F is for Fatty

Mexico has been in the news a lot lately not only for its war on drugs but also its failing battle against the bulge.  Recently schools have started giving out weight report cards in the hopes of changing raising awareness and changing unhealthy habits.

I thought it unlikely that parents wouldn’t realize their kids are overweight, but the authors of  a new NBER working paper find that “parents of children in the most obese classrooms were less likely to report that their obese child weighed too much relative to those in the least obese classrooms.”  They conclude that “as obesity rates increase, reference points for appropriate body weights may rise, making it more difficult to lower obesity rates.”*

It turns out that the program did increase parental knowledge but it didn’t have any significant effect on either the weight of the kids or parental behavior.  I’m guessing the parents were not very happy getting these report card–it seems pretty shaming both to the kids as well as to the parents. **

* Oklahoma has high obesity levels and I witnessed an excellent example today of reference points (or of incredible politeness).  While I was waiting for the doctor, the receptionist and the handy man had a 15 minute discussion proclaiming that there was no way that the other was obese, that it must be a mistake by the doctor (even though they were each about 70+ lbs overweight).  I wanted to intervene and give my two cents but it didn’t seem wise (or nice) so I stayed quiet.

** I don’t have any kids but I do have an elderly dog that was once called “chunky butt” by the vet, even though he hadn’t gained any weight and had always been at a healthy weight.  That was 3 years ago and you can see how defensive I still am about my dog’s weight.

Mexican teachers, improving education one strike at a time

The teachers’ unions in Mexico are at it again.  The country faces massive problems in public schooling and a lot of it has to do with how the union runs things (and the relationship between the union and the PRI for much of the 20th century).  Now that the government wants to change things up and actually initiate real reform, the teachers are furious.  Laura Poy Solano writes in La Jornada that the union has put out a “massive call to the teachers of the country to promote an indefinite work stoppage beginning next week.” The unions claim to be coordinating with parents but I’m doubtful about that.

Just in case there was any idea what side they were on, they specifically called on teachers around the country “to join this fight against education reform.” 

Hmm, an indefinite strike, that should really help education levels in the country.


The not so friendly skies

Aeromexico has had to backpedal furiously as a backlash has formed against their recent casting call for a commercial.  In the call, they ask for “nobody dark skinned”, only actors with “white skin.”

According to the Washington Post, the casting call was even more specific:

“The casting call also seemed worded to exclude anyone who doesn’t look wealthy. It sought people “with a Polanco Look,” referring to a wealthy, largely white Mexico City neighborhood. It also said producers didn’t want a “government look,” an apparent reference to people who appear in ads promoting government social aid programs.”

This has me curious as to what the “government look” looks like.  Apparently it’s well known enough in Mexico that they expect applicants to understand the phrase.

When Kevin and I lived in Mexico, discriminatory job ads were relatively common.  We often saw job postings specifying gender, age, and aspect.  While the Aeromexico example is unfortunate, I also see it as positive in that there has been so much societal backlash against the racism in the ad.  That seems like a step in the right direction.

Disease & Development

Tom Murphy (@viewfromthecave) has an interesting post on new research into the relationship between irrigation and malaria. Obviously farmers benefit greatly from improved irrigation in arid regions.  It’s well known that increasing irrigation, however, also brings about more mosquitos and more malaria.  This new paper finds that the malarial effect lasts a lot longer than expected.

It’s true that areas that have long had irrigation have lower malaria rates, but those numbers don’t start falling until a decade or longer after the improvements.  Regions that are newly transitioning to irrigation, on the other hand, are at much greater risk of malaria.  This is true even when the government enacts proactive policies to combat the problem.


The Hard Road to Acquiring Human Capital

The BBC has a poignant photoessay on the difficulties girls often face in Tanzania in acquiring an education.  Of course the same is true around the world in developing countries, but it was a good reminder that the obstacles to education are often much more severe than we think.

The photoessay follows 8-year old Sylvia, who lives in rural Tanzania, on her 1.5 hour trek to school each morning.  Here are a list of just some of the difficulties that she faces:

1. She only has flip flops, which aren’t well suited to the terrain and she gets cuts and scratches on her feet and legs.  When the flip flops wear out though, she will have to go barefoot.

2. Her family can only afford one school uniform and she isn’t allowed to attend class if it is dirty.

3. She must watch for snakes in the deep brush.

4.  Walking on the railroad tracks is easier in terms of terrain but also more dangerous because of the trains.

5.  She almost always walks alone and there is a real threat of kidnapping and sexual abuse.

6.  The roads are incredibly dusty in the dry season and covered in deep mud in the rainy season.

7. Her stepfather may decide it isn’t worth it to send her to secondary school, which is not free in Tanzania.  According to the article, only 32% of girls who graduate from primary school move on to secondary school studies in the country.

This isn’t from the photoessay, but here is a photo of schoolgirls waiting for class to begin in Tanzania.




h/t @RachelStrohm

Beware the Sand Mafia

India has, as we say, a situation, where new environmental laws have run into the law of demand, creating a “sand mafia” of illegal miners, which is funding a lot of politicians who are not just looking away, but actively punishing civil servants who try to enforce the rules!

Here’s a very interesting article on the phenomenon from the “Swaminomics” blog at the Times of India, and here’s a teaser from the article:

We have enough outrage at illegal activity. We need more outrage about limitations on legal activity. It sounds progressive to demand environmental impact assessments for sand and rock mining in every deposit, regardless of size. But state governments have neither the money nor expertise. They sorely lack the staff and capacity to implement even existing rules and laws, let alone new ones. Heaping ever more responsibilities on them simply generates cynicism and corruption.

and I liked this bit too:

despite having some of the world’s biggest deposits of coal and iron ore, we are importing both. Will we now import sand and rocks too?

Narco States in West Africa

African Arguments has a good article by Michael Keating on the rise of drug trafficking in West Africa and the sad development of narco states in the region.

Apparently Guinea-Bissau has already been characterized as a narco state, and Guinea-Conakry is fast turning into one too. David Brown, a US diplomat who recently wrote a report called “The Challenge of Drug Trafficking To Democratic Governance and Human Security in West Africa,” wrote that “the coup in 2008 there have been reports of Latin American cocaine traders moving in significant numbers to Conakry, where some relatives of the late President Lansana Conté have an established interest in the cocaine trade. In 2010 the U.S. government designated Ousmane Conte, the son of Guinea’s late President, as a Tier 1 kingpin.” He fears that 3 or 4 other states in West Africa may be going down the same road.

Countries like Guinea-Bissau make for an easy target.  A 2008 UN report noted that the country’s GDP was equal to the “wholesale value of 6 tons of cocaine in Europe.” Traffickers liked the country’s “unguarded coastline, high-level corruption and near-total absence of the rule of law, allowing cocaine gangs to operate with impunity.”

Most of the cocaine goes through Guinea-Bissau and Ghana and is then smuggled to Europe by West African criminal groups. Perhaps more worrying, these groups often have ties to non-state actors like Hezbollah and AQIM.

Keating notes that “a fair amount [of the money] is laundered in construction and legitimate businesses in such numbers that some observers cynically reflect that drug money is a net plus for the treasuries of these most impoverished nations,” but obviously the consequences of this phenomena are pretty dire for the region.






Add “Bad Winner” to Mugabe’s many, many faults


If I were to list Robert Mugabe’s faults, it would be hard to know where to start.  From this Africa Review article though, I apparently have to add “bad dresser” and “bad winner” to the list.  I can’t say about his outfits (and Kevin disagrees with me, proclaiming them “awesome”), but perhaps the bad winner part of his personality is coming to the fore because he knows he didn’t actually win.

First there was the pre-election reaction to comments made by the US:

“President Robert Mugabe on Thursday rebuked the “insane” US for criticising his push for elections without key reforms and told it to keep its “pink nose” out of Zimbabwe’s affairs. “America must be mad, absolutely insane,” President Mugabe, who is seeking to extend his 33-year rule.”

After the election, he had this to say about whether the election was fair and free:

“We are delivering democracy on a platter,” he said. “We say take it or leave it, but the people have delivered democracy.”

And in case the opposition didn’t get the message, he made it even more clear:

“The 89-year-old ruler, making his first public speech since he defeated long time foe, Mr Morgan Tsvangirai, said his win was a victory against the West and their puppets. “Those who were hurt by defeat can go hang if they so wish,” said President Mugabe in a speech delivered during commemorations to honour the country’s liberation war heroes. “Even if they die, dogs will not eat their flesh,” he added. “Never will we go back on our victory.” [Note: this may be a translation error, but what is up with the word “even” here? does he think the opposition is immortal?]

Wow, very presidential.  Given the fact that he ran on indigenising more than 1,000 companies and re-introducing the Zim dollar, I’m not optimistic about the future of the Zimbabwean economy.


Darn it. My ATM has a measly $500 / day withdrawal limit

Ah Somalia. The UN has issued a report saying that  “Despite the change in leadership in Mogadishu, the misappropriation of public resources continues in line with past practices.” (I know, I know. Please insert your favorite pot-kettle joke here)

In other words, the new government is stealing everything that’s not nailed down, starting with the money in the Central Bank.

“On average, about 80 percent of the withdrawals from the country’s Central Bank (CB) are made—not to run the government—but for private purposes.  The CB has become, in a way, an ATM for certain public officials, or as the report calls it a “slush fund.” A case in point, of $16.9 million transferred to the CB for government use, $12 million cannot be accounted for.”

And the head of this ATM / Central Bank? It’s none other than Abdusalam Omer, back in the saddle again after his days in the Washington DC City Government.

Phone call for Pete Leeson.



Good news about Latin American Inequality


In a new working paper on Latin American inequality called “Deconstructing the Decline in Inequality in Latin America,” Nora Lustig, Luis Lopez-Calva, and Eduardo Ortiz-Juarez find that the weighted average of the Gini coefficient in Latin America fell from .548 in the late 1990s to .488 a decade later.  As you can see from the figure, all countries in the region (except Honduras) experienced a decline in inequality. The authors find that the reductions are both statistically significant and quantitatively important.

Latin America is one of the most unequal regions in the world, and it is heartening to read that the drop in inequality accounts for 1/3 of the decrease in extreme poverty in the past decade.

So what caused this reduction in inequality?  This is the tough part.  The literature has put forth two main potential causes behind the phenomena:  a reduction in hourly wage inequality, and larger more progressive government transfers.  The evidence isn’t conclusive and there doesn’t seem to be a single explanation behind it for the entire region.  This seems totally reasonable to me; given how very different the countries are, it’s hard to believe there is an argument that explains inequality reduction in all of them.  But definitely check out the paper, because they do a really nice job of reviewing the literature and pointing to possible clues for individual countries.

By the way, does anyone know what is going on with Honduran inequality?