Monthly Archives: September 2011

China the Troublemaker

Develop Economies often waxes philosophic from his armchair in Africa about China’s role in the development of the continent.  For some, the China love-fest is rooted in the fact that bilateral trade is not patronizing, unlike aid.  For others, China is a ruthless competitor – a less explicit colonialist than the Europeans.  In this journal, Develop Economies tries to remain neutral, presenting the facts.  But, in recent months, he has given a disproportionate amount of airtime to the views of the former group.  So it is timely that Yuriko Koike, Japan’s former minister of defense and national security adviser, has a none-too-kind piece in Project Syndicate titled “China’s Africa Mischief.”

From 2006

In discussing China’s last-minute, $200 million arms deal to former Libyan president Muammar Gadaffi, Koike explains how China has played its cards:

But, in recent years, China became an obstacle to Qaddafi’s African ambitions, and China did so by copying his methods: buying the support of dictators with weaponry and finance. Since 2000, China has actively courted Africa’s unstable and dictatorial countries with offers of aid and a refusal to back United Nations sanctions against them. Indeed, China has blithely entered into business with African countries that Europe and America refuse to engage with, owing to sanctions.

International sanctions, it now seems, were the door through which China rushed to gain access to Africa’s mineral wealth for its voracious industries. For example, instead of making an effort to foster peace in Sudan, as a permanent, veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council should, China’s deep involvement with Sudan, through the provision of oil infrastructure and weapons, actually prolonged the Darfur conflict. A letter to Chinese officials, signed by many members of the US Congress, and a report by Amnesty International state that China exported weapons to Sudan in violation of UN resolutions. The Oscar-winning film director Steven Spielberg embarrassed China by resigning from an advisory post for the 2008 Beijing Olympics because of its support for the government in Khartoum, calling the Chinese games the “genocide Olympics.”

It is hard (actually, impossible) to deny that China has been unscrupulous in its dealings with kleptocrats and dictators in Africa.  But, by its own admission, China explicitly maintains a “no questions asked” policy when it comes to the scramble for resources.  A few things come to mind, however, when thinking about China’s role in arming Africa’s “forever wars.”

Viktor Bout doing what he does

Today, Charles Taylor is on trial at the Hague.  The ex-Russian military man who sold him the weapons – Viktor Bout – is currently sitting in a prison cell in Thailand, fighting extradition to face charges to in unleashing hell on Liberia, Sierra Leone, and countless other countries.  The film “Lord of War” chronicles Bout’s escapades in the continent.   These men are criminals of the worst kind – men whose actions, either directly or indirectly, led to unspeakable horrors.  Now they are in court, where they belong.  And Gaddafi, the jheri-curled tyrant who threatened to “show no mercy” to the residents of Benghazi, isn’t far behind (he’s hiding in Algeria, as a matter of fact).  His onslaught against the people of Libya, as it turns out, might not have been possible had it not been for the subtle, behind-the-scenes deals cut with three major Chinese weapons manufacturers.  The Canadian paper, The Globe and Mail, in a move that proves its host country is more than America’s top-hat when it comes to journalism, broke the story:

China offered huge stockpiles of weapons to Colonel Moammar Gadhafi during the final months of his regime, according to papers that describe secret talks about shipments via Algeria and South Africa. Documents obtained by The Globe and Mail show that state-controlled Chinese arms manufacturers were prepared to sell weapons and ammunition worth at least $200-million to the embattled Col. Gadhafi in late July, a violation of United Nations sanctions.

If China is supplying arms to a violent dictator – “in flagrant violation of the arms embargo instituted under UN Security Council Resolution 1970, which China approved” – then why is it not also treated as a criminal entity?  That is a rhetorical question.  It is a sovereign state and is technically free to do what it wants, particularly since the United States is bogged down in its own mess and Europe is on the brink of economic implosion.  Not to mention, the West has not exactly been a model citizen when it comes to its dealings with Africa.  China is the number two buyer of oil from Angola.  The United States is number one. This leads me to my next point.  The roots of geopolitical conflict can always be traced to oil.  Always.  From the Globe and Mail article:

The documents suggest that Beijing and other governments may have played a double game in the Libyan war, claiming neutrality but covertly helping the dictator. The papers do not confirm whether any military assistance was delivered, but senior leaders of the new transitional government in Tripoli say the documents reinforce their suspicions about the recent actions of China, Algeria and South Africa. Those countries may now suffer a disadvantage as Libya’s new rulers divide the spoils from their vast energy resources, and select foreign firms for the country’s reconstruction.

And Project Syndicate:

China has chosen a high-risk path – ignoring human rights and violating UN sanctions – to secure the energy and other resources needed to sustain its economy’s rapid growth. It is a choice that neither befits one of the permanent members of the Security Council, nor demonstrates China’s readiness to be a responsible stakeholder in the international community. China’s willingness to arm and defend African dictators, even in the teeth of UN sanctions, as in Libya, undermines its claim to a “peaceful rise.” Given China’s Libyan duplicity, the world should now determine whether it is a country that obeys international rules only when doing so suits its interests.

This principle, of course, is not limited to the countries of the Far East.  One need not look further than the tiny country of Equatorial Guinea, where the per capital GDP is around $10,000 USD, yet more than half the population lives in poverty.  Here is how Ken Silverstein describes the situation:

The United States historically had little interest in Equatorial Guinea and closed its embassy there in 1995 after the Obiang regime issued threats against Ambassador John Bennett, who had lodged protests over human rights conditions. But in an unfortunate twist, American companies soon discovered vast reserves of oil and gas in the waters off Equatorial Guinea, and successive U.S. governments have been slowly but steadily backtracking ever since. The key step came in 2003, when after an intense lobbying campaign by the oil industry, Bush approved the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea’s capital. (The embassy formally reopened three years later.) “With the increased U.S. investment presence, relations between the U.S. and the Government of Equatorial Guinea have been characterized as positive and constructive,” notes the State Department’s country profile.

Relations may be good, but the official U.S. assessment of the country is much less rosy. The State Department’s most recent global human rights reportcited abuses in Equatorial Guinea including “torture of detainees and prisoners by security forces; life-threatening conditions in prisons [and] arbitrary arrest.” Freedom House’s 2011 “Freedom in the World” survey put the country in its “worst of the worst” category for governments that violate political rights and civil liberties, along with North Korea, Sudan, and Turkmenistan. Equatorial Guinea’s economy depends almost entirely on oil, which generated revenues last year of well over $4 billion, giving it a per capita annual income of $37,900, on par with Belgium. “The oil has been for us like the manna that the Jews ate in the desert,” Obiang has said. It certainly has been for him. Obiang placed eighth on a 2006 list by Forbes of the world’s richest leaders, with a personal fortune estimated at $600 million. His population hasn’t fared so well. Human Rights Watch reports that one in three of Obiang’s impoverished subjects dies before age 40.

Silverstein’s article is worth reading in full.  Whenever I write about the role of oil in the world’s conflicts, I feel like the Charlton Heston in Soylent Green – “It’s people!”  Stories like these, however, lead me to believe I am at least somewhat correct in my assumptions.  And I guess China isn’t so honest about it after all.

Develop Economies’ Music Recommendation:

American Poverty, Single Parenthood, and the National Review

The New York Times published an article today discussing a disturbing trend: more than one in three young families – defined as under the age of 30 with children – is currently living in poverty.  This is the highest percentage on record for this group.  Some of the other statistics are not surprising – the highest rates of child poverty exist in black and Hispanic families, single-parent households, etc.  Here are the grim facts:

Economists cited several reasons for the rise. First was the economy. College degrees hold greater value now, while opportunities for low-skilled workers have dwindled, as manufacturing and other industries have declined. That has pushed more young families into poverty. The number of men in their 20s with only a high school degree who worked full time fell by 22 percent from 2007 to 2010, while those with a college degree dropped by just 1 percent, according to census data. Fewer than a third of high school dropouts in their 20s were working full time last year. At the same time, the fortunes of poorer Americans, especially those with children, are more closely tied to the labor market because welfare reform in the 1990s made cash assistance harder to obtain. It was hailed as a success for getting more mothers to work, but now that jobs are scarce, young families have little to fall back on. In an analysis of government transfers over time, Professor Moffitt found that aid to the elderly living on less than half of poverty-level income rose by 13 percent from 1984 to 2004, while aid to single-parent families in the same situation dropped by about 38 percent. “The worst-off families have been left behind,” Professor Moffitt said.

The burden of poverty falls disproportionately on the children in these households, given that one in three families has difficulty providing for their family.  It is a disgrace that, in one of the most developed countries in the world, this is the reality. Heather MacDonald of the National Review offered an explanation that I misinterprets a symptom for a cause.   She wonders why the “mainstream media” (what a hilarious term) never highlights the fact that single parenthood is the most accurate predictor of poverty status.   Like her colleague, David French, who I wrote about recently on this blog, she doesn’t seem to understand causality.   1.  Causality

“In 2007, single-parent families were nearly six times more likely to be poor than married-parent families; that ratio has not significantly changed. The closest the Times comes to acknowledging the role of single parenthood in child poverty is to note that blacks and Hispanics have the highest rates of child poverty. Why that would be, the Times does not say, but it’s just what you’d expect from groups whose illegitimacy rates are 73 percent and 53 percent, respectively.”

Aside from the fact that this is an unambiguously racist argument, I will posit a few reasons while those people with skin a shade darker than Ms. MacDonald may happen to raise their children in a single-parent household.  A year ago, Lexington, the columnist for the Economist, wrote a piece titled “Sex and the Single Black Woman.” In it, he reviews a book called “The Logic of Life,” which posits an interesting explanation for this phenomenon:

In the marriage market, numbers matter. And among African-Americans, the disparity is much worse than in Mr Harford’s imaginary example. Between the ages of 20 and 29, one black man in nine is behind bars. For black women of the same age, the figure is about one in 150. For obvious reasons, convicts are excluded from the dating pool. And many women also steer clear of ex-cons, which makes a big difference when one young black man in three can expect to be locked up at some point. Removing so many men from the marriage market has profound consequences. As incarceration rates exploded between 1970 and 2007, the proportion of US-born black women aged 30-44 who were married plunged from 62% to 33%. Why this happened is complex and furiously debated. The era of mass imprisonment began as traditional mores were already crumbling, following the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the invention of the contraceptive pill. It also coincided with greater opportunities for women in the workplace. These factors must surely have had something to do with the decline of marriage.

In this argument, the author explains why larger trends in the black community toward greater incarceration may explain the drop in marriage rates.  Ms. MacDonald might raise the point that social dysfunction is the reason incarceration is on the rise.  Wrong.

Could it be, however, that mass incarceration is a symptom of increasing social dysfunction, and that it was this social dysfunction that caused marriage to wither? Probably not. For similar crimes, America imposes much harsher penalties than other rich countries. Mr Charles and Mr Luoh controlled for crime rates, as a proxy for social dysfunction, and found that it made no difference to their results. They concluded that “higher male imprisonment has lowered the likelihood that women marry…and caused a shift in the gains from marriage away from women and towards men.”

The legacy of "Just Say No"

And why did incarceration rates explode among young black and Hispanic men?  There are lots of reasons – in the 80’s, the crack epidemic and Ronald Reagan’s spectacularly counterproductive “Just Say No” campaign (see the graph at the left), coupled with draconian penalties for drug possession, saw the prison population skyrocket.  With harsh restrictions placed on felons, rates of recidivism hover at around 60% at any given time – meaning that most ex-cons are back in jail within three years.   Most recently, the for-profit prison lobby helped the Arizona state legislature draft a controversial bill designed to put more illegal immigrants in jail.  More prisoners is, of course, good for business. Here is the conclusion, which would seem to support Ms. MacDonald’s conclusion:

The collapse of the traditional family has made black Americans far poorer and lonelier than they would otherwise have been. The least-educated black women suffer the most. In 2007 only 11% of US-born black women aged 30-44 without a high school diploma had a working spouse, according to the Pew Research Centre. Their college-educated sisters fare better, but are still affected by the sex imbalance. Because most seek husbands of the same race—96% of married black women are married to black men—they are ultimately fishing in the same pool.

This, of course, is only one part of her argument.  She seems to posit that women are having children out of wedlock because they are fundamentally irresponsible and do not care for the prospect of marriage.  According to “The Logic of Life,” this is not the case.  What did not happen is that all of a sudden black and Hispanic men decided to no longer become good Christians and just divorce their wives en masse, leaving them in poverty.  Such a shame that this isn’t the easy fix she claims it to be. This is one example of causality that Ms. MacDonald might prefer to overlook, since, if you trace the roots of single-parenthood among minorities back to its roots, it has less to do with the fundamental “depravity of the poor” and much more to do with social policies that have disenfranchised the poorer segments of the population over time – in large part, due to the platforms of the political party she supports. 2.  The Mainstream Media

“The ban on discussing the effect of family breakdown is not surprising, since the single mother has become the cornerstone of Democratic politics. She provides the justification for the continuous expansion of the welfare state. Whether the topic is government-provided health care for the poor, taxpayer-funded housing for homeless families, federal Section 8 rental vouchers, more early-childhood-intervention programs, or greater redistribution of income from the rich to the poor, the frequent flyers in all these programs are single mothers. They provide the largest constituency for every means-tested government poverty program in the country, and they are a growing constituency.”

In this paragraph, Ms. MacDonald is reminding us that the subtle racist undertones of her first statement were not a fluke, and that she is, indeed, a racist. In this point, she is claiming that the mainstream media is the Fox News of the Democratic Party.  In Ms. MacDonald’s warped sense of reality, by pointing out the fact that single parenthood and deadbeat dads are the sole source for poverty in the United States, the New York Times risks alienating its key constituency and the party for which it is (not) a mouthpiece.   It’s just crazy. Regardless of this obvious fallacy, let’s dissect the argument.  The New York Times does not want to alienate these people because they want them at the voting booths, creating a welfare state that is intolerable for the National Review.  Unfortunately for Ms. MacDonald, the racist, the population is steadily becoming less white, which will empower minorities to elect officials that will reduce the penalties for the harsh drug laws that send one in three black men to prison during their lifetime.  Right? Wrong again.  Blacks and Hispanics are becoming increasingly marginalized at the polls as the GOP clandestinely makes it more difficult for minorities to cast a ballot, requiring new forms of ID and making it difficult organizations to conduct voter drives.  Basically, they are screwed. I could go on, but it is not worth it.  I have been reading politics for the better part of the last five years.  I am not that old, and I understand that every generation thinks its political situation is worse than the ones that preceded it.  But I swear – the discourse was never like this.  Ronald Reagan, the hero of the National Review raised taxes 11 times during his presidency and supported amnesty for illegal immigrants who had laid roots in this country.  It is absolutely amazing to me that people like this are even given the time of day when they posit arguments like this.  The party of Ms. MacDonald has flown off the handle.  But she is a symptom of a much larger, more nefarious problem with the political discourse in this country. The fact remains that the poverty rate, the income inequality gap, the wealth gap, and incarceration rates are at record levels.  If you haven’t read it already, do yourself a favor and read Timothy Noah’s ten-part series in Slate magazine titled “The United States of Inequality.”  Is single parenthood to blame?  Let’s ask Heather MacDonald:

“There is a far more efficient solution to family poverty and the childhood problems associated with single-parent families: Revive the marriage norm among the poor. Public policy’s ability to restore the expectation that children be raised by both their parents is undoubtedly limited. But it is better to try than to do nothing. And making child poverty a political issue without mentioning father absence is worse than doing nothing.”

I agree.  As a country, we should be trying to figure out how to reduce incarceration rates and look for other root causes for the breakdown of the family unit, and address them through smart policy.  Abstinence-only education and “just say no” probably are not going to cut it. It is amazing how someone can spend five paragraphs making child poverty a political issue, and the close with a line disparaging people who make child poverty a political issue.  Remember, however, that the New York Times is only making it a political issue because, in Ms. MacDonald’s mind, it is a stump for the Democratic Party, which minorities disproportionately support – the same minorities whose high rates of single parenthood are the major reason for their impoverished state.  Fortunately for the world, she has identified the silver bullet we have all been looking for!  It has been right under our noses all this time!   Would loving, heterosexual, two-parent households end poverty in this country?  If you are Heather MacDonald, the answer is irrefutably yes.

UPDATE: A friend sent an email offering a nice counterpoint to my argument.  Here is what he had to say:

Interesting post.  I’m really surprised you took such offense to that article.  Maybe I’ve become a heartless bastard, but I am surprised you also think that her argument is racist.  I think the angle of attacking the MSM is a tricky one, and yes, I generally think that Republicans are an insane, anti-intellectual, party of revisionist historians. But I wholeheartedly agree with what I think is a predominately feminist (not racist) and pragmatic undertone to the column.

The big problem is not single mothers but men that leave their wives and children.  That is a serious issue.  Extremely serious.  Outside of the US context, from my limited time in Swaziland, I think that a complete lack of a family unit was the biggest driver of the country’s public health crisis (as in, the country could literally become extinct).  Mothers with babies are everywhere, and fathers are nowhere.

As for why I don’t think the argument is racist, I point to a recent interaction that I had with a friend of a friend that teaches at a school in southern Illinois that has worse poverty rates than those we work with for GOTO.  All of the students are white.  All of them.  And they have tremendously similar issues to poor blacks with the friend I talked to using a lot of the same language that conservatives use when talking about other single parent families that we think of as generally black.

Families matter a lot.  A lot lot.  We both come from insanely supportive families and have no clue what it’s like to have only known your father to be someone that had sex with your mom.  This is an issue, and the fact that it mainly occurs in minority families is unfortunate but true and not racist.  No more prejudiced than saying that Cambridge is really liberal.  It is.  Liberals live there. I hope I’m making my point or a point without being offensive or combative, but I take this issue extremely seriously, and I think it is at the crux of so many developmental issues.

Ultimately, change is driven from within, and it comes from the family.  As a consultant, I think it would be irresponsible to look at the horrendous state of poor American families and not emphasize it and not notice that its most rampant incidence is among poor minorities.  I’ll close this by noting that Bill Cosby, a black man, reiterates a lot of the same points that MacDonald does.

And another:

I personally found both the NYT article and the Review article to be a little too dramatic (i.e. the “interview” with the single mom who looks for a job, and pretty much anything the Review writes)  so I went to the Northeastern source After reading that, I basically just thought the Times and the Review are trying to draw more of a conclusion than is available from the data.  What I struggle with is they’re attempt to portray what a “young family with a head under 30 years of age” looks like.

So let’s say it’s 2010, you’re 25 years old, married, and about to have your first child (this is the average age of first child birth). And let’s say the child bearing mother takes off time from work to give birth leaving her spouse to support the family. On average, I can’t imagine that a 25 year old dude 2-3 years out of college in the US even makes a per capital income of more than 30K…probably much less given the economy. So that means the “NORMAL” young family probably has at least 3 members with a combined household income of 20-30K. I think that basically means you’re POOR.

Thinking of it that way, I’d say the 30-40% rate doesn’t surprise me at all….but obviously that profile isn’t exactly what people imagine as “POOR”. If you look at table 3, in 1993, young families had poverty levels almost equal to current levels. By 2010, these individuals were in the 30-64 age bracket and had much lower poverty levels. I know there’s concerns about long term job prospects for currently young families, but I’m not sure the data in here suggests that these people are fucked. I really think it just says you’re young. Anyways….long winded way of saying I’m skeptical of all interpretations of this data…..


How Burma Will Modernize

Learning to read in Burma.

The photo on the header of this blog was taken in Bagan, a city in the center of Burma that is home to thousands of ornate Buddhist temples.  I was sitting atop another of the thousand temples that litter the skyline, wondering how such a stunning place could have so few visitors.  The temples in Bagan are relics of a once-prosperous society.  Today, the country appears frozen in time, its potential ruined by a repressive military government that has left Burma in a developmental stasis for the last thirty years.

The strategic geography of Burma is undeniable.

But all of that is changing now.  Traditionally, the West has always viewed Burma as a basketcase – a country rich in natural resources beset by post-colonial woes and chock full of human rights violations.  Despite its hideous record of government and poor economic growth, Burma has always had a few things going for it.  First, it has a wealth of natural resources.  Diamonds, natural gas, oil, etc.  Second, it is strategically located between two of the fastest-growing economies in the world, China and India.  Combined, China and India make up a third of the world population and are contributing an increasing percentage of the global GDP.  When speaking about the future of geopolitics and the world economy, these two countries are increasingly part of the conversation.  And Burma, the basketcase of East Asia, sits conveniently between these two rising giants.  Given that Russia lies further north, and Brazil dominates the Americas south of the Equator, Burma holds the distinction of being the only country in the world to sit directly in between two of the BRIC countries.

It makes sense that China and India would want to facilitate trade as efficiently and cheaply as possible.  To do that, only one thing stands in the way: Burma.  Given the Chinese government’s track record of long-term strategic thinking when it comes to developing its future trading partners, China has taken an active role in building up the infrastructure in a future vital trading partner.  On Burma’s western front, India is taking a similarly proactive approach in making sure it takes advantage of the country’s location and resources.  And, amazingly, it sounds like it could be a win-win-win situation:

A Hindu rite of passage. Day one in Burma

Watching these developments, some have warned of a new Great Game, leading to conflict between the world’s largest emerging powers. But others predict instead the making of a new Silk Road, like the one in ancient and medieval times that coupled China to Central Asia and Europe. It’s important to remember that this geographic shift comes at a very special moment in Asia’s history: a moment of growing peace and prosperity at the conclusion of a century of tremendous violence and armed conflict and centuries more of Western colonial domination. The happier scenario is far from impossible.

The generation now coming of age is the first to grow up in an Asia that is both post-colonial and (with a few small exceptions) postwar. New rivalries may yet fuel 21st-century nationalisms and lead to a new Great Game, but there is great optimism nearly everywhere, at least among the middle classes and the elites that drive policy: a sense that history is on Asia’s side and a desire to focus on future wealth, not hark back to the dark times that have only recently been left behind.

And a crossroads through Burma would not be a simple joining up of countries. The parts of China and India that are being drawn together over Burma are among the most far-flung parts of the two giant states, regions of unparalleled ethnic and linguistic diversity where people speak literally hundreds of mutually unintelligible languages, of forgotten kingdoms like Manipur and Dali, and of isolated upland societies that were, until recently, beyond the control of Delhi or Beijing. They are also places where ballooning populations have only now filled out a once very sparsely peopled and densely forested landscape. New countries are finding new neighbors. Whereas the fall of the Berlin Wall reopened contacts that had only temporarily been suspended, the transformations under way are enabling entirely new encounters. There is the possibility of a cosmopolitan nexus at the heart of Asia.

Readers of this blog know that I have a soft spot in my heart for Burma and its struggle.  I’ve often ruminated on whether anything good would ever befall the Burmese people.  But now, with two of the four BRIC countries looking to one another for a mutually-beneficial partnership in the post-American world, things are finally looking up.

Trekking to Inle Lake

I will close with a long paragraph from the Foreign Policy article quoted above that speaks to the optimism in the Far East:

A new friend.

It’s a fragile opening. The president seems determined to push ahead, but his is not the only voice. There are other powerful ex-generals in parliament and in the cabinet, and the structures of repression remain intact. Burma is at a critical turning point.

And now, for the first time, Burma’s politics matter beyond its immediate borders. If this opportunity for positive change is lost, Burma may remain a miserably run place — but it will no longer be an isolated backwater. The great infrastructure projects under way will continue, as will the much longer-term processes of change. Asia’s frontier will close and a new but dangerous crossroads will be the result.

But if Burma indeed takes a turn for the better and we see an end to decades of armed conflict, a lifting of Western sanctions, democratic government, and broad-based economic growth, the impact could be dramatic. China’s hinterland will suddenly border a vibrant and young democracy, and India’s northeast will be transformed from a dead end into its bridge to the Far East. What happens next in Burma could be a game-changer for all Asia.

As it turns out, rather than sanctions and a tourism boycott, simple economics might be just what Burma needs to become a vibrant democracy after decades of brutal military rule.  I will look forward to going back.

Here are a few of my favorite pictures from this amazing place.  The photos were taken by my friend, Gemma North, a fellow Kiva Fellow in Cambodia.

My first trip to the Kingdom

Tragedy in Kenya

Joseph Mwangi, 34, sits in a state of shock after discovering the charred remains of two of his children at the scene of a fuel explosion in Nairobi on Monday. Image: Ben Curtis / AP

Today, a gasoline explosion killed more than 100 people in a slum in Nairobi.  The ones who did not burn to death were left badly injured .  Here is a description of the scene from Jeffrey Gettleman:

The whole slum seemed to spring into action, with men, women and children grabbing buckets, oil tins, battered yellow jerry cans — anything to carry the spilled fuel. Even minibuses raced in from miles away, looking for free gas, a small godsend in a place where most people are jobless and live in rusty metal shacks that rent for $25 a month.

But then the wind shifted, witnesses on Monday said, and embers from the garbage fires that routinely burn by the river wafted toward the gushing pipeline. There was no time to escape. The fuel exploded, sending a giant fireball shooting up over the slum, engulfing scores of people and scattering bodies that were left in various poses of anguish, burned to the bone.

I don’t know much about Sinai slum, other than that the company I work for operates a school serving the community.  It is similar to the 65 other slums in Nairobi, which house more than 50% of the city’s population, yet occupy only 5% of the land.  You can imagine the circumstances that lead to a tragedy like this.

My friends and family emailed to check in and see if I was affected, but the reality is the slums are another world from the other parts of Nairobi.  Yesterday, I was thinking about writing a post on the cognitive dissonance that stems from seeing the Kenya I see, and the fact that the country is considered the 16th most failed state in the world.  But I suppose this is it.  The growing middle class and cosmopolitan young people that make Nairobi a culturally diverse and sophisticated African city stand in stark contrast to the kind of poverty that drives people to the site of a gasoline spill, risking their lives to earn a few extra bucks.  Gettleman again:

Residents of the Sinai slum, where the fire broke out, said that fuel spills happened all the time.

“I can remember four times,” said Zackiyo Mwangi, a vendor of pirated CDs. “People started saying this morning, ‘There’s a spill, in the usual place, let’s get over there.’ ”

“Yeah, I know,” Mr. Mwangi added, “it’s dangerous, but that’s how life is here.”

“This just shows you how these people will do anything to generate a coin,” said Johnson Muthama, a member of Parliament. “Just look at them.” He gestured toward a crowd of thousands of onlookers, mostly young men in grubby clothes, staring gape-mouthed at all the bodies on the ground. “They are ready to risk their lives for anything.”

It is a tragedy.  100 people, including children, were killed.  They shouldn’t have been anywhere near a broken gas line.  Until the conditions change for Nairobi slum dwellers, the desperation that created this situation will remain.  And that desperation will drive people to do it again.  That is the real tragedy.

A woman is comforted after she saw the body of her child at the scene of a gasoline explosion in a slum area of Nairobi. (Tony Karumba / AFP/Getty Images / September 12, 2011)

Also, I need to comment on the photo at the top of this post.  Few photos have affected me in the way this one has.  For the last two days, I’ve come back and stared at this photo, which captures so vividly the numbness and despair when someone loses a child.  This man, Joseph Mwangi, lost two of his children to the inferno.  What is amazing about this photo, to me, is that it captures a moment in time that speaks to the despair felt by everyone in the community.  This is the moment of realization after the initial confusion – somewhere on the spectrum of denial, anger, and acceptance.   I can only imagine the grief he is feeling right now.

It shouldn’t have to be this way.  After a period of mourning, everyone needs to take a long, hard look at the institutions responsible for creating this tragedy and demand a change.  I’m afraid the fire in Sinai Lunga Lunga won’t be enough.