It’s hard to believe, but at this very moment an estimated 10% to 20% of the population of Mauritania – 340,000 to 680,000 people – still live in slavery. This is despite the fact that in 2007, the country became the last in the world to outlaw the practice. Anti-slavery activists are arrested and the government acts as if there is no problem. Only one slave owner has been successfully prosecuted.
It’s the nuances of a person’s skin color and family history that determine whether he or she will be free or enslaved. Most slave families in Mauritania consist of dark-skinned people whose ancestors were captured by lighter-skinned Arab Berbers centuries ago. Slaves typically are not bought and sold — only given as gifts, and bound for life. Their offspring automatically become slaves, too.
The Siege of Sarajevo was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. The capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina was besieged by the Army of Republika Srpska from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996 during the Bosnian War. They assaulted the city from the surrounding hills. An estimated 12,000 civilians were killed or went missing.
The Sarajevo Red Line is the name of a memorial event commemorating the Siege’s 20th anniversary. The installation of 11.541 chairs represents the number of people killed in Sarajevo.
It’s a common enough refrain: the poor in rich countries such as the U.S. – or at least the majority of the poor who aren’t homeless – are not really poor. Historically speaking they are better off than their richest ancestors from some centuries ago. They have stuff the Lords of yesteryear could not have imagined. And the same is true if you compare them to the utterly destitute in the Third World.
This story is wrong on many levels:
- First, you need a lot more stuff to be able to earn a decent living in an industrial society than you do in an agricultural one.
- Second, people often think in relative terms when they are asked what “poverty” is, which means that they see poverty not just as absolute destitution but also as the inability to participate in society (poverty is as much a feeling as an objective reality: it’s both a sense of deprivation, inadequacy and exclusion and a lack of nutrition and shelter).
- Third, relative poverty can cause or aggravate absolute poverty: see here and here.
- And fourth, there’s some evidence that relative poverty causes certain harms irrespective of its effects on absolute poverty.
However, none of this seems to persuade those who look at the absolute living standards of the poor in developed countries and compare them to the distant and historical poor. One of the more common arguments: “if the poor in the West are really poor, how come so many of them are fat?” (One example of this argument is here).
The basis of the argument is correct, but not the conclusions drawn from it: the poor in the U.S for instance (but probably in other developed countries as well) are relatively more likely to suffer from overweight (although there are some who contest the data). This is particularly the case for poor women and children:
Even among the homeless in the US – the subset of the poor whose food supply is probably most insecure – one third are obese.
The data seem to give support to those who claim that the poor can’t really be poor: if many of them are obese, they must have abundant food supplies, which means they have a financial surplus. But maybe it’s not abundance but the lack of quality food that causes overweight. Those who are poor and obese may live in neighborhoods where they can’t rely on public transportation as a means to diversify their diet (hence the concept of “food deserts”). Maybe kids in poor neighborhoods can’t enjoy good school meals or healthy exercise in public playgrounds. Maybe poor people also live in unsafe neighborhoods and feel that it’s better to stay inside as much as they can, etc.
Once you’ve considered the possibility that the poor are on average heavier than the rest of us because of reasons likes this, then you’ll understand that they can be both poor and overweight at the same time. Of course, it’s not clear if people will actually eat better and exercise more if they have the options to do so. There’s no single straight line from poverty to obesity, and obesity isn’t just the result of poverty and of the lack of access to healthy food and of physical exercise that it entails. Personal choices also play a role, as does genetics, pollution, lower rates of smoking, medical consumption etc.
Also, in case you’re wondering why this is a human rights issue: poverty causes obesity, obesity causes ill health, and ill health causes poverty. And both ill health and poverty are human rights violations (see here and here respectively). So plenty of reasons to link obesity and human rights.
In light of the recent Trayvon Martin case, a few historical examples of how fear of the “other” has led many Americans to acts of intolerance and discrimination:
- In 1654, Peter Stuyvesant, director-general of New Netherland, tried to have Jewish refugees expelled, claiming they would “infect” the colony.
- In 1732, founders of the Georgia colony, which was seen as a religious haven, drew up a charter that explicitly bans Catholicism.
- In 1844, Mormon founder Joseph Smith is murdered in an Illinois prison by a lynch mob. Soon after, many of his followers migrated to Utah.
- In 1854-56, nativists formed the Know Nothing Party (yes, that was their name), which called for strict limits on immigration, especially from Catholic countries.
- In 1865-66, following the end of the Civil War, riots erupted during Reconstruction, and African American churches and schools were burned in Memphis and New Orleans.
- In 1882, strong anti-Chinese sentiment in California led to the federal Chinese Exclusion Act, which suspended immigration from the East.
- In 1883, the Department of Interior declared many Native American rituals to be “offenses” punishable by jail sentences of up to 30 years.
- In 1942, FDR signed an executive order establishing “exclusion zones,” which led to the forced internment of some 110,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans. (source)
Needless to say, fear of the other isn’t a exclusively American problem.
After a previous post comparing North and South Korea – a natural experiment for assessing the value of political freedom – I stumbled across the work of photographer Stefan Koppelkamm who has done something similar in Germany:
During a trip to East Germany in 1990, photographer Stefan Koppelkamm discovered buildings that had survived both the war and the construction mania of the East German authorities. Ten years later, he returned to photograph the buildings again. (source)
Here are some examples:
Just after midnight on January 28, 2011, the government of Egypt, rocked by three straight days of massive antiregime protests organized in part through Facebook and other online social networks, did something unprecedented in the history of 21st-century telecommunications: it turned off the Internet. Exactly how it did this remains unclear, but the evidence suggests that five well-placed phone calls—one to each of the country’s biggest Internet service providers (ISPs)—may have been all it took. …
Both strategically and tactically, the Internet blackout accomplished little—the crowds that day were the biggest yet, and in the end, the demonstrators prevailed. But as an object lesson in the Internet’s vulnerability to top-down control, the shutdown was alarmingly instructive and perhaps long overdue. …
[F]or years China’s “great firewall” has given the government the ability to block whatever sites it chooses. In Western democracies, consolidation of Internet service providers has put a shrinking number of corporate entities in control of growing shares of Internet traffic, giving companies such as Comcast and AT&T both the incentive and the power to speed traffic served by their own media partners at the expense of competitors. (source)
More on internet censorship here.
I’ve written before about some very significant health disparities across segments of the population of the U.S. (see here, here. here, here, here and here). Health disparities across racial, gender or income groups are a strong indication of injustice since most if not all such disparities have no basis in biology and must therefore have social or political causes. They lead to a shorter life and a lower quality of life for the average person in certain social groups. For example, this study shows that
the life expectancy gap between the 3.4 million high-risk urban black males and the 5.6 million Asian females was 20.7 years in 2001.
See also these graphs:
The causes of disparities like these are other types of disparities:
- differences in health care access and utilization (through differences in health insurance and different access to good quality medical facilities)
- different homicide rates
- different HIV rates
- differences in nutritional behavior and food availability (see the concept of “food deserts”)
- different poverty rates
More data on life expectancy here.
Using the internationally accepted poverty threshold of $1.25 a day, around 900 million people lived in extreme poverty in 2010; that’s down from 1.4 billion in 2005 and 1.8 billion in the early 1990s. Estimates for 2015 therefore are very optimistic: by that year, there may be less than 600 million people living below $1.25 a day:
Given the global population increase over the same period, that’s all the more remarkable. It means that the poverty rate (the proportion of humanity living in poverty) dropped even more quickly:
(source, MDG1a is short for Millennium Development Goal 1a)
Here a geographic breakdown of those estimates (in millions of people):
Poverty kills, it seems. As if it’s not bad enough in itself. Although death is often multicausal, a study has tried to estimate in how many cases poverty is a contributing factor:
For 2000, the study attributed 176,000 deaths to racial segregation and 133,000 to individual poverty. The numbers are substantial. For example, looking at direct causes of death, 119,000 people in the United States die from accidents each year, and 156,000 from lung cancer.
How does the causal chain operate? Poverty contributes to poor health, in different ways:
- poor people tend to have jobs or occupations that are physically hazardous
- they often live in environmentally unsound circumstances
- they can’t afford a healthy diet
- their lack of education makes it harder to take the right health decisions
- they may lack adequate health insurance and health screening
- substandard housing can cause health problems etc.
More human rights facts here.
Here are some interesting numbers on the way Americans think about certain human rights issues:
Assisted suicide is, unfortunately, still condemned by a small majority. Official homicide, on the contrary, is believed to be a good thing according to a large majority. (However, it has been shown that approval rates drop sharply when the alternative to capital punishment is life without parole). Pornography, which according to some is a free speech issue, is rejected by a two-thirds majority. And abortion, according to some a violation of the right to life, is condemned by a small majority. Homosexuality is now accepted by a small majority.
More human rights facts here.
I’ve mentioned some of the problems with the U.S. system of poverty measurement before, but this is much more eloquent:
(source, source; the “savings” requirement covers retirement and emergencies and is included because the study wanted to capture economic stability rather than mere survival, and lifelong economic security rather than day-by-day security, which is quite appropriate given the instability of our economic system)
More on poverty measurement here.
You’ve probably already heard about Google’s Ngram tool, a tool that allows you to calculate the frequency of keywords in the millions of books available in Google’s collection. Such frequencies can be thought of as approximations of the general use of a word at a certain time. (I’ve mentioned Ngrams before on this blog, namely here and here).
This is what you get when you type the words “slavery” and “slave” (blue and red lines respectively):
(click image to enlarge)
If we assume that Google books has a bias towards books published in the U.S., and if we simplify U.S. history a bit, then we can see a clear pattern in this time line. The increasing frequency of the use of the words “slave” and “slavery in the first half of the 19th century reflects the growing importance of the Abolitionist movement. The high point is obviously 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation and 1865 with the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, a modification of the U.S. Constitution abolishing and prohibiting slavery and liberating approximately 4 million black slaves. After that, the topic of slavery understandably became a lot less interesting.
However, the end of slavery didn’t imply a substantial improvement in race relations in the U.S. Segregation, discrimination and violence continued. Those “relics” of slavery probably explain the fact that interest in slavery rose again in the late 19th century. (This period is often called the nadir of American race relations).
During the first half of the 20th century, the topic became gradually less important, perhaps because African Americans fled the South to resettle in the North (the Great Migration). The Civil Rights movement caused an uptick in the sixties, because this movement can be understood as an effort to undo the last relics of slavery. The most recent uptick is perhaps due to the fact that even the Civil Rights Movement, Civil Rights legislation, affirmative action etc. haven’t been able to guarantee racial equality in the U.S. Calls for reparations are becoming louder, and this may be visible in the graph. Or perhaps I’m seeing things that aren’t there.
I’ve complained many times before about the reticence of Western politicians when it comes to discussing the human rights record of economically powerful states such as China. There’s a manifest reluctance to say anything about human rights violations in China. Even very carefully drafted questions are out of bounds, and sometimes a simple meeting with an opposition figure such as the Dalai Lama is enough to upset the Chinese leadership. The economic opportunities in China are considered too important to risk China’s ire. And Chinese leaders artfully exploit their economic power. When faced with possible criticism – or even a possible meeting with a dissident – it threatens to end or withhold lucrative contracts and to cooperate instead with more compliant countries.
As a result, international human rights discourse is stained by legitimate accusations of double standards. Poor and economically insignificant countries feel the full brunt of criticism for the rights violations occurring in their territories. Sometimes they even suffer military intervention (perhaps in some cases deservedly) while China is able to impose a quasi-silence. That doesn’t do the cause of human rights any good, not in China and not elsewhere.
There’s an interesting study here looking at the seriousness of Chinese economic threats. The study coins the phrase “Dalai Lama effect” to describe the economic results of human rights criticism directed at China. Apparently,
receiving the Dalai Lama … can decrease exports to China by as much as 8.1%. … [G]overnments of autocracies exert more influence on trade flows than democratic administrations. … Since China is neither a democracy, nor a free market economy, its administration has greater capacity to impact on trading decisions than democratic governments. Given the importance Beijing’s government attaches to the containment of its political opposition, it appears that China’s administration uses its extensive influence in the economy to exploit trade flows as a foreign policy tool. However, such an economic punishment mechanism will only prevail as long as the expected political gains from stabilising the regime outweigh the losses from trade diversion. … [T]he “Dalai Lama Effect” … disappears two years after a meeting took place. … [T]his “Dalai Lama Effect” is only observed for the Hu Jintao era and not for earlier periods. This result is in line with the increased political and economic power China acquired in the world in recent years. … At first glance, it may seem odd that China would be willing to forgo the gains that arise from trade under efficient importing decisions in order to punish trading partners for political reasons. However, China’s political leadership may be willing to bear the economic and political costs that arise from diverting trade away from Dalai Lama-receiving countries if such “punishment” increases the likelihood of its political survival. (source)
- The “Dalai Lama” effect on international trade (marginalrevolution.com)
- Dalai Lama hints at full retirement within a year (guardian.co.uk)
- Dalai Lama congratulates fellow Nobel laureate (reuters.com)
The FAO estimates undernourishment, using a caloric intake threshold, called the minimum dietary energy requirement. Here are the data for 2005-2007, in millions of people:
In total, around one billion people suffer from malnourishment. More hunger statistics here.
Now, because charity is a means to fight poverty, we don’t expect the poor to be charitable. Indeed, they can be excused for being selfish and self-interested. The rich, especially the super-rich, on the other hand, are expected to be generous, and many of them are (there’s this recent story about 40 U.S. billionaires pledging half their wealth to charity).
However, as I’ve mentioned before, in relative terms (compared to an individual’s wealth) it’s in general the poor who are most generous. This is now confirmed by a serious of psychological experiments conducted by Paul Piff and his colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley (see here). Before the experiments, participants were asked to position themselves on a ladder with ten rungs on it. Each rung represented people of different levels of education, income and occupational status. They were asked to place an “X” on the rung they felt corresponded to where they stood relative to others in their own community. The experiments showed that
generosity increased as participants’ assessment of their own social status fell. … Upper-class participants said 2.1% of incomes should be donated. Lower-class individuals felt that 5.6% was the appropriate slice. (source)
Why is this the case? It seems odd, and possibly fatal for the argument that poverty alleviation should be done through private charity (an argument I espouse). One possible explanation is that people aren’t (relatively) selfish because they are rich but that they are rich because they are selfish. Indeed, selfishness can be seen as a driver of wealth creation. But the experiments were controlled for self-made wealth and inherited wealth, and this distinction didn’t change the outcomes. So selfishness as a driver of wealth is not very strong, if it’s a factor at all.
Hence the causal link probably goes the other way: people are selfish because they are rich. The experimenters hypothesize that a climate of compassion among the poor – as opposed to a climate of competition among the rich – can instill a general spirit of compassion, help and cooperation. And that does seem convincing.
Fortunately, the experiments also showed that the rich can be encouraged to be compassionate. (If poverty alleviation through charity must depend on the poor, we’ll not go very far). Compassion inducing videos had a positive effect on the level of charity among the rich.
- The Scrooge Effect: Research Shows Poor Are More Compassionate (uspoverty.change.org)
- Wealth, poverty and compassion: The rich are different from you and me (economist.com)
- Study: Poor Are More Charitable Than The Wealthy (npr.org)
- New Study Finds The Rich Horribly Stingy When It Comes To Charity (businessinsider.com)
I posted before about a surprisingly successful method of helping the poor in developing countries: just give them money. Many of the supposed disadvantages of this method – people waste the money, transfers fuel inflation or create dependence, the money goes to the wrong people, is taken away by “patriarchs” or others, erodes the incentives to work etc. – don’t seem to materialize. And it’s fast and cost-effective compared to other types of development aid (no shipping costs for commodities, no risk of diversion of funds by corrupt governments, etc.). It also signals to the poor that they are viewed as responsible agents rather than dependent objects of assistance.
A variation of this system is called Conditional Cash-Transfers (CCTs): poor people get cash (or sometimes food supplies) if they meet certain conditions, e.g. send their children to school or have their babies vaccinated. Millions of people around the world are already benefiting from CCTs. These transfers are successful for many reasons, but an important one is that they allow the smoothing of income: poor people’s income is usually very volatile, with ups and downs, the downs being more frequent of course. CCTs give the poor a measure of income certainty, relieving the stress of not knowing if tomorrow they’ll have enough to survive another day. The added advantage of CCTs, compared to unconditional transfers, is that the children profit twice: their families have more income, and the conditions attached to the transfers usually benefit the children specifically.
- Just Give Money to the Poor? A Surprisingly Effective Solution to Poverty (alternet.org)
- Cash transfers cannot revolutionise aid | Sebastian Taylor (guardian.co.uk)
- Poor people in Leyte town to get cash subsidies from gov’t (newsinfo.inquirer.net)
- Direct transfers could end bureaucratic top-down foreign aid | Michael Edwards (guardian.co.uk)
- $59M loan from World Bank aimed at helping RP’s poor (newsinfo.inquirer.net)
Mostly good news, which doesn’t mean that the U.S. invasion was justifiable or successful. For example, the casualties resulting from the conflict are absent from this overview.
More on Afghanistan here.
- Human rights group knocks ‘abusive’ Taliban officials (cnn.com)
- Taliban Stone Couple for Adultery in Afghanistan (foxnews.com)
Contrary to what I claimed in a previous post – which, I have to say in my own defense, was written in the middle of the recession – it now seems that the recession did have a negative effect on charitable giving:
individual charitable giving was down 4.9% percent in 2009. … On the positive side, people may give more because they empathize with those with increased need in a bad economy. On the negative side, people may give less because they are anxious about their own, their families’ and perhaps their workers’ financial well-being. (source)
If you’re wondering about the link between charity and human rights: poverty is a human rights issue (see here and a lot of other places on this blog), and I believe charity is the best way to help the poor (see here and here).
The proportion of the world’s urban population living in slums has fallen from nearly 40% a decade ago to less than a third today. China and India have together lifted 125m people out of slum conditions in recent years. North Africa’s slum population has shrunk by a fifth. But the absolute number of slum dwellers around the world, estimated to be some 830m, is still rising. (source)
Why is this a human rights issue? Well, there’s the right to adequate housing to start with (art. 25 of the Universal Declaration). Also, it isn’t hard to imagine how the rights to education, health, standard of living, privacy, property etc. are violated in slum conditions. Sanitation, water and other living conditions are below the levels necessary to maintain public health. This is caused by the overpopulation of slums combined with insufficient government investments in infrastructure.
Indeed, nothing seems to represent abject poverty quite as well as an image of a slum. However, in poor countries, slums are inextricably linked to urbanization, and urbanization is a consequence of economic development. Cities are created by trade and industry. Factories cluster together and create cities because they profit from a concentration of skills and from the infrastructure (housing, transport, ports etc.) that cities offer. Consumers also profit from the presence of different traders and service providers in a relatively small space that is a city. And, finally, businesses that specializes in services for businesses – banks, insurance … – cluster where their customers are.
So slums may be a ghastly sight, but we shouldn’t forget that the countryside is often in a much worse albeit not so visible predicament. Cities create economic opportunities and possibilities. Wages of people in cities are much higher than the wages of their unskilled rural compatriots.
Cities are so much more successful in promoting new forms of income generation, and it is so much cheaper to provide services in urban areas, that some experts have actually suggested that the only realistic poverty reduction strategy is to get as many people as possible to move to the city. … There are thousands of [slums] and their mainly young populations test out new ideas unfettered by law or tradition. Alleyways in squatter cities, for example, are a dense interplay of retail and services—one-chair barbershops and three-seat bars interspersed with the clothes racks and fruit tables. (source, source)
In addition, women and girls may be able to escape the often oppressive traditions of life in the countryside.
World poverty is falling. Between 1970 and 2006, the global poverty rate has been cut by nearly three quarters. The percentage of the world population living on less than $1 a day (in PPP-adjusted 2000 dollars) went from 26.8% in 1970 to 5.4% in 2006.
And this is notwithstanding an increase of world population by 80% over the same time. Somehow you never hear about this from the overpopulation hysterics.
The decrease in poverty rates is mostly thanks to China:
From 1970 to 2006, poverty fell by 86% in South Asia, 73% in Latin America, 39% in the Middle East, and 20% in Africa.
Some more information on internet filtering in China, following this older post on the same topic.
More about the Golden Shield Project – also called the Great Firewall of China – here. More about the Green Dam Youth Project here. Since China’s obviously not the only country limiting access to the internet, there’s an interesting paper here on global attitudes towards internet filtering. More on China and human rights. More on free speech, censorship and privacy in general.
There’s a correlation between poverty and depression, as this Gallup Poll points out. 30% of poor Americans have been diagnosed with depression, compared to the overall total of 17% of Americans:
From this it’s not clear if the burden of poverty causes depression, or if it’s more likely that the burden of depression causes poverty. Probably it’s a bit of both. In any case, this echoes the link between wealth and happiness.
You can see from the graph below that the numbers of abortions, compared to 15 years ago, are down: from 35 abortions per 1,000 women to 29. This reduction took place all over the world, albeit not in equal measure everywhere. Unintended pregnancies have also fallen, from 69 per 1,000 women in 1995 to 55 per 1,000 in 2008, as contraception use has increased.
The graph also shows that most abortions in Africa and Latin America, and half of abortions worldwide, are unsafe (carried out by an unskilled practitioner in unhygienic conditions) and therefore a possible violation of the right to health of women.
Something which isn’t evident from this graph: almost half of the world’s women live in countries where abortion is severely restricted by law (a number that has hardly changed over time). These laws do not prevent abortion, which you can see from the numbers for Latin America, where abortion is practically outlawed. The numbers there are as high as anywhere else, if not higher. Moreover, as abortion is illegal there, most abortions are unsafe.
More on abortion.
In a previous post, I mentioned that poor people in the U.S. are more likely to be obese, and that they risk finding themselves in a poverty trap as a result: their poverty causes health problems, which in turn make them more poor (healthcare is obviously expensive, especially when you’re uninsured* and when your illness causes you to be absent from work or to lose your job altogether). Why does poverty cause health problems? For many reasons, but the one we’re focusing on here is obesity. It seems that poverty shifts
choices toward an energy-dense, highly palatable diet that provides maximum calories per the least volume and the least cost. The hypothesis [is] that healthier diets may indeed cost more. Adam Drewnowski and SE Specter (source)
A large body of epidemiologic data show that diet quality follows a socioeconomic gradient. Whereas higher-quality diets are associated with greater affluence, energy-dense diets that are nutrient-poor are preferentially consumed by persons of lower socioeconomic status (SES) and of more limited economic means. As this review demonstrates, whole grains, lean meats, fish, low-fat dairy products, and fresh vegetables and fruit are more likely to be consumed by groups of higher SES. In contrast, the consumption of refined grains and added fats has been associated with lower SES. … The observed associations between SES variables and diet-quality measures can be explained by a variety of potentially causal mechanisms. The disparity in energy costs ($/MJ) between energy-dense and nutrient-dense foods is one such mechanism; easy physical access to low-cost energy-dense foods is another. If higher SES is a causal determinant of diet quality, then the reported associations between diet quality and better health, found in so many epidemiologic studies, may have been confounded by unobserved indexes of social class. Conversely, if limited economic resources are causally linked to low-quality diets, some current strategies for health promotion, based on recommending high-cost foods to low-income people, may prove to be wholly ineffective. Nicole Darmon and Adam Drewnowski (source)
Poverty causes obesity, obesity causes ill health, and ill health causes poverty. And both ill health and poverty are human rights violations (see here and here respectively). So plenty of reasons to link obesity and human rights.
The reasons why poverty causes obesity and shifts diets towards low quality foods are diverse, and not limited to the relatively high cost of high quality food. There’s also something called
an “obesogenic” environment. Food options in poor neighborhoods are severely limited: It’s a lot easier to find quarter waters and pork rinds on the corner than fresh fruit and vegetables. Low-income workers may also have less time to cook their own meals, less money to join sports clubs, and less opportunity to exercise outdoors. (source)
So obesity is one thing which pushes people into a vicious circle of poverty and ill health (unhealthy work, inadequate sanitation, inadequate shelter etc. also contribute to this vicious circle). But obesity and poverty can create a vicious circle of their own. If poverty leads to obesity, obesity can also be impoverishing:
Women who are two standard deviations overweight (that’s 64 pounds above normal) make 9 percent less money. … Obese women are also half as likely to attend college as their peers and 20 percent less likely to get married. (Marriage seems to help alleviate poverty.) (source)
Contrary to conventional wisdom, … the poor have never had a statistically significant higher prevalence of overweight status at any time in the last 35 years. Despite this empirical evidence, the view that the poor are less healthy in terms of excess accumulation of fat persists. (source)
I believe that there are many good reasons why countries should be democracies (see examples of these reasons here, here, here, here and here), but does this imply that powerful countries such as the U.S. can/should promote democracy in certain other countries when these countries seem unable or unwilling to become democracies? Do countries such as the U.S. have a moral duty or perhaps a selfish interest to do so? Or are these efforts doomed to fail and oxymoronic (the imposition of democracy being undemocratic)? (Remember also that democracy is a human right).
Neoconservatism, a popular ideology in the U.S., is characterized, in part, by the belief that democracy promotion is the U.S.’s responsibility and is in it’s long term interest. One can disagree with the tactics proposed and used by neoconservatives and still accept that there are good reasons for a democratic country to try to democratize other countries (see here and here for these reasons). It’s indeed the case that much depends on the type of efforts that we’re talking about. You don’t have to agree with the militaristic tactics of neoconservatives in order to believe strongly in the universal value of democracy and in less harmful ways to realize this value.
However, it’s important to understand that democracy promotion is a hugely complex undertaking. It’s part nation-building, institutional work, development work, educational work etc. Some countries will move faster than others because more of the prerequisites are present. There are many reasons why countries become/don’t become democracies. Democratization efforts which employ tactics that don’t address the prerequisites or the reasons why a country isn’t a democracy (yet), are doomed to fail and perhaps makes things worse than were before. You can’t just drop democracy from a plane.
Here’s a view on current public opinion in the U.S. regarding this matter:
From Nate Silver’s blog, an invaluable resource for statisticians and other people interested in data:
The amount of development aid per capita, in terms of donors and recipients has risen dramatically over the last 30 years – using 1975 as the approximate end of the direct colonial period with the independence of most Portuguese colonies – and small but perceptible increases in human well being have been seen in least developed countries (those who rely the most on aid). (source)
He doesn’t claim, nor should he, that the former is necessarily or exclusively the cause of the latter. Official development aid (ODA) may help countries achieve development, but there’s no universal agreement on that (read Bill Easterly’s blog for instance, or the writing of Dambisa Moyo). What is clear, however, is that specific types of development aid help to solve specific types of problems (such as malaria for instance). Just looking at total amounts of aid given or received isn’t going to tell you much about the usefulness or effectiveness of aid. Large total amounts aren’t necessarily better than small amounts.
The following chart illustrates total development aid flows from all donors to “Least Developed Countries” (or LDC), or those countries who have a human development index (or HDI) of less than 0.5, using constant 2007 US dollars, on a per capita basis [per capita of receiving countries, FS]:
The large increases in total aid flows have resulted from several trends: First, more donors are present, as oil-rich middle eastern states and others have since the 1980s begun to provide a significant portion of development aid. Second, OECD countries have increased both in number and in disbursals. Large disparity occurs between countries in terms of per capita aid, however, largely driven by high-profile events such as conflicts, natural disasters, and political commitments to domestic populations by former colonial powers.
Since independence and decolonization, and assisted by development aid and strengthening of domestic economies and social systems, the least developed countries have made slow but steady progress toward human development:
Below are some public opinion data which confirm the numbers I posted previously. It’s very encouraging to see that large majorities or pluralities in some African and Muslim countries support some form of international action against the ongoing atrocities in Darfur/Sudan. Both the ICC’s arrest warrant for Bashir and a possible humanitarian intervention are viewed positively, despite the reluctance of most of those countries’ governments.
The data on U.S. defense spending (“defense” being of course a euphemism) are here. (I hope the connection to the issue of human rights is obvious and doesn’t need spelling out). The amounts involved are incredible, and yet you can still find national security hawks who believe that it isn’t enough, or who advocate that cutting some of this spending would be extremely dangerous. The Heritage Foundation, for example, has an article out lambasting the Obama administration for some supposed spending cuts. They have this graph for instance:
Now, this graph should be used in every textbook on statistics as a classic example of misinformation and manipulation of data. As Benjamin H. Friedman points out:
It’s true that defense spending will probably decline as a percentage of GDP, assuming the economy recovers. But that’s because GDP grows. Ours [GDP] is more than six times bigger than it was in 1950.
The correct way to measure growth or decline in defense spending is to look at the amounts spent on defense in real, inflation adjusted terms. See the solid line in this graph:
And then it’s clear that the U.S. spends more now than at the height of the Cold War. Friedman again:
By saying that defense spending needs to grow with GDP to be “level”, you are arguing for an annual increase in defense spending without saying so directly. That’s the point, of course. (source)
Defense hawks want military spending to rise together with GDP growth, whatever the international situation, whatever the threats.
As Matthew Yglesias points out:
Since economic growth causes real wages to rise over time, there is some reason for thinking that a military sized appropriately to the strategic environment would need real increases in spending to maintain its level of capabilities. But one way or another, the crucial issue is that the appropriate level of defense spending is determined by the nature of the strategic environment, not by the pace of economic growth. The US economy grew rapidly during the 1990s but the level of military threats facing the country didn’t—thus, a decline in defense expenditures relative to GDP was appropriate.
One interesting trope both in the substance and rhetoric of this argument from Heritage is the idea that 9/11 ought to have touched off a large and sustained increase in defense spending. On the merits, this is a little hard to figure out. It’s difficult to make the case that the 9/11 plot succeeded because the gap in financial expenditures between the U.S. government and Osama bin Laden was not big enough. Would an extra aircraft carrier have helped? A more advanced fighter plane? A larger Marine Corps? Additional nuclear weapons? One of the most realistic ways an organization like al-Qaeda can damage the United States is to provoke us into wasting resources on a far larger scale than they could ever destroy. The mentality Heritage is expressing here is right in line with that path.
One of the Millennium Development Goals is to reduce maternal mortality ratios by three quarters by 2015. While there has been progress, the numbers remain very high, with more than 500,000 women dying every year as a result of complications during pregnancy and childbirth. Half of which in sub-Saharan Africa and a third in South Asia. In developing countries, a woman’s lifetime risk of maternal death is 1 in 76, compared with 1 in 8,000 in industrialized countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, one woman in every 22 dies because of childbirth.
More statistics on maternal mortality.
As I’ve mentioned several times before, the current economic recession has several and almost entirely negative consequences for human rights. One of the human rights that is affected most severely is the right not to suffer poverty (or, positively, the right to a certain standard of living). The causal link between the recession and poverty passes through several “channels”. The most obvious one is rising unemployment; a dampening of charitable giving is potentially another one.
However, data from The Economist show that there is (as yet) no such dampening, despite the recession:
Among the 500 British and American individuals with at least $1m of investable assets, … 28% of Americans say they are giving less money compared with 18 months ago, though 26% are giving more.
Some more information on the impact of the current recession on global poverty (picking up where this previous post left off). By the way, if you want to know why I believe this is a human rights issue, look here.
From The Economist:
New research by the United Nations’ standing committee on nutrition gives a first estimate of how the crisis has hurt the group of people most affected by the crash: the very poorest.
In 1990-2007, the number of hungry people rose by about 80m, though this was, by and large, a period of rising incomes in developing countries (and a huge increase in population). In 2008 alone, the number rose a further 40m, to 963m – half as much in one year as during the previous 17. In other words, lots more children and pregnant women are not getting the food they need. The report reckons that the number of underweight children will rise from 121m to 125m by 2010, assuming no change in the size of the world economy (in fact, it is expected to shrink 2% this year). The World Bank has already estimated that until 2015 the crisis will lead to between 200,000 and 400,000 more children dying every year.
The poorest face two crises: the world recession and the resumption of food-price rises. Food prices had been falling but even then, the global price fall did not translate into a comparable decline on local markets in most poor countries, so the poor did not benefit much. World prices bottomed out in December 2008 and have since risen 26%. In the poorest countries, a rise of 50% in the price of staples pushes up the family food budget from 50% to 60% of household income.
Global military spending reached a record $1,464 billion last year with the United States taking up by far the biggest share of the total. Arms shipments were up 4 percent worldwide from 2007 and 45 percent higher than in 1999. The United States accounted for 58 percent of the worldwide increase between 1999 and 2008. China and Russia both nearly tripled their military spending over the decade. Other countries such as India, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, Brazil, South Korea, Algeria and Britain also contributed substantially to the total increase. Last year’s military spending comprised about 2.4 percent of global gross domestic product, corresponding to $217 per capita.
From The Economist:
Israel spends most on defence relative to its population, shelling out over $2,300 a person, over $300 more than America. Small and rich countries, and notably Gulf states, feature prominently by this measure. Saudi Arabia ranks ninth in absolute spending, but sixth by population. China has increased spending by 10% to $85 billion to become the world’s second largest spender. But it is still dwarfed by America, whose outlay of $607 billion is higher than that of the next 14 biggest spenders combined.
More on the arms industry.
[This post is by guest-writer Line Løvåsen].
Following up on this post, some additional information on the evolution of military conflicts and military spending.
Since 2005, the Human Security Report Project (HSRP) publishes reports on trends in armed conflicts and political violence. The reports indicate a decline by around 40% in armed conflicts and political violence since 1992. Another report, the SIPRI yearbook of 2009, counts 16 armed conflicts going on in the world in 2008. In 1998 there were 36, and from 1989 to 1998 there were over 100.
The decline is explained by the end of the two “conflict machines”, colonialism and the Cold War. The increase in international activism, more specifically at the UN, and changes in the nature of warfare have also resulted in fewer deadly conflicts. The wars of today are of a lower intensity, and are fought with lighter arms, predominately between weak government forces and poorly trained rebels. The increasing number of refugees is another reason for lower death tolls, together with a decrease in the number of authoritarian regimes. According to the report, terrorism is the only type of political violence that is increasing, but it still accounts for a small number of deaths. Despite this relatively small number, many politicians still claim that terrorism is the biggest threat.
According to the peace dividend-notion, there should be a reduction in military spending when there is a decline in conflicts. However, SIPRI, which reports on annual military spending, shows, in the 2009 report, an increase in military spending by 45% since 1997. The world now spends more than 1464 billion dollars annually (!) on the military and arms trade. The biggest spender is the United States, which is responsible for almost half of the total world spending, and during the eight-year presidency of George W. Bush, US military expenditure increased to its highest level in real terms since World War II. In addition to increased spending, there is also an increased concentration of spending with around 15 countries responsible for over 80% of total spending.
I’ve written about charity or caritas many times before. In fact, I see charitable giving to the poor as a way to honor one’s duties arising from the social and economic rights of the poor (more here). In my view, government redistribution on the basis of taxation is only necessary when individuals fail in their duty of charity. (I also believe that this kind of understanding of economic rights can debunk the big state criticism which is often leveled against these rights).
One of the rules governing charity is “ought implies can“: only those who can give have a moral duty to give. Another rule is that “can implies ought“: those who can do more, should do more. Which means that wealthy people are expected to give more, not just “more” in absolute terms, but also in terms of a higher percentage of their wealth. Giving more in absolute and relative terms may still leave them better off than those who engage in charity starting on a lower level of wealth.
Now, it turns out that in real life, the opposite is true: the less wealthy you are, the more you give in relative terms:
This is quite shocking in a sense. And it means that the current recession, which doesn’t only affect Wall Street types but the poor as well, will probably reduce charitable giving substantially.
I made a general point here about the consequences of the recession for human rights. One consequence is obviously increased unemployment (unemployment being a violation of the right to work). Just thought that these graphs would be a nice illustration (U.S. data):
(source, from Flickr user Faraz_Designer)
One more way in which the recession affects human rights. From William Saletan:
Will the global recession push more people to sell their organs? Apparently, the answer is yes. … You don’t normally think of selling your body’s parts or products. But bad times can make you think hard. One reason you might not have thought of selling something from your body is that the idea felt unnatural or somehow made you uncomfortable. But for $5,000, with bills to pay and no other income prospects, you decide you can get over those feelings.
In an older post I mentioned some of the negative effects of the current economic recession on human rights. One of the human rights likely to be effected is the right not to suffer poverty. The recession will cause an increase in poverty (see here and here), and people will be forced to use extreme tactics to counter this problem, especially if they can’t benefit from a social safety net. Not only can they decide to sell their organs (this would still be called a “donation”); they may also be tempted to participate in risky medical tests, rent their skin for commercial tattoo’s, sell their body for sex, become a surrogate mother etc.
What to do about it? Again William Saletan:
What’s driving the market is scarcity. Americans, Britons, Israelis, Japanese, and South Koreans are going abroad for organs mostly because too few of their countrymen have agreed to donate organs when they die. Some have religious objections. Others are squeamish. Many figure that if they don’t supply the organs, somebody else will.
They’re right. Somebody else will supply the organs. But that somebody won’t be a corpse. He’ll be a fisherman or an out-of-work laborer who needs cash and can’t find another way to get it. The middlemen will open him up, take his kidney, pay him a fraction of the proceeds, and abandon him, because follow-up care is just another expense. If he recovers well enough to keep working, he’ll be lucky.
The surest way to stop him from selling his kidney is to make it worthless, by flooding the market with free organs. If you haven’t filled out a donor card, do it now. Because if the dying can’t get organs from the dead, they’ll buy them from the living.
In an older post I mentioned some of the negative effects of the current economic recession on human rights. One effect I didn’t mention but which should have been too obvious to miss, is anti-semitism. The recession started as a financial crisis and a crisis of the banks. Given the historic association of anti-semitism with conspiracy theories about Jews and banks, it’s no coincidence that some will see “the Jews” as the cause of the current recession (the links between Madoff and the Jewish community didn’t help either).
The Boston Review has a poll:
In order to assess explicit prejudice toward Jews, we directly asked respondents “How much to blame were the Jews for the financial crisis?” with responses falling under five categories: a great deal, a lot, a moderate amount, a little, not at all. Among non-Jewish respondents, a strikingly high 24.6 percent of Americans blamed “the Jews” a moderate amount or more, and 38.4 percent attributed at least some level of blame to the group. (source)
More on anti-semitism.
In an older post I mentioned some of the negative effects of the current economic recession on human rights. One of the human rights likely to be effected is the right not to suffer poverty. The recession will cause an increase in poverty in several ways, one of which is a possible reduction in development aid, both official development aid (given by governments and international institutions) and private aid (charity, remittances etc.).
Based on previous crises, aid flows to developing countries should be down by 13%. However, donor countries’ pledges may soften the shock this time around. … Shall we expect aid to fall? The past suggests we should. The question then becomes whether donor countries will act as they used to. Given the scale of the current crisis, international institutions and donor countries have already taken actions, or at least made pledges, to tackle its consequences for developing countries. The World Bank has decided to increase its financial support up to $100 billion over the next three years, specifically to help developing countries cope with falling revenue. In December 2008, it unblocked $2 billion for the poorest countries. At the UN Conference on Financing for Development in Doha in November 2008, bilateral donor countries underlined the need to comply with their aid commitments, even amid the current economic slowdown. Whether these promises turn effectively into action remains to be seen. If they do not, then this research provides some indication about what should be expected from aid donors in the following years.
David Roodman made a similar point.
None of this implies that more development aid is always better, and less is worse. See here for a counter-example. However, in general it’s not unreasonable to assume that people who depend on aid face a risk of increased poverty when this aid is suddenly reduced as a result from an outside shock.
I already discussed in some length the relationship between poverty and ill health (see here and here). However, I haven’t mentioned one aspect of this relationship, namely obesity. Obesity is obviously a cause of ill health, and now it seems that poor people are more likely to be obese, in the U.S. at least:
There is no question that the rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes in the United States follow a socioeconomic gradient, such that the burden of disease falls disproportionately on people with limited resources, racial-ethnic minorities, and the poor. Among women, higher obesity rates tend to be associated with low incomes and low education levels. The association of obesity with low socio-economic status has been less consistent among men. Minority populations (except for Asian Americans) have higher rates of obesity and overweight than do US whites…
Our central hypothesis is that limited economic resources may shift dietary choices toward an energy-dense, highly palatable diet that provides maximum calories per the least volume and the least cost. The hypothesis [is] that healthier diets may indeed cost more. Adam Drewnowski and SE Specter (source)
This is another fact that supports the idea that poverty reduction will improve a population’s health, just as better healthcare will reduce poverty rates. (See also here). It also supports the more general idea of the interdependence of different human rights, in this case the right to healthcare and the right not to suffer poverty.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, … the poor have never had a statistically significant higher prevalence of overweight status at any time in the last 35 years. Despite this empirical evidence, the view that the poor are less healthy in terms of excess accumulation of fat persists. (source)
In a couple of previous posts, I’ve discussed what can be the impact of the current economic recession on human rights (see here, here, here and here). Especially, and not surprisingly, poverty will increase, and poverty is a human rights violation (see here for an explanation). (Although one shouldn’t underestimate the adverse effects of the recession on other human rights).
But how much more poverty will there be because of the recession? And how much will the decades long trend of decreasing poverty be affected:
(source, poverty rate for the developing world as a whole over 1981-2005 using two poverty lines, $1.25 and $2.00 a day, at 2005 purchasing power parity, PPP, for consumption; the former line is the average of the national poverty lines found in the poorest 15 countries and the latter line is the average for the developing world as a whole)
The crisis will add 64 million people to the population living under $2 a day… The global poverty rate will fall from 42% to 39% in 2009, while the pre-crisis trajectory would have brought the poverty rate down to 38%.
This study looked mainly at absolute poverty. Relative poverty, or income inequality, is unlikely to increase as a result of the recession, according to the authors:
Past experience suggests that relative inequality falls about as often as it rises during aggregate economic contractions, with zero change on average. This is in keeping with one of the stylised facts to emerge from research on growth and distributional change, namely that economic growth tends to be distribution neutral on average. So the most defensible assumption for the present purpose is that the burden of the crisis will be more-or-less proportional to initial income leaving relative inequality unchanged within a given country. (source)
Both the rich and the poor suffer as a result of the recession. Globally, they all lose a roughly equal share (in some countries, however, the recession may indeed influence income distribution, to the advantage or disadvantage of the poor). Of course, a loss in income of $5,000 let’s say hurts a poor person much more than a rich one. Such a loss puts more people – the nearly poor - in absolute poverty, but relative poverty – income distributions and income inequality – can remain roughly the same.
Censorship is the suppression of speech. “Speech” can mean what I would call “meaningful speech” (information, reporting, data, art, opinions etc.), or other speech. Both can be censored, with some very specific censoring techniques for the latter (e.g. “bleeping”, “pixelization”, black stripes over naked breasts etc.).The suppression of speech can be enforced by the government and by a government appointed “official” censor, but there are other types of censorship as well. Newspapers, for example, may decide that an article should not be published because the owners or the sponsors/advertizers of the newspaper would object. Or because there is some other reason, such as national security, patriotism, political correctness, the willingness to avoid offense etc.
In such cases we speak of self-censorship, a voluntary self-inflicted restriction of speech. However, what appears to be self-censorship is often more like indirect censorship. Governments can censor indirectly. They can pressure people to censor themselves, for example by way of intimidation. Another indirect way for governments to censor is to take over the media, outlaw independent media and create a government controlled media monopoly.
Speech can be censored in many ways: books can be burned, newspaper articles can be replaced by white space, the internet can be filtered, texts can be “edited”, images or maps can be altered, satellite dishes or other tools of information gathering can be prohibited, people can be indoctrinated into accepting taboos, writers can be intimidated, imprisoned or killed etc.
(source, Kibera in Nairobi, the largest slum in Africa where between half a million and a million people live)
This blog has already featured some posts on the topic of urban slums. There was this one on the settlement of Porta Farm, located just west of Harare, Zimbabwe. The settlement has been leveled by Mugabe, in what he called a sanitary operation to clean a “slum” (he called it “Operation Murambatsvina“, or “Operation Drive Out Trash”), but undoubtedly the real purpose was to hurt the opposition. And there was this one on the link between urbanization and poverty, from which it was apparent that third world urbanization and even slums are not wholly detrimental.
Of course, slums create enormous problems. Sanitation, water and other living conditions are below the levels necessary to maintain public health. This is caused by the overpopulation of slums combined with insufficient government investments.
The UN estimates that the number of people living in slums passed 1 billion in 2007 and could reach 1.39 billion in 2020, although there are large variations among regions. In Asia and the Pacific, two out of five urban dwellers live in slums, compared with three out of five in Africa.
In percentage terms, sub-Saharan Africa has about 72 percent of city dwellers living in slums. Asia has by far the highest number of city dwellers living in slums – the problem is worst in South Asia, where half of the urban population is composed of slum dwellers. The figure below illustrates the share of slum population in some Asian and Pacific countries. In 2001, Afghanistan had as much as 99 per cent of the urban population living in slums while Nepal and Bangladesh also had high proportions-92 and 85 per cent, respectively, although they have had some success in containing the problem since 1990. (source)
From a human rights perspective, slums pose a variety of problems: the rights to housing and healthcare (art. 25 of the Universal Declaration) are only the most obvious ones. We can all imagine how the rights to education, standard of living, privacy, property etc. are violated as well in slum conditions.
In mentioned in a previous post that the current economic recession (or is it a depression already?) has a number of adverse effects on human rights. One obvious effect is an increase in poverty levels. Many people lose their jobs and their homes, and producers and exporters in the third world may be hit by protectionist measures contemplated by developed countries.
We tend to forget that poverty is a human rights issue (see here). And poverty has a knock-on effect on other human rights. When you’re engrossed in the struggle for life you don’t have time for free speech or political participation, your health suffers, your education suffers (see also here) etc.
Hence the importance of unemployment benefits.
These are the best places in the world to be unemployed. In Scandinavia, for instance, you get 80-90 percent of your income for a period ranging — depending on circumstance — from 10 months to four years. Japan gives you 50 to 80 percent of your income for about a year. France gives you 57 to 75 percent of your income for about three years.
The place where you really don’t want to be unemployed: The United States. Here, most of the unemployed don’t qualify for unemployment insurance, and those who do can expect $216.17 a week for 26 weeks. Defenders of the system would say that it’s a spur to get people back to work. Critics would say that it forces people into jobs that present themselves quickly rather than jobs that are actually a good fit, depressing both productivity and happiness. And if you were laid off for no fault of your own and simply can’t find work amidst a sluggish economy — as is the case for many right now — it’s an undeniably stingy benefit. Ezra Klein (source)
Unemployment benefits protect people against poverty, but can also stop the downward spiral of the recession: if the absence or the lack of generosity of unemployment benefits drives people into poverty, they will consume less; hence companies will sell less products and services, which leads to more bankruptcies and more unemployment etc.
Unemployment benefits are both morally necessary (from the point of views of human rights) and economically expedient in times of a recession.
This paper, by Elias Papaioannou and Gregorios Siourounis, examines the effect of democratic transitions on economic growth. Since democracy and the absence of poverty are both human rights issues, and since poverty usually correlates with insufficient economic growth, it is encouraging to see that countries which have experienced a transition to democracy experience higher average growth after the transition.
The graph below, from the paper, plots the evolution of real per capita GDP growth in the years surrounding a successful democratization (the year of the democratization being T), compared to the global growth rates in each year. The average growth is the purple dashed line. The graph also shows that the transition itself may imply economic costs, but in the longer term democracy pays off.
Now, democracy is of course desirable for many reasons, and most of these are unrelated to the economy. But the fact that democracy produces economic gains will make it even more attractive.
Why does this happen? Why is democracy good for economic growth? For many reasons, some of which are the rule of law and respect for human rights (property rights, freedom of information etc.). More here.
(source, photo by Anna Gowthorpe, Associated Press)
Like any recession, the current one has a detrimental effect on human rights. Both the so-called economic human rights (the right to work, the right to a certain living standard etc.) and the more traditional civil rights or freedom rights suffer. In some countries more than in others, but no country will escape unharmed. It’s obvious that poor countries will suffer more, because they don’t have the means for stimulus measures or social security systems that can soften the effects of the recession, and because developed countries will turn their attention to themselves. In developed countries, the poor will suffer more, as will migrant workers, illegal immigrants, asylum seekers etc.
Here are some of the human rights problems provoked by the recession:
1. Unemployment increases:
(source, data for the U.S., click the image to enlarge)
(source, data for the U.S.)
2. Poverty levels increase:
(source, data for the U.S.)
3. Homelessness will increase
Because of rising unemployment and poverty levels, it’s likely that homelessness will also rise. The specific nature of the current recession, with high numbers of foreclosures, will increase this likelihood.
4. Prejudice and violence will increase
People will get angry and will misbehave. They may turn to crime more easily, or they will go on the streets and riot. Or they will turn their anger against foreigners, migrants, asylumseekers etc. Xenophobic political parties will profit, and, as a result, migration policy will tighten.
5. Public goods will receive less money and will under-perform
National governments will invest less in public goods such as the police force, the healthcare system, education etc. As a result, these institutions may under-perform, with detrimental results for people’s education, health, judicial protection etc.
6. International development aid and remittances drop
See here for data on the level of development aid during recessions. Remittances from migrant workers to their home countries also drop, because of rising unemployment which is likely to hit migrant workers harder than resident workers. And we all know the importance of remittances to the economies of developing countries (see here – they are often more important than official development aid):
I tried hard to come up with some positive effects of the recession, but apart from something vague and uncertain like increased solidarity, I didn’t have much success. I’ll give it some further thought.
economic downturns don’t necessarily stoke racial tension or violence. In fact, most economic research finds no correlation at all between hate crimes and the economy.
A 1998 study of economic motivations for hate crimes examined crime statistics for New York between 1987 and 1995, and found no correlation between the city’s unemployment rate and prevalence of bigoted violence. That same study, by a team of researchers at Yale, also found no significant economic link to patterns of lynchings in the pre-Depression American South.
Another study, by Swarthmore economists Philip Jefferson and Frederic Pryor, studied Southern Poverty Law Center (S.P.L.C.) data on hate groups in 3,100 U.S. counties, only to find, again, no correlation between economic conditions and the presence or absence of operational hate groups.
The two graphs below, from Jeffrey Sachs’ “The End of Poverty”, show population growth and average per capita income growth over the centuries. Whereas both population and income stayed relatively stable during thousands of years, they took off during the last 2 or 3 centuries. (See this post for an explanation of the sudden an rapid rise of economic growth).
The interesting point is that per capita income grew much faster than the population. Population numbers in 2000 were about 6 times higher than in 1800; average per capita income was 9 times higher! Of course, the word to focus on is “average”. Income isn’t distributed equally, and there are huge and even “obscene” difference between income in the West and elsewhere. But if average incomes rise faster than the population numbers, everyone can – potentially – be richer than before, or less poor. Poverty is then no longer a problem of insufficient resources or scarcity, but a problem of distribution and justice.
It would also be interesting to hear the reaction of Malthusians: if the world’s problems, such as poverty and war, are caused by overpopulation and the pressure of population growth on the economy, then how do they explain income growth rising faster than the population? I do admit that population pressures on a very local level can cause temporary problems of scarcity, but globally they don’t seem to matter much.