Violence Worldwide

While citizens across the Western World lament a growing sense of fear and vulnerability to violent crime and terrorism, the World Economic Forum has issued a report showing that most of the world’s lethal violence, be it homicide, war, or terrorism, is concentrated in only a handful of countries and regions.

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Indeed, as the above visual data show, terrorism has only become “global” in the sense that while it does span different countries, it is far from being geographically dispersed; the same few regions and subregions have more or less accounted for most of the world’s violence for the past few decades, with some dropping out (Colombia and India) and some recently joining (Libya and Ukraine).

It turns out that extremist violence is much less pervasive than you might think. As other analysts have noted, it is significantly more prolific outside Western countries than in them. A recent assessment of terrorist risks in 1,300 cities ranked urban centres in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan and Somalia as significantly more vulnerable than those in Belgium, France, the UK or the US. At least 65 cities were described as facing extreme risk, with Iraq – especially Baghdad, Mosul, Al Ramadi, Ba´qubah, Kirkuk and Al Hillah – fielding six of the top 10. Consider that between 2000 and 2014, there were around 3,659 terrorist-related deaths in all Western countries combined. In Baghdad there were 1,141 deaths and 3,654 wounded in 2014 alone.

It is true that there have been dozens of terrorist attacks in recent years, but how are they spread around the world? The Global Terrorism Database (GTD) tracks terrorist-related fatalities between 2005 and 2014 in 160 countries. In a handful of cases where there is ongoing warfare – including Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen – the GTD sometimes conflates terrorist and conflict-related deaths. The authors of the database go to great lengths to avoid this from happening, but it is unavoidable. There are alternative datasets that apply much more restrictive inclusion criteria, but they are not as broad in their coverage and also suffer flaws. Rather than focusing on absolute numbers of violent deaths, it may be more useful to consider prevalence rates.

On the one hand, most countries at the top of the list of most terrorism-prone are clustered in North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. They include war-torn countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, Israel, Yemen, Pakistan and Syria. Other countries in the top 15 are more unexpected, not least the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia, Central African Republic, and Kenya. Belgium comes in at 86th place while France and the United States come in at 98th and 105th respectively. These latter rankings will obviously shift upwards given recent attacks in 2015 and 2016, but not by as much as you might expect.

Unfortunately, noncombatants are for more likely to be killed in today’s wars, nearly all of which are civil conflicts taking place within countries, often with the involvement of paramilitary forces that blend in with civilian populations and thus make them likely targets of all sides. This is to say nothing of the fact that civilians are also the primary and explicit targets of nearly all terrorist and criminal acts.

Yet, however awful they are, even these wars are not as bloody as they otherwise could be:

It turns out that the risk of dying violently from war is considerably higher than the probability of being killed in the course of extremist violence. Although in some countries this risk is an order of magnitude higher, the overall conflict death rate in conflict zones is still far lower than many might have predicted. For example, the average conflict death rate is sky-high in Syria – site of some of the most horrific warfare over the past decade. But it is comparatively lower in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, South Sudan, Chad and Yemen, countries that have been exposed to industrial-scale violence. The conflict death rate of course varies according to the ebb and flow of warfare, but the average prevalence is surprisingly low.

In fact, for all the attention geared towards war and terrorism, it is homicide — shorn of any ideological or political motive — that is the biggest threat to human life today. And as with other forms of violence, it is disproportionately concerned in a select number of places, albeit still more widely distributed than war and terrorism.

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Although homicidal violence is steadily declining in most parts of the world, it still presents one of the greatest threats of what public health experts call external causes of mortality – especially among young adult and adolescent males.

As in the case of terrorist and conflict-related violence, there are also hot spots where murder tends to concentrate. People living in Central and South America, the Caribbean and Southern Africa are more at risk of dying of homicide than in most other places. The most murderous countries in the world include El Salvador, Honduras, Jamaica, Venezuela, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guatemala, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Belize, Colombia, Trinidad and Tobago, and Brazil.

About 46 of the 50 most violent cities are concentrated in the Americas. Also included in the top 15 most murderous countries, though located outside the Americas, are South Africa, Swaziland and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

And beyond these pockets of extreme homicidal violence, the risk of murder is also more widely distributed than violent deaths associated with terrorism or war. There are roughly 85 countries that are consistently above the global average of around seven homicides per 100,000 people. In fact, about nine in every 10 violent deaths occurring around the world over the past decade were due to murder; just a fraction can be attributed to either war or terrorism. This is not to minimize the real dangers and destruction associated with these latter phenomena, but rather to ensure that we keep our eye firmly on the ball.

In nearly half the world’s countries, murder is a far bigger and more prevalent threat to the average person than any other form of deadly violence. This morbid fact renders several important lessons:

First, it is a reminder that a relatively small number of countries are dramatically more at risk of terrorist and conflict-related violence than others – especially Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. While they must protect their homeland from terrorist events, diplomats, development experts and defence specialists would do well to double down on preventive diplomacy and conflict prevention in the most badly affected countries. Doing so could have a dramatic effect on reducing the global burden of terrorist and conflict violence and related humanitarian consequences such as refugee flows and internal population displacement.

Second, there are also a handful of countries – most of them in Latin America and the Caribbean – where homicidal violence is off-the charts. Most of the murders in these states are concentrated in fast-growing large- and medium-sized cities. If homicides are to be reduced there, it is essential that federal and municipal planners focus on risk factors that are driving urban violence – not least social and economic inequality, high rates of youth unemployment, poor and uneven governance, and the limited purchase of the rule of law. There is mounting evidence of data-driven strategies that work – including focused-deterrencecognitive therapy and targeted prevention, but they need sustained leadership to have lasting effect.

Finally, we need to get better at nurturing resilience – the ability to cope, adapt and rebound in the face of adversity – in high-risk communities. While obviously distinct in their causes and consequences, there are still many commonalities connecting terrorist, conflict and homicidal violence. When communities are disorganized and suffer from neglect, there is a higher likelihood of politically, criminally and ideologically motivated organized violence erupting. Governments, businesses and civil society groups need to make sure that political settlements are inclusive, that marginalized groups and broken families are taken care of, and that resilience is designed in to communities from the get-go.

What are your thoughts?

Check Out The Latest UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Among the duties of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is the cataloguing and preservation of World Heritage Sites — places both natural and human-made that are considered to be an outstanding part of humanity’s shared heritage.

The agency added twenty-four sites in 2015, bringing the total to 1,031 locations spanning 163 countries. These are the newest additions to the list until the World Heritage Committee meets again in Istanbul, Turkey this coming July.

The new sites, with hyperlinks to their official UNESCO profile and photo gallery, can be seen below. They include everything from 10,000 year old rock art, to unique Industrial Era complexes — a selection as varied as human ingenuity and ambitious.

In addition to these new locations, UNESCO also announced the expansion of three existing sites:

The session also added three sites to its endangered list, all of them in the war-torn Middle East:

At least the biodiverse Los Katios National Park in Colombia was announced to no longer be in danger!

I am eager to see what exciting new monuments, buildings, natural features, and other unique places will be added to the World Heritage List. There is no shortage of contenders in this big, beautiful world of ours.

The Incredibly Hyper-Realistic Paintings of Olumide Oresegun

For all its cultural richness and creative talent, Africa is not yet known globally for its art scene. But with improving living standards, greater investment in education and fine arts programs, and growing access to technology, an increasing number of aspiring artists on the continent are finding it more palatable to engage in and market their works.

Among the many African artists leading the way is Olumide Oresegun, a Nigerian painter whose works are breathtakingly realistic and details. Many of them look like outright photographs.

The 35-year-old has had a passion for art his whole life, and has been painting professionally for nearly decade. But since posting photos of his paintings on Instagram, he has garnered much international attention — rightfully so in my view — which he hopes will help serve as a springboard for other African artists.

Learn more about the artist at PRI.org.

The Invention of Universal Time and Global Consciousness

On this day in 1879, Scottish-born Canadian inventory and engineer Standford Fleming proposed to the Royal Canadian Institute the idea of establishing global standard time zones based on a single universal world time.

Up until that point, each (though not every) city around the world set up its own official clock based on the local position of the sun. Given that most humans, particularly in urban areas, did not travel long distances very quickly, this idiosyncratic and localized approach served well for millennia.

But with the introduction and mass utilization of railways and steamships, people began traveling fast enough over long distances to lead to some absurdly extreme variations in time; this required continually monitoring and resetting of timepieces as a train progressed across several municipalities in just a day. Hence Flemings’ suggestion, which he promoted at international conferences across the world.

And although his version of Universal Time was not accepted, the concept did catch on, and by 1929 most nations accepted a global standard of time. This proved to be one of those innovations that is taken for granted in modern society, but that reflected humanity’s unprecedented progression towards a globalized society.

To Improve U.S. Education, Look at the States

In the 1932 U.S. Supreme Court case New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, Justice Luis Brandeis made the point that a “state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country”. Thanks to the federal structure of the United States, all fifty subdivisions of the country have considerable leeway in how they manage all sorts of economic, political, and social policies and institutions (though the extent of this power is a matter of perennial debate and jurisprudence.)

A recent report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has validated this idea, arguing that the best way to improve America’s educational outcomes is to look not abroad, as is so often done, but within, at the many individual states, counties, and cities that have managed to attain high results.

It is a long read and dense read, I unfortunately have not the time to reproduce its most salient points with my commentary. Suffice it to say, it is well worth giving a look, especially as it raises many questions whether the international rankings that are relied upon by performers are truly as accurate, and thus informative, as many believe. Continue reading

Canada: The World’s Freest Country?

A recent article at Foreign Policy makes the provocative case that our neighbor to the north has overtaken us as the world’s leading beacon of liberty and prosperity (a claim that, to be sure, was always suspect in practice, yet has remained a bedrock of American identity, prestige, and soft power).

The claim is based on the results of the newly published 2015 Legatum Prosperity Index, an annual report issued by the Legatum Institute that measures countries’ performance in eight categories of human flourishing, such as personal freedom, safety and security, and governance.

While Canada did not reach the top spot — that honor went to Norway for the seventh consecutive time — it did rank a very respectable sixth place, compared to the United States’ 11th place. Aside from seventh-place Australia, Canada was the only medium sized country to make it to the top ten; the rest were small European (mostly Nordic) and Anglophone nations.

Canada shined mostly on account of its people’s attitude towards immigrants and the trajectory of their country. It is all the more impressive given the many woes and troubles attributed to the much-disliked Conservative administration of Stephen Harper, which over the last decade has been accused of making the country increasingly authoritarian, intolerant, and socially backwards (a development that some Canadians tellingly, only half-jokingly, called “Americanization“) . Continue reading

Coffee or Tea — What is the World’s Drink of Choice?

The two beverages have ancient roots, but only over the last couple of centuries have they become truly global commodities. The following map from The Economist shows which countries and regions favor which drink. (You can find the interactive version here.)

Coffee vs. Tea

There is a clear East-West divide: among nearly all Western countries — with the notable exception of the United Kingdom — coffee trounces tea, despite the latter beverage’s increasing popularity. Meanwhile, across most of Africa and Asia, tea is the drink of choice, with the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand being clear outliers.

Other countries such as Australia, Chile, New Zealand, and Saudi Arabia remain divided. Guatemala stands out as being the most overwhelmingly favorable towards coffee (99.6 percent) while Kenyans are the most enthusiastic for tea (99.2 percent). Overall, most countries prefer coffee, though tea probably has the most total drinkers, given its popularity in big nations like China, India, and Nigeria.

How Many National Anthems Are Plagiarized?

Along with a flag and coat of arms, an anthem forms an integral part of a nation’s identity. So one could imagine how scandalous it would be if the song that officially celebrates a nation’s culture and traditions was in fact stolen from somewhere else — including a raunchy American movie.

According to PRI, the national anthem of Bosnia — which was selected to reflect the country’s unity amid bitter ethnic divide — is remarkably similar to, of all things, the opening music of National Lampoon’s Animal House, the 1978 comedy about a misfit fraternity. Compare the two below and decide for yourself.

Animal House.

Bosnian National Anthem (Državna himna Bosne i Hercegovine)

The two melodies were allegedly so similar that some in the country called for the composer, Bosnian-born Serb Dusan Sestic, to be sued for plagiarism (albeit motivated more by opportunism and nationalist spite among those who disliked the anthem and what it stands for). Needless to say, some Bosnians called for the anthem to be dropped, given how embarrassing such an association would be.  Continue reading

A More Religious World

The Atlantic reports on a major new Pew study on global religious demographics that projects two-thirds of the world’s population will be either Christian or Muslim — with the latter outnumbering the former, albeit by a percentage point or two.

The Muslim population, for example, is expected to grow twice as fast as the rest of the world’s population between now and 2050, largely because Muslims tend to be young and have high fertility rates. A majority of Muslims will still live in Asia and the Pacific region, as they do now (even though Islam is the predominant religion of the Middle East, only one in five Muslims live there). While their life expectancy will likely rise over the next four decades, on average, Muslims will still die younger than members of any other religion, including folk religions. Jews, on the other hand, will live the longest; in 2050, the group’s life expectancy will be 85, compared with 75 for Muslims. This is partly because the Jewish population is so concentrated, Hackett said: Roughly 80 percent of Jews live in Israel or the United States, both highly developed countries.

But perhaps the most significant finding is that Muslims may gradually overtake Christians as the world’s largest religious group in the coming decades.

The following graph charts this progression:

This trend is part of the wider shift in population and cultural power to the developing world, especially Asia, where countries like India and China will become battlegrounds of the world’s major religions:

One open question is how religiosity will play out in China. Right now, there isn’t a lot of reliable data about religious affiliation in the world’s most populous country, Hackett said. Most population information comes from the government, which has been more or less hostile toward organized religion since the late 1960s; even if the country’s citizens are religious, they might be unlikely to share their beliefs on a government questionnaire, he said. One scholar, the Purdue University professor Fenggang Yang, says the country is becoming more faithful, though. He estimates that the percentage of Christians in China could grow from 5 percent in 2010 to 67 percent in 2050, based on the growth rate of the religion over time; if this came true, it would significantly shift the world’s total Christian population.

Meanwhile, the historic core of Christianity, Europe, will see its religiosity and subsequent influence over that faith decline:

In Europe and beyond, age, fertility rates, and migration are the most important factors in projected population changes, but religious conversion also plays a minor role in the results. Despite Christianity’s tradition of evangelism, the faith is expected to lose a net total of about 66 million people around the world due to conversions, accounting for both those who convert into the faith and those who convert out. A significant portion of those converts will likely become unaffiliated, a group that’s expected to grow by a net total of roughly 61 million purely due to people leaving their religions (as opposed to via higher birth rates, etc.)

We may well see a future where Christian aesthetics and even doctrine starts to become shaped by Chinese and African culture (not to mention visa versa). One can see widespread blending (e.g. syncretism) of folk traditions with Christianity in places like Sub-Saharan Africa, which is another center of growth for the faith and Islam:

For both Christianity and Islam, the region with the most potential will be sub-Saharan Africa, where the population is expected to double in roughly four decades due to extremely high fertility rates. The number of Christians in the region is also expected to double, reaching over 1.1. billion people, and the Muslim population is projected to grow by an astounding 170 percent, hitting nearly 670 million. Largely because of these trends, researchers estimate that two-thirds of the world’s population will be Christian or Muslim by 2100.

And what about all the research and debate concerning the rise of secularism and atheism? Well as noted before, the religiously unaffiliated — which run the gamut from hard atheists to the nonetheless spiritual — will increase significantly, albeit mostly in the “old” Christian West.

Here is what the projections show from 2010 to 2050. Note that it looks at conversions alone, not natural birth rates (which are typically much higher among Muslims, Christians, and Hindus than among Buddhist, Jews, and the non-religious).

It is worth reiterating that these are just estimates, albeit ones based on fairly comprehensive and substantive research (Pew tends to have a good track record). There is no telling how much will change over the coming decades, especially in a world where religious conflict, dialogue, and interaction alike is higher than ever.

Moreover, this is hardly as clear-cut as Christianity vs. Islam vs. secularists etc. Each of these groups have their own internal problems and divisions; Protestants, namely the Evangelical kind, are making inroads into historically Catholic strongholds like Brazil and Central America, and are competing amongst themselves for souls. The Shia and Sunni split continues to spill more blood, while the more mystical and liberal Sufis are often distrusted and persecuted by Islamic conservatives.

Meanwhile, the broad tent that is “unaffiliated” encompasses such divergent groups as explicit atheists, agnostics, the vaguely spiritual and deistic, and even New Agers who otherwise believe in some sort of divine or supernatural power or another yet choose not to label themselves religious. Secular people hardly represent a united or coherent front (especially as the broader and more technical definition of the term would include practicing Christian or Muslims who simply do not want their religion to influence politics or social policy).

In short, the picture, as can always be expected, is complicated. But if these projections hold out, it does indeed seem to be the case that while the world will remain religiously diverse — look at the growth, by conversion alone, of various folk traditions and “other” non-major religions — Christianity, Islam, and to a lesser degree Irreligion will represent the dominant strains of thought and lifestyle.

But even this does not show how such labels will change and what these faiths (or lack thereof) will look like doctrinally, culturally, and ideologically. Will Christianity continue to take on the indigenous concepts of its majority African and Asian populations; will Islam shift towards more traditional, moderate, or mystical forms, as it is currently contending with? Will secular people become more hardened into outright atheism or agnosticism, or lean towards vaguely spiritual New Age or Eastern manifestations?

I guess I will see for myself in my lifetime. What are your thoughts?