Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Why I Work on Institutional Change at Home but Not Abroad

When the movement termed “effective altruism” started, one of the major currents was the movement in economic development toward conducting what are termed randomized controlled trials (RCTs) for poverty alleviation programs. A randomized evaluation is the way the FDA tests new drugs before they go on the market: a treatment is randomly provided to some of a given collection of individuals but not to others. Because the treatment is allocated randomly, there should not be any systematic differences between those who get it and those who don’t. So all sufficiently large differences between treatment and control should be due to the treatment and you can estimate, without any bias (in an ideal case) the effect of the treatment.

This is very different from the way many studies are done: longitudinal studies in medicine (which are usually how doctors get initial looks at the differences between different diets) suffer from selection bias: people who drink are likely to differ from people who don’t drink in ways that don’t have to do directly with drinking, so differences between them can’t be attributed to the effect of drinking alcohol.

When I was a sophomore in college, I stumbled into a lecture by the economist I now work for, Dean Karlan, on the use of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in economic development. I was inspired and excited. I’d always looked for ways to good with my life, and as a math nerd I was delighted to find a way to do good using numbers. I was also convinced: it seemed obvious to me that given the choice between doing something an RCT shows works and something that doesn’t, you should obviously do the former – and the difference could be so big that doing more RCTs was vital.

I’m still convinced, but I’m also aware of the drawbacks of focusing too narrowly RCTs and think they are quite large in the case of the animal rights movement. See, there are some things where an RCT doesn’t make sense. If you’re testing whether a malaria pill indeed prevents malaria in those who receive it, an RCT is a great idea. If instead you are trying to lobby government ministers, an RCT may not work.

You might be able to draw up a list of government ministers large enough to randomize among them depending on who you’re targeting, but if it’s just one or two, it won't work. Even if there are hundreds of relevant officials, if the lobbying effort is high-risk, high-reward – that is, if winning over one out of every 1000 ministers is enough to make it worthwhile – then an RCT probably won’t do the trick.

What I also left out is that even the RCT on the malaria pill will miss whatever we don’t measure. If, for instance, distributing a malaria pill leads government ministers to become complacent and stop supporting government anti-malaria programs that do far more good, we won’t pick that up.

So the natural limitation of RCT is that we can't use them to study interventions that are sufficiently high-risk, high-reward or where there is only a very small number of relevant individuals. Plus, we can miss effects that extend beyond the individuals studied and the measurements we took on them.

Given so, many people have criticized RCTs on the grounds that they result in tunnel vision that ignores institutional factors (I think this is the best such collection). I don’t think it’s fair to denounce RCTs as inaccurate or a bad way of studying the same things that had previously been studied in less-rigorous ways, but I think these arguments do get something right on the meta level: if RCTs are all we do or very close to all we do, then we will probably miss a lot of things.

I've become more sympathetic to institutional approaches to global poverty than I used to be. Many of my experiences in Ghana (and in Peru a few years back) made this more concrete for me. A banker I spoke to there went on a several-minute monologue about how many problems the lack of a national ID system creates. People can have four different IDs, and they can easily register for each one with a different name, making them extremely difficult for banks and the government to track. This has more costs than you would realize.

There are also softer, less visible institutions than government IDs that can have outsized effects, like education or even general expectations of drivers. I would probably have $50 more in my wallet if I did not point out mistakes on bills there that were in my favor. Meals are almost always under $10 in Ghana so that gives you a sense of how large and common these mistakes are.

Education, health, and many other institutions stack up in many ways to create what economists call transaction costs – what are essentially little taxes on everything you do that lead to less getting done.

Institutions may very well be an important driver of poverty, but the reason I'm somewhat skeptical of focusing on the more complicated among them is that they entail complex design issues for Westerners. The history of outsiders trying institutional change is spotty. That’s not to say it’s hopeless. Yet in general, it seems to me we’re not great at sophisticated design questions for developing countries that have much to do with local cultures and local politics, so we should focus on softer institutions or on supporting people in developing countries with the resources to fix institutions themselves. RCTs do give examples of how to affect some of these softer institutions, like education and healthcare. So I generally tend toward wanting to support those.

In the case of animal rights, I think the dynamic is very different. Though animal rights activists in the U.S. are a rarefied bunch – largely white, more educated than average, quite a bit more left-wing than average, and a lot more likely to be atheists – we are still more able to get a pulse on the culture we are working with and the design questions here.

(On a parallel note to the question of institutional design in other countries, the animal rights movement would probably be pragmatic to focus on elevating voices in specific marginalized communities to advocate there rather than sending outsiders in to advocate.)

There are a few other differences, I would say, with animal rights. One is that I’m somewhat pessimistic on the ability to change people’s minds enough on an individual level to be able to get a good reading of that. Public opinion change seems to come in spurts, making social change in general a high-risk, high-reward strategy. The literature on persuasion and advertising suggest that persuading individuals on their own is very, very hard to do. RCTs done by animal rights groups suggest that this is true as well in the case of the animal rights. I think it’s unlikely we can get sufficient power for an RCT to pick up much persuasion from anything in activists’ toolkits. (I would love to be proven wrong!)

On another note, I think there is more of a path forward for institutional change in the case of animal rights than in the case of global poverty. Of course, that’s not to say we lack any understanding of how to change the institutions that make a country rich or poor. Most of the issues, though, are again complex design questions about how to make a country’s leaders pay attention to the right things – questions that are especially vexing for outsiders.

My sense, though, is that there is a pretty powerful consensus that building a nonviolent protest movement can be highly effective. I've been reading histories of various social movements - not just civil rights and gay rights but things with varying track records like environmentalism, prohibition, and disability rights. It's hard to come away without thinking that movements rise and fall based on their extent of grassroots mobilization. There are issues with external validity and other questions about all of their work, but Erica Chenoweth, Sydney Tarrow, Doug McAdam and many other social scientists seem to concur that a densely connected and confrontational movement is highly effective for changing institutions. The counterargument seems to be a body of psychological literature showing that people get upset when they're confronted, but nobody ever denied this. The claim instead is that in the complex system of civil society a number of other mechanisms overwhelm that effect. Of the history of social movements I've read so far that's the conclusion I've come away with, though I'm working on reading more.

Of course, this is not an RCT – history is biased in many ways, as are disciplines like sociology that depend on it when looking at historical examples. We all look far more at successful movements than failed ones Moreover, even if we had literature on both varieties, we wouldn’t know for certain whether differences in tactics are actually responsible for differences in outcomes or the result of some outside force – say, that once a movement gains popular support it succeeds more and people start protesting more, without any relation between the two.

The careful historian can deal with this issue in ways that minimize it, though. Looking at the mechanics of a movement – not just when did protests happen and when did specific changes happen but how specific actors responded to each other in a more fine-grained way – can shed a bit more light on this. Quasi-experimental methods that simulate an experiment, while rare, can also help. If comparing movements while holding certain factors constant yields the same insight repeatedly, that’s also suggestive that there’s something going on. I can’t remember which sassy Facebook friend of mine said it, but while it’s true that correlation does not imply causation, it’s also true that correlation correlates with causation.

All of that is to say that yes, I think we have some sense of how to do institutional change for animal rights. I think we need more of a sense (and maybe some RCTs would work here, although I’ve had a hard time thinking of good proposals) of exactly what best mobilizes activists, pressures institutions, and triggers public controversies. But I think domestic change for the rights of an oppressed group involves a very different approach from work on global poverty.

Two final notes:

      1)    I’m a bit uncomfortable with the term “outsider,” though I use it repeatedly for lack of a better term. I don’t think there is ever an inherent moral difference between what we see as insiders and outsiders to communities, and I think breaking down those walls is an important task. I think that’s a task best started by those in positions of power though.

      2)    I think there are institutional changes that may be more effective than RCTs for Westerners interested in global poverty to work on, but they are likely changes to Western institutions that affect the global poor. In particular, loosening border restrictions comes to mind, which would have an extremely beneficial effect.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Meat Investor Problem

This is the third in a three part series on poverty and veganism/animal rights that I’ve been writing.

My friend Scott Weathers wrote a post recently on “the poor meat eater problem,” wherein people who want to address global poverty but are anti-speciesist have to deal with the worry that their money will hurt a great number of animals. Today I want to turn to a different problem: for many people in developing countries, “purchasing” an animal is a form of investment when savings are difficult to come by and an important business decision. There’s also evidence that this helps boost people’s income, particularly when coupled with other goods (full disclosure: I work at Innovations for Poverty Action, which did the linked-to study). Nearly every survey of poverty in developing countries asks, in a disinterested way, whether somebody owns “livestock”, which type, and how much.

I struggle with this a lot. Part of it is probably good old-fashioned cognitive dissonance. Part of it is probably not wanting to think that one good thing (helping someone in severe poverty develop a stable income) can come at the cost of another (dozens of animals killed in frequently horrifically botched slaughter), or vice versa. I’ve tried not to think about it, but being in Ghana since becoming an activist for animals (and while doing a tiny bit of activism over the web) has forced me to come to terms with this dilemma.

I’ve come to the terms with recognizing that promoting the ownership of livestock, even for those in severe poverty, is wrong and I think this conclusion should be less controversial than it likely would be (even among my supportive colleagues, I would guess). It's wrong because of the basic cogency of anti-speciesism. I'm not going to explain that; for that argument see here. I do want to explain why the idea of restricting anti-poverty policies in this way is more controversial than it should be.

There are two ways in which I think speciesism makes people have a generally insurmountable knee-jerk reaction against the idea of rejecting using animals when it will actually help people. The first is that it frames the window through which we see the world and potential solutions to poverty. The second is that it dramatically affects our calculation of the benefits.

First, the window: when we look at policies to address poverty, we don’t look at every policy, though we may not notice the ones we exclude. For instance, I don’t think many Western economists would look at ways to experiment with the use of child labor and how it can increase farm productivity, even though it probably could indeed do that. I also doubt anyone would study the effect of slavery (or sexual slavery) on productivity (at least in an experimental way) on poor businesses in developing countries. Nobody would study a drug known to be toxic to one class of humans that could still affect their household. Even with animals, nobody would study the effect of what is commonly accepted as aberrant animal abuse on productivity.

That is all to say that the norms we accept frame the set of actions we consider to address a problem, though it’s often invisible. So when someone says that it’s wrong to not consider providing “livestock” to alleviate poverty, they are really saying that not using “livestock” is not a norm worth following the way that, say, not using child labor is. That is, they are begging the question: a question that I think Singer and others have answered decisively.

Second, the benefits: even once we decide what policies to consider, speciesism frames the benefits from that policy that we include in our consideration. Fifty years ago, an economist might have neglected female income or treated female wellbeing in a very different way. A hundred fifty years ago, an economist would have all sorts of paternalistic views of nonwhite people that would skew the way they considered benefits to them. An economist might also have viewed children’s desire not to work as a matter of temper tantrums and neglect the harms to a child involved in child labor.

Today, economists generally consider the interests of all the humans affected by a policy. But where animals’ interests are affected, there is no plausible moral case not to consider animals as well.

A few years ago, I was torn between focusing on global poverty and focusing on animal liberation. I’m increasingly persuaded that animal liberation – the question that affects the vast majority of the mammals and birds on this planet and could determine the future of the planet’s wild animals – is the question where I should spend my time. I think it’s reasonable to disagree, though, depending on how one ways certainty of evidence or the importance of human development for the far future.


It seems pretty clear to me, though, that there isn’t a good case for addressing poverty by using animals. One of the most vital questions of the twenty-first century may be whether developing countries develop the hellish animal death camps that exist in the U.S., Europe, and parts of Asia. Let’s not play a role in making that happen.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Where Are All These People Who Need to Eat Meat to Survive?

This is the second of a three part series I’m writing on veganism and global poverty.

As an animal liberationist you often have people ask you: What do you say to people in developing countries who need meat to survive? Note that you only get this question in the U.S. and Europe. I've never gotten it here.

After getting this question all these times, I can't help but ask myself now: Where are all these people who need to eat meat to survive? Well, basically, they aren't.

Groundnut (peanut) soup with fufu.
I’ve probably lived in two of the more difficult developing countries to live in as a vegan. In the more rural parts of Peru, the places to eat are generally chicken joints, and in Ghana, meals are almost always a chicken or fish-based soup with some sort of carb ball (maize, grains, potato, yam). Both countries have absorbed the Abrahamic faiths that are particularly anti-animal in their typical manifestations.

Look around, though, and you can almost always find conscientious objectors. Further south in Ghana many Rastafarians are vegan and have integrated something approaching anti-speciesism into their way of life. In Peru, there’s a Christian community I encountered known as the Society of Alpha and Omega that also rejects animal exploitation and ran at least one restaurant in each of three rural towns I lived in.

Now as I said there aren't many Rastafarians where I am and there's only one Ghanaian vegan I've met in the north (my friend Square de Med, thanks to the wonders of Facebook). It's the same country, though, and cuisine spreads. Beans, lentils, soy chunks, a bean cake known as tubani, rice balls, a couscous-like dish made from yam skins and other grain dishes are regularly in the market. That's not to say they're easy or reliable to find, but you can find them.

Okay, so what does this all tell us? A few things.

First, when people in rich countries object that anti-speciesism is unfair to poor people they are being unintentionally patronizing. Poor people in Ghana do have choices just like people in the U.S.A. Not as many choices, and not as easy, but they make choices nonetheless and they never have this question because they do not see themselves as empty vessels of suffering.

Second, this objection to anti-speciesism rests on a mistaken view of culture. It sees cultures as fixed, immutable things deserving of being respected and left untouched. This is an assumption that seems to be claimed in the U.S. mostly in the case of justifying oppression (e.g. requiring clerks to marry gay couples violates the local Christian culture). Export it abroad and suddenly you’re standing up for the marginalized.

As in the U.S., though, cultures change in developing countries too. Not only do they change – they aren’t monoliths! As Will Kymlicka and Sue Donaldson beautifully describe in Zoopolis, nearly every culture in human history contains a school of thought denigrating animals, and nearly every culture also contains a school of thought profoundly elevating them. That's exactly what I've seen here.

Third, there's a distinction between needing meat to survive and having a hard time doing without meat, and the latter sheds some interesting light on basic moral ideas. As I said, I think there are very few people who need meat in order to survive. There are many cases though where it's difficult to do without. Access to nutritional knowledge is lacking in general here in Northern Ghana, and vegan nutrition is going to be even rarer. Given the way typical meals are constructed, being vegan is going to require a great shift in your life.

In this sense, though, it wouldn't be all that different being vegan here from being vegan in the United States - certainly in urban areas with less access to fresh produce but also in general for people who grow up with a Western diet. Note though that I don't think many of us believe that the fact that something is difficult to do means that it isn't the right thing to do.

Tubani, made from ground beans.
Instead, when something - not paying to have animals hurt - is the right thing to do but still difficult in many contexts, it requires us to recognize that good or normal people can sometimes do very bad things, and to try to change those conditions. It requires us to recognize that there is a difference between a person and their actions. On my reading of the Milgram experiments and other studies of obedience to authority, many of us would do downright horrific things in the wrong context. 

So what can we do? We can change the context. We can separate actions from persons and love everyone even as we advocate for change. We can empower the conscientious objectors who are there and remind Westerners that there are these conscientious objectors and that they're a lot more common than people who need meat to survive.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Climate Change is An Act of Theft



West Africa is famous for its power outages. It's known as the dumsur here in Ghana, where power goes on and off and on and off erratically, and it can seriously disrupt business. Apparently it's not just a West African thing though because the New York Times has a very depressing piece today on how early climate change is making days without water - and therefore no hydroelectric power, which is the main source of energy - far more common.

That's in addition to the heat factor - having been in Ghana during the hottest month, I can't imagine it being even worse. Given how intermittent the water is already, having less water and less power is unthinkable.

This brought me back to what I think is the best writing on climate change I've seen, though at six years old it's a bit outdated. Back in 2010, The New Republic had a back and forth between its in house critic Jim Manzi, a very intelligent conservative pundit arguing that it's not worth tackling climate change, and Bradford Plumer, an environmental writer now at Vox.

Manzi made the point that according to IPCC estimates, climate change will lower global GDP by about 3 percent by 2100 while instituting policies to prevent it will lower global GDP by 6 percent based on the best estimates. Now as I said the piece is outdated and the more recent news has suggested the toll of climate change will be greater and will come sooner than expected.

Still, the point still stands that action to prevent climate change would likely be at best neck-and-neck with the toll of climate change when you look at GDP, which adds up global wealth. Seems like a pretty persuasive case, no (if you just care about humans)?

Well the issue Plumer pointed out was this: that 3 percent will come much more from developing countries, the countries that can least afford it. "And as Nate Silver once noted, you could completely wipe out the poorest 81 nations in the world, with a total population of 2.8 billion, and the blow to global GDP would "only" be about 5 percent," Plumer notes.

While the penalties from climate change are accruing largely to the poorer countries, with this event in Zambia one of what are likely to be many more such episodes, the gains from climate change have accrued to the rich ones. Even as we hear stories about abnormally warm winters and all of their consequences (such as potential rises in crime), the U.S. is largely powered by coal, oil, and natural gas. Fossil fuels have underwritten industrialization and the creation of U.S. wealth.

This tragic news out of Zambia (and I believe Ghana, which is not under the spell of El Nino, is having a drought too) reminds me of what I concluded after reading the New Republic piece a few years back: the conventional narrative in U.S. politics around climate change is probably inaccurate. Progressives attack conservatives for being anti-science troglodytes who ignore our country's future at all of our peril.

While many conservatives are proudly "not scientists", the science may not actually be the issue. The issue may be a moral disagreement: it may be a question of whether we prioritize members of our own country (dramatically) or whether we care about all equally. If we care only about or strongly prioritize (human) Americans, it may actually make sense to do nothing about climate change, at least for the next century.

Ultimately, I think most of us do have a deep sense that there's something wrong in such dire inequality. To trigger that conscience, though, we need to talk head on about the crime being committed when U.S. legislators refuse to turn the light switch off occasionally at the expense of Zambia having any light to turn on at all.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Will Veganism Solve World Hunger? Maybe, But Not in The Way We Think



This is the first of a three part series I’m writing on global poverty and veganism. The second will talk about the question of people "eating meat to survive" and the third will discuss poverty alleviation programs that "invest" in animal property.

Global hunger has joined the list of reasons to go vegan. The reasoning seems to be this: in order to raise animals to kill and eat, we need to feed them. Because of the loss of energy when you go from one level of the food pyramid to the next, this involves a lot more food than it takes to directly feed humans. All of that food given to animals could instead be given to people starving around the world.

As I'll lay out at the end of the blog, there are some ways veganism (and animal liberation) might help with global hunger, but I don't think this direct reason holds up, at least for people in rich countries. 

The issue with global hunger is not that we don’t have enough food. It’s that we don’t have the food where we need it to be. To the extent it's about scarcity, it's about local scarcity. Veganism in communities facing severe hunger might help, but I don’t think that’s what people are talking about when they say veganism will solve world hunger. Veganism in the U.S. is not going to do much for rural Ghana.

Think about it this way: many people suffering from hunger are subsistence farmers. What they eat is largely a question of what they grow. If they trade locally, it’s a question of what they grow (to determine their purchasing power) and what other people grow near them.

If they can trade in a denser urban center or in an extreme case with a foreign country, then what people are eating in the United States might have some effect on them, but it’s small.

In fact, sometimes the distribution of food from the U.S. in developing countries has the opposite effect. Food aid is sometimes instead "food dumping," where developed countries distribute food at artificially low prices and exclude domestic farmers from the market, potentially exacerbating poverty. So again, freeing up more grains in the U.S. is unlikely to help. There’s also evidence that this aid sometimes increases conflict.

Now, I highly doubt veganism makes global hunger worse. The sad truth, though, is that it’s altogether unlikely to directly affect global hunger on its own.

There are ways the animal liberation movement can intersect with the global poverty movement. Weakening the American agricultural lobby might help both causes (a reason to push for institutional reforms rather than individual veganism). Though the extent of the connection is often exaggerated, the consensus seems to be that animal agriculture does exacerbate climate change, which will fall largely on the backs of poorer countries. 

And of course: there’s one thing that may link the two more than any other: morality. Fighting one injustice can open one up to actively fighting another. Vegans and vegetarians do tend to react more to human suffering and preference for meat is strongly linked to illiberal values. I think this is mostly because people who are already compassionate go vegan, but it’s weak suggestive evidence that there’s a connection between these varieties of compassion. Psychologist Steven Pinker makes a persuasive case in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature that human beings are susceptible to escalating reason and empathy, and the (irrefutable) ideas that animals' interests count and those of people living in other countries count are mutually reinforcing. If veganism helps address world hunger, it’s not going to be because of what we’re eating – it’s going to be because of why we’re eating it.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

A Question I Wrestle With At Night

As someone who has long been interested in ways to address the massive global disparity in economic wellbeing – nearly 1 billion people live onless than $1.90 a day, adjusted for purchasing power – I’ve struggled with the question of how to do this while avoiding the historical tendency of Westerners to use alleged afflictions as an excuse to control others.

This tendency is a favorite jab by aid critics: the most notable critic of development aid, economist Bill Easterly, titled his most famous book The White Man’s Burden. It’s a worry worth thinking about, seeing as some forms of aid today, notably food aid,  sometimes do advantage rich countries at the expense of poor ones.

There are a number of facets to this problem. For now, I want to deal with the micro-level question of whether and how poverty (which is actually a pretty difficult term to define) is an affliction.

Now on some level questioning whether poverty is bad (and how bad) may sound silly, and the issue is not poverty exactly: it’s how addressing poverty changes and to some degree may destroy a culture with many positive things to offer.  Many of the pictures charities give us in the West are focused on devastation: the starvation, the grueling labor necessary to lift one’s fortunes, the struggle with illness. When I have stayed in developing countries, I’ve been struck by the pictures that don’t get through: the festive camaraderie of a first birthday, children playing football outside (something increasingly rare in developed countries), the bustling markets filled with fresh fruits, veggies, and street food. 

Beyond that, there’s simply the fact that the culture in Ghana or Peru, especially the poorer parts that I’m familiar with, is vitally different from that in the United States. Though I may be biased, I think there’s more diversity of culture in the Global South than in higher-income countries, even considering richer Asian countries. Part of this is just the fact that development hastens globalization and also tends to involve Westernization, but it also speaks to a more inherent issue in development: the material capabilities you rely on shape what you do – they shape your culture. There’s no way alleviating poverty will happen without some loss of culture, a loss that may include far more than just aesthetic pleasures (though to be clear, it comes with gains as well).

Now I’m not one to say that we should let people suffer simply in order to preserve some culture. It seems paternalistic and fetishistic to say we will let someone be mired in poverty because of how cute their life is. The question for me is: are people really suffering, how badly, and will they genuinely be better off if Ghana becomes more like the U.S.? The question is not a moot one: if you came here (I did not, but I imagine some do) expecting to see people moaning in pain left and right in the streets like the way Uganda is portrayed in the Book of Mormon you would be surprised. My impression is that you see more happy faces here than on the streets of New York (perhaps not than San Francisco though).

Enough of how great things are here, though: there is suffering, but it’s suffering that’s nowhere near as constant and visible as we’re often led to believe it is. Surveys do show that poverty takes a dramatic toll on how happy people are with their lives. Were this in the context of a single country, you might think it was just a question of envy and despair at rich neighbors. These studies, though, compare different countries, and indeed poverty seems to hurt (after a certain level of wealth, though, money seems to stop mattering much).

So how does this happen even while you don’t see people so miserable when they walk around? Are people just hiding it? That actually may be part of it, but I don’t think it’s the key explanation. In fact, the issue seems to be that while poverty does not make people sad minute to minute, it leads to far more frequent and stressful obstacles (one aspect of this is described in Portfolios of the Poor).

A common illness can be crippling and impossible to treat with the money one has. A child is far more likely to die. The weather takes a regular toll on one’s business.

In the context of Ghana, I am a very rich man but I see bits and pieces of this – even in the second-biggest city in the country, the power and water are very inconsistent. In more rural areas, it’s often more common than not that there is no power. Built structures are much more affected by the weather.

So while most of the time I don’t notice the difference – while sitting at my computer under a fan I don’t constantly think “I’m in a developing country!” – there are frequent moments of stress, moments that are far more common and intense for people who are not rich here.

These occasionally stressful events do not just affect the moments where they happen. As Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir explain in their book Scarcity, moments like this frame the way you live. You have to constantly act around the lack of available water by using your water very strategically when it’s available, making interactions around water just a tad more stressful than they would be if it were available. These shifts in framing have profound effects.

People here want to not get malaria. They want their children to go to school more. They want more productive crops. As I’ll flesh out more in a future post, I think it’s best for those from other countries to support these basic capabilities and avoid more substantial cultural change in the hopes that we can end poverty without making the world too homogeneous.


This probably makes poverty within a rich country more similar to poverty in a poor country than we might otherwise think. The poorer members of rich countries face a wide variety of additional constraints that can create different conditions of scarcity.  That’s not to say that global poverty isn’t still particularly severe – no question, it is – but it’s not severe in the ways we often think it is.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Evil Happens in the Sunlight

Palm trees sway in the wind as waves crash on the shore below. Emerald waters stretch far beyond the ancient white walls and neatly aligned cannons. A cool ocean breeze gave relief from the overhead sun. On the other side, a bustling market and dense single-room structures lie between the castle and a hill topped by a colonial fort. This scene is picturesque, cliché, and the setting where a thousand people at a time – some six hundred men and four hundred women – were regularly manacled to each other in solid stone dungeons with a few square inches of sunlight before being sent through the “Door of No Return” onto death ships to the Americas. About 10 million total people went through this ordeal.

Visiting Elmina and Cape Coast Castles, slave trade forts built respectively by the Portuguese and the British, reminded me of visiting Auschwitz four years ago. My first encounter with Auschwitz was as spooky as it gets – waking up at 3 am on the night train from Vienna to Krakow to look out the window and see the train was stopped with some sort of electrical issue at the Oświęcim station which I quickly realized was the Polish town name that was Germanized into Auschwitz. But when I visited Auschwitz the next day it was a beautiful spring day with the sun beating down on the grassy fields around Birkenau, site of the gas chambers that likely killed my great-grandfather’s family.

Beautiful weather and architectural flourishes surround the sites of some of the greatest atrocities ever committed. This is a simple fact to state but an oddly emotionally complex one to wrap your head around when you feel it with your own body. When we think about evil, we think about it in a monochromatic way. Footage of the Holocaust is black and white (hence Steven Spielberg’s decision to film Schindler’s List in black and white, where many of our mental images of Auschwitz come from). For obvious reasons there aren’t pictures of these slave forts in operation, but when I think of the Atlantic Passage, I think of grimy and yellowed blueprints for the boats slave traders stacked kidnapped Africans like library books.

One exception might be the image of an overpowering sun over fields of cotton – but even then, we’re inclined to think of blinding light and overpowering heat. We don’t realize there were days when the weather was fine – pleasant even – as slaves were whipped and worked mercilessly.

We think thematically: it rains on sad days and the sun shines on happy ones. Yet evil can happen in very normal times. It can happen on days that would otherwise be pleasant. It happens in public, in visible spaces with little hiding. (Auschwitz may not have been public, but round ups and deportations and ghettos and checkpoints where people in Munich were required to salute all were.)


All of this is to say that visiting these sites has made it unnerving just how normal evil is. It really happened, and it happened in a place whose air you can still breathe and whose walls you can feel with your own fingers. It happens on bright, breezy days.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Want a Presidential Candidate to Support Animal Rights? Pressure the Good Guys.

There's been a fair amount of talk among vegans and animal rights activists in recent days about the propriety of confronting Bernie Sanders, as my fellow Direct Action Everywhere activists did and as my friend Jay Shooster and I did in the Huffington Post following Russell Simmons' criticism of the presidential candidate over his support for animal agriculture.

Many people feel, arguably rightly so, that Sanders would be the best candidate for animals of any because he is less susceptible to corporate pressure and has at least said he does not like factory farms. So they say that this is just going to hurt him and undermine our cause.

I think this is pretty clearly wrong. I think that's especially true for a cause in its early days - how many votes are animal rights activists going to steal from Bernie Sanders? How I wish we were a threat. On the other hand, the gains from getting this issue on the political table - from even the most cursory of responses - are substantial.

We've seen how #BlackLivesMatter activists have brilliantly made racism a particularly potent issue in the campaign and led Sanders' campaign to considerably change their platform and emphasis. I'd like to offer up another episode from my gay elders as an example of a similar dynamic: pressuring George McGovern - in a far more aggressive way - to endorse gay rights in the 1972 campaign. Note that in general, early protests of politicians by gay activists targeted those who were likely sympathetic (in New York, this meant liberal then-Republicans like John Lindsay and Nelson Rockefeller). Here's the McGovern story:

"Why did McGovern seem to be committed to every liberal issue except gay rights? The gay activists were unable to understand...

"It was a quiet August morning, an hour before lunch and less than two weeks before Labor Day, when thirty members of the Gay Activists Alliance appeared, as if out of nowhere, and quickly and precisely brought McGovern's presidential headquarters to a halt. As soon as they got off the sixth-floor elevator, Bruce Voeller and two other GAA members walked deliberately toward three 10-button phone consoles, the main switchboards for the campaign. 'What's going on here?' the operator asked helpelessly as two of them chained their wrists to the phones... The activists who had chained themselves to the consoles commandeered the telephones and, consulting a list of telephone numbers, began to call every major media outlet in New York City: the Times, the News, the Post, the Associated Press, the United Press and all the TV stations. 'I am chained to a desk in George McGovern's campaign headquarters,' each of them said. Whenever the phone rang and the light lit on the console, they would pick up the phone and announce that the McGovern for President headquarters had been taken over by gay liberationists...

"[F]inally, at mid-afternoon, with the television cameras rolling, [campaign manager] Geto appeared, standing next to GAA member Allen Roskoff, to read a statement: 'Senator George McGovern has repeatedly affirmed his commitment to civil rights and civil liberties for all Americans. He has specifically addressed himself to discrimination directed against men and women based on sexual orientation, and has pledged to alleviate such discrimination in the federal government and in other areas of public life. Sen. McGovern believes that discrimination based on sexual orientation should be eliminated.'"

-Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney, Out for Good

That was the first example, as far as I know, of a presidential candidate explicitly supporting gay rights in any way. It didn't come about because they were nice.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Five Weeks under the Harmattan: Reflections from Tamale

[Note that I tried to add photos but they wouldn't load on my connection. Just google Tamale, Ghana and look at the pictures. I don't have anything special except for that I'm probably even whiter than most of the peace corps volunteers.]

In February I moved to Ghana for ten weeks as part of a study on smallholder crop farmers in the Northern Region. I’m based out of Tamale, the second-biggest city. Coming with American eyes (or even eyes from many other African cities, my colleague tells me) you wouldn’t know it was so large. Modern structures are a minority here, with many tin roofs around and the city surprisingly sparse outside of a tiny nucleus at the center.

It’s very dry and dusty – I arrived here during the season known as “Harmattan,” when the wind from the Sahara blows so much dust into the reason that the sky turns brown and the sunlight is dimmed. After a couple rainstorms the dust has now descended to make way for the hottest month of the year, March. It struck me as odd that March is the hottest month – I figured seasons should match what I’ve experienced before in the Northern hemisphere (June-August) or Southern hemisphere (December-February).

I don’t have a clear answer on why March is so hot but I think it’s a few things. a) “Heat” really has to do with rain. My best nights of sleep recently have been after it rained, which cooled things down. b) In the Northern hemisphere’s summer, the equator is slightly south of the closest point to the sun. It’s the opposite in the Northern hemisphere’s winter. Since Ghana sits on the equator, the hottest time is in between.

That said, while it’s dry and dusty, there are beautiful mango and other varieties of trees dotting the ground, and they provide a nice contrast from the North American foliage that I’m used to.

There are a few things that have struck me here. I’m about halfway through my time here and have been reflecting today while reading Ghana Must Go, a novel by a Ghanaian immigrant to the U.S. (and fellow Yalie).

   1) People relate to each other very differently from in the U.S. I’m surely biased since people notice me more and are constantly curious about me (see point 2), but except perhaps in the busiest parts of the city, people acknowledge each other much more than in the U.S. or at least the Northeast. You’re expected to say good morning (“despa”), good afternoon (“antille”), or good evening (“annoula”) when you see someone. You respond “na”, and while the word may not sound beautiful to English ears, people often lengthen the word “na”, saying it with an expressive tune. I never thought a word like “na” could be said in so many different and melodic ways. If someone trips or drops something – even across the room from you – you are expected to say “sorry”.

People do not walk around as if they are in completely separate spaces like in New York City. They acknowledge and receive each other’s presence. I’ve mentioned to a number of Ghanaians the scene in Borat where Sacha Baron Cohen frantically chases people around the street trying to say hello to them. That’s what would happen if you deployed Tamale etiquette in New York City. I wonder how much of it is how urbanization changes people’s behavior. Given that Tamale is the fastest-growing city in West Africa and cities like it are likely to grow substantially in the coming years (which is creating all sorts of infrastructural challenges), it’s going to be interesting to see if this culture changes at all.

   2) Being a white person here attracts widespread curiosity. When walking down one of the emptier streets, you’ll see children – even toddlers – run out into the road, jump up and down, and eagerly shout “Siliminga hello!” Siliminga means white person. (“Siliminga goodbye” quickly follows.) It’s pretty adorable. I’ve gotten used to it, though, as everyone eventually does, and after a point it starts to get trying. Adults do it too but less often.

When you’re not being enthusiastically greeted by children, you attract widespread curiosity – sometimes fear – from people around you. In my experience, though this may differ for women, young men often approach me and ask for money, help buying them food, or even my phone number. If one of these young men gets your phone number, even a cab driver you’ve made an arrangement with, you can expect the phone to ring constantly. It seems people here fight to have white friends.

I think it provides a window, albeit with a very different power imbalance, into what it’s like to be the only person of your race on the street. Obviously I’m still the one with power here and the one that others are afraid of, but the experience of having people constantly gawk because you look different is not a pleasant one. I can only imagine what it would be like when you also have less money and privilege on top of that.

On a side note, I asked a Ghanaian friend of mine how people would react here if they saw someone, say, from China. He said they would react the same way they react to a white person, would consider them white, and would assume they spoke English.

    3) Apparently scientists have found that people from richer countries are more likely to cry, and after being here, I can see why. Many, many things we take for granted are at least inconsistent here. Water and electricity go in and out, of course, as does the Internet, which is entirely based on cell networks. Don’t think there’s A/C in many places to take care of the heat (and even if there is, it doesn’t work without power)! This is all from someone with as much money as you reasonably could use here to spend. So you’ve gotta hold your tears here if you’re going to survive.

It’s interesting to see even in this novel Ghana Must Go how similarly a family of Ghanaian emigrants reacts when they return to Ghana. I’m honestly not sure there aren’t some benefits to having a bit less convenience and a bit more of a dependence on the weather and the natural world.

    4) The culture around animals here is radically different from in the U.S. Everywhere you look, even in the most urban parts of town, there are goats, sheep, chickens, and guinea fowl. Occasionally there are cattle, all emaciated from a lack of water for much of the year. People feed animals when they’re young so they return regularly but otherwise they have to feed themselves. Merchants cut them up right in the middle of town. It’s interesting how the West has invented far more shocking ways to torture and kill animals (though slaughter here is nothing to be in awe of) but most Westerners would recoil from the sort of displays you see here. Sheds interesting light on theories by anthropologist Timothy Pachirat about the “Politics of Sight” and animal agriculture.


    5) Foreigners from the U.S. and Europe who are in Ghana are an odd bunch. In my other stay in a developing country, in Peru in 2011, I didn’t have the experience of being around many Americans there. Ghana Must Go talks about the loss of “context” for a family of Ghanaian immigrants and the way they lose aspects of their heritage. I feel a similar thing among Americans and Europeans in Ghana. It feels like there’s something missing, some lack of grounding and passion that generally gets covered up with beer.