during the cholera crisis following the 2010 earthquake when it was uncovered that recently arrived peacekeepers from Nepal were responsible for bringing cholera to Haiti. Protests and riots followed after the news broke that MINUSTAH was responsible for the cholera outbreak.

Despite the troubled past, MINUSTAH continues to play a in important role says the International Crisis Group (ICG). In a new report, ICG warns that an immediate pull-out of peacekeepers is not the right solution. Rather, the report assesses MINUSTAH and offers recommendations on how to 'rethink and revamp' the mission.
MINUSTAH has successfully deterred the potential threat of organised violent actors overthrowing the government by force, which was its fundamental raison d’être. It has improved security in much of the country mostly by reducing armed violence in Cité Soleil and other urban slums. The mission has also provided invaluable contributions to countrywide logistics operations, from assisting with the distribution and retrieval of material in the 2006, 2009 and 2010 elections to supporting disaster relief in the aftermath of the 2008 storms and the 2010 earthquake. 
MINUSTAH needs to think beyond stabilisation and focus on consolidating its achievements by providing strategic support to strengthen rule of law institutions so reconstruction, private investment and development can flourish. It must also devise a more effective way to work with fragile state institutions whose continuing partisan composition has denied Haiti a functioning government for most of the past year. An assessment of MINUSTAH’s contribution to stability since 2004 and the current status of reconstruction and development in the country are vital to understand the opportunities for sustained reduction of conflict and violence.
The report sets out a series of recommendations for the UN, Haitian authorities and donors. One that sits at the forefront is the UN shouldering the blame for the cholera outbreak and taking a leadership role in the response. The office of the Secretary-General continues to dodge the issue of blame by saying that they are looking further into the evidence, but there is little doubt that an outbreak of cholera in a country that may have never had one before was introduced in the fall of 2010.

“By helping Haiti construct a functioning justice system, MINUSTAH can recover public confidence and help Haiti foster a climate that generates increased private investments, jobs and more effective public services, says Mark Schneider, Crisis Group’s Senior Vice-President.
It is the latest higher-profile call on the UN to step forward by admitting blame and ensuring that the number of future cases is significantly reduced. Also important are the recommendations for MINUSTAH to help in leading security sector reform by transferring power to the Haitian National Police through a 5 year direct assistance plan and collaboration with the Haitian government.

The overall target is to ensure that the mission is no longer needed by the 2016 presidential elections. “MINUSTAH and the Haitian government need to work together in the next five years to form a shared vision on how to create the conditions for the mission’s departure”, says Bernice Robertson, Crisis Group’s Haiti Senior Analyst. “Haiti still needs support to guarantee security and political stability, but MINUSTAH will only be as effective as the government allows it to be.”

What lingers is how these recommendations will be put into action. MINUSTAH is far from popular among Haitians and continuing the mission will leave some unhappy. However, Haiti is still not on politically stable footing and still is dealing with the repercussions of the 2010 earthquake and the cholera outbreak that was unconnected but followed soon after.

Read the full report here.

08 August 2012

Fight for Contraceptives in the Philippines Drags On

Comprehensive birth control legislation has languished in the House of Representatives for the Philippines for years. The bill which aims to provide free birth control to poor Filipino families has languished in debate for some time.

President Benigno Aquino is one of the high level proponents for the legislation that needs to clear both the house and the senate before appearing on his desk. Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church has proved to be a staunch and powerful opponent.

An agreement to suspend the debate and move to a vote on Monday was met with cheers from supporters and cries from opponents. The UN even got in the mix releasing a statement in support of the bill saying, “Hopes of future prosperity could turn to dust if the country is not able to deal with the population growth by giving men and women access to the information and means to freely and responsibly exercise their human right to have just the number of children they want. If current trends continue, as the country grows richer, the number of people living in poverty will increase.”

The debate has a famous opponent: former boxer and member of congress Manny Pacquiao. "God did not say just have two children or three children. He said go forth and multiply," he said in an interview in May of 2011.

 The Catholic church in the Philippines has proved to be a loud and well organized opponent. "You heard our president during his campaign say, 'If there is no corruption, there will be no poverty,'" Villegas said. "Birth control, they say, means more food, more classrooms, more houses and better health for mothers. If more babies are the cause of poverty, are we now saying, 'If there are no children, there will be no poor?'" said Archbishop Socrates Villegas to a crowd of about 10,000 people over the weekend.

At the heart of the matter is the high birth rate in the Philippines which is largely centered within people living in poverty. "There is a population issue in terms of the demand on natural resources—we cannot keep increasing as rapidly as we have been," said Mary Racelis, a professor at the Philippines' Ateneo de Manila University to the Wall Street Journal.

While the sides of government and church battle it out on the pages of major reports, the people most affected by the legislation remain on the sidelines waiting for the important decision to be made on their behalf.

The Olympics of Inequality

A tumblr blog called oceaniaeuropeamericasafricaasia features a series of graphics that use Olympic rings to show the global burden of a host of issues ranging from obesity and CO2 emissions per capita to the Catholic priests and people living with HIV.

Gustavo Sousa is the man behind the blog and responsible for the infographics. He tells Fast Co.Design, “I was reading about the logo one day and realized the colors represented the five continents,” he says. “It’s beautiful and elegant, and I thought I could make something out of that.”

Most interesting is that he does not reveal the key for the rings. “The reason I didn’t reveal which is which because you can almost figure that out as you read through; I thought that process of discovery was interesting.”

Here is a video version of all the infographics:

Romney's Misread on Culture's Impact

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney delivered remarks in Jerusalem last week where he touched on the issue of development. Specifically, he pointed to culture being a key driver in a nation succeeding by pointing towards evidence from The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David Landes and Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond.

Here is what Romney had to say (emphasis added):
I was thinking this morning as I prepared to come into this room of a discussion I had across the country in the United States about my perceptions about differences between countries. And as you come here and you see the GDP per capita for instance in Israel which is about 21,000 dollars and you compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority which is more like 10,000 dollars per capita you notice a dramatic, stark difference in economic vitality.

And that is also between other countries that are near or next to each other. Chile and Ecuador, Mexico and the United States. I noted that part of my interest when I used to be in the world of business is I would travel to different countries was to understand why there were such enormous disparities in the economic success of various countries. 

I read a number of books on the topic. One, that is widely acclaimed, is by someone named Jared Diamond called ‘Guns, Germs and Steel,’ which basically says the physical characteristics of the land account for the differences in the success of the people that live there. There is iron ore on the land and so forth. 

And you look at Israel and you say you have a hard time suggesting that all of the natural resources on the land could account for all the accomplishment of the people here. And likewise other nations that are next door to each other have very similar, in some cases, geographic elements. 

But then there was a book written by a former Harvard professor named ‘The Wealth and Poverty of Nations.’ And in this book Dr. Landes describes differences that have existed—particularly among the great civilizations that grew and why they grew and why they became great and those that declined and why they declined. And after about 500 pages of this lifelong analysis—this had been his study for his entire life—and he’s in his early 70s at this point, he says this, he says, if you could learn anything from the economic history of the world it’s this: culture makes all the difference.

Culture makes all the difference. And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.
The remarks are important in terms of how Romney understands economic development and what makes for a successful nation. The books affirm his belief that the United States is so successful because of the culture that can be captured in the American dream. Less successful nations are restrained by their culture. It all falls under a belief in the just world fallacy.

Romney's point of view is problematic for numerous reasons. However, it is the misrepresentation of his own thesis to the books that stands out most. Jared Diamond was so bothered by Romney's characterization of his book that he took to the NYT to set the record straight.
My focus was mostly on biological features, like plant and animal species, and among physical characteristics, the ones I mentioned were continents’ sizes and shapes and relative isolation. I said nothing about iron ore, which is so widespread that its distribution has had little effect on the different successes of different peoples.
That’s not the worst part. Even scholars who emphasize social rather than geographic explanations — like the Harvard economist David S. Landes, whose book “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations” was mentioned favorably by Mr. Romney — would find Mr. Romney’s statement that “culture makes all the difference” dangerously out of date. In fact, Mr. Landes analyzed multiple factors (including climate) in explaining why the industrial revolution first occurred in Europe and not elsewhere. 
Just as a happy marriage depends on many different factors, so do national wealth and power. That is not to deny culture’s significance. Some countries have political institutions and cultural practices — honest government, rule of law, opportunities to accumulate money — that reward hard work. Others don’t. Familiar examples are the contrasts between neighboring countries sharing similar environments but with very different institutions. (Think of South Korea versus North Korea, or Haiti versus the Dominican Republic.) Rich, powerful countries tend to have good institutions that reward hard work. But institutions and culture aren’t the whole answer, because some countries notorious for bad institutions (like Italy and Argentina) are rich, while some virtuous countries (like Tanzania and Bhutan) are poor. 
A different set of factors involves geography, which embraces many more aspects than the physical characteristics Mr. Romney dismissed.
Diamond proceeds to lay out factors including latitude, access to the sea and history of agriculture. He then comes down harshly on Romney for trying to take a complex issue and boil it down to fit into the word 'culture.'

Romney also gets his numbers wrong in terms of per capita GDP in Israel and Palestine. The Washington Post reports, "According to the World Bank, Israel’s GDP per capita is $31,282, compared to about $1,600 for the Palestinian areas."

That still leaves the issue of Landes and Romeny's desire to understand development through the context of culture. Acemoglu and Robinson take to their Why Nations Fail blog to show how their research has debunked the culture thesis.
Mitt Romney is instead taking his cue from David Landes. But as we show in Why Nations Fail, cultural differences cannot explain differing levels of prosperity. Deng Xaioping didn´t change Chinese culture after 1978 to make the economy grow, but he did change economic institutions a lot. Indeed, many cultural differences we see are the outcomes of different institutional choices. This is surely the case between North and South Korea, for example. After all, does Mitt and David think that there were huge cultural differences between the north and the south of the 38th parallel before the separation of Korea into two?

Of course the difference between Israel and Palestine is not the same as the two Koreas. It was created by the migration of Jewish people, mostly after World War II. Many came from much more developed parts of the world than Palestine which had endured centuries of debilitating Ottoman and then British colonialism. They brought more advanced technologies and high levels of human capital, which in themselves were the result of the institutions and incentives that they faced. As Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein point out in their book The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History, the origins of these very high human capital levels are in the historical adoption of institutions in Jewish society. This is where the roots of Isreal’s current prosperity lie. They have further been strengthened by Israel’s integration into the world economy, which has enabled it to continue the process of technology transfer and encouraged trade and investment.
Faced with the potential Romney presidency, these comments during the campaign do matter. If in charge, he will make decisions that can impact the direction and shape of how the US distributes aid.

Photo: Mitt Romney in Jerusalem. (Reuters)

07 August 2012

Central Park Becomes Global Poverty Fight's Ground Zero

The advocacy group the Global Poverty Project just unveiled that it will host a free ticketed concert in Central Park on September 29 with mega stars Neil Young with Crazy Horse, the Foo Fighters, the Black Keys and K'Naan.

Would-be attendees are directed to the Global Citizen platform where they have to earn three points through learning, sharing and taking action against extreme poverty. That then triggers entry to win a pair of tickets to the event.

“By giving every child a chance to thrive, our generation can end extreme poverty” said Hugh Evans, CEO, The Global Poverty Project. The goal of the new platform is to "seek to impact is the global effort to end polio, cases of which have been reduced by more than 99% since 1988. By bringing together thousands of people to take action, this generation can make history and finally eradicate the disease."

The GPP hopes to do this in part by motivating people to take a total of 100,000 actions by September in a stand against poverty. “With at least 1.3 billion people living in extreme poverty on Earth today, there has never been a better time to become a Global Citizen and do whatever you can to make a difference for your fellow man,” said Neil Young.

A host of partners and sponsors join the GPP to put on the event including The Earth Institute, World Food Program USA, Pencils of Promise, The Global Partnership for Education, Half the Sky, Rotary International, World Vision, Malaria No More, Rainforest Foundation and U.S. Fund for UNICEF. It also includes funding from the Sumner M. Redstone Foundation, support from the Pratt Foundation to name a few.

What makes this interesting is that an action is needed in order to attend. Fans of Young or the Black Keys will need to participate unless they want to dish out the $300+ for VIP tickets. What it may do is reach and activate people who otherwise may not have been interested. Though that is still just a possibility.

More interesting is that it connects with people already interested, gives them the opportunity to take action in order to participate in a large event. It represents a slightly different take on activating young people than Kony 2012. Both make the final event the ultimate tangible outcome, but GPP makes it obligatory that people participate in activism prior in order to go to the concert.

Doing so may be a more effective way of engagement. Much of this is speculation at this point as it has just been announced. I plan on attending myself with the goal of chatting with attendees and performers to get a sense of how they came to learn about the event, why they are going and what they hope to accomplish next.

GPP appears to be thinking long and hard about these questions. Simon Moss writes in a blog post marking the event's announcement:
We wanted to show how fighting poverty is going to take more than just our donations, it’s going to take our voices, calling on our governments and businesses to do their bit for the world’s poor. And, in the lead up to an election, we wanted to start a conversation about the role that America should play in the world. 
We wanted to create a space for Americans to hear the voices of the world’s poor, and see their stories first hand – which we’ll increasingly be doing as we release content on Global Citizen. 
We wanted to share our conviction that we can be global citizens as well as American citizens, and that we stand united in the belief that by giving every child a chance to thrive, our generation can end extreme poverty. 
As we spoke with our partners, advisors and supporters, we decided that to do all of these things, we needed to create a moment that could unite people who shared our vision, and that would create a platform to leverage new commitments for the world’s poor. 
The Global Festival is that moment – a time for tens of thousands of global citizens to come together, having earned their tickets for the actions they’ve taken. A platform for our diverse range of NGO partners to make new commitments to help in the fight against extreme poverty – hopefully hundreds of millions of dollars worth of them. And, we hope, a moment to focus the American public and media on their role in fighting extreme poverty.
I remain every skeptical of large advocacy-based events like this, but am more than willing to give it shake. What do you think about the announcement and event?

Evidence-Based Solutions for the Win

I have a feeling that IPA, J-PAL, GiveWell, Give Directly and the like will enjoy this.

Olympics Week One Ramblings

Olympic rings at Wimbledon
I spent the past week on vacation in London. I had the good fortune of having family in the city which meant a free place to stay. It also happened that the Olympics were in town. In my 8 days I managed to see handball, tennis, beach volleyball (x2), basketball, athletics (aka track and field), water polo, cycling, and the triathlon.

The games have drawn up plenty of chatter ranging from cheating badminton players to the improbable comeback win in the women's 400 IM. Seeing that I was in London, I felt the need to join the useless chatter with some observations that are bound to cross heavily in the unsubstantiated territory often occupied by writers like Tom Friedman.

London is Empty

The government warned of massive delays in crowding. Citizens were told to take vacation to avoid the looming mess caused by an influx of hundreds of thousands of visitors. It seems that the scare tactics worked to some extent as London was not very crowded at all. Reports in the local papers indicate that shopping in high traffic areas is down and it is estimated that many Europeans skipped the games fearing crowds.

Crowded London during the men's cycling
I biked around the Hyde Park area and had no trouble getting on with the cars. The tube was generally full with a mix of games attendees and Londoners, but it was rarely so crowded that train cars were over-packed. The Stratford station (location of the Olympic Village) was a bit of a mess, but that is outside of the city and expected when hundreds of thousands of people are trying to get in throughout the day.

Ticketing is a Mess

To prevent counterfeiting and illegal sales of tickets, a lottery was held for the UK. Some people got tickets and others didn't. For whatever reason, access to tickets for all people is not equal. The disbursement of tickets is skewed towards UK residents and much trickier and limited for all others. With family living in London, we were able to circumvent the system by having them order the tickets on our behalf.

Worse has been the gaping sections left open by press, delegates and Olympic teams. In each event, at least one full section was reserved so that delegates could drop in. Problem is that many were not there and an otherwise full stadium was marked by the blemish of a near-empty section. Public complaining led to the organizers releasing more tickets for the sections after delegations indicated how many tickets they would use for an event.

The new tickets were made available online only. Try going to the box office to buy tickets and you are met with instructions to go online. If you are not a UK citizen, you are sent back into the terrible system and limited access. If lucky enough to be from the UK, you get to go through a system that has you reserve tickets and then confirm their availability. In a matter of minutes tickets available to evening swimming can go from available to gone.

It becomes a bit like gambling where losing is the norm. However, a pair of small successes yielded tickets to athletics and beach volleyball.

The Olympic Village is Huge

When entering the Olympic Village attendees are lulled into a sense of confidence that the worst is over. After a sweaty train ride over, walking through the crowded station that leads into a chaotic mall area, security, ticket scanning and a stroll across a giant bridge you have made it to the village.

The giant stadium is right in front of you and you are flanked by the swimming pool and the water polo stadium. Alas, your tickets are for hockey in the riverbank arena. "I made it," you think as you notice a sign pointing you in the direction of the stadium with small type "25 minutes."

In front of the Copper Box.
The Olympic village is massive. It is a good 10 minute walk to the Copper Box (handball) and then much further if you want to see basketball, BMX and the velodrome. On the bright side, young people with oversized black backpacks attached to signs saying "beer" are plentiful and provide a quick pit stop for the walk.

I love walking and enjoyed getting around, but when running late for an event it was not much fun to cover the distance.

There are Athletes From Other Countries

The US bubble of Olympic coverage is most apparent when not in the United States.  The English papers give plenty of space to their athletes, but they can only say so much given the level of success relative to the US and China. That means more time showing other athletes and teams. Events I enjoyed the most did not involve US athletes. The Hungarians chanting the entire match during water polo and the entire crowd urging on Angola to upset Russia in handball were two highlights. These events may not have even made it on to NBC's woeful coverage which is sad from the perspective of being a sports fan.

Beach Volleyball and Gender

Beach volleyball has garnered some attention in regards to the women athletes. There was the debate over whether they could wear more clothing, the issue of photographing their butts, and the general concerns about discussions focusing more on looks than athletic ability.

All of that was on full display the past week. Teams opted for spandex in the evening matches when it was quite cool. Though the dancers had little choice. Huddled up behind the score boards between breaks, the entertainment for the fans wore bathrobes to stay warm in the mild London weather.

When it was their turn to perform, the fifteen or so girls wearing throw-back bathing suits and bikinis walked out accompanied by three men in board shorts. A short and rather simple performance took place as the audience watched and cheered along. I swear that there were more cheers for these sections than the actual event. I can say for certain that the female dancers at the basketball game were a bigger hit than Lebron, Kobe, Carmelo, Durant and the rest.

These dancers and the reactions are what are taking place in-between the lines and helped to further drive home the wide gender gap. A good sign of the issue being resolved will be the lack of need for attractive women to dance around for the entertainment of men while there is a break in action.

No Shortage of Support

A hack of a segment from Fox News questions patriotism at the Olympics. A commentator and host discuss the issue well away from London. Maybe they should ask people who actually went to the Olympics.

Every country was well represented, including the US, at the Olympics last week. Flags were everywhere, face paint was adorned and chants filled the air. The USA chants were plenty and loud, as were chants and songs for other countries. Maybe the two forgot that other countries compete in the games and have their own fans as well.

The Atlantic takes the ridiculous assertion head on:
What's especially crazy about all this is that after Gabby Douglas won the gold medal in the women's gymnastics all-around, she stood waving up at the crowd clad in a red, white, and blue jacket with USA written on the back. Later during the medal ceremony she wore a gray jacket with an American flag patch on the shoulder, stood atop the podium, and listened to "The Star-Spangled Banner" as an American flag was hoisted up above her. Even if that weren't all true David Webb's commentary would be nonsense, but the fact that it is all true adds to the comic ambivalence about factual accuracy that characterizes so much of what people say on Fox News. 
What other enterprise would turn Olympic gold for America into an opportunity to make Americans anxious and upset about allegedly waning patriotism? It's a poisonous approach to news.  
One challenge is that fans are spread out. At the USA basketball game there were plenty of US flags across the stadium, but chants were hard to start because fans were spread out. The smaller venues were better equipped for countries to show their pride in unison.

Let's also not forget that one of the most iconic and enduring images each Olympics is an athlete draped in his or her flag after winning a medal.

Olympic Volunteers Rock

With their purple tops and khaki pants, the thousands of volunteers at the Olympics are impossible to miss. Though it is not the bring colors that stand out as much as their presence, helpfulness and enthusiasm.

They sing, dance, cheer, give directions and overall make the Olympic experience better. Without them it would not go so smoothly and fans who are unsure what is going on would be entirely lost.

London should be proud by the corps of volunteers who work hard to make the event special for all in attendance.