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

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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

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.

 

How South Koreans Hold Their Corrupt Leaders to Account

South Korea is the only country in the world where all living former leaders (six in all) have either been convicted of corruption offenses, or are being tried or investigated for such crimes, including two former dictators from the 1980s and 1990s. Just last year, one of these leaders was unseated following what may have been the largest peaceful mass demonstration in modern history (and which received support from the legislature and judiciary). Three deceased leaders have also been touched by posthumous corruption scandals or investigations.

Observers once noted that corruption was a “feature rather than a bug” of Korean politics, yet the Korean people — less than two decades into being an full fledged democracy — are doing everything possible to change that. This isn’t to say that these actions are totally free from political self interest and the like — although it is worth noting that the vast majority of Koreans support these actions regardless of their political affiliation.

Korean voters have since elected, Moon Jae In, a refugee from the Korean War who was once jailed for protesting against South Korea’s dictatorship, and was a human rights lawyer before he went into politics. He is so famously “clean” that he avoids having any private or professional meetings with friends to avoid even a hint of corruption. He is subsequently one of the most popular leaders in the world, with over 70 percent approval.

Source: The Economist

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

When Helping People Isn’t “Sustainable”

Count on America’s venal financial class to engage unironic self parody.  According to a recent CNBC report, Goldman Sachs, one of the largest financial institutions in the world, asked whether the use of cutting-edge genetic therapy to cure patients is a “sustainable business model”: Continue reading

Lessons from Bangladesh in Reducing Child Mortality

Bangladesh — the world’s eighth most populous country with 162 million inhabitants — has made tremendous and inspiring strides in reducing child mortality. This is despite the fact that it is a very poor country, with half the GDP per capita of not-particularly-rich neighbors India and Pakistan.

Less than two decades ago, the rate of death for children under five was 54% higher than the global average — now, it is 16% lower than the world average, and less than even its comparatively wealthier neighbors. Child deaths from diarrhea and other enteric diseases (e.g. those from bacterial contamination of food and drink) have declined a whopping 90%; whereas in 1994, 14% of Bangladesh children in surveyed households had suffered some sort of serious enteric illness, by 2014 that number halved to 7%.

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Africa’s Ambitious New Free Trade Agreement

To most outsiders, Africa is a perpetually chaotic and conflict-ridden place, despite the fact that wars on the continent (both civil and inter-state) are at a historic low (albeit from a high base and with some nasty conflicts still brewing).

To take advantage of these improving political circumstances, and its nascent economic potential, most of Africa is coming together to forge the sort of pact typically seen as the pursuit of wealthier states: a united commercial market known as the African Continental Free Trade Area

From The Washington Post (bolding mine):

On Mar. 21, 44 African heads of state and government officials met in Kigali, Rwanda, to sign the framework to establish this initiative of the African Union.

The AfCFTA will come into effect 30 days after ratification by the parliaments of at least 22 countries. Each country has 120 days after signing the framework to ratify.

This will be one of the world’s largest free-trade areas in terms of the number of countries, covering more than 1.2 billion people and over $4 trillion in combined consumer and business spending if all 55 countries join. 

[…]

It creates a single continental market for goods and services as well as a customs union with free movement of capital and business travelers. The African Union agreed in January 2012 to develop the AfCFTA. It took eight rounds of negotiations, beginning in 2015 and lasting until December 2017, to reach agreement.

The A.U. and its member countries hope the AfCFTA will accelerate continental integration and address the overlapping membership of the continent’s regional economic communities (RECs). Many African countries belong to multiple RECs, which tends to limit the efficiency and effectiveness of these organizations.

One of its central goals is to boost African economies by harmonizing trade liberalization across subregions and at the continental level. As a part of the AfCFTA, countries have committed to remove tariffs on 90 percent of goods. According to the U.N. Economic Commission on Africa, intra-African trade is likely to increase by 52.3 percent under the AfCFTA and will double upon the further removal of non-tariff barriers.

In addition to facilitating existing economic activity, it is hoped that ACFTA will help promote Africa’s underdeveloped but fast growing manufacturing sector, diversifying its economies beyond agriculture and resource extraction.

While it remains to be seen how this ambitious effort will play out, it is definitely a step in the right direction, especially for a region that is the youngest and most potentially dynamic in the world.

Finland’s Simple But Radical Solution to Homelesssness

While most of the developed world struggles with growing or stubbornly unchanged rates of homelessness, one nation is bucking the trend: Finland has seen the number of homeless people decline from its peak of 18,000 just thirty years ago, to 7,000 today (of whom 5,000 are at least in temporary housing with loved ones). It has accomplishd this in a deceptively simple way: by giving homeless people homes.

According to the Christian Science Monitorit all began with the Finnish government making homelessness a national priority:

The elimination of homelessness first appeared in the Helsinki government’s program in 1987. Since then virtually every government has devoted significant resources toward this end.

Around 10 years ago, however, observers noticed that although homelessness in general was declining, long-term homelessness was not. A new approach to the problem was called for, along with a new philosophy.

The optimal solution, a group of four experts appointed by the Ministry of the Environment found, was Housing First. “Solving social and health problems is not a prerequisite for arranging housing,” they observed. “Instead, housing is a prerequisite that will also enable solving a homeless person’s other problems.”

The concept behind the new approach was not original; it was already in selective use in the US as part of the Pathways Model pioneered by Dr. Sam Tsemberis in the 1990s to help former psychiatric patients. What was different, and historic, about the Finnish Housing First model was a willingness to enact the model on a nationwide basis.

So while the Finns aren’t the first to tackle homelessness, they are the first to do so on a national level, thus bringing many more resources and ideas to bear.

“We understood, firstly, that if we wanted to eradicate homelessness we had to work in a completely different way,” says Mr. Kaakinen, who acted as secretary for the Finnish experts. “At the same time right from the beginning there was a national consensus that the problem had reached a crisis point. … We decided as a nation to do something about this.”

[…]

As a result, in 2008 the Finnish National Program to reduce long-term homelessness was drafted and put into place. Helsinki and nine other Finnish cities committed to the program, with the Ministry of the Environment coordinating its implementation, and local governments and nongovernmental organizations, including the Y-Foundation, joining the team.

One of those goals was to cut the number of long-term homeless in half by producing 1,250 new homes, including supported housing units for tenants with their own leases, and around-the-clock presence of trained caring staff for residents who needed help.

 At the same time, the extant network of homeless shelters was phased out. This also involved phasing out the “old way” of thinking about homelessness. “There was some work to be done on attitudes,” concedes Kaakinen. “Some of the people in the NGOs found the idea of unconditional housing hard to accept.” Also some staff had difficulty with not forcing tenants with alcohol or drug problems to go cold turkey before they were given housing.

The model’s success speaks for itself: across the nation, chronic homelessness fell by 35 percent between 2008 and 2015; in some communities, it was halved.

Of course, building new housing and employing specially trained, round-the-clock caregivers is not cheap, costing the government nearly $382 million in that same span of time. Yet supporters of the program point out that this all pays for itself: according to one 2011 study, the country saved $18,500 annually for every homeless person given housing and professional support. That’s because they no longer needed to rely on emergency medical or police services to help them.

But as Juha Kaakinen, CEO of the Y-Foundation, which helps provide 16,500 low-cost apartments for the homeless, points out:

“Of course the fact that the program pays for itself is important, but beyond that, from a moral point of view, as a society which cares for all of its citizens, we didn’t think we see an alternative. This, we felt, was the way to go forward. And we did.”