Thursday, November 21, 2013

Observations from Abidjan - November 10-21

More observations from the past couple of weeks here in Abidjan:
  • It's quite satisfying to feel more comfortable with the culture here.  When taxis or street vendors try to rip me off, it's now amusing rather than stressful.  One does start to feel a certain pride about it, and it's easy to see why the "old travelers" -- those delightful snobs who have spent significant time in developing countries -- can become so insufferable about Africa novices.  
  • Learning a language -- particularly French -- as an adult is such a long road.   I often feel like I've stagnated or that my progress is so slow that I'll never achieve true fluency.  I've gotten to the point where small talk and business interactions are no problem at all.  But the nuances still escape me.  Being able to hold a conversation in French is one thing; being witty or interesting or fun at a party in French is quite another.  These are subtle and difficult skills that one spends a lifetime honing even in one's native language.  
  • Likewise, French at work has been a major barrier to integrating myself into my job here.  My co-workers use a lot of Ivorian slang when they speak between themselves.  I miss out on the nuances of conversation and then there are all sorts of technical terms that I don't recognize.  I spend a lot of time fake laughing at things that I don't understand, which I dislike, but it's a lesser evil than asking someone to repeat something every 15 seconds.  Also, the nuances of workplace interactions with supervisors and co-workers often require a subtlety for which my clumsy French is ill-equipped.  My French will continue to improve, and it already has improved a great deal since I've been here.  But on those days where my co-workers are laughing together and I'm grasping at straws, trying I'm trying to cling to the thread of the conversation, it can be very frustrating.  I suppose I'll never be truly fluent; just progressively less incompetent.  
  • During a recent conversation with a Belgian Congolese (white Congolese-born Belgian) businessman who has spent his entire life in Africa, he told me that the corruption here in Cote d'Ivoire is worse than it's ever been.  That's probably to be taken with a grain of salt, since he's only really been based in Abidjan for the past few years.   
  • I mentioned in a previous post that there are usually chickens running around near restaurants and fruit vendors and cell phone credit vendors.  I still don't totally understand how they keep track of which chickens belong to who.  And what if one of the chickens gets hit by a car?  The taxis make no effort to avoid the chickens, sometimes accelerating towards them.  There are also chickens that run around outside my office, cock-a-doodle-doo-ing with great gusto throughout the afternoon.  Also, you constantly see chickens crossing the road here, which never gets old.  
  • It rains here most days, but rarely for longer than 15-20 minutes.  
  • As an indication for how far off the map West Africa is, "Ivorian" is not in the lexicon of my cell phone (purchased here in Cote d'Ivoire!).  
  • Sauce gumbo is a popular Ivorian sauce made from a vegetable called gumbo.  It's one of the more vegetarian friendly dishes around.  Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure that gumbo is French for snozzcumber.  
  • I'm leaving tomorrow morning for a week in San Francisco with Sheila and family and friends.  

Sunday, November 17, 2013

More on the Rights-based Approach

Feminist Out Of Water had a good post about the "rights-based approach" and I wanted to respond to a few points.  She starts by articulating several of the critiques of the rights-based approach made by Easterly and Blattman.  She counters these critiques several arguments about freedom and inequality and about the importance of consulting the poor in policymaking:
We are trying to alleviate poverty because poverty is bad. When we say poverty is bad, what we mean is that it is wrong. When we say it is wrong, what we mean is that it is unjust, unfair, unequal, and inhibits freedom. WHOA, I know, nobody likes to make this jump because now we are talking about normative things instead of meaningless things like “efficiency.” 
But I think these motivations for eliminating poverty are too broad and all-encompassing.  Eliminating poverty is not a way to redress all of the world's wrongs, just one very specific and important wrong.  In fact, I believe that defining poverty as a combination of vast and mushy concepts like injustice, inequity, inequality and lack of freedom is more likely to make the conversation "meaningless," than discussing "meaningless things like 'efficiency.'"

FOOW also devotes significant time to the argument of freedom as non-domination, an argument that I also find too broad:
The reason we humans want to alleviate poverty is because we want to increase freedom for all humans. This is because poverty undermines democratic equality and creates the ability for the wealthy to dominate and oppress (whether directly or indirectly) the poor. This means that the poor are not free if you see freedom as non-domination, which I think is a great way to understand freedom. You can be dominated by your government, through torture or imprisonment. Or, you can be dominated by a multinational corporation, that, with vast wealth and power, can take land away from you without your permission. Or, you can be dominated by your husband, if you are a victim of domestic abuse. There are many way to be dominated. The point is that people should not be so unequal in net-worth or in social standing that they can dominate each other or be dominated by each other or by institutions. It is up to us humans to design institutions that make this a reality.
FOOW says that domination undermines freedom and notes that "there are many ways to be dominated."  But I would argue that there are too many ways to be dominated for "domination" to denote a lack of freedom.  She seems to be arguing that if you live in a society where some people's land has been taken away by a multinational corporation, this does not mean that you yourself are unfree.  Or is it just the person whose land was taken away?  Or him and his neighbors?  Or him and his neighbors and everyone else whose property could possible be taken (now we're up to most of society).  This seems like an awfully big leap.  I don't believe that the existence of companies or people who do bad things shows that the people of that society are unfree.  This would mean that basically all of humanity is unfree.

She also criticizes economic arguments to policy, in which policymakers take into account silly considerations such as cost-benefit analysis.  
We cannot just say, well there is more freedom being enhanced than taken away, and call it “efficient.” Like good – bad > 0. These are human lives we are talking about not mathematical calculations. Moreover, this kind of calculation is not an abstract and morally neutral or practical or pragmatic solution, this is a clear adherence to a moral philosophy that is called utilitarianism. It is one moral philosophy among many, and has not been the premier moral philosophy for the past half-century in any other field than in economics, where efficiency as a moral concept still reigns supreme. I think it is absolutely nuts that economics claims to be value neutral while holding up utilitarianism as their moral dogma, but whatever, that is for another post.
FOOW seems to be arguing for a "do no harm approach" to policy, which I think is extreme and unrealistic.  All government policy does harm to one group or another.  Even a lack of policymaking or a delay in policymaking does harm to one group or another (see United States Congress).  In a world of limited government budgets, a right to health care or a right to a speedy trial, inherently limits the right to clean water or the right to adequate housing.  The only real conclusion that she seems to be making is that it is important to consult the poor more.

And this, for me, is the main problem with FOOW's argument.  There are lots of interesting arguments about freedom and inequality, but no real compelling argument for the rights-based approach.  She seem to be arguing for consulting the poor more, without really do not provide any arguments for why the rights-based approach does this more effectively.