Why It’s Getting Harder to Stop Corporate Human Rights Abuses

This video, and the article it’s based on, are the culmination of about 10 years of feeling increasingly powerless in what I do for a living.

Things were never good in Chisumbanje, but they have never been this bad. One of Chachengwa’s granddaughters is 13 years old. After she stopped going to school because Chachengwa couldn’t afford the tuition anymore, she became one of the many wives of a village elder. She’s already pregnant. The daughters of Chachengwa’s neighbors and friends have jumped the border to Mozambique, becoming prostitutes in the cities or on the highways, making just enough money to eat plus a little extra to send back home. The men were promised jobs on the sugarcane plantations, but the company running them only hires temporary workers and pays just $2, plus a warm meal, for a day’s work.

[…]

You know where I’m going with this, right? I’m about to tell you that the company behind all this is Monsanto, or Shell, or Coca-Cola. That your car is running on the ethanol this plant is producing. That the U.S. government is funding or facilitating or failing to prevent what is taking place here.

But none of that is true. The company responsible for all this is called Green Fuel. It is headquartered in Zimbabwe, it isn’t listed on any stock exchange, it doesn’t sell any products in the United States, and it has no Western investors.

And it is, increasingly, the rule rather than the exception. When you think of the worst abuses in poor countries — land grabs, sweatshops, cash-filled envelopes passed to politicians — you probably think they’re committed by companies based in rich ones: Nike in Indonesia, Shell in Nigeria, Dow in Bhopal, India.

These are the cases you’re most likely to hear about, but they are no longer representative of how these abuses actually take place — or who commits them. These days, the worst multinational corporations have names you’ve never heard. They come from places like China and South Africa and Russia. The countries where they are headquartered are unable to regulate them, and the countries where they operate are unwilling to.

Every time I travel to Africa to find out how corporations are violating human rights, I hear the same thing: The western companies, the ones we boycott and rally against and shout down, aren’t the worst offenders. In fact, they’re barely on the radar. The worst companies, the ones that really terrify people, are the Chinese, the Korean and the Indian ones.

For years now I’ve been asking people in my field, at conferences, during trainings: What are we doing about south-based companies? 

So far, the answer I hear the most is that we have to wait for consumer movements to spring up in the BRICs, for Chinese consumers to chase down their companies in Africa the way we chased down Nike in Indonesia.

In other words, what we should do is a) wait and b) hope.

That fucking sucks, obviously, but it’s not like I have a better answer. When you write these articles you always have to end on a note of optimism, no matter how false, just so you don’t drag readers down into despair with you. But somehow I couldn’t muster that this time. I genuinely don’t know what to do about this problem and, as far as I can tell, no one else does either.

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Why Do Megaprojects Suck So Hard?

I’ve been watching, impotently, as my home city has embarked upon a giant infrastructure project that has no chance of success. Two weeks ago, I decided to stop boring my German friends by complaining about this all the time and start boring the entire internet!

Here’s the video I made about the huge mistake Seattle has made, and why other cities make the same one over and over again.

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I got interviewed on NPR!

I did a live interview on Leonard Lopate’s show on WNYC yesterday. According to the comments on their site, I am an insufferable upspeaker? Whatever, I managed not to curse for a whole 40 minutes. I consider this a major accomplishment.

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What Should Mark Zuckerberg Donate His Money To? It’s Complicated.

Today I have an article on Highline about how Mark Zuckerberg should give away his $45 billion.

It’s a big deal for me! Not like because it’s on the internet and super long and got fact-checked and stuff. It’s the first story I’ve written that I didn’t show to my mom before I showed it to my editor.

In the last two years, since I started experimenting with this whole journalism thing, it’s always felt like a hobby.  Even as I started getting paid, started dealing with editors, started getting invited to say stuff on panels, it always felt fake, like any moment they will realize I’m just this asshole in his pajamas. 

But on this one I was like ‘OK Mike what would a real journalist do?’ I called up hella people. I learned what the terms ‘off the record’ and ‘on background’ mean. I looked at tax filings. I called up the organizations I was complaining about and asked them to respond.

All of that is work. And, for the first time, this little journalism project of mine felt like a job. I had, of course, a ton of help. My editors are great, the infographics people made everything look terrific, the fact-checker was exactly the kind of junkyard dog you need him to be.

I have no idea if this little hobby is ever going to lead to anything real. Maybe I’ll always feel like I’m faking it. Maybe the people already doing it feel like that too. At least from now on, I’ll take some of the pressure off my mom.

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Should Britain Leave the EU?

No!

Here’s a video I made explaining why.

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Why is it so hard to make priorities in development?

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Originally published on Humanosphere

British trains used to ‘slam doors’, metal slabs that swung outward, a latch on the outside. If the train was pulling into a station, passengers could reach out through the window, swing the door open and hop off without waiting the extra few seconds for the train to come to a full stop. During long delays, they could lean out, have a cigarette and shut it again when the train started moving.

The downside of the slam doors was the accidents. Every year, a few people fell off the back, pulled under the wheels. Passengers waiting at train platforms got bashed in the face by the doors as they swung open. The trains put up signs, of course, don’t open this, watch your step, but every year, the doors caused between 5 and 10 deaths, and dozens of injuries.

The need for replacing the doors seems obvious, but for decades, the UK stubbornly refused. Updating the doors would have required designing an automatic opening mechanism, then paying workers to replace each swinging door with a sliding one. With hundreds of trains, thousands of doors, the cost was in the billions. So Britain did nothing. It left the doors as they were, cleaned up the mess from the fatalities but did nothing to prevent them.

I spent last month in Seattle. The city has been in a decade-long debate about what to do about the Alaskan Way Viaduct, an elevated waterfront freeway, one of the city’s busiest north-south arterials. In 2001, an earthquake rattled the viaduct, weakened it. Even after the city added extra steel and sensors to all the weak points, everyone knows it’s not going to survive the next earthquake. As my friend, a Seattle city planner, puts it, ‘the next time someone sneezes on that thing, it’s coming down.’

And again, it seems obvious what the city should do. Close the viaduct, tear it down, build a safer one. But they haven’t. Fourteen years now, it simply remains, carrying just as many passengers as before. When the next earthquake happens—and in Seattle, it is indeed a when, not an if—a not-insignificant number of people will die in their cars, crushed by concrete and steel. There’s even a road underneath the viaduct, a popular tourist area, bike lanes, hot dog stands. Those people, if the earthquake is during the day, will probably die too.

Countries have a formula they apply to these sorts of problems, it’s called the value of preventing a fatality, of VPF. In Jonathan Wolff’s Ethics and Public Policy, where I read about the train doors, he notes that in the UK, the value of a human life is £1.4 million. In the United States, it’s apparently $6 million.

What that means is, since the train doors killed up to 10 people a year, Britain was willing to invest up to £14 million in retrofitting them. If the cost went over the VPF, it would leave them. It did, so it did. In Seattle, tearing down the viaduct, spending years rebuilding it, would interrupt the commute of millions of people, would cost billions in lost productivity. Whatever mayor or governor decided to do it would be voted out of office.

I’m not even sure I disagree with leaving the viaduct up. I biked beneath it almost every day in Seattle, I took that photo standing right under it. A small chance of, say, 60 people dying in exchange for keeping a major urban arterial might actually be a worthwhile trade-off.

What’s interesting to me isn’t that we make these choices, but that we are only allowed to make them invisibly. A politician who stood at a podium and said ‘saving 10 lives isn’t worth more than £14 million’ would be seen as a monster. Yet that is indeed the decision Britain’s politicians reached, and the one we live with intrinsically in things like our drinking age, our speed limits, our pharmaceutical regulations, our sentencing laws. At the population level, almost every decision means lives lost. Since 1979, 10 people have apparently been killed by Bic cigarette lighters. Is banning them worth the inconvenience of millions of people taking slightly longer to light their cigarettes? Meh, probably not.

This month, the international community will come together to sign the Sustainable Development Goals, an ambitious framework to end poverty, achieve gender equality and improve global health. As I’ve written before, it’s a mess, a soup of unmeasurable indicators and undefined targets, things like ‘halve per capita global food waste’ and ‘encourage companies … to adopt sustainable practices’

One of the reasons it’s so bad, I’m convinced, is that in development, we aren’t allowed to talk about these trade-offs, the kinds governments and citizens make every day. With the viaduct, with cigarette lighters, we traded a small risk of fatalities for the inconvenience of preventing them. With train doors, Britain decided there were more pressing risks to spend its resources on, more passengers it could save for its pounds elsewhere.

Yet in development, we never talk like this. One of the main criticisms of the Millennium Development Goals, the precursor to the Sustainable Development Goals, was that they neglected some development issues in favor of others. Domestic violence, human trafficking, corporate tax evasion, all of them got left behind.

I remember a meeting at my last human rights job. We were a department of four people, trying to plan our activities for the next year. We brought in a strategy consultant, he gave us each a matrix of organizational priorities, stuff like land resettlements in Africa, foreign direct investment in Myanmar, sexual harassment in the Middle East. He asked us to rank them in priority from high to low.

After a few minutes of scribbling, one of my colleagues reported that she had marked every issue as ‘high priority.’ The consultant looked confused. ‘Those are all really critical issues,’ she said, ‘with profound impacts on peoples’ lives. We should be working on all of them.’ I looked around, everyone else in the department was nodding.

It’s understandable, this. No one wants to argue that one development issue is more pressing than another, to stand up and declare ‘state surveillance of political dissidents affects fewer people, and less severely, than human trafficking. Lets prioritize the latter.’ No one wants to admit that working on one problem leaves all the other ones in place.

When you work at Nike, when you have to decide on launching an ad campaign for sandals instead of sneakers, you’re allowed to make arguments why one should take precedence over the other. But in development, lives on the line, you can’t. So we say yes to everything, we plan our years without differentiating between priorities, we stretch ourselves thin. And we fail, again and again.

I don’t know what’s going to happen with the Sustainable Development Goals. Maybe governments will pick the ones they want to reach, will defend the choice to leave others behind. Maybe they will be honest about the choices they make, we make, all the time, the trade-offs that come with resource constraints and political realities.

But I think, I fear, that they won’t. That the international community will fail to make the decisions that governments do every day, that we will give developing countries rules and principles, but no tools for choosing between them. That we will, once again, tell poor countries to replace their train doors and rebuild their viaducts all at once.

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The Millennium Development Goals Were Bullshit. And That’s OK.

All year I’ve been trying to decide what I think about the Millennium Development Goals. You remember those, right? In 2000, 189 countries and 23 international organizations committed to eradicating poverty, promoting gender equality and improving global health by 2015.

As the deadline approaches, the internet has filled up with equally unconvincing arguments for and against the MDGs. Most of the ‘they’ve failed!’ condemnation is by people who think foreign aid shouldn’t exist at all, and most of the ‘they’ve succeeded!’ cheerleading is by people who were there for creating them.

So a few months ago, I started reading institutional and academic reports on the Goals. Their creation, their progress, their data, I wanted to know what the evidence, what the people gathering it, actually said.

I came away even more conflicted than when I started. Defenders of the Goals say they were great PR, an excuse for the global north to start sending money southward again. Critics of the Goals say they were unrealistic, a top-down tickbox exercise inflicted upon the developing world without their consent.

I think they’re both right! Here’s the arguments for and against the Millennium Development Goals, and why it’s so hard to pick a side.

1. The MDGs resurrected development aid

Let’s start with the non-arguable stuff. In the mid-1990s, development aid was in crisis. The Cold War had just ended, and without communism-prevention giving rich countries a reason to give money to poor ones, the air was slowly leaking out of the field.

International organizations needed a big idea to shake governments out of their ennui, to inject enthusiasm—and more importantly, money—back into poverty reduction. After years of deliberations, they come up with the MDGs, eight quantitative(-ish) targets for the world to rally around. By 2015, they pledged, they would halve extreme poverty, cut maternal mortality by three quarters and reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS. Oh, and reduce hunger and battle child mortality and improve sanitation and provide safe water and achieve universal education.

Almost immediately, donations started increasing. Between 2000 and 2005, aid flows went from $60 billion per year to $120 billion. Health spending doubled; primary education spending tripled. Donor countries started coordinating their projects, rallying around specific outcomes and quantitative monitoring rather than the ad hoc before-and-afterism they used to work under. As one evaluation puts it, ‘a cascade of statistical and analytical work got underway once the MDGs gained currency.’

The MDGs increased donor commitments and coordination; that part’s undisputed. But just as fast as the new money came in, though, so did the question of whether it was actually making a difference.

2. The MDGs aren’t going to be reached

Look, we’re not going to make the MDGs, not even close. I’m not going to go into a whole big thing where I talk about each Goal and how X number of countries are falling behind or whatever. Even a cursory glance at the Goals themselves shows that reaching them was never the point.

Take Goal 1, ‘eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.’ It’s split up into a few targets, components defining what reaching the Goal means in statistical terms. The first target for eradicating poverty and hunger is pretty reachable: Halve the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day. We did that years ago. Check.

But the next target under that Goal is ‘achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all.’ Oh is that it, MDGs? A job for every single person on the planet?

It’s like this going down the right down the list, reasonable targets alternating with utter fantasy. Goal 2 is ‘achieve universal primary education.’ Denmark doesn’t have universal primary education. The rest of the world was never going to get there with 15 years and a 60 extra billion dollars split 40 or so-odd ways. One analysis points out that 38 countries started the MDGs with enrolment rates below 80 percent. Achieving the goal by 2015 would have meant ‘improv[ing] enrolment at a rate that has not been achieved by a single country for which post-1960 data is available.’

This is why I’ve spent the first six months of this year rolling my eyes at op-eds gloating about how the aid community has ‘failed’ to reach most of the Goals. Of course we did! Half them are ridiculous!

I should also mention here, speaking of ridiculous, that many of the targets don’t have particularly trustworthy data behind them. Lots of the statistics are based on household surveys, dudes with clipboards wandering through villages, asking people about their kids’ birth weights and whether they use mosquito bednets. Only one African country, Mauritius, even registers births and deaths according to UN standards. Maternal mortality rates for the year 2000, the year the MDGs were signed, were estimated to be between 210 and 620 per 100,000 births. Reducing something by 66 percent gets a lot harder when the baseline has a margin of error of 300 percent.

3. The MDGs might not have made a difference

But the real debate isn’t over whether the Goals, measured by their own science-fiction targets and fingers-crossed data, fail or succeed. It’s about whether they had a galvanizing effect, whether all those extra donations resulted in leaps forward for the indicators the international community decided to work on. It’s incontrovertible that nearly every indicator of human well-being—life expectancy, literacy, income, mortality—has improved in the years since the MDGs were adopted. The question is whether that would have happened without them.

By now, there’ve been a few studies on this, and it doesn’t look great for the MDGs. In 2010, an analysis found that only five indicators (out of 24) accelerated after the MDGs were adopted, and that was only in half to two-thirds of the countries where they were being applied. China, the greatest poverty-alleviation success story of the last generation—28 million Chinese people were lifted out of poverty every year between 1990 and 2008—barely participated in the MDGs. The latest MDGs Progress Report notes that when in 2000, only 6 percent of the world’s population had access to the internet. Now, it’s 43 percent. Considering all the technical and economic changes that have happened during that time, is anyone really going to argue that that it was a set of donor targets that were the critical factor in that rise?

That critique, though, only works when you look at the global picture. Zooming in, you find specific places, specific ways, where it seems like the MDGs have worked. The Center for Global Development’s Charles Kenny, for example, has shown that according to trends from before 2000, primary education rates in developing countries should have reached 76 percent by 2010. They actually reached 81 percent. Maternal mortality should have been 221 per 100,000 births; it ended up 203. That same analysis that found only 5 indicators improving globally post-2000 also found that, in Africa, 16 of them did.

But you can julienne the statistics however you want. The challenge of the MDGs, and why it’s so hard to make up my mind about them, is because the ways in which they’ve failed are so easy to measure, while the ways in which they’ve succeeded are so not. As Kenny and others have pointed out, coordinating donors around measurable goals, renewing the reasons for rich countries to invest in poverty reduction, these things matter. They’re just not as quantifiable as literacy rates or HIV prevalence. In the least developed countries, where aid makes up a significant percentage of the national budget, they may even have been decisive. The shittiness of the data, and the non-existence of the counterfactual, means we’ll never know for sure. 

4. The MDGs don’t measure what matters

Another, slightly more convincing, criticism of the MDGs isn’t about whether we reached them, but whether they were worth reaching at all.

Remember Goal 2, ‘Achieve universal primary education’? The way the MDGs chose to measure this was through enrollment rates, how many kids attend school every day. By that measure, poor countries have made significant headway toward the Goal. By the measure of whether they actually learned anything, however, the evidence is less inspiring:

In many cases the rapid expansion of schools aimed to grant an increasing number of students access to primary schools had in many cases a deteriorating effect on the learning quality, first and foremost due to teacher shortages, resulting in single teacher schools with one teacher responsible for one multigrade classroom, or the hiring of so called para-teachers with considerable less educational qualification as regular teachers. … 130 million children completed primary education but without being able to read or write.

This, according to MDG skeptics, is their real weakness: They focus on inputs, the ability of a country to provide a service, rather than outcomes, whether those services are actually improving people’s lives. In doing so, they’ve encouraged governments to work on means and ignore ends. It’s like pledging to lose weight but never actually weighing yourself, just counting how many Cinnabons you eat.

I’m tempted to accept this critique—I’ve been bitching about measuring ‘gender equality’ by the percentage of women in national parliaments for years—but it’s worth pointing out some caveats in it too. Not all the indicators measure inputs. Some of them, like the target on providing access to HIV treatment, really do measure the outcome the MDGs are trying to reach.

And yes, enrollment rates are not a perfect measure of learning and women in government is not a perfect measure of gender equality. But what is? ‘Education’ and ‘equality’ are inherently qualitative concepts—so is ‘development’, while we’re at it. Maybe the Goals should have used test scores rather than enrollment rates to measure education, or the gender pay gap to measure equality, but those are just as jukable, just as subject to over-emphasis by logframes and donor tickboxes, as any other proxy. These are problems with quantification itself, the map versus the territory, not the MDGs in particular.

5. The MDGs were for donors, not governments

The MDGs might have been signed by a huge number of developing countries, but they were written almost entirely without them. The original idea, the Millennium Declaration, was developed by a country-club of rich development agencies in hotel conference centers throughout the 1990s. By the time the rest of the world was presented with the Goals, donors had already identified the problems they wanted to solve and the indicators they would use to measure them.

The result, condensing all the world’s development challenges into fewer than 10 goals, has encouraged countries to zero in on donor-approved problems, rather than solving the ones they actually have. Rwanda, according to one analysis, devoted 24 percent of its health spending to HIV/AIDS, even though only 1.6 percent of its population has it. Malaria might be a huge cause of death globally, but in Mongolia, one of the poorest countries in Asia, it doesn’t even register.

Again, it’s easy to say that donors picked too few goals, conducted too little consultation. But consider the opposite scenario, a set of Goals that included every development problem, that were perfectly applicable to every country in the world.

Actually, don’t. Just look at the sequel to the MDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals. Where the MDGs were primarily a tool for donors, the SDGs (stick with me on the acronyms here) have been the most inclusive, taking shape over a five-year, international consultation process that deliberately sought feedback from every institution with an incentive to push their pet issue onto the list.

The result is a jambalaya of impossible ambitions, utopian targets and unmeasurable indicators. Where the MDGs sharpened their attention down to 8 goals and 24 indicators, the SDGs leave no societal challenge behind, comprising 17 goals and 169 targets. Check out everything we, the world, will achieve before they’re finished:

In just sixteen years’ time we will have been able to end poverty in all its forms everywhere; achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all; end hunger and malnutrition; attained universal health coverage; wipe out AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and neglected tropical diseases; provide universal secondary education and universal access to tertiary education; end gender discrimination and eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls; ensure adequate and affordable housing, water, sanitation, reliable modern energy, and communications technology access for all; and (strangely) both prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds alongside preventing species loss. If that’s not enough, we will have also eliminated all discriminatory laws, policies, and practices.

This is why I have trouble dragging the MDGs for condensing development challenges down to just a few issues. The MDGs worked, to the extent they did, by coordinating donors around a discrete set of objectives, a consensus on what the world needed to fix and how. That necessarily meant leaving some development problems un-addressed, prioritizing some issues over others. It may sound crass in development, when you’re talking about letting people live with one disease while you work on curing another, but in every other area of human endeavor this is called having a strategy.

6. The time for development goals has passed

The closest thing I come to having a conclusion about the MDGs is that yes, they were bullshit. And yes, they were probably worthwhile.

But I’m not sure the next round of bullshit is going to be. During the 15 years we’ve spent debating the MDGs, the nature of the problem they set out to solve has changed. In 1990, the ostensible start date for the MDGs, 79 percent of the world’s poor lived in stable low-income countries. By 2010, only 13 percent of them did. These days, the vast majority of the world’s poor remain that way either because their countries are riven with conflict (Yemen, Syria, Somalia) or because they have political systems too captured or too gridlocked to be worthy of the term (Zimbabwe, Bangladesh).

In other words, the MDGs may—may—have been the right development initiative for the world of the late 1990s, but they are increasingly irrelevant to the one we have now. Only 1 in 10 poor countries get more than 20 percent of their budget from aid. Even in the poorest countries, domestic health and education are orders of magnitude greater than aid flows. Poor people in China are not poor because their country lacks to resources to make them not be. They are poor because their government would rather spend those resources on high-speed trains.

Maybe that’s a defensible decision for the long-term and maybe it’s not; we shall see. But what the MDGs never did, never could, was pressure governments to develop their own systems to solve their own problems. In 2030, only 8 percent of the world’s population will live in countries classified as “low-income.” Most of the world’s poor will live in cities; many of them will be employed. Informal employment, exploitative working conditions, dysfunctional education and healthcare, they will persist in other countries for same reasons they do in our own.

So did the Millennium Development Goals fail or succeed? I still don’t know. What I do know is that rallying around a set of utopian, un-enforced, top-down targets seems to have worked in the places where development agencies, where we, mattered. If we want to solve the next generation of global poverty, we should ask ourselves where we still do.

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Henry Ford, Privilege and Gayness

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In 1913, Henry Ford started paying his workers $5 per day, a huge amount for the time and a more than 100% raise from what they were previously earning. It’s seen as a milestone in modern capitalism, the moment when employers realized that workers were also consumers, that raising their wages created a generation that would buy as well as work.

Last week in London I randomly read The Greatest Business Decisions of All Time, which has a chapter on Ford’s decision and some of the unsightly details of how he rolled it out.

It came with some strings attached. The headline pay was divided into two parts: wages (about $2.40 per day for an unskilled worker) and “profits” (about $2.60 per day). All workers received wages for their work at Highland Park, but they shared in the profits only if they were deemed worthy. Six months’ service was required to qualify.

Married men were eligible, as were men under the age of 22 who were supporting widowed mothers or brothers and sisters. All women supporting families also qualified. But unmarried women and men who were not supporting dependents were excluded.

Ford made it clear that a “clean, sober, and industrious life” was required to receive the higher pay. An employee had to demonstrate that he did not drink alcohol or abuse his family. Moreover, he had to make regular deposits in a savings account, maintain a clean home, and be of upstanding moral character.

Workers who accepted the new wage would also be subject to company rules about how to conduct themselves during off-hours. As Ford explained it, “The object was simply to better the financial and moral status of the men.”

To enforce his lifestyle dictates, Ford mobilized an army of investigators that at one point numbered 200. They were expected, Lacey writes, “to make at least a dozen house calls every day, checking off information about marital status, religion, citizenship, savings, health, hobbies, life insurance, and countless other questions.” To help them meet their quotas, Ford provided each inspector with a new Model T, a driver, and an interpreter for help in ethnic neighborhoods.

I know this sort of thing isn’t all that surprising, but it really does bum me the fuck out. This is exactly what people mean when they talk about privilege. Here was one of the best jobs, in one of the nation’s most economically dynamic cities, and it was only open to men who were the right religion, the right background, who passed the similarity test by their bosses.

I remember chatting with a retired government worker from Belfast at a conference a few years ago who told me that he had a set of interview questions to determine which candidates were Protestants and which ones were Catholics. What primary school did they attend? What neighborhood did they grow up in? What sort of work did their parents do?

It’s appalling, this, not to mention wasteful, and it makes me wonder the ways we do this now. As a gay person, I always feel a bit guilty about the fact that I’ve never experienced any discrimination directly. I’m pretty invisible; by the time people find out I’m gay I’m usually hired.

We talk a lot in this country about how quickly we’ve all made the turnaround on gay rights, and I wonder how much has to do with gay people’s ability to pass these little tests. We were already in the boardrooms and behind the judicial benches way before it was safe to do. Once it was, we had friends and colleagues who had a financial incentive in keeping us there. Most other marginalized groups never get that chance.

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Fitness, Marketing and the Search for Shortcuts

One of the weirdest things about my visit to the U.S. was all the comments I got on how I look. Once or twice a week, some random person would come up to me and ask me about my workout routine.

At the gym, 7 in the morning, this guy in his early 40s stops me as I’m leaving.

“Hey kid, I’ve got a question,” he says.

“Um, I’m 33…” I say.

“What do you do, or not do, to look like that?”

This happened other places too. A member of my rock climbing club invites me to dinner, asks me what—‘if anything’—I’m allowed to eat. A barista asks what diet I’m on, whether I do yoga. I order a drip coffee and he says ‘I guess you’re not allowed to drink Frappuccinos, huh?’

The first weird thing about these comments is that I’m not in very good shape. As I’ve chronicled here extensively, I don’t go to the gym with any kind of strategy or diligence. My eating habits are more Jurassic Park than Julia Child. Even with the dimmest of lighting, the generous-est of Instagram filters, I don’t even have one pack, much less six.

The second weird thing is how these compliments always came in the form of a question, as if I know something other people don’t. The guy at the gym that morning, he wanted to know exactly what my eating and exercise routine was, like there was some technique I had mastered or secret vegetable I was growing in my backyard. Even my friends, people I’ve known since I was 10, familiar with my indolence, my sitting-down tummyrolls, press me: “Come on, you’re drinking protein shakes, right?”

I never get comments like this when I’m in Europe. Ever. The obvious reason for this is because I’m closer to the median BMI there, plus so many standard deviations below the median height that no one even notices what kind of shape I’m in. But I’m convinced there’s something else going on too: Europeans aren’t marketed to as much as Americans.

I have no, like, data-data on this, but after living on both continents, I really notice how much more intermingled fitness and commerce are in the United States. In Copenhagen, everyone you see cycling has a modest, slightly rusted old bike. Men ride upright on ladybikes, women roll to work wearing jeans and high heels. In the U.S. it’s all titanium frames, spandex, shoes with those little clips on the toe. In Berlin, jogging is something you do in old sweatpants. In the U.S., it’s an activity that requires moisture-wicking pants and barefoot shoes.

It’s like this with diet too. Americans have entire categories of foods that Europeans don’t. Omega 3 energy bars, creatine powder, recovery drinks. Somehow we went straight from making these up to believing it was impossible to be in shape without them.

This, I feel like, is where the ‘what do you do, man?’ from baristas and fellow gymmers comes from. People think there’s a trick, a shortcut, a specific thing I’m eating or drinking or doing that keeps me (relatively) height-weight proportionate. Like I’m gonna say ‘asparagus water!’ and that will unlock the secret for everyone else.

That’s what marketing has sold us: Not a specific product, but the idea that there’s one we’re missing. Our bodies are set up to respond to our habits, the decisions we make 80 percent of the time. The economy, however, is set up to sell us something new every day, to feed us ‘superfoods‘, to sign us up for Crossfit, to tell us again and again that fit people don’t have better genes or routines, but make better purchases.

Like I said, I’m not in good enough shape to give out food or fitness advice, but what I told the Americans who asked me about my workout regime the last few weeks was that I try to eat lots of fruits and vegetables and do something exercisey that I like every day.

“Shit,” the guy at the gym said that morning. “I was afraid you were going to say that.”

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Filed under America, Food, Personal, Serious, Travel

‘I literally saw a naked baby standing in a pool of water’: Eleven observations from a contract manufacturer in China

I know I’m belaboring these now, but I’m learning a lot from all the people writing in to add points and arguments to my Myth of the Ethical Shopper article. Here’s one from Glen, a project manager at a contract manufacturer in Shenzhen:

Awareness is the first step, and this article does an excellent job of pointing out that contract manufacturing will always result in unfair labor practices. The smaller companies are the biggest offenders because their order sizes don’t warrant the attention of “golden factories”. Not that Apple and Wal-Mart are good examples, but their manufacturing is some of the cleanest out there… After working for a contract manufacturer in China for several years, I can give you a quick glimpse of how it looks in China in relation to this article:

1) Wal-Mart gets caught with unfair labor practices > people protest > Policy reform

These reforms are pushed on factories that really want to improve, but mostly they want the business. They reform simply to keep the business.

2) Factories conform to reforms > operation costs at factories go up > Factories lose money

Making these changes and being socially compliant come at a HUGE cost to the factory, but larger customers will not accept the increased costs to reflect in their orders. Suddenly, factories are losing a lot of money, but they can’t lose Wal-Mart as a customer. Most Wal-Mart-contracted factories operate at zero margins just for the business. They’ll use the molds to remake products under other brands to sell in China.

3) Factory finds cheaper factory to do their production

The original factory might do 20% of the order, but they’ll contract “shadow factories” to do the bulk. These are your “sweatshops”, they don’t exist on paper, but they make up easily 95% of the factories out there. Now, the large Wal-Mart orders can once again turn a profit, because costs are reduced by manufacturing at the shadow factories.

4) Factory becomes an audit mill.

Passing an audit is a big deal, especially the strict standards of Wal-Mart compliance. The factory can now make large sums of money fronting for other companies and factories. They will host audits on a regular basis, to give compliance to hundreds of other companies. A company might not even have a factory, but they’ll get compliance to make products. Now they can make products wherever they want, and when it comes time they can set up their front at the fake factory. Most companies do this.

5) No reason for factories to TRULY conform to regulations

Now that these workarounds are in place, it’s quite easy to get certified without even having a factory. So now that most factories are off the map, they have no incentive whatsoever to follow anything close to standards being set in the USA. Everyone is protected by the “golden factories” that are running fake audits and essentially covering for the ones doing real production runs. Foxconn is a golden factory. Their conditions are incredible compared to those of 99.9% of factories in China. In over 4 years working in China I have never set foot in a factory that is as clean and compliant as Foxconn.

6) Audit companies get in the game as well.

For MANY if not MOST inspection companies in China you can’t pass an audit unless you pay a bribe. Usually $1000/inspector is enough. Even if your factory really is perfect, you need to pay off inspectors to get the certification.

7) American companies have no control

US companies might know this is happening, or not…. it really doesn’t make a difference. Companies that are aware will distance themselves intentionally so that they’re not liable or seen as negligent. Companies that aren’t aware really truly believe that they are covering their bases.

8) The danger of trade companies passing an audit.

Our trade company passed the [Shoe Company Inc.] audit on a factory that doesn’t exist (we used the name of our company as the factory and the inspection took place at a factory we contracted specifically for a social compliance audit). Now that the trade company has passed this certification, we can make products ANYWHERE. It’s a step beyond the factory using contract manufacturers. Most trade companies are lying to their customers, so it’s incredibly difficult to know if you’re working with a trade company or a real factory. In my experience it’s almost always a trade company if you don’t have boots in the ground in China.

9) When a company issues a RFP (request for proposal), they are essentially GUARANTEEING that their products will be made in some of the nastiest ways possible.

This is very common for companies in our space, sports accessories. Companies like [Shoe Company Inc.] will essentially say some requirements for a product, and they’ll send that to all of their licensees. Those with licensing rights to the brand will contact their suppliers to have them compete for the best prices. Trade companies are typically the supplier they contact, and those trade companies will contact all of their connections for the best price. RFPs are are designed so that the companies like New Balance will get the best and cheapest deals for the required products they need. It’s a beautiful system for the brand, because they do no sourcing whatsoever, and they hold no responsibility whatsoever on how the product is being made.

10) Trade companies intentionally used as a buffer.

I don’t think this is news to you, but some companies with use trade companies because they understand the process. This will keep them legally exempt from issues and can blame the trade company for hoaxing them on their labor practices. A lot of companies know this and I’ve had several people tell me to just “do what we do” to make sure things work on our end.

11) The yoga mat industry in China is disgusting

Just a comment to add here. I did a sourcing project for a [Shoe Company Inc.] request for yoga mats. The factories I saw we’re disgusting. I literally saw a naked baby standing in a pool of water just yards away from where the finished goods were being stacked. These were all TPE yoga mats, and I found it ridiculous that in the factory they were printing logos that said “eco-friendly”. Anything that is so simple to make is going to eventually make its way to these kind of factories.

I chose not to use that factory and instead went with a better factory (still wouldn’t pass an audit, but who does?) for the proposal. We didn’t get the business, it was beyond their budget. Had I used the prior factory we would have fallen within their price target…

This is the current state of things. There isn’t an easy fix. There aren’t regulations to solve this. All I know is that with more awareness solutions will be worked out in the future. I know a lot of these points were made in the article, but I felt they needed repeating. These are truths that I wish all consumers could know and understand.

Go read Glen’s blog it’s hella good!

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‘Tell me something interesting about yourself’: A gay dating app experiment

Six weeks ago, I changed my Grindr status to “Instead of ‘hey’, feel free to start by telling me something interesting about yourself!”

I got, shall we say, a variety of responses.

Some of them shared a little

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Some of them shared a lot

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Some of them were educational

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Some of them wanted to get the icebreaker out of the way

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Some of them diversified their portfolio

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Some of them seem like we would be friends

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Some of them went to Oberlin

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Some of them could write a great blog

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Some of them got meta

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Some of them were having a stroke

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Some of them taught me about my own shortcomings

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Some of them have busy Christmases

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Some of them needed a hug and hot cocoa

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Some of them spoke in intriguing metaphors

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Some of them had MBAs

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Some of them sent dick pics

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Some of them did better on their second attempt

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Some of them required follow-ups

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Some of them misunderstood the assignment

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Some of them would have made fascinating conversation partners

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Some of them humblebragged

IMG_0119 Some of them gave good backstory

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Some of them confirmed negative stereotypes

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Some of them read their horoscope every morning

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One of them, at least, was husband material

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One more response to my article

In my Solutions Journalism network interview I said

I talked to someone at a well-known labor NGO about this and he said he has three staff members. The best way to stretch that into impact is to go after Apple, which can improve conditions for hundreds of thousands of employees with a snap of its fingers. Or at least that’s the perception. Individually it’s understandable. But collectively, it means no one is looking at where the worst violations are.

The next day I got an e-mail from Kevin Slaten, a Program Coordinator at China Labor Watch. He’s the guy I was talking about. Here’s what he said. 

I did not say that we just focus on Apple, Michael. We focus on companies that have major buying influence in a given factory or industry supply chain–which includes Apple, among many other buyers which CLW has reported on over the past 15 years. Look at CLW’s report database for a list of reports by industry and related brand companies.

While I understand the general point you are making–lots of manufacturing takes place in small firms–you failed to mention the sectoral (or even broad economic) pull-on effect from raising the bar among large groups of workers: it changes the expectations and demands of other workers. We talked explicitly about this logic. (An additional academic paper bearing out this point.)

For example, ever since the Yue Yuen show factory strike in April 2014, in which as many as 60,000 workers demanded arrears on years of unpaid insurance, workers all around the region (and even throughout China) have increasing protested over this exact issue. Workers’ consciousness has been shifted. 

Another example: when I did field work for my MA in NE China (on labor rights defense), workers in an industrial zone (with hundreds of thousands or millions of workers) from different companies would talk knowledgeably about their working conditions relative to the industry or region. This caused many people I interviewed to “vote with their feet” and find better work. It radicalized others to protest. 

To put it in the terms you used: workers in smaller and more abusive plants are more likely to protest or find a new job (starving the poorer plants of labor) if those workers believe that there are better conditions elsewhere. In this interview (and in your article) you focus on the concept of increasing amounts of products going to countries whose consumers seem to “care less” about sweatshops. Putting aside the factual accuracy of this statement for now (there have been lots of anti-sweatshop protests in Taiwan, HK, and elsewhere in E. Asia), it ignores the power of improving working conditions at key locations within an industry. 

Anyway, most of the above information is context. My reservation is with your characterization of our interview. Your description suggests that our organization just focuses on Apple; this is not an accurate characterization of the interview or CLW’s work.  

Sorry to Slaten for mischaracterizing our interview. He’s right, their reports offer a lot of nuance I didn’t capture in my piece. Go read ’em!

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So You Say You’re an Ethical Shopper

Tigray, Ethiopia. Photo by me.

Tigray, Ethiopia. Photo by me.

Here’s another follow-up to my article, originally posted on the Huffington Post.

So on Wednesday I wrote this article for Highline arguing that consumer movements are never going to end sweatshops. The worst conditions are in sub-contractors, small workshops and factories producing for emerging markets. We can lean on multinational corporations all we want, they don’t have the information or the power to ensure decent factories, and neither do we.

Since the article came out, much of the reaction has been two covers of the same song. Either ‘Well I buy my T-shirt from sustainable brands’ or ‘Well I only buy local.’

Let me be super clear about this, in words I might have minced in the piece itself: that is impossible. And pretending it’s not is exactly what keeps sweatshops from being solved.

First, your T-shirt. Let’s say it really was produced by an American company, made in the USA, by people earning a living wage, and that wasn’t just a marketing ploy to get you to pay more for it.

Congratulations. But just because something was sewn together in the United States doesn’t mean that’s where it’s actually from. The vast majority of the world’s textiles are produced in India and China. For my article I asked a CSR manager of an international brand—you don’t wear it, but you’ve heard of it—how they monitor textile factories. ‘Oh we don’t,’ she said. ‘No one does.’

And that’s not the last layer. Most of the world’s cotton is bought and sold like oil, a commodity, consolidated in huge markets in Dubai, zig-zagging through middlemen. It’s hard to find out what country it comes from, much less how it was produced. As the Environmental Justice Foundation puts it, ‘six of the world’s top seven cotton producers have been reported to use children in the field.’

Then there’s how it got to you. Shipping is one of the least scrutinized industries in the world. Boats are in international waters, employees work around the clock, they dump weird stuff into the ocean. Who’s going to stop them?

But let’s pretend for a minute. Let’s say your T-shirt was produced in a decent factory, with decent textiles and decent cotton, that it came to you on a decent boat. Fine. That is one thing. Think of all of the stuff you buy. Your dental floss. Your furniture. That spatula you bought at the dollar store.

You can’t choose three or four products where’d like to avoid complicity in forced labor and low pay, and just decide not to worry about everything else. Your coffee might be fair trade, but what about the machine you’re brewing it in? Check the bottom, dude, I’ll bet five bucks it was made in China. Your car was welded together in Mexico, from iron ore mined in Brazil, smelted in Paraguay. The acetaminophen you take for a headache was produced by a company that keeps poor countries from producing generic medicines for its own people.

The point here is not to gloat, or to play the coastal-elite “I’m more ethical than you” game. The point is, you do not have the power or the information to implement your values. None of us want to promote sweatshops or poison tropical rivers. But we all do. No amount of label reading or better buying will escape this fundamental fact.

But that’s not the point either! The real question is, even we could buy ethical products, would that improve working conditions in the developing world?

In 1750, the Quakers concluded that slavery was an unjust institution and spent the next century advocating to abolish it. Imagine if, instead, they came up with a certification, a commitment that they wouldn’t buy clothes made from slave-picked cotton.

Think about what a gift that would have been to slave owners. All they had to do was rope off a section of their plantation, hire workers, then charge extra for ‘slave-free’ cotton. It would have been perfect: They make more money, get the Quakers off their back and, the best part, get to keep their slaves.

This is how we’ve spent the past 25 years: Instead of advocating to end the conditions that offend us, we’ve done exactly the thing that allows them to proliferate. Auditors told me that some factories in China are divided up with thick black curtains. Since brands only inspect the lines making their own products, suppliers can keep conditions however they want in the rest of their factories.

This is what you’re doing when you buy a fair trade T-shirt or an organic avocado: Concentrating your attention on the tiny corner of the global economy that is not shrouded to you. Instead of raising the floor, you’re raising the ceiling. Fair trade allows us to go around bad institutions and let the worst sweatshops remain, rather than take responsibility for the myriad ways in which we reward them.

“Many global actors assume there’s an institutional void, but there isn’t,” says MIT’s Matthew Amengual. “The state is involved. Positively or negatively, it’s there. Rather than transcending local institutions with global rules, we should be trying to work with them.”

What he means, and what I’ve seen again and again in the developing world, is that sweatshops don’t happen without the participation of their host governments, and they don’t get solved without them either.

One of the reasons India’s garment sector, to take just one example, is so exploitative is that only 2 percent of its textile factories use shuttle-less looms. Without equipment to make them more productive, the only way factories can compete is by extending shifts and keeping pay low. In China, 15 percent of textile factories have shuttle-less looms. The government provides loans and grants, it has deliberately invested in making small factories more productive. India’s own Ministry of Textiles boasts that its desperately poor workers are a competitive advantage: “Rising wages and cost of living in countries closely competing with India,” says the agency’s strategic plan, “provides a vast opportunity for India to capitalize.”

Domestic systems are decisive, and the lack of them can be devastating. Functioning courts, independent unions, empowered civil society, free media, this is the stuff that solves sweatshops, not companies with better CSR policies, not improving the performance of just a few factories. Comcast doesn’t treat you like shit because it’s an evil corporation, it does so because it’s a monopoly, because our government allows it to be one. Sweatshops happen for the same reasons.

Whenever I go on this little rant in front of my fair-tradey friends, they always give the same response: “Hey, it’s better than nothing.” I think that’s the worst argument ever, but for a second let’s entertain the possibility that it’s not. If that’s our only criteria, there’s a lot of other “better than nothing” stuff we could be doing instead. Give money to a NGO that helps register unions in the developing world. Sign a petition. Write your senator.

Our primary leverage over the developing world comes in the form of market access (bilateral trade agreements, TPP, the World Trade Organization) and financial instruments (the World Bank, the IMF, export credit). Companies lobby to protect their interests in these negotiations, and it’s about time we started doing it too.

These steps are small, slow, unlikely to leap us to instant improvements. But isn’t the argument of the boycotters “If everyone acted like me, things would get better”? Well if everyone put pressure on the institutions that can actually eradicate sweatshops, we might actually solve them. Otherwise, we’re just drawing the curtains.

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Some responses to my ‘Myth of the Ethical Shopper’ article

Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo by me.

Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo by me.

I’m working on a longer follow-up to respond to some of the reader responses to my article, but for now, I’ll quote some people who know way more about this topic than me, on what my article got right and wrong.

First up, here’s a note I got from one of the auditors I interviewed for the article:

One thing that I hear repeatedly nowadays is that we can’t forget the role of government. We focus on CSR and what companies should be doing but we can’t forget that companies are primarily acting on these issues because local governments are failing to uphold international obligations to protect human rights, to adhere to treaty obligations, and to enforce their own national legislation, which is often much stricter than anything in any buyer code of conduct.
In addition, we can’t be prescriptive about solutions. The West doesn’t have superior solutions. If we want to know what needs to be done, we need to talk to the rights-holders themselves to understand what they want and what they need. In other words, participatory solutions are critical and much more valuable than anything we can dream up in isolation. When communities are engaged holistically in developing solutions, they own that process and it can impact the outcomes much more positively than anything being imposed from the top down.

When considering the shift of consumer power away from the global North / West, we shouldn’t forget that there is still a lot of financial influence, via organizations such as the World Bank, regional development banks like ERDB, ADB, IADB, and of course investors like state funds and SRIs [socially responsible investors].

If you look at the numbers, there are trillions of dollars backed by SRIs alone. But more than that, financing options for many of these institutions are linked to ESG commitments [environmental, social and governmental]. Loans are routinely linked to compliance with things like IFC Performance Standards covering issues from environment and labor to community impact. Funding can be suspended or terminated for non-compliance. Complaint mechanisms allow communities or activists to lodge complaints with ombudsman offices, like those in the IFC and OECD.
Last year, I did an investigation into a land rights issue in Asia and found myself in the field alongside a regional investor who was also investigating the issue and working with their client to bring them into compliance.
And here’s one from Jason Hickel, a buddy of mine and an economics professor at LSE

What workers in the global South need is not better international labor standards, but rather the freedom to organize themselves and demand better standards for themselves.  You point out that Foxconn in Indiana is not a sweatshop. It’s not just because the US has good institutions; it’s because the US had a strong labor movement that won basic things like safety laws, weekends, the minimum wage, etc.

I think we have to ask ourselves why these same movements and institutions don’t exist in the global South.  And the reason, as far as I can tell, is that the governments of global South countries have been explicitly prevented from nourishing them.  The history of structural adjustment from the 1980s onward was a process of actively dismantling state institutions, forcing domestic economies open to the flux of global markets, and rolling back wages and labor standards. If global South countries did otherwise (if they bolstered state institutions, increased wages, etc), they could be sanctioned by the IMF, and have loan capital withdrawn.

Today, this pressure comes mostly in the form of investor-state dispute mechanisms, which are written into free trade agreements.  Through these mechanisms, multinational corporations have the power to sue sovereign states for introducing laws (like labor and safety laws) that compromise their expected future profits.  And then of course there’s the Doing Business rankings, which also actively pressure global South countries to deregulate.

I think another way to approach the issue is to ask why workers in sweatshops are willing to take jobs that are so terrible.  And the answer, of course, is that they have no other choice.  And, as a result, they have very little bargaining power.  Let’s go back to the US again.  Workers were able to successfully bargain for better conditions in factories because they had a real alternative: they could pick up land in the midwest on the cheap, and become farmers (and, later, they had a passable welfare state that allowed them the option of not taking dangerous jobs and still surviving).  If they didn’t have that option, chances are we wouldn’t have the weekend today.  The same can be said of global South countries.  The rise of sweatshops was preceded by a long process of dispossession, of actively kicking people off of their land (and then later dismantling what little welfare mechanisms existed).  Without any other options for survival, people are forced to accept sweatshops jobs.  This continues today in the form of land grabs; i.e., Fred Pearce’s book.

Voting power in the IMF and WB is still terribly, absurdly skewed [basically, rich countries get more voting power].  They keep making noises about changing this in response to outrage from developing countries, but the most they’ve managed is a little bit of window-dressing.

The WB still uses structural adjustment programs.  In the 1990s, they had to rhetorically back down from them because of the riots and global outcry, but all they really did is change the name to Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers. The main difference is that PRSPs must be drafted by the loan recipient, as opposed to the WB, but of course everyone knows the papers have to include structural adjustment if the loan is to be granted. The brilliance is that this allows the WB to evade liability for any disasters that might ensue as a result of the policies, since the recipient country technically offered to adopt structural adjustment policies voluntarily.

As for the WTO: it’s stalled, and for good reason… because global South countries refuse to bargain on unfair terms any longer.  But now bilateral trade agreements are proliferating as a way of getting around this.

And from a friend who works at an international institution working on private-sector human rights abuses:

You rightly criticise the auditing industry as fraught with design flaws and full of suppliers who have become highly adept at fooling the auditors. But at the same time, while it’s not a silver bullet, it is one of the best approaches a company has to the issue at the moment. Sure it doesn’t fix the extire global problem. But it fixes small corners of it, and it is those small corners that the company is most worried about, because its business touches upon them.

And yes, some things do get past auditors. But many violations are caught that way, and prevented too. I often compare it to checking my kids room after I’ve told them to clean it. Just the fact that they know it will be checked, means they do a sufficient job (although they still try to fool the auditor by kicking junk under the bed and stuffing it in the back of the closet).

So I wouldn’t be overly dismissive of supply-chain auditing, although I recognise it’s not a global solution, it’s just a band-aid. Because I want companies to keep doing it and to continue to try to perfect the practice (which today is more sophisticated, and includes supplier capacity building). This continued practice will help keep the pressure up, while at the same time, it will allow us to experiment at the micro-level with various good practices, which can then be exported into a global solution.

You are right in identifying the country-challenges in supply chains, like when you compared conditions in Mexico to China. But even those country-challenges can be changed by the pressure from big business. I remember speaking with [giant apparel company] about their experience in Pakistan. They told the Govt of Pakistan that they would not allow their suppliers or licencees to source from Pakistan because the labor conditions were so poor that [the company] couldn’t afford the risk.

So the Govt of Pakistan asked the ILO for help to improve their labor conditions so that they could attract the business. That’s definitely a dynamic we want to encourage with other big buyers. And it’s a dynamic which has a positive spill-over into the really critical aspect of the problem – those suppliers which are producing for the domestic market, rather than for the big Western buyers.

Also, if you’re interested in why Nike’s approach to its suppliers hasn’t improved conditions in them, check out this great Richard Locke lecture from a few years back.

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‘People want to know what works. But how do we write them in ways that don’t imply they’re generalizable?’

That’s me being interviewed by the Solutions Journalism Network. I’ve written like four articles for the internet, so I’m super qualified to talk about the state of journalism as a field and what it needs to do differently.

The nice thing about these post-game interviews is that you can include caveats and nuances that didn’t make it into the article. A lot of NGO friends of mine have been like, ‘dude, why the hatorade on advocacy NGOs?’

There’s no incentive for [advocacy NGOs] to go after the Li & Fungs of the world, or the smaller companies that no one has heard of. Most NGOs are under-resourced, they’re trying to have the biggest impact with few staff, little time and this huge mountain of terrible conditions they have to bring to the world’s attention.

I talked to someone at a well-known labor NGO about this and he said he has three staff members. The best way to stretch that into impact is to go after Apple, which can improve conditions for hundreds of thousands of employees with a snap of its fingers. Or at least that’s the perception. Individually it’s understandable. But collectively, it means no one is looking at where the worst violations are.

And some more on the Brazilian labor inspectors. I need to write something about this for work-work one of these days. For all the developing countries I’ve been to, I’ve never seen one that has even tried to build up its domestic systems like this.

Brazil used to have a quota system where inspectors were assessed and paid bonuses based on the number of workplaces they inspected. Just like corporate auditors, this gave them a checklist approach. They were literally going door to door, inspecting small workshops instead of big ones because they were quicker to inspect and that’s how you could meet your quota.

Then, in the early 2000s, the government launched this big campaign to eradicate child labor. The inspectors pushed back, like ‘we’re never going to actually end child labor doing inspections this way.’ They were able to switch from quantitative to qualitative assessment methods, and they started prioritizing workplaces according to risk. They also started bringing in all these other government agencies. A weapon the academics talk about a lot is deferred prosecution agreements, where prosecutors tell farms ‘fix this by the time we get back, or we’ll take you to court.’ That threat of litigation is a huge reason why businesses fall into line.

And this is why solutions have to be domestically owned. The effectiveness of the inspectors comes from their mandate, their budget and their support from high-level politicians and the population. You can’t manufacture that from outside. And it’s not going to last if it’s not locally embedded.

And, if you’ve ever met me in real life, I’ve probably mentioned this within like six minutes: There’s no such thing as a good or a bad idea, only how it’s applied.

In development, we have a ton of ideas that aren’t world-changers, but provide modest gains if you roll them out right. Microcredit went through this lifecycle where when we first found out about it, it was going to SAVE THE WORLD. Then all these other NGOs jumped on the bandwagon and they didn’t know what they were doing and the results faltered. Then microcredit became A USELESS SCAM.

In the last few years, microcredit has levelled out to just this one tool among many that works under certain circumstances but not others. In a lot of places, it works really well, but it’s not the shortcut we thought it was. I actually consider that a huge success, but imagine pitching that to your editor.

There’s hella more at the link!

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‘We are not going to shop ourselves into a better world’

Warehouse in Kampala. Photo by me!

I’ve been working on this article, in my head at least, since probably 2007, when I started working in CSR, consulting companies on how to reduce their human rights impacts. The conclusion I came to, that everyone in my field seems to come to eventually, was that companies don’t matter. What matters is the environments where they operate.

One little story that didn’t make it into the article:

Here’s a World Bank profile of a Vietnamese Nike factory. In 1997, 84 percent of workers had nose and throat infections, mostly from failing to wear masks when they were working at dyeing stations. Nike, scrambling to respond to the decade-long boycott campaign against it, started delivering worker training, posting hazardous-material info in the break rooms, issuing a monthly health newsletter. By 1998, infections were down to 20 percent.

Huge success story, right? Well … hmmm. The same investigation found that managers were dumping wastewater in the local river, transferring the health risks to the entire population downstream. When the case came to light, they hired the son of the local Communist Party chairman to negotiate the terms of the settlement. The company was never punished.

In that story is everything that consumer boycotts have achieved. It’s not nothing that the factory improved its health and safety practices. In another study, a Cambodian manager grumbled to investigators that “Nike is so much stricter about everything.” Props to Nike, seriously.

But you see this with almost all of these company efforts: The gains inside the factories are dwarfed by the impacts outside of them. Colluding with political officials, poisoning local communities, these are exactly the kinds of things that audits can’t find, that companies can’t fix, that consumers can’t keep track of.

A few months ago I made that video about Uganda. In 2007, the Industrial Court, the place where workers go to file complaints, lost its mandate. It wasn’t renewed until this year. That means that for eight years, labour inspectors couldn’t levy fines against companies that were breaking the law. Workers couldn’t take their bosses to court for failing to pay back wages. I see this again and again in the developing countries I go to for work: Institutions are there on paper, but absent in practice.

Another little point that that didn’t make it into the article:

Sweatshops don’t happen without the participation of their host governments, and they don’t get solved without them either. One of the reasons India’s garment sector is so informal, so exploitative, is that only 2 percent of its textile factories use shuttle-less looms. In China, it’s 15 percent, boosted by government loans, grants, more than a decade of cajoling its factories to move up the value chain.

India’s own Ministry of Textiles boasts that its desperately poor workers are a competitive advantage: “Rising wages and cost of living in countries closely competing with India,” says the agency’s strategic plan, “provides a vast opportunity for India to capitalize.”

If we’re going to solve sweatshops, we need to consider why they are there, why they endure. We need to stop trying to vote with our wallets, and start voting with our votes.

Thanks to everyone I interviewed for this article! All of the ideas in it, especially the smart ones, are not mine, they’re all taken from the work of researchers and inspectors and CSR folks who have thought about and done this a lot longer than I have. I’m gonna write some follow-up posts highlighting their work.

Also, I have the best editors. As you can tell from the un-edited snips above, I need them!

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Another video by me: John Haskell’s ‘Elephant Feelings’

I’ve always adored this John Haskell short story, and because I was in Croatia last week where the internet is super slow, I decided to make a video version of it!

Thanks a lot to my friend Stefan for doing the voiceover, and to Haskell himself for giving me permission to use his text.

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The Zone

Originally published on The Billfold

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Soren Host is waiting in line to be shaken down.

He has finished his fieldwork for the week. He has a towel over one shoulder, a novel in one hand, bottles of water in a plastic bag.

Three teenagers have built an entrance to the beach, a scrapwood fence, a rope across it, an entrance fee to pass.

Soren’s first day in Nigeria, he got a pro bono briefing from the head of security for one of the companies setting up operations in the free trade zone. The first rule, he told Soren, is mind your own business. Keep your head down. You will see sudden outbursts of violence; ignore them; keep walking. Avoid traveling alone.

The second rule, he told Soren, is stay away from the area boys.

These are the area boys. They look around 15, wiry, grumpy like teenage employees the world over. They’re lined up in a row along the fence. Next to them, arm’s reach away, they’ve arranged a row of sticks and iron rods.

The Nigerian couple in front of Soren, used to this, weary of it, are haggling.

This is a public beach, they’re saying, you can’t just charge admission. The area boys don’t negotiate, really, they just wait for the couple to give in. Eventually they do, hand over a hundred or so naira, about a buck. The boys hand them an expired local bus pass as an entrance ticket—infuriating them even more—and wave them inside.

Soren is next in line.

‘Two dollars,’ one of the boys says.

Soren doesn’t look like the typical Dane, he’s short, compact, dark hair in his eyes. But it’s obvious he doesn’t live here.

‘I’ll pay it,’ Soren says, ‘but I want a receipt.’

The boy is silent. This is what the head of security told Soren to do: Pay bribes if you have to, but only pay them once.

‘I don’t want one of your buddies coming up to me later and charging me again,’ Soren says.

One of the other kids digs around in his pockets until he finds a scrap of paper and a pen. ‘Please this white men is pay’ he writes on the stub, signs it. Then, under the scribble, ‘No bouncing.’

‘Thanks,’ Soren says.

The boy doesn’t say anything, he just looks over Soren’s shoulder at the next customer.

 

The Nanjing Jiangning Economic and Technical Development Corporation describes Nigeria’s Lekki Peninsula as ‘an area one and a half times the size of Hong Kong, with a five-mile coastline of golden beach. On the peninsula the rainforest is always close, not far from the endless Atlantic.’

All of this is true, but it is not why they have come.

They are here to establish a free trade zone, a rectangle of low taxes, gleaming infrastructure, a port, an airport, a workforce that cannot douse their country’s development by going on strike or demanding higher wages.

The reference to Hong Kong is not a coincidence. The Chinese have leased a 157 square mile rectangle of land—about the size of Denver—on this peninsula for the next 99 years, the same length of time the British controlled the speck of China that worked its way up from poverty and now serves as a model for the rest of the country.

Nigeria shares the same vision for the zone, the same Sim City visual: Rows of factories, cranes pecking at shipping containers, worker housing, parks, hospitals, schools, supermarkets, a city in itself. All throbbing behind a perimeter fence, a rampart against the old ways, the Nigeria, around it.

This is why Soren is here too. He is spending five weeks on this moist strip of land, interviewing its companies, its investors, its workers. He is here to find out the realities of the Chinese and Nigerian aspirations, the sacrifices each will have to make to realize them.

Soren is staying in Eputu Town, halfway between Lagos and the zone. It’s only 25 miles from Lagos, but the drive takes three hours. At first the road is flanked by exclusive hotels, office buildings with oil company and Big Four logos on the sides, banks, gated communities, wetlands being filled with sand. Soon the buildings shrink, floor by floor, to shops, then shacks, then mangrove swamps, fishing villages dotting them.

Eputu is a village on the verge of becoming a suburb. The roads are dirt or mud, depending on the time of year, small stores on each side selling bananas, frozen chickens, instant noodles. The local bar, a frame of scrap wood topped with a sheet of corrugated iron, eight plastic chairs outside and four inside, serves hot pepper soup, plays music loud enough to drown out the generators.

Soren only met Solomon yesterday, but he offered Soren his spare room almost immediately. Mid-30s, muscular with a hipster beard, Solomon is a local fixer, last week he arranged meetings and locations for a French documentary crew. He lives on the top floor of a two-story bungalow. He lets Soren in through the front door, or what’s left of it. He ran through the glass panel a few nights ago dashing out to greet one of his neighbors.

It’s dark when Soren arrives, Solomon shows him inside by candlelight. The power is out at the moment. The utility company, NEPA, is officially the Nigerian Energy Production Administration, but he tells Soren everyone here calls it Never Expect Power Again.

Solomon introduces Soren to the neighbors. Downstairs is Mommy Loni and her six-month-old son, Uncle Loni. She shares the apartment with her husband, Olumide, and her sister, Toyin.

‘Come up here, you have to meet my friend!’ Solomon yells down the stairs. Toyin is the only one home, she comes up to say hi. Solomon invites her to sit down in Soren’s room, a mattress on the floor in the corner, a candle flickering in the center.

Almost immediately, Solomon announces he has to take a call and leaves Soren and Toyin alone in the room, sitting crosslegged across the candle from each other. Neither of them knows what to say.

‘Welcome,’ Toyin says. Soren nods. After a pause, she says it again. She is wearing her home-cloth, the Nigerian equivalent of sweat pants, but Soren cannot help but notice how beautiful she is. He thinks she must be 18, athletic, hair pulled into cornrows. Later he finds out she is 28, just two years younger than he is.

Over the next few days, Soren settles in. Whenever he has more than a few hours of electricity, he can expect to go without it for days afterward. Soren’s desk is a piece of plywood laid across two upturned paint buckets. He sits on the floor and types until his battery runs out, then reads World Bank reports and Nigerian novels by candlelight.

Nigeria already has eleven free zones in operation and another eleven under construction. The Lekki Free Trade Zone, whether you measure by square miles or investment, is the largest.

In February 2006, the agreement was signed and the partners officially founded the Lekki Free Zone Development Company, gave it the mandate to lease land, attract investors, get the zone up and running. The partners waited for Nigeria’s dry season, then started clearing vegetation, filling the damp parts of the peninsula with sand, laying the foundations firm enough to steady tall buildings.

The ambitions for the zone follow a familiar narrative: It will start with low-skilled manufacturing—clothes, shoes, the things Hong Kong, then Taiwan, now China, make for the rest of the world. Once the engine of development has been sufficiently revved, the zone will—in the parlance of the banks whose investment they are trying to attract— ‘move up the value chain’ to skilled labor, services, design, marketing.

Meanwhile, the zone will invite investors in natural gas and tourism, will build roads and resorts and worker housing, will establish itself as an example for the rest of the country, the continent.

Nigeria will supply the land and the people; China will supply the money. The Chinese partners have already pledged $263 million for the first phase, will eventually attract more than $1.1 billion. It is set to be the largest Chinese-funded free trade zone outside of China.

In exchange for their investment, the Chinese will not only get operating rights to the zone for 50 years, but a series of perks to ensure they get their money’s worth: A full federal, state and local tax exemption; one-stop permit approvals; customs- and tax-free imports of raw materials; a Zone-specific set of labor laws; prohibitions on unions and lock-outs for workers.

It is 2008, two years after the zone was established, and the peninsula is already humming with activity, criss-crossed with tractors, striped with roads. Soren has five weeks to find out what this means for the people arriving and, especially, the ones already here.

 

‘What do you think you’re doing?!’ The Nigerian fisherman is livid.

He is in his late 30s, wearing jeans and a short-sleeved, savannah-patterned shirt, standard attire for residents of the fishing villages here on the peninsula. ‘Why are you measuring this land? You haven’t paid us any compensation! We’re not going to get anything, are we?’

The man he is shouting at is Mr. Zhang, a Chinese promoter of the zone. His job is to visit companies, bring them to the zone, convince them to put their money here.

Today Mr. Zhang is showing a group of Nigerian investors around the zone, he’s invited Soren to come along. This is vacant land, Mr. Zhang told them in the car, gesturing at the wetlands, the shrubs along the road. Almost as soon as he stopped the car to let the investors walk around the site, the villager appeared from a path through the bushes.

‘We’re still living here!’ he’s shouting. ‘We’re not leaving until we get compensation.’

‘The Lagos government is in charge of compensating you,’ Mr. Zhang tells him. ‘These investors,’ he gestures at the men with him, wearing suits on an 80 degree afternoon, carrying measuring tape and bulky cameras. One of them is peeing in the grass, ignoring the conversation six feet away. ‘They’re here to put money into this community. They’re going to create jobs.’

The villager has been fishing, farming, living here his whole life, he shouts at Mr. Zhang. These men are going to create jobs for other people. Meanwhile, he’ll be kicked off his land. What will he do then?

It’s been like this for two years now. In the early days, the paperwork stage, the communities living here petitioned the Lagos State government, federal ministries, pleaded with authorities not to forget them when the bulldozers came. At first, the government listened, held meetings, drew up strategies. Then … nothing. The ministries stopped responding. And then, the bulldozers came.

In 2007, villagers blocked the roads, kept Chinese equipment and workers from reaching the zone. It was the only way to get the government’s attention.

All the unrest made the Chinese investors antsy. With national elections just around the corner, the Nigerian government finally agreed to work on a memorandum of understanding with the communities living on the peninsula, to define who would get compensated for their land and their livelihoods, to devise formulas to determine how much they were worth.

Still, even after years of debate and conflict, only a handful of villages participated in the actual consultation. They had seen this play out too many times. They didn’t trust the Chinese, but they trusted their own government even less.

It wasn’t even six months after the MoU was signed that events corroborated their cynicism. The MoU with the Lekki Free Trade Zone Development Company said all villagers would be compensated for loss of land. The only problem was, to get the compensation, they had to prove the land was theirs. Almost no one on the peninsula had title deeds. Living and working on a piece of land, no matter how long they had done it, was not proof that they owned it. Without the piece of paper saying the land was theirs, it wasn’t.

The villagers and the government set up a committee to solve the problem, to divvy up payouts according to who used the land, not who technically owned it. Right after the committee was established, the government started circumventing it, paying village chiefs directly, drawing lines down the middle of communities, buying the land out from under villagers without telling them.

Once the side deals started, it was every villager for himself. Fishers and farmers started contacting the government directly, negotiating compensation, trying to get an offer before it got pulled off the table.

Soren is not sure how much of this Mr. Zhang knows.

This happens, he tells Soren, every time he visits the zone. The conversation is always the same: The villagers ask him when they will be paid for their trouble, their loss. Mr. Zhang tells them that he is sorry, that it is not his job, that he hopes it will be soon.

‘Why,’ he asks, ‘do they keep coming to us?’

 

Aside from the interviews, Soren doesn’t have much to do. Solomon is away a lot, arranging funeral rites for his mother, who passed away a year ago. The anniversary of a death in the family is a celebration in Nigeria. Solomon has made more than 400 invitations, spends most of his time in Eastern Nigeria, his hometown, hiring a band, renting a venue.

On the days when he interviews Chinese companies, Soren goes to Victoria Island, near Lagos, on public transport, a minibus heaving with office workers and manual laborers, a kid leaning out the sliding door, shouting its destination at every stop.

There’s no public transport to the zone, so on days when he interviews residents or local chiefs, Soren hires a taxi to get there. One afternoon, on the way home, three area boys jump in front of the taxi, armed with sticks. They stand around the car, two in the front and one at the back tire, threatening to let the air out while the driver haggles over the bribe.

But mostly, it is as boring as any other commute in any other city. Soren is home most days around three, spends the afternoon transcribing interviews, sprawled on his bed, reading about the country around him.

It is on one of these empty days that Toyin comes up to offer him lunch: Catfish, amala, spicy okra sauce. She shouts ‘Soren!’ through the hole in the door, reaches in to open it. These are just leftovers, she says, but tomorrow he can come downstairs and eat lunch with her family if he wants. Soren has been living on frozen mackerel, fried eggs, Indomie noodles—Nigerian Top Ramen, basically—and the occasional fruit the pastor next door drops off.

‘Don’t you want to eat with me?’ he says.

She tells him she hadn’t planned to, but she sits down as she says it.

She is, it turns out, a newcomer here, just like he is. She’s from Zaria, in the north, a city once known for its diversity, the university attracting students and professors from all over Nigeria, Africa, the world. She was used to seeing Indians and Europeans growing up, her Christian family attending street parties with Muslim neighbors..

These days, she tells him, the city is known for its strife. The first time the churches were burned down, Toyin was 7 or 8. She can’t remember if it was her mother who woke her up or the sounds outside. Her Muslim neighbors, the ones she had known all her life, scraping their knives on the pavement, shouting they would slaughter any Christians who stayed. She lept in military barracks for a few nights until it stopped. It did, and then years went by, and then it started again.

But that is not why she left. She left because she finished her English Literature degree and got a spot in a government program teaching English in Ede, just outside Lagos. She moved in with her sister and her husband here in Eputu when the program finished. They both leave early, Mommy Loni to open her shop along Eputu’s main road, Olumide to beat the traffic into Lagos. Toyin spends her days filling out job applications and taking care of her nephew, Uncle Loni.

After that, she starts waving to Soren every time she walks across the street to get water from the well, stops to sit with him on the porch on the way back. One Sunday she invites him to her church. She is an usher, she can’t sit with him, so she leaves him on the pew, bouncing his knee in time to the singing, the dancing, the trumpets. He grins at her, standing at the front, and she grins back.

They get used to seeing each other every day.

 

It’s a blinding weekday, and Soren is visiting a dormitory for Chinese workers on the zone. The building is an old warehouse, a skeleton of wood covered with iron. termites have chewed through most of the doors, some of them look like they’re being held up by the paint.

Soren’s guide, Mr. Zhang, tells Soren with pride that these are the simple, unsophisticated conditions of the Chinese workers here. At first they were disturbed by the bits of wood raining on them from the rafters while they slept, termite leftovers. Now they simply brush them off and roll over.

‘The only entertainment for the workers,’ he says in Chinese, ‘is a basketball.’

The workers have never met a white person who speaks Chinese before, and they are slightly baffled about what Soren is doing here and why he is asking them how they feel about this strange country they live in . Most of the workers are from rural China, they know what it is to be poor. They do not know, however, what it is like to be poor in this specific way, in this specific place.

This, Mr. Zhang tells him, is how the investment will work. It’s not just money China is shipping over but its workers, its technology, its way of doing things. The investment comes as a bundle, wrapped in a chain link fence, a kit for establishing a small enclave of China in this sweltering outpost on the Atlantic.

Mr. Zhang tells Soren that Chinese workers are the opposite of Nigerians. They work hard all year for the reward of relaxation, a break for the New Year or the short summer holiday. For the Chinese, he says, the rule is ‘eat the bitter first.’

For Nigerians, he says, relaxation is the default, they must be forced to work as hard as the Chinese. He tells Soren about a group of Nigerian machine operators meeting Chinese workers doing the same job. When they saw how quickly the Chinese were working, they said it had to be magic.

To European ears, these sound like colonial observations, the kind Soren has seen in James Cook diaries, letters home from 19th century tropical pillages. The manager says things that sound familiar. Nigeria is rich in resources, removed from natural disasters, un-tormented by strict seasons. The land has not endowed its people with the mentality or fortitude to struggle their way out of poverty.

Without the burden of history, the Chinese are not careful in their characterizations, not self-conscious about what it sounds like to be saying them. It seems like they are discovering this continent for the first time.

Soren hears the same thing from the workers living in the dormitory. If we do not work, they tell him, we can’t afford clothes, we’ll freeze in the Chinese winter. If the Nigerians don’t work, they pick fruit from a tree and wait in the shade for the next day to come. They repeat rumors they have heard about Chinese workers being robbed at gunpoint, disappearing from the streets. They show off the frugality and simplicity of their living conditions, tell Soren their hopes of the modernizing influence their presence will have.

It turns out Mr. Zhang was wrong about the entertainment. Every week, on their one-day break from work, the Chinese workers stack benches and create a theatre in the dormitory and watch Chinese movies back to back. It is the only thing here, they tell that reminds them of their villages back home.

 

Soren knows he has to say something to Toyin before he leaves.

They are spending more time together. They eat lunch together, work and read in the same room in the afternoons. She doesn’t drink alcohol; he starts to find excuses not to join Solomon for after-dinner beers at the local bar or on his balcony. Soren asks her about her childhood in Nigeria, she about his in Denmark, each marveling at the other’s strangeness. It’s obvious he likes her—Toyin says she should start charging Soren every time she catches him staring at her over dinner—but her family is traditional, he’s not sure how this works here.

One night, with just a few days left in Nigeria, Soren and Solomon are on their way to see Femi Kuti in Lagos. Solomon spent much of the day calling drivers, trying to find one with a reliable car. He can’t have a breakdown in the neighborhoods they have to drive through to get there. As they’re leaving, Toyin stops Soren as he passes, says she needs to tell him something. Solomon insists they have to leave before it gets dark. Soren calls goodbye back to her and goes.

After the show, driving home, Solomon makes Soren lie on the floor in the back seat. He doesn’t want to be driving through Lagos at 11pm with a white face glowing out through the window. Soren lies on the floor, staring up, wondering what Toyin wanted to tell him.

Finally, just before he leaves for Denmark, he goes downstairs, they sit on the living room floor. He holds her hand, closes his eyes, tells her that he likes her, that he wants to see her again, more, differently. He finally opens his eyes when she squeezes his hand so hard it hurts.

She tells him she feels the same way. Of course she does. But she’s only known him a month, she’s not sure how real this is, that she’ll even see him again. She says this has to be goodbye. Soren drives to the airport alone.

Toyin was right and so was Soren. Life got in the way. Right after he gets back to Denmark, Soren is posted to Beijing for eight months, his Nigeria project put on hold.

In China, Soren talks to Toyin over Skype almost every day. A year after his fieldwork, he comes back to Nigeria. Toyin couldn’t find work in Lagos, so she moved to Ibadan, five hours inland, to get a postgraduate diploma, to wait out the job market there.

When Soren visits she has more time for him than he expected. First, the teachers are on strike for weeks. Then, a flood washes away the bridge Toyin walks over to get to the university. Eventually, some area boys build a new one, charge a toll to cross it.

Soren goes with her to campus, sits at the library, writes and reads about the zone. Since he left, it has maintained its anthill momentum, added rows of factories, a power plant, water treatment, canals dug into the swamps. The port, the deepest in West Africa, is set to open in 2017.

Soren still has the scrap of paper, the one with ‘please this white man is pay’ on it, in their home in Aarhus, Denmark. They got married in 2009. They’re thinking about moving, with their two daughters, Aimi and Anke, to China next year.

He still teases her about the night they met, repeats at her ‘welcome … welcome’ over and over again.

 

 

 

 

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‘It is obvious that people here are poor. It is less obvious that someone made them that way.’

So I made a video with some thoughts I had during my recent work-trip to Uganda.

I have a knot in my stomach putting this kind of shit online. Another white guy, in another African country, broadcasting another set of un-earned conclusions. The whole point I’m trying to make in the video is that I have no idea what I’m talking about, but maybe that means I should have just not talked at all.

Anyway, now it’s out there, embarrassing but irrevocable, just like the rest of the internet. Next time, I’ll try making one of these I don’t feel the need to apologize for.

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The Role of the Media in Development Aid

So USAID asked me to speak at one of their conferences last week about the role of media in development. Being utterly unqualified for this task did not stop me from doing it, and below is an adaptation of my little talk!

Let’s start with a thought experiment.

Think of all all the companies you know that didn’t exist 30 years ago and are now worth more than a billion dollars. It’s easy, right? Facebook, Google, Starbucks, Amazon, Whole Foods, Uber, we could go around the room for ages.

Now think of all the development NGOs or national nonprofits that didn’t exist 30 years ago and now get more than, say, 100 million in donations.* Doctors without Borders: 1971. Human Rights Watch: 1978. Amnesty International: 1961. Greenpeace: 1969. And those aren’t even the big-big ones. Red Cross, Oxfam, Save the Children, Care International, we’re talking World War II or before.

And what’s weird about this comparison is that in those 30 years, we’ve made significant progress some really hard problems. A lot of countries that were desperately poor three decades ago aren’t now. But, somehow, we haven’t created social institutions at the same pace we’ve created profit-making ones.

I think this is, at least partly, the media’s fault. The media struggles, has always struggled, to tell good news, to tell slow news, and to tell stories that happen more than once. That’s exactly what social progress consists of, and it’s why an alarming percentage of people think we now live in a world that is poorer and more dangerous than it used to be, neither of which are true.

But I think this is getting better! If you want to understand the role of media in development, you have to understand how it is changing.

1. Social media is making traditional media obsolete

The first change is the most obvious: Social media. We all know that Twitter and Facebook allow organizations to communicate directly with their audiences and bypass traditional media. However you feel about Kony 2012 or the ice bucket challenge, they’re not the last nonprofits that are going to go viral. The media only came to those organisations, those issues, after the rest of the world already knew about them.

This direct communication makes the media increasingly obsolete, and gives institutions the opportunity to play on their turf. Last year the World Bank did an analysis of all the pdfs on their website and found that 87 percent of them had never been cited; 31 percent had never been downloaded at all. If the World Bank wants to get its research, its conclusions, more widely talked about, it doesn’t need to call the New York Times or the BBC. It needs to record Ted Talks, to make animated explainers, to bundle its research into infographics, tweets, summaries for distinct audiences. For organizations with something to say, the media isn’t an amplifier for telling their story, it’s just part of the background noise.

2. Traditional media is getting slower

There was this story in the New Yorker in September about how Salt Lake City beat homelessness. The city was spending $20,000 per homeless person on emergency services, extra policing, jail time, temporary shelters. A free apartment cost just $8,000 per year. Salt Lake City decided to simply give each homeless person a free apartment, no (well, few) questions asked. The homeless population fell by 72 percent.

This is exactly the kind of bureaucratic innovation that development is made of. Since it came out, the story has gotten tons of attention. I mean, the Daily Show did a segment on it.

In journalism school they used to tell us the old cliche that ‘journalism is the first rough draft of history‘. For media companies these days, it seems like that’s not enough anymore. ‘27 Maps that Explain America‘, ‘What We Know About Inequality (in 14 Charts)‘, these are not attempts to tell you something new, but to reframe, contextualize, what you already know.

When Vox media, one of the most prominent digital-native startups, got an hourlong interview with President Obama, they barely asked him anything about current events. They asked him about the state of the world, what Americans get wrong about foreign aid, why he’s been so polarizing. They specifically designed the interview to be evergreen, reflective, to offer insight to the news cycle rather than stay in front of it.

For development practitioners, this should be hugely encouraging. You don’t have to package your organisation around a news event, include those cheesy anecdotes (Sally walks two hours every day to school…’) at the beginning of your annual report. You can tell a longer, slower, larger story (‘why weren’t the roads paved? It all starts in 1978…’)—and the media will help you.

 

3. The line between media and NGOs is blurring.

Last February, the editor-in-chief of the New York Times left to work for a ‘nonprofit news organization‘ explicitly dedicated to reforming the criminal justice system. Since it launched, its stories have appeared in The New Republic, the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Washington Post.

It’s not just newspapers, not just criminal justice reporting. ProPublica, a progressive nonprofit, works with NPR to do stories on pharma company payments to doctorsgovernment cuts to workman’s comp (yes, there are charts). As early as 2005, ABC News was running stories produced by International Crisis Group, a conflict-prevention NGO.

It goes the other way too. Human Rights Watch has deliberately started doing work that is, if you took the logo off it, indistinguishable from journalism.

 

All three of these changes tell the same story: The media is getting squeezed into a narrower and narrower band. As revenue shrinks and newsrooms atrophy, the things that journalism used to do—publicize institutions, bring attention to societal changes, retell press releases—are being done around it.

So if development NGOs want to get their message out, they need to meet the media where it is and where it’s going. Get stories directly to the people you’re trying to reach, let the media come afterwards. Tell the story of your issue—homelessness, teen pregnancy, water scarcity—not your organization. And if you don’t like the way the media is telling your story, tell it yourself.

 

* I stole this thought experiment from Gerald Chertavian, the guy who runs the charity Year Up, who I interviewed for a story the week before the talk.

 

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