I know I talk about this all the time here, but I still don’t really feel like a journalist. I have no beat, I’m terrible at pitching, my articles start out half-baked and get published only slightly more so.
A few years ago I wrote to my old high school and asked if I could spend two weeks there. I had no idea, no pitch, no characters, no themes, no anything. “I’m interested in how teens are different now than when I was one,” I told them. And I meant it! That was the complete extent to which I had thought it through.
It’s remarkable they invited me to come anyway. Public institutions are notoriously media-averse—if I was a Real Journalist I would have known this, of course—and schools more than most. For administrators and PR staff, the idea of a random writer roaming the halls, pulling aside students, asking them about bullying and studying and sexting, is some sort of nosebleed, a huge gamble with no reward.
But they let me! And it was great! For two weeks I was there all day every day: Sitting in classes, attending after-school clubs, sharing vending-machine lunches with students, debating the merits of standardized tests with teachers.
And, slowly, an idea formed. I went there to write about the kids, but almost all of my conversations ended up being about the adults. The ways the school was changing, what it used to do, how it couldn’t anymore. Things that seemed small to an outsider—shrinking teacher collaboration, tightening budget rules, evolving evaluation criteria—were decisive for the people charged with implementing them.
The most un-journalistic thing about this story, the all-caps flashing disclaimer above all of these links, is that this is my old high school. My institution, my hometown, my former teachers. As a journalist I am supposed to be dispassionate and objective. About this place and these people, I am not.
I don’t know if I will start to feel like a journalist anytime soon. But when it requires me to stop rooting for the people I write about, I’ll stop trying.
One of the most pernicious ideas in American life is that sexual harassment lawsuits are an example of political correctness gone mad.
For the last few months I’ve been working on a video series for Highline, a re-examination of all the things we got wrong in the 1990s. The first episode is about the sexual harassment freakouts that cropped up in the wake of the Anita Hill hearing and what was really behind them.
Here’s a sequence that didn’t make it into the final cut, four women testifying at a 1992 Congressional hearing:
This is why we have sexual harassment laws.
Before 1986, none of these stories would have been illegal. Until Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, the only workplace discrimination that fell under the law was quid pro quo harassment, the kind where your boss explicitly tells you that if you want this promotion, you’ll have to sleep with him. Skeezy comments about your looks, getting groped at the water cooler, being told you had to meet a higher standard because of your gender, all that was just the cost of being a woman at work.
The most incredible thing about these cases, though, isn’t just the shittiness of the people perpetrating them. It’s the narrow-mindedness of the people in charge of punishing them.
Reading old sexual harassment cases, what you see over and over again is judges who simply couldn’t accept that women were blameless in their own abuse. One victim testified that she been assaulted by her boss for three straight years, that he touched her under the table during work meetings, that he bought her dinner her first week on the job and invited her to a motel afterward. The judges were skeptical. What was she wearing? Why did she go to dinner in the first place? Didn’t she eventually give in and have sex with him? Surely his advances weren’t that unwelcome.
This is how members of Congress treated Anita Hill too. If Clarence Thomas had been such a terrible boss, they asked her in 50 different ways, why did she later ask him for a reference? Despite all the alleged harassment, Arlen Specter pointed out, she never once complained to Thomas’s superiors. She even—gasp—picked him up at the airport once, years after they stopped working together.
It’s fascinating to me all the ways in which societal power is invisible to the people wielding it. For old, white, affluent judges, it simply didn’t make sense that a woman would have sex with her manager unless she really wanted to. Congress members couldn’t comprehend why a woman would maintain a relationship with her dickhead former boss, why she would wait years before publicly complaining about his behavior, why she would read aggression into his flirting and his backrubs and his ribald anecdotes.
I don’t think every judge and every Senator back then was a big old sleazebag. What I do think is that they suffered from a specific form of blindness, one that is human and understandable and utterly pernicious. We are all, in ways major and minor, incapable of seeing the world through anything but our own example. If you have never feared unemployment, the moral compromises others make to avoid it seem foreign. If you have never been hurt by jokes about your gender or your race or your sexuality, those who complain about them seem oversensitive.
Somehow, in the 25 years since the Anita Hill hearing (and, as I argue in the video, the passage of the 1991 Civil Rights Act), sexual harassment has become a synonym for a country that can no longer take a joke. Colleagues can’t even ask each other out for a drink nowadays. Managers can’t pat their employees on the shoulder.
But in fact, sexual harassment cases have been dwindling for years, and the mechanisms behind them have been steadily eroded. Since 1991, punitive damages have been capped at $500,000. Those eight-digit settlements you’re always reading about? Companies only have to pay a fraction of them. A study in 2002 found that more than half of large punitive damages awards got overturned on appeal. And that’s for the cases that make it to court. The vast majority of them don’t.
The real problem, in other words, is not that we have all become oversensitive. It is that we are not sensitive enough.
I am sure that, in this big and crowded country, someone somewhere has filed a frivolous lawsuit claiming to be sexual harassed when they weren’t. But becoming the country where that happens is not what we should fear. It is becoming the country that we used to be—one where no one is allowed to file them at all.
I have a big fat article in Highline today:
Still, even as we celebrate the scale and speed of this change, the rates of depression, loneliness and substance abuse in the gay community remain stuck in the same place they’ve been for decades. Gay people are now, depending on the study, between 2 and 10 times more likely than straight people to commit suicide. We’re twice as likely to have a major depressive episode. In a survey of gay men who recently arrived in New York City, three-quarters suffered from anxiety or depression, abused drugs or alcohol or were having risky sex—or some combination of the three.
I’m not going to pretend to be objective about any of this. I’m a perpetually single gay guy who was raised in a bright blue city by PFLAG parents. I’ve never known anyone who died of AIDS, I’ve never experienced direct discrimination and I came out of the closet into a world where marriage, a picket fence and a golden retriever were not just feasible, but expected. I’ve also been in and out of therapy more times than I’ve downloaded and deleted Grindr.
I get nervous writing these stories, ones that examine a trend that I personify. I tried to include people who have it harder than me, to be skeptical of my own example. I have no idea if my own life, my own problems, are instructive to anyone else in understanding their own. But I feel lucky that so many experts let me borrow their insight to explain it.
The phenomenon I’m exploring—the epidemic of loneliness among gay men—began as a question: Is this really a thing? After the first few interviews, it became how did this happen? Then, after about 40, it was, why don’t we talk about this more?
The best I can hope for is that this article gives us a reason to.
When I was a kid I broke a big ceramic elephant at my best friend’s house. We were roughhousing, hopping from couch to couch, and I landed on one side of the coffee table and launched the elephant upward from the other. It hit the ground so hard the little shards skidded all the way to the kitchen.
As soon as it happened, my friend knew he was in trouble. The statue was priceless. His parents bought it in Thailand on their honeymoon, had kept it with them through college, careers, new cities, two kids. They had told him, over and over, to be careful around it, to move slowly, to touch it only to keep it clean.
When they got home, they were furious. They pointed out how stupid we had been, how reckless. They grounded him on the spot.
Then they called my parents. They told them everything—Thailand, priceless, reckless—but they couldn’t punish me themselves. After all, I wasn’t their kid.
My own parents, when I got home, were irritated and embarrassed. But they didn’t punish me either. After all, it wasn’t their elephant.
This week I have an article in Foreign Policy about what I used to do for a living. It takes place, mostly, at the UN Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights, the great big NGO jamboree I attended every year from 2010 to 2015.
The characters in it are my colleagues and friends, people who got into human rights for the same reasons I did. They have given their youth and their weekends and their anger to solving the problems of the world. They have lost sleep over the suffering of people they’ve never met. I was lucky to spend a decade knowing them, and my disagreements about the way that they—we—work are about the systems we’re part of, not the individuals who populate them.
In other words, I hope that my article is good. But more so, I hope that it is fair.
One of my clearest memories of the Forum is from 2010, the first year I attended, the first time it took place. It was a panel discussion, something about the extractive industry in South America. When it was over a human rights activist, wearing a wool parka in a room full of suits, stood up and started speaking in Spanish.
He named people he knew, friends, who were killed and imprisoned for protesting mining companies in Bolivia. He talked and talked—Allende, banana republics, NAFTA—his passion galloping faster than his voice. The interpreter, struggling to keep up, kept coming back to the word “irreconcilable.” Businesses exist to make money. Communities exist to take care of their members. Irreconcilable. The room squirmed. When he stopped, there was a rustle as we all removed our headsets.
“OK,” the panel chair said. “Anyone else have a comment?”
If there is one thing I took away from the Forum, one lesson I learned over and over, it is that this shit is complicated.
Take Syngenta. Thirty years ago, the company had a problem. It was the world’s leading pesticide manufacturer, and poor farmers in Asia and Africa were using Paraquat, one of its best-selling products, to kill themselves. In 1980, a study found that in Malaysia alone, more than 1,000 people had killed themselves by drinking pesticides in just four years. International NGOs and, more relevantly, regulators were starting to get interested.
As the trickle of bad publicity became a flood, Syngenta decided to update its recipe for Paraquat. It made the pesticide bright blue so no one would drink it accidentally. It added an “evacuation agent” to make them vomit if they swallowed more than a few drops. The company even added an enzyme to make the pesticide break down in the stomach, so less of it would be absorbed by any humans it got inside.
Every company, in every country, has complicities like this. In India, people use GE ultrasound machines to abort female babies. In China, where most of the donated organs come from executed prisoners, activists are asking pharmaceutical companies to stop distributing anti-rejection drugs. In 2013, UK chemical companies found out their products were being used for lethal injections in Arkansas.
I don’t know what comes after this lesson, what each company’s equivalent of dying its product bright blue will be. I only know that once you start looking, start asking companies how thy improve or degrade the countries where they operate, you will find horrors you did not expect.
After the Bolivian guy in the parka sat down and the panel finished and we all filed out, I asked the head of government relations for a mining company what he thought of the speech.
“I actually agree with him,” he said. “Somebody’s got to give up something.”
“So compromise doesn’t mean everybody wins, but everybody loses?” I said.
“This is the world we’ve got,” he says. “People aren’t going to stop buying oil, or diamonds, or sneakers. If my company pulls out of Bolivia on Monday, the Chinese will be there on Tuesday, taking rocks out of the ground same as us. Only they won’t even be talking to that guy, they’ll just be telling the government to move him aside.”
I heard this argument a lot at the Forum over the years. If western multinationals weren’t operating in Bolivia and Burma, Somalia and Sudan, that just leaves those countries open to the Russians and the Chinese and the Taiwanese (“who are way worse than the Chinese,” I remember an an apparel guy telling me).
Philosophically speaking, this is incoherent. As the head of a labor NGO put it to me, “It’s like saying, ‘I have to beat my wife because if I stop, the guy next door will come and beat her harder.'”
But philosophy is not reality. Poor countries do not choose between selling their land to an oil company and keeping it untouched. They choose between Exxon and Petrobras, Shell and Gazprom. They can have western companies, which have shareholders to please and reputations to uphold, or they can have government-backed companies from the developing world, which do not.
I told the mining dude this reminded me of an old Richard Pryor routine. When he misbehaved, his grandmother would make him go outside and choose the branch that she would beat him with. Pick one that’s too thick, and it’ll hurt more. Pick one too thin, and she would beat him, then make him go outside for a thicker one and beat him again.
“I used to work at Amnesty,” he said. “I took this job because I think I can do more good inside the system than out of it.”
“So have you?” I asked.
“My company isn’t perfect,” he said. “But we pay our workers on time, we talk to communities before we start mining and we refuse to pay bribes. If that guy really wants his country to get better, he shouldn’t be asking Western multinationals to leave. He should be asking us to stay.”
I’ve been telling that elephant story at conferences for years. It is, with surprisingly few modifications, exactly how the world regulates international companies.
Let’s say a German company sets up a shoe factory in Lesotho. It forces its employees to work seven days a week, dumps waste into the river out back, sends security guards to harass the neighbors who complain. If it did these things in Germany, its own government would take it to court. In Lesotho, though, the government doesn’t have labor inspectors, its courts are corrupt and its politicians worry that punishing this one company will chase others like it to the poorer, more desperate one a few clicks north.
Germany, for its part, can’t really punish the company either. It regulates what happens in Germany, not what happens in Lesotho. Its own laws do not apply there and so neither, in the end, do its values. The workers, the river, the neighbors, they are not Germany’s.
And so: This company, between one government that can’t levy a punishment and another that won’t, gets away with actions it could never carry out at home.
The UN jargon for this is “the governance gap.” It’s the reason the UN Forum, and my former field, was invented. It is why I went to Geneva every year for five, and why I stayed in Copenhagen and Berlin for eleven.
I don’t know if anything I did in my career was effective at closing it. Last time I told the elephant story I was giving a training in Zambia and one of the participants asked, “Wait, so who are your parents in that metaphor? Who truly has the power to punish these companies?”
I didn’t have an answer. I hope someday I will.
I made a video:
I sort of couldn’t help myself. When I lived in Denmark I volunteered at an asylum center. I mentored a 17-year-old Afghan refugee. Since then, I’ve had friends and colleagues get jobs in international refugee policy. Seen them, one by one, become frustrated at the stinginess, the injustice, the cruelty masquerading as bureaucracy. It’s impossible for me to talk or write about this in my own voice without getting worked up, so I tried using someone else’s.
I grew up in a super religious family. Church on Sundays, hands clasped before dinner, Bible camp every summer. I remember talking to one of my parents’ friends when I was maybe 13 or 14. She worked at a homeless shelter, she provided food and clothes and beds all winter, a big brick building in the middle of a neighborhood I had lived my whole life avoiding.
I was in my Ayn Rand phase at the time, and I asked her, wasn’t she worried about dependency, fraud, the homeless people going to her shelter, getting food, then going to another and getting more?
“They need our help,” she said. And that was it. End of sentence, end of conversation. I remember being struck by that, the simplicity of it, the clarity of genuine, actual, real-world grace being defined in four words right in front of me.
This is why I get so upset about refugee policy. It is one of the few areas where our institutions are explicitly guided by morality. Developed countries started taking in refugees from the ashes of World War II. The economic and political benefits of doing so—and there are many—were unknown at the time, irrelevant. We took them because they needed us to. It really was that simple.
Since then, of course, it has become complicated. There’s nothing surprising about this. Institutions need vetting processes, evaluation criteria, annual audits, fine, whatever. I get that. Just because a policy was founded in generosity does not mean that it has no limits.
But the debate about those limits and the steady strengthening of them makes me—I don’t know how else to put it—very sad. As a person, I know that genuine grace is an aspiration I will never reach. As a citizen, I find it difficult to accept that my institutions have stopped trying.
MICHAEL HOBBES: None of these violations take place in a vacuum. The only thing we can do to systematically improve those conditions is to work politically.
That would be something like trade deals. In the Dominican Republic, a condition of accessing the U.S. market was increasing the strength and size of their labor inspectorate. It used to be really corrupt. Inspectors were just kind of walking around, getting bribes from whichever factory they went to. Then all of a sudden they were required to have a law degree to be an inspector, they got better salaries. Now, these guys are doing really interesting work. That’s not in very many bilateral trade agreements, but it’s something that the AFL-CIO and other domestic labor rights organizations have been pushing for.
That stuff is really boring, it’s political, it’s technical, it’s slow, it’s policy—but it’s much more effective than buying a t-shirt that has a fair trade label on it. You don’t know what the conditions of production were, even if it has that sticker on it, and neither does the company selling it to you.
The audio and transcript are at the link!
UPDATE: Here’s the sequel. I show up right at the end!
When I lived in London 10 years ago, biking to work was almost unheard of. I remember a colleague of mine, the only cyclist I knew, rolling up her pantleg, lifting her shirt, to show me all her scars.
Since then, though, cycling has nearly doubled, and is expected to surpass driving in just three years.
London has—visibly, significantly—become friendlier for cyclists. The bike-hire scheme, the bright blue “cycle superhighways,” you even see tourists and kids out cycling now. I started biking on my work-trips to London about six years ago, and it seems like every time I visit, there’s more quietways, better signs, (slightly) nicer drivers, fewer close calls.
I am perplexed by how this happened. All the arguments for cycling to work—cheaper, less pollution, more exercise—applied as much a decade ago as they do now. So why have they suddenly found purchase?
As far as I can tell, the decisive factor for the rise in bikes, and bike infrastructure, in London has been successful campaigning by grassroots NGOs. Starting in the early 2000s, cycling campaigners changed tactics, updated their messaging and started getting results. They’ve become so powerful that drivers even complain about the “cycle lobby” with the same sneer as Americans talk about the NRA.
It’s super cool! I’ve spent much of the decade since I left London campaigning for human rights, and I’m in awe of the way “Ride your bike!” has run circles around “Legalize drugs!” “End tax dodging!” and “Accept refugees!” as a message that’s supported by a wide swath of the public. I am also, rather relevantly, a cyclist, and I want other cities to put in bike lanes so I can bike on them and not die!
So—*cracks knuckles*—how did London cycling campaigners do it? What are the lessons that the broader field of social campaigning can take from this particular one?
1. Get Your Shit Together
The most striking thing about cycle campaigning in the UK is the 60 or so years they wasted broadcasting the wrong messages and arguing for the wrong policies.
Cycling peaked in the UK in 1949, at 37% of all miles traveled. As the road-building and car-buying frenzy of the 1950s took off, old-school cycling campaigners, led by an NGO called the Cyclists Touring Club, landed on the idea that separated, dedicated bike lanes were a bad thing.
Here’s a cartoon from the 1930s that sums up the opinion among many cyclists at the time.
The idea here is that building special roads for bikes represents a surrender. Cyclists had been using the roads for decades, since way before mass car ownership. Being separated from cars, shunted off onto their own little lanes, was a form of marginalization, a way for drivers to colonize space that rightfully belonged to cyclists. We have the right to be in the road, the CTC argued, and that’s where we’re going to stay.
This is, obviously, utter fucking madness. While Danish and Dutch cycling campaigners were pressing their governments to build roads that kept them away from speeding vehicles, UK cyclists were fighting to be right in their path.
For the rest of the 20th century it went on like this, the CTC promoting the baffling, murderous idea of “vehicular cycling“—bikes should act like cars. If you’re nervous about traffic behind you, or unsure about how to cross an intersection, you should “take the lane”: Bike in the middle of the road, block all the cars behind you, go through the infrastructure just like a car would. Rather than advocating for roads that would make cycling safe for children, the elderly or the disabled, the CTC actively encouraged infrastructure that kept cycling a niche pursuit, an option only for the brave, the stupid, the Spandexed (in Britain they call them MAMILs—Middle-Aged Men in Lycra).
The CTC gave training to cyclists, encouraged them to wear helmets and bright orange vests and hoped that drivers would finally, magically, pass them with more distance. They even argued that the bike lanes in Denmark and the Netherlands, which had steadily reduced accidents, deaths and injuries, were generating “incompetent” cyclists. Meanwhile, the proportion of Brits biking to work plummeted to just 2.8 percent. These days, despite the fact that the majority of children in the UK live less than 3 miles from school, less than 2 percent of them get there by bike.
The broader lesson here, other than “never trust anyone wearing Spandex,” is, I think, something about in-groups and out-groups. You can’t really blame the CTC for employing such a self-annihilating strategy. It’s a membership organization. Once all the roads got built, the only people left biking on them were hardcore cyclists—the dudes you see bent over their handlebars, helmets on, earbuds in, wrapped in bright yellow vests, running red lights through central London. Those guys were the CTC’s constituents—not the 50 percent of the population who consistently tell researchers they would bike if the infrastructure was better.
Their own mandate ensured that they were working for current cyclists, not potential ones. The CTC made various attempts over the years to change its strategy, but its own members revolted, reiterating their commitment to biking on the roads, not on bike lanes. It was only in the 2000s—when the CTC finally got competition by rival NGOs, when its bullshit started getting called out on bike blogs—that it updated its strategy.
This is relevant for all kinds of social issues beyond cycling. As much as we (rightly) lionize grassroots organizations, they’re all beholden to their own internal constituencies, vulnerable to advocating for the wrong ideas. For decades, the CTC “owned” the issue of cycling promotion just like Amnesty International “owns” abolishing the death penalty and Greenpeace “owns” not hunting whales. Most social issues are like this, they have one NGO that leads the work on gathering information and communicating it to back to the public. Some of these NGOs are great and some of them suck. And it can take decades to detach the sucky ones from an issue and replace them with one that will actually get something done.
There’s also a lesson here about appropriation. Transport for London, the agency in charge of (not) building bike lanes, must have loved the CTC. It could invite the CTC round, show them some deathtrappy infrastructure, get their sign-off and start building. The government got to save money on building bike lanes and got the added bonus of saying “Hey, we consulted cyclists before we built this” if anyone complained.
You see this everywhere in human rights: The NGOs that are the most comfortable with the status quo, the ones that are already cuddle-distance from politicians, are the ones that get invited to the consultation, that get a speaking slot at the conference, that get repeated and retweeted by people in power. For a shark, the best thing about having a favorite remora is that it keeps the other remoras off of you.
2. Kick It Old School
Cycling started to get successful in the runup to the 2012 London mayoral elections. The new cycling NGOs, the ones challenging the CTC’s monopoly on bipedaling, launched a campaign called “Love London, Go Dutch” and started lobbying candidates to sign it. Since then, they’ve persevered, timing advocacy to coincide with major political events and pressuring politicians to include cycling in their manifestos.
Considering how recent this all is, you would think it would be a parable about the importance of new media, how cyclists twitterred and Facebooked and Snapchatted their way into a bike boom. But, the more you look into it, the more it starts to look like an example of the opposite.
The London Cycling Campaign, the main NGO advocating for better bike lanes, has 12,000 members, 30,000 supporters and handful of franchises—the Camden Cycling Campaign, the Hackney Cycling Campaign, and so on—focused on each of London’s boroughs. This entire network has been mobilized to relay a clear, simple, specific message to London’s politicians at every level: Build us more bike lanes.
Most of the ways they do this are decidedly old-school. They hold protest rides. They show up at town-hall meetings. They give their members the contact details of their ward councilor. One of the smartest things they’ve done is the annual “Sky Ride,” one Sunday a summer when London closes all its highways so families can bike on them. This not only generates positive messaging (you can only bitch at Transport for London so many times), it also produces photos of adorable children on bikes that the LCC can show to politicians and ask “Why can’t kids do this every single day?”
Another analog strategy they’ve used is converting cycling deaths from statistic to tragedy. As anyone with eyes and a brain will tell you, biking in London is dangerous. What it’s not, though, is uniformly dangerous. The vast majority of cycling deaths happen at intersections—at, in fact, the same fucking intersections, over and over again.
In 2013, after six cyclists were killed in two weeks, most of them by delivery trucks, the LCC started pointing out to the media, the public and politicians that these deaths were not inevitable. They gave names and backstories to the people that were killed and organized a mass ride to London’s 10 deadliest intersections. Stop Killing Cyclists, another NGO, held a mass ‘Die-In‘ outside Transport for London. All this direct action demonstrated the argument that biking is not dangerous. What’s dangerous is how London’s governing bodies arrange public space so cyclists have to share it with trucks and taxis and buses. Accidents are the result of negligence by engineers and planners, not carelessness by cyclists.
Earlier this year I interviewed a consultant who has advised the Gates Foundation on its use of technology to solve global poverty. The National Rifle Association, he pointed out, is one of the most effective lobbying organizations in the world. And sure, it has a website, it’s on Twitter. But mostly, it wins at everything not because it uses new media but because it has perfected the old: Forming a constituency, articulating a clear agenda and threatening politicians with the loss of a voting bloc if they don’t fall in line. Cycling campaigners finally figured out that if you want politicians to listen, you have to hit them in the only place it hurts.
3. Take the Right Lessons from the Right Countries
This is Exhibition Road, in West London. On the left is what it used to look like. On the right is what it looks like now.
The idea here is “shared space”: Rather than a forest of signs telling drivers, bikers and walkers how to behave, the street allows everyone to interact with each other, to negotiate between themselves. We’re all adults here, after all, and it’s a kind of freedom to be in a space that’s open to improvisation, rather than striped into types and speeds and modes.
This concept, its architects love to point out, is actually borrowed from the Dutch, who famously pulled out stop signs at intersections and un-painted bike lanes in favor of streets that were uniform, interactive, human.
It’s a super appealing idea! We’ve all been to streets where people are sitting at cafes, or cruising past on their bikes, or slowly cruising past in their convertible. They’re delightful.
The only problem is what Exhibition Road is actually fucking like.
A friend of mine works nearby, so I bike down this street nearly every time I’m in London. Pulling out the stop signs and putting in those painted roundabouts has given cab drivers license to careen though them with barely a swerve. Pedestrians and bikers, far from “sharing the space” with the cars whizzing past, are huddled onto the sidewalk out of their way, the same way we are on every other goddamn street. Who wants to sit at a café where you breathe in diesel, where you shout over engine noise, where you’re boxed in by parked cars?
This is what Mark Treasure calls “placefaking.” Everyone agrees, in principle, that neighborhoods need destinations: Plazas and streets made for visiting, rather than driving through. Dutch cities have a lot of these. They’re clean, peaceful, cute, slow. You find yourself using words like “stroll” and “wander.”
And, yes, those Dutch streets have pretty pavements and very few road signs. But that’s not what makes them places. What makes them places is that they have barely any cars on them. The Dutch do this deliberately. They put blockades at one end of a street to keep cars from using it as a through route. Or they create loop-de-loops of one-way streets so they don’t actually lead anywhere. Those streets are cute and quiet because the only people who drive on them are people who live there or are delivering something. Pretty paving is fine, sure, it can stay. But it’s the least important thing about what makes a place a place.
This is the constant danger of any type of campaigning: The actors you’re aiming it at will take components of the shit you’re asking for and ignore the purpose behind it. They’ll try to give you what you want without taking anything away from anyone else. The way countries do this is by passing laws that campaigners ask for, then refusing to enforce them. The way companies do this is by finding easy, profitable fixes to their sustainability problems. They switch to fluorescent light bulbs, or they sell their waste to recycling companies. All this shit is frosting, ways for governments and businesses to look like they’re improving while continuing to violate human rights or run a polluting factory. Well, we tell ourselves, it’s better than nothing.
This is what I always found to be the hardest part about campaigning: Not the messaging, but the monotony. Exhibition Road used to be a clogged esophagus for cars. It remains one, but improving it any further just got exponentially harder. Taking two steps forward and one back is, as I have argued in basically everything I’ve ever written, the way the world works. And it is exhausting.
4. Focus on Structural Solutions
One of the most ubiquitous insights of the last 10 years is that the countries that have the highest percentage of organ donors are not the ones that cajole their citizens through public awareness campaigns. It’s the countries where donating your organs is the default on the form. It’s that simple. By making it the norm, that little tick box teaches people that donating their organs is the baseline, expected, that they should have a reason not to.
The idea that our environment affects our behavior, often in invisible ways, has wormed its way into the zeitgeist, from tax forms to TED Talks, and there’s nothing governments like these days more than bragging about how they’re “nudging” their citizens toward pro-social behavior.
The implications of this—both the idea and its current faddishness—for campaigners in general and cycling in particular are obvious: Streets teach you how to drive on them. The width of the lanes, the sharpness of the corners, the smoothness of the tarmac, they’re all telling you the “right” speed to drive at, whether you’re consciously hearing them or not.
A few years ago, some cycling NGOs in the UK launched a campaign called “20 is plenty.” They wanted cities across the UK, as well as large parts of London, to make the speed limit 20 miles per hour. Slowing traffic, went the logic, would encourage people to bike, would quiet streets to make them more walkable for pedestrians, more play-innable for children.
This, it turns out, was a huge waste of everyone’s time. Islington, one of the London boroughs that imposed the lower speed limits, found that it reduced the speed of traffic by … 1 mph. Portsmouth, an entire city, did the same thing and saw average speeds fall from 19.8mph to 18.5mph and the number of deaths and injuries actually increase.
Since that campaign, cycling campaigners have wised up. These days it’s all about structural solutions—updating intersections with separate traffic lights for bikes, or retrofitting trucks so drivers can see the cyclist at their flank before they turn on top of her. As a government report on the Portsmouth experiment notes, “20mph limits are most appropriate for roads where average speeds are already low.” In other words, update the roads, not the rules.
Not that that’s easy. When I used to consult corporations on how to protect human rights, the first thing they always suggested was a handbook: A little guide with tips for their managers on spotting child labor or gender discrimination or human trafficking. We would spend a month researching it, a month writing it—and about 10 minutes implementing it. Making up new rules and delivering new messages is easy. That’s exactly why it’s the first resort of under-budgeted government departments and marginalized corporate sustainability departments.
If you look at the two social issues where companies have genuinely improved in the last 30 years—workplace accidents and corruption—it’s because they started monitoring their own performance, gave bonuses to managers who improved and fired managers who didn’t. Alcoa famously started examining all of its workplace accidents, poring over them like plane crashes, to make sure they never happened again. Siemens installed an ombudsman whose entire job was to root out corruption in his own company. That’s what institutions do when they actually want to solve a problem. Handbooks and rules and awareness-raising are what they do when they want to seem like they are.
5. It’s the Money, Stupid
Here’s a graph of the percentage of trips made by bike in the UK. Joe Dunckley of At War With the Motorist has handily added boxes for each time a politician has declared that a “cycling revolution” was afoot.
This is both extremely cynical and extremely accurate. Every 7-10 years for the previous 50, the UK government has released a “Let’s Get Britain Cycling!”-type strategy document. The fonts have changed over the years, but the content is remarkably consistent. The survey of existing biking levels. The consultation with cyclists. The statement of the urgent need for better infrastructure. The same sore-thumb-obvious observations that cycling is good for health, environment, pocketbook. A dash of concern for its maleness and whiteness, a sprinkling of the word “inclusive.” Then a dozen or so recommendations for making it mass. Build infrastructure, train kids, sensitize drivers.
The pdfs recede into the tangled ivy of the Department for Transport website. The recommendations are ignored, their contradiction with binding engineering policies unresolved. And the targets—get 10% of Brits biking to work, double the number of kids biking to school—get repeated, verbatim, in the next strategy, the next decade.
Let’s not pretend to be surprised by any of this. Bold announcements and flaccid follow-through are inherent to the structure of democratic politics. Our representatives get acclaim for announcing things and criticism for actually doing them. It is cheap and easy to hold consultations, produce models and projections and release a target and a “roadmap.”
Actually doing stuff is where it gets hard, expensive and vote-subtracting. Getting people cycling requires coordinating overlapping jurisdictions, tendering out contracts, meeting a timetable, allocating a budget. This is the stuff of trade-offs and sacrifices, the exact kind of things for which we need politicians—and for which we never reward them.
It is tempting to say that this time is different. Boris Johnson, before he became the most hated man in Britain, was the mayor of London for eight years. He was also a cyclist, and the first London politician to (sort of) follow through on the government’s commitment to promote biking. As one of his last acts in office, he installed a big, fat, separated bike lane right along the Thames, narrowing the road and pissing off thousands of drivers. Nearly every single mayoral candidate in his wake signed on to keep expanding bike lanes.
Which is great! But then, a week after the election, after the political commitments and pastel statements, the government released its nationwide Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy … and steady cuts to the cycling infrastructure budget. By 2020, cycling will be funded by the UK government at roughly the same level as hoverboarding.
The lesson that emerges from all this is an essential corollary to the earlier rule, the one about forming a voting bloc and mobilizing it: The only thing that matters is the money.
All of those earlier strategy documents failed to allocate any significant budget to cycling infrastructure. The 1996 strategy envisioned the creation of a “National Cycling Network” across the country, but didn’t fund anyone to pave it. Local councils got some volunteers to clear branches off rural trails and put up a few signs, that was it. In 2001, the government announced a Cycling Project Fund that would encourage cities to install cycle lanes. It was £2 million. Nationwide. That’s about what London spends on the Tube every two hours.
This is a tricky issue for the left. Progressives are constantly being accused of trying to increase government spending, of creeping toward communism. As a result, left-wing social movements are often reluctant to admit that social change does, in fact, cost money. Instead of arguing that our issues require—and are worth—investing in, we act like they’re freebies. Organic farms are cheaper than industrial ones! Renewable energy pays for itself! Higher wages will improve productivity! And we accept, infuriatingly, plans like the last dozen or so in the UK, ones that make all the right commitments but aren’t willing to pay for them.
At my dayjob, I’ve spent the last three years helping developing countries write National Action Plans. The idea is to get a government to commit to taking action, to make binding targets, to finally coordinate all its ministries and agencies toward a shared goal. Women’s rights, child labour, HIV/AIDS, climate change—pick your issue and at least a dozen developing countries have one of these plans to address it.
But in all the processes I participated in, no one ever seemed to check what had happened to all the previous plans, why the last set of targets weren’t reached. For me, brought in as a consultant, my job was the make sure the plans made the right commitments, not whether they were ever carried out. I could go home and tell my donors that, because of me, the government of Country X adopted a plan on Issue Y and promised to reduce Problem Z by 50 percent before 2025. Then, my job was over. No one wanted to pay for someone local to show up every day after that, to make sure these commitments ever become anything more than a wish list.
In the last few years, London cycling campaigners have gotten smarter, and angrier, about this. There was a huge outcry when the stingy Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy was announced, and campaigners felt comfortable, finally, pointing out that the bike lanes on London’s bridges carry more people every day than all the car lanes combined, and it’s about time they got paid like they did.
For decades we’ve been doing it backwards, trying to get the targets first and hoping the funding will follow. Campaigners have finally realized, fuck the targets. Get the cheddar first and then start debating how to spend it.
We like to think of social change as a rolling snowball, that it builds speed and momentum as it goes. And maybe, at some point, it is. But for the decades before that, it’s a child learning to walk. Teetering, spinning, going backwards, falling down.
It’s not clear that this “cycling revolution” in London is going to last. Social change of any kind is fragile. Britain has, understandably, more pressing issues to focus on at the moment. Maybe in 10 years biking will be gone and the new lanes Boris built will be filled with self-driving Razor Scooters or something. Or, maybe London will finally be as safe and fun as Amsterdam to bike in. But at least, finally, campaigners have figured out the right thing to ask for and the right way to ask it. Campaigners for other issues should make sure they’re doing the same thing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here’s a video I made explaining why.
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.
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.
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.