Archive for the ‘Government’ Category

Why America Doesn’t Talk About Human Rights

May 20, 2016
Child Slavery on Chocolate Plantations

Child Slavery on Chocolate Plantations

Living in a less developed country I hear a lot of general talk about human rights. One of the times this subject normally comes up is when foreigners speak up wanting to do something about the abysmal ways many animals are treated in developing countries (donkeys being abused as working animals, cats and other animals being used for witchcraft purposes, abuse of street animals for amusement–such as cutting off their tails for fun).  Surprisingly, locals’ reaction is often, “We shouldn’t care about ANIMAL RIGHTS; we need to care about HUMAN rights!”

When a friend told me they wanted to study international relations and specialize in “human rights,” I realized that I needed to ask, “What ARE ‘human rights,’ exactly?” When I didn’t get a clear answer, I looked it up.

The European Convention on Human Rights

The European Convention on Human Rights

On Wikipedia, I found something called the European Convention on Human Rights (from 1950). It has sections (not a comprehensive list) discussing some of the following:

Respecting Rights
Life
Torture
Servitude
Liberty and Security
Fair Trial
Privacy
Conscience and Religion
Expression
Association
Marriage
Effective Remedy
Discrimination
Abuse of Rights

Reading this list, I realized why we are not talking about “human rights” in America. Many(but not all) items, in lists of human rights, are already in our Declaration of Independence.

Bill of Rights

The majority of people in America (except immigrants) have never lived in a time or place where the government was authoritarian, and people did not have these rights.  Our Declaration of Independence, particularly the Bill of Rights, is designed to protect Americans from any sort of authoritarian government, and thus, protect our rights.  Therefore, we are complacent (when compared with those living under authoritarian regimes, especially in the developing world), as these conditions are not within living memory of the majority of our citizens.

In contrast, both the Holocaust and life under authoritarian governments are still within recent living memory of Europeans–and are, in fact, still the current condition of many people in the developing world. The precise definition of abuse of human rights, IS essentially, an authoritarian government.

Conservatives Without Conscience_ John W. Dean_

According to Will Byrnes, in his review of Conservatives without Conscience, “Robert Vaughn, a professor at American University’s Washington College of Law, defines democracy and authoritarianism in terms of information policy. Authoritarian governments are identified by ready government access to information about the activities of its citizens and by extensive limitations on the ability of citizens to obtain information about the government. In contrast, democratic governments are marked by significant restrictions on the ability of government to acquire information about its citizens and by ready access by citizens to information about the activities of government.'”

In America, we speak a lot about “individual rights,” (meaning “civil rights”). Civil rights and human rights are not quite the same thing.

Civil rights are an agreement between a given nation and an individual; therefore, civil rights vary with each country according to their constitution. Civil rights result from a “legal granting of that right.” Civil rights protect citizens from discrimination based on certain categories; as well as due process, or free speech,  among others.

Human rights were conceived after World War II (in reaction to the Nazi treatment of the Jews and other groups). An individual is considered to have these rights just for being human; these rights are not considered to be different between one country and another.

Human Rights - Freedom from Torture

A second reason Americans aren’t usually speaking about human rights, and why America has not ratified the European Convention on Human Rights, is that our government doesn’t agree with all provisions.  While there are a number of things, one example the United States disagrees with is that the convention outlaws the death penalty for all crimes, no matter how heinous.

From researching these issues, the next time a friend in a developing country begins speaking to me about human rights, I’ll certainly have a better understanding of why they are speaking about it so passionately.

 

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“Foolish Spending Habits” of the Poor – Now Explained by Economists

June 24, 2015

steak

In America, middle-class people get angry when they see the poor buying steak and lobster with their food stamps, especially when they themselves can’t afford these items.

In India, the middle and upper classes get angry when they see the poor without enough food to eat, wasting money on lavish religious festivals and funerals (up to 40% of their household’s yearly income).  The King of Swaziland banned lavish funerals in 2002 for this same reason.

In Morocco, the middle and upper classes wonder how the village poor can have a satellite dish, a television, a DVD player, and a cell phone, and yet, are subsisting merely on bread and sugary tea!

In all countries, many of the poor seem to be making very poor food choices, spending their very limited food money splurging on junk-food items, rather than on healthy foods which would provide adequate nutrition for their families.  For example, in Britain, George Orwell describes poor British workers as subsisting  on an appalling diet of white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potato.  They prefer this to living on a more healthy diet of brown bread and raw carrots.

So why are the poor, the world over, making these seemingly bad decisions?

The answer, according to economists who have studied this question (Banerjee & Dufflo, Poor Economics, 2011),  is that  things that taste good, or things that make life less boring are a priority for the poor.

“The less money you have, the less you are inclined to spend it on wholesome food…When you are unemployed, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food.  You want to eat something a little tasty.” Examples of tasty food might be cake, fried foods, chocolate,  a bag of chips, or even just a cup of sugary tea.

In America, a poor man in in his early 20’s, with numerous debts to other people, spent his paycheck on personal pleasures.  He purchased new tattoos, new clothes,  a weekend vacation, and some upgraded accessories for his car, instead of making payments to his creditors.

In rural villages, life can be quite boring for the poor.  “There is no movie theater, no concert hall, no place to sit and watch interesting strangers go by.  And not a lot of work, either.”  In modern Morocco, Banerjee & Dufflo found that many men lived in small houses without water or sanitation, and struggled to find work.  “But they all had a television, a satellite dish, a DVD player, and a cell phone,”  even though their families had very little food to eat.  When asked why, one of them responded, “Oh, but television is more important than food!”

So how do the poor survive depressions?  George Orwell explained it perfectly.  “Instead of raging against their destiny, they have made things tolerable by reducing their standards.  But they don’t necessarily reduce their standards by cutting out luxuries, and concentrating on necessities; more often, it is the other way around…Hence, in a decade of unparalleled depression, the consumption of all cheap luxuries has increased.”

According to economists Banerjee & Duflo, “The poor are skeptical about their supposed opportunities, and the possibility of any radical change in their lives…Therefore, they focus on the here and now, on living their lives as pleasantly as possible, and on celebrating when the occasion demands it.”

–Lynne Diligent

 

Living Abroad Taught Me the True Meaning of the Salutation “Dear…”

June 6, 2015

Dear as a salutation

All children in England and America are taught to start letters with the salutation, “Dear So-and-So.”  As children, we all wonder where this strange salutation came from, and what it means, but generally, no one knows.  We just use it.  Surprisingly, living abroad, I have discovered where it came from, through it’s usage by foreign friends.

With the internet, I have had a much greater opportunity to meet and correspond with people from other countries.  It seemed so strange to me when people I hardly knew, particularly men, in the middle of a conversation, would say things like, “Lynne, dear …” or “My dear, Lynne…”  At first, I was confused, and highly offended!  I thought, “WHO are these people to speak to me as if we have an intimate relationship?”

Modern English usage in England and America now reserves the term “dear” for immediate family members, husband and wife, or serious boyfriend/girlfriend.  I felt offended when men spoke to me with this term, wondering why they were doing it, and wondering if, in fact, they were trying to initiate an inappropriate relationship!  Later, as I got to know some foreign women on line, I found them speaking to me in the same manner.  I again felt offended, wondering what they meant by it.  Over time, it began to dawn on me that women were speaking to each other this way, as well, and that the term was being used as a politeness, as in, “you are my dear friend.”

There are two types of societies with regard to how others are treated.  In English-speaking North America, we generally try to treat everyone “the same,” whether they are family members, friends, or strangers.  Nepotism does exist, but it is highly frowned on.

Conversely, in many societies, your own treatment depends upon whether you belong to the “in-group” or “out-group.”  In these societies, strangers are either ignored, treated with suspicion, or even taken advantage of.  In order to do business or become friends, one has to become a member of the “in-group.”  In these societies, in particular, I find that non-Westerners, speaking in English, tend to use the salutation “dear” both in correspondence, and in conversation, such as on Facebook, and even in the middle of text messaging.  I believe it is their way of showing a person respect, esteem, and an indication to confer “in-group” status.  It is not to be interpreted, after all, as an attempt to force unwanted intimacies.

I realized, then, that this was why I had been taking offense.  I realized that, seeing the current usage from places as diverse as India, Egypt, and Morocco, that perhaps this was an OLDER English/French usage of the term, that was no doubt used to indicate friendship.  These other  countries, outside of the West, are continuing to use the term in this way.  My friends are merely translating this politeness from their own cultures, and older usage,  into current English speech.

So now, when I am addressed with the term “dear” by foreign-speaking friends, I am able to overlook the feelings I would have in my own culture, and take it in the spirit of politeness, with which it is intended.

–Lynne Diligent

Developing World Mentality: Is “The Government” Really to Blame for the Poor State of Public Education?

March 11, 2015

Classroom in North Africa

“To the point! The government is committing a crime…,” was the commentary posted following an article deploring public school conditions in a North African country.

The article spoke about deplorable conditions students face in public schools, especially those now built in rural areas.  The article explains that schools are neither heated nor cooled, nor is transport provided.  Many students have to walk one hour to school and risk being assaulted  on the way.   There are no libraries, playgrounds, or lunch facilities.  Schools have no money to pay for photocopies or other materials.  Students use chalk and slates.  Cheating is rampant.  The rich are now going to private schools, and those who cannot afford private schools–the lower classes–go to public schools.  The author concludes, “Students and teachers want to bring about positive change, and stakeholders provide little, or no support.

Conditions in the rural public schools ARE truly as described.  But is that the government’s fault, as is both implied and stated, by both the author and the commenter?  I say NO.

Twenty-five years ago, literacy in the author’s country was only about 35 percent.  There were no schools at all in rural areas.  In the past fifteen years, the country has built thousands of public schools all over the country, and even in rural and mountain areas that never had them before.  They have sent teachers out to all these areas.  The students attending are the first generation to have any sort of education at all.  In this country, schools and teachers are not paid for by local property taxes (as is the case in America).  Schools are financed by the government, and teachers’ salaries are paid for by the government.  (Higher education degrees are also free to students and paid for by the government, for students who complete their high school degree.)  The current result of all this building and staffing is that the literacy rate in the country has essentially doubled in one generation (67% in 2011, of those over age 15).

At the present time, it appears that it has stretched the country’s finances to build all of  these schools and pay all of these teachers.  In an effort to contain costs, the country has cut back on some opportunities for teachers to pursue free Masters’ and Doctorate degrees, which has caused numerous strikes and protests by teachers in the past two years.  Their main argument, as reported in the news is, “We have our rights!”

Looking again at the current difficult and deplorable state of the country’s public schools, again, is that the government’s fault?  Are the schools this way because society and the government do not care?  This thinking is faulty.  Before public school conditions can improve, the schools needed to be simply built, and staffed with teachers.  This building and staffing phase is still taking place, although it seems they have now reached the most rural areas of the country, at least with primary schools, and now with some middle schools.  But many more schools are still needed because so many schools are still too far for children, and especially girls, to walk safely.  There is not even a thought of trying to provide transportation for public schools.  I predict it will be at least another generation before there will be sufficient money for public schools to begin to improve in any of the areas the author of the other article mentions.

Meanwhile, if any parent has sufficient money and resources to send their child to a private school where conditions are better, and can also transport their child to school, why would they not do so?  Of course we all want public schools to improve, but why should we subject our own children to a dangerous and poor education if we have the opportunity to do better for him, or her?

There are many private charity groups in this country who organize the purchase and gifting of school bags and school supplies (neither provided by public education) to poor children, because their families cannot even afford to give them pencils.  This shows me that there are, in fact, many private citizens who do care about the plight of the underprivileged in this country.

It’s very common in North African countries to blame “the government” for everything that is wrong in society.  This blame is misplaced. (If it were not for the government’s efforts this past generation, these schools would not even exist.) Governments, and school systems, are instead, a reflection of a society and its values.

As a Western person living in North Africa, I see that the main objective of the Arab Spring movements is less about toppling governments, and more about throwing out class system privileges and gaining equality of opportunity in life, about creating a meritocracy.  The author who is complaining about the deplorable state of public education is actually and correctly wanting his students to have the same equality of opportunity provided to middle-class students.

–Lynne Diligent


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