India’s Ambitious Democracy

In the spring of 1947, the eve of India’s independence from the U.K., the leaders of its independence movement made the fateful decision for their new country to be a secular, constitutional republic with suffrage for every adult citizen: more than 170 million in total. Overnight, India became the world’s largest democracy, a distinction it retains to this day, with an incredible 900 million eligible voters (nearly three times the total U.S. population).

The logistics of Indian democracy were daunting: at the time, some 85% of its electorate were illiterate, requiring political parties to get clever with the use of pictographs and symbols to communicate their platform. Tens of thousands of civil servants worked for two full years just to compile the rolls for India’s first general election, conducted in 1951; the voter lists would be 200 meters (656 feet) thick. Today the list is five times that amount. Continue reading

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Africa’s Great Green Wall

Africa does not come to mind when one thinks of audacious public works projects. But the continent’s growing wealth and political stability, combined with the pressing challenges of climate change and environmental degradation, is driving its leaders to come together and concentrate their efforts into forging bold new solutions.

Among them is the Great Green Wall, an incredible idea to create a wall of vegetation across the width of the Sahara to stave off rapid desertification and improve agricultural output (which most Africans depend on for survival). It would be around 4,000 kilometers in total, making it the largest “living structure” in the world, three times the size of the Great Barrier Reef. Continue reading

Scandinavians Are the World’s Happiest People

When I visited Scandinavia via a cruise with my fiance last summer, we were both struck by the pleasantness of the Nordic people and how beautiful and well organized the country seemed to be. While we only spent a day or so in each country, it corresponded with everything I had read about their high rankings in all sorts of international metrics, from quality of life to good governance.

Thus, I wasn’t too surprised when the New York Times reported that Norway was recently found to be the world’s happiest country last year, followed closely by its Nordic neighbors. Continue reading

The Middle East’s First Particle Accelerator Turns One Year Old

Here’s a rare bit of good news coming out of the Middle East: last year saw the inauguration of its first and still only synchrotron radiation facility,  a large, complex, and powerful machine that, in layman’s terms, acts as an exceptionally keen microscope. (The largest and most well known example is the Large Hadron Collider operated by CERN, a European research organization.) According to the BBC:

Its name is Sesame – Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East.

The facility hosts a synchrotron, a particle accelerator that acts as a powerful microscope.

Researchers including Iranians, Israelis and Palestinians – who would never normally meet – will now use the machine together.

Sesame is a play on the famous phrase “Open Sesame” and is meant to signal a new era of collaborative science.

By generating intense beams of light, synchrotrons provide exceptionally detailed views of everything from cancerous tissue to ancient parchments to plant diseases.

Sesame’s vast white building, located amid dusty hills some 35km north of the capital Amman, makes a stark contrast to the olive groves around it.

Jordan was chosen because of its relative political stability and the fact that it is the only country in the region with diplomatic relations with all the other members of the initiative: Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, Palestine, and Turkey.

Nevertheless, as to be expected with trying to start an expensive international collaborative project in a place like the Middle East, there were many obstacles. Again from the BBC:

For most of the past decade, a British physicist, Prof Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith, has chaired the project through a series of obstacles.

  • For a start, Israel and Iran do not have diplomatic relations with each other and nor do fellow members Turkey and Cyprus
  • Iran has been unable to pay its share because of international sanctions on banking
  • Two Iranian scientists were killed in what the Iranian government said were assassinations by the Israeli secret service — one was a delegate to the Sesame Council, the other had visited Sesame
  • After a freak snowstorm, the Sesame roof collapsed leaving key components exposed to the elements

Now, standing in the centre of the completed — and tested — main ring of the Sesame synchrotron, Prof Llewellyn Smith admitted that he was “a bit surprised” that the venture had got so far.

“The real problem has been finding the money — the countries in this region have science budgets that you can hardly see with a microscope,” he said.

Indeed, neither multinational collaboration nor particle accelerators come to mind when one thinks of the Middle East, and yet it now hosts a facility that is just one of sixty in the whole world, funded, staffed, and maintained by nations that still distrust, if not outright despise, one another. It was quite an inspiring feat to pull off, and one that is still tenuous — as it passes its one year anniversary without a hitch, will it survive worsening circumstances in the region (including renewed tensions between Israel and Iran).

Imagine how much scientific progress could be made if our species could get past the ignorance, tribalism, pettiness, greediness, and fearfulness that continue to divide us. This project is just a small and unlikely indicator of that. Here’s hoping there will be more to come there and elsewhere.

The Golden Law

On this day in 1888, Princess Isabel of the Empire of Brazil enacted the Lei Áurea (Golden Law), formally abolishing slavery in Brazil, which had the largest number of slaves and was the last Western country to abolish slavery. Both Isabel and her father, Emperor Dom Pedro II, were opponents to slavery (she signed as his regent because he was in Europe).

The law was very short, stating only that “From this date, slavery is declared abolished in Brazil. All dispositions to the contrary are revoked.” This was intended to make clear that there were no conditions or qualifications to abolition — slaves were to be totally freed, full stop. (Previous laws had freed the children of slaves, or freed slaves when they turned sixty; this time, slavery was stamped out for good, at least formally.)

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Hero Highlights: Project Prakash

Of the world’s 1.3 million blind children, India is home to the world’s largest population, with estimates ranging from 200,000 to 700,000. As in many developing countries, a child born blind faces enormous social and economic hurdles: in addition to being stigmatized and marginalized in their communities, the vast majority of blind children are unable to get an education or a job. Many face physical and sexual abuses. At least half do not survive to adulthood.

In addition to regressive social attitudes, a lack of medical care access, and little to no disability-friendly institutions and infrastructure, the problem is made worse by the pervasive idea that, once a child reaches seven or eight years of age, their blindness is irreversible and untreatable. Yet the prevailing cause — congenital cataracts — is an otherwise easily treatable condition in the developed world. Imagine a lifetime of being disadvantaged and ostracized for something beyond your control and which could easily be addressed if there was the will and money. It is a disease of poverty.

Enter Project Prakash, founded in 2002 by Dr. Pawan Sinha, an Indian-born graduate of MIT. Named after the Sanskrit word for “Light”, he started the organization after a trip to rural India, where he witnessed the first hand the scale and severity of child blindness. After obtaining a grant from the U.S. National Eye Institute, he assembled team of about 20 clinicians, scientists, and outreach personnel to provide cataract surgery for as little as $300 per patient (though those too poor to pay get it for free). He tells the story in great detail Scientific American (sorry for the paywall.) Continue reading

The Impact of Vaccines

Most of developed world take vaccines for granted. Indeed, there is a growing number  of people in wealthy countries, often the most privileged, who outright fear and dislike vaccines. Yet the data are overwhelming: vaccines have not only been pivotal to virtually extinguishing all sorts of previously common diseases (measles, polio, pertussis, etc.), but they have continued to reap dividends for the millions of human who live in the developing world, where public health otherwise remains weak.

As reported in IFLS:

Vaccines are well regarded as one of the most cost-effective health care actions that a country can pursue, and since 2001 the United Nations has been running a program in 73 low and middle-income countries to prevent 10 diseases. It is now expected that when the project is completed in 2020, it will have resulted in averting around 20 million deaths, while at the same time saving a staggering $820 billion.

“Our examination of the broader economic and social value of vaccines illustrates the substantial gains associated with vaccination,” explained Sachiko Ozawa, who led the research, in a statement. “Unlike previous estimates that only examine the averted costs of treatment, our estimates of the broader economic and social value of vaccines reflect the intrinsic value that people place on living longer and healthier lives.”

And these economic benefits, it turns out, are huge. The researchers have calculated that when the vaccination program comes to an end in 2020, it will have saved around $350 billion when it comes to health, but overall this balloons to an astonishing $820 billion across the 73 low and middle-income countries in which Gavi is operating.

This is not only through reduced health care costs as diseases are prevented before they become an issue, but also due to those who are vaccinated being healthier and so working for longer and thus increasing productivity in these nations over their entire lifetimes.

Social and economic benefits aside, the most important results are the human ones: the prevention of over 500 million illnesses, 20 million child deaths, and 9 million cases of long-term disabilities. So much pain and suffering and loss will be unknown — and unfortunately unappreciated — because of such a cheap and relatively easy intervention.

Human Rights in Everyday Language

The following chart from Our World in Data tracks the frequency of the phrases ‘civil rights’, ‘women’s rights’, ‘children’s rights’, ‘gay rights’ and ‘animal rights’ in English-language books from 1900 to 2008. 

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We take for granted that these words and ideas exist, but for the vast majority of human history, the very notion of human rights, especially for children and women, let alone rights for animals — was almost completely alien to virtually every culture. That these words have become so common in our books, media, and everyday language is a huge sign of progress in itself — even if we have a very long way to go.

 

An African Nation Takes Charge in Addressing Hunger

254px-zambia_-_location_map_28201129_-_zmb_-_unocha-svgAfrica rarely comes to mind when one thinks of groundbreaking scientific research, much less the obscure nation of Zambia, located in the south of the continent. Yet in addition to being one of the world’s fastest growing economies, it is home to the Zambia Agricultural Research Institute, a gleaming new government agency that is pioneering solutions to world hunger.

Its work includes cultivating a form of sorghum (an important staple grain) that is bitter tasting to pests like birds; improving corn, unanother global staple, to be richer in vitamin A (whose deficiency leads to hundreds of thousands of cases of blindness worldwide); and creating disease resistant cassava, a nutritionally-dense and drought-resistant crop that provides a basic diet for over 500 million people.

Moreover, in order to diversify the food supply to better prevent hunger, Zambia gives its farmers electronic vouchers that allow them to buy whatever farm supplies they want. Imagine how much more progress we’ll see as more and more nations get the resources to educate, train, and empower their citizens. (Especially Africa, with its large youth population.)

Source: The Economist

How an International Coalition is Tackling One of the World’s Most Widespread Diseases

Hepatitis C is a nasty and virulent liver disease that affects over 71 million people worldwide and kills 400,000 people annually. While highly effective medicines are available, their high cost — from $12,000 in Chile to over $84,000 in the U.S. for a 12-week treatment course — means barely 3 million people get treatment.

Enter globalization: a Swiss nonprofit dedicated to providing low-cost medical treatments, the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi), has teamed up with an Egyptian drugmaker, Pharco Pharmaceuticals, to create a cheaper treatment program based on two U.S.-made drugs that are too expensive for most people.

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