World Happiness Report: Finland Tops the List Again, Most Countries Resilient Thru COVID-19

The ninth annual World Happiness Report, published by the United Nations, has just been released, and it’s the first to follow an unprecedented global calamity that impacted billions and personally affected tens of millions more. So, needless to say, its results should be interesting, if not grim.

But as the Washington Post reported, the world was largely resilient through the pandemic, maintaining a relatively positive outlook for the future:

In a conclusion that even surprised its editors, the 2021 World Happiness Report found that, amid global hardship, self-reported life satisfaction across 95 countries on average remained steady in 2020 from the previous year. The United States saw the same trend — despite societal tumult that yielded a national drop in positive emotions and a rise in negative ones. The country fell one spot, to 19th, in the annual rankings of the report, which was released Saturday.

The report is good news regarding global resilience, experts say.

“I don’t want to leave an impression that all was well, because it’s not,” said one of the report’s editors, Jeffrey Sachs, an economics professor at Columbia University. But while the use of national averages masks individual well-being disparities, Sachs said, the data suggests that “people have not thrown up their hands about their lives.”

You can read more about the methodology here, but basically, it draws its data from the Gallup World Poll, which asks people worldwide to rate their current life satisfaction from zero to ten, with ten representing “the best possible life” and zero the “worst possible life”. Respondents are also asked to report their positive and negative emotions and experiences felt the day before the survey.

Taking together both short-term and long-term self-evaluations of life satisfaction, the WHR found these to be the twenty happiest countries through 2020:

The next twenty runners up are a pretty eclectic mix as well, spanning an ever broader variety of cultures, political systems, and levels of economic development:

Overall, while there was a “significantly higher frequency of negative emotions” in just over a third of the 149 countries measuredagain, do mostly to the pandemic things got better for 22 countries, particularly in Asia; even China moved up ten places to 84th. As one of the report’s author’s noted, there was not an overall decline in well-being as expressed by the respondents.

For the U.S., which has been one of the harder-hit countries during the pandemic, to say nothing of its tumultuous social and political circumstances?

In late March to early April of 2020, at the beginning of pandemic restrictions, 58.2 percent of U.S. respondents rated their current life satisfaction as a 7 or above, Gallup found.

While the number of Americans reporting anxiety and depressive symptoms rose sharply over the course of 2020, that satisfaction number stayed fairly even through December, according to the report, even after further covid-19 restrictions, pandemic surges, protests over racial injustices and politics, and a divisive presidential election.

All the while, Americans’ expected future happiness remained high: In five surveys since the pandemic began, between 65.8 and 69.2 percent of respondents said they expected their life satisfaction to be an 8 or above five years into the future, higher than before the pandemic. That suggests an optimism for the future that Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California at Riverside, says is “really, really adaptive.”

Counterintuitively, it may have been the awful hardship of the past year that actually gave a boost to a lot of folks’ happiness:

It’s not so much that people are doing precisely as well as they were before, experts explain, as that many have adapted to their new situations in ways that might have roughly evened out their well-being. “One of the quotes we use is ‘You aren’t traveling the world, but you’re more likely to have met your neighbors this year,’ ” said John Helliwell, another editor of the report and a professor emeritus of economics at the University of British Columbia.

Stressors such as those we’ve experienced this year can encourage people to craft a different, big-picture concept of happiness. And this, psychologists say, can improve resilience. You’ve already likely taken the opportunity to examine your own big picture this past year, but, if you’ve been having difficulty, and because we’re not done with this pandemic, here are some strategies to help.

Of course, this isn’t to make light of all the horrors that have unfolded across the world this past year alone. Just because something doesn’t kill you, doesn’t mean it makes you stronger, and enough people around you being killed or maimed by war, disease, or the wanton cruelties of life will take its toll.

Still, this would explain why countries like Costa Rica, Bahrain, Guatemala, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia—which together struggle with chronic poverty, inequality, violence, and/or political oppression—can be among the happiest places in the world, at the same level as, if not ahead of, much better-off places.

But that brings us to Finland, which has topped the ranking for the fourth time in a row. In fact, all but one of the top ten (New Zealand) are northern European countries—the same places that perform well in rankings of livability, life expectancy, democratic governance, low corruption, and the like. Clearly, happiness still has a lot to do with material and environmental conditions—money can only buy so much of it, as we all hear, but there is some point where baseline needs like shelter, health, economic security, and the like must be met to better ensure lifelong satisfaction.

Indeed, Finland seems to reflect this delicate balance perfectly. On the one hand, as Afar explains, there’s the cultural component:

Finns embrace a unique spirit of fortitude for thriving in tough times, which for them, often manifests via the weather. This national ideology even has a name: It’s called sisu, and it’s at the core of Finns’ well-being, suggests Katja Pantzar, a Helsinki-based journalist and author of The Finnish Way, which delves into the concept. As Pantzar explains, sisu is focused on persevering when the odds are against you and to view challenges as opportunities. “Instead of waiting for a warm sunny day,” she offers, “many Finns practice daily sisu by heading out in any kind of weather for a brisk walk or cycle, or to spend time in nature.” These simple and sensible activities are at the heart of what keeps Finns happy, Pantzar concludes, adding “I keep returning to this Finnish saying, ‘Happiness does not come from searching for it, but by living.’” And living with sisu, for Pantzar, like many Finns, means bundling up in the snow to bike to work or swimming in the sea year-round— even when it’s covered in ice.

But there is also a concerted effort to put in place economic, political, and social structures that promote individual and community stability, human flourishing, and ultimately life satisfaction, as detailed in Forbes:

Finland has long been praised by a multitude of international bodies for its extensive welfare benefits, low levels of corruption, well-functioning democracy, and its instilled sense of freedom and autonomy. Its progressive taxation and wealth distribution has allowed for a flourishing universal healthcare system, and, staggeringly, more than 80% of Finns trust their police force, which is far more than many other countries can claim. 

Finland has long been punching above its weight within the global economy, too, giving the world global brands such as Nokia, Rovio (developer of Angry Birds), Supercell (creators of Clash of Clans) and elevator manufacturer KONE. 

The country is famous for being one of the first countries to push the flat working model, which exemplifies the Finnish approach to how businesses should be run, as well as how employees should be treated in the workplace. The flat working model is one in which there are few – or sometimes even zero – hierarchal levels between management and staff. Typically there is less supervision of employees and the structure aims to promote increased involvement with organizational decision-making, enabling open communication between all departments and teams within a business. 

The key takeaway from Forbes is that Finland and its high-ranking peers all share a holistic approach to human rights and happiness, one that recognizes that individual freedom comes from having the right resources and environment to unlock your potential and self-actualize:

The happiness of the Finnish people stems not only from its large number of welfare policies, its intrinsic affinity for mutual trust and equality but also from freedom. The mindset that one can only be free and independent if everyone is equally free and independent drives the country’s policy-making and underpins what it means to be Finnish. 

For many, it’s about living in a country where all conceivable basic needs are met, whether that’s healthcare, education, or having a job that makes you feel fulfilled. The overarching theme is that Finland remains ahead of the curve in so many facets of life. For now, Finland is ranking top, but the hope is that the example Finland is setting helps other countries to better care for their people. The fact that the country continues to pioneer social and economic welfare, education and working best-practice is something of which other countries should take note when looking at improving the happiness of their people.

Not bad for a country that just seventy years ago was one of the poorest and most devastated in the world. It goes to show that maybe happiness and well-being need not be so abstract and philosophical: Yes, the deeply poor and traumatized can be happy, while the very rich and privileged can be miserable, but the overall picture from around the world is that culture, mindset, and baseline material wealth all build on each other. With mutual trust comes resilience and security, and with security and resilience comes more mutual trust (i.e., you know your fellow citizens and institutions will look out for you); it’s a virtuous cycle that can persist even though the worst circumstances.

But those are just my own rushed thoughts — what do you think?

The World Food Programme

To many observers, especially in the United States, this year’s winner of the Nobel Peace Prize may seem uninspired, if not unfamiliar. It is an organization, rather than a person, and its work is probably not as widely known and appreciated as it should be.

Yet the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is no less deserving of the honor (especially since over two dozens entities have won the Peace Prize before, including the United Nations itself). It is the largest humanitarian organization in the world, and the largest one focused on hunger, malnutrition, and food insecurity, providing critical food assistance to nearly 100 million people across 88 countries. Tens of millions would starve without its fleet of 5,600 trucks, 30 ships, and nearly 100 planes delivering more than 15 billion rations, at just 61 cents each. Remarkably, WFP does all its work based entirely on voluntary donations, mostly from governments.

Laudable as all that might be, it’s fair to ask what this work has to do with peace? Two-thirds of WFP’s work is done in conflict zones, where access to food is threatened by instability, violence, and even deliberate war tactics. Amid war and societal collapse, people are likelier to die from starvation, or from opportunistic diseases that strike their malnourished immune systems. Since its experimental launch in 1961, WFP has delivered aid to some of the most devastating and horrific natural disasters in history, including the Rwandan genocide, the Yugoslav War and the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. (It became a permanent UN agency in 1965, having proven its worth by mustering substantial aid to earthquake-stricken Iran in 1962, initiating a development mission in Sudan, and launching its first school meals project in Togo.)

As The Economist points out, the focus on hunger is a sensible one: Not only have famine and malnutrition destroyed millions of lives across history, but they remaining pressing concerns in the face of the pandemic, climate change, and renewed conflict.

Governments everywhere are desperate to bring an end to the pandemic. But hunger has been growing quietly for years, and 2019 was the hungriest year recorded by the Food Security Information Network, a project of the WFP, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and other NGOs, which since 2015 has been gathering data on how many people worldwide are close to starvation. The rise was largely a consequence of wars in places like South Sudan, Yemen and the Central African Republic. This year, thanks to the covid-19 pandemic, things are likely to be far worse. Rather than war, this year it is the dramatic falls in the incomes of the poorest people that is causing hunger. There is as much food to go around, but the poor can no longer afford to buy it. The number of hungry people might double, reckons the WFP, from 135m in 2019 to 265m at the end of this year.

Unfortunately, despite the increased (and likely to increase) need for its services—more people face hunger than at anytime since 2012—the agency’s precarious budget, ever-dependent on the whims of donors, is declining. Again, from the Economist:

Last year the organisation received $8.05bn from its donors, by far the biggest of which is the United States. This year so far it has received only $6.35bn. Many countries, such as Britain, link their aid budgets to GDP figures which have fallen sharply. Britain provided roughly $700m of the WFP’s funding in 2019. This year its aid budget will fall by £2.9bn ($3.8bn). Under Mr Trump America had turned away from funding big multilateral organisations even before the pandemic hit, though the WFP has escaped the fate of the WHO, to which Mr Trump gave notice of America’s withdrawal in July. In Uganda food rations for South Sudanese and Congolese refugees have been cut. In Yemen the WFP has had to reduce rations by half.

WFP estimates that seven million people have already died from hunger this year, and will need almost seven billion dollars over the next six months to avert looming famines worldwide. WFP’s head, a former U.S. Republican governor, is using the agency’s higher profile from the Nobel Prize to urge more funding from governments and especially billionaires (whose collective health increased by over ten trillion this past year).

The 2019 Human Development Index

The United Nations published its latest Human Development Index (HDI) rankings—using data from 2018—which is calculated based on three categories: Life expectancy, education, and per capita income. (Read the official announcement here.)

A country scores a higher HDI when its people live longer, have higher rates of education, and enjoy higher gross national income (GNI), adjusted for local purchasing power.

Norway and Switzerland are once again No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, while Ireland, Germany, and Hong Kong have risen to round up the top five. The U.S. ranks a respectable 15th.

However, note the second through fourth columns, which adjust the scores based on inequality. While countries may have an overall high rate of education, life expectancy, and income, how these benefits are shared among the general populace will vary.

Hence, Hong Kong would descend 17 places down if inequality were taken into account; the U.S. would drop by 13 points. Conversely, egalitarian Japan would climb 15 spots from 19th place, while the Czech Republic and Slovenia would also rise significantly.

Norway uniquely would remain in the same spot even if you adjust for inequality. Switzerland would drop just one point.

Poorer Countries Continue to Improve

With all that is going wrong in the world, it is crucial to keep in mind the bigger picture: although there is far too much needless misery and suffering, glimmers of progress and hope persistent nonetheless — even in the most beleaguered regions in the world.

As the above date from the the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) shows, literally every part of the world has seen a marked improvement in their “Human Development Index” (HDI), a metric devised in the 1990s in attempt to better capture a country’s standard of living (in a way that GDP cannot). 

The Economist provides a great breakdown of how it works:

The index combines four simple measures: life-expectancy at birth; gross national income per person; average years of education; and expected years of school. First, each variable is normalised on a scale of zero to one; next, the two education variables are averaged; and finally, the index is calculated as the geometric mean of its three components. This ensures that a 1% decline in the index for life-expectancy has the same impact as a decline of the same magnitude in education. By incorporating health and schooling, the HDI seeks to provide a more comprehensive measure of quality of life than the simply material prosperity measured by GDP.

Though far from perfect, HDI is a pretty good barometer for how well a society is doing. And from the looks of it, a lot more places are doing a lot better despite ongoing issues of inequality, climate change, corruption, and other barriers to optimal growth.

In 1990 a child born in sub-Saharan Africa could expect to live just 50 years. Today, assuming current mortality trends persist, newborns can expect to live for 61 years. As a result, the gap in life-expectancy between the world’s poorest region and the global average has narrowed by four years. Similar gains have been registered in educational outcomes and income, meaning that all 189 countries with HDI scores have improved their marks since 1990, by an average of 0.5% a year. Just seven countries have seen a reduction in their HDI score since 2010, often as a result of war or famine.

Encouragingly, the HDI data demonstrate that inequality of life outcomes is declining both across and within countries. As developing countries have closed the gap with their developed-country peers, the coefficient of variation—a measure of the spread of the data across countries—of the HDI has fallen by six percentage points since 1990. Because the “raw” HDI is based on nationwide averages, it can provide a misleading picture of overall living standards in highly unequal countries, where a handful of people enjoy long, wealthy lives and advanced schooling, but the masses do not. \

However, the UNDP also publishes an “inequality-adjusted” version of the HDI, which attempts to account for the distribution of health, education and prosperity. The gap between this metric and the unadjusted HDI was slightly smaller in 2017 than it was the year before, suggesting that well-being is being shared more broadly inside countries as well as between them.

While there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done, and these gains remain tenuous in the face of a future global recession, the march of progress across the world is a hopeful sign that more political will and resources can take us further along the moral arc of prosperity and well being for more humans.

For the full ranking of countries by HDI, click here.

When Cities are as Powerful as Nations

Before the emergence of the political units we now call countries, humans organized themselves in a variety of other ways, ranging from bands and tribes, to chiefdoms, kingdoms, and empires. Most of these entities were not proper countries as we think of them today, lacking a cohesive political or national identity, a firm boundary, or much in the way of an organized government.

The ancient societies of Egypt, Greece, China, Mesoamerica, the Indus River Valley, and Mesopotamia were among the exceptions, which is why they are recognized as “cradles of civilization”, places where the first features of what we consider modern society emerged: agriculture, urban development, social stratification, complex communication systems, infrastructure, and so on.

The urban character of civilization is what I find most interesting, because cities were where power, both political and economic, was concentrated. Urban centers were the places from which rulers asserted their authorities. Cities are where democracy and republicanism took root, and where civic engagement survived through the Middle Ages in places like Florence, Venice, Krakow,and Hamburg.

This dynamic has changed little in the 21st century; in fact, it is arguably stronger and more pronounced than ever, as globalization, population growth, and advanced technology come together to create metropolises as populous, wealthy, and powerful as entire countries.

The following map, courtesy of CityLab, draws on data from 2015 to prove the incredible growth and prestige of modern cities (the data for cities comes from the Brookings Institution’s Redefining Global Cities report, while the data for nations is from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators; the map was compiled by Taylor Blake of the Martin Prosperity Institute).

A few highlights noted by the article:

  • Tokyo, the world’s largest metro economy with $1.6 trillion in GDP-PPP, is just slightly smaller than all of South Korea. Were it a nation, Tokyo would rank as the 15th largest economy in the world.
  • New York City’s $1.5 trillion GDP places it among the world’s twenty largest economies, just a tick under those of Spain and Canada.
  • Los Angeles’ $928 billion GDP is bit smaller than Australia’s, with $1.1 trillion.
  • Seoul ($903 billion) has a bigger economy than Malaysia ($817 billion).
  • London’s $831 billion GDP makes its economic activity on par with the Netherlands ($840 billion).
  • Paris, with $819 billion in GDP, has a bigger economy than South Africa, $726 billion.
  • The $810 billion economy of Shanghai outranks that of the Philippines, with $744 billion.

To put things in further perspective: if you added up the ten largest metropolitan areas, you’d get an economy of over $9.5 trillion, bigger than the Japanese and German economies combined. Add the next ten largest metros, and you get the second largest economy in the world, at $14.6 trillion, less than four trillion shy of the U.S.

In other words: Cities really are the new power centers of the global economy—the platforms for innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic growth. But when it comes to fiscal and political power, they remain beholden to increasingly anachronistic and backward-looking nation-states, which has become distressingly obvious with the rise of Trumpism in the United States and populism around the world.

The greatest challenge facing us today is how to ensure that global cities have the economic, fiscal, and political power to govern themselves and to continue to be a force for innovation and human progress.

Very relevant question as the balance of power both within and between countries shifts to certain global cities, especially in the developing world.

What are your thoughts?

Food Stamps Are an Investment in the Future

That, in essence, is the finding of one of the largest studies of its kind on what is officially known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). Since being nationally mandated in 1975, SNAP has remained the largest national anti-hunger program: last year along, more than 40 million poor working families, people with disabilities and seniors received assistance averaging to about $125 monthly; 70 percent live in households with children.

Whatever the moral case for supporting SNAP, there is certainly an economic one, as one of the largest studies of its kind recently proved.

From Bloomberg:

The economists focus on people born between 1956 and 1981, who were young children when the program was expanding, and who grew up in families with a parent with less than a high school education. They find that access to the program as a young child significantly improved economic outcomes and health status as an adult.

In particular, food stamp access as a child was associated with much lower risk of metabolic syndrome as an adult and, especially for women, higher levels of educational attainment and income along with lower participation on means-tested benefit programs. For example, food stamp access during childhood is linked to a 5 percentage point reduction in heart disease and an 18 percentage point increase in high school completion rates, compared to those who lacked access.

This evidence contradicts some critiques of food stamps, which misleadingly argue that it’s an inefficient and ineffective program.

The authors also highlight that access seems to matter most in utero and up until age 5. Gaining access to food stamps after age 5, by contrast, didn’t improve health outcomes as an adult, perhaps because the person had already been put on a particular health trajectory by that age.

As typical in such studies, there is a question of “correlation versus causation”, but the gradual rollout of SNAP allowed the researchers to account for this because “children living in otherwise similar families either did or didn’t receive benefits depending on whether their county voluntarily participated at the time. (The researchers show that county choice seems to be unrelated to other factors that may have substantially affected children living there.)”

The study also demonstrates the importance of taking a long-term view of these sorts of programs, especially when children are involved. Various other studies suggest that investing in the formative early years of one’s life pays huge dividends later; that is obviously lost on those who focus only during the year the benefit is received. 

What the World Thinks About Pressing Economic Issues

This past Friday, Buenos Aires, Argentina hosted the 13th summit of the “Group of Twenty” (G20), which consists of 19 of the world’s largest economies plus the European Union.

Purple: G20 members | Blue: EU members not individually part of the G20 
Pink: Countries invited to the 2010 summit

Collectively the G20 accounts for around 85% of global GDP, 75-80% of world trade, two-thirds of the world’s population, and about half the world’s land area. Hence it is one of the most influential and important gatherings in the world, even though it is not a formal institution like NATO or the United Nations.

Pew recently conducted polls around the world to gauge global public opinion about some of the pressing issues on the agenda at this year’s summit.

For example, most nations are skeptical of the current economic situation, except for the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, the Philippines and a few others. A fair number of people–notably Brazilians, Greeks, and Tunisians–had more hope for their economic future. The U.S. and Canada were interestingly pretty happy about the current state of their economies, but deeply pessimistic about their children’s future.

Similarly, most people around the world approve of trading with other countries and yet are nonetheless pessimistic about the benefits for jobs and wages. And with the notable exceptions of Poland, Japan, and Hungary, the majority of people did not think automation would make their economies efficient; moreover, no country had a majority of people agree that automation would create newer and better jobs.

Finally, the leaders of the U.S., Russia, and China — currently the top world powers — are deeply unpopular, whereas Germany’s Merkel and France’s Macron had the most global confidence (and only Merkel got a majority of confidence, albeit at 52%).

Read more from the source here

Report of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights in the United States

What immediately struck me about the 2018 U.N. Special Rapporteur’s report was its title, which framed extreme poverty as a human rights issue – a conceptual association most Americans would find unusual, if not absurd. The prevailing narrative in our hyper-individualistic society is that poverty is a matter of personal responsibility, cultural values, or even morality. Human rights, on the other hand, apply almost exclusively to the political and legal realms, concerning matters such as freedom of speech or a right to due process; socioeconomic conditions are a separate issue altogether.

This is evident in how news reports about “human rights abuses” abroad almost always pertain to government crackdowns on protesters, media censorship, extrajudicial killings, and the like; the scourge of curable communicable diseases, infant mortality, stunted life expectancy, and other markers of extreme poverty are never reported or framed in this way. In fact, rarely does one hear about these problems in the news at all, which perhaps has to do with this artificial distinction: “real” human rights issues are seen as more dynamic and adversarial—the protester lobbing Molotov cocktails at the militant police officers of an authoritarian regime—and thus are more attention grabbing and stimulating. By contrast, the child in a distant rural African village meeting a terrible end from curable diarrheal disease does not make for gripping news, even though hundreds of thousands of children die this way before the age of five every year. To many Americans, there is no engaging political narrative here—it is a horrible tragedy but not a human rights issue.[1]

Of course, none of this is to suggest that human rights are an either/or choice between the political and the socioeconomic. Rather, this report proves that we must broaden our conception of human rights to entail all issues that affect human dignity and flourishing, and which we all have a duty to uphold and promote. Indeed, it is worth bearing in mind that the report was commissioned by the Human Rights Council with the express purpose of evaluating whether the U.S. government’s approach to extreme poverty was “consistent with its human rights obligations.” While this may be stating the obvious, it is an easy statement to overlook, and I myself had taken it for granted without realizing how bold—and controversial—this conceptualization is to many Americans. Indeed, the report recognizes this problem and dedicates a whole section in the beginning to explain how and why extreme poverty is a human rights issue.

I also recognized the author of the report, Australian political scientist Philip Alston, who literally wrote the book on international human rights, titled International Human Rights in Context, Law, Politics, Morals. This massive and authoritative tome was the textbook for my International Human Rights class last spring, covering just about every aspect of the topic, from its philosophical and moral underpinnings, to its political and legal realities. Needless to say, I think it is a testament to the reformed Human Rights Council (whatever its continued flaws) that they appointed such an eminent expert on the subject to speak truth to power, as the U.S. is the most powerful—and increasingly anti-U.N. and anti-globalist—nation in the world.

Finally, I appreciated the way in which Alston opened the report by noting the sheer disparity between America’s wealth and resources, and the abysmal performance on metrics such as poverty, life expectancy, infant mortality, and more. It was a damning exposure of how short America falls from its potential; ours is a nation with a trillion dollar company (Apple), most of the world’s billionaires (including the richest, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, with around $90 billion fortune), and a military budget larger than the next twelve to fifteen nations combined (including are top rivals) is somehow unable to provide affordable healthcare, sustainable employment, or even indoor plumbing. The report thus reminds us that there is no excuse for the persistence of extreme poverty: no nation is richer, more technologically advanced, and more well-resourced than the U.S., yet few are performing so poorly in proportion to their economic potential.

The Substance of the Report and Some Takeaways
As befitting an academic with Alston’s credentials, the report is dense with data, statistics, and narrative accounts that capture the sheer scale and complexity of the problem – all in under twenty digestible pages. Alston covers every conceivable socioeconomic problem in the U.S., from the racial and classist discrimination that negatively colors public perceptions of poverty, to the impact that extreme poverty—and the lack of action against it—has on mental and physical health, political participation, and environmental degradation. The report is informed not only by a bevy of government and academic data, but by visits to numerous neglected and blighted locations and direct meetings with government officials, civil society members, and the poor themselves (who all too often are the objects, rather than the subjects, of otherwise well-intentioned humanitarian concern).

Thus, one would be hard-pressed to argue against the veracity Alston’s findings, given that they combine both dispassionate, clinical analysis with direct, on-the-ground experience (approaches to knowledge stereotypically favored by liberals and conservatives, respectively). It is an important reminder of how important it is that we human rights defenders take a holistic view of the problem; it is not enough to commission surveys or crunch hard data. What must do these things and more, combining the cold hard facts that are crucial to informing our responses, with the compassion and testimony that helps spur us (and ideally our target audience) into action.

The report was clearly intended for a wide audience, given its easily navigable format, avoidance of legalese, and succinct length. Alston was thus wearing his advocate hat in place of his academic one, making sure that his findings could be absorbed by policymakers, legislature, human rights lawyers, and the average citizen. These observations, discussions, and policy prescriptions will do no good if they are kept within the same scholarly and legal communities but must be broadened to include all “stakeholders” (to whom Alston explicitly directed this report, in addition to government officials). This is a crucial lesson for those of us whose human rights work will, and should ideally, encompass broad swathes of humanity—maybe even all of humanity—most of whom do not have the unique educational background, vocabulary, or access to information that the average attorney, or even the average law student, has

This is not to suggest that we should patronize the subjects of the report, or other human rights victims and client, or make assumptions about their intelligence or resourcefulness. Rather, the idea is to avoid condescension, step down from the Ivory Tower of policy and philosophical debate, and engage directly with those we presume to represent and help, as Alston. That means knowing our audience and how to frame our narrative in a way that is relatable, easy to understand, and effective. This in turn requires adaptability and a willingness to change our approaches depending on whether we’re talking to victims of sexual trauma or abject poverty, government officials, or NGO partners.

True to the purpose of the report, Alston weaves a cohesive and comprehensive narrative that links all these seemingly disparate issues to one overarching theme: an unwillingness by the U.S. government to tackle the multifaceted causes of extreme poverty. Hence the proposed solutions are not simple and straightforward but reflect this complexity. It is not enough to simply slash taxes and regulations in the hope that businesses will suddenly invest their already ample capital into hiring more people—indeed, Alston stridently took to task the Trump tax cuts, among other supply-side policies.

Rather, the U.S. government must, inter alia, recognize extreme inequality as a problem that needs to be addressed; expand human rights to include access to healthcare; and cease demonizing the taxes that can provide well needed revenue for addressing extreme poverty and its attending maladies. What I found interesting about many of these recommendations was their emphasis on the cultural underpinnings of these problems: the fact that Americans (and by extension their government) do not see healthcare as a right like due process and freedom of speech is why solutions to healthcare are lacking. Similarly, the demonization of taxes and “big government” is why it is difficult for the government to even launch these projects in the first place. The report thus acknowledges that so many human rights problems require not only practical political solutions, but a reframing of our core values, perspectives, and attitudes. After all, it is difficult to solve extreme poverty when you regard it as an individual rather than a societal problem, or if you see it as a just outcome for laziness or irresponsibility rather than a product of misaligned incentives, misallocated resources, bad actors, and political neglect.

While I think this is the right approach, it also means that we have a long fight ahead of us. Attitudes and cultural values take time to change, sometimes generations or even millennia; witness the length of time it took for the subjugation of women or the practice of slavery—each considered an unquestionable given for the bulk of human history—to finally become socially unacceptable and soon after politically address—and still there is much work to be done in these areas. (Indeed, the very concept of human rights, let alone the term, came to recognizable form only two or three centuries ago, at the earliest.) Given our nation’s slowness to change (slavery took a war to end, the Civil Rights Movement was not that long ago, etc.) I wonder how long it will be before the government, and we the people, take these recommendations to heart, much less follow through on solutions.

This is not to sound pessimistic or defeatist, but to caution that we may have to take the long view, manage expectations, and remember that the moral arc of progress often moves long distances—but move it does. Perhaps someday we will look back on how we treat poverty and lack of healthcare with the same astonishment and shame as we do slavery or the oppression of women (for the most part, anyway).

On the other hand, one could argue that this is a unique moment in U.S. history, a point wherein the collective conscience of the nation, if not the world, was shocked by the state of the current political climate. There is a saying that one should never let a good crisis go to waste, and while it is easy for those of us who are privileged to say, it is sadly true that it takes such events to rouse people from their apathy and force them to become more introspective. Thus, perhaps Alston’s report was well-timed, seeing as an increasingly number of Americans—especially the younger ones who will soon come of voting age and political office—are questioning many of the counterproductive cultural attitudes and ideas underpinning our sorry response to poverty.

My final comment on the report is that it should have focused more on the role of the private sector in perpetuating extreme poverty, or at least for failing to act against it. While it is true that the government is the final arbiter of conduct—through laws, regulation, and police power—in the U.S. especially, private companies wield tremendous power over policy, politics, and the national conversation. In theory, the government would not have to intervene to address extreme poverty if major employers such as Walmart and McDonald’s took it upon themselves to allocate their vast resources to employees. Jeff Bezos could spare a mere fraction of his $90 billion fortune to improve the lot of his workers and still keep costs down to consumers, while remaining fabulously wealthy. If landlords settled for less profit, perhaps rents would be more affordable; if property developers stopped building solely to appeal to luxury buyers, perhaps cheaper accommodations would be available. And so on and so forth. This power imbalance between the average American and economic elites, and the failure of the latter to use their power in more socially responsible ways, accounts for much of the extreme poverty highlighted in the report.

Thus I believe many of Alston’s recommendations apply as much to private sector actors as governmental ones, and I would add some of the following: more support for workers’ co-ops and unions, which level the economic playing field; promoting a business culture that is more socially responsible and considers the long-term implications ahead of short-term profits; changing the way we undervalue “unskilled” or non-managerial / administrative work (and those who perform them); land instilling a culture of volunteerism, charity, and community that would underpin more “pro-social” policies, politicians, and business practices. This is all easier said than done of course, but such is the nature of a problem as deep and intractable as extreme poverty.

The American Response to the Report
True to form, the U.S. reaction, as far as I could tell, was muted at best and indignant at worst. I found very little acknowledge of the report, let alone responses, outside of the usual progressive and humanitarian circles. The only substantive and critical reaction I could find was from none other than the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, whose criticisms and counterarguments reflected many of the sentiments and assumptions I outlined earlier as typical of most Americans.

In an opinion piece published in the National Review, one of the nation’s leading conservative publications, Haley slammed the report as “patently ridiculous … misleading … unnecessary, politically biased, factually wrong, and a waste of U.S. taxpayer dollars.”[2] (A view many conservative commentators affirmed.) She characterized the report as consisting of just “a single researcher” visiting a limited number of places for a limited amount of time. Alston’s recommendations were “farcical” and read like a “socialist manifesto.” She even threw in a line about the U.S. accounting for one-third of the U.N.’s budget, as if to suggest that the organization better not step out of line like this, or else. (Indeed, just weeks after the report was published, Haley would trumpet America’s departure from the Human Rights Council that commissioned it, ostensibly on the grounds that it is unduly biased against Israel.)

Haley’s response was long on indignation, but short on facts. She asserts that her home state of South Carolina, where she served as governor, brought a “record-breaking” number of new jobs, increased investment in education, and moved thousands “from welfare to work.” She makes the same claims of the Trump Administration she serves, which is very focused on extreme poverty and which has enacted economic policies that have “helped bring unemployment down to the lowest level in decades,” and has passed a tax reform law that will “direct billions in new capital into distressed communities in every state.” There are further assertions about median household income hitting “record highs,” wages rising faster under Trump for the low- and middle-class, and there being “more job openings than unemployed workers.”

Setting aside the fact that none of these claims are backed by figures, data, or citations—unlike the facts in the report that they purport to counter—they totally miss the forest for the trees. It is not enough for there to be more job openings than unemployed workers because, as Alston points out in a section aptly titled “An illusory emphasis on employment,” the quality of jobs being created is insufficient for sustaining long-term prosperity.

Similarly, even if we grant that median household income has reached a record high, that means little when adjusted for the increased cost of living—in particular education, shelter, and healthcare.[3] Moreover, if the U.S. government is investing so much attention and capital to its most blighted communities, why do so many communities continues lack clean drinking water—see the over-four-year saga of Flint, Michigan’s water crisis—proper sanitation, and basic infrastructure, as highlighted in great detail by the report?

Perhaps the most interesting part of the report is Haley’s “whataboutism” with respect to the report’s examination of the U.S.:

It is patently ridiculous for the U.N. to spend its scarce resources — more of which come from the United States than from any other country — studying poverty in the wealthiest country in the world, a country where the vast majority is not in poverty, and where public and private-sector social safety nets are firmly in place to help those who are.

Instead, the U.N. might have studied poverty in the Congo, where 60 percent of the entire population lacks the basics of food and electricity. Or Burundi, where the typical annual income is $280. Or Venezuela, where narco-state dictators have driven a once prosperous country into the ground with an inflation rate over 25,000 percent, and where diseases that were once thought eliminated are now reappearing.

When there are many dozens of countries where poverty consumes most of the population, and where corrupt governments deliberately make the problem much worse, why would the U.N. study poverty in America? The answer is politics.

It is here where Haley’s critique is at its most defensive. In essence, her sentiment is “How dare these globalists harshly criticize the greatest country in the world?” – something many increasingly-insular and nationalistic Americans would concur with. The temerity to subject the U.S. to the sort of scrutiny best reserved for inferior nations. The U.S. is above reproach, not only because it pays these U.N. bureaucrats’ bills, but because it is so much richer and better than so many other countries, and doesn’t have nearly as severe a level of poverty.

Well, that is in fact the point: It is because the U.S. is so wealthy that we should examine how such wealth and resources haven’t translated to broader prosperity for all. Congo, Burundi, and Venezuela do not claim the level of exceptionalism we do, nor do they have anywhere near the wealth, stability, institutional competency, and other instruments of prosperity that are plentiful in the U.S. yet underutilized or mismanaged. Plus, two wrongs do not make a right: that other countries have it worse does not somehow abrogate our responsibility to do better for our citizens, especially as the greatest country in the world.

Moreover, Alston’s report made a point of comparing the U.S. to countries with similar economic, political, and social profile; we perform poorly by developed world standards, not compared to the world’s poorest and most unstable states, which are on a totally different playing field. (Besides, as Ambassador to the U.N., she should know that U.N. Human Rights Council conducts reports of these kinds for nearly all the world’s countries—but then again, the U.S. did leave the body fairly soon after she was appointed, so perhaps she had not had the chance to learn this. Thus, there is no need to take the report so personally.)

In any event, it should not matter that the U.S. could be so much worse, or that its impoverished citizens fare comparatively better than those in failed states. What matters is that no one need be abjectly poor in the first place, especially in a country with so capital sloshing around in our government budget, corporate coffers, and financial system. What matters is that so many people suffer needlessly, not because we are mired in war, famine, societal collapse, or some other potentially excusable calamity, but because our economic and political paradigms fail to allocate resources properly, be it the government spending too much on the military, or companies diverting more funds to executives than to average workers.

Conclusion and Final Thoughts
I focus on Haley’s reaction not only because hers was the most prominent (she is after all our representative to the U.N.) but because it encapsulates precisely the attitude most Americans harbor, and which Alston’s report identified as part of what is holding us back as a society. The rest of the world should mind its own business. We’re the biggest game in town and shouldn’t be messed with. Unsurprisingly, this matches prevailing rhetoric of the U.S. abroad, where longtime allies are shunned and insulted, global institutions are undermined, and the very idea of an international system—much less international human rights—is disparaged as globalist encroachments on sovereignty.

One thing is for certain: now is an interesting time to be an international human rights advocate. For better and for worse, we are being challenged like never before. Though the negative consequences are obvious, the silver-lining is that such anti-humanist rhetoric, both at home and abroad, may be push that we and our potential allies (and even some ideological opponents) need to come together and act. Once enough Americans see firsthand how the U.N. report plays out versus the claims of this administration and its backers, maybe Alston’s recommendation will be taken to heart—one vote, legal case, or lobbying effort at a time.

To quote one accurate observation by Haley’s National Review piece, extreme poverty, like so many other human rights issues, is a “multidimensional” and complex problem; thus, it will require a multidimensional approach on the part of human rights lawyers and activists. We must combine different strategies, competencies, concentrations, and perspectives if we are going to tackle the myriad of cultural, political, and economic issues that make these problems so persistent. However, acrimonious, at least we are having a conservation from which to learn from and begin.

[1] Psychologist Paul Slovik coined the term “psychic numbing” to describe our inability to be moved by large scale tragedies, such as genocide, due in part to the “dry statistics” having less emotional impact that one recognizable or dynamic incident. “‘If I look at the mass I will never act’: Psychic numbing and genocide,” Decision Research and University of Oregon.

[2] Haley, Nikki, The United Nations’ Patently Ridiculous Report on American Poverty (July 9, 2018)

[3] Stagnating salaries: Real US wages are essentially back at 1974 levels, Pew reports, USA Today

The Murder Capitals of the World

The waves of migrants fleeing many Latin American countries is in no small part due to the horrifically high rate of homicide that collectively claims hundreds of thousands of lives annually.


Source: The Wall Street Journal

With just 8% of the world’s population, Latin America accounts for roughly a third of global murders. It is also the only region where lethal violence has grown steadily since 2000, according to United Nations figures.

Nearly one in every four murders around the world takes place in just four countries: Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico and Colombia. Last year, a record 63,808 people were murdered in Brazil. Mexico also set a record at 31,174, with murders so far this year up another 20%.

By comparison, the U.S.–which has one of the highest murder rates in the developed world–lost 17,250 citizens to homicide in 2016. The same year, the European Union, with 28 countries totaling 513 million people, had 5,351 homicides, while China, with over 1.5 billion inhabitants, had a little over 8,600 murders. Given the amount of shock, fear, and sensationalism such comparative rare murders can elicit, imagine the amount of terror and trauma experienced by people in Central and South America.

In recent years, growing numbers of families from Central America, including women and children, have fled to the U.S. because of horrific violence. Gangs such as MS-13 and Barrio 18 enforce a reign of terror, dictating even where people can go to school or get medical care. El Salvador’s murder rate of 83 per 100,000 people in 2016—the world’s highest—was nearly 17 times that of the U.S.

A new study by Vanderbilt University shows that the strongest factor in predicting whether someone emigrates from Honduras and El Salvador isn’t age, gender or economic situation, but whether they had been victimized by crime multiple times in the past year. A World Bank study found that nearly a quarter of children in one Honduran municipality suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder due to violence.

To make matters worse, pervasive corruption has enabled much if this violence, if not colluded in it: law enforcement are known to be as abusive and exploitative as gang members, and often work in concert with organized crime; politicians or police officers who are not bought are cowed into fear, pushed out, or killed.

With little to no recourse for the violence they face, plus a lack of economic activity to boot, it is little wonder thousands are fleeing for their dear lives in droves.

Source: Wall Street Journal

Over 70% of Greenhouse Gas Emissions Comes from 100 Companies

While we should all do our part to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, a recent study reported in the Guardian finds that such efforts will frankly be worthless so long as a handful of powerful private entities account for the vast majority of climate change-causing pollution.

The Carbon Majors Report (pdf) “pinpoints how a relatively small set of fossil fuel producers may hold the key to systemic change on carbon emissions,” says Pedro Faria, technical director at environmental non-profit CDP, which published the report in collaboration with the Climate Accountability Institute.

Traditionally, large scale greenhouse gas emissions data is collected at a national level but this report focuses on fossil fuel producers. Compiled from a database of publicly available emissions figures, it is intended as the first in a series of publications to highlight the role companies and their investors could play in tackling climate change.

The report found that more than half of global industrial emissions since 1988 – the year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established – can be traced to just 25 corporate and state-owned entities. The scale of historical emissions associated with these fossil fuel producers is large enough to have contributed significantly to climate change, according to the report.

ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Chevron are identified as among the highest emitting investor-owned companies since 1988. If fossil fuels continue to be extracted at the same rate over the next 28 years as they were between 1988 and 2017, says the report, global average temperatures would be on course to rise by 4C by the end of the century. This is likely to have catastrophic consequences including substantial species extinction and global food scarcity risks.

This puts addressing climate change square in the hands of executives, investors, and shareholders–the narrow class of individuals less likely to be impacted by climate change, best equipped to adapt to it, and most likely to be wrapped up in short-term gains ahead of long-term consequences.

Investors should move out of fossil fuels, says Michael Brune, executive director of US environmental organisation the Sierra Club. “Not only is it morally risky, it’s economically risky. The world is moving away from fossil fuels towards clean energy and is doing so at an accelerated pace. Those left holding investments in fossil fuel companies will find their investments becoming more and more risky over time.”

There is a “growing wave of companies that are acting in the opposite manner to the companies in this report,” says Brune. Nearly 100 companies including Apple, Facebook, Google and Ikea have committed to 100% renewable power under the RE100 initiativeVolvo recently announced that all its cars would be electric or hybrid from 2019.

And oil and gas companies are also embarking on green investments. Shell set up a renewables arm in 2015 with a $1.7bn investment attached and a spokesperson for Chevron says it’s “committed to managing its [greenhouse gas] emissions” and is investing in two of the world’s largest carbon dioxide injection projects to capture and store carbon. A BP spokesperson says its “determined to be part of the solution” for climate change and is “investing in renewables and low-carbon innovation.” And ExxonMobil, which has faced heavy criticism for its environmental record, has been exploring carbon capture and storage.

But for many the sums involved and pace of change are nowhere near enough. A research paper published last year by Paul Stevens, an academic at think tank Chatham House, said international oil companies were no longer fit for purpose and warned these multinationals that they faced a “nasty, brutish and short” end within the next 10 years if they did not completely change their business models.

It is also worth pointing out that while a large number of the corporate culprits are based in the West, overall they span most of the world: rich and poor, developed and developing, democratic and autocratic:

Most of these companies are not household names, which reflects the low-key nature of the global energy industry: many of us in the developed world take for granted the seemingly endless supply of electricity, gasoline, and other energy supplies. The extraction, production, refinement, and delivery of these fossil fuels occurs unseen, involving a complex network of companies dispersed around the globe.

Thus, as with so many other solutions to climate change, there will need to be a comprehensive, globally coordinated effort by the international community to reign in on pollution and environmental degradation, in cooperation with–or even in opposition to–some of the most powerful corporate interests in the world.

Is there any possibility that the global masses can apply pressure their governments (and to a lesser degree their businesses) to take action? Are these individuals and institutions too wealthy and far removed from the public to be influenced and accountable to either governments or their constituents? What are your thoughts?