Monday, 30 June 2014

GIS and Poverty Reduction: Part 2 (Map Kibera)

In Part 1 I provided a brief explanation of what a GIS is and what it does. I'll focus here more on what a GIS is capable of within a poverty-reduction framework, with some examples where applicable. It is important to emphasize that I:
 a) do not assume that any technological tool can alone remove poverty;
 b) do not want to further enhance the dichotomies that exist international development studies by emphasizing rural/urban, North/South 

What really sparked my interest in this topic is a project which was launched in 2009 by  Penn State called Map Kibera, seen in the video above. This ambitious project involved the residents of one of the largest slums in the world in Nairobi, Kenya to map out, and create household and geographic data of the entire city.

There's a few reasons why this project is so much more than providing a detailed map of pathways and roads in the area. It makes those residents that were previously invisible on a map visible; it marks the beginnings of land-rights reforms, it allows services to be measured and provided (or enhanced); and, finally,  it can help to identify where change can begin to happen.

It is not the software itself that can bring forth poverty alleviation, it is how the software is used, who is using and for what purpose they are using it. In this case, simple digitization efforts by hard working individuals in a community created a wealth of new options and choice, efforts that are currently being replicated around the world. I'll continue to explore how a GIS can help in the fight against poverty, but giving people the power of being formally recognized is an excellent place to start.

Ignore the past, doomed to repeat it...

The heavy costs of cheap clothing: Bangladesh
A story in the NYT brought home an important point that we cannot forget while we continue to consume freely: there are much more costly implications involved in buying that sale item than the runway would suggest. I'm not writing this to induce feelings of guilt when it comes to consumption in wealthy nations. Guilt doesn't promote change, and if it does it's for the wrong reasons.  If we consider the current levels of environmental and human disaster occurring in the manufacturing centres of the Global South to bear equivalence to the industrial revolutions' human rights travesties, then we have a problem. If we justify our current methods of production, consumption and environmental destruction by claiming that it is a part of growth, a part of a nations' way of becoming developed we are committing a fundamental crime: we are blatantly ignoring the past. Our short-sighted society can hardly see itself a week or year from now into the future, but to ignore what has already happened, and what we know the solution to, is ignorance in its most pure form. Whereas consumer habits are unlikely to change anytime in the near future at the risk of an impending economic meltdown caused by not growing and consuming and wasting, the change should be coming straight from the source. The big players in the field need to be criminally held responsible for not upholding the rights and laws that are in place, because if they're not being upheld by them, they won't be by anyone.
Source: Khaled Hasan, NYT
There is nothing new when it comes to organizations' being very easy to pat themselves on the back for a 'sustainable' plan being implemented, but very little being accomplished at the structural level. Most CSR policies don't extend out of the country of main consumer bases, and plenty of organizations don't know how, where, or by whom their products are being created. A very sobering investigation by the Guardian revealed the horrific conditions that slaves are held to in the Thai fisheries industry shows how little companies know about their product chains.

The argument is that by upholding workers' and environmental laws the cost of good will increase, hence decrease consumption and hurt the economy. The idea that these mega-corporations can't absorb the necessary costs to make their operations legal is ridiculous and nauseating.  So don't feel guilty when you buy that shirt you don't need, just don't buy it in the first place.The right for clean water and respectable living conditions cannot be determined by a companies' unwillingness to comply TO A LAW. When state's don't have the will or the power to implement international labour laws or allow for the effective unions to be formed it is in my opinion the burden of those who are most exploiting the workers to step in: and these are the companies working there.While international carbon footprinting and waste standards are being developed and used by large organizations effectively would it be an effective next step to begin exploring how a 'human rights standard' or 'workers rights standard' could be built? for the private sector, a private company would be best at creating and monitoring this standard. Leave some thoughts below about what things you think this should include, and who you think should be the one's monitoring and giving this standard.

Friday, 27 June 2014

GIS and Poverty Reduction: Part 1

While I often cringe at the idea of technological solutions to poverty, there is one I am profoundly interested in exploring further, and that technology is Geographic Information Sciences, Systems and Studies. A disclaimer would first be appropriate: I am still a student in GIS and development, and as such do not claim to know everything on these two subjects. A GIS is "an integrated collection of computer software and data used to view and manage information about geographic places, analyze spatial relationships, and model spatial processes" (Esri, 2014), and as such it has immense implications for fighting poverty. I will explain this definitions further, and once we have a better under

"manage information about geographic places": Every aspect of our lives is in one way or another dictated by our geographic location and the circumstances that are affiliated with these locations. The sheer size of information involved with geographic locations requires explicit decisions to be made regarding what will be managed, and what will be ignored, and this aspect brings on other implications in itself.
"analyze spatial relationships": A GIS allows one to actively manage and analyze what processes take place regarding these locations, and how the relationships of structures and objects interact and influence each other within and between locations. Unlike aspatial data and information which works according to underlying principles of independence between variables, spatial relationships are NOT independent, and as such influence each other.
"model spatial relationships": A model is a representation of something that cannot be fully replicated because of complexity, cost or a wide variety of reasons. Models can used as a means of predicting future or current events based upon historical trends and existing data. As mentioned in point 1, models are instantly biased in that every influencing factor cannot be replicated or included, and the user must therefore make decisions as to what will be left out of the analysis.

These definitions are my interpretations of Esri's definition of a GIS, which itself carries some controversy. With this understanding of GIS as a complex tool capable of managing vast quantities of data, and providing visual and graphical representations of processes on the surface of the planet, we can look a little further at what it can do. 

Environmental Studies and Analysis: A powerful aspect of a GIS is the capabilities regarding environmental variables. A simple example of this could be using combined data, satellite and remote sensing imagery to measure deforestation in an area, and how it will progress with a "business as usual" scenario through a constructed model.

Network Analysis: An effective tool that allows for, you guessed it, network analysis. Networks are interconnected sets of points and lines that represent routes from one location to another, such as a pipeline, road, or even a social network between people. Common tools for this could be determining the best location for an emergency facility, a new store, or finding the best route to deliver goods.

Urban Analysis: While not being a separate toolset within most GIS platforms, urban analysis is (to me) one of the most awesome ways that a GIS can be used. Determining a new bus route, what roads can support new bike lanes, where new buildings or stores can be placed, determining market segments, population centres or any other wide array of things are just some of the urban analyses that can be completed.

Now that we have a better idea of what a GIS is, we can start to see how an analytical geographic approach  can fight something as real, cold, and ugly as poverty, which will be followed up with in Part 2.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Indian development: What is going on?

Being one of the most important figures both living and dead in international development and economics circles, Amartya Sen has again teamed up with Jean Dr├Ęze to release a book on the status of "India's defective development". In an interview with Guardian Global Development, Dr. Sen emphasizes his use of comparison to other countries as a wake-up call to the apathetic middle and upper classes in India.  The relevance of the release couldn't be more apt in light of a tragedy in an Indian school which resulted in the deaths of 22 children because of a tainted free meal, followed by local protest of burning police vehicles and tearing the school kitchen down. With the largest slums in the planet within and around all of its cities, and rural poverty levels equivalent to the poorest countries in the world, it's hard to believe that India is one of the largest emerging markets in the world, with an ever-increasing GDP per capita. Growth without equality continues to be one of the most pressing issues the world is facing in the 21st century, and countries in the North and South need to acknowledge the importance of spreading wealth evenly. Regardless of where you live or how your countries' overall economic standing is, wealth redistribution needs to occur at some level or other not only as a means of increasing healthcare, educational and economic standards, but as a tool for stemming corruption and increasing citizen involvement in local and national affairs.

Think about it this way: how do you expect someone in Canada to participate in society in the slightest ways if they have to work two part-time jobs to cover living expenses alone? It's the same inequality faced by the rural poor known as being "time-poor"; needing to spend hours getting water, or walking to school, or to a market... it is an inequality that is inherited unless state actors take part in ending the cycle. In India the state has not been nearly as active as its powerful neighbor to the North in changing the circumstances of its' poorest population, and by not adequately providing for the future India may just be setting itself up for problems that will be much more difficult to solve in 20 years then they can be today.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

#SWEDOW and Voluntourists

SWEDOW, or, "Stuff We Don't Want" is often written about in the development community referring to well-meaning people sending useless, often demeaning things to developing countries under the guise of development. The worst examples include sending used bras to Malaysia "give a lift to women", old shoes to Africa or "little dresses for Africa". I don't want to get into why this model is wrong, it is skillfully written about by, Weh Yeoh, and Tom Murphy on several occasions. If there was a discourse built around SWEDOW, I would argue that voluntourism and related activities would fall under its' broader umbrella, and that what is considered to be 'voluntourism' is, indeed something that is not wanted and can often be useless, harmful, and degrading.

It is a task too large to tackle, but I will try to generalize here what the main issues are, and why voluntourism is most definitely SWEDOW.

      1. It undermines long-term, structural development efforts in the same way that TOMS shoes and others provide economically unviable, quick fix models for structural issues.
      2. It may be hard to believe, but untrained, privileged children and young adults are not qualified for construction work, social work or even to play football. This Huff Post article tells the story of a rich white girl going to build a library in Tanzania which resulted in their shoddy workmanship needing to be entirely re-finished by locals every night after they went to sleep. 
      3. It has been proven time and time again in development discourse that the minimum time required to be working in a single area is six months, which is even too short. Kids going to work for 2 weeks (or less) or desperately short of this goal.
      4. This type of SWEDOW further perpetuates ideas of people in developing countries as being lazy, unknowledgeable and dependent on outsiders.
These issues barely scratch the surface of everything that is wrong with voluntourism, and related activities. We can start by shutting down "great" programs like ME to WE which are to development what inactive pools of water are to fighting malaria.