Attention Chinese government, be sure to censor this

Great article in NYT Book Review by Emily Parker on the Chinese government successfully inhibiting academic freedom and freedom of speech in the West.

The Chinese-Canadian writer Denise Chong’s ...  {2009} book, “Egg on Mao,” ... tells the true story of Lu Decheng, who threw paint-filled eggs at Mao’s portrait in Tiananmen Square during the 1989 protests.  ... A Canadian nonprofit economic development group that had invited her to appear at a fund-raiser began playing down its association with her book once learning of the title, Chong said. ...

The United States Library of Congress declined an invitation to hold an event with Chong, suggested by the Canadian Embassy. In a recent telephone interview, a library employee involved in the discussions acknowledged that the political sensitivity of the book was one factor in the decision, along with the library’s relationship with the National Library of China.

{Princeton China scholar Perry} Link ...has been repeatedly denied a visa to China since the mid-’90s, apparently for helping the Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi seek refuge in the American Embassy during the 1989 protests.  Link’s predicament casts a long shadow over other China watchers. “Three or four times a month I get questions from students: How can I avoid getting on a blacklist like you?” Link said. He adds that he’s seen doctoral students avoid writing about democracy in China out of fear of the blacklist.

This reminds me of the heavy-handed pressure by the Chinese government on the World Bank during my days there (which has probably escalated in the 9 years since). As just one example, if I did an academic paper putting the name "Taiwan" in some obscure table of econometric results, I would be required to say instead "Taiwan Province of China." (I usually ignored this requirement, a small step towards that upward trajectory out of the World Bank.)

More recently, the Chinese government has reportedly exerted pressure limiting the practical use of the World Bank Institute's Governance Indicators, which measure democracy as one of their six indicators (with the Chinese of course scoring very poorly, they don't look so good on corruption either). Perhaps this accounts for the contortions on the web site for the Governance Indicators:

{They are} one of the most comprehensive cross-country sets of governance indicators currently available....

"the Worldwide Governance Indicators show that governance and corruption can be robustly measured and the lessons drawn can in fact be put to subsequent use by reformist governments, the development community, civil society and the media" said John Githongo,

...{they} are not used by the World Bank Group to allocate resources {aid}.

While the World Bank has at the same time been making the case for over a decade that:

Aid is less effective in a weak governance environment.

So Chinese government, what ARE we allowed to talk about? Well, the official World Bank blog does have good coverage of  a Chinese dung beetle named after a World Bank staffer.

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Wax and Gold: Meles Zenawi’s Double Dealings with Aid Donors

Helen Epstein, author of The Invisible Cure: Why We Are Losing The Fight Against AIDS in Africa, has a stunning piece on aid to Ethiopia published in this month’s New York Review of Books. Epstein argues that the main cause of fertile southern Ethiopia’s chronic food shortages—the so-called “green famine” —is Ethiopia’s toxic and repressive political system, presided over since 1991 by Meles Zenawi. While Meles placates donors and Western governments with speeches about fighting poverty and terrorism, he has committed gross human rights violations at home, rigged elections, killed political opponents, and imprisoned journalists and human rights activists. Epstein on Meles' doublespeak:

There is a type of Ethiopian poetry known as “Wax and Gold” because it has two meanings: a superficial “wax” meaning, and a hidden “golden” one. During the 1960s, the anthropologist Donald Levine described how the popularity of “Wax and Gold” poetry provided insights into some of the northern Ethiopian societies from which Prime Minister Meles would later emerge…. “Wax and Gold”–style communication might give Ethiopians like Meles an advantage in dealing with Westerners, especially when the Westerners were aid officials offering vast sums of money to follow a course of development based on liberal democracy and human rights, with which they disagree.

Several Western donors responded to Meles’ more blatant repression by channeling aid directly to local authorities, cutting out the central government. We have argued before that this strategy doesn't work when there is evidence—which Epstein provides more of—that local government officials are instrumental in election-fixing and using aid to award political supporters and punish dissidents. Now, donors can no longer even support Ethiopian civil society to oppose these human rights violations, since Meles' government recently passed a law that makes it illegal for civil society organizations to accept foreign funds.

Epstein concludes powerfully:

In 2007, Meles called for an “Ethiopian renaissance” to bring the country out of medieval poverty, but the Renaissance he’s thinking of seems very different from ours. The Western Renaissance was partly fostered by the openness to new ideas created by improved transport and trade networks, mail services, printing technology, and communications—precisely those things Meles is attempting to restrict and control.

The Western Renaissance helped to democratize “the word” so that all of us could speak of our own individual struggles, and this added new meaning and urgency to the alleviation of the suffering of others. The problem with foreign aid in Ethiopia is that both the Ethiopian government and its donors see the people of this country not as individuals with distinct needs, talents, and rights but as an undifferentiated mass, to be mobilized, decentralized, vaccinated, given primary education and pit latrines, and freed from the legacy of feudalism, imperialism, and backwardness. It is this rigid focus on the “backward masses,” rather than the unique human person, that typically justifies appalling cruelty in the name of social progress.

Read the article in full here.

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Abe on double standards

Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation we began by declaring that "all men are created equal." We now practically read it "all men are created equal, except negroes." Soon it will read "all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics." When it comes to this, I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty--to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.

- Abraham Lincoln, August 24, 1855

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Oh, NOW I understand why we don't want to talk about global human rights...

Noor Muhammed was arrested in March 2002 in Pakistan. He's been charged with helping to train Al Qaeda militants at a training camp in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2000. The only act he's charged with that occurred after September 11, 2001 is allegedly trying to evade local authorities by escaping from a safehouse in Pakistan in March 2002. Noor denies that he was a member of al Qaeda, or an "unprivileged alien enemy belligerent" as the U.S. claims. But though he's been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay for eight years, the military commission still hasn't even held a hearing to decide the answer to that question. If Noor is right, the military commissions don't even have jurisdiction over his case.

Today, Capt. Moira Modzelewski, the military commission judge presiding at the hearing, announced that the hearing on that issue won't be held until August.

Still, the government has flown several dozen prosecution and defense lawyers, observers and journalists down to a hearing at Guantanamo Bay that lasted less than two hours. The issue decided? A complicated military bureaucratic question of whether Noor's previous military defense counsel could continue to represent him now that she'd been ordered by the military to another assignment.

This from a Huffington Post blog by Daphne Eviatar, who is with Human Rights First’s Law and Security Program. I had coffee with Daphne yesterday and was deeply impressed by her principled commitment to the unpopular cause of human rights for terrorist suspects. In the blog, she describes her visit to Guantanamo:

I ate at a Taco Bell yesterday, drank beer at an Irish bar last night, am staying in an air-conditioned tent ... And if you walk past the military barracks down the road to the beach, the view is positively breathtaking. There's even a diving shop where we can rent snorkeling equipment and explore the underside of the 80-degree Caribbean waters.

All that relative comfort can lull an observer into forgetting that on the other side of the military base, the side we don't get to see, men who were seized overseas, many based on statements made by wholly unreliable accusers, have been imprisoned by the United States government without trial - many even without charge - for more than 8 years.

OK I know you all are so bored hearing about Guantanamo. The domestic political constituency for caring about the rights of foreigners is so small that I could probably fit them all around my dining table. Maybe that also has something to the lack of interest in individual rights in development about which I complained yesterday.   All that never ending discussion about the Geneva Convention, due process, habeas corpus, human rights, blah, blah, blah...

I suspect that among the very few who are not bored by the subject is Noor Muhammed.

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Why are we not allowed to talk about individual rights in development?

Individual rights for rich countries Individual rights in development discourse
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” “Implementing the strengthened approach to governance … will require … …careful development of a … detailed results framework, consideration of budget and staffing implications … and further consultations with stakeholders…The specific initiatives needed to fully operationalize this strategy will be outlined in an Implementation Plan…”
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Seeing the Light on a Rights-Based Approach to Development

Today's guest blogger, Tim Ogden, is the editor-in-chief of Philanthropy Action. Bill Easterly has been a frequent critic of the rights-based approach to development, most recently in his article in the FT focusing on the “right to health.” For as long as I’ve known about the rights-based approach I’ve agreed with him. Recently, though, I’ve seen the light.

For those unfamiliar with the rights-based approach to development, it starts with defining inalienable human rights—and then seeks to ensure that those rights are enforced. The idea is that if you help people assert their rights and strengthen relevant institutions to respect those rights, everyone wins.

My epiphany on the rights-based approach came during a conversation with a friend on why practices in some areas are susceptible to evidence while others are not. My friend mentioned a conversation he had recently had with a cardiologist who noted that the practice of cardiology has essentially changed completely in the last five years. Why? Because the fear of malpractice suits made all cardiologists pay close attention to the latest research and adjust their practice accordingly. Simply not keeping up with the latest innovations was grounds for a costly lawsuit. We began joking about how the field of education would change if a parent could sue a school district because their child wasn’t taught to read the using the techniques proven most effective.

That’s when the hidden brilliance (brilliance, I tell you!) of the rights-based approach hit me. As Bill has shown in his books and the Aid Watch blog, practices that have proven ineffective and even harmful remain staples of the development industry for decades. No amount of evidence, or lack thereof, seems to have much impact on practice.

But if we adopt the rights-based approach, think of what we could accomplish! Right now, the poor can’t sue an aid agency or NGO for malpractice, no matter what they’re doing. But if we recognized the rights of the poor as expressed by the rights-based approach, then they could hold aid agencies accountable by suing for having their rights violated. I wonder how many aid programs wouldn’t be covered under the right to freedom from “arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home or correspondence.”

It goes further. Imagine a world where Ethiopians sue USAID for delivering in-kind food aid because their rights (specifically the right to adequate food) have been violated. Or Kenyans sue DfID because its support for education hasn’t been adjusted to reflect the latest research on what actually helps children learn more (surprise, it’s making teachers accountable to their communities not the civil service!)

Dare we hope for a day when the poor from around the world file a class action suit against the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for advocating a rights-based approach to development without evidence that it does anything other than perpetuate bureaucratese and wasted aid dollars? Finally making aid accountable to the poor is just a few rights away!

All we need now is to really adopt the rights-based approach—and of course a new NGO to handle all the class action suits. Anybody got a catchy acronym?

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Guest Post by April Harding on Health as a Human Right

Maybe it is not necessary that approaching health policy and health development assistance from a human rights framework undermine effective use of resources - but it often does. Bill has given the example of the misallocation of AIDS program funds (excess spending on treatment relative to prevention). I'd add excess spending on AIDS relative to other illnesses and activities where you can get much bigger "bang for the buck" like treatment of diarrhea and pneumonia (big killers of children, significantly cheaper to treat, and prevent, then AIDS). I could give pages of examples of this in action. I have never been able to figure out why this predictable dynamic unfolds, but it does, again and again.

It seems to go something like this:

A human rights frame (similar to the universal frame) for promoting attention and spending on health - is often accompanied by effort to get governments to committ to these values. These committments get recorded in global venues and also in domestic foundational legislation. Sometimes in a country's constitution (as in a number of Latin American countries).

However much is available, resouces for health are still always scarce. In order to achieve good "value for money" in health governments must prioritize in some way: among services (using partly cost effectiveness) and among populations.

Human rights (and universal) framing undermines prioritization. It undermines it by giving health policy makers an easier "out" for not prioritizing. Also, even in countries where they have prioritized, groups that want more (of whatever) can use the human rights (or universal) frame (and government committments) to push the government to giving more to their issue. This often works - and undermines rational use of funds. It very often shifts spending to less cost effective uses, and because middle and upper income groups are more organized, vocal and efficatious, it often shifts spending towards the things they value. And away from services that are needed by the poor.

Colombia right now is experiencing exactly this phenomenon - as their ability to NOT spend on costly treatments (excluded from the insurance package) has been undermined by court cases by higher income people. The judges feel compelled by the constitutional committment to universal healthcare to rule in favor of expanding the package to cover the uncovered treatments. And, as a result, they can subsidize insurance for fewer and fewer poor people.

The human rights frame is nice when it is being used to get governments who are spending way too little on health to allocate more. However, the formal committments to health human rights do a lot of damage, and we should take it into account.

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Debating Health as a Human Right

Yesterday’s FT op-ed on the right to health generated a lot of heat in this blog's comments section. Several commenters disputed an absolute distinction between the “moral approach”—declaring health to be a human right, and the “pragmatic approach”—directing finite public resources to where they can benefit the most people at a given cost. Justin Krauss said:

I too am skeptical about the wisdom of claiming a “right to health” but I don't think that such a right AND a more pragmatic approach to healthcare are necessarily mutually exclusive. I can (although I am not sure that I do) believe that health is a "right" while approaching the problem of how to achieve that right in a pragmatic, most benefit for the most people, manner.

The geckonomist questioned the causal link between calling health a human right on the one hand, and inefficient use of public resources on the other. He argued that the real problem is the way that narrow political interests are able to manipulate public funds, "regardless of the underlying moral reason.”

ryan picked up this same thread, asking whether the rights approach is simply being applied selectively, benefiting some groups more than others:

The primary argument you seem to level is that the 'rights' approach is applied unequally along disease- and class-specific lines, and that the people advocating that healthcare is a human right are the same people that are really just hungry for big headlines and large commitments to a small but visible sector of the actual needs of developing communities….Your real problem is with the execution, not the intellectual framework, of global public health spending.

Others objected to the notion that a human right implies requiring unlimited resources, and suggested various kinds of limits like “basic needs,” “subsistence,” or “basic health care.”

But none of these concepts are precise enough to yield hard upper limits, they will be different in different countries, and the limits themselves will be the objects of political advocacy for obvious reasons.

Nor is there anything about the “limit” process that keeps the sum of basic needs from exceeding the available resources—in fact, it is highly likely that they will do so.

So the problem is back to the issue of how to decide whose basic needs to satisfy and whose to not satisfy. This will be a political debate, and so once again the most politically skilled and connected will win, which will usually not be the neediest. So the rights approach is inherently unequal -- it is not just a matter of execution. And ideas like human rights do matter if they obfuscate the likely outcomes.

It is true the cost-benefit analysis can also be manipulated politically, but it offers at least a chance to lead to a frank and open discussion about effective use of public resources to save as many lives as possible. The ideal that the lives of the poor are worth just as much as the rich is more likely to be realized in the pragmatic approach, ironically, than in the idealism of a human right to health care.

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Human rights are the wrong basis for healthcare

Column published today in the Financial Times.

The agonising US healthcare debate has taken on a new moral tone. President Barack Obama recently held a conference call with religious leaders in which he called healthcare “a core ethical and moral obligation”. Even Sarah Palin felt obliged to concede: “Each of us knows that we have an obligation to care for the old, the young and the sick.”

This moral turn echoes an international debate about the “right to health”. Yet the global campaign to equalise access to healthcare has had a surprising result: it has made global healthcare more unequal...

Read the rest of the article here.

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Hillary illustrates perils of fuzzy human rights concepts

Hillary-wsj.gif There is an interview with Hillary Clinton in today’s Wall Street Journal. Matthew Kaminski of the Journal asked her:

Why push human rights and democracy so hard in Africa, and not in Russia or China? Some see a double standard.

Excellent question! Hillary answers:

First I think it is important to stress that human rights remain a central driving force of our foreign policy. But I also think that it's important to look at human rights more broadly than it has been defined. Human rights are also the right to a good job and shelter over your head and a chance to send your kids to school and get health care when your wife is pregnant. It's a much broader agenda. Too often it has gotten narrowed to our detriment.

Uh oh. Is Hillary saying:

Don’t emphasize so much the traditional human rights where you can actually hold someone like Chinese and Russian rulers accountable – like the right for dissidents not to be tortured, jailed, and killed –

Because we are going to add fuzzy human rights where you can’t hold anyone accountable—rights to jobs, shelter, education, health?

Rights to basic needs have enormous moral appeal, but do they work? Progress on the first kind of human rights has happened because you could hold somebody accountable, while there is little evidence that second kind of human rights has pragmatically contributed anything to better employment, shelter, education and health (as this blog previously argued). So shifting emphasis from the first to the second slows down progress on the first, while doing little on the second.

And if the second acts as an excuse to not speak out on the first kind of traditional human rights,as Hillary seems to say...NOT good.

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UN Human Rights and Wrongs

Last Friday’s post “Poverty is not a human rights violation” spurred a very healthy dialogue on rights, including a response from Amnesty International , which mentioned the UN Declaration of Human Rights. I will not be a last word freak and answer Amnesty directly. But let’s talk about rights at the UN. The UN publicizes such positive rights as “right to water,” “right to housing,” “right to health”, etc. These rights sound wonderful, while not imposing any specific obligation whatsoever on any specific actor to do any specific thing for any specific poor person. It is impossible for the UN or any other body to allocate responsibilities for observing the “right to water,” and also decide who will be first in line among the 884 million people now without clean water. So even if the UN creates international pressure to observe these “rights,” the pressure is diffused across so many potential actors with unclear responsibility that it has no effect, accomplishing nothing for poor people.

What about the UN’s record on the more traditionally defined “negative” human rights, like freedom from state killings and torture? These human rights are a lot easier to specifically address – the UN could denounce human rights violations, identifying the violator and the victim each time. Here international pressure could have more of an effect, because it is applied to very specific wrong-doers to stop very specific actions against specific victims -- some of whom are in the Amnesty International 2009 report

According to Amnesty, among those who could appeal to the UN Human Rights Council are:

--the families of the 100 Cameroonian demonstrators that dictator Paul Biya’s forces killed in February 2008, shooting some in the head at point blank range

-- the family of Paltsal Kyab, 45, a Tibetan from Sichuan province, who died in Chinese police custody on May 26, 2008, after having been present at a protest march on March 17, 2008. The Chinese government did not allow his family to visit him in detention. When his family members went to claim his body, “they found it bruised and covered with blister burns, discovering later that he had internal injuries.”

---the 49 people the Egyptian government arrested after violent protests on April 6, 2008 in Egypt. The trial began in August 2008 before “the (Emergency) Supreme State Security Court…The defendants said they were blindfolded for nine days and tortured by State Security Investigation (SSI) officials …{including} beatings, electric shocks and threats that their female relatives would be sexually abused…Twenty-two of the defendants were sentenced in December to up to five years in prison.”

So such victims could appeal to the UN Human Rights Council for their rights vis-à-vis the governments of Cameroon, China, and Egypt – except that the governments of Cameroon, China, and Egypt are MEMBERS of the UN Human Rights Council. The UN is perpetrating a sick joke on such victims, by filling the Human Rights Council with human rights violators. This travesty is already well known, but that doesn’t mean anyone who cares should stop talking about it.

So here’s the scorecard on UN human rights. On something like “the right to water,” where it is impossible to identify who is violating such “rights,” the UN talks big. On human rights violations like killings and torture, where the UN knows precisely who is the violator, the UN sometimes shows up on the violator's side.

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Amnesty International Responds to "Poverty is Not a Human Rights Violation"

by Sameer Dossani, Demand Dignity Campaign Director at Amnesty International Bill Easterly takes on Amnesty International’s 2009 Annual Report. I know and respect Easterly’s work; I’ve even been on a few panels with him over the years on aid effectiveness and the World Bank, but I have to say he’s pretty off base here.

The basic premise of his post is this:

The only useful definition of human rights is one where a human rights crusader could identify WHOSE rights are being violated and WHO is the violator. That is what historically has led to progress on human rights. The government officers of the slave-owning antebellum US and the slave-owners were violating the rights of slaves – leading to activism against such violators that eventually yielded the Emancipation Proclamation. The local southern government officers were violating the civil rights of southern blacks under Jim Crow, leading to activism against these violators that yielded the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. The apartheid government officers in South Africa violated the rights of black South Africans, and activism against these violators brought the end of apartheid.

Easterly then claims that poverty does not fit this definition of rights because "who is depriving the poor of their right to an adequate income?"

It’s true that lack of income, in and of itself, isn’t a human rights violation. But poverty is about a lot more than just income. As Easterly knows, those who live on less than a dollar a day are poor not just because they lack income; the lack of income implies lack of access to services, clean drinking water, adequate education, housing, employment and so on. All of these are violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights. To give just one of many possible examples, estimates indicate that as many as 8,000 children die daily in Africa alone from preventable diseases such as cholera and dysentery. It’s certainly true to say that these are diseases of poverty – the rich can ensure that their water is not contaminated and can seek treatment at private hospitals as opposed to understaffed government clinics – but they are more than that. They are violations of the right to health and the right to clean water.

And people living in poverty are vulnerable to violations of their civil and political rights as well. In the Favelas (shanty towns) of Sao Paolo in Brazil, police and gangs are in daily conflict. There are allegations of human rights abuse on all sides, and the government feels little pressure to respect due process in large part because this violence is taking place in an extremely poor part of the city. Ordinary people are in danger from gangs on the one hand and from a state takes their rights less seriously because they live in a poor community.

These are all human rights violations, and it is ultimately the responsibility of governments to end them. In some cases those actually committing the abuse may not be governments; such as when Dow Chemical refuses to clean up the toxic mess that is still poisoning impoverished communities in Bhopal, India from a disaster that killed thousands in 1984. But in all cases it is ultimately the responsibility of governments to ensure that human rights – including the right to live a life of dignity – are respected.

Human rights abuses cause poverty and keep people poor – and living in poverty makes you more likely to suffer violations of your human rights. So human rights must be part of any solution to poverty.

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Poverty is not a human rights violation

police-2.jpg The title of this blog will make many think I am callous, and yet I definitely agree that poverty is an EXTREMELY BAD THING. Perhaps some use the words “human rights violation” to be equivalent to “extremely bad thing,” but why? There are many different “extremely bad things,” and it helps if everybody discriminates between them.

The only useful definition of human rights is one where a human rights crusader could identify WHOSE rights are being violated and WHO is the violator. That is what historically has led to progress on human rights. The government officers of the slave-owning antebellum US and the slave-owners were violating the rights of slaves – leading to activism against such violators that eventually yielded the Emancipation Proclamation. The local southern government officers were violating the civil rights of southern blacks under Jim Crow, leading to activism against these violators that yielded the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. The apartheid government officers in South Africa violated the rights of black South Africans, and activism against these violators brought the end of apartheid.

Poverty does not fit this definition of rights. Who is depriving the poor of their right to an adequate income? There are many theories of poverty, but few of them lead to a clear identification of the Violator of this right. Moreover, human rights are a clear dichotomy – someone violates your rights or they do not. But the line between poor and not-poor is arbitrary – it is different in different countries, and on a global scale, many still argue what is the right dividing line that constitutes poverty. So calling poverty a “human rights violation” does not point to any concrete actions that the “violator” must stop in order to restore rights to the “violated.”

So it’s disappointing that the 2009 report of Amnesty International is blurring its previous clear focus on human rights to a fuzzy vision that now includes poverty:

So many people are living in utter destitution…As the global economic outlook appears more and more gloomy, hope lies in the … determination of human rights defenders willing to challenge entrenched interests despite the risks they face. (p. 9)

Social and political progress arguably happens the same way as progress in science or as progress in business: somebody precisely defines a problem and somebody (possibly somebody else?) hits upon a way to solve that well-defined problem. To confuse poverty and human rights violations is to slow down the solutions to both.

P.S. also see the excellent 2009 book by Chauffour

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