Shouldn’t “anti-poverty” and “pro-middle class” be synonyms?

Standard Bank’s landmark study of the growth of the middle class in Sub-Saharan Africa offers some welcome clarity. In the 11 key African economies they look at, they find 15 million households living on more than $15 per person per day, while 95 million households living on less than that. That’s probably 50-60 million middle-class people: a small minority, yet three times as many as 15 years ago, and not far off from the size of, say, Britain’s. Better yet, on current trends, those numbers will rise quickly  by 2030. 

Now, this is fantastic news. Once it gets going, the process of middle-class formation is formidable and, if not quite irreversible, certainly hard to stop. A mass middle class is the force for political stability and growth: the glue that keeps political settlements from growing apart. But that’s all frosting: the cake is definitional. Because there’s one thing you definitely aren’t when you are middle class, and that’s poor.

This is a really, really simple idea, and one that you couldn’t really argue with. Yet it seems to get lost so often. When people “overcome poverty” they’re not launched into some vague olympian category of non-poorness, they become something new. They become middle class.

In some really basic sense, then, being “anti-poverty” should be functionally indistinguishable from being “pro-middle class”. But, of course, in current usage, that’s very far from being the case. All kinds of “anti-poverty programs” are not so much “pro-middle class” but, as the sinister-in-ways-we’ve-stopped-recognizing-due-to-familiarity phrase has it, “pro-poor”: aimed not at making the poor not poor, but at helping craft a more bearable type of poverty. “Poverty alleviation” much more often means “help coping with the negative consequences of being poor” than “help stopping being poor”

It’s this, and not the other thing, that’s overwhelmingly now the goal of the development aid industry. And it’s not surprising, because the toolbox of the development aid industry has relatively little to offer for middle class creation. The processes that drive middle class creation are macro in origi, national in scope and general in application. The development industry toolbox is full of micro-level programs that are local in scope and specific in application.  

There’s never been a recorded case of a country transitioning from poor to middle-income on the basis of a concatenation of local level interventions. That’s a fallacy of composition that should’ve been put to bed decisively by Nina Munk. It hasn’t been. It probably never will be. 

Conceptual clarity would help. I understand that “make poverty history” resonates in ways that “make middle-class universal” never will. But I also know this: until we stop treating them like the synonyms they are, real progress against poverty in Africa will keep happening alongside our engagement, at best, despite it at worse, but seldom if ever because of it.

Hug a Humanitarian Today

Today, as we celebrate the crazy people doing one of the world’s scariest day, let’s take a moment to remember those who are not around to receive our thanks this year:

The advisory group, Humanitarian Outcomes, said the number of attacks on aid workers in 2013 set an annual record, at 460, the most since the group began compiling its database, which goes back to 1997. Known as the Aid Worker Security Database, it is widely regarded as an authoritative reference for aid organizations and governments in assessing trends in security threats.

The new figures show that 155 aid workers were killed, 171 seriously wounded and 134 abducted in 2013, representing a 66 percent increase in the numbers of victims from a year earlier.

More than half the fatalities were in Afghanistan, where aid workers faced particularly acute dangers from a potent Taliban insurgency even after more than a dozen years of war and American-led occupation.

The sector is going through one of its roughest patches in recent history. It’s fitting we take one day to offer thanks.

The Age of Disaster Overload

Sam Jones has an excellent – even essential – read in The Guardian on how the recent confluence of major disasters is kicking the humanitarian sector’s butt up one side of fundraising street and down the other.

The monetary citation:

“We’ve said, on the record, that the two humanitarian conditions for a DEC appeal [for South Sudan] have already been met: the scale and the extent of the need are more than sufficiently serious to justify an appeal,” says [Brendan] Paddy, [head of communications at the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC)] “And although access clearly is challenging because of the conflict, there is sufficient access for members to be able to do a great deal more if they had the resources.”

And yet a South Sudan appeal from the DEC is not imminent; conspicuous by their absence are the two interlinked factors on which the success of any appeal rests: public awareness and lasting media coverage.

Paddy says: “It’s the nature of slowly developing food crises, whether caused by conflicts or natural events, that until they reach their most extreme peak, perhaps with the declaration of a famine, it’s often very difficult for the media to justify high levels of sustained coverage over a period of days and weeks, which is really a necessary precondition for us to launch a successful appeal.”

And although the DEC feels “very torn”, Paddy adds, it simply cannot launch an appeal that is unlikely to pull in money.

Sobering as it all is, Jones is missing an essential dimension to the crisis: it’s not just the way all these Brand Name Emergencies find themselves squabbling over the same, limited pool of donor funds; it’s the way they collectively drive the non-emergency disasters off into the communicational void.

I’m thinking Chad here. And places like Cameroon, and Western Algeria, and Kyrgyzstan, and the literally four dozen other places where an agency like the WFP responds to chronic hunger situations that are, by their very chronic-ness, not even “emergencies” in the usual sense of the word.

If DEC can’t run an emergency appeal on South Sudan, where the UN Security Council just held a joint session, what imaginable hope is there for Niger?

Bentiu Puts in Its Bid for Worst Place in the World Right Now

The northern four-fifths of South Sudan are taken up by the Nile floodplain: a flat-as-a-pancake seasonal swamp that’s about the size of Spain. For several months each year, after the heavy rains come, virtually all of it is under water. Then, as the water drains first into the Sudd marshlands and eventually into the Nile itself, the land goes bone-dry for the rest of the year.

Traditionally, the people of the flood plain are semi-nomadic: they roam around in search of pasture in the dry months, then gather into temporary villages on the few ridges and (slightly-)higher ground to avoid the waters during the rainy season.

But what happens when war cuts people off from the higher ground during the rainy season?

This happens:

Much of the [United Nations Mission in South Sudan] camp in Bentu was flooded in July with the first heavy downpour of the rainy season. Over one thousand makeshift shelters filled with sewage contaminated floodwater. People used cooking pots to scoop up the water, tried to build mud dams across doorways to prevent water entering, but to no avail.

With few possibilities for drainage, current living conditions in the camp are horrifying and an affront to human dignity. Most of the camp is now knee-deep in sewage, thousands of people cannot lay down and therefore sleep standing up with their infants in their arms.

Let that sink in for a second.

It’s not exactly a surprise that the burden of infectious disease in these conditions is extreme. More so is the UN’s total inability to safeguard people even one meter outside the camp’s perimeter fence.

The MSF press release closes on an especially galling note:

Understandably, camp residents are angry and resentful. While not easy, drainage is possible with a determined effort. Existing resources and UNMISS equipment onsite such as excavators and diggers must be made available as a priority for this purpose. Furthermore, there remains unused land in the zone and the immediate allocation of land that is less susceptible to flooding would alleviate some of the current suffering. What’s clear is that the current situation is untenable without improvements. People should be safe from disease as well as safe from violence.

South Sudan is just going to dominate the Worst Place in the World stakes for the foreseeable future. Because, don’t forget: as all this happens, a major famine is brewing in the wings as well.
 [Hat Tip: JM.]


Bunj: Arguably, the Worst Place in the World Right Now

Here’s a grim parlour game: explain why place X is, excluding North Korean prison camps (which would otherwise “win” every time), the Worst Place in the World Right Now.

I nominate Bunj, in Maban County of South Sudan’s notoriously screwed up Upper Nile State. The miniscule village is really nothing more than a clump of maybe three dozen huts – here’s how it looks from the air:

from the air
Old Bunj. The village is of course dwarfed by the nearby UNHCR Refugee Camps.

Yet Bunj is the epicenter of such an unlikely accumulation of calamities right now it’s hard to think what else could go wrong.

In late 2011, the first of two waves of refugees from Sudan’s Blue Nile State started arriving there en masse seeking refuge from a brutal air bombing campaign by the notoriously sociopathic Al-Bashir regime in Khartoum. The humanitarian response to the refugee crisis was always going to be chaotic because Bunj is in a logistics blackspot: it’s not just that there are no proper roads, and certainly no airports, it’s that there’s no river access either. You basically can’t get there from here.

So UNHCR had to scramble to set up camps for tens of thousands of refugees it hadn’t been expecting in a place nobody could get to. A supernatural feat of bureaucratic efficiency would’ve been needed for the response to be minimally adequate, but supernatural feats of bureaucratic efficiency were not forthcoming.

Instead, MSF has carefully documented a series of cockups in the 2011-2012 refugee crisis response. The result was refugee camps sited in places where the was nowhere near enough safe drinking water, nor any reasonable way to bring it. The mortality rate seemed to spike among refugees after they reached the camp, pointing to appalling sanitary conditions. And then, just as the humanitarian situation was starting to stabilize, South Sudan’s own civil war broke out.

So now you have 125,000 Sudanese refugees who left their own communities to escape war trying to survive in a series of refugee camps in another country that’s now also at war, and alternates between dust-bowl conditions and knee-deep mud on a six-monthly rotation.

Oh and did I mention it’s 43 degrees celsius?

The second half of 2014 is not turning out to be kind on Maban County. The rebel forces that the international media insist on saying are “led by former-Vice President Riek Machar” are increasingly evidently fragmented, with nobody really in command. In very isolated places like Bunj guys with guns roam around under loyalties that are hard even for the locals to discern.

Two days ago, one of these groups struck. Calling themselves the “Mabanese Defense Force”, they murdered six humanitarian aid workers hired locally purely because they were Nuers. In effect, the Mabanese Defense Force is now a roving death-squad picking off ethnic Nuers, even if they work for the agencies. And the agencies have freaked out in response, evacuating expat staff en masse, with 220 relief workers now on their way out.

Except this happens right as an outright famine is on the verge of being declared in Upper Nile State, where there’s been so much violence that neither the locals nor the refugees have had much chance to plant anything and the harvest this year is likely to come to very little indeed.

Don’t forget, 125,000 Sudanese refugees are stuck in the middle of all of this: with no roads, no river access, no food, no aid workers, no medical care, no blue helmets, no means of protecting themselves and any number of fly-by-night militias roaming the countryside.

That’s Bunj, folks. Quite possibly: the worst place in the world right now.


The Saddest PDF in the Whole Internet

Cross posted on the

Is it normal to find yourself getting weepie over data? That’s the question that stalked me as I leafed through this brutal PDF from the World Food Programme innocuously titled RESOURCE SITUATION UPDATE, 27 JUL 2014.

In unadorned table format, the PDF lays bare the alarming underfunding facing 20 out of the 22 Emergency Operations WFP runs (red in the map above) and 54 out of its 55 Protracted Relief and Recovery Operations (orange above.)

Resource Situation Update

These ops range widely in size: from punctual incursions like the $2.9 million operation in Cuba (just over half funded) to the mammoth $1.5 billion EMOP for Syria, which is $776 million short of its target. Only the Super-Typhoon Haiyan-hit Philippines and the geostrategically important operation in Iraq’s Al-Anbar province have reached full funding.

Altogether, WFP needs $5.55 billion to run the EMOPs currently underway. They’ve raised just $3.16 billion of that.

But the EMOPs aren’t actually the worst of it. The emergencies are largely “Brand Name Crises” that receive substantial media coverage, mobilize smaller (but also nimbler) International NGOs and have a potential to generate substantial private donations. They’re awful but, by and large, they are not forgotten.

No, the real Valley of Tears is further down in the PDF, when you get to WFP’s list of 55 – fifty-five!“Protracted Relief and Recovery Operations,” the chilling bureaucratic euphemism for a forgotten crisis.

Here we’re dealing with places where hunger is chronic, WFP engagement long-running, and news coverage basically non-existent. These are places we long ago forgot faced chronic food insecurity, if we ever knew it in the first place: Kyrgyzstan. Senegal. Ecuador. Western Algeria. Myanmar. Mauritania. Yemen. When was the last time you read a story about the humanitarian crises there?

It’s hardly surprising that WFP’s PRROs suffer funding shortages that are much worse than its EMOPs. Together, WFP figures it needs $10.56 billion to attend to its PRROs. It’s raised less than half of that: just $4.5 billion.

In some cases, the funding gaps are just abysmal:

The standard advice in advocacy circles is to “put a human face” on the crisis you’re dealing with, to humanize it, to turn it narrative and personal so it’s compelling and “connects”. I understand why professional fundraisers come to that conclusion, yet you really have to wonder at the ethics of it. Any one crisis you focus on means shunting 76 other Emergencies or Forgotten Crises out of the spotlight. Seeking to raise money crisis by crisis quickly turns into a battle royale for clicks, sympathies and dollars. And it’s not hard to see what it takes to “win” that competition: light skin, telegenic hunger and media coverage.

It is not humanly possible to “engage” with 77 stories at the same time. It just isn’t. The engagement model of donor mobilization isn’t tenable. It really has to go.

What exactly is a starvation ration?

From my conversation with UNHCR’s Nutritionist for Chad over on

I ask Wilkinson point blank if 850 calories a day is even enough to keep these people alive.

“Won’t they effectively, starve to death on these rations?”

There’s a deep sigh and then a long pause at the other end of the line. She’s measuring her answer carefully.

“You would expect people to continue to lose weight,” she says, uncomfortably.

I push her. “Really, though, 850 calories, it’s just not enough is it?”

“It isn’t just that. As important is the micronutrient profile: even as an adult you need them to sustain your immune system.”

Without the right micronutrients, she explains, refugees are exposed to illnesses that a better fed person would fight off quite easily.

“But yes, [the current ration level] is very, very low. For the children, in terms of calories, it’s probably ok, but for an adult, for a working adult…it’s an extreme value in terms of caloric intake.”

What Our Technoutopia Turned Into

I’m old enough to remember when the internet looked like this. It was 1994, I was a first year college student, and the buzz in the dorms was about the amazing democratizing potential of this crazy new gizmo that politicians were still describing as “the information superhighway.”

The Web, we realized, would radically disintermediate information flows. Rather than a handful of information gatekeepers hoarding prestigious jobs in a few institution, everyone would be at the same time reader, writer and editor: leading to a radical decentralization and an explosion in information, engagement and understanding. As a 19-year old, I was genuinely excited about this looming, radical democratization of information; we all were.

Fast forward 20 years, and survey the state of reporting on, for instance, Africa:

Congo is the scene of one of the greatest man-made disasters of our lifetimes. Two successive wars have killed more than five million people since 1996.

Yet this great event in human history has produced no sustained reporting. No journalist is stationed consistently on the front lines of the war telling us its stories. As a student in America, where I was considering a Ph.D. in mathematics and a job in finance, I would read 200-word stories buried in the back pages of newspapers. With so few words, speaking of events so large, there was a powerful sense of dissonance. I traveled to Congo, at age 22, on a one-way ticket, without a job or any promise of publication, with only a little money in my pocket and a conviction that what I would witness should be news.

When I arrived, there were only three other foreign reporters in Congo.

Our technoutopia’s gone a bit pear-shaped, hasn’t it?

The wars in Congo – and the enormous journalistic crack they fell through – lay bare the strange, skewed ways attention flows in the internet age. The web has turned out to be a weapon of mass distraction, subtly undermining our ability to engage with the worst outrages of our time.

The problem isn’t that the web hasn’t fulfilled its democratic promise. It’s that it has, and only too well. Give people a choice between endless servings of ice cream and endless servings of broccoli and it turns out they’ll go for the ice cream, every time. The internet’s eroded the institutional pressures that we used to come under in place to pass on the informational sweets once in a while, opting for the kinds of journalistic vegetables that will nourish you but won’t give you a sugar rush.

I think it was Clay Shirky who explained the mechanism most clearly: the great 20th Century Newspaper was basically an elaborate mechanism to get the guy down the street who needed to sell a used washing machine to pay the salary for the Cairo Bureau Chief. The internet destroyed that model of subsidization: the guy down the street who needs to sell a used washing machine has no reason to kick any money down to Cairo anymore.

That’s a pretty old insight by now. Even the shock of grasping that nothing magical is going to come along to replace it is old hat. What we’re left with, in 2014, is the fall-out: that dystopian realization that what’s replaced the well-coiffed gate-keepers isn’t some radical hippie communicational democracy but photos of everybody’s cat.

These are the new rules of the game. You can love them or hate them but you probably can’t change them, so best to do what you can to work with them.

As an advocate facing radical indifference to an outrage whose “non-newsness” I can neither understand nor accept, it’s all rather upsetting. People will not share stories about starving refugees, and because they won’t editors won’t commission those stories, and because they won’t politicians won’t fund an even minimally adequate response.

I don’t know how, exactly, you go about explaining to a refugee mom in Eastern Chad that her child has to be stunted and anemic because there’s a little blue button on a screen with a thumbs-up logo that people in the West can’t bring themselves to affix to her suffering. But that seems to me about the size of it.

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