American ungenerosity – part I of II Saturday, Feb 20 2010 

In their pompous belief in American exceptionalism, there are some people—typically on the right—who claim that the United States “is the most charitable country on earth.” Next, they try to explain why we’re so generous, and they have plenty of ideas indeed. But, really, what we ought to ask first is whether or not it’s true. Is it really true that the United States is the most generous nation on Earth? It depends.

It depends, first of all, on what we’re measuring and how we measure it. In the first of a two part series examining “American generosity,” I’ll look at how the United States compares as a nation to other nations in terms of its charitable contributions. In the second part, I’ll look at the generosity of the American people through private donations.

On a national scale, how does the United States compare? As a nation, are we the most charitable? If the American people are truly as generous as the believers in American exceptionalism say we are, this should be reflected in the national policies and agendas set by the people we’ve elected to represent us. Is it? Is giving a priority the American people are concerned about? Using some measures, it is. For example, if measure how much Official Development Aid (ODA) the United States gives compared to other nations, the United States far surpasses any other nation according to data compiled by the OECD. In absolute terms, the United States gave away $26.01 billion in ODA in 2008—nearly twice as much as the second most charitable nation (Germany) gave away.

But is this really a good measure of charitableness? The United States is the third most populated country and is by far the richest in the world (more than the next three richest countries combined). We would expect that the United States should have the highest donation rate in absolute terms, based on that fact alone (there is, in fact, a strong positive relationship between the total wealth of a nation and the absolute amount it gives away). How does the United States compare when we look at ODA relative to the nation’s gross national income (GNI)? According to the same OECD data, the United States ranks dead last among industrialized nations in terms of the ODA it gives away as a percent of GNI. In 2008, the United States gave away just 0.18% of its GNI in ODA, while Sweden, the most charitable of industrialized nations, gave away 0.98%. In other words, the United States is the least charitable industrialized nation relative to its wealth, while the Scandinavian countries are the most generous. Looking at the data, there is a slight trend showing the inverse relationship between a nation’s GNI and how much it contributes as a percentage of that GNI (in other words, nations with higher GNIs tend to donate a smaller percentage of it), as shown in the figure below.

By this measure, then, which I find much more reasonable, the United States is not very charitable at all. As you can see in the above graph, the United States is a big outlier, with very high GNI but very low percent of it going toward ODA. As you might have noted in the OECD data, there is a UN target of 0.7% of GNI being donated towards ODA, which only five nations have surpassed. More sobering is the fact that this goal was made 1970—40 years ago. In 1970, the General Assembly passed Resolution 2626, stating, “Each economically advanced country will progressively increase its official development assistance to the developing countries and will exert its best efforts to reach a minimum net amount of 0.7 per cent of its gross national product at market prices by the middle of the Decade.” The Millennium Development Goals, a set of goals 192 nations including the United States have agreed to achieve by 2015 to improve human existence, includes the goal of having rich nations contributing a minimum of 0.7% of GNI towards ODA. By 2015, when the Millennium Development Goals are to be reached, it will have been 45 years since the target was established. While the last administration balked at the pact to fight poverty, the question is now if the Obama administration is going to renew America’s commitment to eradicating global poverty.

However, is simply increasing the amount of aid the answer to all the world’s problems? Clearly not. A lot of people, e.g. William Easterly, argue that foreign aid is ineffective or that we have no moral obligation to extract from our coffers to give to the disadvantaged—and they have strong arguments. Writes Easterly, “It is heart-breaking that global society has evolved a highly efficient way to get entertainment to rich adults and children, while it can’t get twelve-cent medicine to dying poor children.” Indeed, there are many problems that plague foreign aid. If the quality of the aid is not very good, then the quantity won’t make much of a difference. The problem becomes clear when we adjust aid figures for the quality of the aid. When we adjust the aid figures to reflect quality, for example by penalizing proliferation of programs or tying aid, the United States delivers only 0.07% of its GDP in quality aid, according to a paper by to a paper by David Roodman for the Center for Global Development. Similarly, according to a report by Action Aid, “roughly half of global aid is ‘phantom aid’, that is, it is not genuinely available to poor countries to fight poverty.” Argues Pekka Hirvonen in a 2005 paper for the Global Policy Forum, “development assistance is often of dubious quality. In many cases, aid is primarily designed to serve the strategic and economic interests of the donor countries or to benefit powerful domestic interest groups. Aid systems based on the interests of donors instead of the needs of recipients’ make development assistance inefficient. Too little aid reaches countries that most desperately need it, and, all too often, aid is wasted on overpriced goods and services from donor countries.” So, for example, during the Cold War, the superpowers were very “charitable,” and gave a lot of money away to client states that acquiesced to their political and economic interests. But does that promote development or help the people in most need of it? That’s “dubious.”

Clearly, there is both a quantity and a quality issue with foreign aid. To bring it to the present, some commentators, such as Ann-Louise Colgan, have noted, “aid flows are largely dictated by geo-strategic concerns rather than by efforts to reduce poverty.” For example, an overwhelming majority of U.S. aid goes to Israel, a lot more than any other nation. A majority of this is Foreign Military Financing (FMF). In fact, when you look at U.S. FMF, an inordinate amount goes to places like Israel, Egypt, and Colombia—in other words, the leading terrorist states. A lot more could be said about this, but the point should be clear. “Aid” is being to used to bolster strategic and ideological interests, not for the purpose of helping the poor escape their poverty or find a more decent life. Of course, all of this is perfectly transparent. Take, for example, Ronald Regan’s Secretary of State, George Shultz, who stated, “our foreign assistance programs are vital to the achievement of our foreign policy goals.”

What should we take from all of this? First, it should be clear that the United States is not nearly as generous as it is touted to be, certainly not “the most charitable country on earth.” We, like most developed and rich countries, continue to fall significantly short of the levels of aid promised. Second, we should also be concerned with the quality of the aid (rather than just the quantity). So long as our “generosity” is guided solely for self-interests, the issues of poverty and despair will continue to be with us well beyond the 2015 marker established to eradicate the world of this blight.

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How do we end child labor? Friday, Feb 12 2010 

I’m in international economics this semester with Professor Ming Lo. The class is very interesting and Dr. Lo is a great professor. The topic of child labor came up in class as we were discussing globalization. Most people today agree that child labor is unethical. The question becomes, how do we stop it?

One response has been to simply outlaw it. For example, in 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act in an attempt to curb child labor and protect children from the horrors of industrialization, which had brought with it brutal, and often fatal, working conditions. This had an effect in domestic markets, but it did not stop similar abuses of children in foreign markets. This is why Senator Harkin (D-IA) introduced the Child Labor Deterrence Act in 1992 and several other years after that. The bill would “prohibit the importation of products that have been produced by child labor, and included civil and criminal penalties for violators.” Well this had an effect. According to Jagdish Bhagwati, the University Professor of economics at Columbia University and author of the 2004 book In Defense of Globalization, garment employers in Bangladesh laid off an estimated 50,000 child workers, fearing passage of the bill. We don’t know what happened to these children, but it is believed that these children moved to the underground economy. That is to say, they found worse jobs in worse conditions. These included, for example, unregistered garment factories. At least in some cases, however, these may have included child prostitution and being sold into the sex trade. Very few people could agree this is a positive result.

So how do we stop child labor if we agree that it ought to be stopped? Clearly, banning imported products made with child labor will likely have the effect of not eliminating child labor, but rather making it more concealed and even more dangerous and exploitative than it was before. Not doing anything doesn’t seem to be the solution either, evidenced by the fact that child labor still exists and has always existed until actions were undertaken to deal with the problems too. Dr. Bhagwati suggests in his book that we label products that are are made by child laborers. In this way, consumers can make a decision as to whether to buy the product or not. Although I agree it is a good idea to label products in this way (it increases consumer information), there are some problem. For one, many consumers still purchase goods even when they are aware of the negative aspects associated with it. People still continued to buy Nike products, for example, even after it was exposed that many of their products were produced in sweatshops and unethical working conditions. Sometimes the benefit that we receive from purchasing a product outweighs any negative thoughts we have about the ethical standards of its production. That is, even if we agree that the production of what we’re buying was done unethically, we still are inclined to purchase the product. Second, even if demand for products created with child labor does decrease because of increased awareness, the effect won’t be much different than prohibiting the import of these products. Children will be forced into other sectors, including underground markets that help conceal the true abuses to these children. While it may help us feel better, it doesn’t do much in the way of ending the exploitation of children. There does not seem to be any clear and easy solution to this problem, and I certainly don’t have the answer. I do believe, however, that a principal component needs to address the underlying causes that drive parents and their children to pick child labor as their available best option. In other words, we need to tackle the issue of world poverty and the social conditions in developing countries that lead to child labor. Decreasing our demand for these products is a step in the right direction, but clearly not enough to end this blight on human affairs.

Haiti Thursday, Jan 14 2010 

Please see this post from The China Rose blog for information about the recent earthquake in Haiti, as well as relevant context to the tragedy and Haiti’s history of poverty and instability. As Haitian streets run with blood and its air fouled by the stench of piled-up corpses, let this tragedy remind us of the human suffering that exists in the world and serve as an opportunity to learn something about the history and lived realities of Haitians, which has got little to do with “bad luck.” For those of us with money, a donation cannot help the hundreds of thousands now feared dead, but it could make a difference for the poor masses of Haiti, who lived in extreme poverty and on less than a dollar a day even before the earthquake struck.

While the tragedy in Haiti is almost universally recognized as such, the response from right-wing extremists (or is it mainstream?) has been rather shocking and saddening. Rush Limbaugh, for example, claims President Obama’s response to the disaster will be used to “burnish” his “credibility in the light-skinned and dark-skinned black community in this country. It’s made to order for him. That’s why he could not wait to get out there” to offer support for the those devastated by the disaster. And while the right will continue to decry government spending as “inefficient” and “evil,” the Haitians rummaging through the debris of what was once their homes, their neighborhoods, their schools, or their places of worship, I’m sure, think quite differently of it. Meanwhile, as Limbaugh is busy throwing political jabs at Obama’s offer to provide relief to those enduring the pangs of sudden and utter disaster, Pat Robertson, the voice of conservative Christianity, claims that the earthquake (and the rest of Haiti’s ills) was a consequence of “a pact to the devil” Haitians made over 215 years ago to liberate themselves from France’s colonial rule.

Robertson, who also claims the September 11 attacks were God’s punishment on Americans for being too secular, claimed on the Christian Broadcasting Network‘s The 700 Club, “something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.’ True story. And so, the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’ And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other. Desperately poor.”

Mr. Robertson would do good to first read some history. First, the Haitian Revolution of 1791 was well before Napoleon III’s time. Instead, the Haitian slaves spent most of their time fighting the powerful armies of Napoleon Bonaparte (i.e. Napoleon I). Napoleon III was not yet born by the time Haiti gained independence in 1804. Robertson’s ignorance of basic historic facts reflects the level of thinking required to make such bizarre and perverse statements. But, “You know, … whatever.” As for this “pact to the devil,” Robertson again faces a contradictory reality. According to Jean Gelin, a Haitian pastor who commented in 2005 on this supposed pact, “One would agree that such a strong affirmation should be based on solid historical and scriptural ground.” However, Gelin continues, “it is nothing more than a fantasist opinion that ultimately dissipates upon close examination.”

I would like to congratulate Mr. Robertson, however, for making at least one true statement. It’s true “something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it.” What happened is what’s been described as “the greatest of all the slave revolts,” which “forever altered the fate of black people in the Americas.” This “pact to the devil” that liberated Haiti from its racist overlords was really what normal people call Enlightenment thinking. That the Haitian Revolution closely followed the American and French revolutions is no accident of history. The great leaders of the Haitian Revolution, like Toussaint L’ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, took seriously the idea “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” They believed, as their contemporaries in this Age of Reason did, that power lies in the people, not kings and nobility. They challenged the religious orthodoxy of the Divine Right of Kings. These were the true roots of liberation theology—an understanding of Christianity that stresses the scriptural teachings of freedom, social justice, human rights, and supporting community—a striking contrast to Western and conservative understandings of Christianity, to be sure. That Mr. Robertson “might not want to talk about it” is understandable.

However, this Haitian revolution went beyond “the limited definition of freedom adopted by the French and American revolutions,” writes Haitian historian Patrick Bellegarde-Smith. Instead, continues Bellegarde-Smith, the Haitian Revolution that Robertson describes as “a pact to the devil,” was based on the “universal freedom for all humankind.” That slaves could rise up and overthrow the slave regime in the 1790s, the first time in the Western Hemisphere and perhaps in the history of the world, indeed was nothing short of a great inspirational source for those still suffering under the grips of slavery and those wishing to liberate them, from Fredrick Douglass in the United States of America to Simón Bolívar in South America.

Once again, “Even in its hour of utter devastation,” to again quote Cunningham, “Haiti, the western hemisphere’s poorest country, teaches the rest of the world some valuable truths.” The question is if anyone’s paying attention.

Human rights and responsibilities Monday, Jun 8 2009 

A few days ago, Filip Spagnoli, who works in research and statistics at the Belgian Central Bank and who has a PhD in philosophy from the University of Brussels, wrote on his blog about the relationship between the recession and unemployment. Dr. Spagnoli’s contention is that the recession has caused unemployment, and unemployment is the violation of the human right to work. I challenged this notion of the right to work on the grounds that it is a positive right, which violates the negative rights of others, and because it is reasonably impossible to assign blame to an individual.

Today, King Banaian, the chairman of the SCSU economics department, discussed the issue about violators of human rights on his blog. Dr. Banaian, quoting William Easterly, argues that poverty cannot be a human rights violation because there is no clear violator and because the definition of poverty is not precise. Moreover, he argues poverty is largely the result of violations against property rights.

I agree with the professors here. When a person murders another, we blame the murderer for violating the other person’s right to life. When a person becomes unemployed (or impoverished) who is it that we blame, that we place responsibility on? Dr. Spagnoli’s response is that finding a single violator is “too simplistic” and that human rights violations are “often much more complex, i.e. the result of social pressures, traditions, mimetism, power structures etc. I think it’s fair to say that ‘traditions’ can cause rights violations. So why not the ‘economy’?”

This is indeed a moral question, and the question is to whom (or what) do we assign blame and responsibility. Can we say an economy or a society is immoral, or do we instead say individual actors within these structures act immorally? If the former, how do we possibly change these structures (to correct the problem of human rights violations) without taking individuals into consideration? Can we change economies or societies without changing the individuals within those structures? (And I am immoral for merely participating in the market capitalistic mode of production, which Dr. Spangnoli contends causes this humans right abuse?) The problem with Dr. Spangnoli’s argument is that he wishes to blame ways of thinking (e.g. traditions, memes, social ideals, mores). I think it is much more helpful to blame individual actions that might result from these ways of thinking. If that is the case, though, I am immoral for participating in our capitalist mode of production which propagates unemployment.

This is why I do not find it proper to think of employment or wealth as human rights. To argue one has the right to wealth or employment implies the forcing of others to distribute wealth or to employ. Some might find this perfectly acceptable. Others, like myself, see it a violations of negative rights, which implies people have the right not to be subjected to the harmful actions, interferences, or restraints of others (which is always wrong). On the other hand, positive right implies all people are entitled to things like wealth, employment, health care, social security, etc. and that the absence of these things from any person is a human rights abuse. In this sense, liberty comes from the ability and access to resources to “achieving self-realization,” which often implies it comes from above, from the state, from the allowance of some power structure. I find this to be a perversion of the definition of liberty.