Sunday, May 20, 2018

African migration and brain drain

This article from the Atlantic discusses the positive aspects of out-migration for source countries.  Its argument rests heavily on a recent World Bank study finding that each migrant who leaves an African country equates to an additional $2100 in exports per year from that country, in addition to the remittances they send home.

This is fair to point out, and the article's point is well taken that sometimes we in the development sector are too dead-set on having people stay put where they are, and that we thus don't acknowledge the very positive contributions that out-migration can make to a country.  Likewise I agree that developed countries should allow freer movement of people into and out of our countries if we are really serious about equality, fairness, and above all free markets.  Why should financial capital be ever-freer to move around the world, when people are constricted in their movements to seek a better life?

But let's at least point out some holes in the logic and make some counterarguments.  Nobody can deny that the desire to migrate is a powerful force for a lot of people, as evidenced by the sheer numbers of people who do migrate.  But we also can't deny that most people don't migrate, due not only to restrictions on their ability to do so, but often because they simply don't want to.  (This alone would seem to justify development agencies' focus on making life better "at home", since most people in any community will stay there, not migrate).  Even those who do migrate often feel ambiguous about their decision, and many migrants return home (or plan to) as soon as they can, whether that's after three years working hard and saving, or after a long career abroad so they can retire in comfort in their home village.  I've been flabbergasted recently that a number of my friends' immigrant parents, people who I'd placed unambiguously in the ranks of die-hard, lifelong Chicagoans, have returned to their countries of origin to retire.  It reminded me at a very visceral level of how strong a pull is exerted by home.  I'm feeling it too, as I seek ways to start a life in Chicago after more than a decade living abroad.

I also think the Atlantic article cited above is too blithe about the reasons for migrating, making migrants out as unhurried Homo economicus making a cold monetary calculus.  But as profiled by a recent NYT article, many Central American migrants are not so much making a carefully pondered choice to seek economic opportunity elsewhere, but rather are desperately fleeing gang violence in their home countries.  Such situations are common as push factors for migrants throughout the world (usually also mixed with an economic impetus), but the Atlantic article doesn't consider this angle at all.  (Side note:  up until reading this NYT article, I was appalled to see that news coverage of the Central American migrant caravan, which is a public protest staged annually to draw attention to the plight of migrants, focused so much on President Trump's framing of it as a sort of military assault on the border that they missed the whole moral and religious theme that the organizers are trying to evoke.)

Again, this is not to diminish the agency of migrants, and the very real economic choices they make and real benefits they and their communities reap by their migrating.  But it is to say that the decision to migrate is often not purely economic, and migrants often have mixed feelings of elation to discover a new reality and seek new opportunities, tempered by nostalgia at leaving their homes and fear of the very real dangers they'll face abroad.

Okay, let's deal with the other, and in my view the bigger, problem with the Atlantic article.  $2100 a year is not much, even in most poor countries.  If an educated, motivated person stays in his or her country of origin and invests their time, effort, and money in their own business, or as part of the qualified workforce for someone else's business or working in government, then the value this person contributes to the economy will almost always be superior to $2100, and even to the remittances they might have sent home otherwise. 

I understand the Atlantic article's skepticism vis-a-vis "keeping people put" in a given place (they drive home their point with a straw-man argument tying such community development efforts to the slave trade and colonial corvee labor).  No one should oblige anyone else to remain in an intolerable stagnation, just to satisfy some utopic ideal of local development.  But at the same time, all successful countries do in fact implement policies precisely to keep their people put.  City governments like Columbus, Ohio or Palo Alto, CA or Naperville, IL do their best to attract and hold onto highly-qualified people and families, because they recognize that attracting human capital is always better than letting it go, even if those who leave were to send back a bit of money from time to time to their relatives back in Naperville.  I guess my point is that any place should seek a balance between getting people to stay put and hence develop that place, and of course offering people the freedom to move away.  In fact, many countries that have greatly benefited from migration seem to have done so by holding on to professionals and higher-income people who "contribute" more to the country, while allowing and even encouraging the poorer, less-qualified people to migrate away.  For Mexico in the 1990s, losing a doctor would be bad, but having a subsistence farmer send some of his sons to the US to work construction would decrease pressure on land in Michoacan, while increasing earnings beyond what those farmers'  sons could have gotten back home.  For Sweden or Sicily in the 1880s the calculus would have been similar. 

This has its limits though; at some point you want your country to develop, not just to send people abroad to prosper.  Let's think in concrete terms.  If a doctor from Niger migrates to France and makes a lot of money curing the ills of French people instead of curing Nigerien ills, then the improvement in health and wellbeing accruing to the French will be at the expense of the improvement to Nigerien health.  In this case, children and adults in Niger may die for lack of that doctor's care.  In the short term the deal may still come out in favor of migration to France, since the lives improved in France are "worth" more in terms of earning potential than those in Niger, and the doctor can capture some of this value added and even send it back home.  The problem is that, unless that doctor begins to act as if the Nigerien lives are worth just as much as the French lives, they never will be.  The Nigerien economy will continue to value French wellbeing more than Nigerien wellbeing, which means that the gap in productivity between the two countries will never be closed.  It's like when countries try to "develop" by attracting low-wage industries like apparel.  If their prime selling point is the low cost of their labor, then this model will never result in improved wages (and thus wellbeing) for the people of that country, because the only development occurring depends on wages remaining low.

To tie all this up, I'm going to bring the economic point back to the issue of violence and the not-so-rosy motives for migrating.  In Central America we see a very perverse dynamic, in which parents migrate to the US in order to make more money, send money back to their children, and thus "improve" their children's lives.  But right now what is happening a lot is that those kids remain in the care of doting, doddering, or overworked grandparents who for whatever reason can't provide them the structure they need for a healthy upbringing.  Or even worse, they stay with uncles or older siblings who may abuse them, throw them out, or feel resentful either at the imposition of more mouths to feed, or at their economic dependency on the kids' parents and their remittances.  Either way, you find kids who have a weak family structure, which in turn opens them up to all sorts of social ills--sexual promiscuity, drug use, violence, and gang membership.  The fact that they have more money thanks to the remittances only worsens their vices.  I'm not just making this up, doing a conservative diatribe yearning for simpler times.  No, these are trends that we see happening at a massive scale in Central America, which then fuel the conditions of generalized violence that push even more migrants out. 

I'm not saying that the particular dystopia that we've seen in Central America is happening or will happen in every poor country or every country that sends out migrants.  But it is another reminder that the Atlantic shouldn't be so flippant in its blanket endorsement of migration as a way to improve life in Africa.

In summary, I like the Atlantic's reminder that migration isn't always a bad thing for countries that send people abroad (and is certainly a boon for the recipient countries).  But let's not exaggerate.  Every place in every time needs to balance the need to relieve pressure on land and the job market, with the need to expand the opportunities that people themselves create by staying put.  That mix of how many people should migrate and how many should stay put will vary by country and by time period.  But let's not pretend it's an all-or-nothing question.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Anti-poverty programs in China

This is an interesting article about how China has drastically reduced poverty through a coordinated suite of social programs.  The problem is that the poor now often have more cash money, but are no longer able to produce their own food or otherwise be in charge of their own subsistence and wellbeing.  In short, they are less poor but more dependent.  This is a problem that faces many societies; indeed it seems to me that all economic development consists to some degree in trading autonomy and resilience for a sort of prosperous dependence.  Normally the population makes this shift more or less willingly, as people become more confident that their money will in fact be good, that the grocery stores will indeed have food, that their dependence is dependence on a system if anything more robust than the weather and traditional lifeways that had provided their livelihoods before.  In the case of China, it seems like the process has been accelerated and forced by the government, such that the opportunities of new city life don't always offset what the rural poor are forced to give up of their old lives.  And the article signals some early signs of unsustainability that suggest that the government may not be able in the long term to keep up the welfare payments to the relocated poor.  If this were to happen, the poor would have lost both their old rural livelihood and their new artificial life support.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo of Kinshasa

Here is a fascinating long-form profile of the Archbishop of Kinshasa (and thus the head of the Congolese Catholic Church), Laurent Monsengwo.  It's in French, but I think you can have your navigator translate it.

The current story is very complicated, and I don't entirely understand it, and I'm sure there are nuances, especially as regards the apparent divisions between the Church hierarchy from Eastern DRC and the Archbishop.  But my short take is that Monsengwo is speaking truth to power, demanding that the current president of DRC, who has held onto power for 17 years, follow through on signed commitments to open up the democratic process, step down, and hold elections.

Among many other things, this article makes me:

  • want to learn about the "Zairean rite", an officially recognized variant of the Catholic liturgy (like the Eastern rite or the Malabar rite), and about all the other unique attributes of what seems to be a vital and fascinating Catholic religiosity in the DRC
  • admire the Archbishop's command of a reported 15 languages!  (including Hebrew, Aramaic, and other classics)
  • want to somehow support the struggles of the Church in DRC to bring democracy and dignity to a long-suffering people.  As I learn more about current events in the DRC, it seems like it's the first time in a long time that I've seen the institutional Catholic Church so clearly and vocally siding with the poor and the oppressed in a specific conflict.  It reminds me of Archbishop Romero's Church in 1970s El Salvador, and it's the role I think the Church is meant to play in the world.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Two very different takes on African history

A friend recently loaned me a book by Ryszard Kapuscinski called The Shadow of the Sun, in which he recounts decades spent from the 1950s to the 90s as the only Polish news correspondent in all of Africa.  As such he was present for many of the major moments in the independence and even the post-independence blues (Nigeria's coup d'etat that prefaced the Biafra War, for instance) of most of the countries in Africa.  His accounts are evocative, lyrical, and above all a pretty good primer on the recent history of lots of countries.  For instance, he gives in maybe ten pages a really good overview of German, then Belgian colonization of Rwanda and Burundi, then the numerous pogroms and civil wars that preceded the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

In general the tone and the level of detail are what you would expect of a journalist dropping in at the key moment.  Some very incisive observations and often a surprising understanding of a particular context and historical moment, but at the same time a lot of cliches and lazy or careless generalizations.  To his credit, Kapuscinski is for the most part free of the condescending, dismissive, scornful tone of many "Africa hands" jaded from seeing so much war and poverty and suffering.  He avoids racial essentialism and is in fact a fervent anti-racist, even drawing what I think are eloquent and well-argued parallels between the racism and dehumanization invented to justify the Atlantic slave trade, and its logical endpoint of 20th-century fascism and totalitarian murder (which he knew all too well as a Pole).  And then he intelligently and critically explains many direct consequences of centuries of slavery, racism, and then colonialism, in the form of extractive models of business and politics, and a pervasive sense of inferiority felt by Africans in the postcolonial age.

All that said, Kapuscinski does fall into sweeping generalizations very often.  He prefaces the book with a very wise caveat to the effect that he is not "reporting on Africa" or capturing the essence of an entire continent, but rather describing a very limited number of people and places and times that he has happened to get to know in different places in Africa.  And again, for a European in the 1950s and 60s, I think he maintains this spirit to a great deal.  But by my 21st-century eyes, the author is often guilty of something I've noticed in many journalists and just outsiders in general describing a place that is not their own.

Inevitably when you encounter something new, or even after this thing has become familiar to you but you have not become "of it" or internalized its logic, it is baffling to try to understand things that don't obey your own logic, your own way of doing things or thinking.  If you are humble and intellectually honest, you can sometimes overcome this initial bafflement by asking stupid questions, getting laughed at a fair amount, but eventually by this means getting an explanation from the people themselves of why they do things a certain way.  But this is difficult and embarrassing, and especially for a journalist in Kapuscinski's situation, maybe you just don't have time for these deeper probings.  So lots of things, from driving habits to consumption choices to ways of working or raising kids, either remain a mystery to you, or you just make up your own explanation.  This explanation is usually not right and often has negative overtones, as it must if you are trying to make sense of something you truly believe doesn't obey common sense.  "Resolving" your bafflement in this way ends up dehumanizing the people you're trying to understand, frustrating you yourself, and most importantly, shutting you off from a real possible explanation in favor of cliched, pat answers.  When a journalist does this, the journalist isn't learning anything new; they are restating what they already know of themselves.  The reader ends up learning more about the journalist, and not about the place or people or phenomenon the journalist is supposedly describing.  You can get away with this self-centered pontificating if you're in a position of power; indeed, as has often happened in the history of anthropology or journalism, your inaccurate outsider's interpretation of something may come to supersede the actual explanation understood by the people you are describing, who may not have much entree to shape mass media and gain public attention.

In short, Kapuscinski at times takes the arrogant attitude of, "This doesn't make sense to me, so it must not make sense at all."  This is as if I were to read a novel in Chinese, without understanding Chinese.  It would make no sense to me, and seem like pure gibberish.  But this says more about me than about the novel.  I'm the one who can't understand the sense of it; it's not that it doesn't make sense.  But this revelation will only occur to me if I am humble enough to understand that my perceptions and my interpretations are not a Gods-eye accurate rendering of absolute, objective reality.  There's a whole world out there independent of me, and if I don't understand it, it's my shortcoming, not the world's.

Anyway, I would still highly recommend The Shadow of the Sun.  It's an easily digestible overview of a whole lot of recent history across a broad cross-section of African countries.  Just take the author's observations with a grain of salt, remembering that they are his observations and interpretations, not the final word in "how Africa is".

Around the same time I devoured Ryszard Kapuscinski's book, I also breezed through a book I'd picked up a long time ago called "African History:  A Very Short Introduction," from Oxford Press.  This book is almost the polar opposite of Kapuscinski's approach.  While the title might give you the idea that it is an overview of the history of the African continent, it is in fact a book about how different people have studied (or tried to study) African history.  It starts off by affirming that "Africa" is a pretty murky concept (do we include North Africa?  white South Africans?  the African diaspora abroad?), and keeps up that tone, questioning even the most basic assumptions of what we can or cannot assert about peoples, periods, trends, and ideas.  The book argues convincingly that different approaches to "doing" African history tend to say more about the time and place that the historian is living in than the period he or she is supposedly studying!  So where Kapuscinski at times offers too-facile generalizations ("This is what happened, and this is what it means"), the Oxford Press has us questioning everything ("What do you mean by this?  By "happened"?  Whose meaning, and what is "meaning", anyway?).

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Changing diets in the world

Here is a cool interactive tool where you can explore how diets (both worldwide and by specific country) have changed in the past few decades

Here is an article summarizing the overall worldwide trend, best summarized in this quote:
"The increase in homogeneity [of diets] worldwide portends the establishment of a global standard food supply, which is relatively species-rich in regard to measured crops at the national level, but species-poor globally".   Incidentally, according to the first link, this "global standard food supply" would look much like the average diet in Colombia, which is pretty diverse, consisting in a wide range of tubers, fruits, vegetables, and grains, in accordance with its wide range of climatic zones.

Let me translate the above quote into layman's terms.  Imagine if the world consisted in 100 people, each of whom ate only one crop (species or variety) not eaten by any others.  In total, there would be 100 crops eaten in the world, presumably each uniquely suited to the specific ecology where it grew, and each crop giving rise to a human cuisine and culture distinct from any other.  Over time, let's say that ten of those crops came to predominate, such that by the end of a transition phase, each of the 100 people in the world would eat the same diet consisting in 10 crops.  For each individual, their diet has become more diverse, which is a good thing.  But for the world as a whole, the diversity of human culture, crops, and ecological adaptation will have decreased drastically, with 90% of crop varieties going extinct.

So the news is mixed.  Most people in the world are now eating a more diversified (read healthier) diet than they used to, but we are losing biodiversity, and diversity of cuisine and culture, which is bad.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Garth Brooks and politics

As part of my constant quest to diversify their cultural influences, I've been introducing my kids to country music.  The only country artist they had been familiar with up to now was Darius Rucker, former lead man of Hootie and the Blowfish, who as a black country singer is decidedly not representative of most of the pool, but for my kids represented 100% of their country universe.  Upon seeing covers of albums by Johnny Cash, Garth Brooks, and Josh Turner, my kids were shocked to learn that country music was not in fact one of the myriad American forms dominated by black artists (though of course its roots are, like most American musical idioms, pretty thoroughly black).

I grew up hearing Garth Brooks in the early 90s at the local bar in rural Wisconsin where my family spent most weekends, and had over the years come to understand that he was a sight more progressive politically than the likes of Toby Keith and his recent country peers, most of whose songs seem like a checklist of who should be disqualified from the ranks of red-blooded Americans.  I have to admit then that I was surprised today when listening to Garth's greatest hits album to hear a few of the predictable digs at welfare recipients (which is country music code for black folk, even though whites are the principal recipients of most forms of welfare I'm aware of) in his otherwise very clever song, American Honky-Tonk Bar Association. 

Anyway, I looked online for writing about Garth Brooks's politics, and I sure enough found that, digs at welfare notwithstanding, he is indeed known as a relatively levelheaded, tolerant person in the white-identity-politics-laced world of modern country music.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Trump and evangelicals

This is a fascinating long-form article from the Atlantic on Trump's relationship with white evangelical voters.  I thought this quote was particularly striking:

"It is remarkable to hear religious leaders defend profanity, ridicule, and cruelty as hallmarks of authenticity and dismiss decency as a dead language."