Welcome to the Humanosphere podcast, our weekly look at the world of global health and development. Tom and I begin with a discussion on the headlines – from the UN asking us to eat more bugs to the refusal of most American retailers to sign a pact improving worker safety overseas.
Our featured guest this week is Nick Kristof, a Northwest native (grew up on a farm in Yamhill, OR), prize-winning columnist for the New York Times and, for many, the voice of the humanitarian movement. Tom talked with him by phone earlier this week, before he spoke in Seattle.
Nick Kristof inspires at Seattle Biomed’s Passport to Global Health celebration 2013
The renowned New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, a Pacific Northwest native (who with his daughter is hiking a big chunk of the Pacific Crest Trail this summer), was in Seattle this week to speak at Seattle Biomed‘s annual Passport to Global Health celebration.
I had a brief conversation with him, mostly about Being Nick Kristof, on our weekly podcast and in the transcript below.
Kristof is, for many, the voice of the humanitarian movement. Not surprisingly, he gave a rousing, moving talk Thursday evening for the Seattle Biomed crowd in which he emphasized the stunning progress that has been made in global health over the past few decades. He also spoke on the danger posed for sustaining this success story due to public apathy and the mistaken sense that the fight against poverty is too overwhelming, a ‘hopeless’ task.
“That’s one of the biggest misconceptions out there,” he said. “The sense that it’s hopeless.”
Eskinder Nega was arrested after raising questions about arrests under Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism legislation in September 2011. Now he serves an 18 year sentence thanks to the very law he questioned.
“The Ethiopian government is treating calls for peaceful protest as a terrorist act and is outlawing the legitimate activity of journalists and opposition members,” said Amnesty International‘s Ethiopia researcher Claire Beston at the time of sentencing.
Rights groups raised attention to the use of the law to circumvent speech and dissent. Nearly a year later, Nega remains in jail. His attempt to appeal the ruling two weeks ago failed. The judge upheld the sentencing decision, saying it was correct.
“The truth will set us free,” said Nega to the public following the ruling. “We want the Ethiopian public to know that the truth will reveal itself, it’s only a matter of time.”
A year and a half of truth later and Nega is still in jail. He is not the lone victim of Ethiopia’s crackdown of opposition figures and abuse of its terrorism law. Ethiopia is one of the worst places in the world to be a journalist. 79 journalists fled Ethiopia between 2001 and 2011, the most of any country in the world. The press freedom index categorized Ethiopia among the most difficult countries for press. Continue reading →
The Guardian reports that Hans Rosling, the celebrated scientist who has made data cool, doesn’t actually like data that much:
“I don’t like it. My interest is not data, it’s the world. And part of world development you can see in numbers. Others, like human rights, empowerment of women, it’s very difficult to measure in numbers.”
Rosling is strikingly upfront about the limitations of data. Sometimes, the problem is that different countries measure things – like unemployment – in different ways, he says. In other cases, there are real uncertainties in the data that must be assessed: child mortality statistics are quite precise, whereas maternal mortality figures are not; global poverty measurements are infrequent and uncertain.
Still, Rosling does make boring and complicated numbers easy to understand, fun … and cool. Here he is on climate change and population growth:
I’ve been waiting for someone to make this argument based on the numbers. I don’t expect it to be very popular or compelling. The long-standing emphasis on women and children’s needs in global health are based not so much on simple burden of disease numbers alone as on issues of equity.
Men experience a higher burden of disease and lower life expectancy than women, but policies focusing on the health needs of men are notably absent from the strategies of global health organisations, according to a Viewpoint article in this week’s Lancet.
The Washington Post’s chief policy wonk blogger Ezra Klein has published his conversation with Bill Gates about global health. Most of the discussion is focused on exploring how the Gates Foundation attempts to use data and better metrics to improve the fight against diseases of poverty.
Ezra Klein: Your Foundation is known for taking a particularly data-driven approach to its work. So how do you know what’s actually working when you’re in failed states with very little data-collection capacity?
Bill Gates: Of all the statistics in health, death is the easiest, because you can go out and ask people, “Hey, have you had any children who died, did your siblings have any children who died?” People don’t forget that. If you say to them, “Did your kids get vaccines or not,” they might have done it and not remember, or they might think, “Oh, this person wants me to say yes, maybe I look bad if I don’t say yes.” Death is something we really understand extremely well.
A rebuttal to this week’s New Yorker article by Paul Bloom who contends empathy is worse than useless. Michael Zakaras, in HuffPo, notes:
(E)mpathy is an often irrational emotional response that plays favorites, he says. It is thus a poor mechanism for solving real problems and making tough choices — whether distributing international aid or making sacrifices today so that we don’t warm our planet to oblivion tomorrow. It’s empathy, he suggests, that explains why we are captivated by individual stories and numb to statistics.
Zakaras takes Bloom’s argument apart, saying he misses a critical point – empathy is as much a cognitive process as it is an emotional and physiological one.
“Empathy,” writes Paul Bloom in The New Yorker this week, “is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate. We’re often at our best when we’re smart enough not to rely on it.” We’d be better off were we to supplant our flawed empathetic sensibilities with reason (that most flawless of human capacities).
We reported weeks ago on a humorous campaign by UNICEF asking people to stop liking them on Facebook and just send money – “Like Us on Facebook and We’ll Vaccinate ZERO Children Against Polio.” Now here’s a report that says “FB likes” may be worse than useless.
Facebook allows people to connect around issues they care about: Help this dog! Save this historic landmark! Cure cancer now! It takes just one little click of the thumbs up to show support. But recent research shows that this kind of “slacktivism”-easy online activism-could actually decrease how much people donate to their pet causes.