Shameela

Photo by James Mollison

Meet Shameela, 5, a stateless child from a Thai refugee camp. Shameela’s battered shack has holes in the roof and walls. She has to share an outdoor bathroom with 100 other people. Shameela is crying while a photographer takes her portrait.

Harrison

Photo by James Mollison

Meet Harrison, 8, who lives with his parents in a New Jersey mansion with a marble staircase. He has his own bedroom with a flat screen television. Harrison’s clothes are neat and his smile is calm.

Shameela and Harrison, along with 54 other kids and teenagers around the world, are part of a beautiful glow-in-the-dark photobook called Where Children Sleep. To make it, photographer James Mollison traveled around the world to take snapshots of children and places they call their bedrooms.

Mollison has a cosmopolitan background — he was born in Kenya, grew up in the UK, and is now based in Venice. Book reviews mention this fact as if to suggest how broad-minded and fit for the job it made him. “To begin with, I called the project ‘Bedrooms,’” says Mollison in the book’s foreword, “but I soon realized that my own experience of having a ‘bedroom’ simply doesn’t apply to so many kids.”

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The photographer embarked on the project trying to avoid clichés: “From the start, I didn’t want it just to be about ‘needy children’ in the developing world, but rather something more inclusive, about children from all types of situations.” Yet half of his images are of deprived children from developing countries, and another quarter are of well-to-do Western kids who in comparison look unallowably privileged.

The poverty and inequality landscape is not what it was, and certainly not what it is often believed to be. Most of the world’s poor now live in middle-income countries. The United States is now almost as unequal as Brazil. Yet in Mollison’s collection four out of five Brazilian kids reside either in favelas or on the street, while nine out of eleven American kids enjoy expensive hobbies, New York City penthouses, or marble-staired castles. In Nepal, one can’t deny that income statistics are dire: 25% of the population lives below the national poverty line (about $15 a month). Yet Mollison’s sample selection distorts this image further — five out of his eight Nepalese models are abjectly poor.

Each photo on its own tells a deep, complicated, and often hopeful story. Shameela is the first girl in her family to go to school. Preena, a young Nepalese housemaid, sends remittances to support her family in the village. Sherap goes to a Tibetan monastery school and admires his teacher. But when all the photographs are put together into a 120-page book, the story changes.

Mollison says he wants his book to help kids learn about poverty and inequality, “and perhaps start to figure out how, in their own lives, they may respond.” Yet unintentionally, the misguided and often harmful stereotype that some of us can and should fix the lives of others is passed on from our generation to the next.

This photobook can enrich a child’s worldview. It will familiarize children with ethnic conflict, public health issues, cultural prejudices, and more. But to educate kids about inequality and poverty – ideally before they spend their gap year and thousands of airfare dollars on a questionable voluntourism stint – you might need to find other didactic material.

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It’s been 238 years, and we have been fighting to realize these words ever since.

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Many around the world now see these words as universal and not specific to any nation, race, or culture

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These are words for which people risk their lives.

All of us who care about these words will never give up until they apply to everyone.

Migrant-Labor

Bayard Street tenement, New York City, 1888; Labor Camp 42, Abu Dhabi, 2014. Click to enlarge.

On the left is one of photographer and muckraker Jacob Riis’ most famous photos, “Five Cents a Spot,” taken with newly-developed flash photography technology in 1888. At the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s, immigration to the US spiked, and millions of laborers from Russia, Germany, Italy, and Ireland arrived to take jobs in New York City’s expanding manufacturing sector.

On the right is a photo from yesterday’s New York Times, showing migrant workers who built New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus. According to the Times, many of the workers, who come from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal, must surrender their passports, and a year’s wages as a “recruitment fee,” to the contractors who employ them. The laborers work 6-7 days a week, 11-12 hours a day, for about $3,000 a year. Instead of the right to protest their working conditions and negotiate higher wages, they face harassment, beatings and deportation from Abu Dhabi’s police force. Regarding NYU’s involvement, the Times reported:

Facing criticism for venturing into a country where dissent is not tolerated and labor can resemble indentured servitude, N.Y.U. in 2009 issued a “statement of labor values” that it said would guarantee fair treatment of workers. But interviews by The New York Times with dozens of workers who built N.Y.U.’s recently completed campus found that conditions on the project were often starkly different from the ideal. … Told of the laborers’ complaints, officials said they could not vouch for the treatment of individual construction workers, since they are not employees of the university but rather of companies that work as contractors or subcontractors for the government agency overseeing the project. Those companies are contractually obligated to follow the statement of labor values.

When Riis’ book How the Other Half Lives came out in 1890, its frank depictions of poverty in the midst of New York City shocked middle class Americans. Riis—an immigrant himself—believed that exposing the harsh working and living conditions of the newest and poorest New Yorkers would help push along the Progressive movement for safer workplaces and workers’ rights. Luckily for many subsequent generations of New Yorkers, he was right.

Collage Photo Credits: Left: Jacob A. Riis Collection, Museum of the City of New York; Right: Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times.

UPDATE 2, May 2, 12:47pm EDT: Is it progress to have provoked a  one-on-one Twitter war with Ethiopian Foreign Minister Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus?

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UPDATE: May 2, 2014  Coverage of John Kerry’s “concern” yesterday about arrested Ethiopian bloggers in US media today: none. US State Department follow-up: none.  USAID follow-up: none.

If a US policy concern falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, is it a policy?  END UPDATE

The Ethiopian government, a major US aid recipient, operates with such impunity on rights that it arrested 9 new dissident journalists and bloggers on the eve of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Addis Ababa today. 

Kerry raised his “concerns” about the detained bloggers with in a meeting today with the Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam. The Ethiopian PM doesn’t need to be too concerned about US “concerns,” much less any reduction in US aid, since Kerry earlier today more loudly affirmed the US alliance with Ethiopia’s government to fight terrorism and violence in Africa.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The long history of aid ignoring and even facilitating rights abuses in Ethiopia sadly continues.

Delusion of Ethiopian Development

Impact evaluations are supposed to tell us what works in development, and a lot of time and money goes into them. It’s unfortunate, then, when they fail to report their results clearly. One of the things I found most shocking, looking through a large database of impact evaluations, was how often academic papers omitted information that is critical for interpreting the study’s results and figuring out how well they might apply to other contexts. This blog post draws on data from over 400 studies that AidGrade found in the course of its meta-analyses. Here are five embarrassing things many papers neglect to report:

1) Attrition

It’s normal for some people to drop out of a study. It can pose a problem, however, if attrition is not equal between the treatment group and the control group, as this self-selection process could bias the study’s results. While attrition is very well-known to be something one ought report, only about 75% of papers reported it.

2) The standard deviation of key variables

Without knowing how much variation there is in an outcome variable, it’s hard to know whether a paper found a relatively high or relatively low effect. Why? Often studies report outcomes that use scales particular to the paper, for example, reporting scores on a certain academic test. There is no way to compare these results across different papers using different tests unless you standardize the data – then you can at least say that program A was found to affect test scores by 0.1 standard deviations, while program B found an effect size of 0.2 standard deviations.

3) Whether the results include people who did not take advantage of the program

Intent-to-treat (ITT) estimates consider an intervention’s effects on everyone assigned to receive treatment, regardless of whether or not they actually took advantage of the program. The alternative is to estimate the treatment effect on the treated (TOT). For example, suppose that only 10% of people who were offered a bed net used it, and suppose bed nets were 90% effective at preventing malaria. The TOT estimate would be 90% – the ITT estimate, 9%. Clearly, if the authors don’t take care to explain which they are reporting, we really don’t know how to interpret the results!

4) Characteristics of the context of the intervention

Are the people in your study rich or poor? It could affect how well they respond to a cash transfer. Does your intervention aim to decrease an infectious disease? It probably matters what the underlying infection rate is within the population, especially if people can catch it from each other. When did the intervention start and end relative to data collection? It is difficult to know what results mean without knowing much about the people in the study, and it makes comparing results across different settings even more difficult.

5) Comparable outcome variables

Finally, papers seem to “run away from each other” in terms of which outcome variables they cover. If one paper addresses the effect of HIV/AIDS education on the incidence of the disease, another will focus on whether people got tested. It makes sense given the incentives of the researchers to be the first ones to show a particular result and to differentiate their findings. However, a single paper’s result cannot tell us how general it is. For that, you need more studies, and in order to compare those studies, they need to have outcome variables that are as comparable as possible.

Better reporting is not an impossible problem to solve. The Experiments in Governance and Politics network (EGAP), for example, decided to fund projects clustered around comparable intervention and outcome measures. In psychology, it was journals that started demanding better reporting. Something similar should happen in economics to provide researchers with the right incentives to maximize the use of their studies.