Iraq Breaks Humanitarian Ground in Mosul

Iraq hardly comes to mind as a pioneer in humanitarianism, especially as far as warfare is concerned. Yet in the midst of its now six-month campaign to take back the ISIS stronghold of Mosul, the Christian Science Monitor reports that Iraqi armed forces are collaborating with the U.N. and other partners to deliver an unprecedented amount of care and protection to the tens of thousands of civilians caught in the middle (bolding mine): Continue reading

The End to Malaria

Malaria has been a scourge of humanity for thousands of years, and as recently as a century ago, was a problem in almost every country. The GIF below shows how far we have come towards completely eradicating this debilitating disease:

shrinking-the-malaria-map

Courtesy of Global Health Sciences, University of California, San Francisco

As recently as the 1950s, developed countries like the U.S. and the U.K. were still dealing with malaria infections; by the 1970s, most wealthy countries had completely wiped it out. Today, over a hundred nations across both the developed and developing world are free of malaria, with nearly thirty others in the process eliminating it. Continue reading

Hans Rosling, Data-Driven Optimist, Passes Away

It is not easy being an optimist, and doing so just got harder with the recent death, at 68, of Swedish physician and statistician Hans Rosling. A tireless advocate for improving the world through compelling yet data rich presentations, Rosling brought a unique and crucial pizzazz  when it came to public advocacy and education.

Foreign Policy, which once named him one of the world’s top 100 thinkers, highlighted  some of the work Rosling did to change people’s perceptions of the world and to bring attention to humanity’s often-understated progress.

After roughly two decades studying hunger in Africa, he became a professor at the Karolinka Institute — a medically focused university in Sweden — and then the founder of data visualization site Gapminder. He was dedicated to bringing people facts in a way that seemed compelling and understandable to them.

In Feb. 2006, for example, he gave a presentation that used data to demonstrate that the concept of the “developing world” was one based on preconceived biases, not borne out of reality.

In 2010, he showed in just four minutes how lifespan and wealth had increased over the past 200 years — and how inequality between and within countries increased with it.

Indeed, I have twice posted about Rosling’s videos and data (here and here), and considered him a personal hero of mine. He helped inform my optimistic, humanist worldview with his energetic yet substantive presentation of the facts, be it about the rapid decline in child mortality or the growth of leisure through innovation. He was a champion for human development, using his data to both inspire hope and inform future policy and action. His eclectic mix of humor, colorful visualizations, and endearing levels of energy — which formed his shtick as an “edutainer” — has no doubt done much to keep the world moving along towards progress.

Rosling will certainly be missed, but thank goodness for his rich legacy of creative and hope-inspiring talks, all of which you can view here. That’s quite a way to live on.

 

 

 

Ten Great Things That Happened in 2016

It pretty much goes without saying that 2016 has been a rough year for a lot of people and for a multitude reasons, none of which need to be rehashed here. Suffice it to say, I am all the more grateful to have had a largely great year, due in no small part to the support and companionship of loved ones and the good fortune of my life circumstances.

And contrary to popular belief, there was more to 2016 than celebrity deaths and political decay. As Swedish writer and historian Johan Norberg reminds us, the past year has seen plenty of amazing progress in areas as wide ranging as conservation, public healthy, and conflict resolution. Here are just ten examples: Continue reading

A History of Human Progress

It goes without saying that 2016 has been a rough year for a lot of folks. People can be forgiven for thinking that the world is going to hell in one way or another, but as economist Max Roser of Our World in Data points out in Vox.com, there has never been a time more worth celebrating in terms of moral progress. From poverty to literacy, the world is improving in so many areas, even if there is still quite a way to go. Continue reading

An Effective Ebola Vaccine Has Been Developed

Following a horrific epidemic in West Africa that claimed the lives of over 11,000 people — the deadliest the world had ever seen — we finally have a breakthrough vaccine against Ebola. As Vox.com reported:

Today, the same researchers — who hail from the World Health Organization, Guinea’s Ministry of Health, Public Health England, and other international partners — have unveiled their final results in the Lancet, and they’re just as remarkable. The vaccine was tested in a trial involving nearly 12,000 people in Guinea and Sierra Leone during 2015 and 2016. Among the 5,837 people who got the vaccine, no Ebola cases were recorded. By comparison, there were 23 Ebola cases in the control group that had not gotten the vaccine.

“This trial, confirming the 100 percent efficacy of the rVSV Ebola vaccine, is a simply remarkable outcome”, Dr. Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust, said of the research. “We’ve shown that by working collaboratively, across international borders and sectors, we can develop and test vaccines rapidly and use them to help bring epidemics to an end”.

You can read the published study here. It was one of fifteen clinical trials for an Ebola vaccine conducted around the world in a single year, and is a vindication of what collective action and responsibility by the international community — including the U.N., NGOs, and national governments — can accomplish. It is a shame it took so many deaths spanning a nearly three year period to finally come up with a promising form of prevention, although the vaccine is far from ready to hit the market.  Continue reading

The Rapid and Massive Decline of Global Poverty

While too many people still struggle with deprivation and abject poverty worldwide, it is crucial to acknowledge just how far humanity has come in this regard. Over  at OurWorldInData.org, Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser have put together an extensive, data-rich report on world poverty, and the results are outstanding to behold: in less than 200 years, our species has halved the rate of overall poverty while reducing the most extreme forms of it to a fourth of what it once was.

world-poverty-since-1820-750x535

Poverty has declined not only proportionally, but in absolute numbers: in 1820, the world’s population was just under 1.1 billion, of which more than 1 billion lived in extreme poverty — defined by the World Bank as living on less than $1.90 a day.

As of 2015, there were more than 7.3 billion people on Earth, of which 705 million live in extreme poverty. In other words, despite a seven-fold growth in population, there are fewer poor people now than two centuries ago, when the world was much smaller.world-population-in-extreme-poverty-absolute

The rate of decline in poverty began to accelerate as we approached the 21st century. From 1990 onward, the number of people living in extreme poverty declined by 47 million annually — or 130,000 a day. It is sobering to imagine that as of my writing of this post, tens of thousands of people have climbed out of poverty since the previous morning. (I know it is not evenly distributed day to day, but you get the idea.)

share-in-extreme-poverty-by-world-region

Granted, progress in poverty reduction remains highly uneven: while Asia is no longer home to the most abjectly poor people, Africa has taken its place with the largest number and percentage of people in extreme poverty, at 383 million (although this is far fewer than the over 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty in Asia and the Pacific in 1990). And the Asia-Pacific region is still close behind with 327 million people struggling with dire poverty.

Here’s the breakdown along national lines:

tree-map-of-extreme-poverty-distribution-750x525

Nevertheless, most of the countries still struggling with high rates of poverty have still seen some progress over the years, even if it has been slow and at times sporadic. The gains may be tenuous, but they’re still there, and there are more than enough encouraging examples of previously poor nations making incredible strides over the last several decades (South Korea, Singapore, Ghana, etc.).

Indeed, if we assume that the current rate of poverty decline continues, the number of extremely poor people will decline by more than half by 2030.

 

What a time to be alive, no?

If you’re interested in learning more about the above data, including methodology, data quality, and the definition of terms, click here.

The Ugandan Model of Hosting Refugees

According to a recent report by the London-based NGO Amnesty International, just ten countries host more than half the world’s 21 million refugees, nearly all of them poor or developing countries:

  1. Jordan (2.7 million)
  2. Turkey (2.5 million)
  3. Pakistan (1.6 million)
  4. Lebanon (1.5 million)
  5. Iran (979,400)
  6. Ethiopia (736,100)
  7. Kenya (553,900)
  8. Uganda (477,200)
  9. Democratic Republic of Congo (383,100)
  10. Chad (369,500)

These nations disproportionately host refugees due to mere proximity: those escaping persecution, conflict, or socioeconomic instability will immediately flee to the nearest and most accessible safe havens; most cannot afford to simply catch a flight to a far away country (which might in any case turn them away).  Continue reading

The Best Way to Save a Life

The wisest question is not  “What is the greatest good?” but rather: What is the greatest good where the next dollar could have the greatest impact?”

The amount of suffering in the world is so vast in its scale and severity that it can be overwhelming to take it all in, let alone know where to start in alleviating it. We are but lone individuals amid a world of billions, many of whose wealthiest denizens seem utterly indifferent to the plight of the masses. It is easy, if not understandable, to feel cynical and despairing.

Derek Thompson of The Atlantic tackles the concept of “effective altruism” — helping the world in the most efficient, sustainable, and consequential way possible. He cites a large breadth of wisdom on the matter, summing up a general guide to better giving thusly:

The simplest way to explain effective altruism and its discontents is to begin with three pillars of the movement: (1) You can make a truly enormous difference in the world if you live in a rich country; (2) you can “do good better” by thinking scientifically rather than sentimentally; and (3) you can do good even better by trying to find the greatest need for the next marginal dollar.

In other words, if you are at least a middle-class person in a wealthy country, and rely on science, reason, and evidence to guide your donations, you can do a lot more substantive good than you may think. 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.