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: Monday March 17, 2014 5:08pm World Bank responds (see end of this post)

WARNING: the contents of this message are for private entertainment purposes only. Any unauthorized duplication of this message to score cheap points is strictly prohibited.

Email from World Bank, January 27:

I am writing to you in reference to a recent publication: “The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor” by William Easterly.
As part of our high priority events, we’d like to invite the author for a book signing event…  

The events program has hosted internationally renowned speakers including:  Amartya Sen, Angus Deaton…Christy Turlington … as well as numerous Heads of States and Nobel Laureates. 

Email from World Bank, February 5:

I am happy to confirm the event on March 18 from 12-2pm.

Could you please also send me a copy of the book, so we can provide it to a potential moderator.

Email from World Bank, February 6:

We are delighted and look forward to a great and exciting event on March 18. The event will be inside the main Preston auditorium (1818 H Street NW). 

Would it also be possible to send me a galley of the book? 

Email from World Bank, February 13:

Thank you very much for arranging the World Bank book event with Professor Easterly on “The Tyranny of Experts” for March 18, we very much appreciate it. We would like to convey our sincerest apologies though as we have inadvertently overbooked ourselves and have overlapping events that day. Given the large number of high-profile events our very small team is handling, we overlooked and provided you with this date prematurely. We will shortly come back to you with new dates so we may find a mutually suitable one.

February 27 In response to inquiry about rescheduling, World Bank emails back that they hope to work together again at some point in the future.

March 17 World Bank response: Asked to comment on this post last Friday, David Theis, Chief of Media Relations at the World Bank responded with this statement at 5pm, Monday March 17 (a snow day in DC):

“I have confirmed that we indeed had a double booking, so apologies for the scheduling mix-up. We would be more than happy to have you at the Bank and will be in touch to find a date. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

 

“Evidence-based policies” are in vogue. But how do you synthesize the evidence base? People often engage in “vote counting”: reading the literature and consciously or subconsciously summing up the number of findings for a positive effect, a negative effect, or no effect for a particular program. The group with the greatest number wins.

Unfortunately, vote counting is not an ideal method to synthesize the evidence. The biggest problem is that some “no effect” papers were unlikely to find an effect even if there was one. Many studies in development use too small of a sample to be likely to find an effect, so the fact that their results are insignificant is not actually all that informative.

An alternative technique, meta-analysis, can aggregate many insignificant findings and sometimes transform them into a jointly significant result. It also allows flexibility in weighting studies differently, since all studies are not equal.

In most of the cases in which vote counting and meta-analysis diverge, vote counting reports an insignificant result and meta-analysis reports a significant positive result. For example, both conditional and unconditional cash transfer programs often had several “no effect” results — “cash transfers don’t work!” These types of programs have effects on a very broad range of outcomes, but because some or all of them are only tangentially related to the intervention, it’s harder to see an effect in any one study. But if you aggregate the insignificant results on labour force participation, grade promotion or test scores through meta-analysis then they become significant — “cash transfers work!”

The error of overstating the strength of “no effect” results through vote counting is all the worse given that “no effect” does not really mean no effect. The common misconception is that failure to reject the null hypothesis of no effect means we have accepted the null hypothesis of no effect, but that is simply untrue. Absence of a positive finding becomes a finding of absent effect, but this is not what the test says. Perhaps with a bit more data the result would become significant.

How big is this problem? Preliminary analysis of a database I have assembled of development studies, through a group called AidGrade, suggests that the meta-analysis results for a particular intervention-outcome combination diverge from the results that would have been obtained using vote counting about a third of the time. Vote counting actually gives very similar results as to what one would get by just looking at a single paper selected at random from the entire literature; not a great foundation on which to base policy recommendations. If we want to use rigorous evidence, we have to be rigorous about how we use rigorous evidence.