Africa’s True Size

Last year, I wrote about the many different map projections that exist, and how each distorts spatial and geographic features in one way or another. I briefly touched on how Africa is particularly understated in size, a fact that other sources have noticed as well, such as The Economist, which provided this very telling map:

Africa's True Size

For a more detailed and comprehensive picture, here is another (and much larger) infographic courtesy of io9 (click to enlarge):

 

This is also relevant to the growing concerns about the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which has led to much of the continent being a no-go zone for visitors, airlines, and businesses — despite the fact that, as an NPR piece points out, much of Africa is far and away from the main infection zone.

The Ebola outbreak is centered in four countries in a relatively small part of West Africa: Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. There has also been one reported case in Senegal and a small, unrelated outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The distance from the heart of the outbreak to Nairobi, Kenya — where Korean Air canceled all flights on Aug. 14, citing fears over Ebola — is roughly 3,300 miles. That’s about the distance from Orlando, Fla., to Juneau, Alaska. So, geographically speaking, canceling a trip to Kenya is like canceling a trip to Disney World because of an Ebola outbreak in Alaska.

In fact, Africa is so large that many cities in Europe are actually closer to the Ebola outbreak than are cities in eastern and southern Africa. Johannesburg is more than 3,400 miles away — farther than both Paris and London.

Of course, Africa is hardly the only part of the world to be erroneously portrayed; as I discussed at length in my aforementioned post, every map projection thus far conceived exaggerates or underestimates one or all spatial dimensions. It is fascinating to see how much different the world is from the maps we grew up with and took for granted as fully accurate.

But it is also disheartening to see how such misconceptions, especially as they pertain to marginalized parts of the world, can reaffirm or worsen biases — e.g. Africa is a monolithically unsafe place, despite its incredible geographic, ethnic, and sociopolitical diversity.

Note, none of this is not intended to call into question the validity or usefulness of maps as a whole, since different projections serve different purposes, and must necessarily supersede other concerns. This is just an important caveat to keep in mind when analyzing any map, something many cartographers also tend to advise.

Chart: The Best Places to Be Born

In 1988, The Economist compiled a ranking of 50 countries according to which would be the best place to be born (or put another way, which would be the best to settle and start a family). This was determined on the basis of 11 weighted sociopolitical and economic criteria, ranging from the quantifiable (such as GDP growth) to the subjective (cultural richness). The results can be seen below.

The United States tops the list, followed by France, West Germany, Italy, Canada, and Japan. The Soviet Union managed a respectable 21st place, with communist Poland and Hungary not that far behind. The Philippines, India, and Mexico also ranked relatively higher than one would expect from developing countries. Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Iran, Iraq, and Zimbabwe rank the lowest.

Anyway, in 2013, The Economist revisited this “where-to-be-born” index, which basically measures overall quality-of-life both presently and in the foreseeable future. As before, there are 11 indicators involved, including the results of life-satisfaction surveys, public trust, crime, and even geography (environment and natural beauty can go a long way towards leisure and comfort).

So over 25 years later, here are the world’s best places to be born:

The United States is now in 16th place along with former third-place winner Germany; France falls to 26, Italy to 21, Japan to 25, and Canada to a still-respectable 9. In their place are mostly small, northern European countries, as well as Australia, Singapore, and New Zealand. Notice how Saudi Arabia and Iran have improved, while poor Nigeria remains among the bottom five (indeed, it is dead last, although Iraq and Zimbabwe, whose fortunes have each only gotten worse over the years were not measured this time).

Granted, a direct comparison between these two charts can’t say much, since The Economist measured far more countries, and claims to have been much more rigorous in its metrics, the second time around. Moreover, the inclusion of several subjective factors leaves much in dispute; for example, even people in otherwise prosperous places (e.g. the French) often report a low rate of life satisfaction regardless. Needless to say, individuals will weigh certain factors differently depending on their personal or cultural preference: environment may not matter as much to some as, say, public trust, and visa versa.

Of course, any effort to determine where is the best place to live or start of family is going to be arguable. It touches on a macro version of what makes for a good life. Clearly, freedom from violence, starvation, poverty, and the like are nearly universally-agreed upon. But what do you think of these results? Where would you consider to be the best place in the world to live?

Chart: Poverty in Asia

Much has been made of the rise of Asia and the subsequent arrival of an “Asian Century“, whereby the continent will become the dominant economic, cultural, and political force in the 21st century world. Setting aside the sheer diversity of this massive landmass — in terms of both culture and fortune — most Asian nations still face tremendous challenges, namely in the area of poverty reduction. Consider the following chart:

Courtesy of The Economist.

As The Economist goes on to note:

Asia’s rapid economic growth has put it on track to eradicate “extreme” poverty, defined by the World Bank as daily consumption of less than $1.25 per person, by 2030. However, the Asian Development Bank reckons this is too low given that nowadays, things like mobile phones are seen as necessities; so it has calculated a more suitable daily minimum of $1.51.

This lifts Asia’s 2010 poverty rate to nearly one-third of the population, adding 343m people to the ranks of the poor. The ADB believes food insecurity, and the risks of natural disasters, global economic shocks and the like, should also be taken into account when measuring poverty. This would further raise Asia’s 2010 poverty rate, to nearly 50 percent.

As with so many other parts of the world, Asia holds tremendous promise but faces daunting challenges. As the continent grows richer and more powerful, despite millions being left behind in squalor, it may be wracked by the same strife and instability that historically bedevils most unequal societies.

Inequality in a Global Context

When it comes to wealth and income inequality — a subject I have discussed at length here –  the news is rarely positive. As the following graph makes succinctly clear, the issue has worsened dramatic over the last few decades.

Income includes household wages and government transfers. Source: Census / Colin Gordon. Credit: Quoctrung Bui / NPR

While the most recent data in these sorts of graphs are around seven years old, newer evidence suggests the problem is still prevalent, if not worsening — at least in the United States.

According to an interesting new paper on global income distribution conducted by economists Branko Milanovic and Christoph Lakner, the global pictures regarding income inequality is far more nuanced, if not positive. As NPR reports, the study found that globalization — the same mechanism that plays a large, though hardly solitary, role in rising inequality — has had the opposite effect, broadly speaking.

Essentially, they look at inequality at a global scale, accounting for the world’s population as a whole rather than breaking it down country-to-country (as is usually the case).  S what happens if you look at the change in income over the past few decades for everyone on Earth? Here’s what the graph of the data shows:

Income is defined as per-capita income. Source: Milanovic and Lakner (2014). Credit: Quoctrung Bui/NPR

So what does this mean? Basically, people in the middle of the global income distribution — mostly concentrated in China and India, as as well as a few other developing Asian countries — have had the biggest gains in come by percentage. In fact, the average American, like most others in the developed world, would fall at the far right of this graph, at the top of the global income distribution.

So in a global context, the typical developed-world individual is capturing the lion’s share of income growth. Assuming this is truly the case (I await for more research and scrutiny to be certain one way or the other) that does not make inequality any less worrisome, now and especially in the long-term. Worldwide, we are still finding far too much wealth concentrated at the top amid austere policies, insufficient investment in the public good, and the persistent absolute poverty of hundreds of millions of people.

An increasingly transient global elite is still capturing the lion’s share of investment — as made depressingly clear by the revelation that 85 individuals hold more wealth than 3.5 billion people. Too many countries are mired in the same old problems despite the ever-growing generation of wealth that never seems to be reflected in higher wages, incomes, or public investments. Even if some people in this arrangement have it worse than others, the fact that many have it worse than they should given the capital potential is a problem, for most individual countries and the world at large.

Those are just my brief thoughts. What are your opinions?

World Humanitarian Day

It will come to know no surprise to regular readers that I have an avid interest in humanitarian issues, ranging from global inequality and poverty to human rights abuses and war. I have long had a keen interest in the United Nations as a mechanism for bettering the human species and facilitating the more positive aspects of globalization — illuminating and addressing these global problems in multilateral ways while promoting an ecumenical and unified global identity.

While I have no delusions about the U.N.’s vast flaws and shortcomings, I find it to be conceptually sound and an ideal start to a hopefully more effective international framework. One thing is for certain: whatever the institutional problems of this and other international organization, the everyday work done by its members is usually sound, well-intentioned, and altruistic — which is precisely what World Humanitarian Day is dedicated to highlighting.

This day pays tribute to the often unseen aid workers who carry out life-saving activities around the world, often in dangerous and difficult circumstances. It also celebrates the spirit of humanitarian work worldwide, work that brings communities together and alleviates the common human suffering that we should be concerned about.

It is observed annually on August 19, the anniversary of the 2003 bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad that killed 22 people, including U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello. There will be a wreath-laying ceremony at the U.N. Headquarters in New York City to honor de Mello and other aid workers killed in the line of duty.

Unfortunately, such a commemoration is especially relevant today, as  aid workers are suffering at record numbers as of 2014:

The research shows that in 2013, 155 aid workers were killed, 171 were seriously wounded and 134 were kidnapped. Overall this represents a 66 per cent increase in the number of victims from the previous year. With 81 aid workers killed in 2013, Afghanistan is still the country with the highest number of attacks.

Preliminary figures show that as of 15 August 2014, 79 aid workers have been killed this year alone. The months of July and August saw a rise in the level of attacks and incidents involving aid workers including in Gaza and South Sudan.

Only these past few weeks, aid workers were killed in the midst of conflicts in South Sudan and Gaza, just two of many places that rely on their vital services. Such loss of life is a tragedy in itself, especially for the global community as a whole. As the world faces increasingly more difficult and existential threats, there needs to be a more concerted effort to address these matters and protect those who willingly risk their lives to dispense such solutions.

Featured Image -- 5941

How the world’s armies picture their enemies

Eupraxsophy:

It is fascinating what one can glean from something as seemingly trivial as a target or effigy used for shooting practice. At the risk of looking too deeply at certain irrelevant elements, many of the most routine and minor practices in a given society can reveal a lot about it history, culture, economics, politics, and the like (especially if one takes into account other dynamics, influenced, etc).

Originally posted on Quartz:

You can often tell a country’s enemies by the targets its soldiers use for shooting practice. That’s what Herlinde Koelbl found while visiting the military shooting ranges of nearly 30 nations over the course of the past six years. Her photographs are collected in a recent book, Targets, and an exhibition at Berlin’s Deutsches Historiches Museum, up through October 5.

At every stop in her travels, Koelbl wondered, she writes in the book’s introduction, “Who is the bad man? What does he look like—the enemy that they are later expected to kill? Is he an abstract figure? Does it have a gender and if so, which? Are there cultural differences? Has the image of the enemy changed?” For the US, the target of choice was once a Soviet figure—”Ivan”—with a red star on his green helmet. Now, reflecting a change that’s taken place in much of the world, Ivan has largely been supplanted by Middle…

View original 211 more words

Video — World Demographics

The following video chat from The Economist tackles a topic that’s been of great concern to the American public for some time: global population growth. In just a little over one minute, it shows that overpopulation isn’t as big an issue as popularly believed.

So overall, the world population is stabilizing, with many countries — including many in the developing world — experiencing negligible or even negative population growth. Most of the population increase stems from longer lifespans and the “demographic momentum” of younger generations coming into child-rearing age (at which point they will have increasingly fewer children, if any at all).

The following map confirms that most of the biggest population gains will be concentrated almost entirely in Sub-Saharan Africa:

Population growth by percentage increase. Source: Wikimedia / CIA World Factbook.

Of course, this doesn’t mean population growth won’t bring its problems, given that most of the growth is concentrated in nations that lack the resources, infrastructure, and institutions to optimally accommodate their ever-larger number of citizens.

However, as much of the rest of the world experiences a stagnating or declining labor force — not to mention the subsequent financial and economic burdens — nations with more youthful populations may gain a considerable advantage on the global market for human resources.

If poorer nations manage to tap into the potential talent of their young and vibrant people, investing in education and infrastructure to facilitate and promote opportunities, they may well reach unprecedented levels of prosperity and influence — provided they are not turned into giant factories for foreign companies first.

Of BRICS and MINT

In 2001, economist Jim O’Neill wrote a report for Goldman Sachs’  Global Economic Paper  series titled “The World Needs Better Economic BRICs”, where he identified four countries — Brazil, Russia, India, and China — as potential powerhouses of the world economy (South Africa was added in 2010 after being invited to a summit of the original four countries).

These developing or newly industrialized nations were (and remain) distinguished by their large, often fast-growing economies and increasing influence on global affairs. As of 2014, the BRICS together comprise nearly 3 billion people (40 percent of the world population), a combined nominal GDP of $16.039 trillion (20 percent of world GDP), an estimate$4 trillion in combined foreign reserves, and 18 percent of the world economy.

By 2050, it is estimated that their economies will completely eclipse those of the G7, an association of the world’s current richest countries. Well aware of their rising status, the BRICS have been holding annual summits since 2009 (their sixth meeting just concluded in Brazil this past July) and they have invited other developing nations as an exercise of solidarity and influence. They have essentially become a household name among policymakers, political scientists, and economists across the world (not to mention investors and business people).

Now, the man that has brought us this catchy and game-changing acronym as a symbol of shifting global paradigms has presented four other contenders — the so-called “MINT” countries of Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Turkey (nearly all of which had been invited to previous BRICS summits).

As BBC News reported, these countries are not only as fast-growing and increasingly influential as the BRICS, but they each have a  healthier demographic outlook: whereas China and Russia in particular are projected to experience stagnation and even decline in their working-age populations, all MINT countries are beginning to enter a demographic “sweet-spot” where there are more working-age people than dependents (by they very young, as is the case in most developing countries, or very old, as is typical in most developed nations).

As the following chart shows, their projected growth rates will be no less impressive either:

Also note the location of the BRICS. The absence of South Africa has raised questions over its inclusion in the group.

Nigeria’s potential for growth is especially impressive: to jump from the 39th to 13th richest economy in less than four decades is, as far as I know, virtually unprecedented for such a large nation. Mexico and Indonesia close the gap by nearly half, and Turkey’s growth — although not as dramatic given that it already had a head start industrializing — nonetheless puts it near equal footing to established economies like Germany, France, and the U.K.

Moreover, these nations enjoy the fruits of geography:

Something else three of them share, which Mexican Foreign Minister Jose Antonio Meade Kuribrena pointed out to me, is that they all have geographical positions that should be an advantage as patterns of world trade change.

For example, Mexico is next door to the US, but also Latin America. Indonesia is in the heart of South-east Asia but also has deep connections with China.

And as we all know, Turkey is in both the West and East. Nigeria is not really similar in this regard for now, partly because of Africa’s lack of development, but it could be in the future if African countries stop fighting and trade with each other.

This might in fact be the basis for the Mint countries developing their own economic-political club just as the Bric countries did – one of the biggest surprises of the whole Bric thing for me. I can smell the possibility of a Mint club already.

If not a distinct MINT club, then certainly some sort of union of the two; this has already somewhat occurred with certain informal BRICS gatherings, which have involved few MINT members, in addition to other rising economies.

Of the four MINTs, only Turkey has a fairly diversified economy (hence, as mentioned earlier, its slower projected growth), while the remainder specialize primarily in commodities — namely agricultural products and/or natural resources — though efforts are underway to move into manufacturing and services (Mexico, for example, is already set to become one of the world’s top automobile producers).

For comparison, Brazil and Russia are the major commodity producers of the BRICS, while China, India, and South Africa have a broader economic base that includes greater developments in manufacturing and services.

What about wealth per individual citizen of these countries? Large and fast-growing economies are all well and good, but how does it break down?

Well, Mexico and Turkey are at about the same level in per capita earnings, with about $10,000 annually, while Indonesia — with a much larger population — has about $3,500 per person and Nigeria earns $1,500 per head (on a par with India). The head of the pack is Russia with $14,000 per head, Brazil with $11,300 and China with $6,000.

Here’s what in store for the MINTs if growth rates continue:


Granted, like the BRICS — and for that matter most rapidly-developing countries — inequality remains a persistent problem for each member, albeit to varying degrees: according to the 2014 Gini Index, India, Indonesia, and Turkey have fairly low rates of inequality (lower than even the United States), China and Russia are in the mid-range, while Mexico, Brazil, and especially South Africa are among the top brackets.As these countries become wealthier, there will no doubt be increasing pressure to see more of that wealth amount to something for the average person, whether through investment in public services or better-paying and more secure jobs. Already, nearly all the BRICS and MINT countries have seen some protests and civil unrest related wholly or in part to socioeconomic issues (by my recollection, Brazil and Turkey have seen the most pronounced demonstrations, though nearly all members have dealt with strikes).

As the BBC piece goes on to observe, the average person in these countries expresses a palpable sense of hope and optimism, even if there is much work to be done. Aside from inequality, corruption remains a huge issue in all these nations, as our infrastructural and institutional deficiencies (lack of good schooling, reliable roads and ports, etc). Things are largely in a flux, with lots of potential and forward-thinking, but plenty of causes for doubt and concern.

Whatever the future holds, there is little doubt that there will be interesting times ahead, both for these individual nations and the world at large. Few people in the West could ever imagine any of these countries being major actors on the world stage, given the decades of poverty and instability with which we associate them. It is strange to imagine that in my lifetime, countries like Mexico and Brazil — seen as dysfunctional and miserable places by the likes of most fellow Americans — may become economic and even political competitors.

Of course, I am getting ahead of myself. But as the developing world catches up to the more established industrialized nations (situated largely in the West), it is very likely that we will see a more multi-polar world, with global influence diffused across a larger number of actors. Such a paradigm is difficult for me to conceive given how long the international system has operated in a unipolar or bipolar fashion (the latter being the norm since World War II and the former for the last two-and-a-half decades). Will it be unstable? Will the world better address global challenges with more nations exercising influence? What of all the vast cultural and political differences between them? Won’t that get in the way?

Well, setting aside the political implications, I for one am encouraged to see half the world’s population potentially being lifted out of poverty (not to say that hundreds of millions won’t be left behind within their increasingly wealthy nations). Going back to the first chart I shared, it is worth pointing out that other populous countries like Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, and the Philippines are also slated to be among the top twenty economies. Plenty of other nations will see relatively large growth even if they do not reach the cream of the crop.

But we must not be complacent. There is still much work to be done, on both individual national levels and globally. From climate change to worsening global inequality, profound existential challenges remain. But at least there is plenty of untapped potential that is starting to be released, and that will hopefully amount to greater prosperity for all — BRICS, MINT, and beyond.

Your thoughts?

Video — Superpower for Hire: Rise of the Private Military

Today’s post will be light but no less interesting. Vice Media, known for covering many interesting but neglected cultural and sociopolitical topics, has a short documentary on the controversial private military industry, which has risen in both influence and popularity across the world. Though its only 14-minutes long, it offers a pretty good look at this largely hidden world.

Given the rising number of low-intensity conflicts in many parts of the world, and the preference for dealing with through non-governmental means, this will certainly not be the last we hear of PMCs. What are your thoughts and reactions regarding this video?

Check out other Vice videos here.

New Report Finds Global Poverty Worse Than Previously Thought

That global poverty is a serious and pervasive problem is without doubt. But it appears the scale and scope of it — despite being already staggering — may have been underestimated all this time. That’s the conclusion of a recent report by the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative (OPHI) called the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index 2014 (MPI), which is considered the most accurate measure of world poverty to date.

As The Atlantic reports, the MPI takes into account certain factors that are overlooked by the United Nations Development Programme‘s Human Poverty Index (HPI), which is the leading source for such data.  While it defines the poor as those making it less than $1.25 a day, it lacks in two key areas:

First, it counted countries as one whole mass, unable to differentiate degrees of poverty within a country and locate the worst pockets. And second, it placed all of its scrutiny on income, without considering other indicators such as health and education.

Sure, making a certain amount a day is one way to measure the physical comforts a person might be lacking: home, food, clothing. But what about limited (or a total lack of) access to medical care? Or barriers to getting an education? And just because someone has a roof over his or head doesn’t mean it’s a sanitary, safe place to live—impoverished people in cities are often concentrated in slums where open sewage, crowding, and rickety housing make for dangerous living conditions. Consequently, many didn’t consider HPI’s income index to be particularly accurate.

OPHI addressed this issue by going beyond just basic income and including what it calls “deprivations”, other needs such as nutrition and child mortality; years of schooling and school attendance; and things like sanitation, water, and electricity. If a person is deprived of a third or more of the indicators, he or she would be considered poor. Degrees of poverty were also factored in; for example, whether someone had a shack for a home versus no home at all.

The MPI’s other great advantage is its ability to pinpoint poverty down to a local, rather than national, level. So not only can one find which countries or regions are the poorest, but which particular areas within those borders are worse off — an invaluable asset for aid workers and policy makers seeking to better target their work.

So what did this multidimensional approach yield? How much worse is global poverty?

Sadly, the world is more impoverished than we previously thought. The HPI has put this figure at 1.2 billion people. But under the MPI’s measurements, it’s 1.6 billion people. More than half of the impoverished population in developing countries lives in South Asia, and another 29 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa. Seventy-one percent of MPI’s poor live in what is considered middle income countries—countries where development and modernization in the face of globalization is in full swing, but some are left behind. Niger is home to the highest concentration of multidimensionally poor, with nearly 90 percent of its population lacking in MPI’s socioeconomic indicators. Most of the poor live in rural areas.

So there are 400 million more people living in poverty than previously believed. For a point of  reference, that’s more than the entire population of the United States and then some — hardly a minor oversight. Needless to say, this is vital information, bringing to light the dire circumstances of hundreds of millions of people.

Granted, I wonder whether this will make any difference in stirring up public and political action: if an already eye-watering 1.2 billion people living in poverty isn’t enough to rouse humanitarian interest, will an extra 400 million make the difference? Will the numbness and inaction be any less prevalent? If anything, I fear the sheer scale of the problem will only lead to more cynicism and subsequent apathy.

In any case, I’d like to end this sobering revelation on a more optimistic note. As intractable as the problem seems to be, especially in light of widening global inequality, there has been progress:

Nepal is improving its situation the fastest among developing countries—and it’s in South Asia, the poorest region. In five years, Nepal reduced its MPI numbers from 65 percent of its population to 44 percent. Other classically poor countries, like Rwanda, Ghana, Bangladesh, and Cambodia are also improving, not just getting richer but also seeing some narrowing of the gap between rich and poor.

While these improvements are just a drop in the bucket compared to how many people are left suffering — including the hundreds of millions who are not technically poor but remain precariously close — every human life that is lifted up from misery is worth it. That’s why we can’t afford to ignore a single impoverished person.

If you would like to read the full report, including its methodologies and sources, click here. As always, feel free to share your own thoughts and reactions.