Poverty Map, Rhino Hunting, Coffee, Kenyan Girls; LIL


Links I Liked:

1. The Times posted this interactive map a couple weeks ago, showing poverty levels across the United States.

2. A controversial Rhino Hunting license just became available for black rhinos, an endangered species.

3. Common Mistakes when Brewing Coffee – for a self-acclaimed coffee lover this taught me a few things.

4. Shattering Rape Culture in Kenya

Piranhas, Super Powers, Ivory, South Sudan; LIL

Photograph by Rennett Stowe

Links I Liked:

In the Chris Blattman style I have decided to add to this blog the occasional posted links that I have found interesting, informative, or simply beautiful. And as always a photo from the natural world will be included at the top.

1. Borrowed from Blattman’s page: The Truth about Piranhas

2. Most Beautiful Villages from Around the World

3. Super Powers Illustrated Chart

4. China Destroys 6 Tons of Illegal Ivory

5. The Best Article on the Current Conflict in South Sudan that I have read thus far.


“Religions and Babies”


Speaking on religion when it comes to fertility rates is touchy. Often individuals and governments do not like to hear the studies that conclude certain religions may be the cause of more or less children per woman. But in a TED talk on Religions and Babies, Hans Rosling argues that religions do not play into fertility rates trends at all. In fact, it is these four factors that lower fertility rates –

“Babies per Woman decrease when…
1. Children survive
2. Many children are not needed for work
3. Women get education and join the labor force
4. Family planning is accessible”

As is often the case, I couldn’t agree more with Rosling. These four factors, particularly the survival of children, have been proven to reduce fertility rates. Not coincidently, these factors occur as countries better develop their healthcare systems and bustling economies. As infant mortality rates drop, the use of child labor in the household becomes less necessary. And as women get proper education and employment opportunities along with accessibility to family planning methods, households feel less pressure and less responsibility to have many children.

Rosling’s theory on a future population plateau aligns with most speculations, arguing in very simple terms (through his favorite visual tool of boxes) that as counties with high numbers of babies per woman further develop, fertility rates will slow and eventually meet those that are already at replacement levels. Thus these dropping rates will create a world population plateau somewhere around 9 billion.

But I must disagree with him that religion and fertility rates have no correlation. While this doesn’t contradict the theory on future replacement levels, it may slow down the timeframe in which Rosling proposes global replacement levels will be reached. The number of babies per woman is weighted by cultural norms and community pressures. When the average number of babies per woman in a small town in Somalia hovers around 7, young women and new mothers see this as the expected standard. And unquestionably in the countries with the highest fertility rates, such as Niger, Mali, Uganda, Afghanistan, South Sudan, etc., religion still has an enormous influence on culture and societal expectations. If practices such as polygamy or the lack of use of contraception remain common conventions in certain religions, areas that densely practice these religions will continue to see higher fertility rates, arguably adding a fifth factor to the above list affecting babies per woman: breaking out of traditional, societal expectations.

And of course here’s Gapminder to replicate the data graphs from the video above and play around with different data sets as well!

World Population Changes


The Washington Post, using data from the UN population fund, posted a map and related article that I found highly telling of the global population trends.

“Countries need to grow in order to stay healthy and successful, but not too quickly or they risk problems like political instability.”


‘Blue countries have growing populations; red countries are shrinking. Purple are growing slowly or not at all. Data source: United Nations Population Fund.’ The numbers include data both births, deaths, and migration. The estimates naturally do not account for wars, natural disasters, etc.

What this article is quick to point out is that the most important region here is Sub-Saharan Africa, which you can see is noticeably darker than the rest of the map. What the Post also points out is that a high number of the births in Sub-Saharan countries are from mothers between the age of 9 and 15, which proves often to be too young an age to support a child because of the health risks, and the mother is usually giving up an education.

For some reference to where these population changes may lead, particularly in that very blue continent, check out this post on The African Spring. Then see below the info-graphic on trends by continent (mostly predictions).

Screen Shot 2013-12-15 at 12.32.03 PM

The African Spring

Cheetahs running. Namibia

You may notice a trend of this page focusing on fertility rates and population growth. While there isn’t quite the same ‘sky is falling’ syndrome that may have gripped Thomas Malthus’ writing, he was not crazy to worry. Population is increasing at a rate like it never has in human history. In the roughly 5-6 million years that hominini have existed on earth, never had the population exceeded 1 billion until the early 1800s. Since then – explosion. We’ve now rounded 7 billion.

There are expert hopes and reports of a plateau to this growth curve. I would agree with them, for as developing countries have shown, once certain levels of healthcare, social security, and quality of life are reached then fertility rates usually drop to very near replacement levels (2.1). But you can bet there are going to be some bumps in the road before the world reaches stability. Where are these bumps going to come from? The biggest one may be Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Arab Spring (which lasted much longer than a spring) erupted almost entirely unexpectedly to the international community. While politics and deep-seeded resentments helped fuel the region-wide uprisings, it was ultimately the energy, resentment, coordination, and chaos of the youth in these countries that allowed for such tumultuous insurgencies. Often these youth were un- or underemployed and fed up with their nation’s current system of governance.

Because of my current residence in Uganda, it will unfortunately be made the example of. Out of Uganda’s population of roughly 37 million, 60 percent is under the age of 18. Teen pregnancies, recorded for those between the ages of 13 and 17, are at 24 percent. And fertility rates show little sign of slowing, staying steady at 6.4 children per woman. These are astonishing figures. And while relatively high, they won’t sound shocking to most Sub-Saharan Africans. Need more confirmation? Visit Lagos. Then you may start to see into the future.

Africa’s population of over a billion is expected to double in the next 40 years, accounting for half of global population growth. Meanwhile, Sub-Saharan Africa is still home to some of the world’s most questionable and corrupt leaders, many of whom do not strike hope into their citizens for the future.

Economic and social development are absolutely occurring in Uganda and many similar countries in SSA. But currently it seems children are aging faster than progress can spread, resulting in massive unemployment due to lack of proper infrastructure and industrial development. This year the IMF research conference made a point of showcasing the damages and long-term effects of large scale unemployment. The conclusions were that they are severe.  So what happens in Uganda and similar countries in 2020 when these now adults all enter the job market and the crickets are chirping? If government structure doesn’t drastically change to accommodate, then the prediction here is something very similar to the Arab Spring. But on an even greater scale.

It is true that some nations are more vulnerable than others, and in repetition this page is not attempting to say that the ‘sky is falling’ on an entire region. Sub-Saharan Africa has proven to be innovative and surprising when it comes to transitional periods. But expect a few chaotic blips on the radar as half a continent’s youth grow up to a very unfair global division of wealth and powers.

First Impressions of Kampala


Spending four months in Kampala, Uganda means a brief hiatus from all but the most internationally pressing news stories – but opens up a unique opportunity at researching much of the new international development.

Two things stand out immediately – unorganized and unfinished infrastructure exists throughout the capital city, and political and corporate corruption runs rampant with little to no shame on the part of the perpetrators.  As far as infrastructure goes, street signs exist almost nowhere – since most residential roads are unplanned and unpaved. Thus they are susceptible to an inevitable cycle of overuse and erosion – making many roads only accessible by boda bodas (motorbikes). At the same time, boda boda riots and protests are on the rise due to the government trying to get them registered, meaning the sight of a hundred screaming motorbike riders waving clubs and popping wheelies is becoming common.

Dishearteningly, the corruption is just as blatant as the lack of infrastructural organization. Just today the bus I was taking home illegally pulled over next to where a policeman was resting at a prime location to pick up customers in an area called Wandegeya. The cop shuffled over, took a small bribe from the conductor, and walked back to his post with no words exchanged. The bus then proceeded to steal all of the potential customers from the bus stage a few meters down the way. I’ve been told that such is common, and bribes are often expected from citizens who may or may not be committing minor infractions. I’ve also been told that a police salary is rarely over $150, perhaps shedding light on why such issues exist.

To further demonstrate corruption, let me share a popular joke that a development PhD shared with us on the first day: “A Kenyan and an Ugandan went to University together in Europe to study economics and business. After many years of work they returned to their home countries with important contacts for building locally. After a few years – the Ugandan went to visit his old friend in Kenya. Upon arrival, the Ugandan couldn’t believe the wealth of his friend! His house was so big, his land was so vast, and his wife was so beautiful! So he asked his friend – ‘How did you acquire so much??’ The Kenyan took his friend to a hill and pointed down – ‘See that highway?’ The Ugandan found the highway nodded. The Kenyan patted his chest – ’50 percent.’ The Kenyan had siphoned off 50 percent of the project budget for his own gain with none the wiser. A couple of years after this, the Kenyan then visited his friend in Uganda. Much to his surprise, he arrived to find that his friend possessed even more wealth than himself – having several large houses, several cars, and several beautiful wives. The Kenyan asked his friend ‘How did you acquire so much??’ The Ugandan took his friend to a hill and pointed – ‘See that airport runway?’ The Kenyan studied the land but couldn’t find a runway. He shook his head. The Ugandan grinned and patted his chest – ‘100 percent.’

Though hyperbole, the joke is a bit too true in a world where aid and development money is often disappearing in the pockets of both ex-pats and local project leaders. Expert consultants may take half of a project’s budget, local experts and government officials may take another 20 percent, and then construction crews or local hires may take sneak away another 10, leaving only 20 percent of the original budget for the entire project to be completed. Thus you can see partially completed structures and buildings scattered throughout Kampala – memorials of an attempt to improve the city’s efficiency but deserted when the funds dried up. Meanwhile, the effects of high fertility rates and rapid population growth are obvious in a society that is expanding at the seams and is visibly ready to burst.


At this point there are thus three things I am considering researching for my independent study project, all of which framed by looking at economic incentives. The first is the extraction and exportation of oil in Uganda and the resulting effects for the national economy. The second is the finances of game parks in Uganda – and the government incentives for keeping them open or expanding them, as well as how much of the foreign investment actually leaks into the local economy. The last idea I had was to study the fertility rate trends in Uganda,  both in rural and urban areas, and determine the cultural and economic reasons behind its fertility rates in addition to predicting what it means for the future of a nation when over 60 percent of its population is under the age of 18.

“Cowboy Capitalists” Depicts Lucrative African Situation


One of the most recent VICE NEWS episodes entitled “Cowboy Capitalists” follows the excitement of an American entrepreneur and his imported truck drivers as they fulfill a contract to bring U.N. construction vehicles from Johannesburg to Juba, South Sudan. The intrigue of the story lies in the mass of corruption and red tape that these men have to trudge through on the long journey north. At one point one of the trucks gets smashed by a drunk driver from behind, and the local police release the drunk while threatening to impound the truck. At another instance a truck was pulled over for being a meter too wide, and offloaded for almost a week under little or no regulation.


Throughout the journey, the drivers are constantly stopped and inspected by the police of the numerous nations they pass though, and they have to talk their way out of some sticky situations. All the way through they are also dealing with very worn, out-of-date machinery, and they need to constantly monitor and fix the mechanics of their trucks, including stuffing bananas into the axel for lubrication.


The story of the trip in itself is an interesting one, but perhaps not worth the long documentary. The message of the full length episode, however, is what really caught my interest. The name itself – ‘Cowboy Capitalists’ – gives a great impression of the attitudes that these entrepreneurs who are looking to make it big in the “unchartered continent” have. Ian Cox, the entrepreneur in charge of this contract who has spent many years working in Sudan and other nearby nations, shares his interpretation of the vast lands of Africa; they are unchartered territories for business development. In the true spirit of capitalism, and seeing themselves as modern day cowboys in the only wild west left in the world, these men have moved to Africa to strike it rich through sweat and hard work.

It is all highly romanticized and thoroughly interesting from an economic development lens. Deep down I hope that what becomes of such interactions are win-win relationships for local economies and the western cowboys, but my gut tells me otherwise.

Clashes and Displacement in South Sudan


The remote, eastern state of the most recently acknowledged nation, South Sudan, is experiencing growing “ethnic and tribal clashes.” What does this mean? Unfortunately it seems as if the violence goes beyond the feuding tribes of the Lou Nuer and the Murle. In fact, there have been several reports of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army’s troops attacking civilians, (the same guerrilla army that claimed initial independence for South Sudan).

It seems that the root cause of the deteriorating situation in Jonglei is that there is “tribal tension, a lot of history of bad blood, and a rebellion on top of it.” As of now “more than 100,000 people have been displaced,” and are being labeled internally displaced persons for the time being, as opposed to refugees who have crossed an international border. “Officials describe a desperate situation in which tens of thousands of people are hiding in swamps, without food, water or medicine — fearful of returning to their villages because of attacks by rival tribes or even soldiers who are supposed to be protecting them.”


The great problem that the United States and other Western nations are having is that they have “poured billions of dollars into South Sudan” into an attempt to turn the oil-rich land into a more stable and amicable nation, but now the government, army, and stability that they invested in are crumbling. Therefore the U.S. and other supportive nations are in a predicament, forced to decide whether or not to publicly criticize a system that they assisted in creating. The current violence in Jonglei “threatens to destabilize the country and tatter the credibility of its fledgling, American-backed government.” The United States up unto this point “has strongly supported the South Sudan government, led by Salva Kiir, a leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.” But is appears that President Kiir just last week dismissed his vice president and his entire cabinet, who “threatened to challenge him for his party’s leadership before elections in 2015.” He has taken a position that foreign officials fear most; he is becoming power-hungry and rogue.

So when the United States “National Security Council, the most buttoned-up part of a buttoned-up Obama administration, is aggressively trying to get the word out about a violent, murky conflict in a distant land, it’s worth listening to.” There is serious violence and displacement taking place in the world’s newest nation, indicating real problems for the development of the Western world endorsed country.

World Population Shifts, 1950 to 2050


The World Bank Dataviz blog (through the Economist) has produced yet another prediction graphic that has immediately become one of my favorites-


At the top is a percentage change forecast of population from present day up until 2050 by world region. Africa’s population change is spiking with its high fertility rates and decreasing child mortality rates, surpassing Asia with the population giants of India and China in rate of change. Europe, by this time, is expected to see negative population growth, as some northern European nations are already experiencing.

“The world in 1950 looked very different from how it does now. Europe was home to 22% of the world’s 2.5 billion people. Germany, Britain, Italy and France all counted among the 12 most populous countries. But strong economic growth in Asia coupled with high fertility rates in Africa have contributed to a big regional shift in the global population.”

Below the rate of change graph is a remarkable chart of the most populous nation within the 50 year intervals, color-coded by region. As would be assumed with the knowledge of the above graph, the blue of European nations quickly disappears as it is replaced by the yellow of Asia in the current year. Then the yellow is subsequently replaced by more of the red of Africa by 2050.

The world is changing. Rapidly. And it is important for people to understand where the trends of population are heading, for these trends predict where substantial development and social change is to take place. It would be best for the world to be a step ahead with these developments, as opposed to needing to shamefully catch up.

The Underrepresentation of a Continent


Today a colleague was discussing their success in starting a program aimed at teaching young students about the importance and relevance of science, designed to inspire them to pursue scientific careers. His argument was that there was a contemporary gap between citizens and science, and that it’s a shame people aren’t more interconnected to such an integral part of the world today. His words got me thinking- I have experienced the same frustration, but with a different focus. I think that a thorough grasp of geography, including not only knowledge of maps but also how humans and the natural world interact with an area, is vitally important. And time and time again it seems that Americans struggle with the geography of one area in particular: Sub Saharan Africa.


The website Sporcle is known for its addictive quizzes, some of which are focused on geography. Usually, users must name all countries of a continent on a map.  But a new version was just created for Africa, where you can correctly guess with just THREE letters of a COUNTRY name. Underneath the quiz heading was the playful retort – “This might the best we’ll ever do on an African country quiz.”

Why is it that Americans know so little about African geography, history, and culture? Why is it that even some of the most educated students still envision grass huts and tribal warfare when they think of African civilization? Why can’t we name countries, instead of resorting to a three letter abbreviation? In other words, what makes Africa the underrepresented continent in our classrooms? President Obama made his second trip as President to Sub-Saharan Africa last month, setting a long awaited bar of at least legitimate acknowledgement of the region. Let’s hope that this will be the start of a greater trend, and that in his second term the administration may actively pay more attention. More importantly though, let’s hope that Sub-Saharan geography and development become more prevalent in the education system.

My colleague’s work got me thinking – would it be possible to use his program as a template for a program addressing this issue?

If you’re not interested in geography and the complexity of the issues, you have no business being a change maker“- Ishmael Beah of Sierra Leone, made famous by his recounts of being a child soldier.