Month: November 2011

The 7 Billionth Question: Are We Missing the Point?

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Public residential buildings are seen in Po Lam, one of the “satellite towns” in Hong Kong, on September 14, 2011. This southern Chinese city is described as a concrete forest, famous for the number of high-rise commercial and residential towers. About 25 percent of the world’s tallest 100 residential buildings stand in the territory. (Reuters/Bobby Yip)

“Our world is one of terrible contradictions… Plenty of food but one billion people go hungry. Lavish lifestyles for a few, but poverty for too many others.”

-          UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon 31st Oct 2011

Just two minutes before midnight on the 31st of October 2011, in the crowded Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital in Manila Philippines, the tiny Danica May Camacho was born. A few thousand kilometres away in Mall village Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, Baby Nargis was born at 07:25 local time (01:55GMT). Both babies along with several others around the world have been identified as seven billionth babies, marking the 7 billion milestone of the world’s population identified by the United Nations. This staggering and somewhat fascinating massive surge in global population has brought to the fore many issues primarily bordering on the consequences of the growing population on global resources and impact on the environment. The question is that is this really a problem and does this really signal a population crisis? If so will the proposed measures actually address this problem?

Global population has been on a dramatic and rapid increase in the last two centuries. In the late 18th century when the renowned British economist and clergyman, Reverend Thomas Malthus famously remarked that “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”, or in other words, that the geometric increase in global population would far outstrip the arithmetic increase in food production. Since then, the world’s population  reached 1 billion in 1804,  hit 2 billion in 1927 after 123 years, then the pace accelerated to 3 billion in 1959, 4 billion in 1974, 5 billion in 1987, 6 billion in 1998  and now 7 billion in 2011 and counting. According to UN forecasts, the world would have more than 10 billion people by 2083.

While the bulk of this population increase is in developing countries, half of this population it is projected will come from Sub-Saharan Africa which already has the highest birth-rates and the deepest poverty in countries such as Niger, Burundi, Mali, Nigeria. As the driver of this population increase is fertility, Professor Jeffrey Sachs,  renowned development economist states that in such countries, families have 6-8 children on average while simultaneously in the developed world, fertility rates have reduced.

As global population increases, the world is not only becoming overcrowded according to some demographers, environmentalists and development economists, but also that finite and exhaustible global resources such as fossil fuels, soil fertility, forests, fisheries and ground water are being rapidly depleted. Thus there has been a corresponding increase in food scarcity, droughts, water shortages, competition for viable energy sources and environmental damage due to increased use of fossil fuels, pollution and deforestation.  Such experts state that food and most especially water shortages if not checked, could fuel political destabilization in developing countries.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the recent and still on going drought and famine in the horn of Africa which has affected over 11 million people in Somalia, parts of Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Uganda, regarded by the UNHCR as the worst humanitarian crisis of the region in 60 years. The growing phenomenon of “land grabbing” where companies in countries like Saudi Arabia, China and the UK acquire large hectares of land in places such as Ethiopia, Angola, Ghana, Madagascar, Ukraine and Sierra Leone  in order to capture water resources for large-scale agriculture and growing bio-fuel crops also lends credence to this argument, as it leaves subsistence farmers displaced, vulnerable and at the expense of these large corporations.

Most importantly, the persistence of poverty and underdevelopment in these developing countries as evidenced by lack of employment opportunities, increase in violent conflict over access to food, water and other economic opportunities and the prevalence of diseases like HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis are aggravated by a growing unmanaged population. The population density of large cities such as Lagos, Jakarta and Mumbai ensures that such diseases are easily spread.

Most of the solutions to arrest this population crisis proposed by the development experts revolve around family planning policies to be put in place by the government since the people in these countries are regarded as too poor and incapable of making such choices themselves. As Jeffrey Sachs argues, family planning would be available and the families would be expected to VOLUNTARILY choose to have fewer children which would be better for them and for their children as they would have better nutrition, better healthcare and greater opportunities of living better lives for “when they are very very poor, they need help to be able to have those choices”.

However, one cannot help wondering whether this issue is really being examined from the most pragmatic perspective. While indeed growing population is putting a strain on global resources, evidence shows that the rising population in developing countries has little bearing on the consumption of global resources. The UN Human Development Report (HDR) shows that 54% of global income goes to the richest 10% of the world’s population, while 2.5 billion people living on less than $2 a day or 40% of the world’s population receive only 5% of global income. The Economist reported in January 2011 that “the richest 1% of adults control 43% of the world’s assets; the wealthiest 10% have 83% of global assets while the bottom 50% have only 2%”. In fact according to The Guardian UK of the 23rd October 2011, one Briton has the carbon footprint of about 22 Africans. Even in terms of carbon emissions and pollution, it is mostly perpetrated by industries, firms and corporations of developed countries. As George Monbiot, an author and activist notes, in the face of western over-consumption criticising expanding population in developing countries means “blaming the victims”

Furthermore, overcrowding and population density typically abound in major cities in both the developed and the developing world. John Bongaarts of the New York-based Population Council notes that “most of that growth will be in Africa’s cities, and in those cities it will almost all be in slums where living conditions are horrible”. Thus, many small towns and rural areas in developing countries have large swathes of land which are sparsely populated and could accommodate millions of people easily. It is noteworthy that other factors such as rampant rural-urban migration account for the swelling population of many developing-country cities.  Conversely many developed economies in Europe, North America and even parts of East Asia are faced with shrinking birth rates and rapidly ageing populations notably Japan, Italy and Russia where birth rates are lower than replacement rates of less than 2.1 children per woman. In order to reverse this ageing population, countries like Russia have initiated a policy known as “mother capital” where women are paid about $10,000 to have more than one child albeit with little success. Thus, there seems to be plenty of space to fit everyone and more as it has even been argued that the entire 7 billion people of the earth could fit shoulder-to-shoulder in the city of Los Angeles, California.

At this point, a question worth asking is that if global population is putting a strain on global resources and threatening the earth’s delicate eco balance, should the most viable solution then, be embarking on projects of halting this growing population in developing countries through family planning? This is far from pragmatic, it is unsustainable, not to mention highly unfair for if as evidence shows, developing countries are not responsible for excessive over consumption of resources and the world still has space to accommodate so many more people, then why should people’s reproductive rights be interfered with? What assurances are there that some governments would not embark on over-zealous coercive depopulation measures such as India’s mass sterilisation campaign in the 1970s where thousands of men and women were forced to undergo vasectomy and tubal ligation respectively. Whole villages were reported to have been rounded up for sterilisation with a ruthless efficiency and it persists to this day, though to a much lesser extent.

The following pictures by professional freelance photographer and author Nick Rain, shot in December 2003, reveals the sordid story of the mass sterilization camps in India:

 In a remote part of India on the border with Nepal a local clinic managed to convince the local women to come enmasse to undergo sterilization to combat poverty. The women however were not aware how the crude operation would be carried out. The operation took place inside the dirty clinic with hundreds of women waiting like cattle to be operated on.Copyright: Nick Rain.

One by one the women were put on the operating table, the instrument used looked like a twelve inch metal tube with a sharp edge at one end. It was then forced into the womans stomach and the physician looked through the instrument and made what looked like a twist and a snip, a quick stich and a plaster and the women were dragged outside to recover on the grass. This operation is called Tubal Ligation. Copyright: Nick Rain.

In the face of deeply entrenched socio-cultural beliefs and values over reproductive rights in many developing countries, where children are regarded as a “blessing” from God and the inability to bear children easily leads to stigmatization, or in rural areas where children are still seen as a sign of wealth so that they can work on farms, it is quite unlikely that people can be reasonably convinced to drastically limit the number of children they bring into this world. Suspicion and allegations of covert Western support and prodding for coercive population control in developing countries does not help matters either given that wealthy countries like US from 1966 under President Lyndon Johnson, Japan, Sweden and UK have devoted large funds to reducing Third World birth rates. For example, in Peru, the government of former President Alberto Fujimori’s forced sterilization of hundreds of thousands of poor, rural Peruvians between 1995 and 2000 under a “public health” plan is reported to have been principally financed using funds from USAID, the Japanese Nippon Foundation, and later, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). In Nigeria there have been various controversies over alleged “covert” plans by global powers to sterilize women and control population.

With such facts, one could argue that the international community seems to be unrealistically putting undue emphasis on population and birth control in developing countries at the expense of more important issues such as providing greater opportunities for education and empowerment so that the poor and disadvantaged can have better opportunities in life, can be lifted out of poverty and contribute meaningfully to their communities’ development. Improving access to basic agriculture technologies for many people in the poorest countries whose livelihoods depend on subsistence farming is one way to reduce the threat of food scarcity. As research shows that women who finish at least secondary school are in a better position to make informed choices about their reproductive options and are more likely to plan for and have fewer kids that they can actually take care of, educating and empowering women should be the top priority. The growing youth population of many Sub Saharan countries such as Nigeria or Kenya where up to half the population is under 25 years old, regarded by experts as a “youth dividend” could fuel a productive surge if they are meaningfully engaged, trained, educated  and their potential utilized. It is very easy to envision how the potential of the teeming youth of Nigeria’s over 166 million people could be harnessed to revive the agriculture sector and to power desperately needed manufacturing and industrialization especially in the North.

Therefore, while world population especially in developing countries is growing at a rapid pace, a more realistic, pragmatic and sustainable approach needs to be taken by the development community in managing the situation by advocating for a balance in utilization and consumption of resources. Developing country governments in Sub Saharan Africa on their own part need to focus more on empowering their vibrant and dynamic people and orienting them towards more sustainable development.

P.S.

The video below is an episode of a show on Russia Today called Cross Talk, where current affairs are discussed. The debate in this episode centers around the population crisis debate.

Conrad Murray Found Guilty: CAN WE PLEASE MOVE ON!?

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To start with, I am one of those die-hard Michael Jackson fans. No, not the crazy, stalker-type fans with a Michael Jackson tribute-type-shrine and memorabilia gala tucked away somewhere in the corner of my room. No, I am just a normal, MJ-obsessed fan. However, I must say I wasn’t entirely shocked to watch the guilty verdict passed on Conrad Murray for involuntary manslaughter of the singer in June 2009. Surprisingly, I do not even have an opinion per se on the issue. I think I expected the guilty verdict anyways for there was a sense of desperation to blame Michael’s death on anyone, rightly or wrongly, especially by the media.

Frankly I am simply relieved the trial is over and done with, and that Michael Jackson will finally be allowed by the media in particular to finally rest in peace. The media scrutiny of his death, the horrible audio clips played in court of an allegedly drugged Michael struggling to make barely coherent speech in a slurred manner, photos of his naked corpse simply desecrated the image of the late King of Pop. It is for that reason that I never really bothered to follow the trial proceedings religiously, it was too painful to bear (did I just hear you chuckle!?). Maybe I am being overly emotional but it is absolutely despicable and sickening, and I feel I have a right to object to this, as an MJ fan (chuckling again, aren’t you?).

I cried profusely the day I learnt of Michael’s death in the early hours (GMT) of June 25th 2009, for it was a loss of great talent, I loved his songs. My parents loved his songs and my dad used to have lots of MJ LPs.  I think the love for MJ was passed on in my genes. I grew up listening to Michael Jackson’s songs as a child, especially songs like Black or White, Heal the World, Dirty Diana, Remember the Time in the early 90s; Earth Song, Stranger in Moscow, Blood on the DancefloorYou are Not Alone and Scream in the mid 90s. His clear and smooth vocals, and of course the killer dance-moves, especially the moon-walk was  second to none! I remember an unforgettable incident as a child in the early 90s when I was about 5 years old, an older family friend who knew how much I loved MJ asked me who I loved more between my mother and MJ. In answering the question, I hesitated a bit, I knew I loved my mum more but thought it would be way cooler to say I loved MJ more than my mum, so I said that… I cringe (with utter mortification) whenever I remember that incident.

Well, now that the trial is over, I and I am sure many other fans would like to remember Michael as the extremely talented superstar that he was, the Moon Walker, the one and only King of Pop. I hope the media will PLEASE MOVE ON to more salacious news stories and allow dear Michael to finally rest in peace!

 

P.S.

Here’s a video of the late King of Pop where he performed, at a live show, his famous Moon-Walk (or backslide as we call it in Nigeria) for the first time ever.

 

…and this video below is of my favourite MJ song, Stranger in Moscow, one of my favourite songs of all time and one of his most critically acclaimed songs:

 

Sallah in a Time of Fear

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For anyone who grew up in Northern Nigeria, the Eid-el-Adha/Eid-el-Kabir festival commonly referred to as “Babban Sallah” evokes images of wearing brand new clothes, preparation of hearty meals shared with neighbours (Muslims and Christians alike), exchange of visits between family and friends, going to gardens or parks, and most importantly, the symbolic slaughter of a ram to celebrate and commemorate the near sacrifice by Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) of his son, an event similarly recognized by Christians and Jews as well.

This year however, things turned out to be quite different for Nigerians for as many prepared for the Eid amidst rising prices of basic commodities such as food stuff and  transportation fares and as people travelled to their hometowns with their various families, they were met with sad and frightening news of the utterly despicable and violent attacks unleashed by Boko Haram in the two north eastern cities of Maiduguri and Damaturu. The series of (suicide) bomb blasts and gun battles were targeted at Police Stations, Joint Military Task Force (JTF) Headquarters, 6 Churches, a mosque and even a bank. By Sunday, casualty and death toll had climbed to over 150, according to the Red Cross and other official sources.

To say that the country is under siege by Boko Haram would not be farfetched. Bombs and violent assassinations have been going on through-out the year. The fact that Boko Haram seems to be growing stronger and more daring with each passing day is simply a reflection of government’s utter inability and incapacity to restore order and protect innocent citizens. The fact that Boko Haram unleashed this mayhem on the eve of the Islamic festival and celebration robs them of any religious or moral undertone, for Islam clearly does not preach murder and bloodshed. It has reached a time when Nigerians, especially those living in the North are slowly coming to grips with the stark reality that peace and basic freedom which were taken for granted,  and every aspect of normal daily life is suddenly being fundamentally altered. The way the Eid celebration activities were almost grinded to a halt in Maiduguri and Damaturu as residents were forced to stay indoors in fear, is a clear indication of dark clouds looming in the horizon.

It also appears Boko Haram is revelling in this attention it is getting from the naked fear it has driven into people’s hearts. Shortly after it claimed responsibility for the carnage in Damaturu and Maiduguri, it’s spokesperson, Abul-Qaqa stated that more violent attacks should be expected, while the US and even Canadian embassies have issued statements warning their citizens of impending attacks in three major luxury hotels in the FCT, Abuja.

You have to wonder what Boko Haram actually intends to achieve with this bloodbath onslaught.  Would its unreasonable desire for complete Islamization of Nigeria be attained by senseless bloodletting of innocent Nigerians? Or is there a larger political objective, even though no “Abuja” politician has so far been a victim except ordinary, common Nigerians  – Muslims, Christians, moderate Islamic clerics and occasionally one or two Maiduguri politicians? So what exactly do they want? This is a question whose answers seem unclear to the vast majority of Nigerians, the authorities inclusive.

As if Nigerians do not have enough to deal with – the bombings, the fear, the incompetence of the security apparatuses to safeguard lives and property– more is added to the list of problems by subtle propaganda and allegations that Boko Haram is sponsored by politicians from the North, the “sore losers” of the last general elections, hell-bent on destabilizing President Goodluck Jonathan’s government. What started as an online rumour and unfounded assertion has made its way to mainstream media  circles with even hitherto respected national figures regurgitating such baseless allegations. The absurd claims specifically state that some Northerners are simply fulfilling their promise of making Nigeria “ungovernable” if they did not win the last general elections, due to a feeling that the Presidency is regarded as “the birth right” of the North. If you ask anyone making these false assertions to list one person who actually said this, or to give evidence of who said such, where and when, they are unable to do that.

This is clearly unfounded for despite the fact that Boko Haram is clearly being sponsored by powerful people — especially in the wake of the evolution of their tactics — from the use of motorcycles and scooters to the use of expensive SUVs and other exotic cars in their recent violent activities — to say that the group is acting at the behest of Northern politicians to undermine the government is absolutely outrageous. President Jonathan would not have won the elections without active support of northern politicians and elite, many of whom actively campaigned for him during the PDP primaries and the main elections proper. Even during the primaries, northern PDP delegates who happened to be in the majority could have supported Atiku Abubakar – a Northerner and Jonathan’s then rival – but instead, they overwhelmingly rooted for Jonathan. This notion of a grand conspiracy by northerners to destabilize Jonathan’s government is simply a divide and rule tactic, employed by the political elite as usual, as has been done times without number in the past, to divert the attention of Nigerians from the relevant issues. And it has proven to be highly effective every single time.

As Nigerians round-up the Eid-el-Adha, the festival of sacrifice, it is pertinent we remind ourselves of the ultimate sacrifices others have been forced to make with their lives in this country, the increasing state of helplessness of many more Nigerians regarding their basic personal security and to hope that government will wake up to its responsibility of safeguarding the fundamental right to life of all citizens. For with each violent attack by Boko Haram, the descent to complete breakdown of law and order seems to loom dangerously closer in the horizon.