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

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

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

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.

The World Has Never Been More Peaceful

Over at Slate, Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack, two leading proponents of humanity’s moral progress, make their provocative case as to why the world is far safer and less violent than ever before.

First, they explain why the vast majority of people think the world is in an historically worst state than it really was. A lot of it comes down to human psychology.

News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a reporter saying to the camera, “Here we are, live from a country where a war has not broken out”—or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up. As long as violence has not vanished from the world, there will always be enough incidents to fill the evening news. And since the human mind estimates probability by the ease with which it can recall examples, newsreaders will always perceive that they live in dangerous times. All the more so when billions of smartphones turn a fifth of the world’s population into crime reporters and war correspondents.

We also have to avoid being fooled by randomness. Cohen laments the “annexations, beheadings, [and] pestilence” of the past year, but surely this collection of calamities is a mere coincidence. Entropy, pathogens, and human folly are a backdrop to life, and it is statistically certain that the lurking disasters will not space themselves evenly in time but will frequently overlap. To read significance into these clusters is to succumb to primitive thinking, a world of evil eyes and cosmic conspiracies.

Finally, we need to be mindful of orders of magnitude. Some categories of violence, like rampage shootings and terrorist attacks, are riveting dramas but (outside war zones) kill relatively small numbers of people. Every day ordinary homicides claim one and a half times as many Americans as the number who died in the Sandy Hook massacre. And as the political scientist John Mueller points out, in most years bee stings, deer collisions, ignition of nightwear, and other mundane accidents kill more Americans than terrorist attacks.

The only sound way to appraise the state of the world is to count. How many violent acts has the world seen compared with the number of opportunities? And is that number going up or down? As Bill Clinton likes to say, “Follow the trend lines, not the headlines.” We will see that the trend lines are more encouraging than a news junkie would guess.

The rest of the article lays out a comprehensive, case-by-case explanation for why violence has generally declined in every form, from large-scale conflict to homicide to child abuse. It is a lot more data than I can present spare to go over here, but I will highlight some key points.

Homicide. Worldwide, about five to 10 times as many people die in police-blotter homicides as die in wars. And in most of the world, the rate of homicide has been sinking. The Great American Crime Decline of the 1990s, which flattened out at the start of the new century, resumed in 2006, and, defying the conventional wisdom that hard times lead to violence, proceeded right through the recession of 2008 and up to the present.

England, Canada, and most other industrialized countries have also seen their homicide rates fall in the past decade. Among the 88 countries with reliable data, 67 have seen a decline in the past 15 years. Though numbers for the entire world exist only for this millennium and include heroic guesstimates for countries that are data deserts, the trend appears to be downward, from 7.1 homicides per 100,000 people in 2003 to 6.2 in 2012.

The global average, to be sure, conceals many regions with horrific rates of killing, particularly in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. But even in those hot zones, it’s easy for the headlines to mislead. The gory drug-fueled killings in parts of Mexico, for example, can create an impression that the country has spiraled into Hobbesian lawlessness. But the trend line belies the impression in two ways.

One is that the 21st-century spike has not undone a massive reduction in homicide that Mexico has enjoyed since 1940, comparable to the reductions that Europe and the United States underwent in earlier centuries. The other is that what goes up often comes down. The rate of Mexican homicide has declined in each of the past two years (including an almost 90 percent drop in Juárez from 2010 to 2012), and many other notoriously dangerous regions have experienced significant turnarounds, including Bogotá, Colombia (a fivefold decline in two decades), Medellín, Colombia (down 85 percent in two decades), São Paolo (down 70 percent in a decade), the favelas of Rio de Janeiro (an almost two-thirds reduction in four years), Russia (down 46 percent in six years), and South Africa (a halving from 1995 to 2011). Many criminologists believe that a reduction of global violence by 50 percent in the next three decades is a feasible target for the next round of Millennium Development Goals.

In short, murder is a rarity in a large proportion of societies, and is rapidly declining in most of the remainder of the world. The few places with a relatively high murder rate by today’s already lower standards, are generally doing better than they have historically, with the long-term trend continuing downward.

What about violence towards women, who for much of human history and in most large societies, fared poorly in every sphere — politically, economically, and socially. The writers admit that the data are harder to come by, but they do point to an encouraging and historically unprecedented global trend.

In 1993 the U.N. General Assembly adopted a Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and polling data show widespread support for women’s rights, even in countries with the most benighted practices. Many countries have implemented laws and public awareness campaigns to reduce rape, forced marriage, genital mutilation, honor killings, domestic violence, and wartime atrocities. Though some of these measures are toothless, and the effectiveness of others has yet to be established, there are grounds for optimism over the long term. Global shaming campaigns, even when they start out as purely aspirational, have led in the past to dramatic reductions of practices such as slavery, dueling, whaling, foot binding, piracy, privateering, chemical warfare, apartheid, and atmospheric nuclear testing.

To be sure, women still have a long way to go until they are accorded more rights, dignity, and sociopolitical equality. But at least the world seems to be moving in that direction, and today’s seemingly idealistic advocacy campaigns are tomorrow’s momentous paradigm shifts, if the historical precedent holds.

Violence Against Children. A similar story can be told about children. The incessant media reports of school shootings, abductions, bullying, cyberbullying, sexting, date rape, and sexual and physical abuse make it seem as if children are living in increasingly perilous times. But the data say otherwise: Kids are undoubtedly safer than they were in the past. In a review of the literature on violence against children in the United States published earlier this year, the sociologist David Finkelhor and his colleagues reported, “Of 50 trends in exposure examined, there were 27 significant declines and no significant increases between 2003 and 2011. Declines were particularly large for assault victimization, bullying, and sexual victimization.”

Similar trends are seen in other industrialized countries, and international declarations have made the reduction of violence against children a global concern.

Nowadays, we take it as a given that children are innocent and vulnerable members of society that must be protected at all costs. In many societies throughout history, children were regarded as inherently degenerate, and treated accordingly — corporal punishment and strident exploitation were the norm. In the developed world and much of the developing world, children enjoy both greater rights and more social support.

Democratization. In 1975, Daniel Patrick Moynihan lamented that “liberal democracy on the American model increasingly tends to the condition of monarchy in the 19thcentury: a holdover form of government, one which persists in isolated or peculiar places here and there … but which has simply no relevance to the future.” Moynihan was a social scientist, and his pessimism was backed by the numbers of his day: A growing majority of countries were led by communist, fascist, military, or strongman dictators. But the pessimism turned out to be premature, belied by a wave of democratization that began not long after the ink had dried on his eulogy. The pessimists of today who insist that the future belongs to the authoritarian capitalism of Russia and China show no such numeracy. Data from the Polity IV Project on the degree of democracy and autocracy among the world’s countries show that the democracy craze has decelerated of late but shows no signs of going into reverse.

Democracy has proved to be more robust than its eulogizers realize. A majority of the world’s countries today are democratic, and not just the wealthy monocultures of Europe, North America, and East Asia. Governments that are more democratic than not (scoring 6 or higher on the Polity IV Project’s scale from minus 10 to 10) are entrenched (albeit with nerve-wracking ups and downs) in most of Latin America, in floridly multiethnic India, in Islamic Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and in 14 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Even the autocracies of Russia and China, which show few signs of liberalizing anytime soon, are incomparably less repressive than the regimes of Stalin, Brezhnev, and Mao.

To be sure, democracies of all shades and degrees are not without their problems; state violence and repression can and do still persist at all levels and forms, albeit to varying extents. But once again, it is all about the relative and historical picture, and by that token most denizens of the world are immeasurably freer and less oppressed than ever, even if that is still a tenuous gain. Indeed, the very concepts of consent of the governed, human rights, civil liberties, etc. were practically nonexistent in most of human history.

Genocide and Other Mass Killings of Civilians.The recent atrocities against non-Islamic minorities at the hands of ISIS, together with the ongoing killing of civilians in Syria, Iraq, and central Africa, have fed a narrative in which the world has learned nothing from the Holocaust and genocides continue unabated. But even the most horrific events of the present must be put into historical perspective, if only to identify and eliminate the forces that lead to mass killing. Though the meaning of the word genocide is too fuzzy to support objective analysis, all genocides fall into the more inclusive category of “one-sided violence” or “mass killing of noncombatant civilians,” and several historians and social scientists have estimated their trajectory over time. The numbers are imprecise and often contested, but the overall trends are clear and consistent across datasets.

By any standard, the world is nowhere near as genocidal as it was during its peak in the 1940s, when Nazi, Soviet, and Japanese mass murders, together with the targeting of civilians by all sides in World War II, resulted in a civilian death rate in the vicinity of 350 per 100,000 per year. Stalin and Mao kept the global rate between 75 and 150 through the early 1960s, and it has been falling ever since, though punctuated by spikes of dying in Biafra (1966–1970, 200,000  deaths), Sudan (1983–2002, 1 million), Afghanistan (1978–2002, 1 million), Indonesia (1965–1966, 500,000), Angola (1975–2002, 1 million), Rwanda (1994, 500,000), and Bosnia (1992–1995, 200,000). (All of these estimates are from the Center for Systemic Peace.) These numbers must be kept in mind when we read of the current horrors in Iraq (2003–2014, 150,000 deaths) and Syria (2011–2014, 150,000) and interpret them as signs of a dark new era. Nor, tragically, are the beheadings and crucifixions of the Islamic State historically unusual. Many postwar genocides were accompanied by splurges of ghastly torture and mutilation. The main difference is that they were not broadcasted on social media.

The trend lines for genocide and other civilian killings, fortunately, point sharply downward. After a steady rise during the Cold War until 1992, the proportion of states perpetrating or enabling mass killings of civilians has plummeted, though with a small recent bounce we will examine shortly.

Granted, any number of people killed in warfare, especially noncombatants, is a travesty. But as morbid, not to mention logistically difficult, as historical comparisons of death rates may be, fewer deaths even when deaths occur points to steadier smaller and less brutal conflicts, and overall less suffering than there otherwise would be. Today’s civilians are literally several thousand times less likely to be targeted in today’s wars than they would have been in the mid-20th century.

And thankfully, the wars that usually form the backdrop to such mass killings are increasingly rarer and less deadly than ever:

War. Researchers who track war and peace distinguish “armed conflicts,” which kill as few as 25 soldiers and civilians caught in the line of fire in a year, from “wars,” which kill more than a thousand. They also distinguish “interstate” conflicts, which pit the armed forces of two or more states against each other, from “intrastate” or “civil” conflicts, which pit a state against an insurgency or separatist force, sometimes with the armed intervention of an external state. (Conflicts in which the armed forces of a state are not directly involved, such as the one-sided violence perpetrated by a militia against noncombatants, and intercommunal violence between militias, are counted separately.)

In a historically unprecedented development, the number of interstate wars has plummeted since 1945, and the most destructive kind of war, in which great powers or developed states fight each other, has vanished altogether. (The last one was the Korean War). Today the world rarely sees a major naval battle, or masses of tanks and heavy artillery shelling each other across a battlefield.

[…]

Though the recent increase in civil wars and battle deaths is real and worrisome, it must be kept in perspective. It has undone the progress of the last dozen years, but the rates of violence are still well below those of the 1990s, and nowhere near the levels of the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s.

The author’s conclude that, overall, every kind of violence has declined in most of the world, and political and economic freedom is steadily, if tenuous, continuing apace. Again, this is all based on general global trends and comparisons to humanity’s depressingly poor precedent in these areas.

None of this is to say that the multitude of grave problems humanity still faces should not be taken seriously and addressed accordingly. Far too many people continue to suffer and die at the hands of other people in all sorts of wars, often beyond clear-cut violence — look at economic exploitation for example, or the costs of environmental degradation.

But to deny that humanity has not nonetheless made some measurable progress is both empirically unfounded and morally counterproductive. The more we see, acknowledge, and learn from our progress, the more we can keep it going. If we remain mired in fear, cynicism, misanthropy, and despair, it will be much harder to improve our condition and those of our fellow humans.

Let us celebrate how far we have come as a species without being complacent. Let us see our incredible potential for moral progress and continue pushing the boundaries further. For all our flaws and problems, we have come to far to give up now.

What are your thoughts?

The World Goes a Little Less Hungry

For most of us in the developed world, hunger is no worse than a nuisance, and can be easily rectified by the abundance of options offered by restaurants, fast food joints, convenience stores, and supermarkets. So it is mercifully easy to forget the horrific toll that malnutrition and chronic hunger continue to reap across vast swathes of humanity.

A person who is chronically hungry would feel more than just hunger pangs. The body produces less energy and develops a daily sense of weakness. “They feel tired, they don’t feel like they can perform their work optimally,” says Rafael Perez-Escamilla, a chronic disease epidemiologist at Yale University. “They feel fatigued and a sense of apathy.” He adds that the hunger can become so severe that a person barely has the ability to get up from bed.

The lack of nutrients is especially detrimental for children under 5, for whom hunger is the leading cause of death. Each year, hunger kills some 3.1 million children under 5, accounting for 45 percent of child mortality within that age group. Those who survive suffer a lack of physical and mental development. Roughly 100 million are underweight, and 1 in 4 children are stunted, meaning their height is below the fifth percentile for their age.

… And To The Brain

Perez-Escamilla warns that the physical consequences are only part of the problem. “The vast majority of people facing chronic hunger cannot concentrate very well,” he says. “You start having a headache and getting into a bad mood, and you can’t concentrate on your work.”

Now, he says, imagine that happening every day. Add the distress of not being able to provide for your family. He recalls a study in which he asked people what hunger meant. “People talked about how hunger is the worst form of violence against human beings,” he says. “It’s the worst thing that can happen to the dignity of a human being.”

Given such grim details, it is all the more gratifying to see that this scourge has been declining at an impressive speed: according to the most recent U.N.report published last summer, 795 million people were hungry as of 2014 (the most recent year for which there is reliable data). While that is still a terribly high number, it is over 200 million less than in 1990, when 1  billion people — one out of five people — were hungry, compared to one in nine today.

Also keep in mind that the world’s population has grown by another 2 billion, making this achievement even more impressive.

To top it all off, the rate of hungry has nearly halved, from 23.3 percent in 1990 among developing countries, to a little less than 13 percent today.

HM-2015-ENG-026-notrim

Countries in green have either halved the proportion of people who are malnourished, or reduced it to less than 5 percent; those in yellow have made slow progress, while red indicates no progress.

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

As the map shows, much of the progress was led by East Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. China halved its malnourished population, while Vietnam and Korea lifting millions out of hunger. The number of underweight children dropped dramatically in Brazil, Chile, Guyana, Nicaragua, Peru, and Uruguay, with only Guatemala seeing its undernourished population grow.

What accounts for such incredible progress? As you might imagine with an issue of this magnitude, quite a lot of strategies have been involved, including improvements in infrastructure and communications, which ensures more quality food makes it to more tables; public and private investments in agriculture, particularly to boost yields and grow more nutrient-dense food; government programs to provide greater food access for the poor; and a decline in abject poverty.

Clearly, a lot of work remains in reducing chronic hunger in this world of plenty. But given the incredible progress thus far, even the challenges posed by climate change might be overcome if we continue to apply solutions across the political, economic, and technological spheres.

Sources: NPRNational Geographic

Can and Should Governments Promote Happiness?

Back in February, the United Arab Emirates announced the creation of a “minister of state for happiness” that would “align and drive government policy to create social good and satisfaction”, whatever that means. (The same statement announced the creation of minister for tolerance, perhaps in response to the country’s rapidly growing multicultural population.)

Needless to say, the idea of a “happiness minister” was met with a lot of confusion and amusement, both from within the country and beyond. What does it means to promote happiness on a policy level? What would this entail? And should governments even take it upon themselves to worry about this?

As The Washington Post points out, the U.A.E. is only the latest of several countries to go this route. Both Ecuador and Venezuela announced similar initiatives in 2013 — a state secretary of “good living / well-being” and a “vice ministry of supreme social happiness”, respectively — and the small Himalayan nation of Bhutan pioneering the concept back in 1972 with its “gross national happiness” (GNH) index.

In theory, these ministries work to try to improve the levels of happiness in the countries through a variety of policies. David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, says that despite its grandiose name, Venezuela’s ministry actually has a “pretty reasonable mandate” – measuring the effectiveness of the government’s various social welfare programs. In Ecuador, Ehlers has implemented or plans to implement a variety of policies that included both labeling foods based on their health values and meditation classes for schoolchildren, the Miami Herald reported last year.

Bhutan’s GNH measure is especially interesting, as it was devised to shift public policy focus away from economic concerns — as signified by the near-universal interest in gross domestic product (GDP) and towards promoting several components of happiness, such as mental and physical health, leisure time, and standard of living.

While there is no minister directly responsible for happiness in the tiny Himalayan nation, the Gross National Happiness Commission is tasked with surveying the levels of happiness in the nation. The information they gather is then used by the government to make decisions.

Butan’s big idea has since proven popular around the world and now a variety of countries all around the world – including Thailand and the United Kingdom – have begun measuring happiness with an aim to using it to devise policy. Dubai actually announced plans for its own Happiness Index in 2014, with Hussain Lootah, director general of the municipality, telling the National newspaper that it would be designed to “create an excellent city that provides the essence of success and comfort of sustainable living.”

Interestingly, despite leading the way in prioritizing social well being as government policy, Bhutan’s performance has been mixed at best: according to the most recent U.N. World Happiness Report, which was inspired by the GNH idea, the country ranks only 79th out of 158, not terrible but not all that great. Bhutan has also dealt with faced issues such as pervasive poverty and discrimination against non-Buddhist minorities.

Believe it or not, the same U.N. report ranked Venezuela a respectable 44th in 2016, a significant drop since 19th in 2012, when the Orwellian-sounding “vice ministry of supreme social happiness” was created. Given the country’s plethora of social, economic, and political problems — ranging from food shortages to high crime — this decline is unsurprising, though still not as damaging as one would think.

For their part, Bhutan ranked 84th, the U.A.E. 28th, and Ecuador 51st. (Wikipedia has a great breakdown of the report’s results and methodology here.) As The Post points out, the top ten countries — all of which were northern European states and small Anglophone nations — had another thing in common besides being wealthy liberal democracies:

None of the top 10 countries rated “happiest” in the U.N. report have a government ministry devoted to happiness – although given the rarity of such ministries, it’d be very surprising if they did. There’s certainly little doubt that government policies can influence levels of happiness, but whether an entire ministry is needed is not so certain. Generally, when it comes to improving levels of happiness, “what matters is how things are done across government as a whole,” says John Helliwell, a co-editor of the World Happiness Report and a senior fellow at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. And Carol Graham, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has studied attempts to measure well-being, says that the creation of ministries for happiness can be a “diversion” and may even “border on the government telling people how to be happy or that they should be happy.”

And while most of the top nations were indeed highly developed, broadly prosperous states, there was a smattering or poorer or middle-income countries, such as Costa Rica (14th place), Puerto Rico (15th), Mexico (21st), Chile (24th), and Panama (25th). It goes to show that, as with individuals, there is no magic bullet when it comes to well-being and life satisfaction.

Granted, it seems to be the general rule that financial wealth, stability, and freedom — both on an individual and societal level — generally correlates with happiness. But values, community life, leisure time, and culture count for a lot, too; people or places that are lacking in some factors, but excel in others, might still end up happier on the whole.

In my view, the best thing governments can do is create the proper conditions within which happiness can thrive — effective rule of law that safeguards personal safety and stability, less intrusion into civil liberties, more public spaces for leisure and community engagement, and so on. In other words, cultivate a physical and social environment that maximizes the individual’s ability to improve their own well being. More proactive measures, such as making healthcare and education more accessible, would certainly help, too, but this could be politically unpalatable in places wary of government intrusion, like the U.S. (which, by the way, ranked a good 13th place in the U.N. happiness report.)

What are your thoughts?

 

Philosopher Convicts

One of the nation’s finest debate teams lost to a group of New York inmates. It reads like something from a feel-good movie, but it happened back in October, and I had only recently heard the news. According to The Guardian:

The inmates were asked to argue that public schools should be allowed to deny enrollment to undocumented students, a position the team opposed.

One of the judges, Mary Nugent, told the Wall Street Journal that the Bard team effectively made the case that the schools which serve undocumented children often underperformed. The debaters proposed that if these so-called dropout factories refuse to enroll the children, then nonprofits and wealthier schools might intercede, offering the students better educations. She told the paper that Harvard’s debaters did not respond to all aspects of the argument.

The Harvard team directed requests for comment to a post on its Facebook page that commended the prison team for its achievements and complimented the work done by the Bard initiative.

“There are few teams we are prouder of having lost a debate to than the phenomenally intelligent and articulate team we faced this weekend, and we are incredibly thankful to Bard and the Eastern New York Correctional Facility for the work they do and for organizing this event,” the debate team wrote days after their loss.

Aside from Harvard, the team has beaten rivals from West Point and the University of Vermont.

Launched in 2001, Bard Prison Initiative is a privately funded program by nearby Bard College that offers inmates over sixty courses in the liberal arts; it has already expanded to six prisons. Anyone with a GED or equivalent can apply, and there is so much interest in it that each available spot has almost ten applicants.

While in prison, Kenner said students are encouraged to “make the most of every opportunity”.

Carlos Polanco, a 31-year-old from Queens and a member of Bard’s winning debate team, is among the roughly 15% of inmates at the correctional facility in Napanoch who has taken advantage of the education program.

“We have been graced with opportunity”, Polanco, who is in prison for manslaughter, told the Wall Street Journal after the debate. “They make us believe in ourselves”.

Indeed, only 2 percent of Bard’s graduates return to prison within three years (the usual assessment period) — compared to 40 percent statewide. It is amazing what an education, particularly in the humanities, can do for the human spirit. Here’s hoping more programs like this emerge around the country.