Wednesday, March 27, 2013

We Day and Save the Children

On Wednesday March 27, 2013, some 15,000 middle and high school students from around the state of Washington are expected to converge upon Key Arena in Seattle to celebrate We Day.  The students who are attending share one thing in common – they have committed to work on at least one globally-based service project and one project focused on a local problem. 
This event is sponsored by Craig Kielburger, co-founder of Free the Children, and represents the twenty-fourth gathering and the first to be held outside Canada, the home of the organization.  Kielburger now thirty years old has been an activist for the causes of world peace and social justice since a young boy of twelve.  His story is exceptional and a brief description of his early life follows.   

Craig Kielburger was born on December 17, 1982.  He gained some notoriety as an activist for the rights of children around the world.  He is the founder of an organization called, Free the Children and Me to We.  Kielburger comes from Thornhill, Ontario, Canada.  At twelve years of age, he happened to come upon an article about the senseless murder of a young boy named Iqbal Masih.  This story was to launch Kielburger on a personal quest that would irrevocably change his life.

Iqbal Masih was a freed child laborer from Pakistan.  He had won the Reebok Youth in Action Award on account of his courageous decision to speak out against and in expose child labor abuses in his native country.  He came to the United States to receive this honor.  This child’s story is representative of the horrors so many children face in South Asia.  His parents had taken out a loan amounting to 600 rupees (equivalent to 12 USD) from an unscrupulous lender - who was the owner of a carpet factory - in order to pay for the wedding of their eldest son.  As repayment for this loan, Masih was forced to join other children whose job it was to squat before looms in the owner’s carpet factory tying miniscule knots in the products destined for world markets.  According to the nature of the agreement made with the owner, Masih would be literally owned by the manufacturer; until, the loan was fully paid off.  The boy was, in a sense, human collateral for this loan that in Western eyes would appear miniscule.  The “owner” retained the right to “sell” the boy to another factory owner.  As a consequence, Masih worked twelve hours a day and six days a week.
This horror does not end here.  For it was within the factory owner’s right to add on to the amount of the loan should the boy make mistakes and daily charges were made for the boy’s bowl of rice.  In addition, severe physical punishment was applied to these young children when mistakes were made; many of these hapless victims had scars on their hands and feet as a result of this kind of abuse.  Accidents were common as well given the long hours and physical exhaustion that accompanied this kind of work.
By the time Masih was ten years old, he realized that he would never be able to pay off the debt which now amounted to 13000 rupees.  With the help of a human rights organization that learned of his plight, Masih was able to escape and go on to school where he did exceedingly well.   He quickly learned to read and write and became an eloquent advocate for the rights of child workers and eventually campaigned on their behalf.
Masih’s personal dream was to become a lawyer and use his profession to help free more children trapped in the same kind of bondage that severely impacted his life.  All his aspirations were to end in tragedy, however, for on April 16, 1995, Masih was assassinated in Pakistan while attempting to visit his uncle on bicycle with two of his cousins; he was twelve years old at the time. 

Kielburger clearly remembered reading about this tragic event on April 19, 1995; this news had a profound effect upon him.  He questioned his mother about the story; her response was that he should go to the library and get more information.  The library was of little help, but by the time he returned home that day he remained extremely concerned about the tragic story of that boy and the horrific injustice that it spoke of.
This harsh reality that he was suddenly exposed to through something as innocuous as a newspaper article, seemed to light a fire in his mind.  As a result, he began making telephone calls to organizations dedicated to such issues.  Kielburger was to discover that all the persons he talked to over this issue that impacted children were adults; he found this very disturbing.  This apparent awakening in his awareness of the magnitude of this social inequity, Kielburger describes in the following way, “I’m always fascinated by coincidences, how one random event can come on the heels of another and together alter the whole direction of a person’s life.”
Eventually, Kielburger would be introduced to Alam Rahman from Bangladesh and shared his thoughts regarding child labor with him.  Rahman encouraged him to pursue the issue further.  In short order, Kielburger had organized students at his school and together they formed a group called, Free the Children with the goal of raising both awareness regarding this issue and funds to help combat it.
Kielburger often wondered why it was that even as a young boy he was so determined to be involved in such a large and important issue as the abuses of child labor.  His Grandfather on his father’s side was a German immigrant who arrived in Canada during the Great Depression (1929-1938).  His life and the life of his family were exceedingly difficult; they worked exceedingly hard.  In a similar way, his mother’s parents had a tough life.  Kielburger felt that he was instilled since childhood with a strong work ethic; his parents believed that anything was possible if one worked hard enough to achieve it.  His parents also emphasized the importance of issues of peace and social justice.  In addition, his older brother Marc had a profound impact upon him and served as a model for him to emulate, for Marc was concerned about environmental issues as a young boy and became an activist for this cause.
The Free the Children organization began to grow, not only on account of the indefatigable energy of the young Kielburger but also do the upwelling of support his organization received from many of his peers.  Many were shocked to learn that there were over 250 million child workers across the globe, and that, in general, their working conditions were abominable.
At the age of 12, Kielburger was invited to address two thousand delegates who were attending the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) regarding the work of Free the Children.  As a result of his presentation, the OFL agreed to pledge five thousand dollars to his organization.  This initial donation, created the momentum for other groups to donate as well.  Free the Children had truly taken off.  It is still extant to this day –

Kielburger’s real adventure began when his good friend Rahman – mentioned above – decided to take a year off from his university studies to travel through Asia and discover his ethnic roots.  He asked Kielburger to accompany him.  In this way, he suggested, Kielburger could meet working children throughout the region.  It took some convincing to receive the approval his reluctant parents, who were concerned about his safety.  Ultimately, they relented provided that some conditions were met to ensure their son’s well-being. 
After some negotiations, The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) agreed to contact their offices in South Asia to see if they could help.  In addition, PLAN International – a development agency – became involved; PLAN representatives sought to find individuals in the countries on the travel itinerary who would be willing to take care of Rahman and Kielburger.
When all these many conditions were met, the ambitious trip actually materialized.  The two traveled to Dhaka, Bangladesh, Bangkok Thailand, Calcutta, India, Kathmandu, Nepal, Varanasi, New Delhi, India, Karachi and Islamabad, Pakistan, Lahore and many other destinations.  In all these various and exotic locations, Kielburger witnessed firsthand the extent of child labor and actually met with many children who described their horrific experiences to him.  This remarkable and eventful journey had a definite impact on the young boy’s life.  As Kielburger describes it, “Shortly after my return to Canada, a newspaper quoted me as saying, ‘I divide my life into pre-Asia and post-Asia.’  I still do.  The trip had a profound effect on me, one that changed my life forever.  I would spread the word about the suffering of all the children I met.  I would let the world know that we, too, are part of the problem.  I would not fail them.”

This remarkable journey irrevocably transformed this young boy’s life.  The extreme nature of the social injustice endured by children throughout the world that Kielburger witnessed first-hand made him determined to draw the attention of people throughout the world , especially the young, to the plight of these young victims and to help make a change for the good. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Regarding the Cayman Islands and the Phenomenon of Off-shore Banking

There is a disturbing trend in the developed countries, especially in the United States, in which the very wealthy – the so-called super-rich – along with multinational corporations are using offshore accounts to evade taxation from their home countries.  This is phenomenon is referred to as offshore banking.  For US-based multi-nationals and private citizens, the usual repository for their capital is the Cayman Islands.  These banking institutions are not subject to local financial regulations or local taxation.
This kind of financial activity represents an increasingly sizable portion of the entire global financial system.  Current estimates are that as much as one-half of all capital finds its ways to these offshore institutions at some point.  The Cayman Islands, as an example, serve as a tax haven for the exceedingly wealthy.  In total, tax havens around the globe may hold over one-quarter of the world’s wealth within the accounts of only approximately 1% of the world's total population.  In addition, some 30% of profits held by US multi-nationals are deposited in offshore accounts.  There may be 3 trillion dollars in deposits in these banking institutions with large sums held in securities by so-called “international business companies” (IBCs).  The Cayman island-based institutions are believed to hold 1.9 trillion dollars in deposits and are considered to be fifth largest of such centers.  The tax advantages provided by such accounts are supported by the fact that some 25% of US corporations pay no federal income taxes.
Furthermore, according to the “World’s Wealth Report,” generated by Merrill Lynch, approximately one-third of the entire wealth held by the super-rich may be held in offshore accounts.  A substantial portion of this wealth resides within the accounts of an estimated 90,000 individuals - .001% of the world population.
There are many disturbing consequences of this global-based trend –
  • These vast sums of money remove much needed financial resources from national economies and from appropriate taxation in many countries, including the so-called “developed” world
  • With a diminished tax base, this puts additional burdens on the middle-class.  An example of this is the current pressure in the United States to balance the federal budget by cutting back substantially on the government services provided to the middle-class and to the those in need
  • The net result of the removal of a substantial portion of the world’s wealth is to exacerbate the endemic problem of unemployment and the growing unavailability of work paying a living wage.  It also takes money away from the essential human institutions that make up the Commons and delays or aborts important societal infrastructure projects and innovations including those related to the global threat inherent in climate change.

In my mind, this problem is a fundamental issue that has serious and unprecedented consequences for the vast majority of people around the globe.  It is also representative of a thoroughly corrupt mentality that places the interests of a very few individuals and institutions above the good of humanity.  The fact that this reality is widely accepted by political systems on a worldwide basis is sufficient cause for alarm, for it demonstrates the corrupting influence of money and power.  It is a sad testimonial to the failure of human institutions - represented by governments - to serve the public good.  Without access to a large portion of the world’s real financial assets, billions of the world’s people suffer unnecessarily. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Amartya Sen

There is little room for the realities of economic life - faced by the majority of the world’s people  - within the scope of widely accepted and conventional economic theory.  There is a particular exception to this general tendency and that is embodied in the theoretical framework of Amartya Sen who has clearly brought human compassion into the realm of economics.

Amartya Kumar Sen was born on November 3, 1933 and was the sole recipient of the 1998 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work on welfare economics. He is currently a Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University and is also a fellow of Trinity College at the University of Cambridge.  He is known for his astute analysis of economic theory as it relates to the actual realities that haunt the underprivileged in the world.  He examined, in detail, the economic conditions that result in famine, homelessness and unemployment.

Sen was born in East Bengal, India in the region that is now called Bangladesh. His family is very distinguished with strong roots in academia and government.  As a nine-year-old boy, he witnessed the horrendous famine that devastated Bengal in 1943, in which three million people perished. He would later conclude that this terrible loss of life was unnecessary.  This experience seemed to have exerted a powerful influence upon where his future career would take him. 

In his seminal work entitled, Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen claims that, “Enhancement of human freedom is both the main object and the primary means of development.”  In his view, freedom encompasses economic facilities, political freedoms, social opportunities, transparency guarantees and protective security.  Within this context, freedom is not simply a political attribute, but has very practical manifestations such as accessibility to adequate health care, housing, etc.

Sen proposed a model for economic development that is substantively different from the conventional paradigm.  While obviously a proponent of free trade, he envisions a very different approach to its implementation.  He identifies the traditional ethics, exemplified in the policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, as focusing on the primacy of income and wealth.  Furthermore, he defines poverty as a “deprivation of elementary capabilities which can lead to premature mortality, illiteracy and other consequences.”

He has postulated a freedom-based orientation to policies geared towards economic development.  The author states that, “With adequate social opportunities, individuals can effectively shape their own destiny and help each other.  They need not be seen primarily as passive recipients of cunning development programs.”

This unique perspective allows application of this economic model not only to developing countries but also to the developed world.  The fact that tens of millions of Americans lack access to adequate health care provides a striking example.  A link between income and mortality can also be readily established.  For example, the life expectancy of African-Americans compare to poor countries such as China, Sri Lanka, Jamaica and Costa Rica.

In this view of development, a consideration of personal liberties cannot be divorced from economic consequences.  The link between income and poverty is, of course, self evident.  Freedom can be seen not only as residing in so-called political freedoms, i.e. freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, but also dependent upon those aspects of economic life that are fundamental to living successfully, i.e. adequate health care, housing and food, referred to as substantive freedoms.  What good are political freedoms to those who expend all their energy simply trying to survive?

From this economic perspective, development is seen in terms of substantive freedoms and requires an analysis of the unfreedoms that people may suffer.  This differs substantially from the current operational approach of the traditional institutions.  The IMF’s approach to economic development often exacerbates, or, in extreme cases, creates the very inequities that make the plight of the poor even more devastating. 

Sen has devoted much of his attention to the idea of justice and from this idea he has evolved his economic theory.  He has detailed his analysis of justice in his work entitled, The Idea of Justice.  He has approached the theory of justice through the diagnosis of injustice.  From his analysis, understanding involves reasoning and critical examination.  He stresses the roles of rationality and reasonableness in understanding the demands of justice.  Coming from this orientation, he has concluded that the implementation or evaluation of social change should focus on whether or not such change would enhance justice.

In his view, injustice may either arise systemically or stem from individual behavioral transgressions.  In Sen’s mind, injustice must be evaluated at the level of the individual as well as the institutions.  For example, a society that prides itself on the democratic nature of its institutions may quietly condone and neglect the poverty and hunger that is a fundamental part of the lives of some of its people.  Within the paradigm that Sen has proposed, this reality is an injustice in part because it is readily open to remedy.  This practical consideration of the real impact that social institutions and public policy have on the lives of individuals represents a radical departure in regards to the analysis of the institutions themselves.  Within this point of view, the emphasis is on reasoned and rational arguments rather than relying on articles of faith and unreasoned convictions; reasoning and justice are, therefore, regarded as interdependent factors.

In his writing, Sen claims that the age of European Enlightenment in the 18th and 19th centuries has had a marked influence on his thinking.  He describes the idea of justice from two historic perspectives.  The first he refers to as “transcendental institutionalism.”  This represents the point of view taken by such notable philosophers as Thomas Hobbes and Rousseau.  They envisioned a perfect justice that could be realized if the institutions themselves were perfected.  This approach does not, however, take into account the behaviors of ordinary people and their social interactions.  Sen believes this to be a major flaw, and, in many ways, an impediment to real justice.

The other perspective he refers to as “realization-focused comparisons.”  This idea examines actual realizations and accomplishments.   In defense of this approach, he cites such well-known thinkers as Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.  As far as Sen is concerned, “The rules may be right, but what does emerge in society – the kinds of lives that people actually live.”  This particular focus lies at the heart of Sen’s thinking.  This point of view can be readily summarized in Sen’s own words, “The need for an accomplishment-based understanding of justice is linked with the argument that justice cannot be indifferent to the lives that people can actually live.” 

Sen proposed that reason needs to be balanced by an instinctive revulsion to cruelty and to insensitive behavior and that the remedy for bad reasoning is better reasoning.   Sen was strongly influenced by John Rawls in regards to formulating his theory of justice.  In Sen’s scheme, justice must include the fundamental property of fairness and the application of reasoned judgment.  He strongly asserts  that individuals have a deeply held inner sense of justice and a conception of the good.  The following statement provides some insights into his thinking, “Why should we regard hunger, starvation and medical neglect to be invariably less important than the violation of any kind of personal liberty.”  In his mind, justice must encompass an actual assessment of real freedoms and capabilities.

Amartya Sen applied his conceptions of justice, freedom and the use of reason to economics in his seminal work entitled, On Economic Inequality, and formulated an economic paradigm that continues to challenge the conventional approaches to economic development.  His sensitivity to the plight of many of the world’s people lies at the very heart of his conclusions.