21 March 2008
20 March 2008
19 March 2008
18 March 2008
17 March 2008
15 March 2008
Christian Century: Shopping for justice: The trouble with good intentions
Julie Clawson needed a new bra. Most of the time Clawson, a Chicago-area pastor, would have just gone to the store, plunked down some cash and headed home with a new bra. But she had been reading about globalization, and her conscience made her wonder where her money was going and what was being done with it. So she decided to try an experiment. She decided to find a "justice bra"—to make a purchase that could do no wrong.
"The bra had to be made from an organically grown material. No synthetics made from petroleum, no pesticides . . . and no unsustainable practices," she wrote on the God's Politics blog. The bra must contain no toxic dyes, and it had to be "fairly made. From the farmers who grew the fibers, to the weavers who spun the fabric, to the tailors who assembled it, each person (adults, not children) along the way had to have been paid a living wage . . . not been coerced to work, and treated humanely."
Did such a bra exist? After searching for a couple weeks, Clawson found one. An online retailer based in Canada had a U.S.-made organic cotton bra that met her "justice bra" standards at a price of about $30—not much more than she would have spent at the mall.
Most of our clothes—and many other products we use each day—are made overseas. It's not just underwear that raises justice issues. In recent years, the living and working conditions of those making American clothes have come under greater scrutiny.
For example, the PBS documentary China Blue shows what life is like for Chinese workers who make the blue jeans that Americans wear. "They live crowded together in cement factory dormitories where water has to be carried upstairs in buckets," reports the film's Web site. "Their meals and rent are deducted from their wages, which amount to less than a dollar a day."
On a winter day in 1999, Pietra Rivoli, a finance and international business professor at Georgetown University, watched a student protest. A young woman stepped to the microphone and challenged the crowd: "Who made your T-shirt?" she asked. "Was it a child in Vietnam, chained to a sewing machine, without food or water? Or a young girl from India earning 18 cents per hour and allowed to visit the bathroom only twice per day? Did you know that she lives 12 to a room? That she shares her bed and has only gruel to eat? That she is forced to work 90 hours each week, without overtime pay?"
Rivoli realized that she didn't know the answers to those questions. So she decided to find out. While on vacation in Florida, she bought a $6 T-shirt with a picture of a parrot on the front of it and over the next five years traced the shirt's history, a project she describes in her book The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy.
She tracked the shirt to Sherry Manufacturing, a Miami silk-screener that printed the design. Sherry connected her with Xu Zhao Min of Shangai Knitwear, which sold the shirt to Sherry. When Xu was next in the States, Rivoli invited him to visit her at Georgetown. During that conversation, Rivoli asked him if she could visit him in China to see where the shirts were sewn, the fabric was knit and the yarn spun. She also asked, "Could I go to the farm and see how the cotton is produced?"
"That might be difficult," Xu replied. "I think the cotton is grown very far from Shanghai. Probably in Teksa." Rivoli pulled out a globe and asked where in China "Teksa" was. Xu turned the globe around and pointed—at Texas.
Asking questions about the relationships between the goods, trade, labor and economics of globalization may produce some answers—but often they create even more questions.
Stories abound of unsafe working conditions, bad food in insufficient quantities, unsafe housing, child labor and low pay. Sweatshop Watch defines a sweatshop as:
a workplace that violates the law and where workers are subject to: extreme exploitation, including the absence of a living wage or long work hours; poor working conditions, such as health and safety hazards; arbitrary discipline, such as verbalSome sweatshops still use child labor, says Sweatshop Watch. According to the group's Web site, "Many child laborers are in exploitative conditions with low wages, long working hours, no medical or welfare facilities . . . exposed to dangerous working environments with few educational opportunities. Some children are working under bonded and slave-like conditions, harmful to physical, emotional growth and development."
or physical abuse; or fear and intimidation when they speak out, organize, or attempt to form a union.
Throughout the history of the mechanized cotton-clothing industry, Rivoli writes, the key input needed was a docile labor force willing to do dull, repetitive tasks over long hours with few breaks. In every country's textile industry, docility comes from "a lack of alternatives, lack of
experience, and limited horizons."
Yet to many Chinese textile workers, life in the mills is much better than life back on their farms
and in their villages. On assignment for the New York Times Magazine, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn headed to China to expose the evils of sweatshops. In their article "Two Cheers for Sweatshops," they describe their 1987 interviews with young women in a purse-making sweatshop in southern China. The women worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, with a week or two off to go back home at the Chinese New Year. To the journalists' surprise, the women "all seemed to regard it as a plus that the factory allowed them to work long hours."
"It's actually pretty annoying how hard they want to work," the factory manager told Kristof and WuDunn. "It means we have to worry about security and have a supervisor around almost constantly."
In a 2004 New York Times column, Kristof tells the story of Nhep Chanda, a 17-year-old Cambodian girl who sifts through the city dump to make a living. She averages 75 cents a day for her efforts. For her, the idea of being exploited in a garment factory—working only six days a week, and inside instead of in the broiling sun, for up to $2 a day—is a dream.
American sensibilities regard sweatshops as inhumane places that exploit young women and girls. Kristof and WuDunn acknowledge the problems. Workers do live in firetrap dorms. Children are exposed to dangerous chemicals. Some managers do "deny bathroom breaks, demand sexual favors, force people to work double shifts or dismiss anyone who tries to organize a union." But sweatshops have also been the engine of growth in China and other East Asian countries.
Between 1981 and 2001, the number of people in extreme poverty (living on less than $1 a day) fell in East Asia by more than 500 million people. The percentage of East Asians living in extreme poverty fell from 57.7 percent to 14.9 percent. Also, the portion of East Asians living on less than $2 a day fell from 84.8 percent in 1981 to 47.4 percent in 2001.
Smaller gains have occurred in South Asia, including India, mainly because South Asian countries were slower to embrace international trade as a growth strategy. And in the rest of the developing world, the poverty rate has been about the same or has even increased because governments have rejected growth strategies based on the export trade.
According to economist Jagdish Bhagwati, author of In Defense of Globalization (Oxford University Press), jobs in poor-country factories that are run by multinational corporations pay much better than most other jobs in those countries. Generally, workers at such jobs earn up to 10 percent more than they would in comparable jobs in their countries. Some multinationals pay as much as 40 to 100 percent higher. Kristof and WuDunn report that wages in Dongguan, China, have risen from $50 a month in 1987 to $250 a month today, though this pay premium doesn't necessarily carry over to the locally owned subcontractors of multinational firms.
Some Chinese factories are even getting less "sweaty." Andy Mukherjee of Bloomberg.com describes a massive Chinese factory complex—with 200,000 workers—where Apple's iPods are
made. Dorms are air-conditioned and have TV rooms, snooker tables and public telephones. The campus has "soccer fields, a swimming pool, supermarkets, Internet cafes, banks, 13 restaurants and a hospital." The factory appears to comply with Chinese labor laws and doesn't use child labor. All the employees have medical coverage. The iPod factory is hardly the norm, but it shows what can happen as China's export goods become more valuable and as Chinese workers become more accustomed to modest but growing wealth.
According to Rivoli, sweatshop jobs can help workers develop a new set of choices. Schooling, independence and release from undesirable arranged marriages become possible. Rivoli notes that as Chinese factory workers have gotten more skilled, they have gained clout. "The factories producing textiles cannot find the workers they need to keep producing," she says. "The power has shifted. Rather than having millions of people begging for a job and being exploited, you have instead thousands of factories begging for workers. I think that is a sign of progress."
For Christians who want to improve substandard working conditions around the globe, Rivoli hints at a solution: don't try to eliminate the jobs through boycotts and similar tactics. Kristof and WuDunn agree: "Asian workers would be aghast at the idea of American consumers boycotting certain toys or clothing in protest." Instead, pressure the employers by shining a light on their practices and making them publicly known. Help the workers learn how to stand up for better working conditions.
Bhagwati agrees that public pressure is better than trade sanctions for cleaning up labor practices in developing countries. He admits that many people think formal sanctions—such as boycotts and bans and tariffs—will work better at improving overseas wages and working conditions than moral persuasion. "Indeed, we must remember that God gave us not just teeth
but also a tongue," Bhagwati writes. "And a good tongue-lashing on a moral cause is more likely to work today than a bite. Recall that, with NGOs and CNN, we have the possibility now of using shame and embarrassment to great advantage."
There are limits on how much even well-meaning people will pay for "justice." In her search for
a justice bra, Julie Clawson had found one for $100 made in the United Kingdom, but she balked at paying such a high price. "I knew this endeavor would require more funds than the typical sale bin at the mall, but I had my limits. There has to be a balance between saving a buck at the expense of a worker in a third-world nation and throwing one's money away on luxury items."
And it's not at all clear that Clawson really achieved the greatest justice by buying the
"justice bra." At best, Clawson could hope for a long-term effect: if enough people think like her, then maybe working conditions around the globe could improve as demand for unjust bras wanes. At worst, buying an American-made bra from a Canadian company made some poor sweatshop worker a little worse off.
Is Clawson's willingness to pay $30 for justly made underwear typical of most Americans? The Wal-Mart store in Lake Zurich, Illinois, has a wide selection of bras ranging from $8 to $15. Undoubtedly, these fail Clawson's justice criteria. But they were probably made by poor-country workers doing jobs they prefer over their other options. And the low price allows low-income Americans to stretch their hard-earned dollars farther. So which bra does more justice?
standing in line was not what i wanted, but probably what i needed. a little girl was there with her mom and brother. she was holding the biggest handful of dandelions i have ever seen and faithfully presenting every woman who walked in the door with a bright yellow gift. it was incredible to watch the surprise on people's faces as they walked in the door, saw the insanely long line and then a little girl standing silently in front of them holding out a dandelion. that little girl transformed the place with her simple offering. i totally got shot down when i asked her if i could have one, being informed that they are only for girls, much to the enjoyment of everybody in earshot. but nevertheless, i think she taught me this morning that i need to start silently handing out more flowers if i expect to really make an impact down here...
14 March 2008
13 March 2008
12 March 2008
11 March 2008
Bars in Minnesota have found a dramatic way to get around the US state's recently introduced smoking ban.
The law grants an exception from the ban to performers in theatrical productions. So the bars have become theatres, and their customers, actors.
Now some bars print bills listing the "cast" of bartenders, and ashtrays become "props". Drinkers don costumes and attempt strange accents.
But a health official said it was time for the curtain to fall on the ploy.
'Before the Ban'
At the Rock, a heavy-metal bar in Maplewood, owner Brian Bauman explained why his clientele were doing little more than sitting around, smoking and drinking to a soundtrack of deafening music.
"They're playing themselves before 1 October - you know, before there was a smoking ban," he said, according to the Associated Press.
"We call the production, Before the Ban!"
Other bars have taken to the scheme with greater gusto, with customers dressing up in costume, the entrance labelled "stage door" and promising productions such as the Tobacco Monologues.
Up to 100 bars across the state are relying on the legal loophole to allow smokers to continue lighting up.
But the state's health department says they are indeed breaking the law, and has threatened to hit them with fines of up to $10,000 (£5,000).
"The law was enacted to protect Minnesotans from the serious health effects of second-hand smoke," said Sanne Magnan, the Minnesota health commissioner.
She said the "theatrics" would have to end.
But bar owners fear their takings will fall once the ban is reimposed, while others will miss the antics.
"It's turned into the most fun thing I can imagine," said Lisa Anderson, owner of a bar in Hall City.
10 March 2008
SAN FRANCISCO - Is poverty a problem of policy or destiny? Experts tend to pull in one of two directions. Some focus on the social fundamentals for prosperity. Others, on the technical and financial requirements for sustainable growth.
In this view, policy is beside the point. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam says that "social capital" – how closely people in a community are connected – supports the basis for trust essential to commerce. Economist Gregory Clark of the University of California argues that prosperous societies grow their economies through Industrial Revolution values such as patience, hard work, innovation, and education. Some cultures support such values, some don't, and they certainly can't be imported or master-planned. Implication: Some poverty is permanent.
Others say the developed world has the policy tools poor countries need and the obligation to show them how to use them. While specific proposals vary, development economists such as Paul Collier, Jeffrey Sachs, and Joseph Stiglitz argue that wealthy nations know how to create the conditions for accountable governance, open markets, capital formation, low taxes, reliable institutions, and regulatory frameworks with courts to enforce them. Implication: The right combination of solutions is (almost) within reach.
Whichever side of this debate you're drawn to, it is clear that decades of effort and at least $2 trillion spent by rich countries since 1945 to bring development "to" the world's poorest have delivered, at best, mixed results. A World Bank study by Craig Burnside and David Dollar found a positive impact in countries with good fiscal, monetary, and trade policies. Later analysis by William Easterly, and Raghuram Rajan at the International Monetary Fund, indicates zero impact from Western aid on growth in poor nations – with or without sound policies. Possibly these countries would have done worse without aid. Certainly, we can do better.
The first place to push – for both cultural and technical reinvention – is not in the poor nations' ethics or economies, but in the developed world's institutions. The West's efforts to help the last billion still resound with echoes of the Marshall Plan, a top-down approach that worked wonders after World War II in educated, formerly wealthy societies, where centralized planning and imported capital made the critical difference. This approach is ineffective now – not to mention damaging to the morale of committed people in these troubled countries.
Aid institutions too often pursue disconnected agendas. For every development success story, there's another about exporting plans and resources irrelevant to needs. Excelling at raising money, uncertain about results. Struggling to coordinate 21 US agencies and 50 operating units that deliver aid. Subsidizing (through clenched teeth) shameless kleptocracies and grotesque dictators. Funding fiascoes, such as $5 billion spent since 1979 on Nigeria's Ajaokuta steel mill, which has yet to produce any steel.
Humanitarian aid budgets aren't focused on the last billion, where the average person has an income one-fifth of those in mid-tier developing countries. Seventy percent of the last billion live in Africa, yet in 2008 only a third of all US government direct aid will go there. (This is progress: In 2001 it was only 8 percent.) Instead, Israel and Egypt together get 10 times the US direct aid that Darfur does. Russia gets as much as 20 sub-Saharan nations combined. Ireland gets 167 times what the Central African Republic does. These may be rational political transfers – but they're not life-saving assistance.
Development agencies around the world can't find staff to serve in places such as Chad. The World Bank has offices in every middle-income country, but only one staff member in the Central African Republic. The aid posts with the most people from most rich governments are in places such as China and Brazil, which don't need the help. And when the help is there, too many of the rich world's best efforts have unintended consequences. Malawi agriculture, for instance, withered under a prohibition against subsidizing fertilizer and seed. Finally, in 2005, Malawi defied the World Bank – and after decades of dependence, became a net grain exporter.
Some aid efforts hurt even as they help. Take food aid: First-world farmers get subsidies to grow crops. Surplus food stocks are then bought (with more tax dollars) and shipped to a struggling nation, where they're distributed or converted into currency to fund (hopefully peaceful) projects. But here's the problem: Local farmers can't compete with "free" produce. No indigenous capacity ever develops. So aid reinforces a tragic cycle of dependency.
While wealthy nations underwrite this diffuse agenda, the last billion continue to pay for it with their lives, and instability spreads. To eradicate abject poverty in one lifetime, the developed world's approach must change – in some ways subtly, in others significantly.
09 March 2008
"As to economic matters, I found the analysis to be a neo-Malthusian politically progressive retread of Niebuhrian Chrisitan-socialist thinking so ubiquitous in Mainline Protestant academic circles."
08 March 2008
why bring all this up now? today, in at the vet clinic, i realized that i have twins. like kevin and i, oscar and daisy are cut from very different molds. it has been quite the trip these last two months incorporating these two into every single facet of my life. there have been plenty of ups and downs and piles of poo in the wrong places. But above and beyond all of that, it has been something special to see them learning different things at different times and even teaching each other a thing or two that they've figured out. yup, i have twins. awesome.
07 March 2008
By Wendell Berry
Originally published in The Witness magazine, November 2001
Thursday, November 1, 2001
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion - put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
05 March 2008
04 March 2008
One other side affect from all this is an eerily quiet trailer tonight. I forget how rambunctious those two little munchkins can be...