Nepalese Doctor Brings Sight To Over 100,000 People Worldwide

While it is easy to focus on acts of extreme barbarity — which seem all too-common given our natural bias for the negative and sensational — the world is full of unsung heroes, often obscure, who devote their lives towards living up to the best of human potential.

One such figure is Dr. Sanduk Ruit of Nepal, who has devoted the past three decades to providing vital eye care to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable populations, as well as imparting his valuable knowledge to eye surgeons in the developing world. As CNN reports:

Driven by a belief that the world’s poorest people deserve safe, affordable and high-quality eye care just as much as anyone else, Ruit has made it his mission to eradicate avoidable blindness.

In 1994, he joined the late Australian ophthalmologist and philanthropist Fred Hollows, who was his mentor and close friend, in establishing Tilganga — an eye hospital in Kathmandu dedicated to providing world-class eye care to the people of Nepal.

The hospital manufactures state-of-the-art lenses that are commonly used in treating cataracts or myopia, and exports them to more than 30 countries worldwide.

For those who cannot reach urban areas, Ruit and his team conduct mobile eye camps in remote parts of Nepal and neighboring countries, often trekking for days and cleaning out structures like tents, classrooms or even animal stables for use as temporary operating theaters.

When the eye patches come off the day after an operation, it’s an incredibly moving moment for all involved.

You can imagine how powerful it is to witness formerly blind people finally seeing their loved ones for the first time in years. Ruit has even managed to offer his miraculous services to infamously isolated North Korea, circumventing politics for the greater good.

Han Mong Guk, 80, embraces his son as he sees him for the first time in 10 years after eye surgery in North Korea in 2005.

Moreover, Ruit’s work helps entire communities thrive, since fully-blind individuals require constant care and attention that most loved ones cannot afford. By restoring sight, he is helping alleviate the suffering of more than just the patient.

His motivation and attitude for his work are as touching as you would guess:

Ruit grew up in a small village in the Himalayas so isolated that the nearest school was a week’s walk away. When he was 17, his sister died of tuberculosis despite the disease being treatable. The loss left Ruit with a sense of urgency to pursue a path that benefited others, not only himself.

It’s a decision he doesn’t regret.

“I am so grateful that I can make a difference in so many people’s lives,” Ruit said.

At 59, that same sense of urgency that motivated him as a young man remains. When asked what it feels like to watch as a patient sees the world clearly the first time, he responded: “It really recharges you and makes you move forward.”

But he cautioned that there remains so much he wants to do.

Indeed, as the CNN piece notes, most of the eye conditions that afflict Ruit’s patients are preventable, stemming mostly from poverty and lack of access to public health services. An estimated 39 million people are blind worldwide, of whom 90 percent live in low-income areas and 80 percent suffer from conditions that can be prevented or cured. Selfless humanitarians like Ruit are certainly doing their part, but the systemic causes will need to be addressed to prevent so much needless suffering.

Kim Chun Son, 48, is overcome with emotion when Nepalese doctor Sanduk Ruit takes off her eye patch during a postoperative examination in North Korea in 2005.

Portrait of An Artist: Wassily Kandinsky

Today’s Google Doodle honors the148th birthday of Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, who is credited with being the first painter to produce purely abstract works. (Despite this pioneering role, he appears to be virtually unknown in the West, at least among non-artists; I only learned of him through Google!)

Kandinsky’s fifty-year career spanned such major movements as Impressionism, Fauvism, Pointillism, Bauhaus architecture and abstract expressionism. His vast collection of works thus reflect a wide variety of styles and influences, as well as the particular moods and thoughts put into each individual piece.

Kandinsky used shapes and colors as expression of emotion, and often likened the painting process to composing music. According to Wikipedia, he harbored a deep fascination with colors since childhood, which intensified during the course of his college studies:

In 1889, he was part of an ethnographic research group which travelled to the Vologda region north of Moscow. In Looks on the Past, he relates that the houses and churches were decorated with such shimmering colours that upon entering them, he felt that he was moving into a painting. This experience, and his study of the region’s folk art (particularly the use of bright colours on a dark background), was reflected in much of his early work. A few years later he first likened painting to composing music in the manner for which he would become noted, writing, “Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul”.

By 1896, at the age of thirty, Kandinsky gave up a promising career as a teacher to enroll in art school in Munich. An encounter with the works of Monet at a Moscow art exhibit prior to leaving only further solidified this path — and the rest is beautiful and colorful history.

Wassily Kandinsky (Photo)

The End of the Population Pyramid

The issue of overpopulation has been a bugbear of the popular imagination for decades, and remains so especially into the 21st century, when humanity crossed its seven billion mark — unprecedented in both size and scale of growth (consider that while it took millennia for humanity to finally reach a billion only in 1804, it took just another two centuries to hit seven times that number).

Given all that, it is perfectly understandable why people would be concerned about the impact such rapid growth is having on everything from the environment to global food supplies and energy resources (to say nothing of the subsequent social, political, and economic instability that results from such strains).

But as the following video from The Economist shows clearly, the global population — though set to grow by another two billion by 2042 — has already begun slowing down in its rate of expansion.

An excerpt from the original article nicely sums up the visual data:

 The pyramid was characteristic of human populations since the day organised societies emerged. With lifespans short and mortality rates high, children were always the most numerous group, and old people the least. Now the shape of the global population is changing. Between 1970 and 2015 the dominating influence on the global population was the fertility rate, the number of children a woman would typically bear during her lifetime. It fell dramatically over the period, meaning that the world shifted from having larger to smaller families. The age groups start to become markedly smaller only about the age of 40, so the incline starts much further up the chart than with the pyramid. The shape looks more like the dome of the Capitol building in Washington, DC. Between 2015 and 2060 the biggest influence upon the population will be ageing. Small families are already becoming the norm, the fall in fertility is slowing down and now almost everyone is living longer than their parents—dramatically so in developing countries. So, by 2060, the dome will have come and gone and the shape of the population will look more like a column (or perhaps an old-fashioned beehive).

In other words, barring any sort of unlikely massive uptick in the global birthrate, humanity is currently entering its peak of population: shortly after hitting nine billion, growth will begin to stagnate as the number of people of childbearing age declines.

Indeed, a map of fertility rates by nation shows that most of the world’s countries (many of them developing) are already experiencing slowing, stagnating, or even shrinking populations.

Total fertility rates as of 2013. Courtesy of Wikipedia / CIA World Factbook.

Keep in mind that a fertility rate between 2-3 (green) is considered the sweet spot for stable growth: any lower and you face rapid population aging followed by, and concurrent with,population shrinking (unless immigration is high enough to offset the difference); any higher, and populations grow too quickly for resources and institutions to accommodate. Both circumstances bring their own challenges and issues, which in turn vary from country to country.

But note how the majority of the world’s population growth is taking place in the developing world, especially in Africa (where not a single country has a total fertility rate of less than 2. Indeed, as The Economist video showed, 90 percent of the world’s youth will be living in emerging economies, with Africa having more young people than any other continent.

Conversely, it is mostly mid- to high-income countries whose fertility and birth rates are low, and whose populations have already begun stagnating, if not shrinking. The few exceptions — namely the U.S., Canada, the U.K, Ireland, and France — are growing mostly due to immigration and the subsequent increase it brings to the birthrate (since immigrants tend to have more children than native-born individuals).

The following map shows the population growth of the world’s countries by percentage between 2000 and 2010.

Courtesy of Wikipedia / United Nations. Note: data vary by source.

Notice again a similar pattern: broken down by country, most of the world is seeing low to negative population growth, even if the world as a whole is growing. Basically, the global population is growing highly unevenly, with a relatively small number of countries making up the lion’s share of total growth.

Moreover, as the video showed, much of this population “growth” is really a reflection of more people living longer: previously, population stabilized or shrank because enough people would die by the time the next generation came of age to have children. But as more people stick around longer, even the effects of a low birthrate will not be felt since so many people remain.

Hence why countries like Germany and Japan — which have long had some of the lowest fertility rates, and thus fastest-aging populations, in the world — did not begin to experience stagnation or decline until decades later. Their peoples are also among the longest-lived (note that higher immigration as of late has lead to modest but noticeable growth in Germany).

So what is the significance of all this? Well, there are many issues and challenges facing the world now and in the future as population dynamics rapidly change. Frankly, I do not have time to get into the larger social and economic ramifications of having whole societies without enough working-age adults; too many older people strains social security systems

But with regards to the most commonly cited concern — that of overpopulation straining resources — the solution is simple to recognize but difficult to implement: more efficient allocation of resources on a global level.

There is plenty of capital, food, and energy in the world to go around, but most of it is concentrated in and consumed by a wealthy few nations (and within those nations in turn, by a wealthy few people). Finding a way to allocate such resources to where it is needed most would lift hundreds of millions from poverty.

Consider that food output is well above what is needed, but that chronic malnourishment afflicts hundreds of millions of people — especially in fast-growing populations — because much of that food does not go to the poorer parts of the world, and 40 percent is wasted altogether. (To further underline this misallocation, in recent years the number of overweight and obese people in the world has outnumbered the malnourished.)

Moreover, shrinking wealthy countries could benefit from taking in the younger workers overflowing fast-growing poorer nations — as several immigration-friendly nations are experiencing — but there is (and would be) much resistance.

Perhaps as the world continues to develop its global consciousness — and with it the necessary global institutions to implement such policies — we will find a mutually beneficial way address the mismatch in demographic changes. There is a lot more to this topic that I have not touched on given my time constraints, but as always I welcome your thoughts and feedback.

The Last Hero

Russian Veteran (James Hill)

The Last Hero, Gorky Park, Moscow, May 9, 2007. Credit: James Hill.

The Atlantic adapted Hill’s account of this shot (and others) from his new book, Somewhere Between War and Peace, which chronicles the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer’s work across the world.

Of the hundreds of Russian World War II veterans I have photographed, Yuri Stepanovich Zaguskin remains for me the most charming.

Members of the public traditionally give flowers to the veterans, in gratitude for their valor and sacrifice, and Zaguskin, resplendent in his naval officer’s uniform, had already collected a sizable bouquet by the time he entered the park. I asked him to stand in front of the white backdrop I had set up, and since I needed a minute to change my film, he asked if there was time for a smoke.

When I had reloaded the camera, he was still puffing away. I took just one frame before he noticed that I was pointing the camera at him, whereupon he stubbed out the cigarette and returned his attention to the shoot. I finished the whole film, but that first image, in which he was looking off, lost in his thoughts, was far richer than the others. It was not a naval officer in front of me but an old matinée idol, caught unawares on the set.

I cannot get enough of how much personality there is in this photo. I wager that this man has no doubt lived an interesting life, even beyond his highly decorated service during history’s largest conflict.

Poppy Field

My thoughts and reflections related to Veterans Day, and on war in general, have not changed much since the last time I shared them. This year’s post will not be any less somber, however: as the one hundredth anniversary of the end of history’s first (but sadly not last) “Great War”, the commemorations are especially solemn and reflective.

To mark this grim centenary of the First World War, an independent project called Poppy Field was launched to visualize just how devastating this conflict was — a reminder we sadly never need enough of, given how many other horrific conflicts have transpired since the “war to end all wars”.

Using the opportunity to highlight the brutality and tragedy of war as a whole, the project moves beyond WWI to show every conflict that has every occurred in the 20th century onward, from the lesser-known civil conflicts of Colombia and the Philippines, to the present strife in Syria, Ukraine, and the Central African Republic (notice how most of these wars tend to occur within states rather than between them).

The infographic is as beautiful as it is informative, creatively displaying the length, fatality, and location of each recorded war through the use of stylized poppies (the flower became a symbol of commemoration because it was among the first plants to emerge from Europe’s devastated battlefields after WWI, with its blood-red color and resilient yet delicate nature evoking war).

screenshot-poppyfield.org 2014-11-11 13-00-35

There are several patterns to note here. As mentioned before, most wars have become “internal” in nature — usually fought between governments and rebels, among different ethnic or religious groups, or between breakaway regions and a central power; tellingly, these types of conflicts are especially common in post-colonial Africa and Asia, a legacy of ancient grievances combined with the arbitrary borders that ignored such histories and diversities imposed by European powers.

It also seems that wars have become more frequent since the mid-20th century, although comparatively less deadly than the two great wars that dominated the earlier half (and that for most people serve as a common point of comparison, despite their anomalous nature in terms of scale). Modern wars also appear to last much longer, often drawing out into what are known as “low intensity” or “fourth-generation ” conflicts, in which the lines are blurred between civilians and combatants, and fighting is conducted in such a scope as to become normalized.

In any case, war’s every changing nature in terms of tactics and characteristics does little to change the awful human cost. Looking at these beautiful poppies and the data attached to each of them, it is easy to forget that they represents millions of full, individual lives snuffed out just this past 114 years alone. Especially from this physical and psychological distance.

A Worthy Lesson to Start Each Day With

While cleaning up my room, I stumbled upon this beautiful scroll; I think I had purchased it years ago from some Tibetan Buddhists that had visited my university. It seems like a great way to prime every day, regardless of one’s religious beliefs or lack thereof, since it is an easy lesson to forget. I should hang it somewhere more visible.

A Portrait of Ebola Survivors

Amid all the fear, panic, and misinformation regarding the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, it is easy to overlook the human element, especially insofar as the main victims have been abjectly poor and marginalized (from well before the disease emerged).

But thankfully one Pulitzer Price-winning photographer, James Moore, is determined to tell the stories of those who have endured one of the most horrific and deadly diseases. His highlights from a trip to Liberia, one of the epicenters of the outbreak, are featured at National Geographic here.

As you would imagine, each story is powerful and nuanced, combining the obvious joy of survival (and subsequent immunity to the disease) with lingering sorrow and uncertainty. They highlight the sheer randomness and cruelty of life, in the way some survived when others died despite not discernible difference in circumstance or changes between them. The following story I have excerpted especially stood out for me:

Like several other Ebola survivors, Lassana Jabeteh, 36, now works in the high-risk ward at the Doctors Without Borders Ebola Treatment Center in Paynesville. Jabeteh used to be a taxi driver; he thinks he caught Ebola while transporting a sick policeman who vomited in his car. Like many people who contract the virus, he was trying to help someone else with the disease, which Moore calls “one of the many cruelties of Ebola.”

Thankfully, Liberia at least seems to be recovering, although its equally impoverished and unfortunate neighbor Sierra Leone seems to be getting worse. It is remarkable what tremendous suffering these people (and so many more around the world) senseless endure. I am glad to be seeing a glimmer of hope in some of these resilient stories.

Map: Gay Rights Around The World

Gay rights have come a long way globally: it was only a little over fifty years ago that many developed countries, including the United States, Australia, Canada, Germany, and the U.K., still had laws criminalizing homosexual acts (even if they were de facto overlooked). Sadly, humanity still has a long way to go, as shown in the following map from The Economist.

Gay Rights Around the World

I recommend reading the article from which I pulled this map, as it does a good job exploring the current state of gays rights around the world, and why anti-gay sentiments and laws remain so stubbornly prevalent in some parts of the world. As expected, the factors are multidimensional and complex:

An enemy within can be handy for all sorts of leaders, and often more or less any old enemy will do. Some leaders’ anti-gay language has a conspiratorial tone that feels borrowed from the anti-Semitic diatribes of another time: gay people are portrayed as in thrall to alien values and particularly dangerous to children. Recent developments in the West also create exotic targets against which divisive leaders can define themselves without taking on any particularly powerful enemy at home. Nigeria’s law would surely not have taken its current form had gay marriage not made such remarkable advances in Europe and America.

None of this would work if there were not deep wells of homophobia to draw on. Over 95 percent of Ugandans and Nigerians disapprove of homosexuality. Four-fifths of Russians say that they have no gay acquaintances (though many may be wrong to say so). Such numbers say little about the intensity of anti-gay feeling in each country. They are certainly not evidence of a clamour for legislative attacks on homosexuals; activists often point out that gay people in places like Nigeria were able to lead relatively untroubled, if intensely private, lives before they became political targets. But the feelings they represent offer an opportunity for politicians seeking a quick populist win.

Some argue that the colonial provenance of anti-gay laws, in Africa and elsewhere, shows that these feelings have little genuine cultural basis. Imperial British authorities were certainly not slow to impose such laws on the lands they occupied, and they were often imported directly from home; in several former British colonies such provisions are numbered 377 in the legal code, indicating their common source.

Such sentiments seem comparable to the historic basis of antisemitism in Europe: Jews were a convenient and sufficiently alien enemy on which to unload all sorts of blame and societal frustration. Pogroms targeting Jews (and other “foreign” populations like Romanies) were often directly instigated or facilitated by expedient political leaders seeking to vent public discontent towards another source. But as with antisemitism, there is more to anti-gay attitudes than opportunism mixed ignorance:

A more contemporary and pernicious Western influence is that of conservative American evangelists who export their anti-gay message to places where it may meet more receptive ears, along with money that makes it all the more attractive. In Uganda’s case, they appear directly to have influenced the drafting of legislation.

Whether domestic or imported, religion matters. A survey of 39 countries by the Pew Research Centre last year found a strong correlation between a country’s tolerance for homosexuality and its religiosity. African and Middle Eastern nations are the least tolerant; in several Muslim countries homosexuality is a capital crime. Russia, a relatively godless place, is an exception to the rule.

So, increasingly, is America, though in the opposite direction; it is more tolerant than its levels of religious belief would predict. The greatest exception along those lines is Brazil, where attitudes are broadly tolerant and, as in Argentina and parts of Mexico, gay marriage is now legal. Homophobic violence, though, remains a problem.

Thankfully, The Economist’s assessment ends on an encouraging note, one that I agree with:

In the end gay people in the developing world will probably win their rights as they did in the West. Civil-society organisations, enlightened political and judicial leadership, and the advance of the liberal idea that the state has no business regulating the harmless activities of adults will all play a role. Most powerful, though, is likely to be people’s discovery that they have perfectly decent gay friends, neighbours, even relatives. The most pernicious thing about institutionalised homophobia and legal repression is that they make this realisation so hard. Once the wall begins to crack, though, it can quickly come tumbling down.

It will no doubt take a lot of time, but I would like to think that like so many other human rights scourges, homophobia will come to an inevitable end, or at least be greatly minimized so as not to retain the broad support and acceptance that it does in many parts of the world. What are your thoughts?

Giving to Charity Intelligently

There are so many causes worth supporting, and no shortage of charitable organizations to choose from to address them. But since money tends to be short and there are only so many groups to give to, it is important to know where you get the most bang for your buck.

If anyone needs help determining which charities they should support, check out CharityNavigator.com, which was founded to help improve the efficiency of charitable giving. To that end, it evaluates philanthropic organizations based on a range of criteria, such as financial efficiency, accountability, and transparency. It also provides a detailed profile on every nonprofit, including how much goes to overhead versus the cause, how much CEOs are paid, where donations come from, and the like.

Moreover, you can compare charities within particular fields (education, animal welfare, etc.), view a top ten list of the best (and worst) charities, see which organizations needs the most help (and which do not), and learn about the most recent trends and developments in the world of humanitarianism (for example, which organizations are involved in fighting Ebola in West Africa). You can even find vital tips on how to donate most effectively

Fortunately, my research suggests that Charity Navigator — which is also a nonprofit that could use some donations — is an independent and trustworthy source; crucially, it does not except donations or advertisement from any group it evaluates, and all of its own financials are public record and available on its website. Of course, you are free to leave any feedback regarding this or other charity watchers, so that we can all do a better job of doing good in the world.

The Greatest Threat to the World?

There seems to be no shortage of candidates for greatest threat to the world (by which we usually mean humanity specifically) — climate change, world war, nuclear weapons, a pandemic, an asteroid, or maybe even a combination of these factors. As it turns out, however, where you live determines what you consider to be most dangerous to the rest of the world.

That is the conclusion of a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, which asked 48,643 respondents in 44 countries what is the greatest danger to the global community (note, this took place before the breakout of Ebola but after events like the Syrian Civil War and the showdown between the West and Russia over Ukraine).

As Mic.com reports:

In the United States and Europe, income inequality came out on top. In the Middle East, religious and ethnic was considered the biggest threat. While Asia listed pollution and the environment, Latin America cited nuclear weapons, and Africa chose AIDS and other diseases.

Unsurprisingly, the concerns fell largely within geographic and regional boundaries. The United States and Europe are home to some of the largest and most advanced economies in the world, so it’s somewhat expected — if ironic — that they’re worried about income inequality. Asia is home to 17 out of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, and, as of 2012, sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 70% of the world’s AIDS cases.

In other words, all of us appear to have an exceptionally narrow view of the world: We see the biggest threats to our region as the biggest threats to everyone else, too.

Here is a visual representation of that data, also courtesy of Mic.com:

Moreover, the perception that religious and ethnic hatred poses the greatest threat to the world has seen the most growth over the past seven years, no doubt due to numerous high-profile sectarian conflicts across the planet.

Courtesy of The Atlantic is a color-coded map of the world that better shows how these great threats are geographically and culturally spread out:

A few other observations of the data from The Atlantic piece:

  • Other than Japan, the countries that saw nuclear weapons as their biggest danger included Russia (29 percent), Ukraine (36 percent), Brazil (28 percent), and Turkey (34 percent).
  •  The U.K.’s greatest concern was religious and ethnic hatred (39 percent), putting it in the same group as India (25 percent), Israel (30 percent), the Palestinian territories (40 percent), Lebanon (58 percent), and Malaysia (32 percent).
  • People in France were equally divided on what they consider the biggest threat, with 32 percent saying inequality and the same percentage saying religious and ethnic hatred.
  • Likewise in Mexico, nuclear weapons and pollution were tied as most menacing, at 26 percent.

It is also important to point out that in many cases, no single fear was dominant: in the U.S. for example, inequality edged over religious and ethnic hatred and nuclear weapons by only a few points. And in almost every region, anywhere from a fifth to a quarter of respondents expressed fear towards nuclear weapons (which I feel can be taken to mean war among states where the use of nukes is most likely). The survey observed that in many places, “there is no clear consensus” as to what constitutes the greatest danger to humanity, as this graph of all countries shows:

These results are very telling: as the earlier excerpt noted, you can learn a lot about a country’s circumstances based on what its people fear the most. Reading backwards from the results, it makes sense that what nations find the most threatening is what they have been most imperiled by presently or historically.

It is also interesting to note how societies, like individuals, view the world through their own experiential prism: because we are obviously most impacted and familiar with what immediately effects us, it makes sense that we would project those experiences beyond our vicinity. Just as our own individual beliefs — be they religious, political, social, etc. — are colored by personal life experiences, so too do entire nations often apply their most familiar concerns and struggles to the world at large.

Of course, this varies by country as well as by the respondents who represent said country; in many cases, participants are more likely come from higher educational and socioeconomic backgrounds, and thus reflect their class views rather than that of their wider society. (Admittedly, I am not sure if that applies to this particular Pew survey, as the respondents were interviewed by phone or face-to-face, with no indication as to their background.)

For my part, I personally put the most weight behind climate change, especially as it can exacerbate a lot of existing issues over the long-term (clashes among ethnic/religious groups over strained resources, refugees fleeing crop failures and placing strain upon host countries, etc.). What are your thoughts and opinions regarding the world’s greatest threat?