Tag Archives: Human development

The World Cup of Human Development 2014

The ball is round, the game lasts 90 minuteseverything else is pure theory” (Sepp Herberger, West Germany coach)

One of my favourite new television shows is HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. An unassuming Brit, who came to fame filling in for Jon Stewart on Comedy Central, John Oliver delivers incredulity with barely concealed outrage. Last Week Tonight airs on a Sunday night, recapping the week that was through in-depth segments that critically analyse news stories with humour, insight and simplicity.

A segment on climate change denial was brilliant in its use of the stage and visual demonstration. Similarly, Oliver this week took a close look at the World Cup 2014 and FIFA, the world’s football governing body. On the episode, Oliver analogises football and FIFA as “organised religion” in its power to not only shock adherents and lay people with its scandals and abuses, but inspire and excite through its passion of the cross and volley. I share Oliver’s horror at FIFA and love of the game. Indeed, it can replace the “car crash” idiom for describing something that is terrible, but from which you cannot but stare. That is, a FIFA organised World Cup.


As the opening ceremony and match between hosts Brazil and Croatia is less than 12 hours away, lets have a look at how the 32 teams rank against the UNDP’s Human Development Index (2013).


Very high human development

2. Australia

3. United States

4. Netherlands

5. Germany

9. Switzerland

10. Japan

12. South Korea

17. Belgium

20. France

23. Spain

25. Italy

26. UK (England)

29. Greece

40. Chile

43. Portugal

45. Argentina

47. Croatia

High human development

51. Uruguay

55. Russia

61. Mexico

62. Costa Rica

76. Iran

81. Bosnia and Herzegovia

85. Brazil

89. Ecuador

91. Colombia

93. Algeria

Medium Human Development

120. Honduras

135. Ghana

Low Human development

150. Cameroon

153. Nigeria

168. Cote d’Ivoire


The Wall Street Journal published an interesting ‘World Cup of Everything Else‘, where Ghana clearly wins, topping all nations in education expenditure as a percentage of GDP (8.1%). Not to be outdone, Costa Rica has the most women in government with 39% of seats in national parliaments held by women. Tom Murphy, of A View From The Cave, is also launching an interactive global development world cup that will compare countries across a range of development indicators (TBC).

There are a few key takeaways from this simple ranking above:

1) There is a high correlation between participation in the world cup and high human development;

2) The four African representative nations also rank the lowest in human development;

3) Brazil, the host, ranks #85 and the problems surrounding its hosting are well-documented. However, 6 of the past 8 World Cup champions have won one of their titles while playing at home, the exceptions being Brazil and Spain;

4) The most lop-sided match up will be Japan (#10) vs. Cote d’Ivoire (#168). Their respective FIFA rankings are #46 and #23.

According to the World Development Movement, if social justice is your passion, then you should be cheering for Costa Rica. The organisation has launched a website, Who Should I Cheer For?, which ranks all 32 teams based on their efforts to eradicate poverty and social injustice. The indicators used range from CO2 emissions per person and women in government to military spending and financial transparency.

I’ll be cheering for Australia and Ghana respectively, with Belgium as my sleeper. If you have no interest in football, I suggest you develop one, particularly for working in global development. It is the world game. FIFA has more member nations than the United Nations. You will find yourself walking past a group of children in [insert country] while working for [insert organisation], who are kicking [insert object] around and trying to slot it between an old shoe and a rock. You will want to join in. You may even be invited. You better be ready.

If you are looking for a venue at which to watch your country play, and happen to live in Milwaukee, I can’t stress enough that you visit this bar and report back to us.


If you want to participate in my ESPN bracket and predict the winners of all finals and the overall winner, please head to ESPN. The password to join the group is ‘cueball’. 

Goals are good, but do the MDGs need to be simplified?

If the recent US presidential campaign felt more acrimonious and hard-fought than ever before, remember, there’s probably good news for global development. According to the UN, the world has met two critical Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), including halving extreme poverty and doubling access to clean water. Although success is not evenly spread and some of the MDGs will probably not be met, we have considerable reason to celebrate the most significant gains we have seen in our lifetime.

In order to ensure that this progress is equitable and accelerating, our goals for the post-2015 framework must take a different shape. Simplifying the MDGs to just four goals encompassing global well-being, extreme poverty, health and climate change will make the MDGs more memorable and reportable.

Although global well-being may not seem to fit in the context of the MDGs, it makes sense to measure what we’re actually trying to impact by examining the degree to which we’re improving lives. This will require new resources and thought around what is an acceptable measure of well-being, as Bhutan’s interpretation of “Gross National Happiness” illustrates, but these are details that deserve to be debated in the full light of greater research and commentary. Importantly, creating an MDG that aims to raise overall global well-being will not only spur research and aid funding to more accurately assess whether our anti-poverty efforts are achieving this goal, but also receive attention from some who may not otherwise pay attention to global development.

But in this respect, attracting attention to the MDGs, simplifying our broader aims to just four will give us more freedom to make the MDGs a cause to advocate for in and of themselves. Currently, activists advocate for the end of AIDS or the capture of Kony, but few clamour for the achievement of MDG five, if anyone can even name what it actually is (improving maternal health). But by consolidating our aims to a distinct four, MDG progress can be sped along by activists advocating for the end of climate change, for example. Making the MDGs marketable for the purpose of activist involvement isn’t about reaching for inclusion where it doesn’t exist, but finding alternatives to waiting for governments to chip in.

And though I’ve earlier called the MDG gains the most significant of our lifetime, exaggerating successes and drowning in failures is probably an unhelpful trait of development writing. Although it’s wonderful that extreme poverty has been halved since 1990, China’s recent growth has much to do with this, which is largely not a product of humanitarian development dollars. If our post-2015 MDGs are destined to merely measure our overall progress against poverty, then there is nothing wrong with claiming success when we succeed as a result of a factor we didn’t expect. But this isn’t the goal of the MDGs. The MDGs should seek to compel individuals and nations to up their contributions to development. This is only possible if we judge success by the amount we increase our commitments every year—in dollars, contraceptives, bed nets, medicines, and anything that improves lives.

Certainly, this approach will encourage help of all kinds, but it’s crucial that we aren’t misled to believe that charity given regardless of context or need is a victory. The MDGs should not just be a reflection of where we wish to see the world in the near future, but how we should prioritise our spending. For example, the Copenhagen Consensus, an organisation that attempts to gauge which development interventions are the most cost-effective, ranked providing malaria treatment as one of the best ways to save lives and improve health in 2012. Although HIV/AIDS is arguably a more pressing issue than malaria if judged by a simple number of deaths, money spent treating malaria will have a greater impact than treating HIV/AIDS according to their research. Many people are understandably uncomfortable with the premise of determining who lives and dies on the basis of cost-effectiveness, but compassion does not justify ineffective approaches.

While the MDGs may not contain the adrenaline and energy of a costly election, activist engagement may allow us to achieve success where government funding hasn’t. Four MDGs, encompassing most of the interests of the current MDGs, will pull us through every MDG success, every failure and every unsatisfying outcome in between.


Gold medals for human development

Bill Easterly recently published a short piece of research with a simple question: What determines Olympic medals? He finds that income per capita and total population, GDP, determines total number of medals won. He also drew some poignant lessons from the study:

(1) World Bank national development strategies in key emerging markets have failed miserably in the Olympics sector.

(2) a history of Communism may not have been so awesome for development and liberty, but it’s still amazing for Olympic medals.

(3) Islamist ideology is a mixed medal producer (Saudi Arabia no, Iran yes).

(4) if nothing else works, just run really fast.

Like any good Development Economist, Easterly only looks at GDP and total number of medals. He forgets a very important fact about the Olympics: only gold medals matter. The medal tally is not ranked on total number of medals. It is ranked on total number of gold medals. And, we know how American athletes feel about silver:

So, lets have a look at what determines Olympic gold medals (which are not really gold, and only contain 1.34% gold) and go beyond GDP to look at ‘Human Development‘. The first image is the medal tally according to gold medals. The second image is the Human Development Index (HDI) ranking. Only the top 24 countries are displayed.

The results find a weak correlation between ‘Human Development’ (GDP, life expectancy at birth, mean years of schooling, expected years of schooling) and the ability to win events that people only watch once every fours years. However, the results also support Easterly’s finding that running really fast works. Also, lifting really heavy things, shooting and being in or on water work as well.

Other not so important observations:

  • Only 10 countries in the top 24 HDI rankings can be found in the top 24 medal tally.
  • no.14 Iran ranks no.88 in the HDI; no.16 North Korea does not ranks due to insufficient data; no.17 Jamaica ranks no.79 in the HDI.
  • Only one country from the British Isles, Ireland, ranks in the top 24 for ‘human development’. The United Kingdom sits at no.28 in the HDI.
  • Countries currently affected by the Eurozone crisis, although not ranking too well in the medal tally, are still holding ground in the HDI: Italy, Spain, and Germany. This suggests that Italy and Spain should increase funding of its national sports and athletics programs, while cutting back on health and education.
  • In no way are these findings to be taken seriously.


Is “sustainable development” an oxymoron?

[Ed. note: Leading up to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, we will be featuring a series of three posts on sustainable development. This first one examines whether the term “sustainable development” is a contradiction.]

On June 20, 180 world leaders and 50,000 people from the development and environment sectors will arrive in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to participate in what is expected to be the largest conference in world history – the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, better known as “Rio+20.”

In the lead-up to this conference, I couldn’t help but wonder – is “sustainable development” an oxymoron?

A term coined in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development, “sustainable development” is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It is the simultaneous pursuit of the inter-related goals of ecological integrity, social equity, and economic welfare. It recognizes that all life is underpinned by the goods and services provided by nature, and acknowledges the moral obligation of contemporary society to the well-being of both present and future populations.

This is important as environment degradation prevents poverty reduction. As stated in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, “The degradation of ecosystem services is harming many of the world’s poorest people and is sometimes the principal factor causing poverty.” Their survival is impacted by the poor management of the natural resources they depend upon, with use out-stripping supply, trapping them in endless cycles of poverty. If ecosystems and their services continue to be degraded, it will be impossible to find a path to long-term poverty reduction.

At Rio+20, the goal will be to secure political commitment to global sustainable development…once again. In 1992 Rio de Janeiro also hosted the “Earth Summit,” where sustainable development was first identified as a top priority on the agenda of the United Nations and the international community. It concluded with 172 signatories to a number of important documents including the Rio Declaration for Environment and Development, containing 27 principals intended to guide future sustainable development, and Agenda 21, the comprehensive blueprint of action to be taken by the UN, governments, and major groups in the 21st century. It also resulted in the opening of two legally binding international agreements – the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Framework Convention on Climate Change, which eventually lead to the Kyoto Protocol. The Earth Summit set a precedent and an agenda.

But 20 years later, our environment is getting worse, not better, as highlighted in the table below. Alarmingly, many of these changes have accelerated in the past two decades, despite the abundance of international conventions signed during this time.

Over the same 20-year period, this environmental degradation has coincided with a period of sustained progress across a range of measures of human development. Over the two decades to 2010, world gross domestic product (GDP) rose by 300%, with incomes rising faster than populations, shown by a 222% increase in GDP per capita[i]. Improvements in life expectancy, school enrolment, literacy and income are all reflected within an 18% increase in the world’s average Human Development Index (HDI) since 1990[ii].

While rising inequalities and pockets of entrenched poverty continue to consume development efforts, there is no doubt that average material human wellbeing is better than ever before.

Figure 1 below illustrates humans’ interaction with Earth’s natural capital, and how three causal factors – population, consumption, and resource (in)efficiency – are driving the degradation of the “hand that feeds them”… something my parents taught me to never bite.

Figure 1: Linking biodiversity, ecosystems services and people – the causal factors, drivers, and direct pressures contributing to the degradation of global biodiversity and the ecosystems services provided by it. Source: WWF Living Planet Report 2012.

The latest Living Planet Report estimates that since 1996, the global demand for natural resources has doubled. It now takes 1.5 years to regenerate the renewable resources used in one year by humans. This means that we are eating into our natural capital, instead of living off its interest, and therefore creating ecological debt. Humanity’s demands are greater than our planet’s ability to sustain us. We are asking for more than we have.

Figure 2: Global Ecological Footprint by component, 1961 – 2008. Source: WWF Living Planet Report 2012.

Measuring “Ecological Footprint’” tracks humanity’s demands on the biosphere by comparing humanity’s consumption against Earth’s regenerative capacity (biocapacity). Astoundingly, on average, the footprint of high-income countries is five times greater than that of low-income countries. If everybody on Earth lived like an average Indonesian, only two-thirds of the planet’s biocapacity would be utilised, while if everyone lived like an average person from the U.S.A, not less than four Earths would be required to regener­ate humanity’s annual demand on nature! Modest UN scenarios estimate that by 2030 we will need the equivalent of two Earths to support us if current population and resource consumption trends persist. Obviously, we only have one.

Figure 2 shows the growth of the world’s average Ecological Footprint over time. As you can see, the dominant component of Ecological Footprint is carbon emissions, which accounts for 55% of the footprint.

Figure 3 outlines Ecological Footprint by region, and the growth in population as well as per capita footprint in each region between 1961 and 2008. It also highlights the almost halving of the biocapacity available to each person over the same period. So despite less resources being available to us, we are consuming more.

Figure 3: Ecological Footprint by region, 1961-2008, highlighting the change in average footprint per person and population change. Biocapacity represented by horizontal bar. Source: WWF Living Planet Report 2012.

Is “sustainable development” an oxymoron then? Are we able to increase human wellbeing and quality of life, without using more resources than the Earth can produce for us?

Or is “sustainable development” actually about having more fulfilling development– an opportunity to ask ourselves what true prosperity and fulfillment really is, and to redefine the way we think about what it is to live, and what the evolution and progression of humanity we should be striving for involves?

Science points to the tipping points we are fast approaching. I believe Rio+20 will be a critical moment in history where the fate of everyone, present and future, will be determined, for better or for worse.

But I believe humanity possesses the collective intelligence and resourcefulness needed to solve the problems it faces and move forward sustainably, whilst also alleviating poverty. I will investigate ways in which this can be achieved through the prism of a “green economy” in my next post.

Additionally, as sustainable development is essentially an issue of global ethics, I will also explore the question of responsibility and institutional frameworks for sustainable development on macro- and micro-scales, in a third post in this series.


The author wishes to acknowledge and thank Kate Glazebrook for her words and ideas in relation to the human development aspects of this post.


[i] Data generated through use of World Bank Databank, 2012.

Literacy in Development: the flaws with using literacy rates to inform development policy (part 3)

Parts one and two recap: Literacy is not a universal skill gained through schooling with culture and home practices as irrelevant, especially in a minority language community. Nor is literacy an automatic catalyst for economic development. But a lot of development policy assumes so. This is a particularly complicated (but interesting) concern in China.

This week, the world’s first World Literacy Summit is being held at Oxford, and making a convincing economic argument for investment in literacy is high on the agenda. However, what may not be on is how we measure literacy and design appropriate interventions. Literacy rates are one such measurement, but do they tell us what we think they tell us?

Do literacy rates measure what we think they do?

Literacy measures often use school attendance as a proxy, i.e. they measure things like how many community members completed primary school. This is because reading and writing at a grade 6 level (for example) is seen as “being literate”. This misses what sociolinguists call “subaltern literacies”, which are those ways of engaging with text that happen outside the classroom. These often go very much under the radar because the people involved are the poorest of the poor and the most excluded. In particular, these “illiterates” are excluded from Culture with a capital “C”: they don’t glow with learning and literature and refinement. They speak dialects, they do manual work, they are adults without much education. So what these people do with text isn’t valuable to those deciding on the standards and collecting the data. In fact, schooling measurements don’t acknowledge that these Others engage with text at all.

Nevertheless, in many countries, many people like this are actually more literate than their “betters” assume. They are the “literate poor”, but if they are not visible in measurements, development policies are unlikely to be directed to them.

Schooling-centred monitoring also fails to explain the shared practices between literate and illiterate community members which determine when literacy skills will be made available to others. Such monitoring is therefore deficient as a basis for designing programs to harness literacy’s instrumentality, because the data doesn’t clearly reveal all those for whom literacy is an instrument. And such monitoring fails to tap into home and community practices and attitudes which might stymie children’s acquisition of schooled literacy: does everyone completing primary school have the same literacy? And why are some communities’ children less likely than others to even get to that point?

How can you maximise the use of literacy for development if you don’t actually understand how it is used by people together?

There is discussion amongst scholars – some of whom are also practitioners – about how improving the understanding and measuring of literacy could improve economists’ policies for development. It’s an interesting strand within broader debates about the quantification of development. (I know many whydev readers have an interest in those debates; please share your thoughts below.)

Here’s the difficulty: how can we get the quantitative data development agencies want if we accept that we have to start looking outside the neat boundaries of formal schooling to harness important literacy practices? Bryan Maddox, of the University of East Anglia, suggests moving to a statistical methodology using a transparent, multiple thresholds in a “set of valued literacy functionings”, which would  index the varied literacies in a person’s life to his or her development.  This thresholds approach sits more comfortably with Sen’s influential Capabilities Approach to development, which

“argues that illiteracy is a ‘focal feature’ of capability deprivation and human insecurity. Illiteracy is viewed as a pervasive feature of capability deprivation and inequality, and literacy (particularly women’s literacy) as a source of agency, autonomy and socio-economic mobility” (Bryan Maddox and Lucio Esposito)

That is, it provides a more nuanced measure of the range of deprivation but also agency one person can have in different parts of their life.

However, for the moment, the bulk of monitoring still treads lead-footed through governments’ literacy/illiteracy rates, themselves built upon the outdated ideas of autonomous skills and school attendance. One example of this is UNESCO’s monitoring of whether we reach the Millennium Development Goal of halving adult illiteracy by 2015. This happens because evaluating situated literacy is more complicated, but this approach loses a lot by prioritising simplicity.

Literacy t-shirt
And does anyone care if your parent can?

Anna Robinson-Pant, also of the University of East Anglia, suggests this approach to monitoring leads to perceptions that literacy and schooling are the same, and therefore that adult literacy should be about acquiring the formal literacy missed through lack of childhood school opportunities, without giving weight to many other important literacy practices in adults’ lives. She suggests this results in smaller development grants for adult literacy programs. To me, that brings home a problematic, real-world outcome of the datedness of the literacy thinking which informs development policy.

More nuanced views on literacy, and more nuanced data, require effort.  Monitoring methodology can be seen as the dull, back-office side of development work. But the room for methodological improvement is real, just as real as the changes such improvements could precipitate in the world beyond the stats.

What David Foster Wallace taught me about development

Courtesy of a good friend of mine, I recently read this speech, by American author David Foster Wallace to graduate students at Kenyon College in 2005. If you have a spare 10 minutes, I wholeheartedly encourage you to head over and have a read. The central theme of Foster Wallace’s talk was that our “default setting” is to think that the world revolves around us, and therefore everything that occurs in our lives only happens because it has an effect on us. After all, we can only see the world through our own perspective, there are no other sets of eyes which we can use. However, Foster Wallace strongly advocated for the need to push past this, and to constantly remind ourselves that there are a whole number of other perspectives and lives going on, regardless of ours. Doing this, he felt, was a vital part of being a far better communicator, a far better writer, and most importantly, a far better human.

From a young age, Foster Wallace himself was tainted with the tag of “genius”. He was constantly praised for his achievements in class, on the sporting field, in his books. He wrote his first novel, The Broom of the System, at the age of 24. Ten years later, his second novel, Infinite Jest, was published, and it now sits in Time’s list of the 100 Best Novels since 1923, putting him alongside authors such as Hemingway, Orwell and Steinbeck. Foster Wallace didn’t complete a third novel, however. At the age of 46, he committed suicide by hanging himself with a belt. He had suffered through depression for more than 20 years, and it had finally gotten the better of him.

Although Foster Wallace may have been seen by many to be a modern-day genius, what he excelled in most was an absolute denial of this idea. He was exceptionally keen on the idea that he was really no different from anyone else, that he was not exceptional, and that the world continued to go on regardless of whether he was there or not. Listening to his own words, this realisation becomes immediately apparent:

“I gotta tell you, I just think to look across the room and automatically assume that somebody else is less aware than me, or that somehow their interior life is less rich, and complicated, and acutely perceived than mine, makes me not as good a writer. Because that means I’m going to be performing for a faceless audience, instead of trying to have a conversation with a person … I treasure my regular-guyness. I’ve started to think it’s my biggest asset as a writer. Is that I’m pretty much just like everybody else.”

David Foster Wallace addresses students at Kenyon College in 2005.


For me, I think you could replace the word “writer” with “development worker” and it would still have the same effect. As a writer, Foster Wallace was able to connect with his readers in ways that other authors couldn’t, because he was able to speak from an everyman perspective. For those working in development, the same attitude can be adopted. One of the most oft repeated lines in development is that for programs to work, we need to get away from the model of donor and recipient, and move towards a model of empowerment, a model that values the voices of everyone, not just those with Masters degrees. From a purely practical point of view, there is no point coming into an area and forcing your ideas on others, if, once you leave, those ideas are not accepted. I believe we can take Foster Wallace’s recognition that we are not inherently any more superior, or any more important, and apply it to our field too.

Many of us live in a world that could easily make us think that we are the centre of it. We are often praised for our achievements, we often excel in what we do, and we are often told that the world is full of boundless opportunities, if only we apply ourselves. Of course, praise has its place when deserved, and can serve an important purpose, but it can lead to losing sight of where we stand in the big picture. Although many of us are put in places of privilege, it is imperative to understand the true meaning of the word “serve”.

Perhaps the greatest exponent of that concept was Gandhi. In his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Gandhi said (emphasis is mine):

“Service can have no meaning unless one takes pleasure in it. When it is done for show or for fear of public opinion it stunts the man and crushes his spirit. Service which is rendered without joy helps neither the servant nor the served. But all other pleasures and possessions pale into nothingness before service which is rendered in a spirit of joy.”

In a short piece entitled The Nature of the Fun, Foster Wallace speaks of a similar parallel in the world of writing. He speaks of how initially, people tend to write simply because they think it is fun, until they are (unfortunately) recognised as having talent. After this point, it can become more about trying to write for others; for recognition, for adoration or for respect. Foster Wallace doesn’t only believe that this primarily serves the ego and vanity, it leads to, as he puts it “shitty fiction”.

I believe that by ignoring the true meaning of the word “serve”, we too can fall into the trap of “shitty development”. The following table, courtesy of How Matters, adequately illustrates this point:


Image courtesy of How Matters


We live in a world where it is easy to fall into the trap of the “default setting” that Foster Wallace described when speaking to Kenyon College graduates in 2005. All around us, we see examples of vanity and self-centredness becoming the norm. A recent analysis of modern day song lyrics showed that words such as “I” and “me” are more commonly used than ever before. Our obsession with Charlie Sheen and his obsession with winning, while amusing for 3.5 seconds, is a sad reflection on the pervasiveness of our voyeurism and the value we put on self-praise and chest-beating. And finally, my favourite study of recent times, women (as compared to men), who posted more photos of themselves and had the largest social networks on Facebook, are more likely to value their self worth according to their appearance, and use social networking as a method to seek attention.

As development workers, what can we conclude from all of this, and what is the best way forward? I think it involves taking the ego out of the equation, and removing that temptation to think that we are perhaps smarter, more special and more insightful than others. As tragic as Foster Wallace’s death was, there’s still a very important lesson to be learnt in the way he lived his life.


You can follow this author on Twitter here.

Alone together

Disclaimer: please do not take these arguments seriously, unless you agree with them

Premise: Technology is changing human relationships and development for the worse.

Affirmative (Brendan):

@wmyeoh Human relationships are being eroded by 140 characters, relationships statuses, farm animals and angry birds #debate.

If this debate were a tweet, that would be my argument.I will make no bones of it, I am not a ludite. I have a twitter account (@bjrigby), and work across two others. I am also on Facebook, Flickr, Google Reader, have a Kindle, blog regularly and generally avoid any conversation that does not begin with an @ or #. I don’t have an iPhone. [are we receiving endorsements for all this product placement?] More and more, I am finding myself beginning conversations with issues, ideas, events that I discovered on my Twitter feed. Yet, I have been feeling more and more disconnected, despite enhancing my online presence over the past six months. This is not an argument against the free movement and flow of ideas, knowledge and communication, just a call for regulation and return to normalcy.

Although not expressed quite so eloquently, Ashleigh Simpson (Jessica’s younger sis) makes a statement that we would all do well to heed. “Come back to the human race man” (and woman). Even the Pope has weighed in and given his church’s blessing to social networks (#John3:16). However, sensibly, he warned that online relationships are no substitute for real relationships. He also commented that new media “urgently demand a serious reflection on the significance of communication in the digital age”. Well-said.

I believe this is the point where I throw a throw a bunch of numbers around with lots of zeros. This many number of Facebook users, that many Tweets per hour, etc. I’d rather not. Purely pointing to numbers, such as net amount of users, will not do much to bolster my argument. If you are reading this, then you are more than well aware of how pervasive and embedded technology is in our lives; and that the creator of Napster looks a lot like Justin Timberlake. Rather than reading numbers, I suggest you watch this great motion infographic on the obsession with Facebook:

Oh, and did you read that a man in Egypt, after Mubarak resigned, named his daughter ‘Facebook’ (does this make Zuckerberg a girl?). I’m just pleased that Facebook has finally been gendered, but am already sympathetic to this girl and the teasing, poking, tagging and requesting she will be subjected to at school. To the list of female gendered inanimate objects in the English language we can now add Facebook to Ships, Countries and Oceans. +1 to Feminism. However, this also is typical of another aspect of modern life. Brands. Our lives are increasingly branded, an old but persuasive argument by Naomi Klein. We conduct our day to day lives with, on, through brands. In fact, our very contact and relationships with many people are facilitated by brands. Surely, the greatest marketing coup in the history of humanity was the ability of companies to regulate how we communicate with one another.

And, we will never forget you Amanda. What movie were you in again? Nevermind. I am already digging around Shaq’s tweets to uncover some universal truths. All the these forms of online communications facilitated by techonology allows for a widening of the public space. However, in doing so, we have lost an enormous amount of intimacy. Intimacy is the foundation of human relationships. It cements our bonds, our trust, our support in one another. We are losing intimacy by conducting our relationships in such public, online space, and thus, weakening the bonds that connect us to one another. Indeed, this intimacy and care is even being lost with ourselves. It is not uncommon at all to read of online gamers dying at their keyboards after marathon sessions.

I would argue that, overall, technology and advanced communications are having increasingly adverse affects on our empathy, compassion, attention and well-being. I spent at least 3 seconds thinking about that previous statement, so well thought out it is. On our very ability to connect with one another as human beings. Technology is not supporting our evolution as humans. It is creatively designing it. Determining our relationships with one another and undervaluing the importance of face-to-face human relationships.

Negative (Weh)

Here is a photo that will convince you of technology's ability to help create real change. Anti-government bloggers work on their laptops from Tahrir Square. Photo courtesy of the Boston Globe's Big Picture.

Ah yes. The old “technology is turning us into worse human beings” argument. This isn’t an argument that is relatively new, it’s been around for ages. But it is one that gained quite a lot of traction around the middle of last year. A book by an author named Nicholas Carr titled “The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember” kickstarted the discussion around June, and all of a sudden there were plenty of articles popping up about the topic. I have to confess that I haven’t read Nicholas Carr’s book. It’s not because my increasingly minute attention span couldn’t handle the 384 pages of concentration required, but simply because they haven’t released a Kindle version yet.

Yes, like Brendan, I am a heavy user of technology. I check my email in the morning when I wake up. I get on Twitter quite a lot. I have occasionally known to be one of the 59% of people who check their email from the bathroom. But unlike Brendan, I don’t feel more disconnected. I feel more inspired from the people that I see online. I don’t feel more stupid. I feel more knowledgeable. In fact I would say almost all the research for this article has come from stuff that I’ve found on Twitter over the last couple of years. So what’s the big deal?

The main arguments against the ever-increasing role of technology in our lives seems to be twofold. One, it is turning us into a bunch of brainless buffoons, who are unable to concentrate for more than 2 consecutive seconds on one task, and unable to absorb information longer than 140 characters. The problem with these claims and many of these studies is that they are often set up almost to prove this point. For example, one study asked for participants to read a short story. They were split into two groups – one who read it linearly, and one who had to click highlighted words in the text to move forward. Surprise surprise, the group who had to click highlighted text was slower and found it more confusing to follow the storyline. But, hang on, this is a short story! It’s not a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. It’s a classic example of trying to adapt new technology to an old form of media (prose) simply for the sake of it, not to improve the experience at all.

And what if we were to accept that argument that technology is shortening our attention spans? Is this such a new phenomenon? As argued by Vaughan Bell, a neuropsychologist and clinician, multitasking is hardly a new thing. Bell argues that there are a multiplicity of other things that predate technology, or coincide with technology that equally require us to multitask. For example, people that live in low-tech surroundings “have to watch their food because there is no timer; washing clothes has to be done by hand while keeping an eye on everything else; street vendors pass by the house and shout what they’re selling, and if you miss that your family could go without food for a day.” Looking after children demands that we shorten our attention spans and focus on more than one thing at once. So is technology forcing us to have shorter attention spans and multitask more? No way – because this isn’t in any way a new phenomenon.

The second argument seems to be that technology is eroding our human relationships, and this is the main argument of a recent book titled “Alone Together”. In essence, it is argued that the seductive nature of email, Facebook, Twitter and other forms of communication are eating in to our ability to relate to each other. There has even been the claim made that because this current generation of teens is less empathetic than even, text messaging and other non face-to-face communication is to blame. But it’s exactly these kind of baseless, broad generalisations that are causing this myth to pervade and gain momentum. No one making this argument has made any attempt to differentiate between causation and association. Yes, this group of teens might be less empathetic (how you measure that is anyone’s guess). Yes, they send text messages ridiculously often (every ten minutes when they are awake according to 2010 data). But does that mean that fact B causes fact A. Not necessarily. In fact, I would probably guess that whoever is making these arguments has spent approximately 2.7 seconds pondering them, so badly thought out they are.

The fact of the matter is that all this technology is pretty new stuff. Facebook is only 7 years old. Twitter is less than 5 years old. We’re still trying to find new ways to use them. That are an incredible number of stories of technology being used for good in the world. I don’t have enough space to go through all of them (Brendan thought the average reader’s attention span might not last this long). Look at the Egyptian’s governments attempts to shut down the internet in their country to see how powerful it can be to mobilise people for a common cause (there’s a fascinating infographic on the use of Twitter during the Mubarak’s Feb 11 speech here). What we need to do is not to denounce technology as a whole, but to work out better ways in which we can interact while using them. Why don’t we follow the Chinese, who have ordered all school children to undergo etiquette lessons, even while text messaging and sending emails? Surely this is a much more logical path to go down. Rather than discarding technology as being harmful to us, why not focus on how we can actually use it better, to improve both the flow of information and communication?

Anyway, enough said, it’s back to Angry Birds for the rest of the day for me.

War and Peace (prizes)

It is now well-known that a total of 18 14 countries have declined invitations to attend the ceremony of the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday. According to the Guardian, “Beijing has urged diplomats in Oslo to stay away from the event, warning of ‘consequences’ if they go”. Chinese officials have also suggested that this statement signals the international community’s opposition to the award. Who is this international community? (see the list below).

It is certainly a very colourful group of countries, but what they share in common is perhaps a little hard to determine. Commentators have reported that several of those countries that clicked ‘not attending’ are long-term trading partners and have strong commercial interests with China. However, when looked at from other perspectives, this is more than an act of economic kowtowing to China. It is a message.

So, what are these countries trying to say? Is it a response, a counter-message, by a rag-tag alignment of countries to the increasing harmonisation of universal values and human rights? In particular, those of freedom of speech, democracy and citizen activism. A message intended for their own citizens? For the larger international community? In recent years, democratic governance has increasingly taken a central role in development policy and aid allocation to governance sectors. The declining of invitations could be interpreted as the ‘international community’s’ response to such via the Nobel Peace Prize. The table I put together below certainly suggests that these 18 14 countries + China have more than economic interests in common.

(See also the legend below below for a guide to what these numbers mean).

Country HDI (2010) rankings CPI (2010) score Democracy Index (2007) Rankings
China 89 3.5 138
Pakistan 125 2.3 113
Iran 70 2.2 139
Sudan 154 1.6 141
Russia 65 2.1 102
Kazakhstan 66 2.9 120
Colombia 79 3.5
Tunisia 81 4.3 135
Saudi Arabia 55 5.0 159
Serbia 60 3.5 55
Iraq 1.5 112
Vietnam 113 2.7 145
Afghanistan 155 1.4 135
Venezuela 75 2.0 93
the Philippines 97 2.4 63
Egypt 101 3.1 115
Ukraine 69 2.4 52
Cuba 3.7 124
Morocco 114 3.4 115
Human Development Index

      (HDI) rankings – HDI is an alternative to conventional measures of a country’s development, along metrics (measures) other than purely economic ones; health, education, life expectancy, inequality, poverty and human security. 1 is the highest ranking a country can attain. Australia is currently ranked #2.

Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) – The CPI measures perceived levels of public sector corruption in 178 countries on a 10-point scale: 10 being very clean and 1 being highly corrupt.

The Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index – This index examines the state of democracy in 167 countries across five general categories: electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, functioning of government, political participation and political culture.

It is clear that these 19 countries share a number of things in common:

  • 12 of the 19 15 countries in the table above are ranked as ‘authoritarian regimes’
  • No country scored higher than 5.0 on the CPI, with an average of 2.8 out of 10.
  • The highest ranked country on the HDI is Saudi Arabia at 55.

Yet, despite their vast differences, geographically, historical and culturally, they have come together this once, corralled by China, to send a strong message to the international community: history has far from ended.


Far more insightful and interesting analysis has been produced on this same topic. In particular, I recomend reading Foreign Policy’s Dan Drezner and The Monkey Cage’s Eric Voeten. Interestingly, five countries that originally signalled their intention to not attend, reversed: Colombia, Serbia, Urkaine, Argentina & the Philippines. What may be of interest is that those four countries (minus Argentina) that did send representatives are ranked quite well within this group in terms of human development and democracy. As Drezner observes, “In the end, however, the only countries that complied with China’s request were the countries that already shared China’s domestic policy preferences on this issue”. Eric Voeten produced some interesting correlation (and graph) of a positive between those that did not attend and press freedom. So, I still think there is a strong correlation between those that did not attend and democratic governance, accountability and transparency across the public sector and to a lesser extent, human development.

Also, footage from the ceremony below:

Ciclovia and the pursuit of non-pollutant happyness

‘Traffic jams’ and ‘air pollution’ appear to be phrases synonymous with both developing and developed urban life. Mothers who smoke while pregnant actually cause less risks to their unborn child than if they were to live and breathe in Mexico city. Pollution in Mexico City increases the chance of suffering from depressed lungs and early and low weight births rates. Among the World Bank’s report of the worst 20 cities in the world regarding air pollutants, 16 are in China and it is not uncommon for airports in Beijing and Shanghai to close due to lack of visibility, freshly washed laundry to come out black and astronauts unable to locate Chinese cities from space that are swallowed by pollution. Of China’s 560 million urban residents, only 1% breathe air considered safe by the European Union, while WHO recognises Chinese urban air to contain 20 times the pollutants considered a safe level. In Los Angeles, the most polluted city in the US, children, the elderly and ill were prohibited from leaving their homes after air pollution reports warned of breathing problems that could easily manifest into asthma, lung cancer and heart disease to name but a few serious health concerns.
Chinese traffic
What if this wasn’t the case and we could change the association of urban living with ‘clean air’, ‘green sustainability’, ‘family safe spaces’ and ‘community friendly environments’? If Chinese tourism entrepreneurs no longer procured a market for ‘fresh air’ countryside tours and children could describe the colour of the sky as blue instead of white, yellow or grey.

Pollution in these megacities are not caused by cars alone, and obviously there are many strategies to reduce pollution. However, I want to specifically look at initiatives to combat over usage of private cars in urban spaces and the consequent benefits for community. Let’s begin with Colombia. Hearing stories of Bogota from Colombian friends about kidnapped siblings, knife point robberies stripped to underwear and solo drivers propping scarecrows in the passenger seat to appear in company gives me an impression of a dangerous, lawless, wild city of crime, as some residents described, un enfiernoa living hell. In contrast to these stereotypes, this image is paradoxically shattered thanks to an initiative since 2000, known as Ciclovia: car free-carefree, renewing urban congestion into green livability. Every Sunday in Bogota, Cali and Medellin, roads close and city commuters use bicycles, skateboards, rollerblades, pedicabs, unicycles and horses to name but a few non-polluting modes of transport to get around. This is not a token gesture. It is an integrated, weekly part of society; the streets become a festival and in Bogota alone, over 120km of roads are closed and up to 2 million people take part in activities ranging from free aerobics and yoga sessions, markets, music and dance performances. Under this banner of regular festivities and celebrations, it is of little surprise that Colombia ranks the second happiest country in the world, according to the New Economics Foundation.
Bogota Ciclovia

Bogota’s former mayor Enrique Penalosa shifted budgets intended for highways, into parks, bike lanes, and mass-rapid public transit lanes in an effort to lift human happiness indicators. “I realized that we in the Third World are not going to catch up to the developed countries for two or three hundred years,” he recalls. “If we defined our success just in terms of income per capita, we would have to accept ourselves as second- or third-rate societies – as a bunch of losers – which is not exactly enticing for our young people. So we are forced to find another measure of success. I think the only real obvious measure of success is happiness.”

Many countries throughout the world have been inspired by Colombia’s Ciclovias and there is a growing car-free movement replicating Bogota’s model, granted with varied levels of success and long term continuation over different social, geographical and cultural contexts. Lots of cities encourage car-free zones, Rio Piedras in Puerto Rico, Copenhagen in Denmark, La Rochelle in France, Guadalajara in Mexico, Geneva in Switzerland, Quebec City in Canada and Curitiba in Brazil are to name but a few examples.

Car free Jakarta

Colombia is a model example but let’s also look at what other cities are doing to combat traffic congestion and excessive car emissions. Jakarta’s streets are notorious for heavy traffic and if the current rates of increased cars continue, the city will become a stagnant traffic jam by 2015. The city introduced a ‘three in one’ model in 1992 which states that during peak hour each car on the road must have at least 3 passengers, which was somewhat successful but also created an illegal paid-passenger scheme so that rich commuters could meet their passenger quotas and drive personal vehicles. Jakarta has reached a point of desperation and drawing from Bogota, the city now holds monthly car free days in the CBD, closing off the city to cars. As a result, there have been studies that prove this decreases the amount of toxins and pollutants in the air. Jakarta still has a long way to improve and this is but one effort to curb pollution in Indonesia.

Singapore is a unique example of a developed nation because huge change has occurred over a single generation since the country gained independence in 1965. The island city state approached urban planning with the intention of creating a green city, and a combination of cheap, widespread mass-rail-transit and bus networks (take a look at Singaporean MRT etiquette here) along with skyrocketing taxes on car ownership, tolls and fuel taxes, keeps private cars limited on the road creating a clean and green man-made Utopian bubble. This model would be hard to replicate elsewhere due to Singapore’s advantageous limited size and the fact it is ruled by a government many view as an authoritarian quasi-democracy which easily controls the population. Nevertheless, it is still a story of success.

Urban pollution and contributing climate change are issues we can not ignore and must combat. It is no longer acceptable to drive your car without asking, ‘Do I really need to use this private vehicle and what other alternatives are there?’ From the dictatorship Singapore, the struggling Jakarta to the joyful Bogota, there are many issues, themes and debates surrounding this article and I’d like to hear your thoughts or other examples of urban initiatives to combat private car use.

Socially engaged Buddhism – a model for development?

“If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha” (Zen Master Lin Chi).

What is meant by this is simple, complex and relevant. The citizens of Kesaputta once asked the Buddha what they should believe. They were very confused by the many religions in vogue at that time. The Buddha said, “Do not accept anything by mere tradition. Do not accept anything just because it accords with your scriptures. Do not accept anything because it agrees with your opinions or because it is socially acceptable. Do not accept anything because it comes from the mouth of a respected person. Rather, observe closely and if it is to the benefit of all, accept and abide by it.” What models of development are of benefit to all, if any? To what extent can we accept without question entrenched approaches to development? The search for answers to these questions have come to not only define development studies but also the history, institutions and culture of development.

In 1958, A. T. Ariyaratne founded the Sarvodaya Shramadana in Sri Lanka, which in Sinhalese has come to mean ‘the sharing of one’s time, thought, and energy for the awakening of all’. The Sarvodaya movement is a very illustrative working example of socially engaged Buddhism (SEB) in community development. The concept of SEB is neither new nor confined to Sri Lanka. There are a number of different models under SEB, but most have operated in isolation throughout the world. Other organisations, such as the Zen Peacemakers, use a SEB model to address poverty, HIV/AIDS, homelessness and conflict resolution.

Sarvodaya Shramadana is based largely on Buddhist and Gandhian principles. The Sarvodaya Shramadana is the largest civil society movement in Sri Lanka. According to the organisation, it works in 15,000 villages and attracts nearly a million volunteers annually. Anuradha K. Herath states that some scholars have described its network of organisations, with 3000 employees, as the world’s largest participatory development movement. Although he is not regarded as a development theorist, and admits that he was not guided by theory in his practice, Ariyaratne’s community development philosophy perhaps offers a unique model for development practice around the world.

Although the religious connotations of ‘Buddhism’ may throw off this exercise, this is not proselytising. There is great value in highlighting the universal, relational and analytical principles of Buddhism to community and social development. It is also of great value to acknowledge and explore alternative approaches to development that are not Eurocentric. Ariyaratne’s contribution to development has been to show that Buddhism can be used to address Sri Lanka’s two principal problems: poverty and violence. The organisation has been involved in tsunami and IDP relief, community-based tourism, and peace and conflict resolution. It has also held mass meditations as an alternative form of participation, as well as conference-based events.

Ariyaratne’s philosophy recognises the power of personal agency in bringing about structural change, that non-violence in key to conflict resolution and that suffering can be overcome through ‘no poverty, no affluence’. The Middle Way of ‘no poverty, no affluence’ is an adpatation of the Buddhist concept and rejects the dominant models of economic development for meeting people’s basic needs as these models emphasise affluence, consumption and desire. His rejection and critique of the economic reduction of development is neither new nor unique. The UNDP, through the Human Development Index, recognise the notion that living standards and development cannot be reduced to how much people consume or are able to consume. What both the human development concept and Ariyaratne’s philosophy recognise is that:

“It is about creating an environment in which people can develop their full potential and lead productive, creative lives in accord with their needs and interests. People are the real wealth of nations. Development is thus about expanding the choices people have to lead lives that they value. And it is thus about much more than economic growth, which is only a means —if a very important one —of enlarging people’s choices” (UNDP, Human Development).

The principles and practice of Ariyaratne’s approach offers a wide range of explanatory, analytical and participatory tools. Ariyaratne recently gave a Budhhist perspective on the global financial recovery. As a basis for analysis and reflection on the realities of a given community, it recognises the reality of suffering and poverty. The root cause of this suffering is desire, as it leads to distrust, competition, enmity, and egocentricity, which impact upon people’s energy, ability and potential. This focus on the individual is balanced by a broader identification and critique of the myriad forces and externalities that drive consumption, inequalities and development. Indeed, the totality of causal factors, both individual and external, are interconnected and interdependent.

“Wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking, for it is merely useful for the sake of something else” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics).

At the core of Ariyaratne’s aproach is the recognition that must be a greater concern than that of accumulating commodities and financial wealth. This is what Mahbub ul-Haq describes as the “greater access to knowledge, better nutrition and health services, more secure livelihoods, security against crime and physical violence, satisfying leisure hours, political and cultural freedoms and sense of participation in community activities”. To facilitate and develop such personal freedoms, Ariyaratne’s discourse focuses on affection, compassion, kindness, sharing and mutual self-help. This can help remove the instensive competition for resources that often drives conflicts, inequalities and power.

However, can the Ariyaratne’s model that developed in Sri Lanka be applied to other contexts? In particular, to contexts in which Buddhism is not so deeply rooted and tied to culture, history, and self-identity? Such questions have been raised before concerning the implementation of context-specific models in different circumstances (think dams in India, the ‘Asian’ model of economic development or agricultural practices that ignore local knowledge). Key thinkers and practitioners in development, (those not in the limelight) such as, Robert Chambers, Michael Cernea, and Ester Boserup have sought to challenge entrenched ways of looking at the world, at poverty, at development. Essentially they have sought to ‘kill the Buddha’.

To kill the Buddha is to question, explore, examine and dispute not only the teachings of Buddha, but all that we have experience, knowledge and contact with. It is to not be committed to absolutes. It is to challenge institutionalised policy, practices and theory. This is the path of critical self-inquiry and self-awareness, which is crucial to cultivate as a development student and professional. So, the next time you meet a development theorist, kill the development theorist.