Sunday, April 25, 2010

American Double Standards

From Freefall by Joseph Stiglitz:
For the critics of American-style capitalism in the Third World, the way that America has responded to the current economic crisis has smacked of double standard. During the East Asian crisis, just a decade ago, America and the IMF demanded that the affected countries reduce their government's deficits by cutting back expenditures-- even if, as in Thailand, this resulted in a resurgence of the AIDS epidemic, or even if, as in Indonesia, this meant curtailing food subsidies for the starving, or even if, as in Pakistan, the shortage of public schools led parents to send their children to madrassas, where they would become indoctrinated in Islamic fundamentalism. America and the IMF forced countries to raise interest rates, in some cases (such as Indonesia) to more than 50 percent. They lectured Indonesia about being tough on its banks and demanded that the government not bail them out. What a terrible precedent this would set, they said, and what a terrible intervention into the smooth-running mechanisms of the free market.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Maoist Rebellion

Last week the Indian police organized an insurgency into the tribal forests of India. An ambush by the Maoists left 76 dead. Operation Green Hunt is underway to annihilate these Maoists. In fact, for the last two years the Indian government has claimed that they are the biggest threat to India’s security, conveniently forgetting its own actions in compelling this violence. The tribal people of India, whom the Maoists represent, have been robbed of the legal right to their lands. The government has repeatedly displaced their kind without compensating them for the loss of their homes or livelihood in the pretext of economic development. Unruly security forces repeatedly burned their homes, raped their women, and starved their children. If the violence is to stop, the tribal people of India must be properly compensated for the loss of their homes, those who have committed crimes against them must also be held accountable, and the government must introduce transparency into the process of allocating public land to private firms.

Market reforms of the last twenty years have allowed consumers and firms access to markets that were hitherto denied to them (by a government of the same political party). Firms could tap capital from foreign markets and consumers could buy cheap Chinese goods, but this applied only to certain strata of the Indian society—those who were middle-income and above. The dissolute tribal people were not privy to this party: their primary asset had been usurped by the state and their livelihoods were constantly under attack by politicians who wanted to transfer their land to giant mining companies. While there is nothing wrong with big corporations or mining, it is unjust and immoral when the poorest of the poor are deprived of their primary asset to save the well-connected the trouble of paying market value for this land. These ideologically bankrupt reforms that robbed the poor are at the heart of the Maoists’ legitimate grievance against the Indian state.

Anecdotes of the crimes committed by the police—raping tribal women and burning their villages are made credible by statistics from the Asian Center of Human Rights. The 170 custodial deaths notwithstanding, 125 out of the 148 cases of torture, and 20 out of the 26 cases of rapes that were filed at the National Human Rights Commission were committed by security forces. Compare that with 11 cases of abuse (read: a police officer was beaten up and allowed to return to the city) by all the armed opposition groups. When journalists like Arundhati Roy return from Maoists camps bringing stories of atrocities committed by the police, I am inclined to believe that these have substantial merit. The rapists and arsonists amongst the police must also be brought to justice, and the role of their superior officers in instigating this violence must be examined by an independent commission.

At the root of all these displacements are secret agreements signed between the government and private companies. These agreements must be made public to ensure that ministers aren’t simply handing over the property of the Indian people to their friends and business partners without ensuring a good bargain for the Indian people and safeguards for the Indian ecology. Additionally, future agreements must be open, transparent, and involve actual stakeholders. Currently, companies hire a handful of villagers to be present at their farcical public deliberations and then claim that they received the input of those they will displace. In the future, the proceeds from these land deals must directly benefit the people they have displaced, not Indian ministers who have a well documented addiction to corruption.

India refuses to acknowledge the grievances of the tribal people at its our own peril. Until these are addressed, and those guilty of bringing violence to tribal homes are brought to justice, such insurgencies will not end. The Indian polity can quack all it wants.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Empowering Women, Global Warming, and Markets

In a very thoughtful series of posts Lisa Hymas presents her case for being child-free and highlights the effects on the environment of the availability of contraception to women with the following arithmetic:
Each $7 spent on basic family planning over the next four decades would reduce global CO2 emissions by more than a metric ton, while achieving that same reduction with the leading low-carbon technologies would cost a minimum of $32.
These numbers tell us that in the fight against global warming, making contraception available to women can be important step. But Hymas also writes that many women already demand, but do not have access to such technology. This may be an important reason, and it seems like there is some work being done to provide free condoms and educate women about contraception. However, I'm not sure I'm convinced that this is a whole story. If there were indeed a market for contraception, since contraception is perfectly legal in so many countries, someone would have sold it and made a profit.

I suspect that the real reason for the slow uptake of contraception is a lack of information in the marketplace for women. Two things come to mind: first, women may not know about the opportunities available to them should they choose to stop having children and work, and second: there are very few role-models for that life of the woman who, amongst other things, uses contraception and goes to work. In an excellent study on the effects of cable television on the status of women in India, Oster and Jensen show that as women in rural India gained access to cable television they stopped to have as many babies, sent their children to school, and became more independent in making decisions about their health (more accessible version here). As rural women saw on television how women in urban settings drive cars, have jobs, and send their children to school, they start to engage in the same activities. Maybe we don't even need campaigns to distribute condoms; if only we can persuade cable providers to connect a few more villages, we'll have done a lot of good.

But we can also see that this isn't a result that we expected from the introduction of television. The government of India spent millions of dollars trying to stop women from having children. Then some cable-wallah decided that he could make money by adding one more village to his network, a villager decided to buy access to cable-television, and his wife stopped having as many children. This wasn't what any of the participants in these activities intended or expected. A wave of modernity triggered by access to the globalized world unintentionally changed the outcome for the better. And this isn't the only case where access to modernity has propelled social change for the better. Consider this excerpt from The Economist on how the sex-ratio in South Korea stabilized in the 1990s
In the 1990s South Korea had a sex ratio almost as skewed as China’s. Now, it is heading towards normality. It has achieved this not deliberately, but because the culture changed. Female education, anti-discrimination suits and equal-rights rulings made son preference seem old-fashioned and unnecessary. The forces of modernity first exacerbated prejudice—then overwhelmed it.
The influence of modernity had a profound impact on attitudes towards son-preference in South Korea in the 1990s, just as it is empowering women in India today.

This may raise difficult questions for some environmentalists who associate much of modernity with plastic, waste, and pollution. Televisions, when being disposed may be hazardous. Television commercials are full of advertisements for goods made out of plastic and other environmentally toxic material, and viewers will buy that stuff. But we'll have to trust the rationality of these consumers so that when they learn about dangers of plastic, they will decided to use it carefully, just as they decided, after learning that women could lead lives that weren't completely about bearing and raising children and being homemakers, to empower themselves. Markets often work just fine when participants have good information about the decisions that they are making. In this case, consumers can be made aware of issues relating to global warming over television or by NGOs on the ground. But we must realize that while empowered women may well stop global warming, we should think harder about how effective our traditional means of empowering them are, and be less confident about what route they'll take to save the world.