Monthly Archives: January 2012

Gauging Women’s Well-being

I checked on the indicator I’ve been using, Women’s Proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments (%) this morning and found that the 2011 numbers had not yet been uploaded. As I’ve been updating these numbers for the New Year, I’ve also been looking at the indicators I’ve chosen. In the case of gauging women’s well-being, I would ultimately like to get the figures of how much of the wealth of any particular country is realistically controlled by the women of that country. (Though I don’t believe wealth alone is the perfect indicator of empowerment, it is about as close as I believe you can get.) That measure doesn’t exist yet so I will have to keep looking and, in the meantime, women’s participation levels in their governments will have to do.

But this exploration always brings up a difficult question. There are many women who do not believe they should have the rights and privileges as men. This came home to me after seeing an article on the “honor” deaths of four women in one family in Canada. The husband, second wife (the marriage was polygamous), and son felt completely justified in murdering the father’s three daughters and first wife, because the women were acting “dishonorably” in the frame of traditional tribal Islamic laws. (They were also from Afghanistan which possibly still has the most repressive laws in the world regarding women’s rights.)

But this is what they believe in with all their heart. Who are we to impose our belief systems on other countries?

Although the above example is a very stark example, there are millions of other less-defined examples that we, as a planet face. (Consider the current French debate on headscarves for one.)

Over 100 years ago, in colonial India, a British colonel, Charles James Napier, was confronted with this kind of situation, when Hindu priests complained to him about the British ban on “sati” or the traditional burning alive of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre. His response, as recounted by his brother was:

“Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.”

I find myself, though I truly wish to respect other cultures’ customs, siding with the Colonel’s sentiments in the majority of today’s instances of women’s rights violations. “Culture” is not an excuse.

Thanks for stopping by,

Heather McC

PS. There aren’t too many examples on the planet today, but occasionally, the men need to have their rights respected by women. Balance, it’s all about balance!

Unemployment and Entrepreneurs

Sometimes I just don’t know what to make of the numbers or, really, the lack of them. I’ve been using the World Bank’s figures for a while now for several of my indicators but was very disappointed when I checked yesterday and found that the unemployment figures have yet to be updated from 2009. So, off to Wikipedia, and their page on global unemployment, which largely seem to come from the CIA (perhaps unsurprisingly a rather good source of data). One good thing about these numbers is that there are more of them for more countries. One bad thing is that they aren’t always reliable. Also, data on unemployment for most of the countries on the African continent seems to be almost non-existent and I’m pretty sure there are people working there. (C’mon, World Bank, get your act together! Why can’t you or anyone else provide this data?!)

Anyway, putting aside my on-going (and sorry, probably boring) frustration with available, accurate data, I was surprised to see how slightly the numbers actually moved. Despite the media’s consistent declaration of an impending economic apocalypse, this doesn’t seem to be happening. Yes, many countries are down, and many people are out of work, but there are lots of people still working and increasingly, at least in the U.S., if you can’t find a job working for someone else, you can always create your own. (I am noticing this not just in the broader economy but also with my friends, who are starting up micro-crafts businesses on Etsy, delving into network marketing, and just generally hustling and bustling!)

One of the least appreciated (as well as most difficult) ways to really make a difference in the world is to help create jobs and foster the entrepreneurial spirit, not just in the U.S. but all across the world. One of my favorite “charity” websites is Kiva which is firmly rooted in this philosophy of helping people help themselves.  (There are more and more of these kinds of organizations, termed “social businesses” by the founder of micro-finance, Muhammad Yunus.)  Kiva allows people all over the world to lend very small amounts of money to entrepreneurs all over the world, helping get small businesses started. The money is then paid back and can be re-circulated to the next entrepreneur.

With the media’s usual focus on huge corporations, I am increasingly impressed by the numbers of smaller businesses that manage to not only spring up, but keep going, and even thrive. Maybe the lack of unemployment data just shows that the powers that be haven’t figured out how to show that lots of people are working, but in new and unconventional ways.

Thanks for stopping by,

Heather McC

Internet Access and the “Arab Spring”

I’ve now updated my “Internet Access” data and was happy (but not surprised) to see the number of people able to access the internet globally increase by quite  a bit. The numbers, however, are still from 2010 and I suspect that in 2011, they will have really started climbing. (I’m looking for reliable data on this but haven’t stumbled across any yet — can’t wait till I do!)

Though most of the countries increased by just a few percentage points, there were some standouts; Bosnia (around 15% increase), Chile (11%), Croatia (10%), the Dominican Republic (almost 14%), Israel (15%), Panama (15%) and Qatar (almost 40%!).

(There were also some inexplicable declines especially in Europe which I can only assume were earlier corrections of data, i.e., Iceland decreased from 98% to 95.8%. The Ukraine also declined from 33% to 22.8%. Not sure at all what this means but overall global numbers went up which makes more sense. Maybe problems with cost started to become an issue in some of the European countries where this seemed to be happening most.)

One country that stands out particularly in the rapid transition to an internet-connected population, is Kenya, which went from 10% to 25.9% of their population having access to their internet by the end of 2010. And this ties in to one very interesting aspect of internet connection which is the degree to which it has allowed for the coordination of political opposition. (I’m pretty sure the numbers of internet-connected citizens in the “Arab Spring” countries will have gone up by quite a lot during 2011.) Kenyans used the internet extremely effectively to spread the word about politically motivated brutal attacks in post-election violence in 2007-2008.

Could the increase in internet access across Africa signal an “African Spring,” and the overthrow of some of the seemingly-unmovable “dictators for life”? As the African continent connects to the rest of the world with impressive alacrity, not only will we find out, we’ll see every moment.

Thanks for stopping by,

Heather McC

Education Index

Last night I updated my global “Education” numbers with more recent data (2011!) from the UN’s Development Programme site, and was at first extremely disappointed to see a decline across the board. (I actually had to walk away from the computer for a bit!) However, after closer examination, I realized that the data model I had been using previously (from Wikipedia’s entry on the U.N. Education Index) had been updated to reflect a more ambitious target including secondary education.

I’m still a bit ambivalent about these numbers — I just really didn’t want to see them go down, sometimes by as much as 20% — but am slowly accepting that the higher goal of universal secondary school education is admirable. So, I’m hopeful that, going forward, we will see increases. (Except for New Zealand which is at 100%!) I also want to delve further into these numbers to find out exactly what they mean and how they are being measured. (And if any of my education friends out there have any thoughts or opinions on measuring education attainment globally, I would love to hear them!)

Children at Divine Hope school near Jinja, Uganda

Sometimes, it’s just good to take a step back to get some perspective. In 2008, my friend Alan Locke invited me to go to Uganda to be a part of opening a clinic there that he had helped fund. He had also helped found and supports two schools which provide education to HIV/AIDS orphans, and which currently enroll around 1,000 children, after starting a few years ago in a hut with about 40 kids. (The charity is AROH and you can find out more at the website we’ve created. I will be talking about them more — my Uganda trip was a lifetime of learning experiences!) Anyway, we handed out pencils to the kids (they’re more practical there than pens) and it will always amaze me that, when we went back the next day, a lot of the kids were still holding those pencils — they were like gold because they offered the promise of education and a better life.

So, as much as I worry about the future of the world sometimes, I also remember those kids and their absolute determination to get an education, and that is an encouraging thought.

Thanks for stopping by,

Heather McC

Infant “Un-Mortality” Rates Improving

I’ve been looking forward to updating these numbers for a while now and finally had the chance last night. I’d been using this information from Wikipedia (btw, if you are trying to access this and any other Wikipedia site on Wednesday, Jan. 18 you may not get through because they’ve gone on “strike” for the day), but was really excited when Unicef released new numbers finally. The 2010 numbers are available in their Child Mortality Report 2011. (It’s in pdf format so you’ll need Adobe Reader.) One more technical note: in keeping with my positive take on my quest for 100%, I am subtracting the infant mortality rate from 10. (So it’s really an “Infant Survivability” or maybe “Infant Un-mortality” rate!)

What I found was just astonishing, and truly good news. Almost every single country listed had an increase, even if it was only a tenth of a percent! The European countries, which already have extremely low infant mortality rates, even improved, especially in Eastern Europe. (Oddly, most seemed to settle at 99.7% for some reason.)

Latin American, Asian, but most especially African countries all seemed to improve with a few standouts:

  • The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) actually improved 1% despite the horrible and continuing conflict there. (I am amazed at the commitment and strength of women and medical personnel to saving children’s lives there that this reflects.)
  • Liberia and Zambia improved almost 5%.
  • Malawi and Rwanda did improve by 5%.
  • And even Sierra Leone, which has been wracked with conflict showed an improvement of almost 2%.

From the report, “Since 1990 the global under-five mortality rate has dropped 35 percent—from 88 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 57 in 2010.  Northern Africa, Eastern Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, South-eastern Asia, Western Asia and the developed regions have reduced their under-five mortality rate by 50 percent or more.”

We still have a ways to go, 21,000 children under 5 dying every day, is still way too many. but, according to the report, the rate of decline has accelerated. We are getting there! Wouldn’t it be amazing if we were to see this rate get to 99.99% Survivability within our lifetimes?

Thanks for stopping by,

Heather McC

PS. A quick addition/caveat to this post after perusing the news some more over the week. With recent global food prices increasing and some severe food shortages in some countries (especially East Africa), I am less optimistic that infant mortality rates will show a decline in 2011. Another concern which has also come up is the possibility that some countries are under-reporting infant mortality but, with global transparency increasing, I am hopeful that this will occur less and less over time.