Author Archives: Peter Walker

Size (and shape) matter

Watching the tragedy in Northern Japan unfold it really brings home how  humanitarian crises are evolving. We are all well aware of the increasing longevity of crises in the South and the intermix of politics, military strategy  and aid. But Japan highlights two other features that are set to become more common.

First, size matters, and size is primarily determined by the number of people and the value of the economy that is struck.   As city size grows and population density in cities increases, the same disaster-trigger will cause far more damage. The ability to recover from a disaster is in large part a product of how big the disaster is in proportion to the GDP of the country struck.    The economic cost of the earthquake that hit china in May 2009 was about 1 to 2% of the country’s GDP.  The earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010 cost Haiti about the equivalent of one year’s GDP; 50 to 100 times most burden to the economy than the Chinese event.  This month’s earthquake in Japan, may end up costing the country about 13% of its GDP.

So size matters, but it is relative size.

Second, complexity matters. Disasters in developed and rapidly developing counties tend to cascade. The tsunami immediately killed thousands and destroyed property. It inundated farmland and the loss of production from that land coupled with clean-up cost will be felt for years.  It triggered a nuclear disaster. It triggered shockwaves across the Japanese economy, and out into the global economy.  It diverted political attention from Libya, slowing down the possibility of international support for the Libyan rebels.

As we build a more connected and globalized world, we can expect more of these complex disasters and will need to develop a far more robust and global way of responding to them.

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Libya – 30 years on

Libya was my first real overseas working experience back in 1981. I taught environmental studies at a technical institute way down in the desert. Our mission – to turn the desert green. At the time, as I guess many newly minted PhDs do, I saw the world in terms of technical problems and technical solutions and, for all his faults the Brother Colonel Gaddafi was building houses, hospitals, roads, and schools and turning the desert green via huge irrigation schemes. You can see them clearly if you zoom down to Jarmah, Libya , on Google Earth, then zoom out a little and the irrigation schemes appear as big round foot prints marching across the desert to the south. Jarmah by the way has been an urban settlement for over 4,000 years.
Gaddafi was providing his people with the basics of foods shelter, health care and water, and as long as they stayed out of politics, protection. Libyan cities always left safe to wander round at night. Here’s the irony: he was doing what most aid agencies do in the name of humanitarianism. He was providing for that basic human right – the right to life itself.
The excuse of the humanitarian, and it can be a valid excuse, is that they are there temporarily to help keep people alive, when no one else will. Aid in extremis, the small light shining in the darkness. I think this is still true in and around war zones and immediately after earthquakes and the like, but here is the problem. Fully two third of humanitarian aid today goes into programs that have been running for more than five years. And over a third of that into programs that have been running for more than eight years. This aid is in effect a drip feed keeping people alive but nothing else. It suspends them in limbo. In almost every situation where this is happening the underlying causes of crisis rest in abuses of power, and authorities that have no interest in accountability – call it a lack of democracy if you like.
Where does this place humanitarian aid? Is it really, as William Easterly wrote recently in the New York Times, the last unwitting bastion of colonialism? Is it, when it moves outside of this strict definition as emergency aid to save lives, actually holding back the struggle for basic human rights?
I leave you with an email I received this morning from an old friend in Benghazi. He is Dean of a medical college there and for many years was active in the Red Crescent.
Libyan young men wrote a heroic historical epic. Libyan revolution is advancing in the west of the country and the mercenaries of Gaddafi is losing every day. Long live free democratic Libya.”

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Professional Certification

Karen Hein and I just posted a blog on “Health Affairs Blog”, reviewing a recent report on professionalizing the aid business. Do take a look.
Peter

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Haiti: myths and spin live on

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The irony of Haiti’s tragedy is in the time line. Earthquakes happen suddenly and in seconds. People are rescued from the rubble within a day or two, or not at all. It is all so sudden; one minute normality, the next hell. But, that is not Haiti. That is only a fraction of the story. Haiti has been a country destroyed by history, bad governance and neglect for centuries. Jared Diamond, in his epic on why civilizations collapse, uses Haiti as a show case of catastrophe. He contrasts it with the other half of the island (the Dominican Republic) showing how bad land use and governance have pushed Haiti to the brink of extinction. The first country to declare independence from Slavery and cry freedom in the New World is now its poorest.
According to Daniel Coppard at Development Initiatives, development aid to Haiti in 2008, the last year we have figures for, was $907 million, about the same as the amount of humanitarian aid now flowing in. This works out at around $100 per capita per year to help rebuild roads, counter soil erosion, foster good governance, build the economy. Haiti ranks 32nd on the world listing for Development assistance per capita. Above it are most of the countries on the world’s political watch dog list.
The huge outpouring from the world’s public, a quarter of all the relief aid pledged by mid January 2010, reinforces the light of compassion which, thankfully has not gone out in this world, but in terms of solid political commitment to see a world where all people are treated with dignity, where human rights, liberty and happiness are valued for all, I think not. The rhetoric of the world of development aid is of impartiality, of the equal worth of all, but the reality is otherwise, you have to count politically to count as humanity.
Sadly, it is not just states that play the political opportunist game. An editorial in the Lancet also points out that the big independent aid agencies are not immune to the real-politic of today. NGOs, who dominate the humanitarian business, are large multi-lateral organizations now, and in Haiti we can see the struggle between the urge to help and the urge to survive, survival of the agency that is. All too often the PR machines, advocates and fundraiser get the upper hand with rhetoric and hype drowning out reality and evidence. To quote the Lancet “it may seem unpalatable to scrutinise and criticise the motives and activities of humanitarian organisations. But just like any other industry, the aid industry must be examined, not just financially as is current practice, but also in how it operates from headquarter level to field level. It seems increasingly obvious that many aid agencies sometimes act according to their own best interests rather than in the interests of individuals whom they claim to help.”

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Time for a humanitarian Profession?

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In ALNAPs soon to be published State of the Humanitarian System Report, they map the workforce in the international humanitarian system as growing “by an average annual rate of 6% over the past decade, [with] a total population of roughly 211,000 humanitarian workers in the field. Across this near quarter of a million population, the clamor to be regarded as professional, as a profession, has steadily risen. The last fifteen years has seen the development of many system-wide codes and standards, the establishing of special interest groupings and networks; ALNAP, People in Aid, ECB, to name but a few.
What has always intrigued me is why, if humanitarian workers believe they are a profession, they have not taken the obvious logical step of setting up their own professional associations? After all, it is professional associations that sit at the very heart of all present professions. It is these associations, not clubs of employers or states, which regular and maintain the profession.
Well it looks like the times they are a changing. Two recent developments, which I’ll expand on below, suggest humanitarianism is coming of age. But fist, why hasn’t it happened already?
The answer I believe lies in a quirk of this line of work. Almost all other professions start as a national concern. They form national bodies which then internationalize. Humanitarianism starts international. And this presents us with an intriguing network problem. Recent research http://connectedthebook.com/ has shown us that the cohesiveness and ability of social networks to organize is related to both their ability to share knowledge and to share emotion, empathy, values, call it what you like. Knowledge shares well across distance, via books, films and emails, emotion doesn’t. Network analysts recon that we effect the emotions and feeling of others at up to three degrees of separation. We affect our immediate friends and colleagues we come into contact with and they pass on part of that effect to their friends and colleagues. After that the effect dies out. Critically, transmitting feelings, intent, values emotions and all those messing human traits seems to require a large band width. It is best done face to face where sight, facial expression, sound, smell, posture all play a role in communication. Thus, literally, getting people together to build a profession is important, and if you are a profession spread out over the world with insufficient critical mass in and one city, this will be slow coming. Perhaps though, our increased human communication band width across national boundaries through on line discussions, video chat and conferencing, online social networks is allowing that critical mass to now form.
This brings me to these two new developments. The first is one coming out of the UK where the body that funds higher education in the UK has got together with a collective of aid agencies to form a consortium (ELRHA - enhanced learning and research for humanitarian assistance) “to explore the potential for creating a unified system of professional development, accreditation and association, which could increase accountability, raise the quality and consistency of humanitarian service, open up the profession to talented new recruits, and raise the status of the humanitarian service provider to a level on a par with other professional groups.” The group has commissioned a scoping study, being carried out by myself and colleges at RedR to recommend on such basic issues as to what the core competencies of a humanitarian professional need to be, what levels of training are needed, how a certification system might work, how such a system could be designed to work in any country and what international structures would be needed to ensure its success. We hope to release the scoping study in the spring of 2010, but in the mean time if you are interested, check out the web site http://www.elrha.org/professionalisation .
Secondly, in the USA, the students have taken over the class room. At Harvard the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research has been teaching residential and online courses, for over a decade, on humanitarian protection. More than a thousand people have passed through the courses and at present over 6,000 humanitarian workers regularly participate in their online events. Harvard has built this as a community of practice, but now the community is making its own mark and has asserted that it wants to morph into a fully fledged professional international association. The hope is to launch the association in March 2010, but in the meantime, you can read more about it at http://www.hpcr.org/
Perhaps, with these two developments 2010 will see the true beginnings of a humanitarian profession, driven by the professionals, not their employers or donors. I for one sure hope this happens.

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Insufficient Evidence

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Back in March judges at the International Criminal Court refused to support chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo’s call for Sudan President Omar al-Bashir to be indicted on charges of genocide. They said there was insufficient evidence. On Monday Ocampo lodged an appeal against the ruling, but as far as one can tell submitted no new evidence.
The problem of evidence, what to gather, how to gather it and how to interpret it is going to increasingly plague the humanitarian business. The crisis in the making is similar to that which plagued the medical profession up to the 1970s. Until then, although there were clinical trials and massive community wide surveys, there was no profession-wide recognition of the need for a rigorous understanding of what constituted good evidence, or the need for best practice to be based on evidence. Until then, trial and error, experience, wisdom passed on from the old hands and write-ups of practices that gave positive results constituted the bulk of the body that guided medical practice.
And that pretty much describes where humanitarian assistance is today.
For medicine, Archie Cochrane’s 1972 book Effectiveness and Efficiency: Random Reflections on Health Services, captured the massive change in approach which now dominate medicine. The Cochrane Collaboration, named after him, defines the evidence approach thus: “Evidence-based health care is the conscientious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients or the delivery of health services. Current best evidence is up-to-date information from relevant, valid research about the effects of different forms of health care, the potential for harm from exposure to particular agents, the accuracy of diagnostic tests, and the predictive power of prognostic factors.”
In The U.S., the Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) has used this approach to come up with two scales, one for rating the value of evidence and the other for rating the worth of a clinical service. Again, think of the parallels (or maybe absence of them) with humanitarian service.
On the USPSTF evidence scale, level I evidence is the best, level III the least reliable.
Level I: Evidence obtained from at least one properly designed randomized controlled trial.
Level II-1: Evidence obtained from well-designed controlled trials without randomization.
Level II-2: Evidence obtained from well-designed cohort or case-control analytic studies, preferably from more than one center or research group.
Level II-3: Evidence obtained from multiple time series with or without the intervention. Dramatic results in uncontrolled trials might also be regarded as this type of evidence.
Level III: Opinions of respected authorities, based on clinical experience, descriptive studies, or reports of expert committees.
If we are honest, where do most humanitarian studies sit? Level three and occasionally the bottom end of level two?
When it comes to clinical practice, or in our parlance relief interventions, it’s all about the balance between knowable benefits and probably risks. The USPSTF provides a five point scale to grade “magnitude of net benefit” .
The humanitarian profession, sadly, is a million miles away from this sort of systematic international discipline, and yet we too deal in life and death issues.
Here are the top five sins of insufficient evidence we regularly practice.
The sin of induction. We can’t help it. We view the present by comparing it to the past. We look for pattern in the past and assume similar pattern in the present means similar things. The science philosopher Karl Popper did a great job of showing the pernicious nature of this natural way of thinking. (You can read some of his original writings on this at http://dieoff.org/page126.htm). We then compound the sin by refusing to let go of it!
So, after the US invasion of Afghanistan, it looked like a post-conflict situation, so it got modeled thus, and the model was clung to, even though today, if you had known nothing about the past and were looking at Afghanistan with impartial eyes, it would patently be a country caught up in war. But we cling to the model and so program for post-conflict, channeling most of our aid in support of the central government, because that’s what you do post conflict to rebuild. Yet, to the skeptic, it looks like the aid business (supposed to be impartial and neutral) has chosen to back one side in the conflict.
It’s the same in Darfur (Aggressive Arab war crime committers pitted against victimized African farmers.) That’s the dominant model yet all our research shows this is a wild distortion and only a small part of what is going on.
In Nepal, the development community, Kathmandu based, programmed as though there was no conflict in the country.

conclusion one:
The initial models upon which we base our programming assumptions are often wrong, and even though they are wrong they are desperately hard to shake off.
The sin of “all other things being equal”. Economists use this really irritating turn of phrase when they want to prove the predictive power of their models. The problem of course is that reality does not behave. All other things are not equal. “If funding is not provided/aid agencies do not have access/ people are not allowed to move/medical supplies are not let through, then XXX,XXX people are in danger of dying.” These sorts of predictions are only true if nothing else changes. In reality though the predictions rarely come true, because people take steps to help themselves, others step in, local communities or agencies provide help. I.e. the international aid machine is not the font of all salvation.
Conclusion two: Crises are dynamic. Predictions based on aid agencies centrality are of little value.

The sin of cherry picking:
This is a well intentioned but distorting sin. We tend to quote the data that supports our case. Human rights reports cite incidents of human rights violations, a sub-set of the sample as it were. What about the incidence of human rights being upheld or not violated? We selectively quote the case studies and reports that support the case we want to build, thus confusing advocacy and evidence. We over report our successes and under report failure.
Conclusion three: Advocacy becomes self deluding. We start to confuse our advocates world with reality, distorting urgency, scale, depth and horror of crisis.
The sin of classification: We like cutoff points to help simplify our decision making, but the sin is believing that cutoff point matters. Mortality rates of more than 1/10,000/day mean you have a crisis on your hands, but why 1/10,000, why not 2 or 0.5? In reality the rate is an artificial cut off. In nutrition, difference organizations propose different cut offs for severe and acute malnutrition. And the interpretation of those malnutrition rates is highly dependent on the methodology used to measure malnutrition.
Conclusion four: Our fixing of and interpretation of cut off points, severity scales and standards, belies our lack of true understanding of how the complex processes at work in a crisis actually effect survive chances.

The sin of causality.
This comes in two versions. In the fist we interpret statistical correlations as proven cause and effect. In the second we assume that cause and effect follow a simple relationship.
Economists are raving about eh beneficial effects cell phone ownership has on economic growth in the south. As cell phone penetration into the market goes up, so to does GDP. So what, which causes which or are they both caused by deeper underlying processes. There is a wonderful negative correlation, until the early 2000s between the number of pirates operating on the high seas and the average global temperature, but this does not mean countering pirates increases global warming.
Secondly, we like simple models. The more malnourished a person is the more at risk of death they are. Sounds plausible, but as Helen Young and Suzanne Jaspars have shown, its more complex than that. There is actually far les correlation than people expect because malnutrition is the end point of so many different livelihood and public health scenarios.
Conclusion five: Beware correlations, always seek to prove causality.
In sum, our hypotheses and conceptual models of what happens in a crisis are still far to poorly developed to allow us to be truly evidence based. As a result of this we do not know enough yet about what to measure, to diagnose, and proscribe in a crisis. We do not know how best to measure and we do not know how to fully interpret these measurements.
In short, humanitarian assistance needs its own evidence based revolution, just as medicine did. The good news is that, as Archie Cochrane and his successors showed, it can be done and once adopted it makes a significant difference to the outcomes.

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Humanitarianism comes of age

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Humanitarianism now has its first true international studies association.
Fifteen years ago, when the humanitarian Code of Conduct and the Sphere Standards, were being conceived, they were part of a logic which asserted that humanitarianism needed to “get more professional”. Well this week, one of the key elements in becoming a profession has fallen into place.
Professions – law, medicine, engineering, etc all share a set of common attributes. They all:
• Utilize knowledge in an altruistic fashion
• Have a monopoly on specialized knowledge
• Therefore have autonomy to self regulate
• Are responsive to the users of the profession
• And have a responsibility to expand the Knowledge
If we think about the developments of the last fifteen years we can see how the field of humanitarian practice is moving closer to this model. Structures like the Active Learning Network on Accountability and performance (ALNAP) and the Humanitarian Accountability Project International are making practitioners more responsive to their clients. The issue of autonomy to self regulate has been highlighted and reasserted by the pressure put on agencies, particularly American ones, to conform to foreign policy in Afghanistan and Iraq. Older developments, like the seven Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, speak to the altruistic utilization of knowledge and the many coordinating and cooperating associations and funding agreements predicated upon proven competence speak to the monopoly on specialize knowledge.
But until now the reasonability to expand that knowledge has been a rather defuse notion.
Most professions are structured with a body of practitioners who have an ethical code to abide by, a body of knowledge to apply in the service of others and a set of regulations to control that service. Downstream are their clients and upstream is their academy: Law Schools, Medical Faulty, Engineering departments, with their associated specialized journals, conferences, professional degrees and academic associations.
In Groningen (Netherlands) this week we had the world’s first ever full scale academic conference devoted to humanitarian studies. Over 500 hundred academics and practitioners came together, 50 panels, 400 plus papers, and out of the conference has come the launching of the first full academic study associating devoted to humanitarian issues. The International Humanitarian Studies Association. This association, open to academics and reflective practitioners world wide will promote humanitarian studies, organize an international bi-annual conference and launch a peer reviewed journal for the association. The next conference is already planned for June 2011 to be hosted by Tufts University, Boston, USA.
The academic rigor, obsession with actions being evidence based and compulsion to share knowledge, embodied in such an association, has the potential to make a real difference to humanitarian practice and through that to the lives of those caught up in crisis.

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Ten days between reason and religion

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This time of year, these ten days between the winter solstice with its associated add-on festivals, and the new year, has always made me feel uneasy, as though one was held in limbo. Of course in a rational world the New Year, 1st January, would happen on the day after the winter solstice, 22nd December, thus allowing for the logic of the year beginning with the change over from longer nights to longer days. But this 10 day period remains an anomaly, a wrinkle in rationality.
As such it is rather a neat metaphor for one of the biggest problems we continue to grapple with today, the struggle between reason and superstition, science and religion, the West and the Rest: pick your dualism
The Enlightenment, about which we think far too little today, from Rene Descartes though Newton to the Lunar Society and on to Franklin and Jefferson (not forgetting Voltaire and Robespierre) posited a world of three powers, God, religion and reason with reason dispelling the darkness of lives dominated by superstition, received unchanging “law” and rule by divine right. From the enlightenment came democracy, science, human rights, and ironically freedom of worship. The enlightenment spawned both the American and French republics, but took very different forms in those two new countries. In the USA it took a moderate form, one which did not deny religion and saw no problem with it continuing as a force alongside reason, democracy and science. Jefferson wrote it into the first sentence of the declaration of Independence and it’s there on every dollar bill. In France, and is essence across Europe, it took a more radical path. Until the French revolution was hijacked by one of its most successful generals, Napoleon, the church was banned and its buildings systematically destroyed. Across the rest of Europe the Church was, and largely still is, confined to a social welfare and folksy ceremonial role. We still see this split today. It is one of the reasons why Europeans find it so difficult to understand (and to tolerate) the role of religion in American politics. One could imagine an Atheist being president of France, Prime Minister of the UK, but President of the USA?
This dualism of religion and reason play out in the humanitarian world as well. Classically we think of it as the Dunantists, the ICRC’s of this world, in one track driven by humanity and reason, deliberately standing apart from politics and religion, and in the other, the faith driven agencies of the Hindu, Jewish, Christian and Islamic persuasions. Of course the scales are not balanced. Most aid is delivered and funded by organizations which are essentially secular and rationalist, if not to the pedantic and principled level of the ICRC.
And here comes the problem. It comes in two parts. Part one. The vast majority of people who receive humanitarian assistance are in nations where religion is a key part of people’s lives. For most humanitarian beneficiaries, spirituality is a given. It is an important part of their lives. Part two of the problem comes from science. We know, from research carried out with people recovering from alcoholism, or traumatic injuries that those with strong spiritual beliefs recover faster and in a more lasting way. We can prove, at least statistically, that spirituality alleviates suffering.
So if spirituality is a meaningful part of our clients’ lives and if spirituality aids recovery, what then should be the stance of humanitarian agencies, committed as they are to the impartial and rapid alleviation of suffering and to doing so in a way that does not express views on issues of a political racial or religious nature?
Part of the solution I think is to sidestep the mistake our forefathers made. They treated religion in a rather unenlightened way. They refused to study it with the same reason and empiricism as they did anatomy or astronomy, instead they locked in up in Pandora’s box as an object of suspicion to be avoided, much as their forefathers are written “here be sea monsters” on the edges of their maps.
Daniel Dennett in his superb book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon does an excellent job in showing how religion can and should be studied and how it is possible to separate out issues of spirituality for the religious trappings that have been loaded onto them over the ages.
If we pursue this path, then spiritually becomes another intriguing facet of the human mind along with hope, empathy and love, all of which we have no problem supporting in humanitarian work. And if we in the humanitarian world can shown how reason can be used to describe and support spirituality to demonstrably reduce suffering, without recourse to religion, then we may also be contributing to addressing the far greater problem posed by this same challenge I the larger world.
The resurgence of religion as a political power, whether it is the evangelical right wing in the USA, the Islamist jihadists in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Hindu nationalists in India or the Orthodox Church with the orthodox state in Russia, represents a clear and demonstrable challenge to the gifts of the enlightenment – democracy, tolerance, science and the necessity of doubt. We see from history that the full frontal attack of the French and Russian revolutions faltered, as has the accommodation strategy of the American revolution. Perhaps the answer lies not in the outright rejection of religion, nor in its unstudied acceptance, but rather in the continued use of reason to explore and enhance life. Why should the study and enhancement of spirituality be the exclusive domain of religion and theology? Perhaps, if we stopped being so frightened of the spiritual side of ourselves and sought to enhance it as we do our physical and intellectual sides, then we would truly have an answer to the threat of religious fundamentalism.

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Surviving the credit melt down

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A year ago, a time which seems positively archeological now, we helped host a conference at Tufts University on Microcredit and its future. I, in my naivety, thought this was going to be a cozy chat amongst earnest development workers and community groups, but not a bit of it. Microcredit is big business these days. With deregulation in India it is the banks, not the aid agencies that provide the capital (well credit) to drive this multi-billion dollar enterprise. It is still the community groups who deliver the product and work with borrowers to manage their daily risks. In African, Banks, we were told, were starting to look longingly at the prospects of all those potential clients across the continent.
The phrase that really stuck in my mind came from one of these bankers. When asked to capture what he saw his role to be he was clear we are “blazing the trail for consumers of credit”. His point, and that of many in the room, was that there is nothing inherently wrong with linking the worlds purest two billion into the lower tiers of the global financial engine. Credit is credit, whether you borrow two dollars or two billion dollars, and it is what makes the economy go round, or rather forward. So, the bankers ask, do you want the world’s poorest to be part of this economy or do you want to exclude them from this hope (there term not mine).
That was eleven months ago. Now all has changed. Well actually no, all has not changed. Michael Balen in his wonderful book on the South Sea Bubble shows how the habit of talking up share prices, constructing make-believe realities and gambling away the future was alive and well in 1720. Then, stocks were traded at the coffee houses around London, the very same places where bets were made on the great horse races of the day. Money, greed, risk, adrenaline, all together in the same place Nothing has changed.
Today, those in Africa who have not been sucked into the great credit gamble, don’t seem so stupid. Elizabeth Blunt writing for the BBC paints a wonderful picture from Addis Abebe, where growth is fueled by remittances from relatives and from savings. OK it is slow, and if you have little to save it takes forever to move forward, but you are in the driving seat.
Savings groups, remittances transfers, the innovative use of cell phones and SMS to move cash around the country, these are the building blocks of an alternative way of doing business, and in small ways across Africa it is working.
In the early days of evolutionary theory, Darwin’s “bulldog” Thomas Huxley promoted evolution in the British middle call image, survival of the fittest, completion – nature red in tooth and claw. It is always good to feel that science, as well as God, is on your side. Half a world away in Siberia, Russian prince-turned-anarchist and biologist, Peter Kropotkin, saw it differently. He saw an environment in which survival was about collaboration not competition and in which making small savings in energy or food made all the difference between life and death. He did not see the massive competition and heady growth of the tropics with its consequential winner takes all.
So today, which political interpretation is right, competition (I’m sorry, it’s not personal, it’s just business) or cooperation?

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Bomb them – it is cost effective

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Speaking in Paris this weekend Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, urged NATO troops to bomb the drug factories in Afghanistan. Le Monde reports him as saying that “NATO troops are being killed with weapons bought from drug profits” and that the bombing of opium laboratories in Afghanistan could destroy 60% of the opium flow from that country and, as he points out “It’s also cost-effective for us.”
According to his CV , this top UN official has a degree in mathematical economics from Moscow State University, and a Ph.D. in economics from the University of California at Berkeley. He is not pencil pusher but a highly educated, well, practiced and worldly economist.
As an economist he must be aware that supply needs demand. Afghan and Pakistan officials have for some time being privately lobbying for a more sustained program to reduce demand, particularly in the USA, but they have not been lobby for a campaign to bomb the neighborhoods where heroin is used, or the houses of known drug dealers in New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles, despite that fact that there are at least 3.8 million Americans who have used heroin and an additional 106,000 users added in 2007, the last year for which we have statistics, all driving demand.
Only a month ago Costa was reporting a decline of 20% in poppy cultivation over last year and praising the fact that the province of Nangarhar, the traditional heartland of the opium business was, this year, totally free from poppy cultivation. The reasons he gave for this turnaround? That local governors with the help of the local shuras and religious leaders were able to convince the farmers not to cultivate opium. He went on to say that “Only a very small amount of land was eradicated, only 5,000 hectares at a very high human cost – 77 people died, half of them civilian and half of them policemen – and also at a very high economic cost. We are therefore making a change towards our policy regarding eradication.”
One is sometimes staggered by the thoughtlessness of remarks made by those with power and influence, but one is more staggered that a UN official, could throw aside principles of due legal process, basic human rights and simple pragmatism to make such an incredible statement. One wonders whether, in his economic models, the life of an Afghan drug producer is somehow of less worth than that of an American drug user?

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