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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Global Food Crisis

Excerpts from an OP-ED from The NYTimes by Amartya Sen, whose vision, clarity and wisdom I admire much. Published May 28 2008

It is a tale of two peoples. In one version of the story, a country with a lot of poor people suddenly experiences fast economic expansion, but only half of the people share in the new prosperity. The favored ones spend a lot of their new income on food, and unless supply expands very quickly, prices shoot up. The rest of the poor now face higher food prices but no greater income, and begin to starve. Tragedies like this happen repeatedly in the world.

Much discussion is rightly devoted to the division between haves and have-nots in the global economy, but the world’s poor are themselves divided between those who are experiencing high growth and those who are not. The rapid economic expansion in countries like China, India and Vietnam tends to sharply increase the demand for food. This is, of course, an excellent thing in itself, and if these countries could manage to reduce their unequal internal sharing of growth, even those left behind there would eat much better.

There is also a high-tech version of the tale of two peoples. Agricultural crops like corn and soybeans can be used for making ethanol for motor fuel. So the stomachs of the hungry must also compete with fuel tanks.

Misdirected government policy plays a part here, too. In 2005, the United States Congress began to require widespread use of ethanol in motor fuels. This law combined with a subsidy for this use has created a flourishing corn market in the United States, but has also diverted agricultural resources from food to fuel. This makes it even harder for the hungry stomachs to compete.

Ethanol use does little to prevent global warming and environmental deterioration, and clear-headed policy reforms could be urgently carried out, if American politics would permit it. Ethanol use could be curtailed, rather than being subsidized and enforced.

The global food problem is not being caused by a falling trend in world production, or for that matter in food output per person (this is often asserted without much evidence). It is the result of accelerating demand. However, a demand-induced problem also calls for rapid expansion in food production, which can be done through more global cooperation.

What is most challenging is to find effective policies to deal with the consequences of extremely asymmetric expansion of the global economy. Domestic economic reforms are badly needed in many slow-growth countries, but there is also a big need for more global cooperation and assistance. The first task is to understand the nature of the problem.

Amartya Sen, who teaches economics and philosophy at Harvard, received the Nobel Prize in economics in 1998 and is the author, most recently, of “Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny.”

Friday, May 16, 2008

Teach For America

From the New York Times Editorial Published: May 16, 2008

To maintain its standing as an economic power, the United States must encourage programs that help students achieve the highest levels in math and science, especially in poor communities where the teacher corps is typically weak.

The National Academies, the country’s leading science advisory group, has called for an ambitious program to retrain current teachers in these disciplines and attract 10,000 new ones each year for the foreseeable future. These are worthy goals. But a new study from a federal research center based at the Urban Institute in Washington suggests that the country might raise student performance through programs like Teach for America, a nonprofit group that places high-achieving college graduates in schools that are hard to staff.

Teach for America started in 1990. By next fall, it will have more than 6,000 young teachers working nationwide. These teachers, many of whom come from elite colleges, commit to two years’ teaching. Besides their salaries, they receive modest federal grants and the right to defer loan payments while teaching.

Critics have challenged the program’s usefulness, pointing out that the teachers it places are neophytes and that a majority leave the classroom after two years. But the new study suggests that talented young people can have a lasting effect even if they do not make a career of teaching. According to the study, Teach for America participants who worked in North Carolina between 2000 and 2006 had more impact on student performance than traditional teachers did, as measured by end-of-course tests. The difference was observed in several areas of science and was strongest in math.

The findings are especially significant because Teach for America teachers worked in schools with the neediest students. The results suggest that states that want students to do better in math and science need to focus recruitment on more selective colleges instead of on traditional teacher education programs, which are often little more than diploma mills.

I think this is absolutely innovative. A majority of teacher training programmes in Africa are populated with 3rd and 4th tier high school graduates who failed to meet the grade for more competitive degree programmes.

One of my Biology teachers in high school was a PhD candidate. You can imagine the effect of this on the mind of an impressionable teenage boy. This teacher provided me with a search image that I could relate to.  I ended up with a PhD in Ecology. I never asked him why he took three months away from his research to teach high school Biology. I am so grateful he came by. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Fake Malaria Drugs Emerging in Vulnerable Countries in Africa

Until recently, fake malaria drugs have been a problem largely confined to Southeast Asia, where a sampling two years ago found 53 percent of the drugs substandard, and drug experts said Asia was facing “an epidemic of counterfeits.”

study released last week suggests that the epidemic is spreading to Africa, where the malaria burden is even greater, and the regulatory agencies are even weaker.

Tests on 195 packs of malaria drugs bought at private pharmacies found that 35 percent either did not contain enough active ingredient or did not dissolve quickly enough to work.

“The results are not happy reading for people taking these drugs,” said Richard Tren, director of Africa Fighting Malaria, a health advocacy group that sponsored the tests.

The samples were bought in six cities: Accra, Ghana; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Kampala, Uganda; Kigali, Rwanda; Lagos, Nigeria; and Nairobi, Kenya. The study was published in The Public Library of Science.

Moreover, a third of the packets tested contained just artemisinin, the newest antimalarial from China. Last year, to prevent artemisinin-resistant strains of malaria from developing, the World Health Organization asked all the world’s drug companies to stop selling it except in multidrug cocktails.

Nearly half the drugs that were made in Africa — assuming that their packaging was legitimate — failed the tests. So did a third of those made in Asia. None of the threesamples of CoArtem, a multidrug cocktail made in Switzerland for global health agencies, failed.

See link

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Rise of Global Civil Society:Building Communities and Nations from the Bottom Up

Excerpts from a very promising book

This book examines recent efforts by policy leaders in Washington to transfer more responsibility for social welfare to local and nongovernmental institutions. Private voluntary organizations, faith-based partnerships, and a proliferating array of NGOs—aided by communications technology and unprecedented mobility—are spreading real capacity as well as the norms of civic community and private enterprise around the globe.

The key to meeting development challenges in the future will be to harness the best of both the public and the private sector so as to foster experimentation with approaches that rely on markets and on civil society, and that engage the poor as partners.

The capital that already exists in poor countries far exceeds the combined value of foreign aid, investment by the private sector, and philanthropy. Trillions of dollars are currently held by the poor, but this wealth is trapped in the underground economies of poorly managed Third World nations.

Conventional efforts by elite policy experts and bureaucracies to bring about prosperity in the twentieth century have mostly failed. As a result, confidence in “top-down,” bureaucratic solutions is declining, while confidence in “bottom-up” innovation by business and nonprofits is growing. The twenty-first century will see more social entrepreneurship, private philanthropy, public-private partnerships, and grass-roots linkages involving the religious and civic communities. There will be less of the traditional approaches to “helping,” and more partnering with and empowering of indigenous institutions.

Building the seedbed for democracy requires promoting a global civic culture to incubate the attitudes and habits that produce healthy democratic societies.

The only path to free and prosperous nations is by way of cultivating democratic citizens. Democracy as it is understood in Western political theory is not merely about politics and the state; it is about civil society and local community habits. Too many attempts at building formal democracy sidestep the difficult issues of culture, religion, race, ethnicity, and a variety of attitudinal factors that often militate against liberal democracy.

The concluding chapter offers a guide for a variety of actors across all sectors—government, business, philanthropy, NGOs, and private individuals—on how to apply the observations and recommendations that flow from the previous chapters. It is presented as a roadmap to encourage more effective efforts at promoting freedom, democracy, and prosperity around the world.

The fundamentals of the Obama-Clinton race:Tips for leadership

Excerpts from David Brooks's column in the NYTimes 06/05/08

Thoughtful and conversational, he (Obama) doesn’t seem to possess the trait that Clinton has: automatically assuming that critics are always wrong.His astounding composure has come across as weakness in the midst of combat with Clinton, but it’s also at the core of his promise to change politics. He vows to calm hatred and heal division.

This contrast between combat and composure defines the Democratic race. The implicit Clinton argument is that politics is an inherently nasty business. Human nature, as she said Sunday, means that progress comes only through conquest. You’d better elect a leader who can intimidate. You’d better elect someone who has given herself permission to be brutal.

Obama still possesses his talent for homeostasis, the ability to return to emotional balance and calm, even amid hysteria. 

Obama’s campaign grows out of the longstanding reform tradition. His implicit argument is that politics doesn’t have to be this way. Dishonesty and brutality aren’t inevitable; they’re what gets in the way. Obama’s friend and supporter Cass Sunstein described the Obama ideal in The New Republic: “Obama believes that real change usually requires consensus, learning and accommodation.”

That’s regarded as naïve drivel in parts of Camp Clinton.

Campaign issues come and go, but this is a thread running through the race. One believes in the raw assertion of power, the other the power of communication.

Still, amid the storms of the presidency, their basic worldviews would shape their presidencies. Obama is instinctively a conversationalist and community-mobilizer. Clinton, as she says, will fight and fight. If elected, she’ll have the power to take the Hobbesian struggle she perceives, and turn it into remorseless reality. 

From David Brooks' Column in the NYTimes  


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