Esquina Latina – April 8

Lots of interesting things have been going on in Latin America the past couple of weeks, and here are a few of the articles that caught my eye.

  • Brazil supermarkets ‘to avoid Amazon meat’ (BBC) – This is an exciting turn of events for people concerned about deforestation in the Amazon rain forest. While conversion of land from rain forest to pasture for livestock is not the only cause of deforestation it is a major factor. Providing incentives to discourage the expansion of livestock production in the Amazon would definitely help reduce deforestation. The challenge will be on policing this promise. It is easy to say you won’t accept meat from the Amazon, it is a lot harder to track cows from birth to slaughter to ensure they are not coming from the Amazon. Nevertheless, it looks like a promising private sector action that could reduce deforestation in Brazil, and if effective done may serve as a model to other countries.
  • Peru declares oil contamination emergency in Amazon jungle region (Washington Post) – Peru’s indigenous population in the amazon region have been protesting the deplorable treatment of the environment by the oil industry. It is a sadly common example of what can happen when there are extreme power asymmetries in an economy with poor accountability and government oversight. The government needs to done a better job of regulating the industry to encourage the protection of the environment.  This hasn’t happened in the past, and now Peru is in the more difficult position of trying to clean up the mess then preventing the mess from happening.
  • Peru’s new military draft (Washington Post) – This policy isn’t very fair. It is, however,  fairly common in Latin America, where individuals with money are often able to avoid or greatly reduce their military service. In many countries the military does serve a valuable role in providing economic ladders to economically disadvantaged members of society. However, I think Peru is treating the symptom (low enlistment) instead of the cause of the the problem. They should try to understand why people are enlisting less, and correct the cause of the low enlistment. I suspect enlistment is low because people do not find the military experience valuable. Perhaps what they should do is try increasing the payoffs of joining the military. Increasing the criminally low wage, and providing opportunities to gain high quality education would be a good place to start. Increasing the payoffs from the military experience would certainly be fairer than forcing the poorest members of society to partake in an institution, which richer members happily pay to avoid.
  • Argentina May Defy NY Courts With Payment Offer (NY Times) and Argentina Defends Payment Plan (NY Times) – A couple of recent articles looking at the litigation surrounding bond holders who refused to accept Argentina’s greatly reduced bond settlement from the early 2000s. Not sure how things are going to turn out, but it looks like Argentina, may be heading toward another disastrous default.
  • Why is less cocaine coming from Colombia (the economist) – An interesting look at the changing dynamics in the cocaine trade in South America’s Andes, and how Colombia has been displaced by Peru and Bolivia as the world largest producers of cocaine. The article does a good job of describing the historical transition of cocaine production between Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru. While the article doesn’t make a specific point about the futility of attacking drug production at the point of supply, it does point to the significant effects that changes in demand have on production. Yes, Colombia has clamped down hard on production, and this has undoubtedly contributed to decreased production. However, long term, continuing to decrease cocaine production will require a global decline in cocaine consumption, or some other dramatic change in the drug trade (legalization, new synthetics that replace cocaine, etc.). Else as we learned from prohibition, if there is a demand someone will figure a way of getting the product to the market, and this short term decline may just be a temporary blip.
  • Colombian Prosecutor’s Court Challenge Threatens Peace Talks (NY Times) – This court challenge could make the ongoing peace talks in Cuba even more complicated. While I sincerely hope that it doesn’t derail the peace talks, I think there are some very valid points that have been made, and it is important for a pluralistic and democratic society like Colombia to discuss publicly the framework of this peace negotiation. Only by doing this will the end result have long standing legitimacy. The question being raised is definitely a tough one to answer. By giving amnesty to human rights violators there may be many injustices that are never heard in court and victims may be unable to have their moment to say their piece and get valuable closure. However, without the amnesty it may be difficult to get the FARC to the negotiating table, which could lead to the violence lasting longer. With news that Catatumbo, one of the high ranking members of the FARC recently joining the negotiations in Havana, it will be very interesting to see if this challenge is successful, and if it is, what effect it will have on the willingness of the FARC to continue negotiating.
  • Port strikes halt shipments of copper, fruit in export dependent Chile (Washington Post) and Most Chile Ports to End Strike (NY Times) – This is big news for global copper markets. Chile is one of the world’s largest exporters of copper and over 50% of all copper shipments pass through Chile. Chile’s government also rakes in a substantial portion of its revenue from royalties on this vital metal, and if the tentative settlement falls apart it could threaten vital government services. The strike also wreaks havoc on the overall economy which is heavily dependent on exports not only of minerals but also of horticultural goods like grapes, apples, and wine. On the one hand it is a bit scary that one sector can hold the whole economy hostage, but on the other it seems utterly ridiculous that it got to this point, as the initial strikes appear to have started because the dock workers wanted a 30 minute lunch break. Here is to hoping that a settlement is reached allowing the free flow of trade, and that gives the Chilean dock workers a more hospitable working environment.
  • Chavez Protégé Invokes Venezuelan Curse on Opposition Voters (NY Times) – Only a week left before Venezuelans will go to the polls and choose their first post-Chavez leader. Maduro continues to make outrageous claims. This last week before the elections ought to be fairly interesting.
  • Pablo Neruda Exhumed (NY Times) – I didn’t realize there was a possibility Neruda had been poisoned. Poisoning Neruda would have been a petty and detestable act by the Pinochet regime. Neruda was already suffering from terminal stomach cancer, and could not have been much of a threat to him. I’ll be very curious to see what the results of the study of Neruda’s body show,

Book Review: The World Until Yesterday: What can we learn from traditional societies?

The World until Yesterday: What can we learn from traditional societies? By Jared Diamond

My Rating 3 out of 5 Stars

Good, but not great. There is a lot of interesting pieces in this book. I particularly liked the chapters reviewing the diversity of ways children are raised, and how elders are treated in traditional societies. I found these 2 chapters very thought provoking, and on their own make the book worth reading. Additionally, the chapter on the value of languages, and multilingualism was also very interesting, and is encouraging for a multilingual person to read to see there are a lot of long term mental benefits. The chapter about diet was also very interesting and he makes some strong points, particularly about trying to reincorporate traditional diets to help mitigate the many non-communicable diseases that are now plaguing modern western societies (diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, etc.).

In this book, Diamond provides a valuable resource, giving a wide view of what human life was likely like before the development of the state and larger societies. While he clearly respects and values traditional societies, he is also very realistic, and tries his best not idealize them. He fairly highlights both the positive and negative aspects of traditional societies. He also understands the difficulty of trying to reincorporate some of the beneficial parts of traditional societies. While there are some that we can easily do on an individual basis (adopt a more traditional diet for example), many would require communities as a whole to agree to mutually adopt new practices (i.e. more communal child rearing).

So, why does the book only get 3 stars? Well, the book is not written in a way that encourages reading the book from front to back. Every chapter is a separate study focusing on one particular difference between modern western societies and traditional societies. Several of these chapter (violence, multilingualism, and diet) are not particularly new or groundbreaking. While it makes sense to include the chapters in the overall book, the way that it was done makes it difficult to get into a groove reading the book. Diamond’s books also have a tendency to feel somewhat redundant. If you’ve read any of his other books you will notice a lot of his anecdotes are similar to ones he used in his other books.

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Weekly Development Links – March 29

It’s been a hectic week so I am a bit late on posting this but here are the development links from last week.

  • Technology and Education Assessment – Short post on the Education Initiative website, which brings up some very solid points on challenges to assessing education quality. I believe that measuring the effectiveness of schools, teachers, and students is important. However, I am skeptical of relying primarily on standardized tests to evaluate and potentially ignores much of the important things students should be learning in school.
  • CIDA No More (Devex) – Canada is consolidating its development program into its overall foreign affairs portfolio. Not sure what to make of this. In practical terms it probably won’t make a huge difference, but I am generally a proponent of keeping development as a separate cabinet post. I believe if development agencies are under the Department of State (as in the US) or Department of Foreign Affairs, development interests will generally lose out to the competing demands from Diplomacy and Security Interests.
  • Innovating_for_food_security (PDF) – An interesting policy brief from the Center of Global Development looking at some of the different mechanisms available to encourage greater investment in R&D and innovation in agriculture in developing countries.
  • USAID Forward Progress Report 2013 (PDF) – Haven’t had an opportunity yet to read the whole report. However, the executive summary was pretty interesting, and I definitely plan on reading the whole report when I have some free time.
  • Inequality should it be added to new MDGs (World Bank) – An interesting World Bank blog post looking at the conflicting opinions on whether or not development interventions should focus on reducing inequality. I’ve worked in many countries where inequality is a major aspect of overall poverty; nevertheless, I am leaning towards the belief that an international inequality metric isn’t a good idea. Inequality is definitely a constraint to poverty reduction in some countries, and in those cases reducing inequality should be pursued in pro-poor policies. However, reducing inequality should be viewed as a tool in the overall arsenal of poverty reducing tools, and not an end on its own.
  • Putting the GINI back in the Bottle (PDF) – This paper tries to measure and express income inequality in a new way.  It was mentioned in the previous World Bank blog post, and I thought I should read it. I think it is a good idea to question the GINI coefficient, and try to think of better ways of measuring and thinking about inequality. I am not convinced yet the parma coefficient is better than the GINI, but having more options is probably a good thing.
  • Valuing the United Nations (Project Syndicate) – An interesting article stressing the value of the UN system. Is the UN UN bureaucratic  and often inefficient? Yes, this is definitely true. Money invested in the UN could be spent more effectively, but even so the investment in the UN provides a surprisingly high return in public goods. With so much of the focus in the news on what the UN isn’t doing, I found this article refreshing, and put into context just how little we spend on the UN and how much we get out of it. I mean it was pretty shocking to read the UN has a smaller budget than the city of NYC. It definitely got me thinking about how a lot of the disappointment we have about the UN could be due to unrealistic expectations of what the UN can do considering the resources we devote to it.

West African Agriculture and Climate Change

Check out the new IFPRI research monograph about climate change and agriculture in West Africa. I’ve been working off and on helping out with the project (mostly on modeling methodology and graphs) for the last year. It is a pretty interesting book with chapters focused on the countries of West Africa and the challenges they may face due to climate change. The book is freely accessible, and you can download chapters if you are only interested in a subset of the countries studied.