While the truth comes limping after

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I have this friend who works for the Red Cross.

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She just came back from West Africa, she was there during the Ebola outbreak.

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One of her jobs was disposing of dead bodies.

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Which, in an Ebola outbreak, is about the most dangerous thing you can do.

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She would arrive in a village in a two-layer hazmat suit, dragging a tank full of chlorine.

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People stopped shaking hands with each other in the first weeks of the outbreak. She would greet families whose relative just died by waving, standing two feet away.

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Then she would go into their house, wrap the body of their mother or son or uncle in black plastic and take it away. Then come back to spray down the room with chlorine.

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In most cases, it was already too late for the people living there. The virus was in their bloodstream, there was nothing she could do.

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The chlorine was for the people who came after. She had to disinfect the furniture, the sheets, anything else the dead body might have touched.

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Everyone in the village saw her arrive in her suit, saw her spray the home of the person who died. Noticed the strange smell, the clear liquid, the huge tub she kept in the back of her Land Rover.

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They saw when, three days later, the people who lived in the home that got sprayed fell ill. When they died, someone else from the Red Cross would come, spray again, and more people would get sick.

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After a few weeks, it started to look like causation. Someone dies, then foreigners come and spray this liquid, then someone else gets sick. Feeling became rumor, rumor became news, news became truth.

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She saw a mob kill aid workers, pull them out of their trucks. She saw them throw rocks at politicians and doctors and NGO workers.

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People there thought international pharmaceutical companies were deliberately infecting locals so they could test treatments on them. Given the history of West Africa, this is incredibly unfortunate, but also incredibly understandable.

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When the outbreak was finally over, the president stood at a podium and repeated the rumors. He told crowds that international charities had brought the disease. That they were to blame for the thousands of deaths, the 18 months of chaos.

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“There was so much anger after the outbreak,” my friend told me. “Sooner or later, it would point to him. He had to get in front of it.”

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I know I’ve said this before, but I think growing up in America has left me unprepared to understand the world in a lot of ways. I’ve never lived under an autocrat, never experienced genuine fear of authority, never had to be fearful about what I say or to whom I say it.

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I took these pictures last week in Tajikistan, a real life dictatorship.

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You see pictures of the president everywhere. Criticizing him carries a five-year prison sentence.

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He’s amended the constitution to stay in power forever, he’s changed the election rules so his son can take over when he’s gone.

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About one-quarter of the national museum is dedicated to him. It runs through the country’s decades-long Soviet occupation in just a few pictures, skips its brutal civil war entirely, then spends room after room presenting the president as its salvation

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It’s easy for me to forget that power does not only rest on force, but also on lies.

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When the president took perpetual power, he didn’t say, of course, that that’s what he was doing. He hid behind a title—’Founder of Peace and Harmony: Leader of the Nation’—and a story about leading the nation to glory against big and greedy world powers.

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He gave his people a way to explain away what he was doing. To excuse the power grab as essential, as justified, as normal.

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I heard an interview years ago with the head of Cargill, a huge agricultural conglomerate.

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One thing he said that stuck with me was that when you become a CEO, the first thing you lose is the ability to think out loud.

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As the head of a multi-billion dollar company, your words have consequences. Loose ideas—”Maybe we should look into banning GMOs”; “bringing jobs back from Mexico is an interesting idea”—will spike your stock price, destroy your workers’ morale, remake your suppliers’ operations overnight.

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The CEO said this aspect of the job felt like nakedness, like every thought and word was scrutinized. And he’s right, I guess.

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As someone who’s always lived in the developed world, this is what power looks like to me. It is careful, restrained. It is those long pauses between words and before answers in Obama press conferences.

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When I think about dictatorships, I usually focus on its victims. NGOs ransacked, opposition tortured, citizens running from footsteps in the middle of the night.

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But even the worst dictators only make victims of a fraction of their people. They don’t just need fear, they need stories. They need reasons for everyone else, all the people between the boot and the crown, to shrug away what they see around them.

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When Hitler wiped Czechoslovakia off the map, he made it a story of a German minority in need of his protection.

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When Robert Mugabe liquidated his country’s economy, he told a story of turning back colonialism.

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When Enhver Hoxha sent a third of Albania to the Gulag, the story was the need to prevent political dissent, to continue the country’s unilateral focus on development.

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The scariest thing about these stories is not that they are lies, but that there is a tiny bit of truth to each of them. Dictatorships do not do away with veracity. They do away with proportionality.

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As someone who has never seen this up close, I find it hard sometimes to see the big lie surrounding the small truth. I’ve never been trained in this, never had stakes in knowing how.

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I asked my friend how she stayed the whole 18 months in West Africa. How she survived.

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“We removed all of our emblems,” she said. They stopped wearing uniforms. Took the stickers off the trucks. “And then,” she said, “we got back to work.”

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Walkin’ ’round Sweden, thinkin’ ’bout Hitler

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This is Linköping, Sweden.

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My family lived here from 1985 to 1986.

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See? That’s me. That’s then.

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I was 3, my brother was 5, neither of us really remember it.

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This weekend, 30 years later, I visited.

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I don’t really know why.

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All I remember about it are the things I learned later, stories my parents told me.

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Our blindingly homogenous daycare.

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The moose steaks we bought in bulk and kept in the freezer.

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The months we couldn’t drink milk because Chernobyl happened three countries away.

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They might as well have happened to someone else.

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But, possessed by the mixture of curiosity and narcissism typical of aging Millennials, I asked my mom for our old address, their favorite bakery, the name of that daycare. Then spent Sunday walking around taking pictures, waiting for bells to ring.

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The last few weeks I’ve been reading William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and there’s this episode I can’t get out of my head.

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The event that brought Hitler to national prominence was something called the ‘Beer Hall’ coup.

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At the time, 1923, Bavaria was controlled by three men: The state commissioner, the chief of police and the regional army commander. The way to overthrow the government, Hitler decided, was to convert them to Nazis and use their power to take control of Bavaria.

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So he waited until a political event all three of them were scheduled to attend. A rally in a ‘beer hall’, a pub the size of a concert venue.

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Before they could address the 2,000 or so crowd, Hitler pulled out a pistol, fired it into the air, stormed the stage.

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He pointed it at the crowd and ordered these three men, the most powerful in the state, up onto the platform and, then, into a tiny room in the back.

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He told the audience, we’ve got this place surrounded by armed guards, which was true. And that the rest of Munich had already fallen, which wasn’t. Now he was going into the other room to negotiate with these three politicians about how they would join him to march on Berlin, which was nuts.

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When he entered the room offstage, pistol in hand, all three officials refused to speak. Whether they agreed with him that the Weimar Republic needed overthrowing (and they sort of did), you don’t get political power by waving a gun in someone’s face. They sat, stonefaced, as Hitler unfolded his plan for Nazi revolution.

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Hitler, a man who was good at nothing his whole life other than creating political theater, could see that this wasn’t working. As the audience outside grew restless, he went back to the podium and announced that all three officials had agreed to his plans, and that they would lead the march through Munich. The crowd roared.

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Weirdly, this broke the stalemate. When the three officials heard the crowd’s thundering approval, they agreed to help. They would join Hitler’s movement to take over Bavaria. They would lead the charge to Berlin.

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In the end, of course, it all fell apart. Hitler left them in the beerhall to go deal with stormtrooper admin, giving them enough time to, first, rethink what they had agreed to and, second, go home and get a good night’s sleep.

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By the next day, they had all announced that Hitler was full of shit and that they had only agreed to his plan because of the pistol, not the crowd. Hitler was arrested for treason, imprisoned, released, empowered, et cetera, we all know what happened next and next and next.

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The only thing I remembered walking around Linköping was a story my dad told me, the reason we were there. He’s a periodontist, he got a grant to study whether smoking cigarettes reduces blood flow to the gums.

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In Linköping he found volunteers, gave them cigarettes, put little probes into their mouths to test the effects. He finished the study, published, packed up, moved us back to the U.S.

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Back home, he tried to continue the study with dogs. He gave them gum disease, he mapped their veins and their blood.  

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With humans, the results were clear. With dogs, they were muddled, inconclusive, no effect. He never published, he moved on to other subjects, other methods.

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But first, he had to kill the dogs. He had gotten them from the pound, they were going to be euthanized anyway. But that didn’t make it any easier. One by one, he had to inject them with a poison to stop their hearts. He said he never forgot that, never stopped feeling bad about it, never worked with dogs again. He waited to tell us until we were teenagers.

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Margaret MacMillan has this great book called The Uses and Abuses of History. The past, she says, is never as simple as ‘if this then that’. Hitler was an asshole and a dictator and we should have stood up to him sooner, differently. That does not mean every asshole and every dictator needs up-standing to. Something that worked yesterday might not work tomorrow.

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All we can expect from the past, MacMillan says, is a warning sign. Bridge Slippery When Wet.

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It is raining outside and you are driving and you are approaching this bridge. You see the sign and you know the danger now. You slow down. You take more notice of your surroundings. That’s all history can really offer, she says, Not guidance or rules or certitude. Just warning signs.

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It’s not much, she says, but it starts with remembering.

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I’m on a podcast

The Carnegie Council’s ‘Impact’ podcast interviewed me about my article The Myth of the Ethical Shopper. I told them the same thing I always say:

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!

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How to Promote Legal and Social Change: Lessons from London Cycling Campaigns

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.

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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.

Bike Cartoon

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 to be 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.

Exhibition Road Before-and-After

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.

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Picture by Mark Treasure

 

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.

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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.

Then, nothing.

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.

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Becoming a Journalist, Again

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When I was a kid, six or seven, I was convinced that there were cities on top of the clouds.

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I told all the other kids in the neighborhood, as if I had discovered this rather than made it up.

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“You guys know there’s whole downtowns up there, right?” I told them, looking up on an overcast day.

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“They’re clustered in Washington, DC. If you go there, sometimes you can see them from below.”

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I was the only kid in our neighborhood who had actually been to DC, and so considered an authority.

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The other kids believed me, told me they could see a skyscraper or a radio tower as they craned upwards. I nodded solemnly.

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I like to think that I have outgrown this, the ability to lie without realizing that I am. But I’m not sure I have.

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Two weeks ago, I quit my job in human rights to become a journalist.

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Or to re-become one, I guess.

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Last time I was worked in journalism it was 2003

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and I was a copy editor for msn.com.

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I came in every morning and I looked for spelling errors in stories about Paris Hilton’s nighttimes and broken links in weight loss listicles.

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On the really exciting days, I got to write a headline.

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I left after a year,

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moved to Denmark to do a silly, useless master’s degree,

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got an internship at a human rights NGO,

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then a real job,

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then another job, at another NGO, in another city.

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Before I knew it, human rights was something my European friends were referring to as my “background.”

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I took these photos in Ethiopia last year.

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I was there for a conference, some UN thing.

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To get in, you have to show your passport, get a little visitors badge.

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Waiting in line, a former colleague asked me why I moved to Denmark.

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I told her I was interested in the political system, I wanted to see how the happiest country in the world got that way.

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I have been telling other people, myself, that for years. And maybe it’s true. Or maybe it’s me lying without knowing it.

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Before I moved to Denmark I was living in my hometown, in my parents’ basement, hunting for typos in a cubicle all day.

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Maybe I moved to Denmark because anything—cold weather, high rent, rampant socialism—would have been an improvement.

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When people ask me why I got into human rights, I tell them it’s because I wanted to do something meaningful with my life,

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And I tell myself that it’s to make up for the insane luck that got me born where, when, to whom I did.

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But it’s also because I was living in a college town in Jutland and I wanted to move to Copenhagen for the summer. The internship paid, it would look good on my resumé.

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Today I am starting my new job in journalism because it is what I want to do, all I have ever wanted to do, and the jobs I have had where I do not learn anything or write anything during my days make me feel like I am wasting them.

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That is, for the first time in awhile, a “because” that feels true, that does not change depending on who I tell it to,

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That, finally, does not make me feel like I am describing cities on top of clouds.

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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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‘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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