Life by chocolate

A small upmarket chocolate-maker brings quality labs to cacao bean producers.

From MIT’s magazine Technology Review, a small cockle-warming story by Corby Kummer to curl up with in front of the fire.

A yuppie San Francisco chocolate maker called Tcho has gone beyond selling high-priced speciality chocolate squares.Roasted Cacao Beans

The company does something new: it provides growers with all the tools they need to have chocolate tastings during harvesting and processing, the crucial period that determines the price a cacao farmer’s crop will command. Tcho combines coffee roasters, spice grinders, and modified hair dryers to equip “sample labs” — pilot plants that produce tiny lots of chocolate right where cacao is grown. The company gives cacao farmers customized groupware so that they can share tasting notes and samples with chocolate makers. In this way, the farmers can bring entire harvests up to the standards of Tcho or any other buyer.

This is big news for the cocoa growers in Ghana, Ecuador, and other poor producing countries. Continue reading “Life by chocolate”

Will House Republicans Save Food Aid Reform?

Rep. Ed Royce (R - CA): the potential hero of food aid reform
Rep. Ed Royce (R – CA): the potential hero of food aid reform

These next 48 hours are critical for advancing reform of US international food aid, which I have blogged about previously.  Short version: because current rules essentially demand that we provide aid in food grown in the US via government subsidy, our current aid regime wastes money, delays delivery of aid by weeks, lines the pockets of agribusiness and big shipping, often undermines farmers in the Global South, and leaves 2-4 million people starving who could otherwise be helped.

The basic answer is to allow food to be procured locally; the Obama Administration’s budget proposal did just that, and was given the back of the hand by special interests in the Senate.  The Senate bill, which passed the Upper House, did add some extra money for local procurement, but fell far short of what was really needed.  The pathetic justifications offered by the agribusiness and shipping lobbies show just how weak their policy position is.

And now — maybe the House to the rescue.  The House? The current House?  You gotta be kidding, right?

Wrong.  The hero here is House International Relations Committee chair Ed Royce, a very conservative Republican from Orange County, who studied the way food aid rules work, and got outraged.  That’s hardly odd for a conservative, because farm policy represents about the clearest case of government waste we have.  It didn’t hurt, of course, that allowing for local procurement would also take much food aid from the Agriculture Committee and give it to the IR committee, but that really wasn’t what was happening here: this is an outrage and everyone who looks at it realizes it.

Originally, Royce teamed up with IR Global Affairs Subcommittee ranking member Karen Bass, a liberal African-American Democrat from Los Angeles, to introduce the Food Aid Reform Act, which would allow for local procurement as a general matter.  Before the House can vote on that, however, it needs to consider the Farm Bill, so Royce and IR Committee ranking member Eliot Engel (D – NY) have proposed an amendment to the House bill that essentially replicates the Food Aid Reform Act.  The House will consider that amendment as early as Wednesday.

Think about that for a second: “the House will consider that amendment as early as Wednesday.”  That says a lot.  Amendments don’t get considered on the floor of the House unless the Rules Committee allows them to be considered, and the Rules Committee doesn’t allow them to be considered unless it’s okay with the leadership.  That means that at least, there is substantial support in the Republican Conference for this measure.  GOP to the rescue!

Of course, they should support it.  Reforming food aid to allow for local procurement (as well as other crucial reforms) is such a no-brainer that it is perhaps the last genuinely bipartisan policy initiative out there.  Don’t believe me?  Even the Heritage Foundation favors this.  Does that make you as a liberal Democrat get nauseous?  Well, me too, sort of, but the same reforms are backed by the Center for American Progress.

So now — which is to say, right now, as soon as the business day starts in Washington DC — call your Congresscritter and ask them to support the Royce-Engel Amendment (#55) to the Farm Bill.  After the jump, I’m including the talking points prepared by the American Jewish World Service, which in conjunction with lots of other charities like Bread for the World, Oxfam, Catholic Relief Services, and many others, has spearheaded this campaign.  You should drop a dime for them, too, by the way.

But really: call. write.  E-mail.  This means life or death for people. Do it.

AJWS logo

**************************
I’m writing, as a constituent and as a supporter of American Jewish World Service <http://www.ajws.org/>, to urge you to vote YES on the Royce-Engel Amendment (#55) when it comes up during the Farm Bill debate this week.

The bi-partisan Royce-Engel Amendment (#55) to the Farm Bill would make significant and urgently needed reforms to our international food aid system by creating more flexibility and ending the practice of monetization, while also saving taxpayer dollars by eliminating wasteful spending.

While U.S. food aid saves millions of lives, we know all too well that the system is flawed. Current law requires that our government ship the majority of our food aid from the U.S., which means that it can take many months to reach people who need it. And since we buy almost none of the food from farmers in the countries we’re helping, our aid often undercuts local prices and even puts local farms out of business.

As you may recall, President Obama made recommendations in his 2014 budget proposal to address some of these challenges. The Royce-Engel Amendment essentially codifies the president’s proposal into law by allowing 45% of U.S. food aid to be in the form of local purchase, cash or vouchers. This flexibility would enable us to reach at least 4 million more people, with the same dollar amount, and would eliminate delivery delays of 3-4 months that are often the difference between life and death.

The amendment also ends the requirement that some portion of food aid be ‘monetized’ – a system through which in-kind food aid is donated to international development organizations, which in turn sell the food in local markets overseas to raise money for their development projects. Ending monetization creates the flexibility to use cash instead of commodities for important development projects financed through the food aid program.

A large coalition of groups support this amendment including AJWS, Oxfam, Bread for the World, Save the Children, CARE, Catholic Relief Services and many others. Think tanks across the ideological spectrum have also endorsed food aid reform, from the Heritage Foundation to the Center for American Progress.

I believe ending global hunger is a moral imperative and a fiscal priority. I urge you to vote YES on this amendment and to help make history on this issue.

US Food Aid Rules: If You’re Not Outraged, You’re Not Paying Attention

enoughThe Obama Administration announced yesterday that it wants to change US food aid rules to allow for more “local procurement” of food aid in the countries that need it.  Predictably, the special interests are aghast.  But the administration is right: current food aid rules are among the most egregious special interest legislation in the world right now, preventing this country from stopping starvation, often helping it, wasting taxpayer money, increasing greenhouse gas emissions, and causing soil degradation in Africa.  I have been working on this issue for the last couple of years with the American Jewish World Service, one of the world’s best charities: ending the current rules is a win-win-win-win all around, which is why it will probably be a fight to accomplish it.  The most important source on this issue is Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman’s outstanding book Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve In An Age of Plenty.  Run, don’t walk, and go and read it.  But in the meantime, here is what you need to know.

In order to see how egregious current rules are, suppose that there is a famine in Ethiopia (I know, hard to do).  the quickest and most effective thing to do would be to find some farmer or group of farmers in other parts of the country, or in neighboring countries, buy their food and get it to the stricken area.  After all, one key cause of famine is the lack of money, not lack of crops.  But under current law, USAID is basically forbidden from doing that.  Instead, it must buy grain in the United States and ship it several thousand miles to the famine area.  You can imagine the amount of time that that takes; sometimes, several weeks.  it’s a logistic nightmare.  In the meantime, thousands die, usually the weakest such as children and the elderly.

But it’s worse than that.

If the food needs to be shipped, then that means that the shipping must be paid for.  And it sure is: according to a study done by AJWS and Oxfam, nearly 55% of the cost of American international food aid goes not to food, but to shipping costs.  That’s what your tax dollars are going to.

But it’s worse than that.

Just because a ship is flagged American, doesn’t mean that the sailors on it are American.  Hundreds of ships have been flagged under Liberian registry for years, and during much of that time, there was no “Liberia” to speak of.  So your tax dollars are not necessarily going to American jobs, and probably are not.

But it’s worse than that.

Recall, of course, that the food that will be shipped to the famine area is subsidized, so in fact, we are spending food aid money not on people who are starving, but on relatively wealthy American farmers.

But it’s worse than that!

Once the food finally makes its way to the country in question, not all of it gets to the famine area.  Free food from the United States is simply too attractive to smugglers, who siphon it off and then sell it in markets.  I personally have several instances of markets selling food in bags stating quite clearly: “GIFT OF THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: NOT FOR RESALE.”  You can it in markets throughout Africa.  And what that does is put local farmers out of business because they cannot compete with this illegally dumped food from the United States.  in other words, by this sort of dumping, in many instances, we are actually making the problem worse over the long term because we are undermining other countries’ ability to feed themselves.  Ikal Angelei, whom I blogged about several months ago, told me that in her village in Kenya, they used to have enough supplies to last for several months in the event of a famine.  Now, in no small part because of the dumping, the village only has a few days’ worth.  This is not-not-not to say that there should not be food aid, but rather that it needs to be done effectively and efficiently.

But it’s even worse than that!

The inability of local farmers to farm the land means that the topsoil begins to erode.  Native farming techniques were hardly environmentally perfect, and caused damage, but the failure to farm at all often mean environmental degradation.  So when we hear that “Africa Is Dying,” as I did back in 2010, we should know that we are part of the problem.

That’s pretty awful isn’t it?  And the really shocking thing is just how little it gets us.  James Caponiti, the executive director/lobbyist of the American Maritime Congress, claimed in the NYT article that moving to local procurement could cost the United States “hundreds of jobs.”  Hundreds?  That’s what he claims?  Hell, we could end the sequester and write a bigger transit bill and multiply that over several times.  And that’s taking his argument at face value.  One remembers Muhammed Ali’s famous taunt to George Foreman in Kinshasa:  “Is that all you got, George?  Is that it?”

My friend Timi Gerson, AJWS’ advocacy director, is quoted at the end of the article: “From a taxpayers’ and policy perspective, the food aid program is clearly in need of reform. The only thing getting in the way is politics and special interest.”  Absolutely, 1 million percent true.  Call your Congressmember and tell them how important it is to support the administration.

It will be very interesting to see what evangelicals and so-called fiscal conservatives do on this issue.  Very interesting indeed.

Dr. Moore, I presume?

The peaceful conquest of Africa by the mobile phone.

Depressed by the deathwish politics of the USA and Europe? Enjoy an album of music found on cellphones of users in the Sahel (Mali, Chad, and similar beauty spots):

(Credit. Buy the album for $5; they say $3 will go to the artists.)

This post is a celebration of the conquest of Africa by the mobile phone.

Somali mobile phone entrepreneurs roll out a new chat service:
Telesom_Gmail0123-618x463latst
Wikipedia lists six mobile phone companies in Somalia, whose nominal government controls Mogadishu and little more. A political map of the current fiefdoms.
Continue reading “Dr. Moore, I presume?”

Heartwarming

Theme song of an African geothermal conference.

A nice bon enfant jingle for, say, other Luo socialist climate hawks:

What makes it even nicer is that every claim in the puff is true. East Africa is starting to exploit >15 GW of geothermal reserves under the Rift Valley complex, where the continent is slowly splitting in two. The reserves are the traditional and easily accessible hydrothermal sort, not the more widespread “hot dry rocks” targeted by the still experimental EGS technology. More with map in the latest newsletter of the American Geothermal Association.

Even war-torn newbie South Sudan, with dozens of rift valleys, showed up at the latest regional conference. John Kerry has an opportunity here for green peacebuilding, weaning the country away away from dependence on blood oil.

Something Mitt Romney Almost Got Right

Perhaps the most outrageous part of Romney’s deservedly-infamous speech to the $50,000-a-plate dinner was his assertion that he inherited nothing from his upbringing.  After all, he was only the son of the CEO of American Motors and then the Governor of Michigan, who went to one of the country’s best prep schools and then to Harvard (where, as Andy Sabl has reminded us, he made ends meet by selling stock): how in the world could anyone think that that gave him anything?  He might be as delusional as his running mate, which is saying a lot.

But in that speech he did say one thing that is undeniably true (even if he said it to make an absurd point):

Frankly, I was born with a silver spoon, which is the greatest gift you can have: which is to get born in America.

Absolutely true.  In today’s world, a child’s life chances are pervasively determined by which country she is born in.  Being born in the United States or the rich countries of Europe is tantamount to winning life’s lottery compared to the rest of the world.  Martha Nussbaum a few years ago noted that

A child born in Sweden today has a life expectancy at birth of 79.7 years. A child born in Sierra Leone has a life expectancy at birth of 38.9 years. In the USA, GDP per capita is US$34 142; in Sierra Leone, GDP per capita is US$490. Adult literacy rates in the top 20 nations are around 99%; in Sierra Leone, the literacy rate is 36%. In 26 nations, the adult literacy rate is under 50%.

Suzy Khimm got the numbers last year while reporting on the Occupy Movement’s claim to be the “99%.”  True, but only in the United States:

Those at the 34th percentile of income in the United States are at the 90th percentile globally, and those at the 50th percentile in the United States are at the 93rd percentile globally. Even the very poorest Americans — those at the 2nd percentile of income in the United States — are at the 62nd percentile globally.

And this adjusts for relative price levels.  Recently the United Nations Development Programme estimated that hunger and malnutrition affect more than 900 million people worldwide — the overwhelmiing majority of them in the Global South.

Note, of course, that using Romney’s words in this way shows the absurdity of his message.  Romney was attempting to make the Social Darwinist claim that the distribution of wealth is a function of virtue.  In fact, it is anything but: it is essentially a function of luck. 

If anything, the Republican Party is doing its best to clamp down on any attempts to change that: the egregious farm bill written by the House GOP leadership increases farm subsidies and removes the small measure of food aid reform contained in the last farm bill.  If the “deficit chickenhawks” in the Republican Party get their way, the majority of your food aid tax dollars will continue to go to wealthy US agribusiness and shipping interests, essentially serving as a way to dump food into the Global South and undermine local agriculture.

None of this, of course, should be taken as a reason to stop fighting against inequality in the United States.  But inequalities between countries have grown exponentially in the last hundred years: they are now simply too massive to be ignored.  US aid policies need to be the next frontier of a vigorous progressivism.

One laptop per child, progress report

Nicholas Negroponte nears his objective of the $100 educational laptop. What does it mean?

Nicholas Negroponte is about to meet the goal he set in 2005 in Tunis of an under-$100 laptop computer designed to give the world’s children access to the information society.

His One Laptop per Child Foundation revealed prototypes of its third generation design, the XO-3, in January. It hopes to find manufacturers who will allow the design to be available in quantity by the end of the year at around the $100 bar. (There’s a delay; the symbolic price point is perhaps more sacred than the deadline.)

OLPC xo-3 prototype

More photos here.

Mission accomplished! Or is it? Continue reading “One laptop per child, progress report”

Quote of the Day: The Impact of Obamacare

From Laurie Garrett of the Council on Foreign Relations:

Political pundits will now argue the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court decision and the likelihood that Republican opponents to the health reform law will be able to overturn it through legislation. But perhaps it will now be possible for an HIV-infected individual in Mississippi or Alabama to have access, at taxpayers’ expense, to the same level of care as the U.S. government supports for comparable individuals in Johannesburg.

Yup.  Unless the governors of those states decide that they would prefer to have Third World conditions.  Which they might.

By the way: let’s start calling it Obamacare now.  As more people reap its benefits, we might as well reap the credit.

Meanwhile, in the Horn of Africa….

…tens of thousands of children have died from the ongoing drought, and in fact, even though conditions have gotten worse, most of the international media has moved on to other things.  One who has not is the New York Times’ Jeffrey Gettleman, whose report two days ago from the ground was horrifying.  And westerners appear to be suffering from compassion overload.  Although the death toll might exceed 750,000, dwarfing previous droughts,

support — meaning dollars — has been frustratingly scant. While many more lives are at stake in Somalia’s crisis, other recent disasters pulled in far more money. For instance, Save the Children U.S. has raised a little more than $5 million in private donations for the Horn of Africa crisis, which includes Somalia and the drought-inflicted areas of Kenya and Ethiopia. That contrasts with what Save the Children raised in 2004 for the Indonesian tsunami ($55.4 million) or the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 ($28.2 million) or even the earthquake in Japan earlier this year ($22.8 million) — and Japan is a rich country.

It’s not just hunger: pastoralist communities near the border of Somalia are especially affected, as many families’ animals—upon which they depended completely for their livelihoods—have died because of the drought. Men from the communities often leave their homes and go to the cities to look for work, and women and children are left to fend for themselves.

And what happens when women and children are left to fend for themselves?  They get assaulted and raped; the drought zone has not approached eastern Congo as the most dangerous place on earth for women, but it is doing its best, so to speak.

It doesn’t help that at

a time when Somalia is suffering from the worst drought in 60 years, a ruthless militant group called the Shabab, which is essentially a Qaeda franchise, is on such an anti-Western tirade that it has banned Western music, Western dress, soccer, bras and even Western food aid. The Shabab are a heavily armed complication that differentiates this crisis from previous famines in Somalia, Ethiopia or Sudan and from other recent natural disasters like the tsunami in Indonesia or Haiti’s earthquake, where aid groups were able to rush in and start saving lives within a matter of hours….

People told me the Shabab were trying to prevent anyone from leaving and that Shabab fighters had even set up special camps where thousands of exhausted, hungry and sick people were corralled at gunpoint, an ideal breeding ground for disease, especially because the Shabab have also banned immunizations. It’s the perfect storm to kill countless children. Measles, typhoid and cholera are already beginning to sweep through the camps. Epidemiologists predict that the fatalities will shoot up and thousands of people will perish when the heavy rains come in November and December, spreading waterborne diseases.

Ken Menkhaus, a political science professor at Davidson College who has been working as a consultant on Somalia since the early 1990s, said the Shabab had pushed Somalia to a tipping point.

“The worst-case scenario is a Khmer Rouge situation where a group with a twisted ideology presides over the mass death of its own people,” he said. “The numbers are going to be horrifying.”

My response is to give to the American Jewish World Service, which has a series of long-running contacts with indigenous organizations.  Even when the Shabab won’t let western groups in, AJWS can work with local partners.  AJWS has also focused on the thousands of Kenyans across the Somali border who has been overwhelmed by the refugee influx and mostly ignored by other organizations.  And since AJWS has specialized for years in capacity-building with local partners, supporting them will probably do some sort of preventative work for the future.  Here’s a link to give to them, but there are many reputable organizations.

In any event, it’s going to be very ugly.

 

 

First, do no harm (medical research edition)

A plea for integrating the reduction of medical costs in major medical research programmes.

The National Institutes of Health explain the fundamental driver of the trend increase in health costs much better than I could:

In the past 40+ years, NIH funded research has successfully reduced the mortality and morbidity of once acute and lethal diseases and conditions by finding ways to improve treatment — even in later stages. These advances have moved what had been to acute to chronic diseases, to diseases that are chronic and manageable. These chronic diseases now form the largest component of health burden.

National Institutes of Health FY 2010 President’s Budget, page 3

A touch of hubris here – the NIH is much the biggest fish in the pond, but not the only one – but pardonable. In short: we die of things less, and live longer as permanent patients.

The great medical achievements of the NIH and its fellows worldwide are leading us (see my previous post) to an economic and social catastrophe. On current trends in medical costs, either all rich countries go broke sooner (USA) or later (rest of OECD), or we have extensive rationing of cutting-edge medicine by the market or the state, or we just leave the discoveries unused and settle for an iron rice bowl. (To be complete, or something turns up.) In homage to Jonathan Swift, who 300 years ago imagined the horrors of immortality without a stop to aging, let’s call this unsustainable situation a Struldbrug box. What’s the NIH plan for getting us out out of it?

Continue reading “First, do no harm (medical research edition)”