Category Archives: Work

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.


Filed under Development, Serious, Work

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.


Filed under Serious, Work

The Role of the Media in Development Aid

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

Let’s start with a thought experiment.

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

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

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

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

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

1. Social media is making traditional media obsolete

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

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

2. Traditional media is getting slower

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

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

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

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

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


3. The line between media and NGOs is blurring.

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

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

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


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

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


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



Filed under America, Development, Serious, Work

‘It’s not that development doesn’t work. It’s that it can’t.’


That’s me in an article for The New Republic out today. It’s basically my (unworthy) attempt to write a New York Review of Books essay. I barely interviewed anyone for this, just read and thought and typed.

I know that goal-reaching is boring to read, but the whole process has not gotten any less special for me. Editors who interrogate my drafts like tiger moms, fact-checkers who don’t let me get away with anything, online teams who package me with stock photos and tweet me around the internet, I love being a part of it.

I want to talk about the (scant) reporting I did for this article, toward the end of the process, and how I feel about the final product. The first section of the essay deals with an NGO called Deworm The World, the brainchild of Michael Kremer, a Harvard professor who found that deworming pills improved education outcomes for kids in Kenya way more than free textbooks did.

Since Kremer’s Kenya studies, his idea has caught fire, and both the Kenyan and the Indian government have launched large-scale deworming programs on millions of kids. But, as I found out when I called him and Evidence Action, the NGO that has taken up his work, they’re no longer measuring whether deworming improves school performance. They’re administering deworming tablets to 17 million kids in India without testing whether they’re actually having an effect on the kids, rather than just the worms.

This was the first time in my little pretend-journalist experiment where I had to call someone up and tell them, to their face, that I disagreed with what they were doing, that I would be saying this in print, in front of the whole country.

And part of me feels bad about what I wrote. Kremer is a brilliant guy, and was way friendlier than I deserved when I called him up and told him all this. Evidence Action is part of a movement to bring scientific rigor to development aid, something I wholeheartedly support, even if I disagree with the specifics of the way they’ve upscaled.

The internet is not a good place to make a narrow point. We don’t have small disagreements or different preferences, we go on ‘tirades‘, we ‘slam‘ each other.

The truth is more complicated—and much less interesting. If you listed all of the things that I believe and all the things Kremer does, 99 percent of them would line up. Describe to me every project that Evidence Action is doing around the world and I would probably throw dollars at the vast majority of them. I’m not saying that he’s a fraud, or that the charity is bullshit, or that we, the world, should abandon deworming as a development approach.

My point, like I guess everything once you strip the headlines and the retweets away, is pretty small: I do not believe the evidence for deworming rises to the level where its effects on education should no longer be measured. That’s it, that’s the whole argument. He has evidence for his side, I have evidence for mine. Maybe I’m wrong and maybe he is, we both agree that more testing should be done. Even if his project fails, if deworming has no effect on education whatsoever, Kremer and Evidence Action are responsible for treating worm infections in 17 million Indian children. That’s more than I’ve ever done with my life, and that achievement shouldn’t be discarded just because the TED Talkiness of their impacts is more complicated than they originally presented them.

We shouldn’t let them off the hook either, though. There’s an understandable human impulse to rush to rules from particulars, and we’re allowed to criticise people who make this sprint without the proper self-scepticism. But we also need to keep our own scale in mind, keep our criticism from spilling out from action onto character.

Anyway, this is all just a long and tortured way of saying, let’s all be nice to each other! I hope readers will forgive my tirades, and I, for my part, promise to forgive those who tirade against me.


photo by the wonderful Guy Billout


Filed under America, Essays, Personal, Serious, Work

Doing Development in Dhaka

There’s this Bjork song, ‘Pluto’,
Where she sings ‘I’ll be brand new. Brand new tomorrow’.
I listened to this song a lot last week, jogging through Dhaka in the early mornings.
Six am, before the horns and the smells and the stares.
I always go jogging when I travel for work.
Headphones on, faster than the walkers, slower than the drivers, I feel invisible, apart, a non-participant.
There’s this book on systems theory, ‘At Home in the Universe’.
Where it says that any complex structure—an ecosystem, an economy, all the cells in a living body—are more than the sum of their parts.
No matter how much you know about the laws governing each component, you can never predict how they’ll react if one of them changes.
Like, we all know how the post office works.
And that if all the post offices in the country closed forever, we wouldn’t get our mail.
But, says systems theory, a million other unforseeable things would happen too. Maybe would start collecting our letters when they bring us books. Maybe we would get rid of paper altogether.
What would happen to all the post office workers, the factories that make those little carts they carry around, all the stamp collectors?
Like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings, maybe we would look back 10 years later from the carbonized remains of our downtowns and say ‘it all started the day those fucking post offices closed.’
Or maybe something great would happen. Or maybe nothing.
The point is, no matter how well you understand any one of the parts, the relationships between them are too complex to predict. When you hold something up to the light, you dim everything else.
I’m in Bangladesh to do a project on the garment factories.
Everyone I meet here tells me they are sick of foreigners coming and asking them about Rana Plaza. We are more than our disasters, they say.
I agree and then I apologize and then I ask them about Rana Plaza.
This is what I am here to do. This is my place in the system.
Just days after the accident, they say, the delegations started coming.
Senators, MPs, CEOs. They tour factories, they express into microphones their melancholy and their concern..
I am part of the second wave. I am here to fix it. I am here to pull this part of the economy away from all the others and make it better and then put it back.
One of my colleagues does factory audits here and everywhere and I ask him about what he sees, whether things have gotten better.
Whenever you raise standards, he says, some companies will become sophisticated to reach them and others will become sophisticated to avoid them.
That is how it works, he says, we are here to stack rocks in the riverbed. Where the water goes after that…
And I think about this as I am jogging and I do not feel invisible.
Maybe he’s right. Maybe calling something complex is just an excuse to ignore it.
Maybe people who do good, real good, know the limits of their powers and apply them anyway.
Maybe they look  at Bangladesh, a country trying to hard to make itself a nicer place to live.
And they learn to listen to the part of it that tells them, I’ll be brand new.
Brand new tomorrow.


Filed under Personal, Pictures, Serious, Travel, Work

How to Write About Tax Havens

Cold Morning in a suburb of Torino, 1955 by Riccardo Moncalvo

I interviewed my buddy Nic Shaxson for Longreads. Here’s a clip:

Last year Shaxson published a Vanity Fair article, ‘A Tale of Two Londons,’ that described the residents of one of London’s most exclusive addresses—One Hyde Park—and the accounting acrobatics they had performed to get there. 

Here’s how it works: If you’re a Russian oil billionaire or a Nigerian bureaucro-baron and you want to hide some of your money from national taxes and local scrutiny, London real estate is a great place to stash it. All you need to do is establish a holding company, park it offshore and get a-buying. Here’s Shaxson:

These buyers use offshore companies for three big and related reasons: tax, secrecy, and “asset protection.” A property owned outright becomes subject to various British taxes, particularly capital-gains and taxes on transfers of ownership. But properties held through offshore companies can often avoid these taxes. According to London lawyers, the big reason for using these structures has been to avoid inheritance taxes. […]

But secrecy, for many, is at least as important: once a foreign investor has avoided British taxes, then offshore secrecy gives him the opportunity to avoid scrutiny from his own country’s tax—or criminal—authorities too. Others use offshore structures for “asset protection”—frequently, to avoid angry creditors. That seems to be the case with a company called Postlake Ltd.—registered on the Isle of Man—which owns a $5.6 million apartment on the fourth floor [of One Hyde Park].

Shaxson argues that this phenomenon has taken over the U.K. real estate market—extortionate penthouses for the ultrarich sitting empty while the rest of us outbid each other for the froth below.

Now go read the whole thing!


Filed under Journalism, London, Personal, Serious, United Kingdom, Work

Zimbabwe Dollarized. How Does the U.S. Feel About That?

The rainbow of 20s you get from the ATM in Harare

Here’s a section that got cut from my New Republic story about the use of the US dollar in Zimbabwe

Wait, so a country can just adopt the United States’s currency without our permission?

“The U.S. government has never taken any overt position on dollarization, formal or informal.” This is Benjamin Cohen, a political economy processor at the University of California Santa Barbara, former Fed employee and the author of some articles I’ve been reading to try to understand how one country just gets up one morning and starts using another country’s money.

Ninety percent of the world’s $100 bills, Dr. Cohen says, are in circulation outside of the United States. Dozens of countries are considered  to be “highly dollarized,” meaning more than 30 percent of their money supply is in dollars.

Unlike Zimbabwe, which has formally adopted the dollar, most countries use the U.S. dollar informally, in parallel with the local currency. A few years ago I was in Cambodia for work, and found that the local currency, the riel, was only used for small stuff like meals, transport and entertainment. Anything major—a TV, a plane ticket, an iPhone—prices were quoted and paid in U.S. dollars.

It’s not just Cambodia. These sorts of arrangements are commonplace throughout the Middle East, Latin America and Southeast Asia. People use the local currency, but keep U.S. dollars as a hedge against inflation, like Tea Partiers hoarding gold.

According to Cohen, the United States has no reason to prevent these arrangements. Not only does the U.S. dollar provide a quarry of monetary calm for citizens of inflating nations, the U.S. actually makes money every time our money leaves our borders. “Seniorage,” as the economists call it, is the profit the U.S. earns every time a foreigner ‘buys’ a dollar for a dollar (It costs 6 cents to print a $1 bill. If you print one, then use it to buy something that costs a dollar, you’ve just earned 94 cents profit. That’s seniorage.).

This sounds like it shouldn’t be a real thing, but the US earns $20 billion per year from all those $100 bills held internationally. Not a huge proportion of GDP, but hey, free money, right?

The other upsides are obvious. Every time another country uses our currency, it reinforces the U.S. dollar as world’s preferred international currency, just like every time someone drinks a Coke or eats a Big Mac it reinforces the status of those brands.

Foreign countries using our currency even gives us diplomatic power. Panama, one of the first countries to formally adopt the U.S. dollar, froze in its tracks when the U.S. cut off access to hard currency in the late 1980s to put pressure on Noriega.

The only real downside of foreign countries dollarizing, for the U.S. at least, is that it creates a headache for the Fed. The more countries dollarize, the more the Fed has to take them into account when making monetary policy. A million calculations go into the decision to raise or lower interest rates, and the last thing the Fed needs is to add the interests of Cambodian iPod salesmen into the mix.

One of the more significant downsides is if a dollarized country suddenly reintroduced their domestic currency, it might flood the market with millions of now-unneeded U.S. dollars, reducing the value of all of them. It doesn’t even have to be a whole country. If the dollar was used widely enough, huge purchases of dollars by foreigners could significantly affect its value.

This is why, Cohen says, the U.S. takes a policy of “benign neglect” toward foreign countries that want to formally or informally dollarize. You want to buy a bunch of dollars and give them to your citizens in exchange for your old currency? Fine. You want to encourage your banks to offer accounts denominated in U.S. dollars? Have a blast. The U.S. isn’t going to be particularly helpful in helping you set this up, but they’re not going to stop you either.

Ten countries (East Timor, Ecuador, El Salvador, Panama and a bunch of small island nations) are formally dollarized, meaning the U.S. dollar is their official currency (most of them have their own coins though).

Zimbabwe is formally dollarized in that all government spending is in U.S. dollars, but it also recognizes the euro, the British pound, the Botswanan pula and the South African rand (why the Mozambican metical got left out, I have no idea). Stores accept payment in whatever currency you have handy, and sometimes give you change in a different currency than you paid.

One of the things that always surprised me about Zimbabwe was how it just switched to U.S. dollars one day, without any relationship to the U.S. Federal Reserve. It was even under sanctions at the time. Can it just do that?

“It’s totally normal to switch to the U.S. dollar without any relationship to the Fed,” Cohen says. “It doesn’t require an application. Anyone can buy paper money, and anyone can get a dollar bank account. Their own country may restrict those things, but the U.S. doesn’t.”

When Ecuador officially adopted the U.S. dollar in 2000, it carried out a mass currency conversion. The central bank sold their U.S. treasury bonds to the U.S. for cash, brought the cash back to Ecuador and gave Ecuadoreans a window in which to exchange their sucres for U.S. dollars. The U.S. didn’t orchestrate, nor condemn, this process.

Like an introduced species, the U.S. dollar tends to take over an increasingly large percentage of the economy. The only country Cohen knows of that has de-dollarized is Israel, which introduced the U.S. dollar in the late 1970s as a parallel currency, and only managed to get rid of it after a series of economic reforms reinstated confidence in the shekel. Lots of informally dollarized countries, like Argentina, go through waves of increasing, then decreasing dollarization in line with citizens’ confidence in the local currency.

I have no idea what any of this means for Zimbabwe. As I say in the New Republic story, bringing back the Zimbabwe dollar is seen by economists (including the head of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe) as a bad idea, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

Dr. Cohen’s written a bunch of interesting, easy to read articles on dollarization from the US perspective

 Thanks for the interview!


Filed under Random, Serious, Travel, Work

Zimbabwe: The Director’s Cut

I have an essay in The New Republic about my trip to Zimbabwe last year, and my weird obsession with how expensive everything was there.

One of the things they tell nonfiction writers is ’employ holy shit details’, and in Zimbabwe there is almost no other kind. A lot of insane statistics ended up in the piece, but even more ended up on the cutting room floor. Here are some of them:

  • In 2003, Zimbabwe was out of foreign reserves to import paper and ink to print more money, and had to switch to ‘bearer checks’, thin pieces of paper in increasingly outlandish denominations. Banks limited withdrawals, and anti-riot police had to be dispatched to prevent bank run.
  • Fleeing the cratering economy, Zimbabweans almost singlehandedly raised retail sales in South Africa by 10 percent between 2006 and 2007. Emigrants in South Africa paid bus drivers 20 percent commission  to take envelopes of cash, sacks of groceries, back home.
  • In 2007 a government order required shops to reduce the prices on basic goods by 50 percent. Instead of stabilizing the economy, it simply reversed the direction of the arbitrage. People bought milk in Mutare for 33,000 Zimbabwe dollars, drove it across the border to Mozambique and sold it for the equivalent of 350,000 Zimbabwe dollars.
  • All this time, the government maintained an ‘official’ exchange rate that was orders of magnitude lower than the black market rate. If you wanted to do anything legally—import goods, change money at the banks—you had to use the government rates. ‘I know a guy who worked at a luxury car dealership,’ my friend Colin told me. ‘These generals would come in and say “I’ll buy this car” and he would have to give it to them for the official exchange rate. He was selling cars for $8, $9.’
  • Between 2006 and 2009, the government slashed 25  zeroes off the currency. I ask Zimbabweans the prices they last remember at the supermarket and they tell me that a loaf of bread was 22 billion dollars. Which doesn’t actually matter, because you had to be connected to secure one anyway.
  • Bank teller wages rose with inflation, and they were partly paid in fuel coupons.  They could also ‘burn money’—buy US dollars at the official exchange rate, then sell them at the black market rates. Bank employees were flying to Dubai, buying electronics and coming back to Zimbabwe to sell them on.
  • These days, Zimbabwean banks are the opposite of too big to fail, they’re too small to succeed. As of January 2013, the entire banking sector held just $3.8 billion  in assets, more than half of which were short-term deposits. While the banks are lending out more than they used to, the loans are riskier, since no one has quite figured out how to run a business profitably here. In March 2010, 2 percent of bank loans didn’t get paid back. By December 2012, it was 14 percent .
  •  A 2013 survey of 150 store owners in a suburb of Harare found that 47 percent of them were using their own savings to raise capital and 13 percent were using their relatives and friends. Only 3 percent were using the banking system.
  • What Zimbabwe has gone through in the last 14 years is maybe the greatest loss of productive capacity and personal wealth in modern history. Per capita GDP fell from $644 in 1990 to $376 in 2011. South Africa’s GDP was 17 times larger than Zimbabwe’s in 1996. It was 58 times larger in 2012.
  • Almost 70 percent of Zimbabwe’s government budget goes to government salaries alone.
  • In 2009 Zimbabwe still had the highest 15-24-year-old literacy rates in Africa, but the aftershocks of the crisis are set to drag that down. As of 2012, only 67 percent of kids finished school, and only 50 percent made it from primary to secondary school.
  • The Zimbabwe stock exchange fell 20 percent after Mugabe’s victory was announced , and some estimates say $800 million in investment has left the country since then.

If you want to get a more full view of what Zimbabwe went through during hyperinflation and the challenges it faces now, here’s some publications that give a fuller picture than I was able to, written by people who know more about economics, about Zimbabwe, than me.

  • Here’s the Consultancy Africa Intelligence report, written by Tapiwa Mhute, who I spoke to a few times, on the causes and consequences of Zimbabwe’s dollarization.
  • Here’s a terrific overview of the path to hyperinflation written, rather randomly, by a graduate student in Japan.
  • Here’s a pretty devastating World Bank report on the problems with Zimbabwe’s infrastructure.
  • Here’s the report on remittance strategies by families in one neighborhood in Harare.
  • Here’s an anthology of articles about the hyperinflation. ‘Negotiating the Zimbabwe–Mozambique Border’ is a complete fucking stunner
  • The debate about what ‘really’ saved the Zimbabwean economy is ongoing and, like everything else in Zimbabwe, is totally politicised. Here’s an overview of some of the arguments.
  • Here’s an African Development Bank report from 2009, telling Zimbabwe how to fix the crisis. Most of it’s boring technocratic stuff but, like most of these reports, the ‘context’ section gives a great overview of the challenges.
  • Here’s the same sort of thing from the IMF and from the World Bank four years later, in 2013. They’re basically giving the same overview I am, only with less Grindr.
  • Here’s a Cato Institute (I know, I know) report from 2013: Why Is One of the World’s Least-Free Economies Growing So Fast?
  • Here’s Tapiwa Chagonda’s fascinating survey of bank tellers and teachers during hyperinflation.
  • Here’s Beyond the Enclave, Godfrey Kanyenze’s searing account of the political factors behind hyperinflation and dollarization.
  • And here’s Vince Musewe’s angry, moving columns for The Zimbabwean, giving a more up to date picture of the conditions in Zimbabwe

I mostly worked on the piece in August and September, and I’m sure more reports and statistics have come out since then, so apologies if anything in the story is outdated.

I’m not a journalist, I’m a human rights guy. One thing I’ve realized over the last 18 months, as I’ve spent more and more of my weekday mornings and Sunday nights working on these little longforms, is how dependent journalists are on the generosity and patience of their sources. For this story, I basically cold-called a dozen or so Zimbabwean economists, told them I didn’t know anything about their country or their field and asked if they could, slowly and monosyllabically, walk me through everything they knew.

Amazingly, all of them obliged, and they were super patient with all of my follow ups and hang-on-explain-that-agains. Colin and Lovemore took a risk telling a foreigner about their economic tribulations the last five years, and trusted that I would represent them honestly and wouldn’t publish any details that identified them. Everyone I interviewed, I have nothing to offer them for their time and their trust except my sincere gratitude—and my crushing anxiety that I may have misunderstood or misrepresented them.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be good at this whole journalism thing, or feel like I have the right to be doing it. I tried really hard to fact-check this story, to avoid giving the impression that my experience was definitive. I arrived in Zimbabwe as an outsider, a tourist. No matter how many people I met, no matter how many reports I read or statistics I double-checked, I departed as one. There is a lot of complicated information out there about Zimbabwe, a lot of conflicting narratives. Mine is just one of them.


Filed under Essays, Journalism, Personal, Serious, Work

What Happens When One of Your Coworkers Dies

Originally posted on The Billfold


The first thing that happens is someone tells you.

It’s Tuesday, it’s February, it’s my first day back at work after a week on vacation. I notice the candle in the foyer just as the whoosh of the door blows it out. They never did that for my birthday, I think as I walk past reception.

This is my job. It’s a publisher, we make coffee table books about movies, architecture, political issues that lend themselves to stock photography. Most of us think of ourselves as writers, though that is not really what we do anymore.

Dominic is the one who tells me. He and Naomi are here already, sitting at opposite desks, leaning in like they’re playing Battleship. Dominic bikes here from some distant suburb I’ve never heard of, then showers and changes into the same thing every day: pressed white shirt, pastel v-neck, khakis, loafers. I’ve never been here early enough to see what he’s wearing when he arrives.

“Hey there Mike,” he says. His Dutch accent sharpens the th’s into d’s. Hey der. He turns off his monitor and swivels toward me.

Naomi looks up, holding a mug dangling two teabag strings. She moved here three months ago from Australia, she still has that new-hire enthusiasm, the “let’s make great books!” gusto we’re all waiting to wear off.

“Well hello, Mike!” she says as I de-layer at my desk—hat, scarf, gloves—and turn my computer on.

She’s about to say something else, but Dominic gives a little traffic-cop hand wave and she stops.

“Mike don’t open your e-mails,” he says.

That’s when I notice that our office has a candle in it too.

“You need to know,” he says, trails off, starts again, “that Colin has passed away.”

“Colin in marketing?”


Colin Schwartz. The guy at the back of the external-relations office, a sliver between two big iMac screens.

“Oh fuck,” I say. “How?”

Last Monday, Dominic says, Colin didn’t show up to work and didn’t call or e-mail to explain where he was. On Tuesday his boss told HR. On Thursday the office manager went to his apartment to see if he was home. No one answered her knock. She called the police. They forced open the door and found his body.

“Oh fuck,” I say again. “Was it like a heart attack or something?”

“Well, as you may know, Colin was depressed,” Dominic says. “He had some emotional problems. So it looks like…”

“Oh fuck,” I say. “Are you saying he killed himself?”

“Nothing’s clear right now.”

“They had a meeting yesterday and the MD told us,” Naomi says. “Everyone in marketing went home.”

I stare at my keyboard for a second, type in my password, open Outlook. There’s the official announcement from our president, the meeting cancellations, the invite from comms to record memories of Colin.

“OK Mike,” Dominic says, and swivels back to his desk.

“So, um,” Naomi says, “how was your vacation?”

The next thing that happens is we are terrible.

“I don’t want to say I saw it coming or anything, but it’s not exactly out of the blue,” says Bill, who runs our Twitter feed.

The roof of our building is the size of a soccer field, but we’re bunched together by the door, hoods up, facing away from the wind. Bill is the only one smoking out here, the rest of us are just listening.

“They were working him too hard,” says Will, one of the copy editors. “Marketing’s way understaffed.”

I barely knew Colin. He sat two offices down from me, but we never worked on anything together, never laid eyes on each other after 5 p.m. Our relationship consisted, in its entirety, of work-related small talk in the break room, his lunch rotating behind us in the microwave. Ding, stir, have a good rest of your day.

After Dominic told me, I spent an hour thinking things like, Was it something I did? Could I have reached out to him? Then I spent at least twice that long thinking, Of course not, asshole.

“I was on a conference call with Colin two weeks ago. He stopped talking in the middle of a sentence and just started breathing really loud,” Bill says.

I’ve been having conversations like this all over the building. It’s Wednesday, it’s right after lunch, it’s been two days since they announced Colin died. And this is how we’ve spent it: Bunched up in corners, whispering things to see if they are true.

Sarah from finance wonders if Colin’s death has anything to do with the department restructuring. Mark in HR heard Colin didn’t take a vacation for the last two years. Tina from photos heard Colin moved here to study at the London School of Economics, but dropped out.

None of these people knew Colin any better than I did. We’re just magnifying what we know, zooming in on the crumbs as if it will reveal where they lead.

“You know they changed his job title without consulting him.” Bill says, and the rest of us nod solemnly.

I wish I could say I was the grown-up here, the one who pointed out that none of us really knew Colin, that his death was none of our business, that we should all get back to work. But I wasn’t.

“He was gay,” I say. I only found this out yesterday, when Dominic mentioned Colin’s boyfriend had been notified. “Do you think that has anything to do with it?”

“The weird thing is, Colin never struck me as the unhappiest person here,” says Jessica, the receptionist. “I would have put Colin way down the list. Like, look at Chris in Online. That guy puts in earbuds when he walks to the bathroom.”

“I saw Lucy talking to the external relations director yesterday,” Will says. “I think she’s applying for his job.”

“Oh shit I hope it’s not her,” Bill says. “Remember that presentation she gave at the annual meeting last year?” I smirk along with everyone else. Bill lights another cigarette, giving us all permission to stay out here at least five more minutes.

The next thing that happens is we mourn.

It’s Thursday, it’s 10 a.m., it’s our weekly staff meeting. Colin’s picture is projected on the wall. The senior management team is sitting in suits at the big conference table, each with their own box of tissues.

I’m leaning against the wall. There’s only room in here for about 50 chairs, most of us are standing. Naomi is in sitting down next to me, she’s already crying.

The managing director starts talking, the only voice in the room. He tells us how this is going to work. For the last two days, comms has been recording employees talking about Colin, how they want to remember him. Today we’re going to watch the video.

“The speculation has to stop,” he says. “Colin died of natural causes.”

He nods over to the comms director, who hits play. The video begins with Colin’s work—excerpts of promos he made, books he launched, conference presentations he gave—then the rest is testimonials from his colleagues. They’re edited together in reverse hierarchical order.

Interns, then assistants, then peers, describe working with Colin. The time they bumped into him at the printer, the time his soup exploded in the microwave, the time they sat together on a bus from the airport to a conference, each with their headphones on.

Story after story, they’re all like this, proximity aspiring to intimacy, and it’s clear that no one here knew him, not the people in his department, not his managers, not the people he had lunch with and traveled with. They talk about his cluttered desk, his e-mail forwards, his cocktails at the Christmas party. They try to pull a person out of the time he spent here and they can’t.

“I always said hi to Colin when I passed him in the hall,” says someone on the video.

Naomi stops crying. She makes a little sound like she’s surprised, like she’s discovered the exact borders of her compassion. She takes a shallow breath, puts her purse on her lap, starts looking through it for tissues.

Colin’s boss is on vacation this week. He recorded a message by webcam. He’s lying on his side on a hotel bed. He talks about the clarity of Colin’s press releases as palm trees shudder in the wind behind him.

“I wish I had gotten to know him better,” he says. “He seemed nice.”

That comment, those three words, and I jerk my head away from the screen. I look out the window and there is a huge piece of bird shit on the windowsill. People on the screen keep talking, managers and directors now, but their memories of him are all the same hellos and bump-intos and chit-chats, and I realize this is it, this is what he left behind, his lunch and his e-mails and the clever thing he wrote on his boss’s birthday card. I close my eyes and the video goes on and on and then I open them and everyone around me is crying.

The last clip is the MD, chest heaving. He’s telling the camera, us, how Colin prepped him for his first TV interview.

“Don’t gesture so much,” Colin told him, “Gesturing looks awkward on TV. Emphasize with your words, not your hands.”

The MD did his interview, a whole hour, with his hands in his lap, as instructed. And afterwards he asked Colin, “how did I do?” and Colin said “You were like a statue up there! Why didn’t you use your hands?!”

And we all laugh, and the camera stays pointed at the MD, and his smile fades, his eyes go wet, he lets out a sob and the camera turns off and the screen shows Colin’s picture again.

The next thing that happens is it makes us close.

After the staff meeting, we shut the door to our office and Naomi asks me if I knew anyone else who died. I tell her about my godmother who got brain cancer when I was 12.

“Did you know her well?” she asks.

“In whatever way kids know adults, I guess. We spent a lot of time together when I was little. I mostly remember her mac and cheese.”

Then I ask Naomi and she tells me about the principal of her Catholic school who died in a car accident when she was seven. It was her first funeral, and she raised his hand in the middle of the eulogy to ask a question. As she’s telling it she lets herself smile a little, and I realize I never knew she went to Catholic school.

It’s like this the rest of the week. Maybe it’s because the MD asked us to stop speculating, or maybe everyone else saw the video like I did, felt the same urgency to populate this place, but we stop talking about Colin and we start talking about us.

On the roof, Bill tells me that his parents died when he was 22. He had just finished his first triathlon, and was so tired he fell asleep on the note his roommate had left on his bed. He woke up, pulled it out from under the covers and read it, still in his little running shorts.

In the break room, Jessica is hanging up a picture of Colin. She tells me that when she was 10 years old she accidentally took a big handful of children’s Tylenol because it was flavored and she thought it was candy.

“For years, my parents thought it was a suicide attempt,” she says, yanking out a strip of scotch tape.

On Friday Dominic and I walk to the train station together and he tells me about the cat he buried in his backyard when he was seven.

“I dug him up two years ago,’ he says, “and he was just a box of bones.’ He makes two fists, huge in his mittens, to show me his size.

The next thing that happens is it’s all over.

Monday morning, in the corridor past reception, I walk past marketing and hear someone say. “Did you see Jessica crying at the staff meeting? She barely even knew him.”

Dominic is already here, and I wonder if his khakis, his pianist posture, are the things I would say about him if he died.

“Did Naomi send the invite last week for the meeting with research?” he says.

“I don’t think so,” I say. “With everything happening last week, she must have forgotten.”

“Well if people are going to be here,” he says, “they might as well be working.”

It’s not that we forget, it’s just that we’re done remembering together. As the memorial fades from memory, as the tasks pile up and dwindle, as we all settle back into our boxes on the org chart, our dead colleague becomes just another thing we think about but don’t say.

The last time we talk about Colin at work is in a budget meeting. It’s March, it’s six weeks since Colin died, it’s me and Dominic in a conference room with Marketing, getting an overview of our spending before the quarterly board meeting.

“What’s this 40,000 that appeared in the budget in February?” Dominic asks.

“That’s Colin,” says Bill. Dead people don’t get salaries, so Colin’s appears as a surplus.

“OK,” Dominic says. “And why has this travel spending figure been adjusted?”

And that’s it, we just move through the rest of the budget. I think about looking up, making eye contact across the table, sharing an acknowledgement of the moment that just passed. Instead, I just keep my eyes on the Excel sheet, keep following the numbers with my pencil.

The last thing that happens is Naomi quits.

“I’m going back to my old job in Adelaide,” she says. It’s April, it’s Friday, it’s two months since Colin died. We’re sitting on the stoop of a church near work, holding paper coffee cups with two hands, watching rain drip from the awning.

“Why?” I ask.

“Do you remember Colin?” she says.

I tell her I barely knew him.

“Neither did I,” she says. “But do you remember the week after he died?”

We talk about the memorial, everyone crying, how we were with each other afterwards, how we’re not anymore.

“I keep making these pledges to get to know people here,” she says, “and then in the very next second I know that I’m not going to, that it’s too hard. At least back in Australia I have family waiting for me at the end of the day.”

I feel like we should hug now but we don’t. I stand up, take the empty coffee cup out of Naomi’s hand, throw it in the trash.

It’s later, it’s after Naomi left, it’s me and Dominic in the break room, his lunch rotating in the microwave. He’s looking at the picture of Colin posted on the wall.

“It’s too close to the microwave,” he says. “The steam is going to make it come down.”

As if agreeing, the microwave dings.

“Here,” he says.

He leans in, grabs it from the wall, moves it higher, sticks it back to the wall. “That’s better.”

He grabs his soup from the microwave, stirs it.

“OK Mike,” he says. “Have a good rest of your day.”


Filed under Essays, London, Personal, Work

Why Is Zambia So Poor?

IMG_1678 - Version 3

I have a piece in Pacific Standard Magazine (well, the website, not like the magazine-magazine) about my trip to Zambia:

Like Tolstoy’s unhappy family, every poor country is poor in its own way, and everyone I meet has a narrative, a creation myth, for how it got this way and why it remains so.

I will spend the next 10 days meeting NGO activists, government officials, and business representatives. They will tell me that Zambia is terrible, that Zambia is fine, and that Zambia is getting better, respectively.

I’m not here to determine which of those statements is true. I’m here for the numbers, the information I can’t get back home. Somewhere between the handshakes, the spreadsheets, the PowerPoints, the annual reports, a story will emerge about Zambia, a story of a country watching its mineral wealth disappear, a country making everyone rich but itself.

I can tell we’re getting close to Kitwe because the number of people crossing the highway increases. The highway has no streetlights, the only light is from the cars, and about halfway there we start to see silhouettes of people in twos and threes running across the road. Our driver never slows down, even as the groups increase to six, seven people, crossing our headlights, stopping in the road to let a car whiz by, running again. I could ask him to slow down, but instead I just look.

There are people there who know a lot more about Zambia’s poverty than I do. If you’re interested in making a donation to any of the organisations I profile in the essay, get in touch and I’ll give you their info.


Filed under Essays, Personal, Travel, Work