Heartwarming Moments and Stories from the Rio Olympics

The 2016 Olympics in Rio came and went with the usual bevy of political and social troubles — though in fairness, the games have been tainted with controversy and poor sportsmanship since their inception in ancient times. Brazil, like most Olympic hosts, will no doubt continue to endure the economic and political repercussions, and such problems should not be discounted.

But for all those issues, I think it is worth looking at the bad with the good, and thankfully this year’s Olympics had plenty of touching milestones worth appreciating. Consider the following: 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.

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

Jesse Owens Beats the Nazis at Their Own Game

13938522_10157238071245472_2853304882803904285_nOn this day in 1936, African American track and field athlete Jesse Owens won the first of four gold medals at the Berlin Summer Olympics, eventually becoming the most successful competitor in the games — and as such, crushing the Nazi leadership’s hopes of proving “Aryan superiority” (Nazi propaganda had anticipated that other inferior races, like Owens’ would be soundly defeated by Aryans).

Indeed, Hitler himself was reportedly “highly annoyed” by Owens’ triumph, remarking that his ancestors were primitive jungle dwellers that were biologically stronger than more civilized whites, and should thus be excluded from future games (so much for anticipating an easy “Aryan” success). It is still an open debate whether Owens was actually snubbed by the Nazi leader (even Owens himself disputed this at the time), though clearly he was indignant about it. Continue reading

How Altruism and Cooperation Help Us Survive

Evolution by natural selection is blamed for promoting ruthless competition as a way to succeed in life — hence concepts such as “survival of the fittest” and “Social Darwinism”, which are seen as rooted in evolutionary theory but, are in fact perversions and misunderstandings of it. Take it from the man who formulated the theory of evolution:

The conclusion that cooperative groups will flourish at the expense of more selfish ones, and that as a result moral instincts will gradually evolve, was at the heart of [Charles Darwin’s] evolutionary writings. In The Descent of Man (1871) Darwin wrote about loving and cooperative behaviours in dogs, elephants, baboons, pelicans, and other species. He thought that sympathetic and cooperative tribes and groups would flourish in comparison with communities made up of more selfish individuals, and that natural selection would thus favour cooperation.

Another tendency that Darwin shares with more recent scientists is his willingness to leap from the world of natural selection to the language of morality. Writing of the evolution of human cooperation, Darwin predicted that “looking to future generations, there is no cause to fear that the social instincts will grow weaker, and we may expect that virtuous habits will grow stronger, becoming perhaps fixed by inheritance. In this case the struggle between our higher and lower impulses will be less severe, and virtue will be triumphant.”

The idea that evolution makes selfishness and immorality pivotal to survival is not only factually wrong, but a key reason why so many people — particularly the religious — are so reluctant to accept it as true. But mounting scientific evidence has verified Darwin’s early observations that prosocial behaviors are vital to our species’ flourishing: Continue reading

Conceptual Progress

It is easy to take values like freedom and democracy for granted, and that speaks volumes about how good we have it (at least in some parts of the modern world). For the overwhelming majority of human history, across almost every society, ideas like individual liberty, human rights, and equality were not even conceived, let alone practice.

In the approximately 200,000 years that homo sapiens have existed, only in the last three thousand or so years did such concepts even emerge, and even then they were quaint ideas limited in scope and agree — the ancient republics of Athens and Rome still had slavery and the disenfranchised women, as did the republics of the United States and France.

We are fortunate to live in a time when we have higher aspirations and ideals to live up to. People speak of realism versus idealism, but at least better values and principles exist to be attained, if even only conceptually. It was not that long ago that the very idea that slavery was morally monstrous, that women were fully humans, that children warranted rights, and that people should have a say in their governance, simply did not exist in the minds of even the most heightened intellectuals, let alone the largely impoverished and illiterate masses.

We have come a very long way as a species, even if we have an even longer ways to go.

Who, or What, is to Blame for Inequality?

Over at the Washington Post, columnist Matt O’Brian reveals how inequality has less to do with a small class of super wealthy elites, and more to do with the structure and culture of many big U.S. companies

The easiest way to think about this is to think about the different types of inequality. There isn’t just inequality between everyone, but also between everyone at a single company. Why does this matter? Well, if CEOs really are gobbling up a bigger and bigger slice of the profit pie, then inequality within society at large should have increased because inequality within companies increased. But that’s not what happened. The research team of Jae Song of the Social Security Administration, Fatih Guvenen of the University of Minnesota, and David Price and Nicholas Bloom of Stanford were able to look at what had previously between private earnings data for every company between 1978 and 2012—the best data we have so far—and found that the pay gap between executives and their own workers had barely changed during this time. What had changed, though, was the pay gap between every worker at the highest-paid firms and everyone else. In other words, inequality exploded because the top 1 percent of companies were making more and paying all their employees more. This was true across the country and across industries.

It is not entirely clear why this is the case, but one hypothesis is that technological innovation has made every industry “winner-take-all”, meaning it is easier than ever for the most ruthless and resourceful companies to dominate a particular market. This explains the rise of global behemoths like Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook, all of which lack any true competitors in their respective industries.  Continue reading

The Rise of Megacities

For thousands of years, cities have been at the center of human experience, social organization, and innovation. Even though the vast majority of humanity throughout history has, until very recently, lived in rural areas, it was the cities from where rulers governed, goods and services were traded, and ideas were born and disseminated.

Given that precedent, it is no surprise that today’s cities — bigger and more sophisticated than ever — have begun to rival whole nations, including the very ones in which they are located, as centers of culture, economic activity, scientific research, and political influence.

Writing in Quartz, Parag Khanna discusses the emergence and future of “megacities” — metropolises numbering tens of millions of citizens and accounting for anywhere from a third to even half of a nation’s economic output. Spanning every continent, but most especially Asia and Africa, these massive urban conurbations will reshape our species’ development in every sphere, from economy to culture.

cities-gdp-population-global

For a larger version of the above map, click here.

As can plainly be seen, the developing world — once largely rural — will lead the way in the formation of megacities, albeit not by design; most megacities have formed organically, driven by heady economic growth and the influx of migrants from rural areas and smaller cities. The process has often been as rapid and haphazard as the political, social, and economic forces of the cities’ nations.

Within many emerging markets such as Brazil, Turkey, Russia, and Indonesia, the leading commercial hub or financial center accounts for at least one-third or more of national GDP. In the U.K., London accounts for almost half Britain’s GDP. And in America, the Boston-New York-Washington corridor and greater Los Angeles together combine for about one-third of America’s GDP.

By 2025, there will be at least 40 such megacities. The population of the greater Mexico City region is larger than that of Australia, as is that of Chongqing, a collection of connected urban enclaves in China spanning an area the size of Austria. Cities that were once hundreds of kilometers apart have now effectively fused into massive urban archipelagos, the largest of which is Japan’s Taiheiyo Belt that encompasses two-thirds of Japan’s population in the Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka megalopolis.

China’s Pearl River delta, Greater São Paulo, and Mumbai-Pune are also becoming more integrated through infrastructure. At least a dozen such megacity corridors have emerged already. China is in the process of reorganizing itself around two dozen giant megacity clusters of up to 100 million citizens each. And yet by 2030, the second-largest city in the world behind Tokyo is expected not to be in China, but Manila in the Philippines.

For its part, the United States, which is the world’s third most populous nation, and which is expected to grow steadily over the next century, is seeing the rise of several megacities thus far: the Northeast Megalopolis, which runs from Washington, D.C. through New York City to Boston; the Southern California Megaregion, which runs from San Francisco to San Jose; and the Texas Triangle, which includes Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio. Though not as large as their counterparts in the developing world, they will be formidable economic and cultural centers in their own right, and are already economically larger than some medium-sized countries.

 

Khanna goes on to note that the sheer size and influence of these megacities, in conjunction with the rapid pace of globalization, will make them as much a part of the world as of the nations in which they are located.

Great and connected cities, Saskia Sassen argues, belong as much to global networks as to the country of their political geography. Today the world’s top 20 richest cities have forged a super-circuit driven by capital, talent, and services: they are home to more than 75% of the largest companies, which in turn invest in expanding across those cities and adding more to expand the intercity network. Indeed, global cities have forged a league of their own, in many ways as denationalized as Formula One racing teams, drawing talent from around the world and amassing capital to spend on themselves while they compete on the same circuit.

Megacities will also redefine the relationship between the developed and developing worlds, and as well as between themselves and the rest of their countries. They will be polities of tremendous influence to reckon with in their own right.

The rise of emerging market megacities as magnets for regional wealth and talent has been the most significant contributor to shifting the world’s focal point of economic activity. McKinsey Global Institute research suggests that from now until 2025, one-third of world growth will come from the key Western capitals and emerging market megacities, one-third from the heavily populous middle-weight cities of emerging markets, and one-third from small cities and rural areas in developing countries.

There are far more functional cities in the world today than there are viable states. Indeed, cities are often the islands of governance and order in far weaker states where they extract whatever rents they can from the surrounding country while also being indifferent to it. This is how Lagos views Nigeria, Karachi views Pakistan, and Mumbai views India: the less interference from the capital, the better.

Needless to say, megacities will pose as many challenges as they do opportunities: urban planning, social organization, resource management, law and order, and infrastructure will need to be subject to considerable investment and re-imagining. Political challenges will no doubt emerge between certain megacities and their smaller peers, as well as their national governments.

Khanna concludes that these issues, along with the sheer potential and influence of megacities, should change the way we map the world — metropolitan areas should be given as much attention as the 200 or so countries that make up the world. It is an interesting argument, and one that I think bears some consideration. I look forward to exploring the topic further in Khanna’s new book Connectography.

What are your thoughts?