The World’s Billionaire Cities

Right off the heel of my last post about the world’s poorest denizens, comes sobering article from PolicyMic that highlights the stark reality of global wealth inequality. It identifies the world’s most popular cities for billionaires, based on a recent report from Forbes.

Moscow remains the billionaire capital of the world, with 84 of the world’s richest people, together worth a total of over $366 billion. Of the other major cities on the list (some of which tied), five are in Asia (Istanbul, Mumbai, Seoul, Hong Kong and Beijing), two are in Europe (London and Paris), two are in the U.S. (New York City and Dallas), and one is in Latin America (Sao Paulo, Brazil).

According to the 2013 Wealth-X and UBS Billionaire Census, the first comprehensive study of the world’s billionaire population, the average billionaire holds $78 million in real estate, owns four homes (each worth nearly $20 million) and posses numerous luxury items, the most common being yachts, private jets and works of art.

Despite boasting many uber-rich residents, these cities also account for a disproportionate share of overall economic growth and rising income inequality, with many of them also hosting a large proportion of poor residents. According a report by Oxfam, 85 of the richest people in the world (most of whom live in these cities) control as much wealth as the poorest half of the world (3.5 billion people).

Portraits of People Living on a Dollar a Day

As a lifelong citizen in a well-off part of a wealthy country (the U.S.), I’m doubly insulated from the miserable circumstances that are the norm for most of my fellow humans. Around 17 percent of the world’s population — that’s one out of six people — live on a dollar or less a day, lacking any stable source of food, medical care, housing, and other basic needs.

Not only do more than a billion people lack material goods and comforts, but they live a precarious existence in which they’re never certain when or if the next meal will come; in which they’re just one injury or illness away from deeper poverty or even death; in which housing is barely livable, if existent at all. And all this transpires practically invisibly, with few people truly understanding, much less addressing, this extreme level of poverty.

But not if people like Thomas A. Nazario, the founder of a nonprofit called The Forgotten International, can help it. He’s written a new book with Pulitzer Prize winner Renée C. Byer called Living on a Dollar a Day: The Lives and Faces of the World’s Poor, which offers a much needed window into these people’s everyday lives, ultimately calling for action on their behalf.

Mother Jones interviewed Nazario about his motivations for this book, as well as about bigger topics like global inequality and the pervasive savior complex of well-meaning humanitarians. The interview is pretty insightful, and the article is full of excellent photos shared from the book (which I’m interested in reading and perhaps reviewing here at a later date). I highly recommend you read the rest of it, but here’s the part that most stood out for me.

Which stories affected you the most?

 There are three. One was the kids who live on an e-waste dump in Ghana. That was quite compelling for a variety of reasons, but I think if you look at the book and see those photographs and read that piece, it’ll hit you pretty hard.

Another piece was a family in Peru that lives on recycling. That, in and of itself, is not a big deal. Recycling is probably the second-largest occupation of the poor. But [the mother's] personal story, about how she had been abused by two different husbands, how her boys were taken away because they were needed to farm, and she was given all the girls—and how her kids will probably not ever go to school. She gets constantly evicted from one place or another because she can’t find enough recycling to pay the rent. When we left her—we gave everybody a gift of at least some kind for giving us their time and telling us their story—we gave her $80, which is about as much money as she makes in two months. She fell to her knees and started crying. Not only did I learn that 25 percent of garbage produced in developing countries is picked up by individuals like her, but that one of the biggest drivers of global poverty is domestic violence, and how women and children are thrown into poverty largely for that reason.
Of course, even those of us who hear anecdotes like this or see vivid photos of unspeakable squalor do far less than we can to help. While certain psychological factors play a role in our collective apathy, there’s no denying the inherent exploitative and inefficient characteristics of the current global economic system, in which tremendous amounts of wealth continue to be allocated to a small minority of people who are largely disconnected and unconcerned in regards to the horrific reality of most of their fellow citizens.
But that’s a conversation for a different day.

The International Arms Market

The Economist’s #Dailychart  from yesterday revealed the countries that buy and sell the most weapons. The United States, Russia, Germany, China, and France accounted for three-quarters of international arms exports over the past five years, with the first two taking the lion’s share of the export market (largely a legacy of the Cold War, which led both nations to build up a massive and still influential indigenous arms industry).

 

Other major arms dealers include the U.K., Spain, Ukraine, Italy, and Israel. Only 10 other countries, mostly in the developed world, have some sort of presence in the global arms market.

Notably, China — which was once a net importer of weapons, mostly from the U.S.S.R. — has tripled its share of exports in that time, overtaking France and set to surpass Germany as the third largest arms dealer (it still receives almost as many weapons as it sells, however). Germany’s significant role in arms dealing is interesting given the country’s otherwise pacifistic and low-key foreign policy, which is characterized by a reluctance to intervene in international affairs.

Some of the bigger importers include rising powers like India, China, and to lesser degrees Pakistan and South Korea. The Persian Gulf nations of the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia also top the list, as does the tiny but influential city-state of Singapore (which is said to have one of the most advanced and well-trained armed forces in the world). Australia’s fairly high import rate likely reflect’s its growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region and its desire to play a bigger role therein.

Needless to say, this is revealing stuff. Read more about it here.

Ten Places You Wouldn’t Believe Are in Russia

This looks like something you would see in Tibet or China, right?

Well, this is the Ivolginsky Datsan, located in Buryatia, Russia. A datsan is a Buddhist university in the Tibetan tradition that is typically divided into a philosophical and medical department. This particular one was opened in 1945 and remained the only Buddhist spiritual center in the USSR. It hosts unique samples of old ethnic Buryat art, a collection of old Buddhist manuscripts written in Tibetan language on natural silk, and a greenhouse with a sacred Bodhi tree.

Buddhism has had a presence in Russia since the 17th century, and is now considered one of the nation’s traditional religions, with legal recognition as a part of its historical heritage. Aside from Buryatia, Budhissm has is a major faith in the regions of Kalmykia and Tuva, and is now widespread throughout Russia, with many ethnic Russian converts. As of 2012, anywhere from 700,000 to 1 million people profess Buddhism. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, there has been a Buddhist revivalist movement and many schools and temples opening across the nation.

See more unlikely sites in Russia here.

When Mega-Cities Rule the World

The United States has always stood out among developed nations for its sheer size, in terms of territory, population, and urban centers. So perhaps it’s no surprise that we’ve seen the organic emergence of “mega-regions,” sprawling urban centers than span across multiple countries, states, and municipalities, often for hundreds of miles. Needless to say, these megalopolises dominate (or even completely consume) their respective regions, and together they drive the nation’s economic, cultural, social, and political direction.

The following is a map created by the Regional Plan Association, an urban research institute in New York, identifying the eleven main ‘mega-regions’ that are transcending both conventional cities and possibly even states.

To reiterate, the areas are Cascadia, Northern and Southern California, the Arizona Sun Corridor, the Front Range, the Texas Triangle, the Gulf Coast, the Great Lakes, the Northeast, Piedmont Atlantic, and peninsular Florida, my home state (and the only one that is almost entirely consumed by its own distinct mega-region).

Also note how some of these mega-regions spillover into neighboring Mexico and Canada, a transnational blending of urban regions that can be seen in many other developed countries (most notably those in Europe and E.U. specifically. I’d be curious to see a similar map for other parts of the world, especially since developing countries such as China, India, and Brazil are leading the global trend of mass urbanization.

This intriguing map is part of the Regional Plan Association’s America 2050 project,  which proposes that we begin to change our views of urban areas away from being distinct metropolitan areas but instead as interconnected “megaregions” act as distinct economic, social, and infrastructure areas in their own right.

These are the areas in which residents and policymakers are the most likely to have shared common interests and policy goals and would benefit most from co-operation with each other. It’s especially important, because as the Regional Plan Association notes, “Our competitors in Asia and Europe are creating Global Integration Zones by linking specialized economic functions across vast geographic areas and national boundaries with high-speed rail and separated goods movement systems.”

By concentrating investment in these regions and linking them with improved infrastructure, such megaregions enjoy competitive advantages such as efficiency, time savings, and mobility.

The U.S., however, has long focused on individual metro areas and the result has been a “limited capacity” to move goods quickly — this is a major liability threatening long-term economic goals. And while U.S. commuters are opting to drive less, public transportation isn’t even close to commuters’ needs.

The Regional Plan Association proposes aggressive efforts to promote new construction, and finds that even existing lines are in desperate need of large-scale repairs or updates to improve service. In particular, they say the emerging megaregions need transportation modes that can work at distances 200-500 miles across, such as high-speed rail.

While this makes sense, what are the consequences of having such potent sub-national entities emerging separately from already-established state and city limits? Should we, or will we, have to re-draw the map? Will these megaregions become the new powerhouses that influence the political and economic systems of the country at the expense of current representative structures? Will they coalesce into distinct interests that have their own separate political demands from the individual local and state governments that are wholly or partly covered by them?

Interesting questions to consider, especially in light of this being an accelerating global trend with little sign of stopping, let alone reversing. I’m reminded of Parag Khanna’s article, “When Cities Rule the World,” which argued that urban regions will come to dominate the world, ahead of — and often at the expense of —  nation states:

In this century, it will be the city—not the state—that becomes the nexus of economic and political power. Already, the world’s most important cities generate their own wealth and shape national politics as much as the reverse. The rise of global hubs in Asia is a much more important factor in the rebalancing of global power between West and East than the growth of Asian military power, which has been much slower. In terms of economic might, consider that just forty city-regions are responsible for over two-thirds of the total world economy and most of its innovation. To fuel further growth, an estimated $53 trillion will be invested in urban infrastructure in the coming two decades.

Given what we’ve seen with America’s megaregions, the prescient Mr. Khanna (who wrote this article three years ago) has a point. Here are some of his highlights regarding this trend and its implications:

Mega-cities have become global drivers because they are better understood as countries unto themselves. 20 million is no longer a superlative figure; now we need to get used to the nearly 100 million people clustered around Mumbai. Across India, it’s estimated that more than 275 million people will move into India’ s teeming cities over the next two decades, a population equivalent to the U.S. Cairo’s urban development has stretched so far from the city’ s core that it now encroaches directly on the pyramids, making them and the Sphynx commensurately less exotic. We should use the term “gross metropolitan product” to measure their output and appreciate the inequality they generate with respect to the rest of the country. They are markets in their own right, particularly when it comes to the “bottom of the pyramid,” which holds such enormous growth potential.

As cities rise in power, their mayors become ever more important in world politics. In countries where one city completely dominates the national economy, to be mayor of the capital is just one step below being head of state—and more figures make this leap than is commonly appreciated. From Willy Brandt to Jacques Chirac to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, mayors have gone on to make their imprint on the world stage. In America, New York’s former mayor Rudy Giuliani made it to the final cut among Republican presidential candidates, and Michael Bloomberg is rumored to be considering a similar run once his unprecedented third term as Giuliani’s successor expires. In Brazil, José Serra, the governor of the São Paulo municipal region, lost the 2010 presidential election in a runoff vote. Serra rose to prominence in the early 1980s as the planning and economy minister of the state of São Paulo, and made his urban credentials the pillar of his candidacy.

It is too easy to claim, as many city critics do, that the present state of disrepair and pollution caused by many cities means suburbs will be the winner in the never-ending race to create suitable habitats for the world’s billions. In fact, it is urban centers—without which suburbs would have nothing to be “sub” to—where our leading experiments are taking place in zero-emissions public transport and buildings, and where the co-location of resources and ideas creates countless important and positive spillover effects. Perhaps most importantly, cities are a major population control mechanism: families living in cities have far fewer children. The enterprising research surrounding urban best practices is also a source of hope for the future of cities. Organizations like the New Cities Foundation, headquartered in Geneva, connect cities by way of convening and sharing knowledge related to sustainability, wealth creation, infrastructure finance, sanitation, smart grids, and healthcare. As this process advances and deepens, cities themselves become nodes in our global brain.

While most visions of the future imagine mega-corporations to be the entities that transcend nations and challenge them for supremacy, it may be these mega-regions or mega-cities that will be the true powerhouses of the world. In fact, we may even see something of a three-way struggle between all of these globalizing behemoths, as many nation-states also begin to band together to form more powerful blocs.

One things is for certain: the future will be an interesting experiment in testing humanity’s organizational and technological prowess, especially in the midst of worsening environmental conditions and strained national resources, which such mega-regions will no doubt need to overcome. What are your thoughts?

Hat tip to my friend Will for sharing this article with me.

Tunisia: A Beacon of Hope in the Arab World?

Yesterday, the North African nation of Tunisia, which overthrew its autocratic ruler in 2011 and served as a catalyst for the Arab Spring, passed one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, with only 12 out of its 216 legislators voting against.

The new constitution explicitly guarantees women’s rights and gender equality; mandates environmental protection and water conservation (only the third country in the world to do so); declares healthcare a human right; reaffirms the democratic, secular, and civil nature of its government; officially respects freedom of religion; establishes a right to due process and protection from torture; and promotes workers’ rights. Needless to say, they were keen on celebrating:

Credit: Aimen Zine / AP.

Furthermore, the government has agreed to step down in favor of a technocratic caretaker administration that will be in place until proper elections can be held later this year. I can only hope that after two years of instability and tenuous peace, this historic achievement will amount to long-term change for both the country and the wider region.

Show your support for these brave reformers here, and let’s wish them well.

The Best International Relations Books of 2013

As some of you may recall, I hold a B.A. in International Relations and Political Science, and remain very passionate about both subjects. That’s why I’m happy to share information on the best academic and nonfiction books published in 2013, courtesy of Foreign Affairs, one of the leading journals on the subject. 

An esteemed coterie of ten scholars were asked to pick their top three tomes for a variety of IR subjects, including law and politics, economics and the environment, military and science, and Africa, to name a few. Browse through the list and see if anything piques your interest. Sadly, I’ve only read or owned a handful of what’s listed, so I look forward to expanding my collection and seeing if these merit their selection. 

If you’re familiar with any of the books listed, please feel free to share your thoughts. Happy reading fellow IR nerds! 

Where Rebellions Are Most Likely to Happen

The Economist has published an interesting report exploring the rise of sociopolitical strife around the world, and which countries are most at risk.  Below is a chart of 150 countries analyzed by the The Economist Intelligence Unit  – a sister company of The Economist – based mostly on measures of institutional and political weaknesses.

Notice how few countries are ranked as “low” or “very low” in terms of their likelihood of revolt. As the article assesses:

According to the EIU’s ratings, 65 countries (43% of the 150) will be at a high or very high risk of social unrest in 2014. For 54 countries the risk of instability is medium and for the remaining 31 countries it is low or very low. Compared with five years ago, 19 more countries are now in the high-risk categories.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA), southern Europe, the Balkans and the former Soviet countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) are well represented in the high-risk categories: 12 out of 18 MENA states, six of the seven Balkan countries, eight out of the 12 CIS states, five out of six southern European ones. More than 40% of the countries in eastern Europe are in the high-risk categories. This region was hit hard by the financial crisis and also has many of the underlying characteristics associated with unrest. Unsurprisingly, many high-risk countries are in sub-Saharan Africa. But there are also some in Latin America and Asia—including the world’s largest and most successful emerging market, China, where the authorities are perennially nervous about the risk of mass protests.

Indeed, this coincides with a global trend of growing and pervasive  distrust between citizens and their elites (political and economic). Even the most stable and democratic countries are following this trend, so imagine how much is simmering beneath the surface of less prosperous and free nations? The future is going to get interesting, and depending on your perspective, this may be a positive trend, insofar as many people in the world have few other venues left for change.

What are your thoughts?

How Many Countries Are There?

While this might seem like a given, as an International Relations and Political Science major, I can tell you that it’s a very complicated question that whole courses were devoted to determining. A great video by C.G.P. Grey attempts to address the issue in under five minutes (I recommend you check out his many other enlightening videos).