01 November 2014

Bicycle built for two

I cannot, for the life of me, recall if we had a Halloween party in Bunia last year. One imagines not – it’s not terribly big in Europe – though the expat community does seem to favour events wherein they can put on some costumes of dubious quality and dance and drink, so you’d think it would be right up our alley. At least I can rest assured that no one is planning on attending any potential party as a sexy Ebola nurse. That said, if they were feeling up to it, MSF could probably play an excellent joke on us – and indeed, all of Bunia, if they opted to come in full quarantine mode.

There are, perhaps unsurprisingly, a few other in which we feel the shadow of Ebola stretching out its boney, bloody fingers (boo!). I’ve been getting a really fun daily update from CRS (no idea how I got on that particular email chain), for example, that gives not only all the latest stats from the Congo outbreak, but also those in West Africa (and now Dallas and Spain and New York. It’s comprehensive!), as well as what new travel bans are in place (another NGO workers was recently refused entrance into the Seychelles because she was traveling from Congo, which seems remarkably short-sighted. Did they let in the people she travelled with? What if she’d sneezed on a flight attendant?). From a friend at MSF, I’ve learned all the gruesome details about what an Ebola clinic looks like, and it’s…not pretty. In their training materials, even regarding a ‘moderate mortality’ outbreak like that in Congo (only just over 50 per cent), they flat out note that treating patients amounts to hospice care. Really, really ginger and profoundly sanitised hospice care. If you do pull through, the virus can stay in your body for over a month, so all health care workers and survivors are supposed to remained quarantined for a bit. One of my friend’s colleagues, who has a reputation as something of a Casanova, was apparently ready to volunteer to work the outbreak (as it seemed quite heroic) until he heard this piece of information. He then demanded to know that, should he contact and survive Ebola, would it be possible to, during this quarantine period when the virus was still lurking in his system and he could not visit any of his numerous lady friends, re-infect himself via masturbation? A question for the ages, friends!

Far from isolating myself for fear of exotic diseases, I have been actively trying to get out and about in last few months. The end of my mission is rapidly approaching, so I’m trying to soak up my remaining time in Bunia. The same MSFriend recently (ha – he’s been working on it for the better part of his mission) rehabilitated a tandem bike. By which I mean he unearthed two, damaged bikes and soldered them together, making possibly the heaviest bike in the world. Now that it’s working, at least after a fashion, we’ve spent the last few weekends tooling around (they also have a fleet of single-rider bikes, so while the tandem was yet under construction, I would often hitch a ride on the back of the standard bike, sitting side-saddle with a hand lightly – and sometimes not so lightly – placed on my pilot’s waist for stability. I had to hop off whenever the road deteriorated to much and be careful to not let my skirts get caught in the spokes. I often felt like the eldest daughter in a 50s sitcom, riding on the bike of her steady on the way to the malt shop. If only it weren’t for the fact that the malt shop was covered in barbed wire and guarded by an APC…). On our last ride, the bike only broke down three times. So I thought I would invite you on a bike tour of Bunia with me!

This past weekend, we were lucky to have a perfect riding day, as we’re in the final, through very damp, throws of the rainy season. The tandem takes a certain level of coördination, as the engineering was perhaps a bit spotty. The back pedals hang low and will become lodged in any deep rut one encounters, not only stopping the bike dead but also dislodging the second gear chain and possibly even popping off a pedal in its entirety. Which wouldn’t normally be a problem, but Bunia roads are more rut than not. At any rate, though it always takes us a few attempts to work out our rhythm, we managed to get off and riding. Sunday mornings are my favourite time to be out around town, as there is less traffic than at almost any other time of the week. As we rode along, passing families decked out in their (often matching) Sunday best, strains of various hymns could be snatched from all sides, blending together in an unexpected (and mostly harmonious) symphony of worship.

Unfortunately, our first stop of the ride came just outside of the more exuberant though less in-tune congregations when my shoelace became caught in the pedal and snapped. My shoes have had a difficult time of things lately. Between the rain and the bike, it’s a bit of a marvel that I have any shoes left at all, now that I think about it. Bits flake and peel off my sandals like the appendages on a damp zombie. Which is evocative, yes, but somewhat less than comfortable. All but one pair are currently held together with epoxy and Medair-branded tape. I often give my shoes – and the tape that holds them together – pep talks. Okay, guys, I’m really sorry for wearing you in the rain, but we only have 3(!) more months. You can do this!

After dislodging my lace and resetting the chain, we managed to make it to the market without any additional mishaps. Our first stop was to visit the Bike Man; the tandem’s creator and he are on chummy terms, as the MSFer has been coming here for all the necessary odds and ends to create and maintain this twee Frankenstein. This weekend, the plan was to add a rack to the back of the bike so that things might be carried (optimistically, a picnic basket). While the Bike Man himself was professionally unimpressed – so it’s working? Ça va, ça va - others were more willing to be effusive. People cluster around it at every stall or let their fingers drift along it gently as we passed. One man clucked at how clever it was – those muzungus, always ahead of us! Many ask my friend how he made it, and while answering that he did it himself is not totally accurate, it is the simplest explanation (he conceptualized it, then convinced another expat with a background in deep sea welding to help, and when that individual left for the field, talked their staff welder – yes, MSF can afford a staff welder – to finish the job in exchange for a few beers. When things got really tricky, they went to an actual bicycle repair man just outside of town). He always fields requests to purchase it, one even as high as 50USD. That person had more money than sense, frankly.

At one point, holding the bike as my friend haggled over pagne prices – it’s not the most manoeuvrable thing in among the labyrinthine stalls and mud of the marketplace – I saw a pagne covered in sparkplugs. It was the classic 6V pattern introduced to me by a former MK during a dinener that somehow morphed into a master class on pagne. Apparently, most pagne designs come from a few speciality European houses and have, for the past 80 some-odd years. These fabrics, sold almost exclusively in Africa, can cost upwards of 100USD for the traditional length of six yards. On the plus side, during our discussion, the self-same humanitarian was wearing a shirt that had been made for her mother in Congo in the early 1970s and it still looked brand-new, so the real stuff is acres better than the knock-offs the rest of us are wearing. Back to the 6V, though, the MK had read, in a terrifically dated and racist travel book, that, when the first cars (which had six cylinders) were imported to Congo in the 1950s and 1960s, they were an overt status symbol and accessible to only the super-wealthy. ‘Six sparkplugs’ became a national catchphrase identifying any number of things – though women especially – as lux, classy. It’s like saying she’s a 10. Also, six vougie sounds better in Congo French that you might imagine. The most trend-setting of the fashion houses – a Dutch outfit called Vlisco – turned the 6V motif into a pagne. Though they might have intended it to be a courting gift – hey, baby, you’re 6V! – women apparently began buying it for themselves, as a way to affirm their own beauty and desirability (that’s right – I’m a 6V and I know it!). Though it’s no longer so much in fashion, it’s retains an aura of women’s sexual autonomy and empowerment. If only it weren’t so revolting…

I also had to pick up some food odds and ends for the house. Medair has a hard and fast rule that they will not reimburse without a receipt. It’s not always worth fighting for, as ost of the mamans on the market don’t offer receipts and only sign what you write out for them under duress. In some ways, I understand their bafflement – they think asking for a receipt for 500FC (0.54USD) worth of stuff is nuts, and when it comes down to it, so do I. But it does add up eventually, and then it becomes something of an adventure. This time around, and at the explicit request of a frittata-craving colleague, I stopped by the chicken men and requested 40 eggs. They didn’t believe that I needed so many, but I stood firm. Next, I asked for a facture – standard Congo French for a receipt (French French do not understand this term and will stare at you like you are an idiot if you ask for one). They had no idea what I was talking about. So asked for an addition, which is the ‘real’ word. Note to self – when people for whom French is possibly a fourth language do not understand my own pigeon French, going even more correct is perhaps not the right answer. Every time I asked for an addition, they would say sure – 350FC. Which would irk me – seriously? You’re charging me for a receipt? They, in turn, would also get annoyed and then say that they had already given me 40! I know, I would say – and now I need a receipt. It took me a while to understand that they thought I was asking for an additional egg. It was a bit of a who’s on first moment for me (my very fluent friend did not join me, as there was no way he was getting the tandem all the way back to the poultry section of the market). I ended up digging an old bank receipt out of my wallet and using it as a prop. Ohhh – a note of exchange! Yeah, we can do that. It is magic – best receipt I’ve ever gotten.

It reads:

On this day, the 2 of September, 2014, We the egg merchants of the central market of Bunia have sold 40 eggs (forty) to Medair for the price of 14,000 FC. This is at the quoted price of 350FC per egg.

Leaving the market, we were trailed by incredulous laughter and shouts of ‘double velo’. People on motos loaded with five children – the youngest hanging out over the back wheel, tied to its sibling – looked at us in bemused wonderment, which we tried not to return. Standards of normal are different here.

We paused at the French NGO Solidarité to visit a friend. The nature of humanitarian work is such that people pass fairly quickly in and out of your life and though you can manage to form some (hopefully) lasting bonds, most often you make a connection with people for a number of months, share a few funny or strange or touching moments, and then recall them with great fondness in fleeting instances of déjà vu. As a community, we had not so long ago seen off a colleague at Sol. It was over a really lovely and subdued dinner, sitting around in the waning twilight, that I had found myself discussing what makes a hipster with a bunch of French folks. With an amusement that was difficult to share, I tried to define the term to a group in which at least two individuals were sporting plaid shirts and there were skinny jeans all around. The only light was from the stars and two battered lanterns. Our food had all been organic and locally produced and we were drinking off-market beer. All told, it was a like a hyper-whimsical hipster castle in Spain. My French colleagues decided, however, that there were no hipsters about as there was a shocking lack of pompadours and beards. Apparently, a true hipster must have facial hair. No word on what defines hipsterdom among the non-folically blessed. The hipster brand is an odd one. We also discussed cartoons, and I learned that, in France, Pepe Le Pew is Italian.

Sol is also one of the most consistent of my secondary yoga sites. I was obligated to find a new site for my yoga class, you see, after my housemates kicked us out (which is hilarious to me, as at least two or three of them come to any given class). Now we have something of a rotating schedule of places to hold the class, depending on who is on mission or holiday. One of these yoga field trips included directions to turn left just before the coffins, which might well be be the most evocative set of directions I’ve ever given.

We hopped back on the tandem (remember the tandem? The letter is about the tandem) for a bit longer, only to eventually make our way over to my own home compound for lunch and repairs. The Medair house has been pretty lively lately, which is a bit usual for us, hosting cook outs and volleyball tournaments and movie nights. At the moment of our arrival, some of my teammates were engaged in an impromptu jam session, using a battered communal guitar and piano salvaged and rebuilt by our logistics coördinator and strung and tuned by the WASH programme manager. The latter, a charming Italian man, is usually far out in the bush, on his project sites for weeks at a time, and when he comes back to Bunia for a break, his level of pleasure at being around other expats is both charming and a little manic. We’ve actually had team sing-alongs almost every night since he’s been back). He boasts a surprising repertoire of cowboy songs and his rendition of Proud Mary is quite rousing, considering he only knows about 1/3 of the words and mangles the rest.

Full and fixed, we set off from Medair on a route that was vaguely inclined toward MSF. We cycled past the new standard hangout spot (as MSF is not allowed to patronise the UN watering hole), Garden Restaurant Multi-Cuisine. When Garden first opened last summer, Medair staff had hoped for great - well, mediocre - things. Its spacious grounds (the name it well-earned) and generous menu positioned it as a welcome alternative to MONUSCO House. Though our initial experience was somewhat less than promising (we did discover that the best way to successfully order at Garden is to ignore the menu and ask what it is they actually have), it’s come a long way in terms of service and food quality. We now only expect to wait for 1-2 hours for food, and it’s almost always what we ordered. To pass the time, we often play Uno and Ebola-themed Scrabble (in which you get a double word score for anything pertaining to Ebola. I once crushed with Zaire – an Ebola word twice over! – which, interestingly enough, would not count in a normal game).

Most recently, our games have not been necessary, as the obliging Garden staff has even begun dinner theatre! During a recent team outing, populated by the lion's share of Medair's women and Thomas, we were gently accosted by one Teenus Baby Official and his sidekick, no-English Williams. Teenus was insistent that we should join him inside, as he explained that he was a musician from Kampala, though originally from Congo, and felt that his table should be graced by such a cadre of lovely ladies. The Medair team thought that the veracity of his introduction merited the same and hoped he was pleased to meet Brenda, Carla, Els, Connie, and Louise (in place of Shétu, Riët, Elseline, myself, and Lydia). Thomas vanished as soon as they showed for the latrine in a stunning display of French gallantry. He never returned during subsequent events, so we naturally assumed that he’d fallen in and the fumes had rendered him unconscious. We demurred and settled in to wait for our food, which seemed to be taking a long time, even by Garden's generous standards. All was made clear when the friendly gents spilled outside the restaurant's back door, pursued by the waiter, bartender, manager, and possibly chef. While the show was in Swahili, we still got the gist, especially once they called in supporting cast in the form of local cops. Teenus transitioned from leading man to quirky supporting case, Williams took the role of rebel action hero and climbed over the latrine to leap over barbed wire and escape into the night (we had hoped that he might rescue Thomas, but no such luck).

Just past Garden is yet another local haunt – Rezac. Instead of late-night beers, this tends to be where I head for post-Mass breakfasts, where, depending on my compatriots in prayer that weekend, we discuss Rastafarianism and statelessness and conservation efforts in Nepal. Once, we even stole the proprietor’s notebook to hold a lion-sketching competition. Of my French Mass-mates, one showed surprising competency and drew his as a cartoon in a business suit. The other’s was, in a word, bad. Mine was a more realistic though hurried sketch. But their local national colleague, Max…I don’t know how to describe Max’s drawing. It transcended it’s childishness into something deeply primitive, yes, but also moving. It was full body, in profile. After a failed correction, its front left paw faced both forward and backward. The tail thrust out like a spear. The mane licked its back like flames. The face was undeniably human. I found it beautiful and myself deeply affected. Tanguy laughed so hard he brayed like a donkey and couldn’t breathe and almost had yogurt come out his nose. The waitress pronounced it her favourite of the drawings.
This was not the lion
At any rate, it was just beyond Rezac that the tandem again paused for repairs. As MSFriend bantered/haggled moto technicians into fixing his contraption, I listened to a football game in the distance. It sounded as though it were being held at Bunia's main stadium, where I knew from a game played by Medair and the Mercenaries (mostly the latter) that what scanty grass there is is cut by goat. The walls surrounding the stadium are also crumbling, requiring the goalies to leap to the top of the wall and solicit the kindness of passers-by in returning their ball after ever errant kick. I tuned back to the bike just in time to hear a moto driver inquire how much for the bike, and then how much for the woman? Rather gallantly (even if it did raise my feminist hackles), my friend claimed us both and said neither was for sale.
Goat patrol at the main soccer stadium
Given the incident I just described, I wouldn't blame you for being skeptical, but I find that I prefer traveling by the bike to either walking or driving as, though it is more noticeable, one seems to receive less harassment, sexual or otherwise (in fact, my harassment a are minor to what the teams get in the bush, where one colleague was propositioned by a Catholic priest who also happened to be the landlord of the base!). On the bike, for example, one is never stopped by a representative of the DGM (immigration), demanding to see one's visa. When I couldn’t find my copy, as I don't carry my passport, she lectured me in rapid French and then asked me to buy her and her buddy a sucre.

Driving is the worst, though. Of late, Bunia has been dotted with road blocks both legitimate and otherwise. The cops use 2x4s cruelly studded with nails to check for insurance and licenses, the necessity of both of which can be side-stepped with a few well-placed dollars. Of course, at the locally erected road blocks - usually nothing more than a rubber strip manned by about twenty dudes while another four were actually working on filling the ruts in the road, sort of - are totally illegal and somewhat intimidating. After a run at a UN base one Saturday, a colleague and I once drove completely outside of town hoping to avoid the blockade, only to run in to a gold mine and be forced to turn around and deal with it, anyway. We were mildly gratified to see the fuzz yelling at them on our way back. Though I hope it was something to do with the illegality of impromptu roadblocks, but it was in Lingala, so he could have been reaming them for not charging enough for all I know.

But none of these issues apply to the tandem. And even when you have to walk it up the final hill of the day, it gives a sense of freedom that can be difficult to find here. We ended our ride with a beer and some bizarre Russian Advil knock-off, courtesy of the foremost medical charity in the world. Sometimes, the disconnect between staff and beneficiaries does not go the way you might expect it to.

To bring us full circle to how little people here fear Ebola, we later watched in bemused horror as their guards stalked, ambushed, skewered, roasted, and ultimately devoured a possum-sized rat. Oh, Congo. Perhaps you should be a hair more leery of bush meat (especially bats. Rats, I’ll allow, but forever and always say no to bats. I don’t care what your witches’ brew calls for).

29 October 2014

160 Million Problems (Jay-Z didn’t know the half of it)

I mentioned HIV/AIDS a few times in the last post, so this BBC article seems relevant. It discusses how urbanisation and a skewed sex ratio in 1920s Kinshasa likely engendered the AIDS pandemic. Today, the surplus men I discussed in the last post – who are responsible for so very many good things already – also constitute what is known public health circles a ‘bridging population’. Basically, they’re among the most likely to spread the virus from high-risk to low-risk populations (basically picking it up in the misspent youth presumably seeing sex workers or doing drugs and then passing it on to the women they ultimately marry or children they ultimately have).

Okay, so as a refresher, the previous post went into what a skewed sex ration means for men – no wives, more violence. But that’s only half of the social equation. The question remains of what does a world with fewer women mean for those who remain (yes, I know that I’m being rather appalling heteronormative. Unfortunately, aside from a few hilariously offensive historical nuggets about how skewed sex ratios will result in a gay explosion, there’s very little I could find about the impact of gender imbalance on the queer community).

Just to reiterate the scale of gender imbalance we’re discussing, and while the subject of AIDS is still fresh in our minds, it’s interesting to conceptualise masculinization as an epidemic. For example, since its discovery in 1981, AIDS has killed an estimated 36 million people. Sex selection, meanwhile, has claimed 130 million more women. Never let it be said that demographics is a dry field! Girls are being culled from the population in all kinds of creative ways, be it from sex-selective abortion or relative neglect compared to male offspring in early childhood (including abandonment) or desperate life circumstances that might lead to suicide. If that seems a bit heavy-handed, try to remember that there are more girls than boys in orphanages and that in many gender-imbalanced societies, there is actually a higher mortality rates for girls, which is unusual.

If you were to approach this whole absence of ladies things from the angle of remedial economics (which, remarkably, some people actually have), you might come to the conclusion that it’s actually a good thing for the scarcer – excuse me, fairer – sex. After all, a simply supply and demand curve should confirm for us that fewer women makes each one more valuable, yes? True enough. Unfortunately, women are not commodities, despite what many seem to believe, and as they gain value as goods, they lose it as people.

It’s important to note, however, that the inverse is not necessarily true, either – women do not have greater human value in a society in which they outnumber men. Take Congo, my perennial favourite example, where sex ratio at birth is a surprising 1.03 (men to women). I wish I could have recorded the security briefing this morning. It was a litany of abuses against women. In village X, one woman was raped. In village Y, another woman was raped. In village Z, 11 women were raped and four kidnapped. In village N, one woman was beheaded and two girls were raped (for what it’s worth, most deaths are reported as people. Five people were killed in village D. I don’t know if the genders are mixed or men only, but after what came before…there is a small part of me that rather hopes that it’s the latter).

Back to the woman-less world, though, Mara Hvistendahl from Unnatural Selection (which I will be quoting from extensively yet again! You should probably skip the post and just read the book) rather tartly notes that “no majority group has ever aspired to become a minority under the illusion that a decrease in numbers will somehow lead the group’s members to be more valued by the rest of society (zing. Take that, economist demographers).” She goes on to outline a depressing smörgasbord (there’s an ö in that, right?) of ways in which, as they become a more valuable commodity, women lose their personhood (kidnapping or being sold, come to mind, even by family members) and also observes how this paradigm might lead to the propagation of a female underclass in which poor families might actually select for girls so that they can sell them to wealthy families.

There’s lots of precedent here to work with, as most mass population movements in history have been dominated by men (with the exception of refugee flows). The context now is different, of course – we’re more often addressing established societies than burgeoning ones – but the past can still inform our expectations to a certain extent. And those expectations are bleak. Historically, high sex ratio societies have had exceptionally low rates of literacy and female workforce participation. Historically, they have had have exceptionally high rates of prostitution. Historically, they have been unstable. Historically, they have often proven violent.

Some have even tried to use history to explain away the modern gender imbalance as a cultural issue (cultural relativism as an excuse for sexism, homophobia and other forms of violent intolerance has a long and ignoble pedigree). Shenanigans, I say! Sure, there’s a strong preference for men in the countries with gender imbalance problems, but there’s actually a preference for boys globally (“Sexism might be an obvious culprit for imbalance if it weren’t so universal. Parents in nearly all cultures say they prefer boys, and yet sex selection only strikes in part of the world.” Yay?). Moreover, though there was some evidence of traditional female infanticide in China and India, it was not a wide-spread practice, and generally only occurred in very select areas in times of extreme economic hardship. After all, if you only have so many funds to feed so many mouths, boys are often perceived as having more long-term value than girls, especially in societies that use a dowry system in place of a bride price. Generally, though abortion was frowned on in most of classical Asia. Where it was performed, it was anathema. Confuscianism held that life begins before birth, while Hindus specifically warned against killing foetuses. The Buddhist monastic code, meanwhile, stated that life begins at conception, and monks could be expelled for helping a woman abort.

How then, could this happen, especially in the second world? We’re used to violence against women in the third world, but these places are supposed to be better than that. “Development was not supposed to look like this. For as long as they have speculated about the status of women, social scientists have taken for granted that women’s position improves as countries get richer. Economic growth means that more girls go to school, and that those girls have access to a broader array of job opportunities when they grow up…” Etc., etc.

So it is true, for the most part, that economic development, along with the urbanisation, education, and the new job opportunities it brings, may well make parents less sexist. But because development is accompanied by plummeting birth rates, it raises the stakes for each birth, thereby increasing the chances parents will abort a female foetus. “Most parents wait until they already have one or two daughters before resorting to sex selective abortion; very few abort because of the fetus’s sex during the first pregnancy. We know this because around the world the sex ration at birth jumps abruptly with birth order.”

This, of course, suggests that it’s not a simple matter of coercion; for as riddled as the history of this topic is with forced sterilisation and abortion, most modern gender imbalances seem to occur in countries and among segments of the population (educated, urban, affluent) where women are reasonably reproductively empowered, to the extent that the really ever are. Social coercion is subtle and nefarious and nearly as strong as outright familiar pressure (totally interesting and unrelated side note? Fertility is generally set in the DRC by the paternal mother-in-law. So women do generate much of the pressure on other women to have children beyond their financial and physical capacity). Indeed, feeling an imperative to have boys speaks to an institutionalized, internalized sexism.

And not just that! It also has to do with modern means of population control, economics, and racism. This is going to get messy. In the mid-twentieth century, the West began exporteding the doctrine of population control largely out of a fear of communism. “Between 1965 and 1976, money spent on research and development for contraceptive methods around the world more than doubled. Developing countries received the lion’s share of that money while contributing less than 3 per cent of it. The most funding came from the US” (my, how times and global gag rules have changes). Aid was actively linked to population control measures, especially health programmes. As I understand it, the reasoning of Western donors went like this: if they promoted better access to and quality of health services, thereby saving lives, they would have to offset that population increase through birth control. Essentially, developing countries were obligated to exchange longer lives for control over their own reproductive rates.

Further, a critical component of improving health care is ensuring access to better technologies, such as prenatal screenings. The population control brigade quickly determined that promoting sex selection quicker and easier and cheaper than actually advancing the status of girls and women (which also tends to slow down birth rates). Some Western family planning orgs even extolled abortion as preferable to birth control. As I’ve alluded to a bit, horror stories abound of Western-sponsored field clinics that inserted IUDs and conducted sterilizations, despite the medical staff having no gynaecological experience. By 1977, doctors in Seoul were performing 2.75 abortions for every birth, makring the highest documented rate of abortion in human history.

Which, in fairness, is actually a lot less fishy that some of the other absurdities that were suggested, such as introducing sterilizing agents to the food chains or compulsively sterilizing men with three or more children or even “flying planes over India once a year to spray it with a contraceptive aerial mist”. Promoting sex-selective abortion: less horrific with the right context – just compare it against eugenics! It tickles me that one of the strongest arguments against sex selection was a fear that it might well increase homosexuality, as though having fewer women would essential turning Asia into a giant men’s prison (others pointed out that queer couples can’t conceive – this was the old days – and so should be encouraged as a ‘humane alternatives’ to population control).

The Western fetish with population control is even indirectly responsible for China’s One Child policy, though that might be a bit of an overstatement. It was a zealous non-demographer highly placed in the Chinese DoD who took the Western obsession to an absurd conclusion. Who was it that said that all things, when taken to their logical conclusion, become cancerous? At any rate, when China jumped on the population control bandwagon in the 1970s and 1980s, they did so without reservations. Graphic PSA were released, bearing slogans like: Better to let blood flow like a river than to have one more than allowed. Or: You can beat it out! You can make it fall out! You can abort it! But you cannot give birth to it.

By 1982, fourteen million women, accounting for 2/5 of all pregnancies, underwent abortions. Between January 1981 and December 1986, Chinese women underwent 67 million abortions. Sweet God. In 1983, in a moment of either unbearable gross naiveté or perfect historical dark humour, the UNFPA jointly awarded Qian Xinzhong, the former People’s Liberation Army general who was the architect of the one-child policy, and Indira Gandhi, who had overseen India’s mass sterilization (involuntary) campaign, with the first United Nations Population Award. Oh, the UN. You can be so difficult to forgive.

In fairness, while a lot of tremendously sketchy stuff went down in the name of population control, some have pointed out that this may yet be a step – a weird, extreme step to be sure – in the demographic transition.

This is possibly a valid point, especially as people (should) continue to become richer and more educated and understand the long-term consequences of gender imbalances. There are even a handful of effected countries that have starting to try and ameliorate their sex ratios, now that their cocks have come home to roost and have found no hens. Indeed, it might well be over or nearly over in South Korea, India, and China (where the imbalance is expected to peak sometime in the next 30 years. So…sort of nearly over). “In regions and countries that were touched by economic development later, however, the phase is just beginning.”

So what does it mean for women now, especially in those states that seem to be in the heart of their crisis? “Surplus men have been going to great lengths to find women – and in many cases succeeding.” One South Korean province, for example, has sponsored trips to Vietnam, and the national government endorses the trade in other ways, recently setting aside around 23 million USD for adaptation programs for new brides. “As the first generation touched by sex ratio imbalance grows up, the silent biological discrimination that is sex selection has been exacerbated by more visible threats to women, including sex trafficking, bride buying, and forced marriages.” Not all of these sins can be considered equal (women who willing emigrate for the purpose of marriage cannot be considered the same as a trafficking victim), but they all have their dark sides, as evenly legal cross-border brides tend to be in precarious situations with regards to their human and social rights, and others might even be pressured into accepting polyandrous arrangements.

That’s just the tip of the ice berg, really, as forced marriage “has become common enough in Asia that it has joined FGM, domestic abuse, and marital rape as a basis on which a woman can petition for political asylum in the US.” It also gets us into the territory of child brides (India accounts for 40 per cent of the global totally of marriages of adolescent girls) and (in what sounds like an appropriately Halloween-y urban fable but is not) ghost brides.

We really should have seen this coming. No less an authority than Amartya Sen warned about the phenomenon more than 25 years ago in his classic, More than 100 Million Women Are Missing, in which he observed that “economic development is quite often accompanied by a relative worsening in the rate of survival of women...The deterioration in women’s position results largely from their unequal sharing in the advantages of medical and social progress.” Sen pointed out that it’s not just about sex-selective abortion, but general neglect aimed at women from birth onward that decreases their risk of survival when, all thing being equal, women are actually heartier than men. “These numbers tell us, quietly, a terrible story of inequality and neglect leading to the excess mortality of women.” At the same time, and like Mara Hvistendahl two decades later, Sen cautioned against the axiom that it’s poverty alone that results in a gender imbalance. Rather than development being good for women, it is the inverse that is true: investing in women is good for the economy.

As a quick aside, one might reasonably ask, in light of what we’ve discussed previously, whether fewer women mean a smaller population. Might this help our youth bulge problem? Well, no. Not anymore than it increases the prevalence of male bi-curiousness. Two distinct types of fertility patterns currently contribute to population growth in the developing world. “Some developing states, such as Nigeria (6.5 lifetime births per woman) and the DRC (6.6 lifetime births per woman), continue to have high fertility rates. Such nations will continue to grow for at least two more generations. Other developing states, such as Brazil (2.5 total fertility rate), Mexico (3.1), Egypt (3.6), China (1.8), India (3.4), and Indonesia (2.7) have reduced their fertility rates but will continue to see population growth for at least another generation because of population momentum.” In other words, the high fertility rates of the previous generation mean that we can expect population growth even in the absence of a balanced population.

I want to wrap this up, but I do think it’s worth delving into why this issue is so little discussed in the West. After all, we’re talking about reproductive rights and gender empowerment, right? This should be catnip to progressive donors. At least, so it would seem. But there is an elephant in the room, and that elephant’s name is Abortion Rights. Activists and well-meaning NGO types such as myself will be hard-pressed to identify sex selection as a human rights issue as long as it feels like we might also be curtaining a woman’s right to choose. In Unnatural Selection, the author even goes so far as to suggest that those in developing countries should not be allowed to know the gender of their child so long as there is a risk of sex selection. And, as troubling as I find the idea of culling girls from the population, sweet fancy pants, but does that feel paternalistic in the worst traditions of humanitarian aid (many of which the author had spent much of her book decrying).

This is, however, a limited way to approach the topic. Ms. Hvistendahl herself notes that “…when societies liberalise abortion laws, they tend to improve access to contraception as well, so that with the right not to give birth comes the right not to get pregnant in the first place. But in Asia and much of Eastern Europe, where family planning policies were developed without concern for the needs of women and abortion was introduced as a crash population control method rather than as a backup to contraception, legal abortion has instead meant more abortion.” So, if in conjunction with improving prenatal care and access to safe options to terminate pregnancies, as much or more emphasis is placed on improving the place of women and girls and ensuring the ready availability of multiple methods of birth control, we might be able to have our cake and eat it, too. I know that this is pretty simplistic, but I think it would be infinitely more beneficial to reach for all options rather than to either continue to ignore the absence of more than one million or take deliberate steps back in prenatal care.





Finally, because it’s very difficult for me to bring up abortions and regressions in reproductive rights without bringing up the US, let me direction your attention to this slightly old but still amazing piece. It’s all about women’s rights and reproductive health and faith and made me tear up, which is not often something I say about Esquire.

To be totally completest, you might also be interesting in reading about how some Afghan families are dealing with their own gender imbalance that skews the other way (a standard legacy of long-running conflict). And no matter where we turn our gaze, we are confronted with the inescapable fact that the world is hard on little girls.

06 October 2014

Angry young men

Given that this is more or less how this extended reflection began, I thought it worth noting that the BBC and Washington Post alike seem to think we’re going to hell in a hand basket.

As, apparently, does my mother. She and I had a rather fraught discussion recently about whether or not Islam was an inherently violent religion. I fell adamantly on the shenangins, not more so than any other side of this debate (do we know how to leverage our limited and valuable skype time or what?!). Instead, I postulated that much of the violence we see stemming from purportedly Islamic sources has more to do with other conflict drivers that are masked and legitimized by faith. We’ve been over a few of these – relative economic deprivation and increased commodity competition spring to mind – but possibly one of the most critical, especially in the Middle East, is demographic shifts.

The field of security demographics is a rich one, with a wealth of sub-topics including the mass urbanization that we touched on briefly before. It could also include diversity (or a dangerous lack thereof), immigration (legal and otherwise, internal and external), sub-replacement birth rates in developed countries, as well as the impact of pandemics likes HIV/AIDS. Let’s take, as a quick illustrative example: the issue of population movements. Mass migration of people can result in all kinds of interesting collisions, like say an influx of poor people to affluent areas (as in the case of urbanization), thereby highlighting relative deprivation (which, if you recall, is more of a conflict driver than absolute deprivation), or perhaps the creation of a diaspora which enables a home-country conflict to run overlong (Sri Lanka, we’re looking at you). Per the RAND Corporation, “demographic factors can also help cause conflicts…The most likely mechanisms through which this could happen would be mass migrations or refugee flows in politically tense regions, the creation of ideological revolutions in large states, or the outbreak of ethnic conflict in states with an intermixed pattern of ethnic settlements.”

Which is all well and good and super interesting, but not actually what I’d like to talk about (surprise, surprise). Instead, let’s talk about the fellas. Yes – the gents of the world, with all their strength and intelligence and energy – violent, angry, anarchic energy. Think I’m overstating things? Take this on for size - that section of the male population aged (depending on who you ask) 15-24/29, who I shall now refer to with gleeful misandry as Angry Young Men, are a key indicator for conflict and have been for a VERY LONG TIME (do not believe this article with it refers to this phenomenon as underappreciated).

According to one Mr. Richard Cincotta of Population Action International (which I feel a little icky about linking to in this context, for reasons I will eventually explain), “from continent to continent and across race and religion, the ‘demographic’ of insurgency, ethnic conflict, terrorism, and state-sponsored violence holds constant. The vast majority of recruits are young men, most of them out of school and out of work. It is a formula that hardly varies, whether in the scattered hideouts of Al Qaeda, on the backstreets of Baghad or Port-au-Prince, or in the rugged mountains of Macedonia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, or eastern Colombia.” That’s quite a statement, but it’s backed by some pretty serious historical precedent. Going back even further, we find a bevy of conflicts linked with disproportionately large populations of young men, including the civil war in mædieval Portugal, the 17th century English Revolution, the French Revolution, the Spanish conquest of the Americas, and the rise of the Nazi party in Germany.

The Peace Research Institute of Oslo has even found that an increase of just one per cent in a given youth population results in a four per cent increase in the likelihood that country will experience conflict. Furthermore, when youth make up more than 35 per cent of the adult population, the risk of conflict is 150 per cent higher. When it goes up to 40 per cent, the correlating stat jumps to 250 times more likely to experience an outbreak of civil conflict than countries with lower proportions of young adults.

Why for? As with climate change, AYM are probably best understood as insecurity multipliers: male youth bulges can exacerbate conditions like unemployment or poverty or resource scarcity to create social unrest. This surge of adolescents virtually guarantees that the number of educated young persons will outpace job growth, leaving even bookish young men underemployed, frustrated, and resentful of those who enjoy the opportunities they lack. While not the overt cause of armed conflict, these demographic factors can facilitate recruitment into insurgent organizations and extremist networks or into militias and political gangs— now among the major employers of young men and the main avenues of political mobility in weaker countries. And because a youth bulge usually occurs in rapidly growing populations where fertility is high, where women have low status, and where vital services are limited, a youthful demographic is often accompanied by other potentially destabilizing demographic forces and adverse social and economic conditions. For example, nearly all of the countries with a large youth bulge are also undergoing a rapid rate of urban growth (more than three per cent per year), contributing to urban decay and sprawling slums. This can go all kinds of interesting places, including discussing how HIV/AIDS skews the youth bulge even younger. But we already have more than enough on our plate, so let’s soldier on.

It is perhaps helpful to take a fairly broad view of unemployment in this context, embracing not only true joblessness, but also underemployment, working poverty, and (perceived) disenfranchisement. The employment caveat is not in any way insignificant or imagined, as young people account for just about 60 per cent of the global poor and 40 per cent of the unemployed. This is wildly out of proportion to their share of the working-age population – a mere 25 per cent.

Egypt and the Arab Spring are, apparently, also good case study here (the gift that keeps on giving), as the population of Egypt now has roughly 20 million more people than did the entirety of the 18-state Middle East in the 1950s. That’s bananas. On a municipal level, Cairo is the most populous metropolitan area on the African continent, and one of the most densely populated cities in the world. As you might expect, such a recent population explosion also means that we’re looking a massive youth bulge. This is especially true of Egypt, where some 54 per cent of the population is under 24. There are 24 million Egyptians who are between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine, also referred to in the demographic security field as ‘fighting age’ (that’s not ominous at all. Thanks, demographers!). To cap it all off, the Middle East has the dubious honour of boasting some of the highest unemployment rates in the world. Focusing in on Egypt again (which rather fabulously provides free higher education), its population is not only young and un- or underemployed, but also highly educated (and therefore more likely to be dissatisfied), and terrifically savy with social media (so apt to more readily organise). Right there, we’ve got the motive (education, lack of work), means (social media, lack of work), and energy (youth and anger) to foster the Arab Spring and subsequent social unrest.

Each of these risk factors is related to the demographic transition—a process that all countries either have gone or are going through, taking them from a population typified by short lives and large families to one with long lives and small families. About one-third of the world’s countries are still in the early parts of their transition, with the average family size exceeding four children per woman (it’s 6.6 in Congo). If the high-fertility northern states of India are included, these regions are home to nearly 1.5 billion of the world’s 6.4 billion people.

In the early stages of the demographic transition, women typically work in and around the home, boys stay in school far longer than girls, and the average citizen lacks basic knowledge of and access to vital public health services. By the transition’s end, women have been well integrated into the urban workforce, infant and maternal mortality are rare, and contraception is widely available through public and private channels (by some of these standards, the US is still transitioning). Drops in the birth rate ultimately translate to a slowdown in the growth rate of adolescents looking for jobs and an increase in the population’s average age. Progress through the demographic transition, meanwhile, has been traditionally associated with increased internal stability, if potentially loss of regional hegemony. I believe it was the gent from PRI who claimed that, “as (Western) populations decline, either absolutely or relatively, their economic clout in the form of percentage of global gross domestic product declines as well.” I see where you’re going with this – as the developed world has less of an economic hold over the rest of the world and reduced militaries (declining birth rates, remember), they won’t be able to manage the developing world with either carrots or sticks. The horror!

If it’s all youth, why for do I and others keep harping on men? PRIO also observed that ‘generally it has been observed that young males are the main protagonists of criminal as well as political violence’. Globally, AYM are responsible for 75 per cent of all violent crimes (as well as being the leading victims of the same). Especially for those who lack prospects in the traditional job market, the cost-benefit calculations for joining a gang or radical organisation or political movement alters rather drastically. Simply put, large, unemployed, poor AYM have a negative effect on security and are more likely to aggravate social unrest.

If this seems a bit reductivist, and possibly edging into Christopher Nolan fantasy territory, well, fair enough. Discussions in this field come with a heavy dose of fear-mongering to be sure. Even so, if we accept this base premise – that large populations, especially those with lots of young men, are scary – the answer seems simple. Let’s invest in family planning, and everything will turn out alright, yes? Not so fast! Because it’s not just a question of youth bulges, right? It’s also about gender. Increasingly, it seems that young men as a proportion of society might well matter more than young people at large. Indeed, the perennial favourites when discussing gender imbalance are China and India, which are actually close to replacement birth rates (1.8 and 3.4, respectively. Okay, so close-ish). It might not therefore be (just) straight youth bulges, but skewed sex ratios we have to worry about.

The go-to reference when it comes to sex rations is probably Mara Hvistendahl’s Unnatural Selection. It’s both delightful and terrifying and you should go read it now. “For as long as they have counted births, demographers have noted that on average 105 boys are born for every 100 girls. This is our natural sex ration at birth…that more boys are born is itself a form of balance, neatly making up for the fact that males are more likely to die young.” However, in several states in what we might somewhat patronizingly call the transitioning world – somewhere between developing and developed. Up-and-coming world? – you have reasonably low fertility rates but massively skewed sex rations. I’m not exaggerating. “For example, in China the sex ratio for children up through age 4 is over 120:100 (120 boys for every 100 girls), according to the 2000 census…In India the sex ratio for children up through age 6 has increased over the past decade from 105.8 to 107.9, though this masks the fact that certain Indian states have much worse ratios -- 126 in Punjab, for example.”

In Unnatural Selection, it is estimated that had Asia’s sex ratio at birth remained at its natural equilibrium over the past few decades, “the continent would have an additional 163 million females…If 160 million women were missing from the US population, you would notice – 160 million is more than the entire female population of the US.” Indeed, when taken together, India and China have such large populations with such pronounced gender imbalance that they are able to skew the global sex ratio to 107, despite the fact that women outnumber men in most of the rest of the world. India and China are not alone, of course. Other countries of concern include Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Taiwan, Afghanistan, South Korea, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia.

As one might imagine, gender imbalance couples rather unfavourably with youth bulges in that it swings them rather dramatically into AYM territory. After all, if you have a young, agitated population that is predominately composed of men, one of the great ameliorating factors to the AYM phenomenon – marriage – is effectively neutralised. This might sound hopelessly old fashioned, but it’s actually borne out by science: unmarried men have higher testosterone levels than do married men. Moreover, testosterone-rich people of both genders are more likely to express violent tendencies in some ways. “Bachelors between the ages of 24 and 35 are three times as likely to murder another man as a married man of the same age,” even when you control for other variables like socioeconomic status.

Our dour demographers refer to these unmarried/unmarriageable individuals as ‘surplus men’: the ones left over in the thought experiment in which everyone who can marry does so. They also point out that, all things being equal, surplus men are more likely to be relatively economically disadvantaged as, in a gender-imbalanced world, potential wives become yet another scare resource. The Chinese term for these extraneous fellows is apparently bare branches; an evocative term that conjures an image of those mightn’t bear fruit, but can yet find utility as clubs. This, of course, brings us back full-circle to men who, for a whole host of reasons we have now explored, do not feel fully woven into the fabric of society and therefore seek out other disaffect youth to build a community of their own. “Sociologists have found that the ‘risky shift’ in group behaviour, where a group is willing to take greater risks and engage in more reckless behaviour than an individual member of the group, is much more pronounced in groups comprised of unattached young adult males…After examining the evidence, some predictions can be made for societies with rising sex ratios: crime rates will increase; rates of drug use, drug smuggling, weapons smuggling, trafficking, and prostitution will increase” (see what I mean? It’s like all that’s missing from this description is a kangaroo court presided over by Scarecrow).

In an interesting and possibly racist article, two WashPo authors suggest that China, seeing the Egyptian writing on the wall, will attempt a very different and much more pre-emptive response to their own AYM. Recognizing that even they are facing an economic slow-down (that any self-respecting mass of AYM would respond to with domestic instability), China is instead trying to coöpt that energy by channelling it into jingoistic ardour. “Faced with worsening instability at home and an unsolvable economic decline, China’s government may well be tempted to use foreign policy to ‘ride the tiger’ of domestic instability. The government’s fanning of nationalist fervour has already been seen in the dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, where large and violent protests around the country were accompanied by the dramatic public destruction of Japanese goods and strong expressed anti-Japanese sentiments.”

Unnatural Selection looks a bit farther down the line, worrying about what gender imbalance today will mean for the societies of tomorrow. To do so, she uses the Old West to explain school shootings today. Even if it seemed to me a bit tenuous, it’s all together too fabulous to ignore. “In 1880….the mining town of Leadville, Colorado had a saloon for every 80 residents, a casino for every 170 residents, and a grothel for every 200 residents (ah, the good old days). Many western towns openly tolerated prostitution in the belief that access to prostitutes would prevent men from assaulting ‘respectable’ women. Each of Leadville’s churches, by contrast, served five thousand people…Leadville counted 105 murders per 100,000 residents in 1880, compared with 5.8 in Boston…In the sex ratio imbalance of the frontier lay the seeds of a nation’s violence.” Basically, we’re headed back to Deadwood.



In my next and final (and hopefully much more timely) instalment of this little series on violence, we’ll take a look at the flip side of skewed sex ratios and consider how the imbalance impacts women, the ugly role of the West in the creation of a global gender imbalance, and why this is such a fraught issue for progressives. It should be good times!

08 September 2014

Falling the way you lean

Returning to our earlier conversation about violence, the GBAV suggested that food insecurity was not a significant contributor to violent conflict, positing that, “while there is an association between lethal violence and hunger (as measure by the prevalence of underweight children under five), it is not statistically robust”. But I think that might miss the boat a bit; historically, food insecurity has been the straw that broke the camel’s back in many a volatile situation. When you then layer climate change and demographic shifts over a topic that’s already intricately linked to politics and conflict, really fascinating things happen. Moreover, at some level, it’s just fun to talk about. I mean, this topic has everything: resource wars! Sugar wars! Miracle fruits! Land grabs! Anoxic dead zones! Conflict chocolate! Bread intifadas! Agflation (it’s that thing where agricultural price increases drive up core inflation rates)! And DRC is smack dab in the middle of it.

But first, let’s get a bit of context about food security generally. Globally, nearly 100 million people do not have enough to eat. This is not an evenly distributed burden; 65 per cent of world’s food insecure people live in India, China, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, Ethiopia, and, yes, DRC (it’s always a little weird to me that several of these are troop contributors to the UN). Each year, more people die due to hunger and malnutrition than to AIDS, TB, and malaria combined.

Given how tremendously inventive people are when it comes to killing each other, it really shouldn’t be surprising that food has routinely been leveraged in war. Most immediately, we’re seeing this technique employed with devastating efficiency in Syria, though in Sudan the government has also been known to purposefully bomb rebel areas at harvest time, while for their part, the rebels tend to raid humanitarian convoys for food aid targeted at IDPs. Indeed, the use of food as a strategic weapon has a proud martial history. Texts as venerable as Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Vegetius’s De Re Militari advocate denying the enemy food. What else is siege warfare by man-made famine by another name?

Now that we’ve established food insecurity as an agent of violence, let’s turn our focus to how it also engenders conflict. Equal parts unfortunate and unsurprising, we have a wealth of precedent to work with here, too. Most often, though, here it goes the other way. Food insecurity as a result of conflict tends to be imposed by a conquering force or despot. Food insecurity as a driver of conflict instead seems to spark populist outrage.

Take the so-called bread intifada of 1977. It stemmed from an attempt, begun three years earlier, by Anwar El Sadat to open Egypt’s economy to outside investment. The full set of reforms, or Infitah, called for de-nationalising a variety of sectors and ultimately cancelling roughly 30 million USD worth of subsidies, especially on food. Only a day after the roll-back on subsidies was announced, demonstrations erupted in the streets. There were factory walk-outs, clashes with police, acts of sabotage including the cutting of railway lines, looting of hotels and other institutes associated with wealth. Within just two days, rioting had broken out in most major cities across Egypt. “Shocked by the intensity and rapid spread of the protests, the government cancelled its economic decrees …after only forty-eight hours. In an attempt to contain unrest, it ordered a military crackdown and deployed army units in to the streets who responded to unrest ferociously. Fighting continued until the next morning.” Between the rioters and the viciousness of the police response, some 800 people were killed and hundreds more injured.

The bread intifada was just one instance of violence from the period, which actually saw as many as 200 riots in 40 countries, most of which were blamed on the IMF (it and donor countries demanded budget cuts to ensure continued support, and food subsidies were among the first things to go). What became known as the ‘IMF riots’ were actually a diversity of events that included demonstrations, looting, and in at least two instances (Sudan and Peru), regime change.

Craving more history (go ahead and procrastinate)? How about the French Revolution and one of the most infamous (if apocryphal) food security faux pas of all time? “Throughout most of the pre-industrial era, French peasants existed at the subsistence level.” The aristocracy, like many modern dictatorships, strictly regulated the grain market in order to ensure that it was affordable, thus ensuring a pliant peasantry. Even so, grain and bread riots were “extremely common in this period. Though often limited in size and scope, these riots sometimes spilled out across an entire region, sparking uprisings in different towns and villages.” It was a bread riot that resulted in the fall of the Bastille on 14 July 1789 and fear of further rioting that forced the fledgling regime to deal harshly with those suspected of hoarding bread. Turing to a History Chanel stand-by, a desire to secure greater food resources for the home country also played a role in both the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the German incursions into Poland (1939) and the USSR (1941). Why someone would bother to invade Russia in the winter in search of food is quite beyond me, but there you have it. Reportedly, both the ancient Mayan and Anasazi peoples experienced higher levels of conflict due to food shortages.

In the majority of these examples, food insecurity was not the lone driver of conflict. Rather, it was gasoline on burning embers of resentment. I say resentment because significant violence very rarely comes from those who are truly starving – those people literally do not have the energy to fight back. Rather, populist riots more often come from perceived inequalities (relative deprivation rather than absolute). In fact, most instances of food-related instability occur after ‘agflation’, or a sudden rise in a given agricultural product independent of other economic factors, usually as a result of subsidies being dropped or tariffs imposed. It doesn’t really matter whether or not Marie Antoinette said ‘let them eat cake’. What is important was that people felt the leadership was out of touch. Consistently when it comes to food, perceptions trump reality. When food – or similar consumables like water or fuel – become abruptly more expensive without a comparable increase in wages, the regime is blamed (deserved or no) and bedlam follows.

If you want to predict where political instability, revolution, coups d’etat, or interstate warfare will occur, the best factor to keep an eye on is not GDP, the HDI, or energy prices,” but the price of grain (I think I already linked to that article, but it’s still a keeper). A sudden deprivation of food has a way of throwing other injustices and abuses – corruption, repression, ethnic tensions, etc. – into stark relief. To paraphrase Cervantes, it seems that without sufficient bread, all sorrows are worse. Such was the case in the recent anti-government protests in Venezuela and Thailand. On a grander scale, 2007 and 2008 saw a rather dramatic rise in the cost of staple food items including rice, wheat, and corn. “Between 2005 and 2011, world prices for rice, wheat, and maize rose 102, 115, and 204 per cent, respectively, according to the FAO.” In response, there were riots in countries ranging from Haiti to Bangladesh, from Mozambique to Italy.

Relative food insecurity has also been pegged as a precipitating factor in the Arab Spring (so, food shortages sparked a conflict that ultimately has resulted in the use of famine as a weapon of war. Life is funny like that), as the first demonstrations occurred in response to food price hikes in Algeria and Tunisia. In Egypt, of bread intifada fame, “by 2011 food and fuel subsidies accounted for a staggering 8 per cent of Egypt’s GDP. Hosni Mubarak’s government could no longer afford to feed his population into submission. Even with subsidies, grain prices jumped 30 per cent in Egypt between 2010 and 2011.” States that were able tried to head off their own instability by increase food allocations. Kuwait, for example, announced that it would celebrate the anniversary of its liberation from Iraq by granting every citizen more than 3,000USD and free food for 13 months. This is a pretty extreme, and terrifically literal, example of the bread and circuses paradigm in action and woe be to the autocratic government that can’t do the same (they could, of course, try to liberalise a bit and let the humanitarians come in and take the edge off. Call it the Myanmar principal).

If we take as a given that resource shortages – especially abrupt scarcities among essential commodities – can lead to social unrest, what does that mean for the future (stars, but I’m really into rhetorical questions of late)? For most political theorists, the answer is nothing good, especially in the face of two seemingly inescapable trends: demographic and climate changes.

Sometime in the near future, we’ll have a more in-depth discussion of global demographic patterns, especially shifting gender imbalances. For the moment, however, let us content ourselves to these three observations: (1) global population is increasing; (2) it is growing more affluent; (3) it is urbanizing. Put another way, the global middle class is expanding – it could as much as triple in the next 40 some odd years – and it is, as the middle class always has, claiming as a right what has traditionally been a luxury, like meat and dairy in every meal. In half that time, the demand for food and fuel is expected to double. This is not a criticism – having access to affordable health care, decent living conditions, sufficient food, etc., are all good things (though it is creating the very strange effect of obesity epidemics in food-insecure states. Is anyone else sensing the perfectly manicured hand of Dr. Raven Sable and his CHOWTM?). Unfortunately, the amount of arable land or water resources are not expanding in time with the size and taste profile of population (quite the opposite) and, thanks to that wildly thorough history lesson we just had, we know what happens when people are abruptly deprived of a commodity to which they feel entitled.

Water is perhaps the best illustration of this. On an annual basis, the supply of drinking water as provided by natural precipitation remains more or less constant: about 40,000 cubic kilometres or…a lot of gallons. Unfortunately, most of this precipitation lands on largely uninhabited areas – think Greenland, Antarctica, Siberia, and inner Amazonia – so the supply available to the rest of us is often surprisingly limited. Even were it accessible, the consistency of the supply of drinking water runs afoul of a population with ever-mounting demands for both personal and industrial uses, resulting in a situation of relative scarcity. The same is true of food, since that’s been the topic of the day. Corn yields in the US and rice yields in China have ‘flat-lined’ in recent years, suggesting that we might have topped out the amount of food that can be grown on the land currently in use even as the global demand for the same continues to increase. Danger, Will Robinson!

But these demographics are honestly nothing (at least to my mind) when compared to climate change. It is not an exaggeration to state that all aspects of food security are potentially affected by climate change. In fact, can we pause for a moment and consider just how horrifying climate change has the potential to be? A recent IPCC report on the subject (the UN: not always worthless) paints a pretty dire scene, illustrating how climate change is projected to decrease potable water (basically, even rain water will be too toxic to treat into drinkability), breathable air (as increased tree mortality and forest dieback result in anoxic dead zones posing risks for carbon storage, biodiversity, wood production, water quality, amenity, and economic activity. Seriously – how traumatic is that sentence?), arable land (and other kinds, what with most of the world’s coasts soon to go the way of Atlantis), food (with toxic rain, anoxic dead zones, and sea-bead farmland, is that even surprising?), energy, and numerous, numerous other critical consumables. It’s 100+ pages of voices crying out in a wilderness that soon will no long exist (and my PMs think I’m bananas to request that we start thinking about how to ‘green’ our projects for future proposals…pft).

Generally, when one discusses climate change and violence, it has to do with the more structural aspects. What are often referred to in development work as the ‘most vulnerable’, that is, the impoverished, refugees and IDPs, the disabled and infirm, the elderly, often women and children, etc., are also the most vulnerable to climate change. Per the UN report, people who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally, or otherwise marginalised are especially vulnerable to climate change and also to some adaption and mitigation responses. They will not have the resources or capacities to absorb the shocks of climate change, like the loss of agricultural livelihoods, reduced access to potable water, or increase of certain, climate-sensitive illnesses (cholera and malaria come right to mind).

But there are some outcomes of this issue – basically, that there isn’t enough food/water/oil to go around – that are a lot more immediate in terms of conflict. I think it’s easy to get hyperbolic about these things sometimes, but as a particularly vivid writer at The Nation warns us:

          Two nightmare scenarios – a global scarcity of vital resources and the onset of extreme climate                      change – are already beginning to converge and in the coming decades are likely to produce a tidal                wave of unrest, rebellion, competition, and conflict…experts warn of ‘water wars’ over contested                river systems, global food riots sparked by soaring prices for life’s basics, mass migrations of climate            refugees (with resulting anti-migrant violence), and the breakdown of social order or the collapse of              states. At first, such mayhem is likely to arise largely in Africa, Central Asia, and other areas of the                underdeveloped South, but in time, all regions of the planet will be affected.

I keep waiting for there to be a Chicken Little joke in this article, but no, it was presented in earnest. Even so, it does point out that scarcity in one area can lead to conflict in another. A timely example can been found by taking a peak at the fraught world of land grabs.

Land grabs, for those not in the know, are instances of land acquisition that, to some extent, cause displacement, dispossession, and disenfranchisement, or pass purchase of agricultural land by external entities. Put another way, land grabs occur when an entity that does not live on/work a given parcel of land – say the national government – sells that land to another external actor – like another country or a transnational corporation – without consulting the local population or reimbursing them for their losses or resettlement. For clarity’s sake, let me make explicit that, in these cases, there is NO BENEFIT to the local population, who are almost uniformly impoverished (their lack of political power makes their rights less important to the state and thus more easily violated – what ho, structural violence!) and women (I think I already said something about lacking political power and structural violence?).

The perpetrators of land grabs are varied but, as you might expect, include comparatively wealthy, food-importing countries (Saudia Arabia and China) and transnational corporations from even more affluent states (Europe and the US, mostly). The former tends to purchase land so that they might more cheaply meet demand back home, while the latter tends to use the parcels to source biofuels. This might have a wiff of neo-colonialism about it, and with good reason. It’s frequently lumped in with other forms of ‘commercial colonialism’ and can have extensive negative consequences beyond creating food insecurity and economic IDPs, allowing external actors to co-opt the entire supply-chain. Water security is compromised for locals, in competition as they suddenly are with massive agricultural needs. Further, farming on this scale often creates pollution and chemical run-off which can contaminate additional water sources. In order to clear large tracts of land for industrial farming, hundreds of square miles of forests might be burnt or swamps drained, all of which reduces biodiversity. It has occurred predominately, though not exclusively (Chinese firms previously purchased a plot of land the size of Luxembourg in Argentina, as well as about giver per cent of the total territory in Ukraine. Russia should take some lessons in acquisitions), in Africa, where over 40 million hectares of land have been purchased in Sudan, Ethiopia, and Sierra Leone, to name but a few.

To bring into stark(er) relief just how problematic land grabs are, let’s look at those latter cases a bit closer. In 2010 Ethiopia was home to 2.8 million people in need of emergency food aid, yet this country had concurrently sold more than 600,000 hectares of agricultural land to transnational companies that export the majority of their produce. A separate deal inked with Saudi Arabia and worth 100 million USD offered centennial leases to grow and export rice, wheat, and barley. Meanwhile, the WFP has spent 116 million over 5 years in emergency food aid. Apparently, no one in the Ethiopian government has taken an economics course. Like, ever. Upwards of 30 countries and companies have leased land within Ethiopia. Meanwhile, in Sierra Leone, the EU firm Addax Bioenergy promised that, in exchange for 40,000 hectares on which to grow crops for use as biofuels, they would employ 2,000 persons they had displaced and promised that the swamps included in their purchase would be protected. Instead, the swamps were drained and only 50 jobs created.

For our purposes, though, the most interesting attempt at a land grab can be found in Madagascar. There, in 2009, Daewoo Logistics, a South Korean agriculture firm, leased half the island’s arable land. The details of the agreement were astounding – the land would be rent-free, all of the food grown would be exported, and the displaced farmers were not to be compensated. The people rioted, ultimately resulting in a coup.

Even the US intelligence community is starting to take notice. In March of last year, the Director of National Intelligence identified ‘competition and scarcity involving natural resources’ (his specific use of the term ‘resource shocks’ had definite notes of agflation) as potential national security threats on a par with global terrorism, cyberwar, and nuclear proliferation. For what it’s worth, though, it will most likely be some time before the US feels the pinch of food scarcity (with the exception of foodie staples like limes and avocados). One in that slew of articles linked to referred to it as the Saudi Arabia of grain (Iowa alone grows more grain than all of Canada!), which is both nicely evocative and suggests a future in which we focus on feeding ourselves and leave the rest of the world to burn.

27 August 2014

From my inbox

I'm still preoccupied by trends in violence and will return to that soon enough, but this appeared in my inbox this morning and I can't help but share:

No touching of dead antelope or snogging of live gorillas - check!

You do have to admit to being a bit impressed - within a day or so of two confirmed cases 1000km away, the local MoH is already papering the town in preventative literature. If you had to pick a massively underdeveloped and conflict-torn country in which to sit out an Ebola outbreak, Congo would be a pretty solid choice. After all, they've been dealing with it since the 1970s. As our staff doctor noted in a 'let's not panic, people' presentation to the staff this morning, Ebola was discovered in Equateur Province (that's where the confirmed cases are). It was even named for a local river. I did think he was getting a bit cheeky when he suggested it would be stranger if there weren't a handful of active cases there, but his point was well taken.

Even so, the staff has mostly opted to cease greeting one another with a hand shake or head tap (have I mentioned how the Congolese tap temples - left, right, left - as a particularly affectionate greeting? It's rather like a very aggressive bis). Instead, we've been tapping our feet. I'm unconvinced about the efficacy of this as a preventative measure, especially after we'd all been sitting shoulder to shoulder and singing in one another's faces, but it seems to amuse the staff, so what the hell. Foot taps for everyone!

25 August 2014

Storm chasers

We were talking about violence – let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

The world is not going to hell in a hand basket, at least not immediately and despite considerable evidence to the contrary. Most measures of violence, including conflict and homicide, are exhibiting positive trends on negative trajectories. But this might be because we’re looking at the wrong horizon; we could well be missing the storm gathering in front of us as we’re too busy looking back, congratulating ourselves on what we just survived. It doesn’t necessarily follow that violent acts will continue to diminish, and even if they do, there will still likely be blips and backsliding and periods of man’s inhumanity to man that will need to be addressed by the international community (one hopes. The stunning failure of R2P has really left me disheartened, as did this suggestion. HAS HISTORY TAUGHT US NOTHING ABOUT PARTERNING WITH MONSTERS?! DO NOT ACCEPT THE PRINCE AS YOUR IR DOCTRINE, OBAMA). We can (again, hopefully) anticipate these same blips and plan out our reactions accordingly by analysing current trends in violence. So what are these trends, and how do we use them to forecast what awaits in the clouds before us?

Let us start with the excellently thorough Global Burden of Armed Violence from the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development. This sucker is the gold standard in discussing violence, along with the Small Arms Survey, and it deserves a much closer read than I gave it. The discussion that follows is, in the interests of full disclosure, mostly taken from the 2011 report, but some stuff from 2008 might have snuck in here.

Where the findings from the HSR were mostly rosy – things have gotten so much better over the past 10,000 years! – the GBoAV strikes a more measured tone, informing us that “at least 526,000 people have died directly or indirectly from armed violence – both conflict and criminal violence – every year in recent years (for what it’s worth, this was down by some 200,000 from 2008). One in every ten of all reported violent deaths around the world occurs in so-called conflict settings or during terrorist activities.”

Two quick notes about their data – first, they only use direct conflict deaths, though they do acknowledge that indirect conflict deaths (like those from conflict-related malnutrition and hunger, cholera, measles, and other preventable causes of morbidity and mortality) are “certainly the largest portion of the burden of conflict deaths.” A conservative estimate of the indirect/direct ratio is 4:1. And the case study for this? Our own fair Congo (though the next time around, it will probably be Syria), where at the turn of the century the International Rescue Committee “launched a major effort to better understand the human costs of armed conflict in the DRC.” Based on some six surveys that stretched from 1998 to 2007, IRC estimates that 5.4 million people died as a result of conflict. That is a staggering number of people in a very short timeframe; possibly without precedent in a nation that is no stranger to death on a grand scale (here is where I again suggest the excellent King Leopold’s Ghost, which explains that during its stint as the personal fiefdom of King Leopold and immediate aftermath – a period that stretches roughly from 1880 to 1920, the population of the territory was reduced by at least half. Half of what, you rightly wonder? “Only in the 1920s were the first attempts made at a territory-wide census. In 1924 the population was reckoned at ten million, a figured confirmed by later counts. This would mean that during the Leopold period and its immediate aftermath the population of the territory dropped by approximately ten million people,” most of whom died from ‘indirect’ causes including disease, exhaustion, and malnourishment). The primary approach IRC utilised to determine its death toll was a ‘verbal autopsy’ – a randomized household survey (it cost a heroic amount of money and gets our Health Advisor riled up whenever OCHA demands to know why we don’t have more specific M&M data). A number of folks – including our friends at the HSR Project – have challenged this figure and the use of survey-based approaches to calculating mortality rates, claiming that IRC overestimated ‘excess deaths’ by almost 60%. Without getting too much into the nitty gritty (too late now!), it boils down to an argument over baseline crude mortality rates (CMR). For what it’s worth, the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters calculated a CMR in line with what the IRC was using, though they did note that “the overall CMR in all provinces in the DRC has decreased or remained stable over the past decade”, which only makes sense, as the lion’s share of the high-intensity conflicts have abated.

It’s a bit hypocritical of me to point the above out, considering I was so blithely dismissive of structural violence last week, but it is what it is.

Second, the report is necessary limited to recoded conflict deaths. They have a fascinating case study of Yemen in this regard – basically explaining that their own statistics for Yemen are profoundly undercounting violent deaths. I frequently bemoan how difficult it is to get people to care about Congo, but yikes, is Yemen even a profoundly forgotten conflict (you should probably go read about it. I’ll wait).

So, steadfast in the knowledge that the numbers we’re working with actually rather dramatically downplay the costs of conflict in human lives, let us move forward. Though the global average of violent deaths is about 7.9 per 100,000, at least 58 countries “exhibit violent death rates above 10” and account for almost two-thirds of all violent deaths. “Of the top 14 states most affected by armed violence (with violent death rates exceeding 30 per 100,000 population), only five have more than 1,000 conflict deaths in an average year (Colombia, DRC, Iraq, Sri Lanka, and Sudan).” Put another way, the majority of violent deaths (90 per cent!) do not occur as a direct result of conflict or in a conflict setting. Even so, one-third of the most violent states were either actively experiencing an armed conflict or had recently emerged from one and both kinds of violence (conflict and non-conflict, as if that was all that mattered) disproportionately impact the developing world, especially Africa (both) and Central and South America (non-conflict, in this case homicidal violence).

Yet another note about methodology (I’m super into semantics for some unknown reason): as you observant readers might have noticed, the report makes a distinction between conflict deaths and ‘intentional homicides’ that occur in a non-conflict environment. So…what is it when you have a homicide in an IDP camp, for example? In reading the GBoAV, I was reminded of an incident in Kabul when a series of shootings near our based sparked security warnings out the wazoo, but ultimately turned out to be more of a Hatfield/McCoy thing than insurgent action. “It is often difficult in fragile and post-conflict contexts to determine whether a death can be attributed exclusively to organized or interpersonal violence, or to political or economic motivations. Killings that are believed to be motivated by political or economic objectives may be the result of both or neither. In countries ranging from Afghanistan and Yemen to Mexico and Nigeria, the merging of organized criminal violence with armed conflicts of varying intensity renders a simple binary distinction between ‘conflict’ and ‘non-conflict’ meaningless.” How illuminating.

What are a few of the somewhat more concrete trends that the report teases out? Most violent deaths (as many as 60 per cent of all homicides) are the result of firearms. Most victims of violent deaths are men, though that varies dramatically by region. “In ‘high-violence’ countries, women generally account for about 10 per cent of the victims, while they represent up to 30 per cent in ‘low-violence’ countries. This suggests that intimate partner violence does not necessarily rise and fall with other forms of armed violence, and may not decline as other forms of armed violence are reduced.” Isn’t that peachy? Kidnap-for-ransom is a growing phenomenon, with approximately 1425 cases reported in 2007 in Latin America Asia, Africa, and the Middle East (this is a bit the problem with this field. I look at 2007 and say to myself, sweet fancy pants, this data is ancient! How can I possibly blog about it? Which is both somewhat valid and completely ridiculous, as the report was only published in 2011 – so, not ancient – and is intended to be cumulative. It’s rather like that time in grad school that I was dinged by a prof. for not updating a paper to include an analysis of events that had occurred the morning said paper was due).

One development that enjoyed quite a bit of print space in both the GBoAV and the HSR before it is the upswing in non-state violence. In fact, this is one of the few trends that is not decreasing in either comparative or absolute terms and most conflicts today involved at least one non-state actor (depending on how you define it, this category can include such a profoundly diverse group of characters as the army formerly known as Blackwater, Los Zetas, ISIS, and, for good measure, the LRA. No wonder it’s so sexy). Oddly, it seems that non-state conflicts are also becoming some of the most intense. Per the HSR – “battle deaths from non-state armed conflicts increased more than threefold from 2007 to 2011.” I think this one captures so much attention in the academic realm because of its implications for the state system; there’s a lot of speculation that we’re witnessing the dissolution of the state’s monopoly of the legitimate use of violence. Harkening back to the last post, were this trend both real and sustained, it would undermine Pinker’s first critical explanation for our march toward utopia. But it’s not just Pinker – this goes back to Weber as a necessary condition for the modern state-centric system. This reading is perhaps a touch hyperbolic – I don’t think that our use of the state as the foundation of the international system will end any time soon, but I do think it explains why so many states stagnate.

On the flip side of the coin, we have a goodly number of states non-legitimately using their monopoly on violence (in the coming years, I think it will be absolutely fascinating to read about how the militarisation of American police plays into this narrative). “In some regions, the state (or state agents) commit or are implicated in acts of armed violence. At least 30 states register more than 50 reported extrajudicial killings per year (at the time, that list did not include the US). Forced disappearances occur ‘frequently’ in more than a dozen countries and ‘occasionally’ in 20 others (from what I could tell, the US was also not included in these totals, despite our heinous and profoundly illegal tendency to render people and their families).

The HSR reminded us that, though state-sanctioned violence might well be waning, “governments often are the greatest threats to human security when the turn against their own citizens.” This alone forces me to remain sceptical of their entire ‘better angels’ argument; as long as the international community is willing to allow a despot to starve literally hundreds of thousands of his own people to death with little more than an tut-tut and artificial lines in the sand about how all of those people are killed, there are no angels. It’s not even putting a Band-Aid on a lost limb – it’s walking past someone who was just hit by a car and murmuring that someone should really call 911, and you would, but you just can’t use your minutes for just anything.

In a finding that is not altogether surprising, but does sometimes require reinforcement, GBoAV notes that “the aftermath of war does not necessarily bring a dramatic reduction in armed violence. In certain circumstances, post-conflict societies have experienced rates of armed violence that exceed those of the conflicts that preceded them.” This ties back into the link between violence and development. In what is a depressingly well-established cycle, conflict undermines development which can lead to rises in criminality and inter-personal violence which in turn tend to coalesce into formal conflict. Indeed, post-conflict states run a 20-25 per cent risk of relapsing into war. “So long as such countries must contend with high youth bulges (exceeding 60 per cent of the total population), soaring rates of unemployment, and protracted displacement, the risks of renewed armed conflict remain high.” (And we’re going to look at some of these aggravating factors soon, mostly ‘cause I’m a little bored and find conflict drivers fascinating). The report goes so far as to caution us that, when one observes a drop in violent deaths in a very recently post-conflict society, it might well be that the conflict in question demolished the surveillance mechanisms which would allow for an accurate tally of homicides and other violent deaths.

Let’s dig into this recidivism a bit more (I baked some brownies this weekend, so I’m well-provisioned to approach bleak topics). We’ve already talked about the conflict cycle somewhat, if I remember right, but it’s still really interesting. For one thing, it’s not a given for many people that the conflict cycle is, in fact, circular at all: many analysts see it as a linear movement from conflict to underdevelopment. “In almost all cases, armed violence generates negative consequences for people’s quality of life and the achievement of the MDGs” across pretty much all the indicators, including HIV/AIDS prevalence, while drops in violence are reflected in improved MDG performance. Moreover, the more intense the violence (generally measured in numbers of deaths), the larger its development gap. “Repeated cycles of violence over the past decades are linked to high poverty rates; in countries experiencing ‘major’ violence at any point during the period 1981 to 2005, poverty rates are, on average, 20 per cent higher than in countries that were minimally or not affected by violence.”

But does it go both ways? “At the micro level, there is mounting evidence that individuals, households, and communities affected by certain forms of armed violence – especially war – tend to underperform in social and economic terms. Similarly, a number of macro-level assessments demonstrate how states plagued with underdevelopment are particularly susceptible to disproportionately high rates of violence.” That would be a yes, then. It’s also worth noting the absolutely staggering economic costs of conflict, which fly a bit in the face of that old chestnut that war is good business. “The annual economic cost of armed violence in non-conflict settings, in terms of lost productivity due to violent deaths…could reach as high as USD 163 billion – 0.14 per cent of the annual global GDP.”

The conflict cycle isn’t exactly rocket science and its whys and wherefores are quite logical: states with epidemic levels of violence spend lavishly on armed/police forces rather than social or economic programming; the aforementioned loss in worker productivity due to death and displacement; actual physical damage to infrastructure; loss of FDI... “In proportional terms, countries that register lower levels of human development exhibit more violence….taken together, approximately one-fifth (19 per cent) of the world’s population resides in lower- and medium-income countries experiencing high and very high levels of lethal violence.”

Elaborating on this theme is the knowledge that “when examined in the aggregate, it is obvious that the global burden of armed violence is weighted unfavourable against the poor. The large majority of the estimated 526,000 people directly killed each year as the result of armed violence reside in low and medium-income settings.” This is especially true with regard to non-conflict armed violence, as high homicide rates are often tagged to extreme poverty and hunger, lower primary education enrolment, and high infant and child mortality. Taken together, the data suggests that violence is not simply correlated to absolute poverty, but to inequality. “Indeed, the higher the concentration of income among the rich, the higher the total levels of homicidal violence (US, I’m looking at you).”

That’s quite a bit of information to digest, and it really only scratches the surface of the scholarship out there. So how is a humble if forward-thinking humanitarian supposed to plan for the next global hotspot? I think the simple answer is that you really can’t. As with so much of social science, the topic of trends in violence is something of a kaleidoscope: ten scholars look at the same set of situations or statistics, and somehow managed to generate 18 theories on the major factor underpinning it and double that number of forecasts or recommendations. We’re all hammers in search of a specific kind of nail.

I didn’t even bother to wade into the discussions surrounding the ‘democracy recession’, conflict minerals, political inequality, internationalisation of intrastate conflicts, etc. etc. All of these are worthy topics deserving of deep reflection and analysis, and I’m not going to do that at all. Instead, we’ll next explore some of my preoccupations – climate change and demographics (I like food and am a chick). In the meantime, have a brownie on me and try not to think too much about conflict chocolate.