The Horrific Cost of Qatar’s World Cup Bid

The recent $150 million scandal involving several senior FIFA officials has once again brought to light the international soccer body’s renowned culture of corruption and malfeasance (indeed, the tepid response among most soccer fans towards this revelation speaks volumes about what little regard there is towards the institution that governs the world’s largest sport).

But the more disturbing and sobering evidence of FIFA’s utter lack of human decency, at least as of late, can be best seen in the following chart, courtesy of the Washington Post: Continue reading

The Lasting Damage of High Inequality

In my previous post, I shared the grim results of a recent OECD study that found a consistent rise in wealth and income inequality across much of the developed world, with the U.S. taking the lead among the richest countries (though comparatively less wealthy countries Chile, Mexico, and Turkey were ahead).

Reporting on the same survey, the New York Times delved further and explored the impact that this worsening inequality is already having on societies: Continue reading

Income Inequality Growing Across The World

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a group of 34 mostly wealthy countries, has published the results of a study finding that income inequality is “at its highest since records began”, with the with the United States ranking among the highest on the spectrum.

More from Al Jazeera:

The United States was near the high end of the inequality spectrum, followed by Israel, the United Kingdom and Greece. Only Turkey, Mexico and Chile were found to have higher levels of income inequality than the U.S.

Denmark was the least unequal country according to the report, as measured using the Gini index, a common measure of income distribution. Slovenia, the Slovak Republic and Norway also ranked near the low end of the spectrum.

Overall wealth is even more unevenly distributed than income, according to the report. Across all 34 countries studied, the bottom 40 percent of households were found to possess 3 percent of all wealth. In contrast, the top 10 percent laid claim to half of all wealth, and the top one percent held almost 20 percent of all wealth.

Gurría said the report’s findings demonstrate that inequality slows down economic growth. He urged OECD member countries to adopt more redistributive policies, saying that redirecting wealth flows would benefit not just low-income households but the economy as a whole.

“Well-designed, prudent redistribution does not harm growth”, he said. “In fact, it goes hand-in-hand with growth”.

In addition to tax transfers, the OECD report recommends more investment in education, policies that promote remunerative employment, and measures that “remove barriers to female employment and career progression”. Bringing more women into the workforce and narrowing the pay gap was found to have a mitigating effect on income inequality.

In recent years, global elites have become increasingly concerned about income inequality. Last November, the World Economic Forum, which hosts the annual gathering of political and economic leaders in Davos, Switzerland, put out a report identifying income inequality as the number one trend to watch in 2015.

The Invisible Atheists of the Arab World

From The New Republic comes an interesting look at the rarely acknowledged world of nonbelievers in the Middle East, namely in Arab countries. Though still a largely religious and conservative region, the ranks of secular people, including  atheists, is growing quickly and to significant proportions — stereotypes notwithstanding.

While Arab states downplay the atheists among their citizens, the West is culpable in its inability to even conceive of an Arab atheist. In Western media, the question is not if Arabs are religious, but rather to what extent their (assumed) religiosity can harm the West. In Europe, the debate focuses on immigration (are “Muslim immigrants” adverse to secular freedoms?) while in the United States, the central topic is terrorism (are “Muslims” sympathetic to it?). As for the political debate, those on the right suspect “Muslims” of being hostile to individual freedoms and sympathetic to jihad, while leftists seek to exonerate “Muslims” by highlighting their “peaceful” and “moderate” religiosity. But no one is letting the Arab populations off the hook for their Muslimhood. Both sides base their argument on the premise that when it comes to Arab people, religiosity is an unquestionable given, almost an ethnic mandate embedded in their DNA.

The Arab Spring may have stalled, if not receded, but when it comes to religious beliefs and attitudes, a generational dynamic is at play. Large numbers of individuals are tilting away from the rote religiosity Westerners reflexively associate with the Arab world. In 2012, a wide-ranging WIN/Gallup International poll found that 5 percent of Saudi citizens—more than a million people—self-identify as “convinced atheists”, the same percentage as in the United States. Nineteen percent of Saudis—almost six million people—think of themselves as “not a religious person”. (In Italy, the figure is 15 percent.) These numbers are even more striking considering that many Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, and Yemen, uphold the sharia rule punishing apostasy with death.

…the percentage of people who express some measure of religious doubt is higher in the Arab world (22 percent) than in South Asia (17 percent) and Latin America (16 percent). And that 22 percent is only an average; the percentage goes higher in some Arab countries, from 24 percent in Tunisia up to 37 percent in Lebanon. Considering the extent to which the Arab social and political environment impedes the expression of non­belief, the numbers of doubters and atheists would likely be significantly higher if people felt freer to speak their minds. In January, Egyptian atheist activist Ahmed Harqan told Ahram Online, “If the state preserved and protected the rights of minorities, the numbers of those who reveal they’re atheists would increase tenfold”.

Arab societies, though far from free and liberal by Western standards, are a lot more progressive and pluralistic than many would assume. Though nonbelievers still have it tough, and face both social and political repercussions, they find themselves in environments that are increasingly more accommodating to their lifestyle.

The fact of the matter is, except in relatively small ultra-­religious circles, secular lifestyles and attitudes are largely tolerated in the Arab world. For example, though forbidden in Islam, drinking alcohol is commonplace, particularly among the educated middle and upper classes. Until recently in Morocco, a country that produces large quantities of wine (alongside Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan), alcohol was sold in a super­market chain owned by King Mohammed VI, also known as the Commander of the Faithful. In a recent speech, Nabil Al Fadhl, a Kuwaiti member of parliament, deplored his country’s prohibition of alcoholic beverages, in effect since 1964, for driving young people to drink clandestinely manufactured—and thus dangerous—beverages.

Sex outside of marriage, another practice prohibited by Islam, is also unexceptional, especially in urban environments where genders have been mixing in the public space for more than half a century. In Morocco, a study determined that 800 clandestine abortions (presumably prompted by out-of-wedlock pregnancies) are performed on any given day.

Likewise, while Islam requires its followers to pray five times a day at fixed times, including twice during working hours, believers typically skip the prayers while they’re at work and perform them once back home. In Saudi Arabia, one of the most zealous Arab countries when it comes to religious protocol, shops have to close for about 15 minutes at each prayer call to allow the customers to perform their religious duty. But you can often see small crowds of people gathered on the sidewalk and waiting idly—some taking a cigarette break—until the shops reopen.

In today’s Arab world, it’s not religiosity that is mandatory; it’s the appearance of it. Nonreligious attitudes and beliefs are tolerated as long as they’re not conspicuous. As a system, social hypocrisy provides breathing room to secular lifestyles, while preserving the façade of religion. Atheism, per se, is not the problem. Claiming it out loud is. So those who publicize their atheism in the Arab world are fighting less for freedom of conscience than for freedom of speech.

All this sounds very familiar, not unlike what has happened (and is still happening) in the developed world. But unlike in most parts of the world, secularism in the Arab world takes on a more political tone, which reflects the degree to which religion is intertwined with the ruling elites (especially in the Gulf). To be secular, especially openly atheist, is to challenge the status quo of the powers that be, who use religion as a tool of control.

I recommend reading the rest of the article to get a full picture of the political and social implications of secularism growing in one of the world’s most religious regions. Feel free to weigh in.

The World Needs a Better United States

, former South African ambassador to the United States, has written an opinion piece for Al Jazeera that makes the case, as so many others have, that the world’s leading superpower is failing to live up to its potential. America has the capital, resources, and raw talent to be a model of fairness and prosperity to the world.

Though he draws five main lessons from his diplomatic service in the U.S., the last one is most pertinent:

The final lesson is evident in an observation made by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who during the 2011 Egyptian revolution recommended, amongst others, the South African constitution — and not the U.S. constitution — as the model for post Arab Spring societies. South Africa’s constitution, approved in 1996, establishes equality and dignity as cornerstones, and includes such socio-economic rights as the rights to health, shelter and pensions. America’s founding document, by contrast, excludes socio-economic rights in favor of basic liberal rights such as freedom of expression and outmoded ones such as the right to bear arms.

Such fundamental limitations are beginning to reveal fault lines in U.S. society with greater frequency. Although the public voices sympathy for victims of brutal shootings, curbing gun violence through robust policies remains impossible. The continuing police mistreatment of young black men sparks protests, but not substantive reform. Resistance by congressional Republicans to the Affordable Care Act dramatizes the fragile commitment the U.S. has to the equality and well-being of its citizens, as more and more people will be excluded from basic rights and privileges as inequality widens.

For the U.S. to continue to become a better country and partner to the world, it must make several transitions. It must go from militarism and unilateralism to engagement and détente in solving global problems. It should move from Africa as an afterthought and security problem to Africa as the last economic frontier to be developed in the mutual interest of the U.S. and the world’s most youthful continent. And it must shift from its rampant individualism to a more balanced social solidarity to manage and overcome the fault lines that continue to emerge in American society. The world needs the U.S. to be at peace with itself.

What do you think? Are these the steps the U.S. needs to take to better itself and, by extension, the world? Could or even should the U.S. play such a role in the world? Share your thoughts.

The Global Trend of Silencing Freedom of Assembly

Over at Al Jazeera America,  points to a slew of laws being passed around the world that, in one way or another, severely curtail or prohibit public demonstrations — the bedrock of every true democracy. Among the culprits just over the past three years are Canada (namely Quebec), Spain, Turkey, France, AustraliaEgypt, UkraineRussia, and the United States. (The list is by no means exhaustive.)

While each country’s approach is slightly different as far as parameters, penalties, and other finer legal details, they all have in common the potential to severely frustrate, if not preempt, the fundamental right to peaceful public assembly (enshrined in almost every democratic country’s constitution and in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

Continue reading

Reflections On International Workers’ Day

International Workers’ Day, also known as May Day and Labor Day, is a holiday that honors the working classes and the labor movement, and also commemorates the Haymarket affair of 1886, in which workers went on strike for rights like an eight-hour workday and better working conditions (it soon became violent due to police brutality and a fatal bombing of unknown origin — you can read the details of the tragic unfolding of events here).

Despite being a seminal event in the history of the labor movement and the United States as a whole, the Haymarket affair (also known as the Haymarket massacre or riot), is given little attention in school or media. The event was one of several that captured the frustrations and concerns regarding growing inequality, workers’ exploitation, and class tension. It also contributed to the sorts of rights we now take for granted in the workplace, from safer conditions to more reasonable working shifts.

It is telling that while much of the world celebrates, the U.S. forgoes any formal recognition and instead observes “Law Day”, which affirms the importance of law in the foundation of the country, and “Loyalty Day” (formerly “Americanization Day”), which emphasizes patriotism towards American heritage and values. Both these holidays have roots in the First Red Scare of the early 20th century, and formalized in the context of the Second Red Scare that took place during the Eisenhower administration.

The participation of socialists and anarchists in what was a fairly broad-based movement did little to endear the holiday to the American establishment, especially in the context of the Cold War. Even to this day, when one speaks of workers’ rights and the like, it draws suspicion and outright ire, as if only the far-left should or could have an interest in the well-being of the majority of society (especially the vulnerable segment that does some of the toughest, most important, yet most poorly treated work).

Amid reversals in the rights and prospects of workers — from stagnating wages and salaries, to lesser job security — it is little surprise that a global holiday that recognizes the rights and well-being of workers would be overlooked and even subject to fear and contempt. Now more than ever do we need to restore a sense of consciousness and dignity among working people who are underpaid, mistreated, and deprived of opportunities for socioeconomic advancement. The auspicious absence of an American equivalent to May Day — our own Labor Day is celebrated in a different time and context — is both a symptom and cause of hostility and apathy towards the plight of working class people.

But given where the economy is headed, and how many people are getting dragged down with it, how long will that sentiment prevail? How long until we realize that labor rights and the labor movement are of interest to anyone seeking a more just, equitable, and thus thriving society for all? More people enjoying more opportunities, more dignified work, more spending power, which in turns helps businesses and grows jobs.

Of course it is not easy and it will take time and effort, perhaps unprecedented in scale. But it is a worthy endeavor for which we need to get started on as soon as possible, given the time it will take and the number of human lives being immiserated or even lost in the face of poverty and exploitations, both in the U.S. and abroad (it is International Workers’ Day for a reason).

May Day and the associated events and movements it recognized helped precipitate a more prosperous economic system, and within decades produced a culture and environment in which more and more people could share in the fruits of work and commerce, with empowerment in both the commercial and political spheres. Perhaps the second time around we can restore these now beleaguered values and go even further.

A Portrait of Africa’s Largest City

Akintunde Akinleye is the only Nigerian photojournalist to have won a World Press Photo prize, in 2007. But the following slideshow, courtesy of the New York Times, shows that his prestigious award is well deserved. It presents a complex and dynamic view of the continent’s largest metropolis, the 20-million strong city of Lagos, Nigeria.

The exhibition is called “Each Passing Day” (it opened at Red Door Gallery in Lagos on April 19, the photographer’s birthday), and its title connotes the marking of time, of a steady eye bearing witness to a nation’s struggle for political stability while it endures the growing pains of rapid urbanization. The work is even more poignant when you consider that Mr. Akinleye’s career spans a particular time in Nigeria’s postcolonial history — the country’s re-establishment of republican government in 1999, and the recent election of a former dictator as its president-elect.

“One of my missions is not just to make a career in photojournalism”, Mr. Akinleye said from his home in Lagos. “My mission is actually to do history, to put it in perspective, so that distortion can be reduced to its barest minimum”.

He was 11 when his mother gave him his first camera after she noticed he had a penchant for drawing pictures in the sand. Years later, what began as a boyhood hobby did not evolve into a full-fledged career goal until Mr. Akinleye enrolled in college. But having missed the application deadline for journalism courses, he majored in social studies instead.

“I looked at all sorts of social problems — crime, how Europe underdeveloped Africa, how the world is separated into the first, second, and third world”, he said. “This gave me a wider passage, and a very solid background for me to do journalism”.

Click the hyperlink to get a glimpse of everyday life in one of the world’s biggest communities. As Nigeria becomes a rapidly emerging economic power, its dominant city will no doubt earn increased attention as a major commercial and cultural hub (it always has the second largest film industry by production after Bollywood). There is a lot of creative potential just waiting to be unleashed.

Iran, A Future Global Power

Given its rich historical legacy as a prominent center of power and civilization, perhaps it is fitting that modern Iran retains considerable economic, social, and scientific potential — if it is better governed and made fully a part of the global community.

Al Jazeera makes this point in the context of the continuing nuclear deal with the West, which among other things would lead to the lifting of the decades-long sanctions that have crippled the economy and left the country largely as an international pariah. Despite these external challenges, and years of mismanagement by a venal and authoritarian government, Iran has had a lot to show for itself:

Compared with other developing countries, especially considering the damage of war and sanctions, Iran performs decently on measures of human development. Its average life expectancy increased dramatically, from 54 in 1980 to 74 in 2012; 98 percent of 15-to-24-year-olds are literate; and according to the United Nations, Iran’s overall human development index has improved by 67 percent in the last decade.

Despite sanctions, Iran is one of the world’s top 20 economies. For the first decade of the 21st century, annual growth rates hovered around 5 percent, sometimes reaching as high as 7 percent. The 2010 round of sanctions were devastating, but the government has recently announced the return of positive growth. According to an International Monetary Fund forecast, the Iranian economy will grow 2 percent in 2015, an impressive reversal from the 5 percent contraction that occurred in 2012.

Iran, which invests more in scientific research than any other Middle Eastern nation, has seen rapid growth in its high-tech sector. Its elite technical universities are ranked among the top in the world. Sharif University of Technology — Iran’s MIT — was hailed by a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford as the the finest university in the world preparing undergraduate electrical engineers. Iran also stands among the leading countries in cutting-edge sciences such as stem cell research and nanotechnology.

While the Iranian economy is still largely dependent on oil exports, it has also seen significant industrial development. In 2009, Iran’s auto industry became the 11th largest in the world, producing more than 1.4 million vehicles (more than the United Kingdom or Italy). Auto is the second-largest sector, after oil, and offers vast employment opportunities to young workers in Iran. The country boasts significant development in high-tech industries such as machinery, automotive, steel, petrochemicals and medical technology.

Though Iran’s complex, authoritarian, and theocratic framework of government remains firmly entrenched, the current administration is, by historic standards, quite progressive; for example, its cabinet employs more graduates of prestigious American Ph.D. programs than its U.S. counterpart.

So while Iran struggles from a range of political problems at home and abroad, its people have lived up impressively to their proud historical legacy. If the country has managed to come this far in everything from human well-being to scientific research, imagine what it can do for itself and the world when freed from its present sociopolitical predicament.

Time will tell, and at this rate hopefully quite soon. The much-beleaguered, yet persevering, people of Iran deserve that much.

The Most Socially Progressive Nations in the World

In a previous post, I introduced an article and TED Talk about the Social Progress Index (SPI), which seeks to better capture a country’s ability to provide opportunities, basic needs, and overall life satisfaction to its people. I highly recommend you check it out, as it offers a lot of food for thought about how we should measure a society’s success and well-being, and which places are doing a better job towards those ends.

CNN Money took notice of this new approach and shared the 2015 SPI ranking of countries.

As a reminder, SPI measures a country’s ability to provide a “good society” based on 52 indicators spanning three dimensions: Basic Human Needs (food, water, shelter, safety); Foundations of Wellbeing (basic education, information, health and a sustainable environment); and Opportunity (do people have rights, freedom of choice, freedom from discrimination, and access to higher education?)

With that in mind, the following truncated chart shows how some of the world’s top economies fare (note this is out of a total 133 countries):

You can see the full list here, but these are the top 68 countries (click image to view larger):

Perhaps it is no surprise that Scandinavian nations top the list, along with small European and Anglophone states — these are the same countries that tend to score highly in metrics like the Human Development Index (HDI), which is a similar, though somewhat less comprehensive, measurement of societal health and progress.

Here is why Norway got the top marks:

If you look at its scorecard, it has exceptional scores across all three dimensions, having excellent access to water and sanitation, doing very well on basic education and offering great personal freedom and choice. Norway has a high GDP per capita, thanks to its abundance of natural resources. But this isn’t always the case. Many resource-rich countries — from Kuwait to Angola — don’t share the benefits of wealth so well and show low social progress relative to their GDP per capita. It may be the case that, because natural resource wealth doesn’t require the same investments in human and social capital as broad-based economic growth, there isn’t the same incentive for governments to make those investments. But whatever the reason may be, Norway should be a role model for other resource-rich countries.

Of course, critics will point out that Norway, like most of its fellow high scorers, is a small, fairly homogenous place with a long history social and ethnic cohesion (although several other high-ranking countries, like Australia and Canada, are comparatively larger and more diverse). But either way it is something to consider.

Also worth noting is the number of fairly poor and developing countries that perform pretty well in the index, relative to their per capita GDP. Of particular note is Costa Rica, which outdoes countries like Italy and South Korea despite having half as much GDP per capita.

Costa Rica is the biggest aggregate over-performer, showing strength across all the dimensions. The key lesson here is that building social progress takes persistence. Costa Rica has had strong education, health and welfare systems for a long time, as well as a long democratic tradition. SPI measures outcomes — life expectancy, literacy rate — not inputs, like laws passed or money spent. There are no cheats or quick fixes.

Here are the top “overachievers” that managed to perform fairly well relative to their GDP per capita.

Note the following caveat:

For some countries, over-performance may actually be a sign of economic decline rather than progress. Overperformance is relative to GDP per capita, and GDP tends to rise and fall quickly, whereas SPI moves more slowly. If a country’s GDP per capita falls rapidly while SPI takes much longer to decline, its performance relative to GDP per capita may look like it is improving. The over-performers of the former Soviet Union illustrate this point: Moldova, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have not done well economically over the last 20 to 25 years, but their social indicators are better than expected because of the legacy of investments in basic services made when they were part of the Soviet Union.

Anyway, back to the focus of the CNN article, which was the United States’ relatively low performance. Though sixteenth place is hardly catastrophic, it is a lot less than it should be given both its sheer wealth, abundant land and natural resources, and amazing economic and technological capacity.

The U.S., the world’s biggest economy, scores poorly across many criteria and ranks behind countries with lower GDP per capita — including Canada and the U.K.

It is leading the way in only a handful of measures, including people’s satisfaction with affordable housing, freedom of speech, and access to advanced education.

But the U.S. is failing in all health and wellness indicators, which include life expectancy, obesity, suicide rates, and personal safety.

Here is a visual representation of the resultS:

social progress where us stands

The U.S. is hardly the only laggard despite its high GDP. Here are other countries that fall short despite their economic and financial resources (click to enlarge):

The Social Progress Imperative had this to say about the lackluster results of wealthy countries like the U.S., France, and Italy:

The U.S. has some of the best healthcare in the world — but not for everyone. We see that exclusion across the U.S.’ scorecard: lack of access to health care, lack of access to education, lack of access to information, lack of access to safety and even — relative to other rich country peers — lack of access to piped water.

Meanwhile, France and Italy have an important factor in common: both show weakness in opportunity, with low scores on private property rights, freedom of religion and tolerance of minorities. In addition, Italy’s scorecard shows inflated levels of corruption, while France’s shows the issue of discrimination against minorities. Both also are relatively weak on access to higher education.

One final note: it seems like fast-growing economies like China underperform on social progress. That’s because their new wealth has not yet translated into better social outcomes: investments in education and healthcare may take time to bear fruit, or they haven’t been made yet.

In short, every country has particular challenges or shortcomings bringing down its full potential, and the SPI helps to pinpoint where the most work is needed. The U.S. can offer tremendous opportunities to its citizens, but is bedeviled by the unequal way in which its resources and institutional accesses are distributed; indeed, many of the other countries that underperform have similarly high rates of inequality.

So what do you think about the SPI and its results?