Development Blindspot: Children & Environmental Toxins

​Robert Chambers recently highlighted corruption, entomophagy, neglected tropical diseases, cookstove air pollution, climate change and ocean ecology as blindspots in his "Can We Know Better?" (2017) book. I think we ought to add environmental toxins and child health. Consider the following quotes from "Children & Environmental Toxins: What Everyone Needs to Know" (2018) by Landriagan and Landriagan (an overview book for non-experts published by Oxford University Press). As a background, it is worth noting that there have been rapid rises in infant and childhood cancers, asthma, allergies and autism in recent decades:

  • "Research in children's environmental health and epidemiology shows us that infants and children are exquisitely vulnerable to toxic chemicals. Exposures during pregnancy and in early childhood to even very low level of lead, methylmercury, organophosphate pesticides, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have all been proven to cause damage to children's developing brains that presents as IQ loss, shortened attention span, and disordered behavior. Early-life exposure to air pollution causes asthma, pneumonia, impaired lung growth, and sudden infant death. Prenatal exposures to solvents and pesticides are linked to childhood cancer. Endocrine disruptors, such as phthalates and bisphenol A, are associated with birth defects, diminished reproductive function, and disordered behavior." (p. xix)
  • "A fundamental problem is that often little or no assessment is made of the safety or potential toxicity of new chemicals before they are brought to market. This failure to exercise due diligence makes it impossible to know which chemicals will be beneficial and which need to be treated with caution." (p. 11)​
  • "The majority of the 3,000 high-production-volume chemicals have not undergone even minimal assessment for safety or potential toxicity. Only approximately 20% of high-production-volume chemicals have been screened for their potential to disrupt early human development or to cause disease in infants and children. Accordingly, we have no knowledge of the possible dangers to children of most of the synthetic chemicals in the world today." (p. 13)​
  • "Only 10% to 20% of cancers in children are considered to be genetic. The remaining 80% to 90% are due to environmental factors - chemical and physical factors in the environment called environmental carcinogens." (p. 48)

Listening to the Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy

​Arundhati Roy's "Listening to the Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy" (2009) is a collection of essays, written during the 2000s. The topics span a range of issues, largely occurring in India. While the "field notes on democracy" were present, they were often implicit - which is somehow expected as the content was not written as a book, but a series of disconnected essays. A few noteworthy, often very witty and wise, reflections:

  • "The system of representative democracy - too much representation, too little democracy - need some structural adjustment." (p. x)
  • "The space for nonviolent civil disobedience has atrophied. After struggling for several years, several nonviolent people's resistance movements have come up against the wall and feel, quite rightly, they have to now change direction. Views about what that direction should be are deeply polarized. There are some who believe that an armed struggle is the only avenue left... Others are increasingly beginning to feel they must participate in electoral politics - enter the system, negotiate from within." (p. 37)​
  • "A political party that represents the poor will be a poor party. A party with very meagre funds. Today it isn't possible to fight an election without funds. Putting a couple of well-known social activists into Parliament is interesting, but not really politically meaningful. Not a process worth channeling all our energies into. Individual charisma, personality politics, cannot effect radical change." (p. 39)​
  • "We need vision. We need to make sure that those of us who say we want to reclaim democracy are egalitarian and democratic in our own methods of functioning. If our struggle is to be an idealistic one, we cannot really make caveats for the internal injustices that we perpetuate on one another, on women, on children... If opportunism and expedience come at the cost of our beliefs, then there is nothing to separate us from mainstream politicians. If it is justice we want, it must be justice and equal rights for all - not only for special interest groups with special interest prejudices. That is non-negotiable. We have allowed nonviolence resistance to atrophy into feel-good political theatre, which at its most successful is a photo opportunity for the media, and at its least successful is simply ignored." (p. 41)​
  • "What we;re experiencing now is blowback, the cumulative result of decades of quick fixes and dirty deeds. The carpet's squelching under our feet. The only way to contain - it would be naive to say end - terrorism is to look at the monster in the mirror." (p. 197)

War in 140 Characters

​If you have been following the problematization of social media over the years, the stories in "War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century" (2017) by David Patrikarakos might not be all that surprising. For those who are interested in how these processes actually take place - beyond the headlines, abstract or theory - the author presents some insightful qualitative examples, from multiple perspectives on the war fronts.

"This book is about war. But it is also about stories, the narratives of conflict and the conflict of narratives" (p. 3) writes the author. While some aspects of war and conflict remain the same, Patrikarakos argues that we "are in need of a new conceptual framework that takes into account how social media has transformed the way that wars are waged, covered, and consumed. (p. 5). How has conflict actually changed? "First, power has shifted from hierarchies or institutions to individual citizens and networks of citizens. Second, the narrative dimensions of war are arguably becoming more important than its physical dimensions. And third, the conflicts I am examining were not "traditional" state-on-state wars" (p. 5). The conclusion? "Our information environment is sick. We live in a world where facts are less important than narratives, where people emote rather than debate, and where algorithms shape our view of the world" (p. 264). 

One of the most interesting examples I found in the book was how the "troll factory" actually operates and its objectives. "The goal was twofold. The first was to shore up the Kremlin's own constituency by giving them a narrative to hold on to and subsequently disseminate. The second, more bemusing to him, was to simply sow as much confusion as possible: to counteract the realities on the ground with counternarratives made forceful not by the strength of their content, which was blatantly false, but by their sheer volume" (p. 144). 

Other problems of social media - on echo-chambers and cocoons: "As we cocoon ourselves in online bubbles of like-minded friends and followers posting content we find agreeable, so the Facebook algorithm feeds us yet more content that, based on our online habits, it calculates we will like. This is designed to keep us on their forums for as long as possible to allow companies to advertise specific products to us users based on what they know we like." (p. 12)

From Poverty to Famine in Ethiopia

​Rural live in Ethiopian history is largely absent in the historical record – historians are able to work with a wealth of material from the long written record in the country, but these tends to only reflect a small segment of society. James McCann's "From Poverty to Famine in Northeast Ethiopia: A Rural History 1900-1935" (1987) provide important insight into the everyday lives of rural people, as well as the conditions and changes that pushed people living in poverty into famine. A unique contribution made by the author is the role of the state – not its absence per se, but its presence in over taxing rural residents.

The book begins with a series of questions: "What accounts for Ethiopia's vulnerability to famine when it boasts one of Africa's most efficient agricultural systems who technology has sustained sophisticated state systems for millennia? To what extent did northern Ethiopian patterns of property, marriage, and ideology resist or contribute to the overall impoverishment of the rural economy? Did crises in the rural economy as a whole affect the distribution of labor and productive resources between classes or within households?" (p. 5-6) Through a series of short, readable chapters, McCann grapples with answering these questions amidst sparse available data.

On daily life: "Farmers in northern Wallo who daily shouldered their plows and drove their oxen to the field or collected fuel for cook fires regularly faced a labyrinth of decisions with determined the success of their farm expertise. The obstacles in the form of a shrinking resource base, a capricious environment, and obligations to feed a ubiquitous aristocracy have already been outlined. Yet the resilience of their way of life and the expansion of their agricultural system suggest that as workers and consumers highland men and women were effective managers of the resources at their disposal." (p. 68)

On gender: "Given the preference for virilocal residence and frequency of divorce, a pattern of vulnerability for women becomes clear. On divorce many women in peasant households retained few if any resources. Older women or those with young children had fewer prospects because they were liabilities unless they owned livestock. Whether they or their husbands initiated divorce, women almost always left the homestead because the land belonged to the husband. Women could retain rights to land their genealogical claims had brought to a marriage, but those rights were meaningless without oxen and mature male labor to cultivate the land" (p.54)

On taxation: "Over the course of the next two decades [from the 1920s], competition over rural revenues between the state and local elites intensified and caught peasant households in much of northern Ethiopia in a precarious squeeze that likely threatened the margin of surplus needed for social and physical reproduction or rural society and subtly shifted political and social relations between classes. I believe that these pressures, combined with difficult environmental conditions, spurred the frequent rebellions in the north and cemented a cycle of economic decline." (p. 134)

On resistance: "What was the root cause of such widespread resistance? Close examination of the patterns and timing of resistance suggests that environmental factors provided an important, and possible casual, backdrop to political events. The 1917-18 period was one of extreme environmental dislocation in Tigray and Lasta. Generalized conditions of drought, insect invasions, and influenza created severe economic strains locally well into 1920. These conditions threatened peasant subsistence and increased the willingness to resort to violence to provide the means for the survival of the household" (p. 120-121) Again: "Peasants were willing to take up arms and challenge state or local authority out of a sense of desperation" (p. 142).

New Publication: Large-Scale Transdisciplinary Collaboration for Adaptation Research

Abstract: An increasing number of research programs seek to support adaptation to climate change through the engagement of large-scale transdisciplinary networks that span countries and continents. While transdisciplinary research processes have been a topic of reflection, practice, and refinement for some time, these trends now mean that the global change research community needs to reflect and learn how to pursue collaborative research on a large scale. This paper shares insights from a seven-year climate change adaptation research program that supports collaboration between more than 450 researchers and practitioners across four consortia and 17 countries. The experience confirms the importance of attention to careful design for transdisciplinary collaboration, but also highlights that this alone is not enough. The success of well-designed transdisciplinary research processes is also strongly influenced by relational and systemic features of collaborative relationships. Relational features include interpersonal trust, mutual respect, and leadership styles, while systemic features include legal partnership agreements, power asymmetries between partners, and institutional values and cultures. In the new arena of large-scale collaborative science efforts, enablers of transdisciplinary collaboration include dedicated project coordinators, leaders at multiple levels, and the availability of small amounts of flexible funds to enable nimble responses to opportunities and unexpected collaborations.


A Diplomat’s Memoir of South Sudan

​When I first came across Nicholas Coghlan's "Collapse of a Country: A Diplomat's Memoir of South Sudan" (2017), I passed it up. Memoirs can be interesting, but not always great (unless you are interested in the day to day activities and experiences, often without in-depth contextualization). However, while on route to South Sudan myself, I read the book, and highly recommend it. It is a fascinating read, and quite well contextualized in issues well beyond a typical memoir.

On governance, one of the journalists he speaks with explains "Yes, there is a tendency towards dictatorship in South Sudan," he admit. "But you know what? This will never be a dictatorship like Eritrea's. To be a dictator you have to be efficient and you have to have a vision. Neither apply in our case." (p. 47).

On conflict resolution: The resolution of the Jonglei Crisis had followed a well-worn pattern. A Big Man becomes dissatisfied with the status quo and finds himself unable to get his way by peaceful means. He takes to the bush and assembles an armed militia. He creates mayhem. In the end, he accepts an offer of cash and promotion and comes back in. Until next time. The practice often brought peace in the short term, but over the medium to long term, It encouraged and rewarded rebellion." (p. 70). See also De Waal (2015) on this point. There are some challenging reflections on the future, such as Coghlan's reflection that "it would take more than a generation for South Sudan to get over this situation [lived experiences of conflict]" (p. 32). As the peace negotiations enter into new rounds, with similar faces making few compromises, the prediction continues to be a likely one.

On aid and priority setting: "A particularly interesting finding of the in-country surveys was that most communities identified inter-ethnic reconciliation as their top priority for donor support (this with the caveat that polling and surveys are notoriously problematic in South Sudan). I was intrigued but not surprised by this after years of observing the civil war, which as often as not pitted southerners against each other rather than against northerners. But for newcomers to South Sudan, this seemed aberrant. More to the point, how could you achieve "reconciliation" and how did you establish benchmarks? When we huddled with the government to reach a consensus over priorities, reconciliation shifted near the bottom of the list" (p. 108).

On the (lack) of accountability: "A very large convoy of World Food Program trucks carrying mainly food supplies north to the POC camp in Bentiu was hijacked and looted near Mundri, Western Equatoria State. When they were released, the drivers described their assailants as armed and uniformed. There was no doubt about where at least three of the trucks were taken; GPS tracking showed them to be inside the SPLA barracks in Yei. WFP supplied all donors with a list of the value of their goods that had been stolen; in the case of Canada, the total was US$ 300,000. But WFP insisted that we not a make public statement, let alone press the government for an explanation. They were more concerned with getting the trucks back in tact – forget the food seized – and not endangering further their already difficult relationship with the government." (p. 199)

On Canada and staffing challenges (and some self-reflection): "It seemed that the younger generation in the Canadian foreign service were not motivated by what had attracted me: the prospect of travel to exotic places, a whiff of danger and excitement, and being a big fish in a small pond. They preferred the classic "cushy" posts – London, Rome, Washington – if they wanted to go abroad at all." (p. 197)

How China Escaped the Poverty Trap

​Yuen Yuen Ang's "How China Escaped the Poverty Trap" (2016) is an excellent read and should be essential reading for all development studies students and actors. This book challenges many assumptions that have long been repeated as mantras in research and practice.

The author summarizes the book as one that "investigates how China escaped the poverty trap and made the Great Leap from a barren communist political economy into the middle-income, capitalist dynamo that it is today. More broadly, grounded in my analysis of China's metamorphosis, this is broadly about how development actually happens… My answer begins with a simple observation: development is a coevolutionary process. States and markets interact and adapt to each other, changing mutually over time. Neither economic growth nor good governance comes first in development." (p. 3)

The argument in summary: "Authors are often asked to give a one-line summary of their argument. Here is mine: Poor and weak countries can escape the poverty trap by first building markets with weak institutions and, more fundamentally, by crafting environments that facilitate improvisation among the relevant players… no particular solution is universally effective or ideal. Particular solutions work only when they fit the needs and resources of particular contexts and the success criteria of the players involved." (p. 16-17) Again, later in the text: "Whether it is in Western Europe, the United States, East Asia, China, or Nigeria, particular solutions work only when they fit the particular demands of their environments. Therefore, it is futile and even self-defeating to search for one replicable model believed to work always and everywhere." (p. 223)

On participation: "it must be stressed that the presence of civil society and public participation does not always produce successful collective decision making. Free-for-all participation can easily degenerate into chaos and deadlock. Indeed, Evans acknowledges, "a public administrative apparatus with the capacity necessary to both provide information inputs and implement the decisions that result from the process is a central element in making deliberation possible." Effective public participation requires a blend of top-down authority and bottom-up participation. Bottom-up participation alone does not magically produce adaptive results." (p. 58) Similarly: "It is well known that Chinese leadership makes ample use of experimentation in policy making, what I further emphasize is that effective experimentation has to be bounded. Free-for-all experimentation invites chaos, not adaptability. (p. 241)

On diversity and diversification: "Having too few or too many alternatives both impedes adaptation; effective adaptation requires a right balance of consistency and flexibility. Translated into the context of China's political system, this brings attention to the role of central leadership in setting a national agenda of change and in signalling the amount of discretion that may be exercised in different policy realms." (p. 100) Also: "The Chinese experience suggests that in order to achieve visible and rapid results, start by defining success narrowly. Focusing narrowly on a few goals (i.e. ends) should not be confused with making a few changes (i.e. means)." (p. 242)

On the downsides of the Chinese development model: "there is the problem of environmental degradation, probably the most widely discussed controversy associated with industrial transfer. Some worry that industrial transfer is merely a disguised scheme of 'pollution transfer' to underdeveloped and investment-hungry areas" (p. 214)

On inequality: "Regional inequality as a consequence of market opening and development is well-known among observers of China. It is less noticed and understood, however, that regional inequality is also a strategy of China's national development. As this chapter illuminates, a key element of China's overall development success has been to exploit highly unequal endowments across coastal, central, and western regions" (p. 221)

Ang also concisely states that "no charity could be better than thoughtless charity" (p. 238).

The Parable of the Pauper

"Imagine a pauper who turns to two finance gurus for advice. Not only is he broke, this pauper is poorly educated and lives in a rough neighborhood. The first guru urges, "Earn your first paycheck. Once you start making money, your circumstances will improve, and you will eventually escape poverty." The second guru counsels differently: "Start by doing as my rich clients do: attend college, move to a safe town, and buy health insurance. You can only escape poverty by first creating the prerequisites for wealth." The two gurus mean well, but the advice of both clearly falls short. The first guru provides no clue as to how the pauper might earn his first paycheck, much less how to sustain a stable income. Conversely, the second guru ignores the realities of poverty. If the pauper could afford to, he would have obtained the prerequisites for a better life long ago. Attaining such prerequisites is not the solution to poverty, the difficulty of attaining them is itself the problem. The parable of the pauper and two gurus reflects a fundamental problem of development in the real world." (p. 1)

  • "no particular solution is universally effective or ideal. Particular solutions work only when they fit the needs and resources of particular contexts and the success criteria of the players involved." (p. 16-17)
  • "Whether it is in Western Europe, the United States, East Asia, China, or Nigeria, particular solutions work only when they fit the particular demands of their environments. Therefore, it is futile and even self-defeating to search for one replicable model believed to work always and everywhere." (p. 223)

- Yuen Yuen Ang (2016) How China Escaped the Poverty Trap

Slaves into Workers

For those interested in the history of slavery in contexts other than the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Ahmad Alawad Sikainga's "Slaves into Workers: Emancipation and Labor in Colonial Sudan" (1996) provides a detailed account of the rise and demise of slavery within the Sudan. "In the broadest sense", Ahmad writes, "this book examines slave emancipation and the development of wage labor in the Sudan under British colonial rule. At the specific level, the study focuses on the fate of ex-slaves and other dislocated people in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, and on the attempt of the colonial state to transform them into wage laborers" (p. xi).

This historical study shows how changes in the pre-colonial period transformed slavery from being limited to the elite to a common practice. The shifts included changes related to "taxation, commerce, military recruitment, and land tenure" (p. 35), throughout showing that there was "a strong link between slave emancipation, ethnicity, and labor" (p. 185) during the pre-colonial and colonial periods. With colonization, the "colonial economy guaranteed the continuation of slavery" (p. 39) through the types of projects its prioritized and funded, particularly in the agriculture sector. The international community would later put pressure on the colonial government to address slavery, including "continuous pressure from the League of Nations and the Anti-Slavery Society" (p. 102) resulting in moves to "suppress rampant slave trading and arms smuggling" (p. 103) toward the end of the 1920s.

"Although institutionalized servitude existed in the Sudan since antiquity, the widespread use of slaves did not occur until the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century when Turco-Egyptian encroachment was set in motion. These changes included commercial contact with the outside world, the rise of a middle class, and the development of a new ideology that justified domination and enslavement" (p. 184).

On the gendered nature of slavery, this book provides a wealth of insight. During the colonial regime, the author writes that while "male slaves had to grapple with the antipathy of the government officials and the resistance of their owners [to emancipation], slave women faced even greater obstacles to emancipation… According to official estimates, they [females] constituted three-fourths of the slave population in the Sudan at the beginning of this century. Moreover, acquisition of female slaves continued during the first twenty years of this century. As male slaves began to leave, the labor of slave women became even more vital and owners made every possible effort to prevent their manumission." (p. 54)

The book is quite formulaic in style, but offers a depth of historical research that makes it an excellent reference on the topic.

Imagining Ethiopia – Identity in the Horn

John Sorenson's "Imagining Ethiopia: Struggles for History and Identity in the Horn of Africa" (1993) presents portrayals of Ethiopia – domestic and foreign, historical and present – and in some ways is similar to "Famine and Foreigners" (2010) by Gill. The book is partially about identity, but more about portrayals and perceptions of Ethiopia, Ethiopians, Eritreans and Oromos. The book meanders from an interesting foundation of identity formation to famine in Ethiopia, and then portrayals of Ethiopia in international discourse and by specific personalities. Until the conclusion (which provides a concise summary of the book) the linkages between the arguments are not always clear.

Particularly if you are looking for media sources on portrayals and uses of Ethiopia by foreign media and personalities, this book offered detailed research. There are also some useful early references to the rise of Oromo nationalism, at a time when many academics felt the Oromo movement would not succeed or gain momentum as the Eritrean struggle did. "The Oromo movement, although it has attracted little attention in comparison with the Eritrean situation, may be decisive for the future of Ethiopia" is one telling statement, given the events of 2016 to 2018.

On constructions of history and identity, John writes: "The past is contested terrain. Selectively remembered, conveniently forgotten, or sometimes invented, it may be used to justify and legitimize actions in the present and to provide the model for a future which is to be created in accordance with certain traditions. Not simply a sequence of completed events, the past is a creation of the present, with traditions invented to serve particular needs" (p. 38).

Further on: "Nationalist movements create their own mythologies, organizing symbols and key incidents, real or invented, into narrative forms that evoke emotional resonance. In general, the narrative of Eritrean nationalism has a different, more recent historical emphasis than that of Ethiopian nationalism, with its emphasis on ancient history and its idea of a state that has existed for thousands of years. As noted, Eritrean identity is regarded as a product of the shared experience of colonial occupation" (p. 49).

The book was published in 1993, and it is challenging to understand what was known at the time, however this book is colored by two shades. First, the research was conducted with refugee and immigrant communities, not in-country study. Second, the author was working with an Eritrean organization during its struggle for independence, and their narratives are quite strong in the work. I believe that if Sorenson had done in-country study some of the arguments would have shifted – Ethiopians all have multiple identities, each with their own imagined communities, overlapping and contradictory, and sometimes the generalizations in this book over simplify. For example, the Amhara dominance and hegemony that is repeated throughout the book would be countered by other nations, nationalities and peoples who have long expressed resisted that imposition, even asserted their own cultural dominance over others or have been dominated by other ethnicities (not Amhara). Orthodox and Muslim; Wolaita and Dawuro; Agaw and Amhara; national and regional state dynamics (e.g. a regional majority and a national minority); male and female; rural and urban; 'indigenous' or resettled; formerly enslaved families and elite families within ethnic groups; pastoralist and agriculturalist; youth and elders; various political affiliations people differently hold within ethnic groups and their access to power over time; layers upon layers. The experience is far more complicated.

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