Thursday, July 26, 2012

How many billionaires does it take to feed a child?

Source: (2010)
India claims over fifty billionaires, making it one of the top 5 billionaire nations of the world -- and that's billions in terms of US dollars. The economy, though a bit shaky at the moment, still soars high.

Then why the downturn when it comes to child development? Save the Children's Child Development Index recently ranked India at 112 -- down from 103 in 2004. Meaning, while all the talk has been about India's soaring economy, her children have been left "eating air" (a common Hindi phrase, "hawa kha rahe hai"). From raw sewage in India's rivers and being ranked worst air in the world to high malnutrition rates among children and adulterated milk, this year's reports have not been kind to the nation.

Though South Asia did not bottom out in the organization's rankings (Africa bears that burden), Save the Children considers the subcontinent, particularly India, to have "high levels of deprivation." They explain:
South Asia has a high level of deprivation, scoring 26.4; this is 3 times worse than East Asia. It is also making slow progress, improving child well-being by just 32% over 1990-2006 (compared to East Asia’s 45% improvement). This is because India (where almost three-quarters of the region’s children live) made the least progress of any country in South Asia; just a 27% improvement. In this region, child nutrition is a substantial obstacle; almost 1 in 2 children is underweight. Malnutrition levels are not being reduced rapidly enough; the region’s enrolment indicator improved by 59% while its nutrition indicator improved by only 14%. Higher levels of economic growth in the region are not widely translating into reduced child deprivation. (Emphasis added.)

This only confirms that when the rich get richer their affluence does not "trickle down" to the poor. It gets stuck somewhere... maybe buying iPad apps? Who knows? This is confirmed by the statement by India's Planning Commission that "the benefits of high economic growth have not trickled down to the bottom 15% who are the most disadvantaged in the country" (as discussed previously).

So what is going on? According to a Down To Earth report, the problem is not that there aren't enough programs but that they are not implemented properly. In other words, the funds get stuck -- either in the pockets of the billionaires or just in the wrong pockets in general.

Money in the wrong pockets is a major problem all over the world. So as not to be overly hypocritical, it should be noted that while the US has over 8 times as many billionaires as India does and holds the number one spot in terms of number of billionaires (China holds the number two spot), it still only ranks 24 while China ranks 29 on the index. So how many billionaires does it take to feed a child?

In the end, how can this be fixed? Well, it's not like world leaders haven't been working on this for a long time. First of all the Child Development Index is a ranking system. Some nation has to be ranked 112th just as one needs to be first (Japan) and another last (Somalia). In fact, most of the countries improved since previous rankings. However, India as an "emerging economy" is the only one that dropped in rank. So, what can be fixed?

If the world's leaders can't get this done, then try from the bottom up. This isn't a new concept, but just a confirmation that world leaders tend to just exchange CO2, eating each others' hot air. So here's my list of things that need to be done (if it's worth anything), be it to "save the children" and/or the environment that sustains them:
  1. Don't rely on government structures, especially if (as) they are run by people who either don't care or don't know what they are doing or (sadly in most cases) both. 
  2. Empower whole communities to believe -- not in money but in themselves. We can blame the government, but if the people do not fundamentally believe in change, then what's the use?
  3. Find honest local heroes. Who are these people? They are doing it without the money and doing it better. Make friends with them. Get know them. Walk in their shoes. Let them open your eyes. You help them in whatever sustainable way.
  4. The rest you'll find in books and in long, long documents from the UN written by very smart people.
The principles above are not really new but have been becoming more and more clear to me the past few days as I've been reflecting on my last 10 years in South Asia and visiting China.

So really, how many billionaires does it take to feed a child? Well, someone could account for a country's number of billionaires and correlate it to their Child Development Index, deriving a complicated algorithm. But while that's happening, I think I'll sneak out and go figure out a way to help some local heroes that I know.

What do you think is needed to change a nation's Child Development Index?

Monday, July 9, 2012

Asian medicine + Good microbes = “Natural” food

Fresh "natural" greens on the farm

Neither the people of China nor my mother are known for eating organic foods, but while I was visiting my mother in China she laid out a beautiful spread of leafy greens, pronouncing with a smile, “It’s organic.” Impressed by my mom’s sudden food evolution, I asked her where she found such great leafy organic greens in the middle of China. Her friends had apparently started a farming project. It finally started to be productive, and they had just opened up a small shop in the city.

Unsure of what they meant by “organic” here and why they had started such a project, I went to check it out. I can say, though not a huge farm, I was happily charmed by their efforts. When we arrived, they laid out a lunch prepared from the produce of the farm. We sat on the floor and our host waved his hand over the food, saying, “This is all natural” … and it was all delicious.

After lunch, they took us around the farm. The first noticeable thing when entering the chicken area was that the usual acrid chicken coop smell was quite faint. “It’s all because of the microorganisms,” a friend explained. On a normal Western-style farm, there’s a force field of the acerbic fecal odor within a certain diameter of a chicken coop. However, here we were standing in the middle of all the chickens, literally pecking at our feet, without notice of any excrement around us. This was due to the ground being one-foot deep of microbe-enhanced mulch. The microorganisms were harvested from the nearby area, ensuring that local microbes were utilized which could thrive in the local environment to break down waste and release needed nutrients.

Chicks on the farm

We were also taken to a naturally cool storage area under the ground where the fertilizers were kept. The fertilizer ingredients listed like natural Chinese herbal medicine, making it sustainable locally while being free from petrol-based chemicals. For minimizing pests, methods included using a pepper concoction and applying tobacco leaves.

This small project began with training in what is called “natural farming.” Ten local families invested into the project. As with many more “natural” ventures, the process can seem lengthy, especially as this kind of natural fertilizer is not available on the market but has to be mixed by hand and the microorganisms need to be kept at certain temperatures. It has been difficult to keep farmers convinced of the long-term benefits of not using chemical-based products. My friend’s father who works in the USDA has had similar issues with US farmers not being convinced of “no till” farming. However, the project leader feels like the farmers are 80% convinced that natural farming is better than standard Western-style farming.

Something that would convince the farmers even more is finding the right market. They are still trying to discover better products. They recently found one off-beat leafy green that quickly sold out in the shop and they were trying to figure out the best way to grow it. Be it due to trendiness or for the simple need for safe food and a clean environment, the domestic Chinese market for organic and more natural food is growing.

Since the 1990s China has been regulating what they call “Green Food” and it has been a major grower of organic food since 2006, at least for the international market. Organic food’s domestic popularity was seen last year when Walmart China was reprimanded for selling 14.4 tons of mislabeled “organic” pork. So it seems that the people want greener and safer food, but the issue is about labeling and government regulation. I can tell you from personal experience how tough it was to tell even in the most upmarket shopping centers which clothes and shoes were real and which ones were knock offs. To regulate farms in far-off villages would be an even bigger chore.

However in the end, China seems to be making steps toward a safer, more sustainable, and tastier future for all.