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Showing posts from 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 w…

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 probab…

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

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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.
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…

Climate Change is An Act of Theft

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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 chan…

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

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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 wher…

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 exa…

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…

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.

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 …