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Essays and Rants

Italy Takes a Step Over an Old Line

Imagine if a cabinet member or leading government official in your country said ‘we need to deport all the Black people’ .  Imagine if a government official in the US said; “We need to round up all the Black immigrants and get rid of them. Unfortunately, we have no way to deport the Blacks with American citizenship.” President Trump has said many things that go against – well, never mind. The point is that even he sees some lines in the legal and political sand. No leader of a modern, Western democracy would suggest an overtly race-based policy of deportation, right?

Welcome to 2018 Italy. A new government was formed in June and, right away, the Minister of the Interior has proposed a census of immigrants of a specific ethnic group and to deport immigrants – not based on country of origin or anything about individual immigrants’ cases – but based on ethnic group. He announced the plan to have a registry of all people of Romani ethnicity and to deport any ethnic Roma who are not citizens. He did not specify that the government should deport illegal aliens, or even Roma who are illegal aliens. Treating illegal aliens who are Roma differently from other illegal aliens would, of course, be discriminatory and unlawful. However, he proposed something much more egregious; deporting Roma, based solely on ethnicity. His statement was not aimed at foreigners without a valid visa or migrants with criminal records; it was about Roma.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini commented on the proposal that, “The Italian Roma, unfortunately, you have to keep in Italy.” Yes, true. Italian-born citizens of Italy have the right to live in Italy, even if they are not white.

The reader who is not European should be reminded here that more or less all Roma in Italy, even if not Italian, are EU citizens and have the same rights to live and work anywhere in the EU.

How unfortunate that Italy is turning its back on its own constitutional law and of European Union law and looking fondly back to its fascist past. One should not need to be an expert on the Holocaust to know that the 1940s are not the source of the best practices for immigrant or racial integration.


Dating Online is Hard

I was chatting with a woman who says she’s into magic but not the dark arts. I can already tell she’s not going to be good at evil spells because a really good witch would know “dark arts” is a misnomer. If you’re any good at it, you treat it like a science. You can’t just throw Latin terms and dead frogs around however the spirit moves you and expect things to work out.

The search for a soul mate goes on.



Bulgaria Scoffs at Minority Integration

Bulgaria’s new minister in charge of minority integration has been hired less to further efforts at curbing discrimination and more at signaling to ethnic majority voters that bigotry is part of the leading party’s platform. Minister Simeonov has called Roma “feral, human-like creatures” and said that Roma women have “the instincts of stray dogs”. No need for an essay here. The choice of Simeonov as the leader of the country’s policies and programs to achieve equal rights requires no real contextualization or analysis.


Slavery, Labor Abuse and the Value of Making Distinctions

In the June 2017 edition of The Atlantic, Alex Tizon exposes his family’s and his own worst secret. With it, he exposes a dark aspect of Filipino culture and reveals how easily a worker may be abused for years, even decades, in the United States without authorities or the people next door being aware. The essay is called My Family’s Slave. The story repeats the word slave many times. If you’re like me, you have friends on social media who read it, are sharing it, and are horrified by it.


We all should be horrified, of course, to read that a woman was so vilely treated. For decades, Eudocia Tomas Pulido worked and lived in the Tizon’s home. The Tizon family patriarch was a Filipino diplomat, an official of his country. These were presumably people who discussed the dynamic between rich and poor, global North and South. They had her work seven days and seven nights per week with no scheduled off time. She was compensated with no salary; one was promised but not paid. On at least one occasion, her employer physically assaulted her. Her mistreatment was immoral and illegal. Tizon’s confession is of little use to the victim, though it may help to prevent future, similar cases.


Summary so far; Ms. Pulido was a victim of terrible and criminal abuse.


She was not a slave. There are many reasons why she was not a slave. Here is the big one. Slaves are owned. They may not leave and cannot leave because they have no legal rights. Not having legal rights is different from not exercises one’s rights. There are, arguably, other important distinctions between Ms. Pulido’s situation and slavery but I will not list them here because the first is so central to what makes Tizon’s writing, however well intended, an offense all its own.


Equating even the worst job to slavery is a denial of the unique evil of slavery. Only slavery is slavery. If your boss goes bankrupt and closes shop and you never get paid, life is very unfair but you haven’t been temporarily enslaved. Your unpaid internship – though I would argue that if your work helped your employer, then you really should have a wage – is not slavery. Slavery denial is offensive to slaves and to children and the descendants of slaves.


Alex Tizon, an excellent writer, should have chosen words more carefully. Then again, another term for the abusive relationship might not have been as effective in titillating the readers. Maybe My Family’s Utusan would never have even been published.  So he chose the word that pushes the collective shame button. Yet in calling Ms. Pulido a slave, he exposes his own deep prejudice against her. He never considers that she was a person with any ability to make decisions, that she even knew her right to walk away, that she had any sort of agency. He supposes that she gave no more thought to what was being done to her than his family did. His family were sentient beings capable of knowing right and wrong and seeing alternatives but she was a peasant and existed only to be the object of his family’s will.


Let us recognize the horrors of a crime and seek to prevent it from happening again without insulting the victim and without making little of other crimes. Slavery is slavery. Using the word wily-nilly is untruthful and is disrespectful to victims of slavery and to victims of other crimes, whose pain is bad enough and does not require any conflation.


India’s Rural Poor Are Not an Engineering Problem

I recently attended a symposium held by the MIT Tata Center. The Tata Center, funded by the Indian corporation of the same name, supports research and development projects by MIT students and fellows to create new technologies, to lift people out of poverty in India. At the symposium, all the funded researchers present their work, a few outside experts give talks and projects are displayed with the hope that venture capitalists will stroll up and pull out a check book. I was there with the executive director of Pradan, an Indian non-profit launching a new solar irrigation pump in partnership with one of the supported researchers.

A lot of Tata Center fellows come to the same problem. The young scientists come up with something that solves a problem, design a product using their new technology and get it into the hands of some poor farmers, only to discover that they cannot figure out a way to scale up their solution and create a profitable company.

There are two resulting business models. The first is to make as many of the product as a charitable foundation will pay for, and hand out for free to the poor. The second is to make the product at a cost that sounds great in the halls of MIT but is too much for the poor farmer. The MIT fellow escorts each and every client to the bank and helps them to apply for a loan. The fellow gets bored and walks away. The innovative product goes off the market until another student gets funded to reinvent it. All the researchers put their poverty-ending inventions on their resumes and live happily ever after. The ideas are never taken to scale.

I met a man with a great design to heat small fish farmers’ tanks without electricity so that they can better raise farmed fish. It is a great idea with some value in India and much more in nearby countries such as Bangladesh. However, there will be no way to enforce the patent. Are you going to catch and sue a fish farmer, he asked me, who makes $3,000 a year? In the end, there is no way to make serious money. He is going to run the project until the design is done, give the design away for free and move on with his life. He will not even try to help mass produce and distribute the new system. He has bigger fish to fry. Of the few women at the event, one presented a new kind of prosthetic leg. In the US and UK, fake legs are designed for elderly people who barely walk in an average day. The design works to the satisfaction of the typical user, which means it’s a great leg for watching Matlock. Most people who need to replace a leg in India are men in their 20s and 30s who stepped on a land mine. (India still has a Naxalite, or Marxist insurgency.) People need a leg that can sit cross-legged, walk on and off road and do much more. She made one. It costs a few thousand dollars. It is unbelievably cheap, unless the buyer happens to be a lower caste Indian living in the kind of impoverished areas that have land mines. A lot of the conversations, then, were not really about the technological innovations, which are all incredible, but about the barrier to taking an exciting design and getting it into the hands of millions of hands, to really change the lives of the poorest.

The keynote speaker of the conference was “Desh” Deshpande, an important donor to MIT and the Center. Deshpande he was the richest Indian citizen for years and is a local star. His speech about international development and about how new technology can solve development problems was terrific. For him, the question is not just how to plan for sustainable (profitable) models of delivering an innovative technology to the poor. Deshpande imagines something other than a world where the poor wait for the engineers design solutions for them. He spoke of a world in which more people grow up to be the problem-solvers. The solutions require more perspectives.

Unfortunately, Deshpande was an outlier at the event. The thinking behind the event and the thinking of most participants, from the organizers to the fellows, reveals a failure to ask why.  Missing technology is not why India is poorer than Romania, or why Panama is poorer than the US.  A musician can be forgiven for thinking that music can end wars. We all see the tool we know as the key. A mechanical engineer may naturally presume that s/he (probably he) can mechanically engineer India out of being….India. But India is not behind Massachusetts because Boston has better R&D facilities than Mumbai. Boston has better engineering centers because of a complex set of failures or gaps that make India less hospitable to investment in innovation. The mix for a highly developed society is not made up of one ingredient and if it were, the one ingredient would not be smarter engineers. MIT had filled a room with nothing but engineers to discuss India’s poverty, which is not an engineering problem. One could just as well get a sick person, surround her with a room full of the world’s greatest experts on architecture and watch her bleed out while the geniuses discuss the better hospital they could build for her.

It was heart-breaking to look around this room of brilliant idiots because this is how everyone in international development used to think. It is how I used to think. We, as a community, woke up. Agricultural development wonks today understand that there’s a reason there are too few tractors in Kenya; you will not solve Kenya’s problems just by modernizing the agricultural sector. One needs at the same time to bring in democracy and governance experts who will address why every penny that is supposed to go to modernizing Kenyan farming disappears into kleptocrats’ pockets. Rights, “rule of law” and good governance types (like me) have learned to be less myopic. If we try to address better governance and talk to someone about civil rights when his son just died of malaria, he will be too full of rage toward the privileged class who live in the malaria-free zone to listen. We cannot fix the political system first and wait for everything else to follow. People need better health care to focus on governance. All the sectors are interconnected. We all think our tool or perspective is the only one that matters and we have learned that we are all wrong. We draw people from other fields into our planning and discussions.

The MIT gathering was a reminder that some people are still too self-assured to clearly see and respond to complex, multi-faceted problems. They talk about their great inventions to improve health care in India but they have not one person at the conference who can talk about health care as a management or policy problem. The health care failures in India do not exist just because we need a new model of prosthetic limb; any solution will need to be delivered in a hospital run badly, by administrators who are overseen by a Ministry of Health that oversees badly.

A better world for the poorest billions requires innovative thinking and that does mean new technologies. Alas, the world’s leaders in the development of technology for the poorest missed the important Day One lesson in international development; humility. When trying to solve someone else’s needs, one should start with the humility to look to fields and perspectives additional to one’s own.

From the slums of India to the Romani ‘osady’ of Slovakia, dropping out of school is often wise.

Everyone interested in international development and improving the lives of the world’s poorest agrees that education is an important investment. Several of the Millenium Development Goals focus on increasing the number of children in schools and the years they stay. The UNESCO-sponsored Education for All summit and resulting commitment by countries around the world also focuses on education, though the quality of that education is only mentioned once and is mentioned last among that agreement’s points. In Europe, discussions of how to help the Roma, Europe’s largest and most marginalized ethnic minority often center on schooling. Roma are, despite national laws and pan-European agreements, put in segregated learning environments in many countries. They go to separate and inferior schools, or to separate classrooms or wings of “integrated” school buildings, never interacting with white pupils or with the whites’ teachers. Perhaps so many Roma decide to drop out early in their teens for the same reason that drop-out rates are so high in many Asian and African countries. The problem is not a culture that fails to value education.  Rather, students and their families often make sound decisions about investment of time and other resources into a non-educational environment.

First, a look at the developing world; a 2002-2003 survey led by the World Bank visited schools in six countries across Asia, Latin America and Africa. Teachers were missing, on average, one out of five school days. These rates were much higher in India and Uganda than in some of the others. Moreover, when teachers were in school they weren’t always in class. They were having tea, chatting, etc. Overall, 50% of India’s public teachers are not in front of a class when they should be. The results are as one would expect. In 2005, an Indian study tested 700,000 children across the country and found that roughly 35% of children aged 7-14 could not read a first-grade level paragraph. In Kenya, another study had similar findings. While the country boasts bilingual education, 27% of fifth graders could not read in English and 23% could not read in Swahili. The system fails them in multiple languages. All over the developing world, math skills of students in this age bracket are lower than the skills of kids who stay out of school to help their parents in a family business. Learning is often better outside of school than in it.

Quality of education also relates, unsurprisingly, to bias. Turning again to India, the Public Report on Basic Education, or PROBE asked teachers to grade exams. When teachers were allowed to see the students’ names (which include some hints about caste), teachers gave much lower scores to lower-caste students than when test scores were anonymous.

As Banerjee and Duflo put it in their 2013 book, Poor Economics, “School enrollment is sensitive to the rate of returns to education”.  When schools don’t educate, young people don’t choose to stay in school.

What does the failure of public schools in India or Africa have to do with Europe? Again, many of the countries with the largest populations of Roma keep Romani children apart from white learners. They do not learn in the same classes, nor with the same teachers and they are offered neither the same resources nor the same good faith. It is obvious what sort of return Roma get when they invest in the educational system. In countries like the Czech Republic, where Roma tend to drop out between the ages of twelve and sixteen, it is often said that they do not wish to learn. The truth is that they are already in special classes for the learning disabled, where no education is offered. If nobody has taught you to read by the time you’re fourteen and you continue going to school, then you really must have an intellectual disability.

As noted in this recent New York Times article about Slovakia, only a minority of Roma in Slovakia go to high school at all. Most have given up by then.  Most Roma in Slovakia are put into a separate system; denying the existence of segregation, Slovakia claims to operate “special” schools for the learning disabled. It just so happens, Slovak officials would have the civilized world believe, that most Roma are mental cripples. As one school teacher in the article puts it, “these people are interested in only two things: money and sex…they are lazy and don’t want to learn.”

The great irony in Europe is the desire to go around desegregation, to distract from the fundamental need for equal rights to education, with special little projects and programs. Those Roma who do finish secondary (high) school are nearly assured a scholarship to cover living costs while attending university (which is typically already free, unlike in the U.S.). But what sort of policy provides a scholarship for one when a hundred others never get the chance to learn to read? Europe does not, it seems, want educated Roma. It only wants a small handful of Roma who can be engaged as social workers. There are the tiny elite that colonial Europe educated to manage the masses in 19th century Europe. They are Funktionshäftling for the Romani ghettoes.

What is needed across the world’s poorest countries and in Europe, where too many Roma live as if they were in another continent, is not just more schools or more time in schools but a serious focus on the quality of the time that students commit. If students are not helped to learn anything in a classroom, they are better off walking out of school and serving an apprenticeship under their uncles, who can show the, how to drive a rickshaw, manage a vegetable stand, or drink and wait for an unemployment check.  After all, it’s all about return on investment.



One Comment
  1. I laughed (in a sad way) when I read your post about dying languages and parents who don’t pass their language down for whatever reason. There’s the other side of the coin, those of us who come from single-language families and will therefore start spending a great deal of money, as early as preschool, to raise bilingual children.

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