World AIDS Day

Belated World AIDS Day post: Although HIV/AIDS remains a scourge of humanity—particularly in it’s likely place of origin, Africa—we have made tremendous progress in reducing both infections and rates of death. Being HIV positive is no longer the death sentence it once was—ironically the large number of people living with the disease is in part a testament to the success of treatments and of policies to make them widely affordable and accessible (aided in large part by the much-maligned WHO).

As usual, German data-crunching company Statista lays it all out beautifully in their Instagram (which I highly recommend following).

Even though #worldaidsday has been used to promote awareness of the disease and mourn those who have died from it since 1988, the global epidemic is far from over.

According to data by @unaidsglobal, more than ten million people with HIV/AIDS don’t currently have access to antiretroviral treatment and the number of new infections with #HIV has remained the same compared to 2019 at roughly 1.5 million. When taking a closer look at the numbers, there are enormous regional differences in terms of battling the epidemic. Eastern and southern Africa, for example, combine for 55 percent of all known HIV/AIDS cases, while reducing new infections by 43 percent between 2010 and 2020. Western and central Africa also saw a decline of 37 percent when comparing 2010 and 2020, although it falls short of the benchmark of 75 percent set by the United Nations General Assembly.

While the number of new infections has dropped from 2.9 million in 2000 to 1.5 million last year, the number of people living with HIV increased from 25.5 million to approximately 37.7 million over the past two decades. According to UNAIDS, the increase is not only caused by new infections, but also a testament to the progress that has been made in treating HIV with antiretroviral therapy, which has vastly improved the outlook of those infected with HIV.

The even more astute data-lovers at Our World in Data vividly convey both the scale of the problem and just how much we have progressed, even in the most hard-hit places:

While in law school, I and some colleagues had the incredible opportunity to meet the hard working and earnest people at UNAIDS headquarters in Geneva. This unique entity is the first and only one of its kind in the world, combining the personnel and resources of nearly a dozen U.N. agencies to offer a comprehensive response to this pandemic. UNAID is also the only initiative to include civil society organizations in its governing structure.

Since it was launched in 1994, UNAIDS has helped millions of people worldwide get antiretroviral treatment for HIV/AIDS, provided millions more with preventative methods. Thanks to their efforts, and those of their partners across the world, the rate of infection and death by HIV/AIDS has stagnated or even declined in many areas, while the rate of treatment has increased.

As with so many other things, the COVID-19 pandemic has weakened the fight against HIV/AIDS, disrupting preventative measures and sapping away at an already-taxed healthcare system. With reports of individuals who seem to have naturally cured themselves of the virus, I have hope that we can regain momentum and maybe even develop an outright cure. Fortunately, the progress of the past several years proves we do not have to wait until then to make a difference to tens of millions of lives.

My Paper: Lessons from Around the World on Drug Decriminalization and Legalization

After decades of tremendous financial and social costs, the punitive drug model is being steadily eroded at home and abroad. Even the conservative law-and-order types who oppose the use of illicit drugs are increasingly accepting that the war on drugs has failed both in its objective (undercutting drug use) and its efficiency (accomplishing little yet reaping a huge economic and human toll).

Even Mexico, which has suffered more than most nations from our appetite for illegal drugs, has gone forward with legalizing marijuana in an effort to undercut a major source of funding for its powerful and vicious cartels. (So now both of America’s only neighbors have fully done away with punitive attitudes towards one of the weaker and comparatively less harmful illicit substances.)

All that being said, I do feel validated in having proposed and written a paper exploring the alternative methods, policies, and cultural attitudes of various countries when it comes to illegal drugs. As the U.S. and other countries question the wisdom of the status quo, it may help to look abroad at those places that were ahead of the curve in dispensing with the punitive approach in favor of more constructive methods. I focus especially on Portugal, which twenty years ago blazed the trail towards decriminalizing all illegal drugs and framing their use as a public health matter rather than a criminal one.

See the source image

As you will hopefully read, many of these strategies are unique to the time, place, or sociopolitical context of the nations that implemented them; nevertheless, there are still useful lessons to glean, and at the very least we can see proof that there are other ways to address the scourge of drug addiction, trafficking, and other associated ills, besides the blunt instrument of police and prisons.

Feel free to leave your thoughts, reactions, and feedback. Thanks again for your time.

The World’s Biggest Charity You’ve Never Heard of

Did you know that the world’s largest and most successful charity and nongovernmental organization (NGO) is from Bangladesh? It is the only organization from a poor country to rank among the top in the world.

Founded in 1972, BRAC—which once stood for the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee—was the brainchild of Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, a wealthy corporate accountant who was horrified by the state of his country, particularly following a devastating cyclone, which killed 300,000 people, and a bloody liberation war that killed between 300,000 and 3 million people, most of them civilians..

Whereas most would have despaired at this hopeless situation, Abed got to work. Having lived and worked in the U.K. for a time, he could have simply fled there, but instead sold his London flat and used the funds to create BRAC. The new organization immediately built housing for war refugees and storm survivors; within a year, it reportedly built up to 14,000 homes, as well several hundred fishing boats to support the refugees’ livelihoods.

BRAC soon expanded into every possible area of human development. It worked from the ground up, at the village level, to invest in agriculture, fisheries, worker cooperatives, rural crafts, adult literacy, health and family planning, vocational training for women, and community centers. To ensure efficiency, it established a Research and Evaluation Division (RED) to evaluate its programs and projects for their success, and to learn from any mistakes or shortcomings. Based on what was learned, BRAC took a more targeted approach to charity by creating “Village Organisations” (VO) to assist the most vulnerable people in Bangladesh, such as the landless, small farmers, artisans, and women. To finance its activities, it set up a commercial printing press and a handicraft retail chain, both of which employed poor people.

When diarrhea emerged as a leading cause of death for children (as it was historically and in poorer societies), BRAC initiated a field trial in two village, teaching rural mothers how to prepare a simple oral rehydration solution (ORS) that could save their children’s lives. Overtime, it scaled up its operations, which in the span of ten years taught 12 million households across over 75,000 villages across the country how to prepare ORS. The country has one of the highest rates of diarrhea treatment, with child mortality rates plummeting from 133 deaths out of 1,000 births in 1989 to 46 deaths per 1,000 in 2014—a decline of 65 percent.

The scientific and open-minded approach to charity is part of BRAC’s company culture and brand. As the Economist reported:

[BRAC] is also one of the world’s best charities. NGO Advisor, which tries to keep score, has put it top of the heap for the past four years. Its corporate culture is a little like an old-fashioned engineering firm. BEACH employees are problem-solvers rather than intellectuals, and they communicate well—the organisation constantly tweaks its programmes in response to data and criticisms from local staff. Some of its innovations have spread around the world.

Today, BRAC has about 100,000 full-time staff, mostly in Bangladesh but increasingly abroad, too. According to the World Bank, its program in Afghanistan significantly boosted incomes and women’s employment; its after-school clubs in Uganda appear to have reduced teen pregnancy rates and encouraged girls to pursue careers; and its innovate anti-poverty program, focused on giving assets and training to poor women, has been adopted with great success by charities in Ethiopia, Honduras, and India.

As of 2018, BRAC lent money to almost 8 million people and educated more than 1 million children across Bangladesh and ten other countries. Per its multifaceted approach to charity, it has founded or been involved in just about every possible venture: A university, a bank, over 8,700 primary schools, a dairy processor, a cold storage company to preserve farmers’ goods, and so much more.

BRAC is a reminder that even the poorest nations, no matter how “backward” or benighted they may seem, harbor incredible talent, creativity, and potential for progress.

Source: The Economist

The Saudi Military Officer Who Became a Dogged Human Rights Activist

Meet Yahya Assiri, a Saudi military officer-turned-activist who runs an underground human rights group against one of the most oppressive states in the world.

Courtesy of Middle East Eye

Born in a region of Saudi Arabia that fiercely resisted the al-Saud family and its fundamentalist Wahhabi allies, he grew up in a polarized family environment: his grandmother despised the government and its ultraconservative brand of Islam, while his father, like most in his generation, was more favorable to the royal family because of the wealth and security it provided.

Exposure to these opposing views instilled in Assiri a penchant for asking questions, even while he was climbing the ranks of the military. After failing to fulfill his lifelong dream to be a pilot, he joined the administrative side of the Royal Saudi Air Force, where he often worked on international arms deals (Saudi Arabia is one of the largest importers of military equipment). He regularly heard colleagues complain about their meager salaries and struggles with debt and poverty, which sat uncomfortably with the sheer wealth of the royal family and the claims that it brought prosperity to Arabia.

At 24-years-old he began to ask questions internally about these issues, describing himself as a sensitive person who could not ignore the suffering around him, even as he progressed swiftly through the air force and earned good money. Initially resisting the desire to speak out — knowing full well the risks — he began exploring the internet, finding a series of websites and forums in Arabic where people were debating politics. Thus began a double life in which Assiri worked for the government by day but spoke against it online through a pseudonym by night.

Eventually, his online activities gave way to participating in actual public forums, namely at the home of a prominent Saudi human rights activist, Saud al-Hashimi, who Assiri credited as a pivotal figure in his life. In 2011, Hashimi was arrested and jailed in for 30 years on the false charges of “supporting terrorism”, which galvanized Assiri further. Why didn’t regular Saudis have a voice? Why was the regime so afraid? And why was it so wealthy while average Saudis around him struggled?

As more activists got arrested around him, and the government began asking questions about his online activities, Assiri, who by now had a wife and two kids, made the difficult choice of leaving behind his otherwise prosperous life to seek asylum in the U.K. There he founded his own human rights group in August 2014 to keep the fight going.

Knowing that authorities usually dismiss international human rights groups as foreign agents trying to impose Western values, he cleverly chose the name Al Qst, which is a Quranic term meaning justice.

“I used this name to speak to the people. The name comes from our religion, so no one could say my human rights organisation is an attack on the culture of our people.”

The organisation is voluntarily run, relying on a vast underground activist network to keep tabs on everything going on at home. As of 2015, Assiri has eight groups on the messaging application Telegram — which is popular among activists in repressive countries — covering different topics including women’s rights, poverty, the fate of activists, and specific regional issues. The group also has an active Twitter account with over 45,000 followers (@ALQST_ORG)

Assiri wishes to keep the group exclusively Saudi-run so that it cannot be easily dismissed by the authorities nor skeptics. The ultimate goal is to grow Al Qst into a strong civil society organization, since civil society is very much lacking in the country’s stifling sociopolitical environment.

“I believe Al Qst will become the most important organisation dealing with human rights in Saudi Arabia. This is because we – the Saudis – are the best people to understand the complicated problems facing our country.”

Assiri is a reminder that even in the most blighted places, there is some flicker of hope, and not everyone who lives under an odious government is spoken for by that government (something a lot of Americans who otherwise hate one administration or another ironically forget).

Read more about him in this 2015 article (there was not much else out there that I could find).

U.S. Healthcare Stands Out

American exceptionalism certainly has its merits: when it comes to healthcare, the U.S. is most definitely exceptional, albeit not in a good way.

Virtually no country comes close to spending so much on healthcare with so little payoff: a little over twenty years ago, the U.S. spent about 13 percent of GDP on healthcare compared to a developed-world average of about 9.5 percent; by 2016, our spending hit 17.5 percent of GDP–or $3 trillion

As Foreign Policy explained:

As you can see, Americans are spending more money – but they are not receiving results using the most basic metric of life expectancy. The divergence starts just before 1980, and it widens all the way to 2014.

It’s worth noting that the 2015 statistics are not plotted on this chart. However, given that healthcare spend was 17.5% of GDP in 2015, the divergence is likely to continue to widen. U.S. spending is now closing in on $10,000 per person.

Perhaps the most concerning revelation from this data?

Not only is U.S. healthcare spending wildly inefficient, but it’s also relatively ineffective. It would be one thing to spend more money and get the same results, but according to the above data that is not true. In fact, Americans on average will have shorter lives people in other high income countries.

Life expectancy in the U.S. has nearly flatlined, and it hasn’t yet crossed the 80 year threshold. Meanwhile, Chileans, Greeks, and Israelis are all outliving their American counterparts for a fraction of the associated costs.

I am not sure how much more data we need to prove that our healthcare system is broken. So many other countries with fewer resources have managed to extend average life expectancy without breaking the bank. Yet for all our innovation and wealth, we are breaking the bank by a wide a margin and still having little to show for it.

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. 

The First Country to Make Public Transportation Free

Starting next summer, Luxembourg, a small country of 600,000 located between France and German, will remove all fares for buses, trams, and trains, making it the first country with free public transportation. 

More from The Guardian:

On top of the transport pledge, the new government is also considering legalising cannabis, and introducing two new public holidays.

Luxembourg City, the capital of the small Grand Duchy, suffers from some of the worst traffic congestion in the world.

It is home to about 110,000 people, but a further 400,000 commute into the city to work. A study suggested that drivers in the capital spent an average of 33 hours in traffic jams in 2016.

While the country as a whole has 600,000 inhabitants, nearly 200,000 people living in France, Belgium and Germany cross the border every day to work in Luxembourg.

Luxembourg has increasingly shown a progressive attitude to transport. This summer, the government brought in free transport for every child and young person under the age of 20. Secondary school students can use free shuttles between their institution and their home. Commuters need only pay €2 (£1.78) for up to two hours of travel, which in a country of just 999 sq miles (2,590 sq km) covers almost all journeys.

Let’s see if other, bigger countries take note. 

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

America’s Uniquely Bad Gun Problem

Whatever your view on guns, the causes of gun violence, and the best solutions, we should all agree that the data are overwhelmingly clear: for one reason or another (likely multiple reasons) the U.S. has an unusually high rate of violent gun deaths (which doesn’t include accidents and suicide, as these tend to inflate the figures).

Note that even countries that are poorer and more unstable have fewer gun deaths than the U.S., including those with vast black markets or active gangs or militias. As NPR  reports:

When you consider countries with the top indicators of socioeconomic success — income per person and average education level, for instance — the United States is bested by just 18 nations, including Denmark, the Netherlands, Canada and Japan.

Those countries all also enjoy low rates of gun violence. But the U.S. has the 28th-highest rate in the world: 4.43 deaths due to gun violence per 100,000 people in 2017. That was nine times as high as the rate in Canada, which had 0.47 deaths per 100,000 people — and 29 times as high as in Denmark, which had 0.15 deaths per 100,000.

The numbers come from a massive database maintained by the University’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which tracks lives lost in every country, in every year, by every possible cause of death. The 2017 figures paint a fairly rosy picture for much of the world, with deaths due to gun violence rare even in many countries that are extremely poor — such as Bangladesh, which saw 0.07 deaths per 100,000 people.

Prosperous Asian countries such as Singapore and Japan boast the absolute lowest rates, though the United Kingdom and Germany are in almost as good shape.

“It is a little surprising that a country like ours should have this level of gun violence,” Ali Mokdad, a professor of global health and epidemiology at the IHME, told NPR in an interview last year. “If you compare us to other well-off countries, we really stand out.”

Source: NPR