Monthly Archives: April 2011

Denmark: The Exit Interview

I've lived in Denmark for the last five and a half years.

My time here encompasses two cities, eight apartments, one dormitory, six bikes, two trips to the emergency room and twice my body weight in misplaced hats, gloves and scarves.

It's impossible to live in a foreign country without developing a love-hate relationship with it. Anything you spend that much time with becomes like a sibling.

You spend years learning how to navigate and survive it, and you only realize later how the effort has changed you, for better or worse.

Denmark's a firmly admirable place.It's the world's example of how the state can deliberately create a culture and administration around social justice.

There's basically no poor people here. The working culture is the best in the world, and my professional experience here has solidified my commitment never to move back to the US.

The density of the cities and the safety of bike-commuting makes a huge impact on quality of life.

Between social benefits, free healthcare, free education and never having to sit in traffic or clamor for a parking space, there's almost nothing to stress out about. Thank God the weather is so shitty.

That said, Denmark has some serious problems.

The world sees Denmark as a model of 'how things are supposed to work', and Danes see themselves like that too.

This 'we are awesome so we don't have to try' attitude translates into a society-wide smugness that can be hard to thaw.

The ethnic discrimination, for example, which is as severe here as anywhere in Europe, is ignored by the popular and political culture. Domestic politicians are more interested in blocking immigration than developing Denmark's international competitiveness.

Homogeneity and social harmony are prized as principles in themselves, and social engagements sometimes feel like you're living in Pleasantville.

This culture of staying silent unless you can think of something to say that no one could disagree with has created a nation of introverts

People have fewer friends here than in the more small-talk-equipped countries I've lived in, and the friendships tend to be the bilateral, rather than networked, kind.

This means that, as a foreigner, it's not hard to meet friends here, it's just hard to meet your friends' friends.

If you're an extrovert when you move here, Denmark will make you an introvert. If you're already an introvert, Denmark will make you a spinster.

I don't know if Berlin is any different. But at least being in a new country gives me an excuse to pretend I don't know the rules.

And enjoy Berlin while it's still an acquaintance.


Filed under Denmark, Pictures, Serious

7 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me When I Started Working in Human Rights

For the last four years, my core work has been writing country reports for businesses. If you want to open, say, a shoe factor in Kenya, I’m the guy who tells you that you have to watch out for gender discrimination, low minimum wage and Kenya’s 52-hour workweek, which is above the international standard of 48.

This means I basically spend every day digging through the qualitative and quantitative dirt of some of the world’s most impoverished, challenging and tragic places. After doing this for four years, 65 countries and about 2,000 pages, I’ve learned a few things I didn’t know when I started:

Every country is just as unique and contradictory as yours
You know how long it takes you to explain to foreigners the ins and outs of why your country works the way it does? Between the priorities of law, politics, high culture and the population, not everything fits together the way it should, or how you’d expect. Everyone else’s country takes a while to explain too.

No matter how small, every country contains vast diversity
Even religiously and ethnically homogenous countries contain infighting and disagreements about the principles upon which their country is founded and operates. Not everyone in Denmark loves the welfare state. Not everyone in Saudi Arabia wants women to wear a burka.

Every country contains regional disparities and tensions
I always quip that if there was a European country two meters wide, people on one meter would have a longstanding conflict with people on the other. This is far from unique to Europe. Even in the smallest, landlockedest, most in-need-of-social-harmony countries, people in rural areas will find reasons to resent city-dwellers, people in the highlands will resent people in the lowlands, people on the mainland will resent the islanders, whatever. It’s as predictable as it is wasteful.

Every country has counterproductive cultural practices
In Russia, it’s typical to meet a friend and go ‘two on a bottle’, i.e. split a bottle of vodka between you. In South Korea, refugees from North Korea are shunned as unclean. Dozens of countries still have de facto caste systems. We’d all be better off if we compared ourselves to other countries more often.

Poor people aren’t any more noble than anyone else
There’s a powerful trope among the left that the poor are somehow constitutionally different from the rest of us. They lead simple, humble lives of hard work and peace, and make epic sacrifices so their children can be educated. In the real world, though, poor people are just as inclined to short-term thinking and profit-maximizing as any Wall Street CEO. I’ve heard oil company managers complain that they’ve tried consultations with the impoverished communities where their operations take place, but stopped once they found that the villagers ‘just wanted to get rich.’

Of course they wanted to get rich. In that way, they’re no different than … an oil company.

The fact that poor people in poor countries beat their wives, spend their paychecks on booze and practice gender and religious discrimination doesn’t mean they’re not entitled to development. It just means they’re no different from everyone else. The belief that you’ll crack open the developing world and a bunch of Mother Theresas will spill out is responsible for as many misguided development projects as the belief that welfare mothers will only start looking for work when their benefits run out.

Development isn’t a legal issue, it’s an enforcement issue
The problem isn’t that countries don’t write human rights laws, it’s that countries treat those laws like New York City treats jaywalkers. From India to Indonesia, most countries have impeccable legal frameworks for preventing child labour. There’s just no inspectors to ensure that anyone’s actually following them.

In Indonesia, it’s in the constitution that everyone must be paid a living wage. Norway wishes it had a constitution that protected the environment as watertightly as Paraguay’s. The hard part is implementing the laws, not writing them.

Every country has issues no one wants to talk about
If you read reports by human rights organizations based in Denmark, you wouldn’t know that Greenlandic people are systematically overlooked by the legal system and aid in Copenhagen. Talking to Ugandan NGOs doesn’t necessarily give you a picture of how hard it is to be homosexual in Kampala. The people working to promote development in a given society are also participants in that society, and hold a number of invisible biases as a result.

Every country I’ve researched has a significant problem with discrimination against disabled people, yet very few of them have government ministries or even civil society groups that address this.

None of these things are productive or particularly charming, but now that I know them, I spend less time being disappointed by the generalities and more time being inspired bythe specifics.

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The Worst Museum I’ve Ever Been To

Ladies and gentlemen, the Bulgarian Museum of Natural History:

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Filed under Random

Thrace in the Hole

The week before Easter, I was in Bulgaria

My grandparents lived there in 1949, so I walked around taking pictures of their favorite landmarks and gin-rummy dens

Sofia is surprisingly charming

Aside from the obtrusive Orthodoxity, most of it could pass for Berlin or Vienna

My Bulgarian friend Vlado says things have changed a lot for the better since Communism

You don't bribe the cops anymore, for example.

But they still ask for 'gifts' to make tickets go away.

He said lots of Bulgarians keep bottles of wine and other trinkets in their cars in case they get pulled over.

Bulgaria's history is really fascinating, actually.

They were an empire, then taken over by the Byzantines, then an empire again, then taken over by the Ottomans.

They sided with the Germans in both world wars, and paid pretty dearly.

My grandma says people in the 1940s used to talk about Stalin as a giraffe, reaching his long neck into Bulgaria to munch on their resources and take them away.

Even after communism, Bulgaria occupies a little-noticed pocket of Europe. We don't think about them that much.

It still seems unforgivably foreign from far away.

But up close, it's utterly charming, and I'm planning on going back.

Now that the giraffe's gone, the leaves are coming back.

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Filed under Pictures, Serious, Travel