We Will Soon Get a Window Into Two Ancient Civilizations

The passage of time and ravages of war have together destroyed literally thousands of years worth of culture and knowledge from ancient civilizations across the world. We are often left with little more than fragments or the unverified and often biased accounts of outsiders and conquerors, depriving us of a fully fleshed out understanding of how ancient people lived, loved, thought, or struggled with day to day.

Now, two different archaeological breakthroughs have gleaned previously inaccessible information on two of humanity’s most enduring and influential civilizations: the Aztecs and the Egyptians. In the case of the former, they also reveal the horrific ease with which almost an entire culture can be eradicated in just a few years.

According to The Guardianan international team from the U.K. and the Netherlands, utilizing advanced imaging technology usually applied to geological research, discovered an extremely rare pre-Columbian manuscript hidden within another rare colonial era book. Continue reading

The Good Life Around the World

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental group of 34 mostly developed countries, is seeking out the answer to one of humanity’s most fundamental questions: what makes the good life? Most people across the world would probably answer that it is a combination of things, such as good health, adequate leisure and social time, and a decent income.

Based on these relatively universal assumptions, the OECD’s Better Life Index tries to answer the questions by analyzing the average well being of its member states (plus other nations such as Brazil and Russia) based on 23 factors across eleven dimensions, including health, financial wealth, civic engagement, social support, and work-life balance. Continue reading

Tackling Poverty By Giving Money Directly to the Poor

It seems like a such an obvious idea: help the world’s poor by simply giving them the money they need. Although it is of course important to support groups that provide water, medical care, and other necessities, empowering someone with the funds they need to get out of poverty seems like a worthy and sensible approach.

But how does one money to those in need, especially when they live on the other side of the world? Among the thousands of different aid groups that exist in the United States alone, there are apparently none that simply pass your funds along to the recipient — except for GiveDirectly, the first (and so far only) nonprofit that focuses exclusively on unconditional cash transfers.

An assessment by Huffington Post’s Impact column shows how deceptively simple yet effective this strategy is:

GiveDirectly transfers about $1,000 to very poor families over the course a year. It makes no rules or even suggestions about how to use the cash.

Since launching in 2011, the group has distributed about $15 million to communities in Kenya and Uganda. These are not the poorest countries in the region. Rather, they are at the center of Africa’s revolution in mobile banking, which is crucial to GiveDirectly’s strategy. A person in sub-Saharan Africa is 60 times more likely to have a mobile financial account than a European.

Once GiveDirectly has selected a village based on publicly-available poverty data, it uses an ingeniously simple method to identify who will receive money: it enrolls households who live in homes built with thatched roofs and mud floors (as opposed to corrugated metal roofs or concrete floors). The use of organic materials is a reliable indicator of severe poverty — easy for members of the community to understand, and for GiveDirectly’s staff to audit, the group states.

The money is then delivered electronically. Recipients typically receive an SMS alert and then collect cash from a nearby mobile money agent. (If they are among a dwindling minority in Africa that doesn’t have a mobile phone or SIM card, GiveDirectly helps them buy one using a portion of the cash transfer.)

Distributing the money electronically slashes costs and eliminates several prime opportunities for corruption (i.e., fewer middlemen to siphon off funds or ask for bribes). It is at the core of GiveDirectly’s plans to scale its work to millions of poor people worldwide.

This helpful chart shows how donations are allocated. It is always vital to only support those organizations uphold both transparency (by showing financials and methodology) as well as efficiency (seeing how much goes to the cause versus overhead, staff, etc.) In this regard, GiveDirectly checks out.

But given that GiveDirectly is the only major aid group focusing on cash transfers, does that suggest the approach is inefficient? Is that why it has not caught on? Thankfully, there is growing research confirming the merits of the direct aid approach:

Cash transfer programs have an extensive research record, including dozens of peer-reviewed studies spanning at least 13 countries in four continents. The U.K.’s development agency calls cash transfers “one of the more thoroughly researched forms of development intervention”; a gold-standard charity evaluation group GiveWell (not affiliated with GiveDirectly) says transfers “have the strongest track record we’ve seen” for a non-health poverty program.

Longer-term research into anti-poverty interventions is rare, but it exists for cash transfers. A 2013 study in Uganda found that people who received cash enjoyed a 49 percent earnings boost after two years, and a 41 percent increase after four years, compared to people who hadn’t gotten a transfer. Another study in Sri Lanka found rates of return averaging 80 percent after five years. In Uganda, not only were the cash recipients better off, but their number of hours worked and labor productivity actually increased.

Do many people just end up wasting their money on alcohol or smokes? Last year, the World Bank reviewed 19 studies of cash transfer programs and said the answer is no. “Almost without exception, studies find either no significant impact or a significant negative impact of transfers on expenditures on alcohol and tobacco,” the report stated. “This result is consistent across the world.”

There is also the research cited in the book “Poor Economics“, written by MIT graduates Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, who founded the university’s Poverty Action Lab in 2003 precisely to study the impact and efficiency of cash transfers. Pushing back against the widespread notion that the poor are unable to manage their money — and thereby cannot be entrusted with direct funds — they found that on the contrary:

…the poor are in some ways even more sophisticated with their finances than wealthier people, partly because it is so important that they get things right. The extreme poor personally manage loans to family and neighbors; they evaluate credit offers without the support of financial institutions; they manage their day-to-day cash flow in the context of very inconsistent income patterns. All of this helps explain why giving cash to the poor, rather than allocating capital on their behalf, has proven particularly effective.

Indeed, accounts for GiveDirectly show that recipients spend their funds in wildly different ways: to acquire basic needs, like food or health care; to get an education or technical training; and to start or expand a business. Everyone has different needs and goals, and the poor know better than everyone what their conditions are and how best to improve them. Even if their ventures fail — which is certainly the case at times — it is no different than what we would expect of any middle or upper class person in the developed world. People have dreams and potentials that they want to tap, so empower them with the means to do so.

To be sure, there is no perfect solution to poverty, and even cash transfers have their shortcomings, as one of GiveDirectly’s lead researchers, Chris Blattman, pointed out in an op-ed in the Times about a project in Liberia:

Almost no men wasted [the money]. In the months after they got the cash, most dressed, ate and lived better. Unlike the Ugandans, however, whose new businesses kept growing, the Liberian men were back where they started a year later. Two hundred dollars was not enough to turn them into businessmen. But it brought them a better life for a while, which is the fundamental goal of any welfare program. We also tested a counseling program to reduce crime and violence. It worked a little on its own, but had the largest impact when combined with cash.”

So even when the results fall short of the goal, there can still be a silver lining. Moreover, financial resources can only go so far without access to the goods and service, from healthcare to education, that people need to get ahead. That is why such efforts must be coupled with other programs that fill in the gaps, or directed to areas where an infrastructure exists to make the money go far.

In any case, what matters is that more people benefit from the aid than squander it, and by that standard direct cash transfers seem to work.

But the positive impacts of cash transfers have been consistent and wide-ranging, from improved nutrition, healthier newborns and greater school participation to decreased HIV infection rates and psychological distress. As a result, according to a 2011 review by the UK’s development agency, global aid has undergone a “quiet revolution,” with developing countries launching transfer programs believed to reach between 750 million and one billion people.

Nevertheless, GiveDirectly is determined to make its solutions as results driven and empirically validated as possible. There remains an accountability problem in the aid world, with relatively little research done to validate existing models of aid. (That is why I am a big advocate for, and frequent user of, Charity Navigator, which you can read about here.)

GiveDirectly is leveraging its data to help improve transfer programs carried out by others. It has again publicly pre-announced new RCTs of its work, including one ambitious study of how cash transfers impact communities at a macro-level. “We’re asking questions like, what happens to the structure of businesses after cash transfers? How does local government change what they do? How do schools reallocate their budget? What happens to the prices of goods?” Niehaus said. “These are the sorts of questions that finance ministers have.”

GiveDirectly also continues to run experiments to test its core model. It tried directing cash toward female heads of households and toward younger women, and using criteria other than owning a thatched roof. None substantially changed the results. A new RCT is testing what happens when cash recipients have more control over the timing of their transfers (some want a lump sum upfront to pay for an expensive item; others want the payments spread out so their in-laws stop asking for loans). Another trial will find out what happens when GiveDirectly provides information about possible ways to spend the money.

 

It goes without saying that this is a welcome development that us would-be humanitarians should welcome and support. With increasingly more advanced information technology, there is no reason why an aid organization should lack data or evidence of its approach, or why it should not respond to said data with any necessary changes.

If you are interested in learning more about the “effective altruism” movement that is underpinning GiveDirectly’s efforts, check out the following TED Talk by ethicist Peter Singer here. And as always, please feel free to share your thoughts.

Map: Lynchings in the Southern U.S. (1877-1950)

One of the most insidious and terrorizing elements of racism and white supremacy in the United States was lynching, broadly defined as an extrajudicial public execution carried out by a mob against an alleged criminal or transgressor. In most cases, the intention was not simply to mete out supposed justice in place of a court of law — not that the legal system in much of the South was any fairer or more impartial — but to enforce social control against particular groups, especially African Americans.

Montgomery, Alabama, which was the center of some of the worst racist atrocities and policies, will soon host one of the nation’s first and largest memorials to lynching, immortalizing the thousands of victims of racially motivated lynchings. (Appropriately, it will sit on the highest spot in the city, which was once the first capital of the Confederacy.)

The organization behind this effort, Equal Justice Initiative, has also put together a map of all the racial lynchings that took place across a  73-year period spanning the end of the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era to the beginning of the Civil Rights movement.  Continue reading

Understanding Russia

As an almost life-long Russophile — despite not remotely having any roots or personal connections to the country or its people — I have always been fascinated by Russian culture, society, history, and politics. For better or worse, few nations have had so much presence and influence on the world stage, and while my love of all things Russia certainly does not include its government or foreign policy, I recognize the importance of better understanding this still relevant — some say resurgent — global power.

Over at Foreign Affairs (one of my favorite international relations journals),  explores Russia’s long history of trying to achieve greatness, defined “by soaring ambitions that have exceeded the country’s capabilities”. It is equal parts tragedy and glory, with every victory coming at great cost (the defeat of Napoleon and Nazi Germany), and every instance of power and global status being tenuous (the perennial political and economic stagnation of the Soviet period throughout the Cold War).

Continue reading

How Breadfruit Can Solve Global Hunger

In a world where hundreds of millions of people are malnourished, there can be no shortage of proposed solutions that should be considered. Perhaps the most interesting I have heard yet involves a relatively obscure tropical plant from the Pacific Islands. As NPR reports:

A traditional staple in Hawaii, breadfruit is sometimes called the tree potato, for its potato-like consistency when cooked. Except breadfruit has higher-quality protein and packs a healthy dose of vitamins and minerals.

That’s why Ragone has spent years trying to cultivate this nutrient-rich staple for poorer, tropical parts of the world, where the majority of the world’s hungriest people live.

Breadfruit offers several advantages over other staples, says [Diane] Ragone [of the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s Breadfruit Institute]. The fast-growing perennial trees require far less labor, fertilizer and pesticides than crops like rice and wheat. They’re also more productive. A single tree yields an average of 250 fruits a year and can feed a family for generations.

If mass produced, breadfruit could provide a steady source of nutritious food for farmers and their families, and supplement their incomes.

Continue reading

Liberty v. Security?

It has become something of a cliche that liberty and security are at inherent odds with each other, and that strengthening one necessarily requires weakening the other. Most citizens of a democracy would ostensibly prefer less security in favor of more liberty — better to die free than to live as a slave, etc. But it is more complicated than that, because clearly one needs security — be it from war, civil unrest, or even natural disasters — to allow the conditions for democracy to emerge and function.

It is no coincidence that democracy historically, and to this day, takes roots in places that are stable and mostly free from existential threats. The United Kingdom, whose liberal and constrained parliamentary monarchy formed the basis of the United States’ owns democratic ideals, was an island nation that had not been successfully threatened or invaded since the early 12th century. The U.S. enjoyed, and continues to enjoy, an entire hemisphere without any remotely hostile, let alone viable, competitor, and has two big oceans to buffer it from the rest of the world. Both countries had the fortune of being able to experiment with freer forms of government without needing to rely on iron rule to protect them. Continue reading

Where Your Produce Comes From

In this wonderfully globalized world of ours, we take for granted just how varied and plentiful our food supply is (at least in the more developed and interconnected parts of the world). But so much of what we see on store shelves and restaurants would have literally been unheard of not long ago, let alone a significant and growing part of our staple diet.

NPR’s The Salt column reports on a study that has mapped out and traced where nearly all the world’s cultivated crops originated from. It found that more than two-thirds (69 percent) of the crops that form a key part of national diets — from Thai chilies to Italian tomatoes — in fact came from somewhere else. Continue reading

A Dutch City Will Soon Experiment With Guaranteed Basic Income

This coming January, the guaranteed basic income will go on trial in the Dutch city of Utrecht, where 250 citizens will receive a flat sum of €960 per month (about $1,100) for two years. The experiment is a collaborative effort between the local government and the Utrecht University School of Economics, and is partly motivated by a desire to find an alternative to the Netherlands’ present welfare system, which many believe it both wasteful and of little benefit to its recipients.

As The Atlantic reports:

The Utrecht proposal—called “Weten Wat Werkt,” or “Know What Works”—includes six test groups, the members of which will receive slightly different stipends under slightly different conditions. In addition to the group that will receive €960 per month without any work obligations, there is a group that will be given that, plus an additional €150 at the end of the month if they provide volunteer services, such as doing maintenance work on schoolyards. And there is another that will have the same option to volunteer, but will get the money at the beginning of the month and have to return it if they don’t volunteer. “Human behavior is always unpredictable,” Groot says. “We want to know what motivates people, what people respond to.”

There are three other test groups. One is made up of welfare recipients who will keep receiving their benefits, but without their usual work obligations. Another is made up of welfare recipients who expressed interest in receiving the €960 stipend but will continue to receive only standard benefits. And then, lastly, there is a control group of welfare recipients who wanted to keep receiving their usual benefits.

Many believe, myself included, that this is an idea whose time has come. Philosophers and economists across the political spectrum have been exploring variations of this concept for centuries, from Enlightenment thinkers like Thomas Paine, to libertarians such as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek — even Nixon proposed a similar idea. Continue reading

The Least Miserable Countries in the World