Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A shedload of aid money, and little noticeable effect, what gives?

"If I can't eat the number, when were talking about N&N's (sic), I can't conceive of it..... Our little monkey brains didn't evolve to deal with numbers that don't mean anything to our survival..." - Teller

Over one billion dollars of Aid money has bee 'pumped' into South Sudan. There are no really noticeable effects. Where did it all go!?

It's all there you see, you just can't conceive of it.

Ask Roving Bandit, who has a great little post on the quantity fallacy of ineffective aid. Check it out.

Reminds me of this post on what a trillion of dollars looks like. (You know you can fit a million US in a plastic shopping bag?!)

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Robert Reich tells America like it is, in less than 2:15

A little simplified, but in good spirit... and then this douche tries fallaciously to rebut him. Favorite paraphrase, "When people grow up they actually make more money, not less." Moron!

ht: Jeannie Morgan

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Linkies of the week

Monsanto hands USAID a 4 million dollar bomb and they plant it in Haiti. 

Oops, World Food Program forgets about PPP when calculating how much you can buy on a dollar a day in this video.

The selection process for the Managing Director of the the IMF, worlds most powerful lender (perhaps),  is rigged!

The Economist starts what I hope will be come a seminal debate on the importance of a manufacturing phase of development.... between Ha-Joon Chang and Jagdish Baghwati! Guess who is on which side?

Built to commemorate Russian soldiers in Bulgaria, this prime example of socialist realism now reads "Moving with the times". Brilliant!

Spot Ronald McDonald back there?!

Zimbabwe has the lowest Human Development Index rank in the world. How can Zim climb the HDI ladder?

Pfizer must be relieved that the mass rapes in Libya seem to be a false claim. Meanwhile Nato still bombs the f@#$ out of them.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Holes in the Earth

Im thinking of going to see the Blue Hole in Belize this summer. Isn't it stunning?!

Apparently holes like this can open up and swallow you in.

Such as this one did in June last year in Guatemala!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Jeune fille endormie raises 13 million pounds for science

The University of Sydney just sold this lovely piece to an unknown collector, with all proceeds going to scientific research. Read more...

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

It's Refugee Week In England...

...and this fellow has a song to sing about 'foreigners':

... oh and 'muslamic rape gangs'?

Does it get any worse that this fellow right here? So sad and wrong you just want to laugh.

ht: roving bandit

Mind/Memory control a reality

"Flip the switch on, and the rats remember. Flip it off, and the rats forget," said Theodore Berger of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering's Department of Biomedical Engineering.

Of course, this comes out under the guise of repairing memory loss.

Is it just me or does it smack of mind control...

Check out the whole article on PRNewswire.

ht: Mike Thicke

A Supreme court get out of jail free card

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A descriptive science?

H/T: Mankiw

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The devastating effects of uncertainty

Arab teachers from around the Middle East come to Abu Dhabi to teach in public schools. They benefit immensely from the easy lifestyle that this place affords. Their salaries are often more than triple the amount they would receive as teachers in their respective countries. However, there is one cost that needs to be considered.

They have no job security. None.

Tomorrow they could be fired. Indeed, just last week all the English (as in literature, not language) high school teachers were let go. For the thousands suddenly without work, there was no forewarning - no prior announcements. But, teachers had, as they always have, the constant creeping feeling of impending termination.

What does this feeling do to work ethic?

I'll tell you. Uncertainty can decimate work ethic.

Now, to be fair, we all face uncertainty in the workplace. Some of us more than others. Specifically speaking of the potential to be terminated; most of us so called 'professionals' have contracts that protect us from arbitrary decisions made by high level executives. Here, however, especially when working for certain branches of the government, contracts seem to have minimal effect.

I suspect there is a threshold amount of uncertainty beyond which work ethic falls to zero. That could be explained in a graph (my inner economist speaking...) but I'm going to try to explain it with words.

Up to a point uncertainty could be a motivating factor:

         "If you don't work hard, you could be fired!"

When uncertainty includes arbitrariness, it is somewhat of a de-motivator:

          "No matter how hard you work, you could be fired!"

But when uncertainty and arbitrariness pass a certain threshold, people simply don't give a damn anymore:

          "You are probably going to get fired no matter how hard you work."

This is the point where high school teachers are in Abu Dhabi. And, the point many 'ex-pat' professionals are approaching here. Arbitrariness and uncertainty perpetuated by a ridiculously top heavy decision making structure are wreaking havoc on productiveness in this sandy Emirate.

I think the broader concept of the uncertainty threshold can be expanded to many sectors of employment. I imagine poor farmers, in say, Tanzania, facing terrible uncertainty (and arbitrariness) waiting for the rains to come. Should they spend that extra money on fertilizer if the chance of rain is pretty damn slim? Frosty beers do give immediate benefits! I don't mean to generalize that all Tanzanian farmers are tempted by alcohol, just that If I were faced with those choices I'm not sure if I could resist.

Ok, I had to draw one.... :)

Of course, incentives can differ wildly depending on the type of job. Some people that are perfectly secure in their job can maintain high levels of productivity...

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Another note on the 'looming' currency war

I wrote this post on the potential for a currency war a while back, arguing that nations ought not to get involved. Since then, few significant headlines have cropped up. With the renminibi steadily rising against the dollar, Europe steeped in greecier bigger problems, and emerging economies faring much better than a year ago, it seems as if the guns have been muffled. Nonetheless, Krugman wrote a post two weeks ago that I think is worth reposting/discussing.

A central tool for understanding monetary policy and foreign exchange rates is the 'impossible trinity' or the trilemma, as I like to call it...

As it says in the middle of the triangle, a country cannot pursue all three policy goals at the same time.

The example in the picture is pertinent, but an equally appropriate starting point is the situation in the US right now.

The US has free capital flows and retains control over its monetary policy, control it is wielding ardently at the moment for the purposes of stimulating the post-financial-crisis economy.

The problem is, with rock bottom interest rates and increasing amounts of US dollars floating around, emerging markets (such as Brazil) are faced with appreciating exchange rates against the dollar. This spells trouble for economies that export massive amounts to the US, and even more trouble for economies with high interest rates that can't easily manage massive short term capital inflows coming from the US. 

...historically speaking, big trouble. On page 14 of this section of this section of the OECD Economic Outlook you can see that one in ten of the 268 countries that have faced a similar episode have fallen into either a banking crisis or a currency crisis.

So, Brazil has three choices, 1) either accept the appreciation of the reál against the dollar (making sales to the US less likely, and capital to flow freely to Brazil), 2) pursue an equally expansionary monetary policy (relinquishing independence and causing unsolicited domestic inflation), or 3) restrict the increase in capital flows and risk scaring away coveted long term foreign investment.

Luckily for countries like Brazil, the IMF has learned, after years of pigheadedness, that capital controls are useful for stemming exactly this type of short-term-investment-fueled boom and bust cycles. In fact, the IMF has been meeting in Rio over this past week to discuss exactly which are the appropriate measures to place on capital in the effort to mitigate the destructive and destabilizing effects of this flighty capital.

As you can see, this poor set of choices that emerging markets face are a direct result of the US trying to save its economy. So, to argue that the US shouldn't put other countries in this position is to argue that the US should give up their independent monetary policy. This will simply not happen. Brazil should know this and stop asking.

Saturday, May 28, 2011


Monday, May 23, 2011

Abu Dhabi's mercenaries need an incentive to stay

From the NYT on May 14th:

 ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Late one night last November, a plane carrying dozens of Colombian men touched down in this glittering seaside capital. Whisked through customs by an Emirati intelligence officer, the group boarded an unmarked bus and drove roughly 20 miles to a windswept military complex in the desert sand.
The Colombians had entered the United Arab Emirates posing as construction workers. In fact, they were soldiers for a secret American-led mercenary army being built by Erik Prince, the billionaire founder of Blackwater Worldwide, with $529 million from the oil-soaked sheikdom.

Reflex Response is the new name given to the mercenaries formerly know as Blackwater, led by the aformentioned Erik Prince. R2, as the group is know in the Gulf, is in fact an Emirati company, with the government's stake at 51%. Prince has called this place his home for almost a year now, during which time he has been successfully convincing the Sheiks the benefits of a private foreign army (a la Gadafi).

Know for his groups' despicable practices, Prince has been distancing himself from his former company (currently re-branded as Xe). The former name was tainted by their operations in Iraq, where the group received several no-bid contracts amounting to 21 million USD. They have garnered harsh criticism for their behavior (to put it lightly) and have been investigated by several Governments, including the Iraqi government, for their abuses:

From the NYT again:
Contractors often shot with little discrimination — and few if any consequences — at unarmed Iraqi civilians, Iraqi security forces, American troops and even other contractors, stirring public outrage and undermining much of what the coalition forces were sent to accomplish. The mayhem cropped up around Iraq, notably in one episode reported in March 2005 in which a small battle erupted involving three separate security companies... 

...one of which was Blackwater. Most famously, the group opened fire on a crowd of people and killed at least 17 civilians including women and children, and wounded some 30 others in what came to be known as the Nisoor Square Massacre. In April of this year a US federal appeals court reopened the case against four Blackwater mercenaries.

Make no mistake. These are the worst people in the world. They go above and beyond the call of duty for a bloodthirsty gang of mercenaries. They bribe officials, smuggle arms, open fire upon civilians, and shoot at other private soldiers that are supposedly 'on their side'. There are endless stories about companies like Blackwater that mercilessly shoot down defenseless citizens.

Here in Abu Dhabi, the threat of citizens taking action against the government is slim to none. Unlike Bahrain, the people here are religiously homogenous. Unlike Egypt, no political opposition to the government exists. Unlike Libya, the people here are placated with houses, free school and health care, and all manner of interest free loans encouraging entrepreneurship and personal wealth creation. Basically, any and all reasons for uprising have either been dealt with or simply do not exist. As a friend recently put it, "If Emiratis were to protest... well, they'd probably send their Philipina maids in their place. It's too hot outside you know..." Three bloggers were arrested earlier this year for their harsh criticism of the regime, but I still can't imagine an organized demonstration of any kind. So what use is R2?

The main threat to the Sheiks, if any could be cited at all, may come from Iran. It's no secret that the strife in Bahrain this past spring was fomented by Iran. Here, however, there are very few Shia for Iran to eqip with rebellious ideology or weapons.

In any case, the government is easily courted by a security company from the US, a country with which the UAE has close ties. But it is not clear if the US State Department has had any involvement in the deal, or conversely, if Relex Response is in fact breaking US law by training foreign troops without first receiving their blessing. The UAE has had a strong history of pouring money on American military initiatives, and surely the offer of your own personal international guard makes too much sense to reject.

According to the NYT, R2 is spending $9 million per month on initiatives including training Emiratis, and paying south asian laborers to cook, clean and maintain their camp (as one does in this part of the world). Pennies for a Sheik. But operations have not been so smooth. Like any company that comes to the UAE, R2 has been plagued with what we call "runners". Handfuls of employees have been hired and either quit or were fired within months. They come, make a quick buck and realize this place is a desert. But with all the prostitutes in Dubai (rock up to the Fairmont any night of the week and you'll see what I mean) I'm sure R2 can persuade its mercenaries to stay.

They have no other reason.

For more, check out http://www.blackwaterwatch.com/

Zaha Hadid and the despotic reign of design

Designers these days are like gods. They are given such reign over function; the world is blinded by swoopy lines and bubbly surfaces.

It took engineers no less than ten years to figure out how the hell they could build this monstrosity of design that pays little heed to the laws of physics:

Oops, not the shoe that Zaha Hadid designed for Lacoste a few years ago...

Oops, not the ones she did for Melissa. 

I mean this bridge that is down the street from me:

Ten years...

....to build a silly bridge. An engineer could have built it in 3, used half the tonnage of steel and concrete and made it more elegant and more efficient.

Now she's building a building on Saadiyat island:


But form over function is untenable when our (those of us that will use the building) values conflict with the designers' fancy.

In Abu Dhabi, it doesn't even matter that buildings are not functional, as long as they look pretty from a birds eye they'll get the green light. Wouldn't you green light this building?

But, what about the people that have to live in there? Did anyone consider them? What about a nice balcony to take advantage of the beautiful weather? Hmm?!

Designers must be forced to consider the the systems of communication, transportation, energy and waste; the greater environment in which their creation will rest is of utmost importance. They must consider ground level experience and they must play off the surrounding buildings.

It benefits no one when a beautifully designed finger sticks out like a sore thumb.

 Someone tell them that. 

Thursday, May 19, 2011

What is this place?

The cure for procrastinating grad students?

Been stalling on your thesis? Another day passes and you can't get off reddit long enough to dig in to that source thats been sitting on your desk for a week?

Well, the University of Chicago (who else?) has come up with a clever way to motivate its grad students. ITs called the "write-in" and it works like this: You pay them $50 and you get a space to work, coffee snacks and lunch for a week. At then end of the week if you have shown up everyday and have gotten some real work done (how they measure that I don't know) you get your 50 bucks back!

I wish my old school had a program like this. Imagine the $50-a-pop college party at the end of a productive week!

H/T: The Nudge Blog

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Blattman, Banerjee and Duflo Debate

On Chris Blattman's excellent blog a debate about development sprung up last week.

The question was basically this: What is the best first step for South Sudan as an emergent country?

The two sides are as follows: social spending (Duflo and Banerjee) versus security and private sector (Blattman).

Banerjee and Duflo champion social services for the poor (on the economix blog initially), including: schools, health care, health insurance and even a direct cash transfer system.

Blattman argues, given that South Sudan has little to no operational capacity for such bureaucracies, creating a welfare state would be too much of a burden. He advocates making peace with warlords, and creating invectives for them, and the rich in general, to invest in productive fixed assets such as factories or plantations. He also pushes for an operational police force. His point is that politics is primary and security is at the heart of it: maintain peace and support private sector development. Oh, and build roads.

Banerjee and Duflo respond, that pursuing redistributive policies that target the poor is essentially building the identity of the state. Hopefully, as they suggest, a virtuous cycle would start whereby the poor support the state for putting them first and therefor hold off special interest groups (eg. warlords, elites) from capturing the product of nation (oil mostly for now).

Finally, Blattman remains skeptical. With evidence from Sierra Leone he chops down the benefits of cash transfers. From his own experience in Uganda and Liberia, his opinion of the effectiveness of redistribution programs, as far as they spur development, is jaded.

Of course, we are tempted to think that this is an atrificial trade-off, and that the state of South Sudan can pursue both courses at once. While to some extent that may be true (eg. placating warlords could fit on both agendas) I think the notion that these respective policies build the identity of the state is accurate and useful.

Will the state grow akin to an enlightened version of African socialism of 1960's? Or more like the capitalist enterprise of the 90's plus security and sensibility? Perhaps it is unfair to cast upon them such shadows. In any case, let us all hope for Lant Pritchett's work to have some impact.

In the end, I must admit, I am convinced by Banerjee and Duflo. Perhaps because because of quixotry, perhaps because of this:

IMF Victims

There are so many conspiracy theories floating around the web about Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Of course, many many French people are calling his victim a 'honey trap'/CIA operative set out to bring him down.

If she were such a honey trap you'd expect her to be a blonde bombshell (like many of his other extramarital ladies). But, no, she is an immigrant from Ghana.

Anyone else see a microcosmic parallel with the IMF in general? Trying to rape Ghanaians?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Global Integrity Report

The Global Integrity Report came out last week.

On a scale of Yemen to Finland how corrupt is your country?

Or, alternatly, you could check out Transparency International's Global Corruption Perceptions Index.

Check 'em both out!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Airline safety videos - Who the hell watches those anyway?

First, at Delta they got a sexy stewardess to add a little sizzle to their video. It became somewhat of a meme on the interblags: Smoking is not allowed!

Then New Zealand Air does this!

Breaking the mold alright!  You will probably pay attention now! At least until you're forced to watch it more than 3 times...

I say lets democratize it. Make an art out of it. Someone ought to create a competition on youtube for the best inflight video. They'd get so many good entires they could have a different one for each flight! So often the corporate world doesn't understand the incentives of the youtube generation. People just want recognition.

And down with the forced consumption of advertising! If I'm going to be forced to watch ads, you'd better pay me for it. Right now. In cash or booze kind.

Harper hails Quebec's 'shift to federalism'?

 What a complete dunderhead. Quebec has had 'federalism' in recent years at least since 1995! If only the rest of Canada could get their heads out of their asses and follow Quebec, we'd at least have a competent PM.

Bin Laden and Pakistani Aid

Osama Bin Laden has been killed. People are celebrating. I don't think we should be celebrating. Pakistan should certainly not be celebrating. As a Westerner in the UAE, I see moderate Arab Muslims shrugging their shoulders and those more conservative shaking their heads. No one is shouting. Pakistanis, notably those from Peshawar and the surrounding region,  give off no impression at all. But they in particular, should be worried. Take a look at this picture from the NYT:

If 96% went towards military, what does that leave little ol' development (plus overhead)? Not very bloody much. And now, with Osama dead, can we expect this stream to continue? Not bloody likely. Looking at it this way, it has been in Pakistan's best interest to keep Osama hidden and keep the taps flowing.

Traditionally, this is the time when the US disengages from a situation and leaves a mess for other organizations to fill in. The prize has been won. This reminds me of this video from a few years back in which Thomas Barnett makes a hawkish, yet perfectly acceptable presentation about how the US military needs to be comprehensively engaged in post war efforts to build peace and security.

Of course, Osama's death does not make this a post conflict zone, and in fact may do just the opposite.  Nonetheless, the strategic switch from offensive to developmental should be engaged.

I read a statistic from Paul Collier once (which I can't find now, of course) that said something like 40% of post conflict zones in the past 15 years that have attained some kind of peace have reverted back into hostile zones.

I brought up military spending at work today. People were surprised to hear that the US spends about as much as the entire rest of the world combined on their armed forces. A Syrian friend of mine replied lamenting about how rich his country would be if they weren't continuously funding the military. I told him of the untold billions Canadian PM Stephen Harper is going to spend on fighter jets. "For what?" he said.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Good ol' Canadian tact

Canada and the UAE have been having a diplomatic row over airline landing rights. It is a really silly tit for tat.

After a five years of negotiations, Canada denied Etihad and Emirates airlines more rights to land in Canada. According to the "Proposed Framework for Commercial Cooperation" which was written in 2006, among the ideas discussed were profit sharing, route coordination and code sharing between airlines. In the end, Canada just wouldn't let the UAE airlines in. In response to this denial of access, in October 2010, the UAE denied a several Canadian diplomats (Ministers Blackburn and MacKay) permission to land in the UAE.

The UAE also imposed visa fees on Canadians traveling to the UAE that began in January. $200, $500 and $1000 bucks is what Canadians will have to pay to come to the UAE for a month, three, or six months. A little hefty if you ask me!

And perhaps most importantly, the UAE chose not to renew the land-lease under Camp Mirage, the not-so-secret Canadian air base in the UAE. Apparently, as Harp notes in the link below, the UAE was using a free extension of the lease as leverage during the negotiations. (At that point it had already granted for three months.)

Over the next few months several Canadians, including the PM Mr. Harpie, accused the UAE of being soft on terror. Perhaps the comments were misconstrued, but that is how the comments coming out of Canada were understood here. (Here's what Herp said, if you care to look.)

Bam! Out goes the base that served Canada's mission to Afghanistan. 30 days to move!

How much has that cost Canada? Hmm? Think relocation, logistics, a new lease in Cyprus (Mirage could have been free!). Think an average of 3.6 million kilograms of cargo being moved by air each year, and as many as 32,500 Canadian personnel passing through annually. Were talking hundreds of millions of dollars.

To be sure, the UAE was trying to strong arm Canada. If the UAE doesn't get what it wants, well, you're not likely to be friends. Then again, the Canadian negotiators at the table were fools.

Were we going to take it lying down? No! Canadians struck back! In the media, pundits were calling the UAE Lilliputian, a spoiled child, a two-year-old in the grocery store cookie aisle, and a bunch of pompous thugs behaving like Canadians need them (search those terms to see each respective diatribe). We sure showed them.

Here are a few quotes that show that neither side really knows the economic impact of their decisions:

House Leader John Baird:  "It would have cost Canada literally tens of thousands of jobs and was not in Canadian's best interest" (bull)

Economy Minister Sultan Bin Saeed Al Mansouri: "Each additional flight would contribute $60 million to the Canadian economy. It will provide job opportunities for the Canadians." (not likely)

Harper: "That's just not how you treat allies, and I think tells us you better pick your friends pretty carefully in the future." (riiiight)

Finally, criticizing Canadian negotiating skills, Foreign Affairs Critic MP Bobby Rae: "I have never seen such a ham-fisted and confrontational approach to a friendly and moderate country in my political experience."

Ham fisted? I am not even muslim and I am offended that he used that word in the UAE.

Ah, good ol' Canadian tact.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Rich and Poor in the OECD

The Economist Blog has a nice little entry on the problem of growing inequality in the OECD. Mashakel katheeran as we say in the UAE.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


How ironic it is that the sense most associated with 
 is most hopelessly lost in 

Monday, May 2, 2011

My Cartoons were apt

Harper won a majority. Early polls show same low turn out as last election.

NDP won 109 seats to become the opposition, picking up 45 seats from the Bloc.

Duceppe lost his and resigned. (trumpet muted)

Liberals lost 42 seats to the Conservatives and NDP.

Ignatieff lost his riding and did not resign.

May won her seat, making her the first Green Party MP in history.

Brosseau won her seat. Who? A barmaid who may never have been to her new riding.

The People cry for their country.


Vote Canada!

Vote! Sadly, I couldn't get my vote in in time. Living in the UAE has its drawbacks...

Sigh. I'll just end up ranting If I type anything. So here are some cartoons:



Sunday, May 1, 2011

What do you think of this?

Not suitable for work, but essential viewing.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Kids Playing in Delhi

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Economists Get Rhythm, Part 2

From the people that brought you the epic first round battle between John Maynard Keynes and F. A. Hayek, comes part two of a legendary standoff between these two giants of economic theory:

While it's not really clear how Say ought to be a coach of Hayek, I guess they could be lumped on the libertarian side of things. And I'm pretty sure Mises and Hayek had a few disagreements somewhere along the line, but then again, to prove that I would have to dig a little more than I have done in a while... for now I'd rather just enjoy this hilarious, pertinent and entertaining video. It's so good!

World Bank Advocates Primary Education

Fifteen years ago if you had told me that the World Bank was in Uganda, advising the government there to spend more money on roads, and more importantly, education, I would have laughed at your cruel joke. In the 90s the Structural MalAdjustment Programs (if you haven't heard about them click on it!) were in full swing, and government spending was tantamount to turning off the taps of international aid.

Now we have this: the President of the World Bank advising the President of Uganda to spend more on primary education. Education! One of the least clearly measurable investments, in terms of economic outcomes, a government can make! Imagine that!

We should be hard on the Bank for their terrible mistakes. We should be skeptical of them because of their structure. Dominated by US interests and barely influenced by the 'recipients' of their policies, the World bank has arguably done more harm than good in the past. However, ever since they realized that capital controls and fiscal stimulus are an integral part of the developing nation toolbox, they have been getting more and more things correct. The IMF even have a set of guidelines to help poor countries manage capital controls, check it out. 

Monday, April 25, 2011

Shopping Can't Save the World

Over the previous 50 or so years we have seen the development of charities driven by classical capitalists. The Bill Gates' of the world, if you will. These magnates destroy take from the little guy with one hand give back to society with the other.

In a two action motion, they complete a viscous cycle. In the fist action they perpetuate the inequalities and injustices of the global capitalist system, they reinforce, and profit from the agreements and accords that keep poor people poor and ignorant. They profit big time. 

Then, in the second, they attempt to absolve themselves of the guilt that their business practice has brought upon them. They set up charities. And people forget. That they were ever bad in the first place is a secondary consideration. (I mean, they run charities, so how could they have done wrong in the past?)

Don'f forget! Microsoft is one of the most ruthless, dastardly and morally corrupt corporations in the world. They have abused so many people, from Namibian schools, to Danish programmers, it is remarkable. They are still malicious, even with a cherry on top. Of course, the same goes with many top companies in the States in particular, including Apple, Nike, Starbucks, Gap, etc...

These days, however, a new kind of business model has become the norm. One in which the two actions of destroying and deluding repairing society happen all at once. Its called brand aid and it's that same delusion we were used to, now it just happens all at once!

Should you feel better about buying a shirt you don't need from GAP because a portion goes to fighting aids? NO. Should the fact that Apple gives some tiny amount to fighting aids or feeding the poor forgive their abusive business practices NO!

These kinds of charity are merely promotional material. How could Old Navy or Microsoft get rich without poor people to abuse? Not as easily, that is for sure. It is in Starbucks best interest to keep the poor disenfranchised, but give them just a little help, so the public image of GAP changes so slightly, allowing the Nike to sell an extra million t-shirts/programs/anything.

Here's a little presentation from Lisa Ann Richey, the author of the upcoming book entitled Brand Aid: Shopping Well to Save the World. Please, please watch this Bono clip at 3:47. Ugh.

This is not to condemn projects that promote small business in impoverished nations, as Zizeck does in this great little video. There are thousands of products out there that are wonderful and worthy of your dollar. It is just to say that the odds are stacked against the poor. Big businesses enjoy it, and won't change anything. A little cash the flows straight to entrepreneurs in poor countries is a good thing. Indeed it is the least we can do, but it just won't solve anything.

It reminds me of the moral question my family sometimes asked itself when we lived in Kenya. Should we hire some more people? Should we help out more poor Kenyans, who most likely are over qualified for any position we can offer? Sure. But it won't solve anything.

That 1% goes to fight poverty in someway does not forgive overspending on silly things people don't need. That a handbag is made by a poor Ghanain woman does not make it good to buy fifty. It won't fix anything on the systemic level, therefore the moral penance it seems to afford is illusory, and by no means does it justify living beyond our means (as environmentalists). The best thing we can do for the poor is understand that the rules of capitalism are made by the WTO, the World bank and the OECD (and often local governments) and they are implicitly working against the poor by having the best interests of the rich at heart. And, even more important, we should strive to solve that. And how.

Hat tip to: Slavoj Zizek and Brand Aid

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A lil Faux HDR photography


Monday, April 18, 2011

Sunrise to Al Ain

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Write no evil

Quite often my posts are level headed, or just plain reporting of facts (as I find them;). But sometimes I feel the need to write something a little more inflammatory. A after a few-wide eyed posts about hope and innovation, I just feel the need to lash out a bit. Maybe I do it to try to get some attention... In any case, I have taken some advice from my friends and due to present circumstances in the UAE I have decided to grade my language.

Three bloggers have been jailed recently for writing inflammatory posts.

From now on I will refrain from being crass about anything in the UAE. I am also going back and making sure I haven't written anything offensive in old posts.

Am I a coward? Nah, I see it like this: I enjoy living here and do not wish to be kicked out, at least not yet, and I am not passionate enough to be a martyr. Although... give it a few months and the crass might be back. :)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Masdar - A carbon neutral hoodwink

Masdar is a 15 billion dollar project begun by the city of Abu Dhabi. It is inteded to be a carbon neutral city of the future. They will be considering every effect on the environment a city has, and making sure all systems are as efficient as can be: recycling wherever possible, using sustainable materials, harvesting wind and solar power, and you can imagine the list goes on.

Sounds like a fine idea doesn't it?

Well, it's not.

It is misguided. Abu Dhabi is one of the least environmentally friendly cities in the world. There are no recycling systems, no grey water facilities, no standards for efficient cooling or lighting in buildings, it basically ignores every aspect considered at Masdar. There are giant dump trucks that form a steady stream of waste (much of it very recyclable) that is buried in the desert 100km out of town. Abu Dhabi has the highest co2 per capita in the world. It also uses the most water per capita IN THE WORLD.


So where does that leave Masdar? Is it a revolution in thinking? Nope, its a show off contest. The thing to show off these days just happens to be environmental.

The trouble with this is that the real issues are ignored. What use is building a new green 'city' (more like token neighbourhood) when the rest of the city continues to be the worst environmental offender in the world?

It reminds me of the argument that we ought to try to colonize new planets because ours is spoiled. It's just not feasible. (Don't get me wrong I'd like to colonize other planets, we just don't have the resources, not at this rate of depletion in any case, but I digress...)

In short; fix the problems that already exist. Waving a big, 15 billion dollar eco-friendly flag around is not going to solve anything. Just imagine what 15 billion could do to any of the failing systems here (ie. education, environment, traffic, etc.).

(Note: The original post has been edited to fit this climate)

Friday, April 15, 2011

Harper is a very big problem

A couple of snippets about Harper:
  • "Since 2006, Harper has cut funding for women’s advocacy by 43 per cent, shut 12 out of 16 Status of Women offices in Canada and eliminated funding of legal voices for women and minority groups, including the National Association of Women and the Law and the Courts Challenges Program. "
  • "Harper decorated the government lobby in parliament with photos of just himself, instead of the traditional portraits of former Prime Ministers."
  • Harper has tried (and failed) four times to create a law that would allow the government to obtain private information from internet providers without a warrant.
  • "In 2007, Harper cut $1.2 Billion in spending for the establishment of quality national childcare. However, he never kept his promise to cut the $1.4 billion in tax breaks he gives to oil companies." 
  • During the G20 summit in Toronto more than a thousand people were arrested. Less than a hundred were actually charged with a crime. The others.... well... they were just being pesky I guess.
  • Herpy is tough on crime! He'll double the 5 billion dollars we spend on the prison system, despite the fact that crime in Canada is falling for a decade.
  • Harpster reinterpreted the meaning of child soldier (he thinks they belong to their 'national military') so that Canada can no longer recognize the vast majority of child soldiers as being child soldiers.
  • Harp has cut Canadian aid to Africa in half. Choosing instead to use aid as a tool for improving relations with middle income countries which now receive an 80% portion. But wait, he gets better, he actually froze all aid in 2010.
  • There are close to 100 First Nations communities in Canada that have unsafe drinking water. Herpie doesn't think that clean water is a right, and did not allocate any new funding to solve the problem in the 2011 budget
  • Harper is actually the love child of Dick Cheney and Karl Rove. They mixed their sperm together so they wouldn't know who the real father is and Gm'd their sperms to produce babies with no trace of the vestigial organ known as the human heart. (not intended to be a factual statement)
  • Every spring Hearp prorogues parliament so he can retreat back to the prairies where he lays 2 million egg sacs beneath the soil. (not intended to be a factual statement)

Sources for (most of) these can be found at ShitHarperDid.ca

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Good ol' Kenyan Politics

Ruto is a thug. He  has been embezzling, smuggling, illegally selling, lying, cheating and stealing his entire career as a Kenyan Politician. Then again, he is nothing out of the ordinary.

He was suspended as a Higher Eudcation minister on charges of corruption in October. He was acquitted just a few days ago and cleared of all charges. The half million US that disappeared out of the coffers of the Kenya Pipeline Company apparently didn't go directly into his pocket.

He is also one of the six men accused of inciting the post election violence in 2007/8. He has been trying his best to get the case deferred, even flying to the Hague this week to haggle, but has failed at every attempt

And, of course, he will be running for president.

In your country, would this man, if only accused of these crimes, run for office?

The horror of the 2007/8 election violence in Kenya

Sunday, April 10, 2011

To Read

Two exciting new books are coming out in the next two weeks or so. These two books, as heralded as they are, represent the credit that randomized experiments have garnered in the field of development economics.

If we have limited resources (we do) and can choose only one thing to buy, should we buy bednets, textbooks or deworming medicine for poor children in Tanzania? Randomized control trials in economics help us to understand the real effects of interjections such as these. By employing this method of looking at differences in differences we can allocate aid funds most effectively ie. with the greatest positive impact and the least negative one. (If our ends were to get more education happening, it turns out deworming is the most effective, who knew? This feeds from a recent post on indirect aid sometimes being the most effective. )

The question of extrapolation is a pertinent one. Deworming worked well in Kenya, but will it work as well as say, bed nets in other more malaria-ridden circumstances? Luckily some very bright people are working in this field, and I figure extrapolation is well considered and rarely taken as given throughout the field.

These two books mark the forefront of the effort to make aid more effective and less defective....and it seems, in a very digestible way! (Who doesn't like digestible forefronts!?). I hope they can deliver to the UAE.

Click on a book to find out more:


Check em out:


Friday, April 8, 2011

New Look, dunes

I'm trying out a new look, what do you think?

The photo in the background is one I took on a trip into the Rub Al Khali, to a little oasis of date palms they call Liwa. If your screen is big enough, you can see me standing on the dune.

To the north of Liwa, the desert is somewhat uneventful. It is relatively flat, with sparse shrubs and no significant geographical features. To the south, the desert explodes into a million dunes, you can see what I mean in this picture.

It is as if you are looking out on the ocean. The dunes, sometimes reaching up to 200m high, go on forever. It first appears so empty.  But, if you look closer, all forms of life somehow survive in the empty quarters of the world.

The biggest dune in 'Liwa' is called the Tal moreb, a reported 120m giant with a 50 degree face. Perfect for dune boarding, bashing or moto. It is absolutely nuts.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

This is very funny

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Monday, April 4, 2011

Harpster has trouble with democracy and with names

It is a troubling time for Canadians. A federal election is upon us. It is the 4th election in seven years. Over the past five, Harper has lead a minority Conservative government who have been efficiently dismantling Canada's democracy, it's regard for the environment, and its reputation in the world for being a progressive and egalitarian nation. I am no expert on Canadian Politics, but I am aware that the situation is dire.

Over the past years Conservative scandals have been so numerous, it is hard to pick any in particular that stand out. Nonetheless, here are a few:

Harper has seen to it: that war resistors are offered no shelter in canada, that the choice of abortion be left off the G8 maternal health policy (even for rape victims), that parliament was prorogued not once, but twice.... and that is just the beginning of the list. He's been shutting down women's groups, limiting funding for grassroots organizations, blatantly appealing to particular special interest lobbies without regard for consequence (video) and limiting the media's ability to showcase his deception and deceit (video and video). He thinks that the Canadian people don't care that he broke the law by deliberately misleading parliament about the cost of fighter jets he proposed Canada purchase:

Allow me to go into a little more detail about the two prorogations. They were both for the explicit purpose of avoiding a motion of no confidence. The likelyhood of losing that vote came about in 2009 because Herpie tried to limit civil servants rights to strike, eliminate the dollar 95 that political parties garner for each vote they receive in an election, and tried to limit the recourse that women have for pay equity issues; things he's still trying to do.

The second prorogation was as blatantly undemocratic as the first. Even the Economist had a dig: "Mr Harper’s move looks like naked self-interest" His efforts to shut down parliament amidst the controversy of the Afghan detainees affair succeeded.

Now, all of this is broad strokes, so more research/attention is needed to do any justice to how terrible this government really is. If you have anything to add or correct, please do!

Even now there are great little scandals to pay attention to. For example:

Why does Harpy have trouble with his own party member's name?

 Because he is conniving bastard.

 What a tool.

(Apologies for the overly dense linking!)

Thursday, March 31, 2011

A new field of work

The other day I got a chance to talk with an old aid worker, someone who saw the birth of this industry, if you will, and it was refreshing. He spoke of times, when he was an up and comer, when there was no field called 'Aid work', there wasn't even a future for people who were "against the system". He was probably at least 60, but was remerkably clear about the changes in the aid game that have taken place over the past 30 years. We have created not just a single profession but a plethora of jobs that are singilarily focused on improving the structure and wellness of less developed counties and their systems, or at least purport to be.

Beyond aid work, there are thousands of occupations today, the very existence of which must have been impossible to predict 60 years ago.

What will the new fields of work be in the future?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Direct aid = Good aid?

Quite often when aid is given, whether it be humanitarian or otherwise, there is pang of regret that goes along with it. Usually it is something like:

"If only the governments weren't so corrupt..." or
"If only the NGO's weren't so self serving..." or more generally
"If only aid made it through to the people it is intended for."

These related problems are well documented by the likes of goodintents.org or aidwatchers.com and many others.

There are situations where the aid itself is perpetuating the problem, and the answer is to not give any aid directly, but rather to support efforts that end up relieving the problem indirectly.

To highlight this (and also to elicit some responses...) was really the purpose of my last post.

Sometimes trying to give directly, though attractive for its simplicity, is not the right course of action. Giving directly to an organization that treats the wounded, in say eastern DRC, does tug at the heart strings and sound like a good idea. However, if you read my last post, it may not be the most effective way to alleviate the problem. There are many approaches to healing the wounds of war.

Giving direct food aid to Ethiopians during famines, as we have seen in the past, is the true humanitarian's response. However, other avenues for aid may have been, and surely will be, more effective at creating a lasting change in the broken food allocation systems in Ethiopia. (Lets not get started on the weapons that food aid bought.) After all, there are many, many ingredients to development.

Perhaps solutions that involve supporting political negotiations, or the development of infrastructure, or children's initiatives might, in a round about way, help to alleviate the problem. These might also be crucially, free from creating the perverse incentives that maintain the problem. We do not want warlords supported by the international aid system; we do not want Ethiopians to waiting for food aid.

We all want aid to be more effective. Sometimes the answer is to give indirectly.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The case against humanitarian aid

Although aid talk these days is centered on Japan, Ill let Tales from the Hood and La viaid loca lecture you about the issues surrounding those charity efforts. Basically, the short lesson is they don't need your old socks.

Instead, today I would like to convince you that humanitarian aid, as opposed to disaster relief (Japan) or development aid (Kenya), is bad.

Consider this: Humanitarian intervention lowers the cost of war.  Casualties of war require medical attention which requires money and resources. The Red Cross for example, brings in all kids of resources to help those in need.

"Free relief for all of my soldiers and wounded civilians? Sign me up!"

Humanitarian intervention lessens the burden of war on those who wage them; the wounded are cared for, the hungry are fed.

Consider this: The media brings in all kinds of charity.

To quote La vidaid loca link from above, "Media attention on an emergency is a significant driver of the general public’s interest in giving to an emergency."

Media brings in money.


Imagine for a minute that you are a rebel militant in some forgotten post-war country:

Together with your brothers, you wish to rise to power. You and your comrades will become rulers of the land so that you can live the life of a provider; a king. However, your resources are dwindling, and poverty is rampant. Some seasons are plentiful - when the rains come, and when resource deals are struck - but there is always the risk that activists will block trade deals, government forces will capture all the rents, and rains will fail. The risk you face is high no matter your action. The life you live is most likely short. Money is what you need. Money is power.

Which is the 'path of least resistance'? Choose one, or two that fit together:

a) Farm: Knuckle down, get a real job tilling the fields and pray that the rains are good.

b) Revolt: Go into battle with government forces on the little weaponry you have left from your last resources-for-arms deal and try to take control of the resource rich areas.

c) Look for a job: Go to the city to look for a job. Maybe you could become a taxi driver.

d) Get some education: Learn a new skill to apply to a productive endeavour in the near future.

e) Cut off a few limbs of starving children: Create a big humanitarian crisis so international aid resources come flowing into your country.

Escalate a humanitarian crisis -> media -> humanitarian aid -> free resources -> good chance to syphon off funds -> money AND  healthy soldiers -> more war -> natural resource capture -> money

Humanitarian aid has perverse incentives: it decreases the cost of war, and increases benefits to warlords for going to war.

We should not give humanitarian aid.
(...and we haven't even talked about colonialism yet)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Last Train Home

There are 130 million migrant workers in China.

They go home once a year on the New Year.

This is the worlds largest human migration.

From the incredible "Last Train Home" by Lixin Fan

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Good and Proper

From George Orwell Novels.com: Mr. Orwell on what a cup ought to be.

A Nice Cup of Tea
Saturday Essay, Evening Standard, 12 January 1946

If you look up ‘tea’ in the first cookery book that comes to hand you will probably find that it is unmentioned; or at most you will find a few lines of sketchy instructions which give no ruling on several of the most important points.

This is curious, not only because tea is one of the main stays of civilisation in this country, as well as in Eire, Australia and New Zealand, but because the best manner of making it is the subject of violent disputes.

When I look through my own recipe for the perfect cup of tea, I find no fewer than eleven outstanding points. On perhaps two of them there would be pretty general agreement, but at least four others are acutely controversial. Here are my own eleven rules, every one of which I regard as golden:

Monday, February 28, 2011

Web traffic

As Jake, a colleague/friend of mine, said:

"Al Jazeera is the only good news channel left."

Yet it's not broadcasted in the States.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Must See, Must Read

(I haven't read it yet!)


And coming soon for those of us who are less literarily inclined... the movie...


...is coming out this fall.