Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Millenium Development Goals: Still New Zealand's Focus?

On Saturday morning I attended the first two sessions of a symposium on the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) at Victoria University's Pipitea Campus downtown.

In the opening session, Labour MP and former head of Oxfam International Phil Twyford critiqued the intentions signalled by Minister of Foreign Affairs Murray McCully to change New Zealand's aid emphasis on poverty elimination to a focus on economic growth, and possibly to roll back NZAID into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Twyford said McCully's proposals threaten to "turn the clock back" on eight years of building more effective development aid, undermine New Zealand's standing in the Pacific and repudiate signed commitments to the MDGs. Furthermore, they would involve changes to spending of $500 million of taxpayer's money without public debate or consultation.

According to Twyford, at the opening of the symposium on Friday night at Parliament Buildings, National's John Hayes, Chair of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select Committe, had indicated that the government wants to channel aid to support tourism, trade and infrastructure in the Pacific.

But this raises the question of what the purpose of economic development is. For Twyford, development aims to 'lift people out of poverty and expand the possibilities of human freedom.' The purpose of economic development is to serve the needs of people – the ultimate goal is still poverty elimination.

Twyford said that sixty years of experience shows that economic growth is necessary but not sufficient for reducing poverty and improving wellbeing. Growth alone can be captured by elites and lead to environmental damage, as in the disastrous destruction of rainforest in the Solomon Islands. Despite rapid economic growth, India continues to have higher levels of malnutrition and child mortality than sub-Saharan Africa, while Bangladesh has reduced child mortality more quickly than India, despite being poorer.

Likewise, Vietnam has been much more effective at reducing poverty than a country like Peru, largely because the poorest 20 percent in Vietnam have a four times greater share of national income. Greater inequality in Latin America is a familiar story. However, Twyford pointed out that in Brazil since 1998, extreme poverty has fallen by 3 times the MDG target rate, and the Gini coefficient has fallen by 3 points. This illustrates what is possible with committed leadership.

(See this post for a more detailed discussion of growth vs poverty reduction).

Twyford concluded that a focus on trade and growth alone is not going to work. The NZAID strategy of working in an integrated with other donors and country governments is "more likely to be effective". But such approaches could be threatened by the absorbtion of NZAID back into MFAT.

Twyford referred to the original report from a Ministerial review which recommended the establishment of NZAID eight years ago. The report found that the official development assistance branch within MFAT had confused objectives, lacked professionalism, and could be typified as a "training ground for diplomats, and a dumping ground for non-performers".

Twyford saus that NZAID "is not perfect", but has made considerable progress, especially with the sector-wide approaches in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. He said that the Progressives, Greens, United Future and Labour parties would be holding their own summit on the future of NZAID on Friday 27 March.

The symposium was sponsored by Victoria University's Institute of Policy Studies, the Council for International Development, Oxfam New Zealand and the British High Commission. Sources connected to NZAID said that they would have joined in the co-hosting but had been prevented from adding their name to the programme by order of the Minister.

At the beginning of Phil Twyford's speech, he queried whether any of his parliamentary colleagues had joined him at the symposium. There was no repsonse from the gallery.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Economist Agrees

I don't agree with The Economist on everything, and in fact strongly disagree on some matters. But their articles are generally lucid and interesting and they rarely fail to provide at least the semblance of a reasonable argument.

This editorial, in advance of the United Nations summit on drug policy, is one of the magazine's finer moments. With typical pithiness, the editorial declares that "prohibition has failed; legalisation is the least bad solution"

There's a fair-minded evaluation of both sides of the question:

“Least bad” does not mean good. Legalisation, though clearly better for producer countries, would bring (different) risks to consumer countries. As we outline below, many vulnerable drug-takers would suffer. But in our view, more would gain.

In short, while ending prohibition could on balance be a good thing for the rich countries where people take most of the drugs, the real benefits would be in the poor countries that are currently being turned into war zones by the gangsterism that illegality promotes. This is basically what I've argued before on this blog, but the editorial puts it particularly well:

In the developing world blood is being shed at an astonishing rate. In Mexico more than 800 policemen and soldiers have been killed since December 2006 (and the annual overall death toll is running at over 6,000). This week yet another leader of a troubled drug-ridden country—Guinea Bissau—was assassinated.

An aside. The horrors of drug-related crime and violence suffered by Colombia in the 1990s are well known. The country is somewhat more peaceful and orderly now, which is often credited to the hard-line security policies of Alvaro Uribe. Taking a longer view, histories of the cocaine trade describe how the centre of power moved from Colombia to Mexico in the 1990s after resources were poured into defeating the Cali and Medellin cartels and shutting down the Caribbean routes into the US. Is the current chaos in Mexico coincidental, or have all the law enforcement battles merely shifted the violence from one country to another?

As a staunchly internationalist, though anglocentric, publication, the Economist is able to point out how ludicrous it is to address addiction in Western cities by turning Latin America, Asia and Africa into a battle zone, Sadly, with their eye on the the anxieties of their own middle class voters, the politicans attending the latest international conference in Vienna may not see it the same way.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A War on Drugs, Or On Peasants?

A good article in the Guardian describes how US-funded aerial spraying of coca plants in Colombia is poisoning people, crops and livestock, while cocaine production continues to increase. Grace Livingstone, who has visited and interviewed Colombian coca growers, reports information received from a parish priest in Caquetá that spraying of herbicide is having a marked effect on human and animal health. As she notes:

The US focuses on one element of the trafficking chain, the poverty-stricken peasant. But the policy is not even effective. When their land is poisoned, peasants migrate and start growing coca again. They have no alternative. Spraying simply displaces the problem. Despite decades of spraying, coca cultivation in Colombia has grown by 500% since the 1980s, according to US state department figures. US politicians heralded a drop in cultivation after the launch of Plan Colombia, but the area of land covered by coca crops is now larger than when the plan was launched. Perhaps the clearest indication that the policy is failing is the falling price of cocaine, suggesting more, not less, of the drug is entering the US market.

To quote a previous post, "there's little that's more perverse than a social problem in the rich world being tackled by spraying poison all over environmentally fragile land in a much poorer country".

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Slowly But Surely...

...Andean Observer 1.0 is coming together. There are now basically complete pages of images with Nat-Geo style captions covering Lake Titicaca to La Paz, Iquitos and the Amazon, Bolivia's Spectacular Southwest, Climbing in the Andes, Peru's Varied Cuisine, and Flora and Fauna of the Andes and Amazon (NB: click to enlarge the images).

Many of the images are scanned from print photos and are not fantastic quality, but there's lots of interesting places and moments that would otherwise be gathering dust. This is something of a labour of love and could be described as an attempt to present all that I've learned and experienced from my times in Latin America.

I had intended to do a 'Travel Information' section that would help answer those periodic requests for advice I get from people planning a trip to South America. However, it's been over two years since I was there, so I'm not even sure my travel advice is even good any more. I'll wait until my planned trip in the middle of the year to make sure I'm up to date and to refresh my memory on some of the details.

It's clear that as I move on to updating and improving sections of this website, and adding other features, I'll need a better way of managing the content. I'd also like to give it a more attractive and professional appearance. I can maybe learn how to make some of these improvements, but I'm not sure I have the time. If anybody out there is a budding web designer/developer and is interested in practicing on an amateur project, consider dropping me a line. The next task is to develop Andean Observer 2.0.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Brain Exhaustion

If I'm looking for excuses for poor exercise performance, here is an alternative explanation. The story cites British research that found people became fatigued more quickly when doing exercise if they had previously undertaken strenuous mental activity. Although the heart and muscles functioned no differently, a higher 'perception of effort' made people reach exhaustion sooner, Perhaps its not so much living on the flat land, as the drain of extra work and study, that's been setting me back.

Yes, I know we're looking at one study involving just sixteen people with no real information on experimental design or possible bias. Of course, such considerations never stop the newspapers from declaring 'research proves' something controversial or oversimplified, and I'm going to claim some milage from this one.

It provides some evidential basis for my frequent claims that work with the brain is one of the most tiring kinds of all. It may also provide some solace to all those office workers who keep finding they can't quite motivate themselves to go to the gym or for a run, and when they do, that their limbs and lungs just don't seem to work as well as they should.

What, if anything, can be done about it is a different question.

Monday, March 02, 2009

The Price of Food

It's a pleasant surprise to find an article on the Stuff website on a real and topical issue with readers' comments that intelligently challenge and add to the original content, rather than descending into an inane mess of partisan bickering and name calling (such dignified interactions are relatively common on independent blogs but mainstream sites tend to be the electronic version of talkback radio).

The article from the Sunday Star Times is headlined 'Kiwis hooked on unhealthy food'. Working hard to strike a sensational tone, it reports 'confidential data leaked to the [newspaper]' showing that soft drink and snack foods dominate the list of 40 top-selling products in New Zealand supermarkets. There are three 1.5-litre soft drinks in the top 10, and a bottle of Coke is right at head of the list.

The article quotes a nutritionist and (of course) Sue Kedgley expressing their concern at the poor quality of New Zealanders' diet and blaming it on the 'sophisticated marketing techniques' of advertisers.

A flood of comments ensued (87 at the time of writing). Pleasingly, many people pointed out the obvious fact that by only counting standardised packaged items and excluding fresh fruit and vegetables, the survey was biased.

I'd also point out that the mere fact that the suvey was in a supermarket makes the results relatively predictable. Aside from fruit and vegetables, dried goods like beans and nuts will probably not have been counted. In addition, meat, soups, wholegrain breads, cereals are sold in varying brands, styles and quantities. Almost by definition, more interesting and healthier foods are not going to move large numbers of units -- and many of them are sold in smaller more specialised stores.

Expressing concern at the generally low nutritional levels of food people buy in supermarkets is a little like being disappointed to find that people in bars are mostly drinking alcohol.

However, a more important point made by people in the comments section was that healthy and nutritious food is not cheap. The biggest-selling items are the ones that are often on special in bulk, and invariably are the ones with poor nutritional value, full of sugar and fluff. Meanwhile, the 'healthy alternatives' cost two or three times as much. A number of people critiqued the hectoring tone of comfotably middle-class nutritionists and politicians who worry about obesity but have little appreciation of the average working person's struggle to get by on a meagre budget.

Others still argued that eating well is perfectly possible with a bit of commonsense and imagination, and that 'Coke is cheaper than milk' is no argument when tap water is free (I concur with this last point).

The debate is continued here, following a piece where a columnist recounts her attempt to spend a week eating 'frugally'.

I've commented before on the cost of nutritious food and the difficulty in eating well, and I mused about whether rich countries are actually richer in this respect. There's no doubt that something is not quite right about what and how many of us eat.

In a future post or two, I might try to unpick some of the reasons for this. In the meantime, I know some regular readers have opinions and theories on this topic, which they're welcome to post here.