Monthly Archives: June 2012

Book review: Poor Economics by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo

Are the poor caught in a perpetual poverty trap?


After the Japanese tsunami and subsequent Fukushima nuclear disaster last year, influential Reuters blogger Felix Salmon ruffled a few feathers by calling for people to hold back on their donations. It was a reiteration of a plea he made following the Haitian earthquake in 2010, when he claimed that campaign-based donations often result in “a mess of uncoordinated NGOs parachuting in to emergency areas with lots of good intentions, where a strategic official sector response would be much more effective”. The crux of Salmon’s argument is that philanthropy is often misplaced due to a lack of understanding of the requirements of its intended destination and of its recipients. Too often, we’re sucked in by a compelling advert or an ambitious appeal (think “make poverty history”), without giving a thought to how it might be accomplished.

Poor Economics is an attempt at moving away from such top-down approaches to eradicating poverty. The authors – both professors at Massachusetts Institute of Technology – go even further than Salmon by encouraging us to steer clear of macroeconomics and instead focus on the finer details of development. Rather than debating the generalist “does aid work?” in plush Genevan office spaces ad nauseam, the west should look at the lives of those surviving on less than $1 per day, and ask: “What can be done to improve this individual’s life?” In their lengthy, painstakingly detailed research, Banerjee and Duflo have done exactly this, using a data set of 18 countries. In trying to understand the machinations of the economics of being poor, they have presented eye-opening, fascinating results.

In one illuminating passage, the authors turn their attention to teenage pregnancies in rural Kenya, where all efforts in educating schoolgirls on the dangers of HIV and early pregnancy seemed to have fallen on deaf ears. Researchers found, however, that if given a school uniform, girls were likely to stay in education and that “for every three girls who stayed in school because of the free uniform, two delayed their first pregnancy”.

The girls were fully aware of the dangers and results of unprotected sex – but having left school, many of them saw prospective fathers as a means of survival. Rather than being foolish and carefree, the poorest people often make calculated economic decisions to ensure their futures that might initially seem baffling to those on the outside. But by figuring out why they’re doing it, perhaps governments or NGOs can provide them with alternative options. It’s this message which resonates throughout the book.

Poor Economics’ greatest success is the length to which it goes to bridging the gap between the perceived personality of rich and poor. It’s almost certainly unintentional, but many in the developed world are guilty of adopting an “us and them” attitude to the poor – a fact, arguably, compounded by the almost taxonomical term “the poor” itself. Poor Economics’ presents those featured in the research with characters we almost certainly recognise in ourselves – sometimes frustrating, but often inspiring. Just as we suffer from lapses in self-control (just one chocolate bar… one more pint), so too can somebody in sub-Saharan Africa, who instead of paying for a vaccination for a child – the benefit of which may not be visible in their own lifetime – buys some extra rice or tea. Short-termism is not exclusively a western trait; the difference is, we can get away with pandering to our immediate desires a lot more than somebody who lives on less than $1 per day.

Our lives, too, are governed by a host of invisible structures, but some potentially life-altering choices have been taken centrally on our behalf that the poor have to take themselves on a daily basis. When did you last wake up in the middle of the night and, without thought, pour yourself a glass of water? For someone in parts of, say, Indonesia or Nicaragua, they must beforehand have taken the decision to purchase chlorine to add to the water (not to mention have lugged the water back from the well). New parents in Britain are legally obliged to have their babies inoculated and a few years later, send them to school. In developing countries, there are no such obligations and quite often, there’s a lack or distrust of facilities (public sector services in the poorest regions come in for particularly strong criticism over the course of the book) that might ordinarily help them climb the social ladder.

Banerjee and Duflo almost relentlessly present evidence of such structural failings and lack of social safety nets in the developing world – along with ignorance on the part of those well-intentioned people trying to help. Until global institutions readdress their own tack and focus on the minutiae, “poverty traps” may continue to paralyse many. But from the comfort of our living rooms, it is still possible to make a difference. This book will, if nothing else, inspire you to do a little digging before you make a donation decision. Don’t always go for the heartbreaking image, the flavour-of-the-month appeal or the catchall sloganeering. Look for those charities and NGOs with clearly articulated, defined and proven methodologies and missions. The success of much of the research explained by Poor Economics shows that empiricism should always trump fleeting sympathy.

Book review: Escape from Camp 14, Blaine Harden

Shin Dong-hyuk, the only known escapee of Camp 14, with the author Blaine Harden

Shin Dong-hyuk didn’t know it was the dawn of a new year when on 2 January 2005 he used the frazzled corpse of his friend and mentor to help him clamber over a highly charged electric fence and escape from Kaechon internment camp. “Camp 14”, as it’s more systematically known, is said to be the most brutal of North Korea’s massive prison camps, although the state denies its existence. The camp has existed since 1959 – a lifespan 48 years longer than that of Auschwitz, to which it’s sometimes compared for its brutality. It’s a place where teenage boys are interrogated on spits over open fires, where babies conceived through rape are beaten to death with rods, where chemical weapons are said to be “tested” on the residents and where children are encouraged to beat one another to a pulp in order to curry favour with their teachers. Shin is the only prisoner ever known to have escaped.

About 5,000 miles away in Edinburgh, I’d just experienced my first Hogmanay celebration and was nursing the inaugural two-day hangover that came with it. I mention this triviality only because I’m roughly the same age as Shin and happen to recall what I was doing around the time he made his break from Camp 14, a fact which makes his story resonate with me all the louder. You see, Shin’s story isn’t something from the archives. The goriest experiences of his life are also being inflicted on others as you read. Half of the Korean peninsula is in the grips of a barbaric regime: the North is the world’s biggest prison and yet has been reduced to a caricature in the minds of many. Try typing “Kim Jong-il” into Google and the first two suggested search results are “Kim Jong-il looking at things” and “Kim Jong-il dropping the bass”.

The fact is, nobody ever talks about these camps, which is why Escape From Camp 14 is one of the most important books on international affairs you can read this year. It’s riveting, it’s horrifying and it’s vital. Shin’s very existence is the result of two prisoners being allowed to fornicate as a reward for working hard. He was worked to the bone, routinely beaten and starved since early childhood. A culture of paranoia pervaded in the camp: inmates may have received some extra food, or fewer beatings, for snitching on someone for stealing or slacking. Thus, upon hearing his brother and mother (in whose company he was permitted to spend a few nights a year) plotting an escape – the ultimate crime –  Shin told a prison guard. Far from being rewarded, though, he spent the ensuing months being routinely tortured in solitary confinement, before being forced to watch his mother and brother’s executions.

It wasn’t until years later – a matter of months before his escape – that he heard of North Korea’s capital Pyongyang, of South Korea, and of China for the first time. His eyes had been opened by another prisoner who, unlike Shin, had experienced life beyond Camp 14’s boundaries: the very same prisoner whose body Shin used to help hoist himself over the electric fence. Upon escaping, making his way over the Chinese border and fortuitously encountering a South Korean journalist in Shanghai who facilitated his repatriation to Seoul, Shin found that few wished to hear his story. His own memoir sold a mere 500 copies. Harden’s book has made it onto the New York Times’ and Wall Street Journal’s bestsellers lists and has helped to give Shin, now a human rights campaigner, the voice which millions before him have gone to their graves without.

The book, quite rightly, spares the reader none of the detail. There are passages that make the reader wince – Harden’s prose is plain and effective. Appropriately, there are no frills – just a vanilla retelling of Shin’s life, as bare and torturous as it should be. However, woven through the narrative is a potted history of North Korea and how it has floundered since the collapse of the Soviet Union. For those with little preexistent knowledge on the subject, this introduction may prove as disturbing as Shin’s story itself.

Far from being one of the world’s only surviving Communist states (a commonly held view), North Korea is an dictatorial kleptocracy and is now home to arguably the longest standing humanitarian crisis of our generation. Its relationship with China – which only tolerates the Kim dynasty because it provides a buffer between itself and the westernised South Korea – means that while western hawks are happy to broker war on Iran, Iraq, Libya and anyone else who fails to conform to their ideologies, intervention in North Korea isn’t an option: change must come from within and as such, progress is glacial.

Six years on from Shin’s escape, I found myself standing on the demilitarised zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. On the south side, in which I was then living, every inch of arable land was put to work. Fields of rice, corn and barley rolled out to meet the horizon. It was a lush cornucopia compared to the absolute desolation that confronted us on the other side, in which every living thing had been razed to ground level, so as to limit the chances of defectors making it across the DMZ.

It was, no doubt, thrilling (in a twisted, voyeuristic kind of way) being so close to the most secretive place on earth, but while our guide was more than happy to fill us in on the grimiest details of the Korean War, not once did he mention the imprisonment of thousands – if not millions – of North Koreans in camps like the one Shin was born into. Over the course of a year living in South Korea, the only person who offered me an opinion on the atrocities on the wrong side of the 38th Parallel was a Canadian teacher. Escape From Camp 14 is a brilliant read, but also a klaxon, alerting a mainstream audience to the plight of millions. For these reasons, it should be viewed as a monumental success.

Originally published here

Long to reign over us? I hope not

Badge from 1977’s Silver Jubilee – how times have changed
Photo by dannybirchall on Flickr

The Jubilee celebrations reminded me of a fundamental flaw in British society: the monarchy

In the weeks leading up to Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, a 100-metre wide photograph of the royal family celebrating 1977’s Silver edition was unfurled over a building on London’s South Bank. The image shows a fresh-looking, middle-aged Queen smiling and waving to her subjects from the Buckingham Palace balcony – soaking up the adulation, flanked by her adoring husband and children. Had Kim Jong-un unveiled a banner so ostentatious, inflated and pompous in Pyongyang, Newsnight’s talking heads would’ve been up in arms over the North Korean “personality cult”. The similarities between the Windsors and the Kims are thankfully few, but the picture still rankled with some, who were left to wonder why, in the second decade of the 21st century, are the citizens of a supposedly democratised nation paying homage to a woman who has been its unelected head of state for 60 years?Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the Jubilee was the context within which it was so heartily celebrated. The duumvirate of real power, David Cameron and George Osborne, have spent the past two years sliding down the greased-up opinion polls at an alarming rate. The Labour leader Ed Miliband has been keen to impress the pair’s wealth and perceived sense of entitlement (both are old Etonians and come from vast familial fortunes) upon the public, who seem to be taking note. Yet, simultaneously, the royal family hasn’t been this popular in years: a recent poll conducted by ICM and theGuardian found that 69 per cent of Britons say the country would be worse off without a hereditary monarchy – while only 10 per cent support reverting to a contemporary presidential head of state.

Smiling weddings clearly have a more positive impact than growling public divorces, but these figures still baffle me. I pull no punches about my politics. I’m a republican and feel that the head of a state – no matter how notional its powers are said to be – should be a fully elected figure, whose actions and operations are transparent, accountable and dictated by a clearly stated mandate. I find it difficult to reconcile any of the arguments in favour of a monarchy with these principles, or, indeed, with the opulence on show last weekend. As a £12 million (!) flotilla made its way down the Thames on Sunday, the only emotion stirred within me was one of regret: regret that a further £12 million of taxpayers’ money had been pissed down the river. As the no doubt handsomely remunerated Grace Jones and Stevie Wonder were – on separate occasions – wishing her Majesty a “happy birthday”, hundreds of unpaid jobseekers were being bussed in from across the UK in order to steward the event and then – like a scene from the most dystopian of Dickensian works – forced to sleep under London Bridge before turning up for duty. The duality of Britain’s modern society, laid bare.

Royal minted

As it is, most pro-monarchy arguments are fairly easy to unpick, but rather than sifting through all of them, I’ll focus on some of the most commonly used. Arguably the most frequently propagated is that having a royal family is great for the national coffers. Yes, tourists flock to pick up tacky souvenirs and get their picture taken in front of Buckingham Palace – but not in the droves you might think. Only one of the top 20 tourist attractions in Britain is a royal abode (Windsor Castle, #17). Royal tourism accounts for just 1 per cent of Britain’s total tourism revenue: a drop in the ocean.

In its Value for Money Monarchy Myth report, the pro-reform group Republic points out that the monarchy costs the taxpayer £202.4 million annually, rather than the £38.3 million figure officially released, a figure which excludes, among other things, security and royal visits. This financial hole, claims Republic, would cover the annual salaries of almost 10,000 nurses and over 8,000 police officers. In comparison, the monarchies of Holland, Norway, Denmark and Spain cost their taxpayers £88.3 million, £23.9 million, £10.5 million and £7.4 million, respectively. If you add them all together, the Windsors’ budget is 150 per cent greater than the total. The monarchy, we’re told, assumes the same ambassadorial, figurehead role as the Irish President (democratically elected), but annually, runs up a bill 112 times bigger than Michael D. Higgins or any of his predecessors.

The most controversial facet of the regal finances, perhaps, is the income generated by the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall. The duchies comprise lands, assets and property held in trust for the crown, yet are not the personal property of the royal family. The costs of running the duchies come from taxpayers’ contributions, but profits from them are withheld from public consumption, even while they’re being held aloft as a reason for retaining the monarchy. The monarchy retains all capital generated through the duchies (you may be familiar with Prince Charles’ Duchy Originals range of organic foodstuffs sold in upmarket grocers, such as Waitrose). That the royal family is entitled to retain these profits while still being in receipt of the civil list (the donation made to the upkeep of the royal family by the government) is wholly undemocratic – particularly considering payments into the civil list have increased by 94 per cent in real terms over the past two decades.

You can choose your friends…

Another argument often reeled off by monarchists is that the Queen is a figurehead – a harmless individual who successfully represents her people, while not interfering in political matters. When quizzed on how exactly she completes the above task successfully, supporters usually return a nebulous answer. Apologists often point to her entertaining of state visitors (bypassing the fact that guests first must call on the Lord Mayor of London, further diluting the Queen’s essentiality), yet, such leaders often deserve to have the rug pulled from beneath their feet, rather than rolled out before them. 

In a pre-Jubilee state dinner, the list of invitees was a who’s who of global tyrants. King Mswati III of Swaziland was there, a multi-billionaire monarch of a country whose GDP per capita ranks below that of Iraq and East Timor and who has been implicated in a kidnapping affair (his future teenage bride – to add to his harem of ten others – was the victim) and has claimed that all HIV-positive people should be “sterilised and branded”. He was joined by King Al Khalifa of Bahrain, who arrived fresh from crushing an uprising in his island state, killing 85 civilians and torturing almost 2,000 more. Granted, the Home Office is most likely to have drawn up the list of invitees, but by dining in their company (in her house!), the Queen legitimises regimes of brutality across the world. As someone representing the supposedly suffraged British people – surely her guest lists should be more reflective of their national values.

Domestically, the Queen may well steer clear of party politics (although, given the fact that liaisons between parliament and palace are subject to a secrecy rivalling parliamentary privilege, we may never know if it is the case), but when she eventually cedes power to the first in line to the throne, her heir is unlikely to remain so blank, unopinionated and politically irrelevant. Charles, should he succeed his mother, is a much more vociferously minded individual who has, for his forthright views and willingness to expound upon them, been described as “the republicans’ best friend”.

Good time Charlie 

His views on “complementary” medicines, fox-hunting, architecture and governmental agriculture policy have been widely publicised and roundly condemned (indeed, in 2000, the Prince of Wales lent his support to a strand of “spiritual healing” which can reduce the effects of chemotherapy. In this case, his views are not just controversial, they’re downright dangerous). In a recent column in the Observer, Nick Cohen proposed that the ascension of Charles III would be the final nail in the coffin of the British monarchy: for the moment he starts meddling in matters of national, political importance, the number’s surely up.

My concluding questions are these: are the British public really happy to be represented by a lady who, while thankfully not openly airing views as offensive as some of those of her son, has not once in her life uttered an opinion worth recording, let alone remembering and whose supposed political irrelevance and detachment are held up as virtues? Shouldn’t a country that is seemingly content to go to war with “less democratic” nations and individuals in the name of freedom practice what it preaches abroad, at home? Shouldn’t we do away with such nepotism in favour of something more meritocratic that produces a figurehead who more clearly represents and articulates Britain’s supposedly democratic values?

In the 10,000 years since Britain became an island, there have been many things worthy of celebrations on the scale of last weekend. To name but a few, there’s that language that we all speak to varying degrees of competency, which seems to have caught on fairly well in other parts of the world; the Magna Carta – the first step in transferring power from the antiquity of monarchy, almost 1,000 years ago; London becoming only the second place in the world after Venice to outlaw the trade of slaves and serfdom way back in 1102 (the rest of the country wasn’t free from the shackles for another 600 years); the establishment of universal, free healthcare in 1948; the inventions of the television, the jet and steam engines, the telephone and the internet; the long overdue legalisation of gay matrimony in 2005. The list goes on: there are many things that make Britain great. The monarchy, I’m afraid to say, is not one of them.

Originally published here

Star Wheel Press – Life Cycle of a Falling Bird

When a lead singer possesses such a distinctive burr, it’s often easy to overlook everything that sits behind it. Not so on Life Cycle of a Falling Bird, the parentheses friendly-debut album from Aberfeldy-based Star Wheel Press. For while frontman Ryan Hannigan’s larynx purrs like Aidan Moffat on the happy pills, the songs on here are so finely crafted, so wonderfully nuanced, it’s but another instrument in a superb alt-country orchestra.

Hannigan is joined by a medley of strings: banjo, slide guitar, pedal steel and fiddle on 15 literate and buoyant tracks, which are melodically simple, but beautifully composed. There’s a touch of Whiskeytown circa Stranger’s Almanac about opening track Railway Lines (the North Carolinans’ spectre hangs heavy over much of the record), and Betamax Waltz is a real lyrical treat – funny, clever and impossible to shake, hours after spinning.


ATP: I’ll Be Your Mirror, Sunday 27 May

Image by Gary Wolstenholme @Drowned in Sound

The sparkling sunshine outside is matched by the talent on show inside Alexandra Palace on a wonderful day

There is a mass of pasty white legs slowly making its way up the substantial, winding hill that leads to Alexandra Palace. The palace grounds are strewn with hungover bodies, draped in black t-shirts, supping cold beer in the scorching sunshine, trying to summons the wherewithal to cope with a third day of I’ll Be Your Mirror. The sunlit halls of Ally Pally, as it’s known to the locals, are decked out with intricate wall mosaics, marble floor tiles, huge bay windows and Archers of Loaf merchandise: a bizarre combo by anyone’s reckoning. But then, ATP pride themselves on doing things differently.

Having been Slayer-ed and Mogwa-fied in successive nights, the 140-year-old royal abode must have been hoping for a quiet Sunday in the sun, and you can almost hear its foundations emit a justified “why me?” as Blanck Mass takes to the darkened West Hall for a terrifying, marvelous set of deep, bass heavy ambient drone. One half of Fuck Buttons, his eponymous solo debut of last year took a while to reach these ears, but has become one of our belated discoveries of 2011. More tempered and less immediate than his work with FB, his solo stuff is equally startling when heard in the flesh. The subtlety of his music is transformed into something much darker when churned out at about 200 decibels, in front of a visual backdrop of dismembered limbs, leaving half of the small crowd wondering whether they were still feeling the effects of Saturday night’s ingestion. A power cut about half an hour in sounds, momentarily, spectacular, but leaves Blanck Mass miffed and the rest of us questioning ATP’s failure to invest in solar panels.

Continuing the slightly unnerving theme are Demdike Stare, a pair of experimentalists who take the audio / visual concept further than Blanck Mass. A black and white film montage plays out behind them, Hitchcock-esque snippets: voyeuristic, mysterious and perfectly tailored to their claustrophobic, percussive music. It fails to attract the masses, however, as a dash to the heaving beer garden attests. Ally Pally boasts spectacular views of London and many revellers have yet to even make it through the doors, preferring to take full advantage of the locale.

In the well-lit, carpeted Panoramic Room, The Tall Firs have been playing for 20 minutes. “The next bit is our sad section,” says Aaron Mullan, on the back of three songs in each of which someone has met their maker. Having missed Codeine the day before, veterans Tall Firs were a “must-see” on our schedule, but while their brand of slowcore is equally dour, it’s only fractionally as enchanting. The pair is ill-suited to such a fluorescent setting and struggle to generate any kind of atmosphere. It’s disappointing, but we reckon they would fare much better in a suitable venue. Matters are compounded when Thee Oh Sees take to the stage in the West Hall, threatening to drown out the Tall Firs. A quick jaunt across the palace reveals a good crowd assembled, but we fail to see why. The Oh Sees have been subject to a fair amount of hype in recent years, without really justifying it on record. In the live arena, too, they tick the box marked “style” rather than “substance”; that “style” being very shouty and mostly forgettable.

One of the highlights of the day comes in the form of Siskiyou back over in the Panoramic Room. Founded by former Great Lake Swimmer Colin Huebert, the Vancouver band have released two fine records in as many years and while their patter is substandard (“you know that feeling when you’ve sprayed deodorant but it still isn’t enough?”), the music and the manner in which it’s delivered is first rate. Huebert’s voice is Spencer Krug-esque and his harmonies with the spasmodic drummer are a joy. The rollicking Twigs and Stones and fantastic cover of Neil Young’s Revolution Blues steal the show, in what’s a terrific performance.

Yuck’s self-titled debut, released last year, was promising but patchy. This evening’s twilight set in front of a swelling crowd, though, is outstanding all the way through. They have the same effortless, don’t-give-a-fuckery as early era Blur: dripping with attitude, blasting out hummable, poppy indie rock. Album opening one-two Get Away and The Wall along with Holing Up sound superb in the West Hall: even the hippest of hipsters – and by Jove are there some hip hipsters here – couldn’t keep their toes from tapping, their heads from bobbing along approvingly.

Anyone else a big fed up of this “50s revival” we’re having rammed down our throat? Does the omnipotence of the cupcake (or, as Charlton Brooker so eloquently christened them, “muffins with clown puke topping”) really constitute a revival? Most of the music that dabbles in such dark arts is worth avoiding, but to their credit, Tennis are one of the more palatable of the “Keep Calm…” brigade. Their second album is a big improvement on their first and once you get past the Marty McFly pastiche, they have some very decent tunes. Lead singer Alaina Moore has a beautiful voice, and from the moment she opens her mouth, has almost all of the cross-legged Panoramic Room in the palm of her hand. Not The Skinny though, who make a break for the Archers of Loaf, only to find that their set has finished 20 minutes early.

Which means there’s only one thing to do: sit around and wait for The Afghan Whigs. There’s plenty of atmosphere to soak up, for this is whom the majority of today’s punters have come to see. The band cut striking figures in front of a blood red curtain. Each track, from Crime Scene Part One, through to Faded gets a raucous reception. Greg Dulli is in masterful form, his voice carrying the years wonderfully. EL-P has cancelled his show due to the death of a loved one, which means the Whigs’ headline slot has an extra half hour of play – they seize it with both hands, even squeezing in a Frank Ocean cover (Lovecrimes) before departing to huge applause. A fine way to round off the weekend… welcome back.

Written for The Skinny