Tag Archives: human rights

Why Is Zambia So Poor?

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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.

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University Rankings are Terrible. Now Can We Stop Doing the Same Thing With Countries?

The release of the US News & World Report college rankings is as good an excuse as any to talk about the sheer ridiculousness of organising complex institutions into rank order and pert decimal scores.

The criticisms of the index itself are nicely summarized in this Atlantic article, but for those that don’t have time for the full Gladwell, they are basically of two kinds:

  1. The ranking is flawed. The methodology constantly changes, schools juke their stats, it’s based on bullshit surveys that only measure the school’s established reputation, etc. The data might be good enough to distinguish Harvard University from  Southern Methodist Tech, but there is too much noise to say that Yale is better than Princeton or that Oregon State is better than Penn State.
  2. Most of the information we use to determine the quality of education isn’t readily measurable. How good are the teachers? Do students get enough personal attention? Is the campus social life welcoming or cliquey? If you list everything that made your college experience positive or negative, you won’t find it in the number tables of these rankings.

A few years ago I was working at a human rights NGO, and one of my jobs was preparing reports for multinational corporations telling them about the human rights situation in countries where they were thinking of operating.  You want to open a shoe factory in Kenya? Here’s what you need to know about gender discrimination, corruption, occupational health and safety. Here’s how you make shoes there without violating human rights.

Sometimes companies would ask us for big packages of countries, 10, 20, 50 at a time.

‘Can’t you just give us a ranking?’ they would ask. ‘Tell us which country is the worst of that list, and we won’t make shoes there.’

Or, they would suggest, better yet, give us an index. If you tell us that Bolivia scores 8.2 out of 10 and  Iran scores 8.3 out of 10, we can make our decision on quantitative data rather than just putting our finger in the air.

‘But that is putting your finger in the air,’ I would tell them. ‘It’s just us doing it instead of you. Bolivia and Iran, their politics, their demographics, their economics, they look nothing like each other. Two numbers isn’t going to make that go away.’

This is one of my beefs with the Failed States Index, the Economic Freedom Index, the Human Development Index, the Corruptions Perceptions Index, the dozens of other indices that purport to rank countries according to some difficult-to-measure variable.

The problem is, countries have all the same problems as colleges. The data out there isn’t strong enough to justify precise determinations, only broad tranches. Yeah, Norway is less corrupt than Angola, but I don’t need an index to tell me that.

But is Norway less corrupt than Denmark? More developed than Switzerland? Given the limited data and even more limited number of indicators these indices use, the answers to those questions are a re-statement of your methodology, not a useful analysis of the conditions in those two countries.

I used to try to tell the companies this, that any attempt to rank countries according to their ability to prevent corporate human rights violations would be like trying to rank kittens according to cuteness. After you separate them into the already-obvious tranches, it’s just a judgement call, preferences disguised as data.   

‘But it would be so much easier for me if you could do that anyway.’ Only one corporate person ever actually said it this directly, but afterward I started hearing it, in subtler ways, from the others.

Eventually I realized that the only reason the companies pushed so hard, why they insisted so strongly on  rankings and scores over information and analysis, was because it made it not their problem anymore. They didn’t have the credentials to pull 50 ‘good’ countries from 100 uncategorised ones, so they used us to push the responsibility away. ‘It’s not me saying Bolivia is an 8.2,’ they could tell their boss. ‘A human rights NGO said it was. Making shoes there is totally approved. 

I don’t know if high schoolers use college rankings to decide where they should get educated. And I don’t know if multinational corporations use country indices to decide where they should make shoes. I just hope that in both cases, they know that most of what they’re seeing is either totally obvious or entirely unsubstantiated.

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Is Coca-Cola as Immoral as Phillip Morris?

At my old job we used to always have arguments about which companies we were comfortable working with. If Halliburton came to us and said they wanted to be better on human rights (and we believed them), would we work with them? What about Lockheed Martin? Or Philip Morris?

What about Pepsi?

Weapon and tobacco companies are probably the only American industries we conceive of as inherently immoral. The products they manufacture and sell are so damaging that it doesn’t matter how just or unjust their operations are. They’re so morally compromised by what they’re making that how they make it is irrelevant.

This is appealing as a principle, but its edges are more blurred than we acknowledge. Once you identify AK-47s and Lucky Strikes as products the world would be better without, you can’t just stop there.

Take soft drinks. Like tobacco, soft drinks deliver short-term pleasure and are hazardous if overconsumed. The soft drinks industry, also like tobacco, has specifically designed their product to encourage overuse (increasing portion sizes), addiction (caffeine) and consumption by youth.

Obesity kills more people than lung disease every year. Companies whose products are basically obesity-in-a-can bear a significant amount of responsibility for this. The line isn’t as direct as that between tobacco and lung cancer, but is that really the only distinction?

In my time in human rights, I did some work with mining companies. Would the world really be that much worse off if every diamond company threw up its hands and said, ‘From now on, the shiny rocks stay in the ground.’ With all the human rights violations linked to diamonds, fuck it, let’s find something else to decorate our fingers and our ears.

But while we’re at it, why stop at diamonds? Other than some industrial purposes, we could probably do without gold, too. All of our handheld electronics use a mineral called coltan, which is basically only minable from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it fuels conflict and feudalism. We can do without that too, right?

OK, so there’s obviously a line between uzis and iPods. I’m not saying that we should start classifying industries into categories of moral acceptability. I just think that it’s more complicated than the products themselves.

If a tobacco company paid all of its workers a living wage and genuinely contributed to agricultural development in its supplier countries, would it be as morally acceptable as Wal-Mart, which has basically done the opposite everywhere it’s operated?

One of the great moral shifts of the last 15 years has been the growing acceptance of the moral implications of our consumer choices. From our Nikes to our oil, we accept that everything we buy is the end of a thread linking companies to governments to workers to suppliers to communities. No one gets to ignore that anymore.

But I don’t think we’ve worked out the full implications of it either. Pull on the It’s what you make thread long enough, and you disqualify every product other than bottled water and baby clothes. Pull on the it’s how you make it thread and you can buy a ballistics missile as long as the factory pays its workers and pays its taxes.

After working on human rights and business for the past five years, I’m no closer to weaving this together into a moral standard than I was when I boycotted Shell in the fifth grade. All I know is that certainty obscures more than it illuminates. And you should probably drink less soda.

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