The Forever Victims?

NIM (1)If you’re in the market for some upsetting reading, look no further: I have a new report out, coauthored with Nimmi Gowrinathan, on the human rights situation of Tamil women in northern Sri Lanka.

It documents the effects that 6 years of militarization have had on women’s lives and shows that, perversely, efforts to protect women from sexual violence have undermined their political and economic agency, making them even more vulnerable to victimization.

Readers of this blog will probably be most interested in the fact that the livelihoods approach endorsed by the international community seems to be exacerbating the problem by reinforcing regressive gender roles. It turns out that women who fought on the front lines of combat find it a bit galling to be handed a sewing machine and told to make something pretty. And by sidelining women into traditionally “feminine” activities, these programs not only disempower them, they deprive the Tamil community of their contributions to rebuilding and shaping a way forward.

Check it out: “The Forever Victims? Tamil Women in Post-War Sri Lanka

The Gaddafi Warrant

And… I’m back! Married, honeymooned, de-jet-lagged, etc. And just in time, because Pre-Trial Chamber I of the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant today for Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. It was accompanied by warrants for Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, and brother-in-law, Abdullah al-Senussi. All three are charged with crimes against humanity for the murder and persecution of Libyan nationals between February 15th and 28th, 2011.

The issuance of these warrants reflects the judges’ belief that there are reasonable grounds for concluding that (1) violations rising to the level of crimes against humanity occurred during the crackdown against Libyan civilians, and (2) the three men are criminally responsible for these violations.

A couple of interesting things here:

First, Gaddafi’s responsibility is alleged on the grounds that he has “absolute control over the Libyan State apparatus” and Sennusi’s based on his status as the head of Military Intelligence. Gaddafi’s son, however, is not a member of the Libyan government. The judges note that Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, “although not having an official position, is Muammar Gaddafi’s unspoken successor and the most influential person within his inner circle.” They therefore conclude that he “exercised control over crucial parts of the State apparatus, including finances and logistics and had the powers of a de facto Prime Minister.” This makes good sense, given what we know of Saif’s role in the crackdown. But if the case ever goes to trial, we should expect an exciting battle over the facts necessary to establish his de facto control.

Second, no mention is made in these warrants of the alleged Viagra-fueled mass rapes raised by Prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo last month. The absence of charges in the warrants doesn’t mean mass rape didn’t occur. It may, as the Prosecutor indicated, simply mean that further investigation is needed. However, according to the Christian Science Monitor, Amnesty International researchers attempting to find support for this claim “have found no evidence to back it whatsoever.” Pfizer must be so relieved…

Blogger, Interrupted

Hi Everyone!
Sorry for the long gap since my last post. It’s been an eventful few weeks: I finished my clerkship, went on a vacation (basically my first one in a year, during which I was not hit by a hurricane, yay!), and began my new projects for this year: teaching an international law course at Fordham, and co-founding an online-education startup. It’s been crazy – in a good way – but things are starting to settle into a rhythm now, so hopefully my blogging will also return to its previous sporadic-but-more-frequent-than-this levels.
(If you want to give me a boost, feel free to post links in the comments that you think would be likely to engender post-inducing levels of vitriol on my part.)

Pissed Off By Kristof

Sorry about the light posting lately, folks. My day job is taking up a ton of mental energy these days, as are my attempts to arrange a new day job for when this one ends in September.

I think Nicholas Kristof definitely missed me, because two days ago he dangled this irresistible Amanda-bait on the NY Times Op-Ed page:

There’s an ugly secret of global poverty, one rarely acknowledged by aid groups or U.N. reports. It’s a blunt truth that is politically incorrect, heartbreaking, frustrating and ubiquitous:

It’s that if the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed. Much suffering is caused not only by low incomes, but also by shortsighted private spending decisions by heads of households.

In a pleasing turn of events, Mr. Kristof actually has a legitimate source to cite for this, in addition to his usual anecdotes and photos of Miserable African Children. Well, sort of:

Two M.I.T. economists, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, found that the world’s poor typically spend about 2 percent of their income educating their children, and often larger percentages on alcohol and tobacco: 4 percent in rural Papua New Guinea, 6 percent in Indonesia, 8 percent in Mexico. The indigent also spend significant sums on soft drinks, prostitution and extravagant festivals.

File this one under “things that make you go ‘hmmm.'” For one thing, Duflo & Banerjee say exactly nothing about spending on prostitution in their article, which makes the last line of that paragraph extremely misleading. (They don’t specifically discuss soft drinks, either, but do spend a while discussing sugar and other empty calories, so I suppose I can give him a pass on that.)

And while you’re at it, file it under “RYFSM,” too. (That would be “Read Your Fucking Source Material.”) Kristof seems to have done some awfully targeted reading of the article in question. While it is true that Duflo and Banerjee did find that the poor in many countries spent significant sums on alcohol and tobacco, this is in fact what they had to say about spending on education:

The extremely poor spend very little on education. The expenditure on education generally hovers around 2 percent of household budgets: higher in Pakistan (3 percent), Indonesia (6 percent), and Cote d’Ivoire (6 percent), but much lower in Guatemala (0.1 percent), and South Africa (0.8 percent). […] This low level of expenditure on education is not because the children are out of school. In 12 of the 13 countries in our sample, with the exception of Cote d’Ivoire, at least 50 percent of both boys and girls aged 7 to 12 in extremely poor households are in school. In about half the countries, the proportion enrolled is greater than 75 percent among girls, and more than 80 percent among boys.

The reason education spending is low is that children in poor households typically attend public schools or other schools that do not charge a fee. In countries where poor households spend more on education, it is typically because government schools have fees, as in Indonesia and Cote d’Ivoire. However, mounting evidence, reported below, suggests that public schools in these countries are often dysfunctional, which could explain why even very poor parents in Pakistan are pulling their children out of public schools and spending money to send them to private schools.

So, not so much the “ubiquitous problem” Kristof describes, then: most poor parents are sending their children to school, and the low education expenditure is at least partly a good sign, because it’s the result of free or heavily-subsidized primary education. Kristof is, presumably, in favor of that. Did he stop reading before he got to that paragraph, or what?

Moreover, as xpostfactoid notes, Duflo & Banerjee’s study didn’t include data from the Congo Republic, from whence Kristof draws this week’s Miserable African Child anecdotes. However, if one did want to draw an inference from the article’s findings, and if the schools there do all charge fees, as Kristof claims, then the more reasonable inference to draw would be that spending on primary education there is probably higher than the 2% average, and closer to the 6% observed in Cote D’Ivoire and Indonesia. (Not to mention that, if the schools were charging fees when they were supposed to be free, then they were either (a) corrupt, (b) critically under-resourced, or (c) all of the above. None of which are necessarily a good sign with regard to the quality of education on offer there.)

In fact, far from concluding that an exchange of spending on food for spending on education would “transform” children’s prospects, Duflo & Banerjee are hardly complimentary about the education available to poor children:

The low quality of teaching in public schools has clear effect on learning levels as well. In India, despite the fact that 93.4 percent of children ages 6–14 are enrolled in schools (75 percent of them in government schools), a recent nationwide survey found that 34.9 percent of the children age 7 to 14 cannot read a simple paragraph at second-grade level (Pratham, 2006). Moreover, 41.1 percent cannot do subtraction, and 65.5 percent cannot do division. Even among children in grades six to eight in government schools, 22 percent cannot read a second-grade text.

In countries where the public provision of education and health services is particularly low, private providers have stepped in. In the parts of India where public school teacher absenteeism is the highest, the fraction of rural children attending private schools is also the highest (Chaudhury, Hammer, Kremer, Muralidharan, and Rogers, 2005). However, these private schools are less than ideal: they have lower teacher absenteeism than the public schools in the same village, but their teachers are significantly less qualified in the sense of having a formal teaching degree.

And, in considering why the poor don’t seek out better education for their children:

One reason is that poor parents, who may often be illiterate themselves, may have a hard time recognizing that their children are not learning much. Poor parents in Eastern Uttar Pradesh in India have limited success in predicting whether their school-age children can read (Banerjee et al., 2006). Moreover, how can parents be confident that a private school would offer a better education, given that the teacher there is usually less qualified than the public school teachers? After all, researchers have only discovered this pattern in the last few years. As for putting pressure on the government, it is not clear that the average villager would know how to organize and do so.

Huh. I didn’t see anything in there about “maybe if they spent less on booze and hookers,” did you?

Kristof doesn’t spend much time imagining why people might want to spend money on things like alcohol or tobacco – or cell phone credit, which he mysteriously places in the same category. He clearly assumes that they are luxury items that ought to be cut from the budget. However, I’m not sure that’s reasonable. A cell phone might be a luxury here in New York, where residents have myriad other reliable communications systems to choose from. (USPS, land lines, FedEx, Interwebs…) But without knowing why the people he interviewed spend that much on credit each month, I can’t begin to speculate about whether it should be considered a luxury, a necessity, or somewhere in between. Likewise, while alcohol and tobacco are not the healthiest of products, how can Kristof be sure that a dollar spent on beer is buying the beer, and not some less-tangible good, like the social standing in the community that comes of buying your friends a drink? And that kind of social standing isn’t necessarily a luxury item. Also from the Duflo & Banerjee article:

In principle, social networks can provide informal insurance. For example, Udry (1990) shows that poor villagers in Nigeria experience a dense network of loan exchanges: Over the course of one year, 75 percent of the households had made loans, 65 percent had borrowed money, and 50 percent had been both borrowers and lenders. Almost all of these loans took place between neighbors and relatives. Both the repayment schedule and the amount repaid were affected by both the lender’s and the borrower’s current economic conditions, underlining the role of these informal loans in providing insurance. Munshi and Rosenzweig (2005) argue that the same process happens in India through the jati or subcaste networks.

Gosh, I wonder if access to that sort of informal social insurance is affected by one’s relationships with others in the community. Like, perhaps, how often one socializes with others, possibly in contexts that involve buying the occasional beer or cigarette? Or how fully one participates in important festivals, “extravagant” or otherwise? Yeah, you’re right. Probably not.

And, finally: how is it acceptable to insist that poor people sacrifice the few small pleasures within their reach in order to comply with a random American journalist’s view of what is Really Important? That kind of supercilious morality seems to me to be a particularly judgmental form of cruelty. Color me unimpressed. (Texasinafrica too, apparently.)

Things We Have Surprisingly Little to Say About

Perhaps it’s just the doldrums of Global Atrocity Month, but we’re feeling unusually unopinionated lately. Among the things you might’ve expected us to have something to say about, but that we’re going to allow to pass with little or no comment are:

  • The video for MIA’s “Born Free.” Is it just us, or is this a really weird combination of brutally graphic and boring? It’s like, sure, exploding children, we get why that’s bad, but you couldn’t set it to some more interesting beats?
  • Linda Polman’s new book War Games: the Story of Aid and War in Modern Times. The politics of humanitarian aid are complex and its impact is morally ambiguous, you say? Yawn.
  • Rwanda refusing an entry visa to Human Rights Watch researcher Carina Tertsakian. This is obviously kind of a big deal, so please refer to our less-ennui-stricken fellow blogger Texas in Africa for commentary. (And for the always entertaining/frightening comments her Rwanda posts draw.)

Meanwhile, we’re going to go lie down till our snark levels return to normal.

Reporting Fail?

I know this is way off topic, but all of my human-rights-criticism-capacity is going into writing final papers right now, so all I’ve got left for you is some residual journalist-mocking.

So check out this article and tell me if you are (a) impressed that the author managed to report it without using the word “ironic” or (b) a little worried that she’s not familiar with the concept of irony.

Which is to say: I’m sorry I haven’t been around much lately and I’ll return to full(er)-time blogging in mid-December.

This and That, from Here and There

Sorry for the light posting lately, folks. I’ve been on medical leave the last couple of weeks, (nothing serious, don’t worry), and when I finally clambered out of the haze of pain, sedation, and other more different sedation, I discovered that my internet was out.

I am now the most pitiful sight in New York, a pathetic waif covered in post-op bruising who wanders the streets trying desperately to catch a signal here, a few minutes on a power outlet there…

Okay, not really. I’m in a Starbucks, a block from my apartment. I have an iced coffee, and free wifi. It’s fine. Though the music is getting to me a little. Whoever picked the playlist has chosen a heavy rotation of “lame road-trip tunes that Amanda pretended to like in college but never did because SING, DAMMIT, no one is impressed by your lame indie-boy whispering and we can ALL TELL that you have no vocal talent but demanded to be made band frontman because of (1) ego and (2) your mom will totally pay for the new amp and a van for when we tour.”

Hopefully my battle with Time Warner will be successful, and I’ll be back online quickly. Until then, a few links that hopefully will be blogged more fully soon: