Monday, May 31, 2010

Calling Out
Quiet Corruption
(or Cultural Imperialism?)

"In Uganda, teachers in public primary schools are absent 27 percent of the time. In Chad, less than one percent of the non-wage recurrent expenditures reaches primary health clinics.  In West Africa, about half the fertilizer is diluted before it reaches the farmer. " - Shanta Devrajan, World Bank Chief Economist for Africa

The World Bank this year has focused their African Development Indicators on a concept called 'Quiet Corruption'.

According to the WB this form of corruption, the likes of which Dr. Devrajan discusses on his blog, quitely stifles the chances for growth and prosperity among the poorest people in the world. This type of corruption, they say, is very different from the headline-grabbing corruption scandals that indict morally depraved people for heinous crimes involving some transfer of wealth. Instead of overtly breaking the law for personal monetary gain, perpetrators of quiet corruption may simply not show up for work <=. This notion is broad enough to include all actions that deviate from what is normally expected, such as putting in a lower level of effort than expected, or bending the rules for some people and not for others. 

If we can define this term so broadly it could include what Nicholas Kris(jerk)off wrote in the NYT about the choices that poor people make. Poor people put in less effort to provide for their children than he expects. (Ok, perhaps that is stretching the term, but I just had to mention that terrible article. I won't quote it or deal directly with the problems with it - too annoyed - so you'll have to click on the links.)  

While we cannot deny the facts he quotes, what we can do is find the reasons why quiet corruption is so rampant and why poor fathers blow all their cash on beer (as he should have instead of perpetuating ignorance). If there is a ribbon that ties these concepts together it is the notion of 'role models'. Who are the role models in society? The richest, most powerful and most famous people in many developing countries are the corrupt political elite. They are also, unfortunately, the most emulated. If the people at the top made it there by being corrupt, and they are now above the law, wouldn't that pervert most peoples incentives for honest work? If it appeared that the only way to get ahead would be to cheat, lie and steal then I might also drown my conscience in beer. I might also not show up for work as often. 

But Dr. Devrajan is right: incentives need to change. Work could be more piecemeal, police and regulatory bodies should be better funded, and perhaps most important, the voices of the informed critics must be heard. 

But wait, in light of my contempt for Mr. Kristof, aren't we being a little bit one sided on this issue? I mean, life just doesn't work the same way in all places and we can't expect it to. Here in the UAE, as my neighbour once told me, "It's not a task based life, it's a person based life." Things almost always work differently in person than they do on paper. Some things In the UAE are expected to take more time then they would in the West, and meetings are a good token. Should I demand that this meeting - that I should be in right now - start on time? Should it think of this as corruption that we are expected to be in a meeting, getting paid as if we are, but really we are chinwagging the hours away (or in my case writing blog posts) ? No, that would be rude, people are just getting to know each other before the meeting starts, and that is part of this culture.

So when is it 'quiet corruption' and when is it just an acceptable part of culture? Perhaps the context of rampant poverty makes a difference? 

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Some Kind of Adult Disneyland

Go ahead, click on the photo, it's the Photo of the Week!

Off the tip of the Palm Jumeira on an island of wonder, lies this magical place called Atlantis.  Its like Disney, but without all the dirty, sexy skin:

Just kidding:

Remember when Warner Bros was openly racist?

Here, the blackface precursor to Elmer Fudd has trouble huntin' the wascally wabbit and 
ends up losing his shirt in a game of dice. Was this controversial at the time? Nope, It was 
released in 1941 and wasn't banned until 1969.
This one is even worse!

Website of the Week - IFES Election Guide

The website of the week!

It turns me on to searching the web for further information about current elections, it provides detailed information and evaluation of electoral structures and processes the world over, and it links to interesting papers such as this one (which asks us to reconsider the value of transparency as a goal for all elections). What more could you want in a website?

 Its chief function, however, is to provide unadorned information about upcoming elections across the globe. For succeeding at that task and keeping people abreast of the world's political changeovers, IFES Election Guide receives website of the week.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Africa Goal and Goal Condoms

In a previous post about the regulations that FIFA has placed on advertising in South Africa, I mentioned how I thought the poor would not benefit from the World Cup. When I wrote that post I had forgotten about a project several friends of mine started for the last world cup. Their initiative is brilliant:

"Africa Goal was initiated in line with the World Cup 2006. A team of nine people from diverse backgrounds travelled from Kenya to the West Coast of Namibia, projecting live World Cup matches every evening for the duration of the football tournament, together with HIV and AIDS information videos. Following the success of Africa Goal 2006, the same team, building on their experience gained and lessons learnt, is proposing the 2010 Africa Goal Project. Africa Goal 2010 will start in Nairobi, Kenya and end in Johannesburg, South Africa. The team’s journey will follow the “AIDS Highway” through Eastern and Southern Africa, where increased mobility and migration in conjunction with rising disposable incomes and the associated escalation of transactional sex along this central transport and trade route were a major contributor to the spread of HIV through the region."

Its an amazing adventure that I wish I could be a part of. Maciej Sudra, currently a High School Teacher at the International School of Harare, and Matt Herren, the CTO at a software company called Blankpage AG, are co-founders of the project and all around stellar guys. Also, two more friends and vital members of the team are Ana Sudra and Chris De Nogales who are also brilliant designers and visual artists. 

For this World Cup they have also put their talents towards creating a world cup condom initiativeGoal Condoms: 

Their practical approach to disseminating such vital information should be a lesson for the bigger, more well-financed initiatives. Speaking of finances, if you like the idea why not send them a shilling or two?

Best of luck and hats off to you guys!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Nice, Healthy Taliban

I received a good question from Lady N today. Here is the news story that contains that very question:

"The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) raised eyebrows on Tuesday when it announced it was giving first aid training and medical kits directly to the Taliban insurgency. The move is part of a wider Red Cross effort to save lives in Afghanistan. The agency is teaching local doctors and Afghan security forces how to deal with weapon-related wounds. But in April it also provided basic first aid training and emergency medical kits to "over 70 members of the armed opposition," the ICRC said."  - Richard Foot, Canwest News Service 

I say everyone should have access to the information/health care that
helps to save lives. However, if we (the royal we) have a limited
amount of resources we should spend those resources where
they do the greatest good. This is clearly ambiguous, but it is also
easy to see that saving the lives of people who wouldn't think twice
about killing other people is not very efficient (and therefore not
the greatest).  Although the efficiency argument is cold, I think it
fits this context of the moral dilemma quite nicely.

If we had unlimited health resources, or even a glut of localized and
immovable resources in taliban areas, I would argue that helping them
out is a good idea. A child in this part of the world who loses a
family member mostly or partly because health care is withheld is more
likely to grow to resent foreign organizations of any sort. (I think
this stands whether or not people are aware of intentional
restriction.) Anything perceived by locals as a positive influence
from foreign organizations is a good thing.

What do you think?

The internet is one giant copy machine

News agencies are losing money due to easy access to free online news. They can't afford to hire real investigative journalists anymore, so most just copy and paste from the few first hand sources that are left. Then newspapers and bloggers copy, paste and add trite remarks. Well isn't that just great.

One giant copy machine.

Song of the Week - Funky Like a Train

Because here in the UAE our Thursday is the last day of the week, I present to you the first installment of the song of the week. This week we have the classic track by The Equals called Funky Like a Train from 1976. The rhythm is so tight, so syncopated, it is hypnotizing. Get into it!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Wittgenstien and Perception

Ludwig Wittgenstein once asked, “Why do people say that it was natural to think that the sun went round the earth rather than that the earth turned on its axis?” We all reply in unison, “I suppose, because it looked as if the sun went round the earth.” “Well", he asked, "what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the earth turned on its axis?”

Richard Dawkins continues, "Science has taught us, against all intuition, that apparently solid things like crystals and rocks are almost entirely composed of empty space."

Look at all that space!

(A short, shallow take on Wittgenstein after the jump.)

Advertising, Extortion and World Cup Revenues

Free things that are advertised are never free. Powerful companies will give away something free only to rake in subscription revenue later. The psychological effect of receiving the free item is often powerful enough to coat the bitter pill you swallow every month thereafter. You'd rather not waste that freebie's value (or hurt the environment) by throwing it away, right?

That free printer that you got with your new computer? Well, be sure that you will be buying ridiculously overpriced (unicorn) ink cartridges very soon. The profit on these will make up for it, and then some!

The free razor you were handed at the supermarket? Same deal; just try finding new blades (cost~10 cents) for less than ten dollars. How about TV subscriptions (free hookup!) Cell phones (free mp3 phone!)... this list goes on.

Far worse that this, though, is when the poor bear the brunt of these tactics:

Nestle's 'free' campaign for breast milk replacement formula that, no doubt, hurt the chances of survival for 1.3 million babies.

Ooh, how about Microsoft's campaign to give away computers to get poor people hooked on Windows, instead of letting people use the free-to-update, open source Linux alternative.

And finally to the World cup. The worlds biggest sporting event ought to bring in some revenue for the host nation, but no, South African's were duped into being the hosts. FIFA has moved aggressively against anyone who is using the FIFA World Cup name, or anything referring to it. Establishments have to pay FIFA, or lose out on the flood of football mania spending. This tips the playing field towards establishments who are well off already, and siphons off revenues from small businesses (read:bars). There is little in this event that I can imagine helping the poor (besides the obvious entertainment value.)

This whole 'restricted areas' idea just smacks of apartheid doesn't it?!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Golden Euro

Following the great stock market crash of 1929, the global financial system was in was in complete disarray and the world was flung into arguably the worst depression we will ever see. What did the gold standard have to do with it? How is this a perfect analogy for the modern day Euro?

First let me try to tackle the gold issue. There seems to always be a rabble of goldbug economists pointing to the gold standard as the magic bullet that will end our woes and return peace and stability to the world. Under a gold standard, they argue, our governments will be forced to maintain the value of the national currency, and not secretly, diabolically chip away at the fortunes of their citizens through inflation. Of course, what they don't realize is that 1) governments are just as trustworthy under both regimes 2) tying a currency to a (arbitrary) raw material removes the ability to combat recessions, ie. monetary policy and 3) This leads to deflation and deflation does not help the economy grow.

Now back to the history lesson:In 1931, when 13 countries decided to abandon the gold peg and pursue monetary measures, all of them experienced growth by 1932. The countries that stuck with gold, by contrast, experienced an average output decline of 15% in 1932. By 1936 there were three faithful left (France, Poland and the Netherlands) and by gosh they suffered for it. While all the de-gilded countries were growing, these three shrunk by 6% in 1936.

Ok, we don't really need ancient history to tell us deflation has terribly disruptive effects on the financial system. So to the moral of the story; monetary policy is key for fighting recessions. Nations like Greece, Spain and Portugal cannot pursue their own monetary policy. They are stuck to the Euro like they were to gold.

So not only is Greece suffering but now Germany is very angry (sorry for the poor source) because the Euro is being pimped out to help bail out the Greeks. Greece (Spain, Portugal, Italy...) would do better, if could escape with their banking systems intact, to throw off the shackles of the Euro, lest they forget...

Unfortunatly for countries up against the zero lower bound interest rate, monetary policy becomes ineffective, as Japan has found. This is when they should turn to fiscal expansion. But this is another argument for another day.

And yes, that is a gold vending machine.

HT: My professor, Joachim Voth

Monday, May 24, 2010

Subject Matters and Construction

Upcoming potential weekly specials:

Photo of the week (monday)
Youtube of the week (tuesday)
Song of the week (thursday)
Website of the week (sunday)

Photo of the week: Abu Dhabi City from the Beach

Abu Dhabi, my current home, is developing at an exceedingly rapid pace. The recent downturn in Dubai has left a glut of construction companies and migrant workers fallow. Abu Dhabi, it seems, has swept them up and put them to task. You will not find many city scapes with out at least one crane.

With this pace of construction, planning is always a concern of mine. What is the plan? To be honest, it seems like there isn't one. Or, at least there is no static plan, no plan that survives the daily whims of the executives in the echelons of Urban Planning Council. Before we know it, well have a huge mess of lifeless buildings that looks like something out of Dubai.

An architect friend of mine commented the other day about the difficulty this poses for development companies. A building she helped design was approved on a plot authorized for six stories, but her plan only went to five. One the eve of breaking ground the city nixed her plans citing that the building was too many stories! The new design has four stories... my bet is that in the end it will wind up with six. This whole process takes months of course.

Although this seems like it would slow the pace of growth, be sure, it has not.

Oh well, at least Saadiyat will be amazing.


If you haven't seen this fantastic cartoon yet I think Episode 1 of the new 3rd season is a fine place to start. I can't get enough of this show!


I love the characters. The two main characters are brothers. Huey, a precocious, politically enlightened 10 year-old, strives to overthrow the sources of oppression and manipulation ever-present in society. His (twin?) brother Riley, a perfect foil, is a wannabe thug, completely self-absorbed and unaware. The rest... well, take it from me, it's golden.

I'm not sure how long this clip will last on youtube; I would imagine even if the creators do not mind, the networks probably want to control the dissemination of the show, so enjoy it while you can!

I wonder how businesses value an episode of a tv show after it has aired once. Is is close to worthless for a network? I suppose many shows these days are available online after they air on TV and there are ads on the websites that generate some return. If it is legal to record a show for personal use later, then what is the difference if instead of being private on our computers, it is public on youtube? This way we only need a few copies.

The argument would likely turn to DVD sales. Well, if people still want to make money by selling tangible media, then they ought to offer something extra-tangible, like a t-shirt or a poster, along with it. Otherwise, it's not likely that anyone beyond the biggest of fans will buy it, is it? The plagiarist buccaneers cannot be stopped.

Poverty as a Resource

Sometimes the owners of a resource do not reap the rewards of the sale of said resource. Sometimes other groups capture the 'rents' through manipulation and exploitation. This is broadly referred to as rent seeking. I never thought of poverty as a resource prone to rent seeking until I saw this clip. Its pretty damn obvious isn't it? Nothing is safe from the engine of commodification and commercialization that is advanced capitalism!

Several weeks ago many bloggers were talking about this paper by Ravi Kanbur discussing the moral qualms 'poverty professionals' have with living well by the poor. He concludes that week long "immersions" into the world of the poor by these professionals will serve as a reality check from the upper-middle class (read:sumptuous) lifestyle that they normally afford. "They are distinct from project monitoring or highly structured ‘red carpet’ trips when officials make brief visits to a village or an urban slum…” and keep people focused on the core mission at hand; helping people out of poverty.

Doesn't it seem like these trips are really only serving to palliate built-up middle-class guilt? It begs the question; are people working in poverty simply because they are on a career path? Do careers in our advanced capitalist world get in the way of other, more admirable motives? Are careerists more likely to make a living as poverty professionals than bleeding hearts? Perhaps the entire structure of careers in the poverty sector needs adjusting.

Still, the 'Enjoy Poverty' sign seems a little much for my taste. I suppose, though I understand the 'posty' nature of it, I would prefer it to read "Who Enjoys Poverty?"


Sunday, May 23, 2010

Post No.1 (Playground Politics and Races)

Ok, Post number one! This funny clip reminds me of a paper on UN GA votes and US Aid. The authors find a that countries will vote in accord with the US directly after after receiving untied aid from the US. The data only runs up to 2002, but it is revealing nonetheless. It's not only natural resources that countries are willing to give up to get some fresh foreign cash. Ahh, the ol' race to the bottom.

But back to resources, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative is a most excellent initiative that sets out rigorous standards for governments dabbling in the most profitable of extractive industries. In an effort to make natural resources beneficial for all, the EITI demands that countries reveal their resource revenues to the public in a consistent and honest fashion. An informed public is more likely to demand accountability, which in turn helps to combat corruption, elite capture and even perhaps ecological disaster. Of course, it is a completely voluntary initiative that doesn't carry much weight... yet. With any luck (and by luck I mean responsible citizens/investors/governments that demand nothing less than EITI certified products) this ought to slow that race down a bit.

The Africa kid is a great actor, by the way. :)

HT: Structurally Maladjusted