Global Poverty

The Gender Effect: An ethnography of the Nike Foundation. The author cannot write, which is very unfortunate, because she has some amazing data; reading between the lines, she wound up volunteering at a bunch of Nike-Foundation-associated NGOs until they forgot she was doing research and were perhaps more candid than they really ought to be.

“Women in development,” “women and development, and “gender and development” are apparently three different paradigms for studying gender and international development. Why. (“Women in development” is the liberal economics-y one, “women and development” is the Marxist one, and “gender and development” is the intersectional, postmodernist one.)

At the time the data was collected, the Nike Foundation prioritized economic empowerment for adolescent girls. Their implicit definition of “adolescent girl” was constructed on a Western and developed-world line– the adolescent girl is unemployed, in school, not pregnant, etc.– which doesn’t match the concrete reality on the ground. Adult women were explicitly excluded, on the grounds that they were already married and employed and had children and therefore their position in life is set and they could not be meaningfully economically empowered.

Girls specifically are prioritized because, the Nike Foundation believes, women are selfless and invest in their communities, unlike men. There’s this appalling anecdote where a staff member at an NGO says “we want to help girls, because when you go to the beach and no one has any money, who pays? the girl.” This is a remarkable example of sexist pedestalization wearing a feminist hat, and puts an enormous burden on marginalized teenage girls. Not only are they responsible for their own well-being and flourishing, they’re responsible for lifting their entire community out of poverty? There’s an assumption that of course women are responsible for the wellbeing of everyone around them, which honestly is incredibly sexist! Perhaps we should be empowering women to set reasonable boundaries about what things are and are not their personal problems.

One of the NGOs studied provides job education to teenage girls. At the beginning of the program, the girls had a variety of different aspirations: vet, architect, doctor. At the end of the program, literally all of them wanted to become administrative assistants. The researcher asked the NGO why it channeled them into becoming administrative assistants, instead of encouraging them to go to college, which they would probably be able to do for free; the answer is that they were poor black girls from the favela and being a secretary was pretty much the best the NGO felt they could hope for. Not only did the “economic empowerment” charity reduce girls’ aspirations, it also failed to particularly economically empower them: most of the participants were unemployed and most of the employed participants had menial jobs.

The Nike Foundation made a bunch of investments on the theory that economically and educationally empowering teenage girls would pay off. The Foundation did not want to have to switch to a different cause area. This, naturally, caused their monitoring and evaluation division to nudge the grantees to get certain results. To quote one informant:

 They have this M&E [monitoring and evaluation] framework into which the grantees’ work is supposed to feed. The reason we are supporting you is because we want to say this after we fund you. It is really particular and really easy for them to be disappointed. . . . They have big plans for the messaging around the M&E, which is why they are trying to set up the M&E so carefully. It is almost pre-messaged. Let’s see. Its engagement with grantees is set up in such a way that their findings are already anticipated. Can we say this, can we say that?

In particular, the Nike Foundations M&E programs tended to prioritize things the evaluators considered important (age at first marriage, age at first pregnancy, assets, income) rather than things the participants considered important. This creates perverse incentives. One NGO pressured its participants not to have children so their funding wouldn’t be revoked. Delaying pregnancy and marriage were used as metrics even when studying women in their late teens and early twenties, many of whom may prefer to marry and have children. The Nike Foundation’s messaging around “if a woman gets pregnant, she can no longer become economically empowered” fails to engage with on-the-ground realities, such as some women who go back to school after their children are born in order to create a better life for their kids.

Doomed Interventions: I object to the premise of this book. There is very little evidence about whether HIV/AIDS interventions in Africa are succeeding or failing. The evidence that does exist often suggests that they’re succeeding: for example, new HIV infections are dropping in Africa. The author insists she is not making any claims about whether HIV interventions are working or not, but the literal subtitle of her book is “The Failure of Global Responses To AIDS In Africa.”

Africans, as a group, tend to deprioritize HIV/AIDS. This is a major mismatch with donor funding: in many years, more aid money is spent on HIV/AIDS than is spent on all other health programs in Africa combined. HIV-positive Africans and those who lost a loved one to HIV were not much more likely to prioritize HIV spending. It seems like some of what is going on is that people with HIV benefit from public health measures that help everyone: for example, people with AIDS are particularly likely to die from opportunistic infections, so they benefit from clean water.

The author discusses aid spending from the point of view of principal-agent problems. This causes her to combine two distinct situations in her analysis. First, sometimes aid money is just stolen, which is obviously bad. Second, sometimes headmen (village leaders) redirect money earmarked to HIV for causes their constituents care about more, such as clean water or improved agriculture. The latter seems… fine? Unless we have some specific reason to believe that we know better than the headmen what the village’s needs are– which does happen, headmen do not have Sci-Hub access and cannot read the latest economics papers about the effect of deworming on development– it is a good thing for headmen to redirect money towards more pressing needs.

A baffling fact that was shared without any explanation whatsoever is that, in Malawi, the highest-risk groups for HIV infection include primary school teachers. (Malawi has essentially no blood-related transmission of HIV.) Why do primary school teachers have such a high rate of HIV? What the fuck? Does anybody know the answer to this?

Further interesting facts:

  • Traditional healers typically give accurate information about how to reduce your risk of HIV. At least one peddler of a quack HIV prevention medicine claims it only works if you and your partner are monogamous.
  • The Chichewa word for “white person” translates as “wonder maker.”
  • Village headmen are not typically elected in Malawi. However, if they do a poor job, they will be driven out of the village by a group of women jeering and hurling insults.
  • People in Malawi seem to get a lot of divorces, to the point that a major source of a village headman’s power is the fact that he typically is a mediator during divorces. I would be interested in reading more about how this works.

Portfolios of the Poor: The subtitle is “How The World’s Poor Live On $2 A Day” and I bought it hoping that it would tell me about how you get food, shelter, and medical care if you live on $2 a day. This is not actually the topic of the book. Instead, Portfolios of the Poor is about how the global poor do financial management and budgeting.

The global poor have “triple whammy”: their incomes are low, their incomes are unpredictable and uneven (some days they earn a lot of money and others none at all), and they do not have access to financial instruments designed to deal with their unique problems. They must figure out how to smooth consumption, raise lump sums when necessary, and deal with emergencies. The global poor use a surprisingly sophisticated array of financial techniques to manage this triple whammy. In fact, the amount of money saved, loaned, or borrowed over the course of the year is often many times the family’s income.

From the perspective of the global poor, there isn’t necessarily a difference between savings and loans. The global poor often pay money to save: for example, they may pay a person to stop by their house every day and bug them to give the person ten cents, of which they will receive $2.50 at the end of the month. The global poor often also pay off their loans and then immediately take out a new loan. It is easy to see how, from the perspective of a member of the global poor, these may be considered the same financial instrument. While it may seem economically irrational, it actually makes sense: you can buy many more things with $2.50 than with ten cents every day, you can’t procrastinate on saving money, and no one is going to steal your savings.

For this reason, it’s important to design financial services for the global poor that reflect the needs of the global poor. It’s a mistake to assume that the global poor are going to use their microloans to invest in a small business and move out of poverty. Instead, microfinance should strive to provide a convenient, reliable, flexible way to access lump sums of money that doesn’t require the global poor to exercise an inhuman level of self-discipline.


Who Could That Be At This Hour?: I generally found the VFD sections of the Series of Unfortunate Events books rather tedious and uninteresting, and Who Could That Be At This Hour is literally nothing but VFD content. If it is the sort of thing you’re interested in, you may be interested in it, but I was not.

The Dialectic of Sex: The Dialectic of Sex is an incredibly frustrating book. On one hand, it is one of the few feminist books that presents a utopia that I find exciting. Many feminist utopias are bland and don’t really question the nature of society (“what if… there was still day care… but it was 24 hours a day and free”). Others lack specifics (“everyone loves their bodies and racism is over”). Still others are just really really unappealing (“everyone lives in harmony with nature and respects their moon cycles,” “we have finally eradicated the scourge of kinky sex from the world”).

But Shulamith Firestone’s vision is a place where I want to live. Increasing automation frees both women and men from the burden of unchosen work, allowing them plenty of time for art and play. Contraceptives, artificial wombs, improved formula, and similar technological advancements will give women and men an equal role in all parts of the childbearing and childrearing process, except by personal choice. Coercive education is abolished, children are integrated with all of society as full citizens, and children’s rights are massively expanded, including a right of children to switch households. People have complete sexual freedom, and all consensual sexual decisions are unstigmatized. It is no longer assumed that everyone wants a monogamous, committed, romantic-sexual life partnership or that romantic relationships are more important than friendships. The fundamental unit of society is the household, a group of adults who have agreed to share their lives and build a family together; it is not assumed that a household must consist of two people in a romantic-sexual relationship, or that people must limit their romantic or sexual relationships to their own household. The last chapter of The Dialectic of Sex describes the feminist world I want to have.

I also think the core of Shulamith Firestone’s analysis is accurate. Women’s oppression is related to their biology: that is, as long as men are physically stronger than women, and women spend much of their lives pregnant or breastfeeding, there will be a division of labor between men and women. The division of labor will produce gender roles which do not necessarily serve the flourishing of either men or women, and because men are not constrained by taking care of small children they will generally wind up with political and economic power. The sensible and practical solution is to minimize biological sex divisions through, most importantly, contraceptives and artificial wombs.

Unfortunately, the Dialectic of Sex is fundamentally marred by many of the weaknesses of second-wave feminist theory. It assumes Freudianism is an accurate model of human psychology, which is responsible for many of its most baffling claims (in an ideal feminist society people would no longer have the incest taboo) and simple factual inaccuracies (children raised in gender-equal households will all be bisexual). This is hardly Shulamith Firestone’s fault– the book was published in 1970– but it means much of the work is not useful for a modern feminist thinker.

I really want someone to take Firestone’s basic framework and update it to create a powerful vision of a liberatory, sex-positive, anti-work, pro-children’s rights transhumanist feminism.

Without You, There Is No Us: A fascinating, powerful memoir about a woman who taught English to the sons of North Korea’s elite. By far the most interesting part of the book is how many questions it leaves unanswered. Even living in North Korea does not give you a lot of information about what North Korea is like. Her students lie thoughtlessly and constantly, about easily observable facts: saying they partied with their friends at other schools on summer break when all their friends were doing forced construction labor; saying they slept in till 8am when they were clearly doing drills at 6am. The author goes on a trip to a Christian church full of North Koreans; she wonders, uneasily, whether the church was made up as a show for her. The book tells you very little about what North Korea is like, but makes you acutely aware of how little you know about it.

The Only Harmless Great Thing: In an alternate history with sapient elephants, after a radium company had to stop using human women, it used elephants. Sometimes you get a feeling that the author has read the same viral Tumblr text posts you have. I enjoyed it fine– the radium girls are a very interesting historical setup– but it didn’t feel deep or well-thought-out. It really felt like the author’s engagement with history consisted solely of Tumblr text posts.