Still, even as we celebrate the scale and speed of this change, the rates of depression, loneliness and substance abuse in the gay community remain stuck in the same place they’ve been for decades. Gay people are now, depending on the study, between 2 and 10 times more likely than straight people to commit suicide. We’re twice as likely to have a major depressive episode. In a survey of gay men who recently arrived in New York City, three-quarters suffered from anxiety or depression, abused drugs or alcohol or were having risky sex—or some combination of the three.
I’m not going to pretend to be objective about any of this. I’m a perpetually single gay guy who was raised in a bright blue city by PFLAG parents. I’ve never known anyone who died of AIDS, I’ve never experienced direct discrimination and I came out of the closet into a world where marriage, a picket fence and a golden retriever were not just feasible, but expected. I’ve also been in and out of therapy more times than I’ve downloaded and deleted Grindr.
I get nervous writing these stories, ones that examine a trend that I personify. I tried to include people who have it harder than me, to be skeptical of my own example. I have no idea if my own life, my own problems, are instructive to anyone else in understanding their own. But I feel lucky that so many experts let me borrow their insight to explain it.
The phenomenon I’m exploring—the epidemic of loneliness among gay men—began as a question: Is this really a thing? After the first few interviews, it became how did this happen? Then, after about 40, it was, why don’t we talk about this more?
The best I can hope for is that this article gives us a reason to.
I sort of couldn’t help myself. When I lived in Denmark I volunteered at an asylum center. I mentored a 17-year-old Afghan refugee. Since then, I’ve had friends and colleagues get jobs in international refugee policy. Seen them, one by one, become frustrated at the stinginess, the injustice, the cruelty masquerading as bureaucracy. It’s impossible for me to talk or write about this in my own voice without getting worked up, so I tried using someone else’s.
I grew up in a super religious family. Church on Sundays, hands clasped before dinner, Bible camp every summer. I remember talking to one of my parents’ friends when I was maybe 13 or 14. She worked at a homeless shelter, she provided food and clothes and beds all winter, a big brick building in the middle of a neighborhood I had lived my whole life avoiding.
I was in my Ayn Rand phase at the time, and I asked her, wasn’t she worried about dependency, fraud, the homeless people going to her shelter, getting food, then going to another and getting more?
“They need our help,” she said. And that was it. End of sentence, end of conversation. I remember being struck by that, the simplicity of it, the clarity of genuine, actual, real-world grace being defined in four words right in front of me.
This is why I get so upset about refugee policy. It is one of the few areas where our institutions are explicitly guided by morality. Developed countries started taking in refugees from the ashes of World War II. The economic and political benefits of doing so—and there are many—were unknown at the time, irrelevant. We took them because they needed us to. It really was that simple.
Since then, of course, it has become complicated. There’s nothing surprising about this. Institutions need vetting processes, evaluation criteria, annual audits, fine, whatever. I get that. Just because a policy was founded in generosity does not mean that it has no limits.
But the debate about those limits and the steady strengthening of them makes me—I don’t know how else to put it—very sad. As a person, I know that genuine grace is an aspiration I will never reach. As a citizen, I find it difficult to accept that my institutions have stopped trying.
I was 3, my brother was 5, neither of us really remember it.
This weekend, 30 years later, I visited.
I don’t really know why.
All I remember about it are the things I learned later, stories my parents told me.
Our blindingly homogenous daycare.
The moose steaks we bought in bulk and kept in the freezer.
The months we couldn’t drink milk because Chernobyl happened three countries away.
They might as well have happened to someone else.
But, possessed by the mixture of curiosity and narcissism typical of aging Millennials, I asked my mom for our old address, their favorite bakery, the name of that daycare. Then spent Sunday walking around taking pictures, waiting for bells to ring.
The last few weeks I’ve been reading William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and there’s this episode I can’t get out of my head.
The event that brought Hitler to national prominence was something called the ‘Beer Hall’ coup.
At the time, 1923, Bavaria was controlled by three men: The state commissioner, the chief of police and the regional army commander. The way to overthrow the government, Hitler decided, was to convert them to Nazis and use their power to take control of Bavaria.
So he waited until a political event all three of them were scheduled to attend. A rally in a ‘beer hall’, a pub the size of a concert venue.
Before they could address the 2,000 or so crowd, Hitler pulled out a pistol, fired it into the air, stormed the stage.
He pointed it at the crowd and ordered these three men, the most powerful in the state, up onto the platform and, then, into a tiny room in the back.
He told the audience, we’ve got this place surrounded by armed guards, which was true. And that the rest of Munich had already fallen, which wasn’t. Now he was going into the other room to negotiate with these three politicians about how they would join him to march on Berlin, which was nuts.
When he entered the room offstage, pistol in hand, all three officials refused to speak. Whether they agreed with him that the Weimar Republic needed overthrowing (and they sort of did), you don’t get political power by waving a gun in someone’s face. They sat, stonefaced, as Hitler unfolded his plan for Nazi revolution.
Hitler, a man who was good at nothing his whole life other than creating political theater, could see that this wasn’t working. As the audience outside grew restless, he went back to the podium and announced that all three officials had agreed to his plans, and that they would lead the march through Munich. The crowd roared.
Weirdly, this broke the stalemate. When the three officials heard the crowd’s thundering approval, they agreed to help. They would join Hitler’s movement to take over Bavaria. They would lead the charge to Berlin.
In the end, of course, it all fell apart. Hitler left them in the beerhall to go deal with stormtrooper admin, giving them enough time to, first, rethink what they had agreed to and, second, go home and get a good night’s sleep.
By the next day, they had all announced that Hitler was full of shit and that they had only agreed to his plan because of the pistol, not the crowd. Hitler was arrested for treason, imprisoned, released, empowered, et cetera, we all know what happened next and next and next.
The only thing I remembered walking around Linköping was a story my dad told me, the reason we were there. He’s a periodontist, he got a grant to study whether smoking cigarettes reduces blood flow to the gums.
In Linköping he found volunteers, gave them cigarettes, put little probes into their mouths to test the effects. He finished the study, published, packed up, moved us back to the U.S.
Back home, he tried to continue the study with dogs. He gave them gum disease, he mapped their veins and their blood.
With humans, the results were clear. With dogs, they were muddled, inconclusive, no effect. He never published, he moved on to other subjects, other methods.
But first, he had to kill the dogs. He had gotten them from the pound, they were going to be euthanized anyway. But that didn’t make it any easier. One by one, he had to inject them with a poison to stop their hearts. He said he never forgot that, never stopped feeling bad about it, never worked with dogs again. He waited to tell us until we were teenagers.
Margaret MacMillan has this great book called The Uses and Abuses of History. The past, she says, is never as simple as ‘if this then that’. Hitler was an asshole and a dictator and we should have stood up to him sooner, differently. That does not mean every asshole and every dictator needs up-standing to. Something that worked yesterday might not work tomorrow.
All we can expect from the past, MacMillan says, is a warning sign. Bridge Slippery When Wet.
It is raining outside and you are driving and you are approaching this bridge. You see the sign and you know the danger now. You slow down. You take more notice of your surroundings. That’s all history can really offer, she says, Not guidance or rules or certitude. Just warning signs.
It’s not much, she says, but it starts with remembering.
MICHAEL HOBBES: None of these violations take place in a vacuum. The only thing we can do to systematically improve those conditions is to work politically.
That would be something like trade deals. In the Dominican Republic, a condition of accessing the U.S. market was increasing the strength and size of their labor inspectorate. It used to be really corrupt. Inspectors were just kind of walking around, getting bribes from whichever factory they went to. Then all of a sudden they were required to have a law degree to be an inspector, they got better salaries. Now, these guys are doing really interesting work. That’s not in very many bilateral trade agreements, but it’s something that the AFL-CIO and other domestic labor rights organizations have been pushing for.
That stuff is really boring, it’s political, it’s technical, it’s slow, it’s policy—but it’s much more effective than buying a t-shirt that has a fair trade label on it. You don’t know what the conditions of production were, even if it has that sticker on it, and neither does the company selling it to you.
When I lived in London 10 years ago, biking to work was almost unheard of. I remember a colleague of mine, the only cyclist I knew, rolling up her pantleg, lifting her shirt, to show me all her scars.
Since then, though, cycling has nearly doubled, and is expected to surpass driving in just three years.
London has—visibly, significantly—become friendlier for cyclists. The bike-hire scheme, the bright blue “cycle superhighways,” you even see tourists and kids out cycling now. I started biking on my work-trips to London about six years ago, and it seems like every time I visit, there’s more quietways, better signs, (slightly) nicer drivers, fewer close calls.
I am perplexed by how this happened. All the arguments for cycling to work—cheaper, less pollution, more exercise—applied as much a decade ago as they do now. So why have they suddenly found purchase?
As far as I can tell, the decisive factor for the rise in bikes, and bike infrastructure, in London has been successful campaigning by grassroots NGOs. Starting in the early 2000s, cycling campaigners changed tactics, updated their messaging and started getting results. They’ve become so powerful that drivers even complain about the “cycle lobby” with the same sneer as Americans talk about the NRA.
It’s super cool! I’ve spent much of the decade since I left London campaigning for human rights, and I’m in awe of the way “Ride your bike!” has run circles around “Legalize drugs!” “End tax dodging!” and “Accept refugees!” as a message that’s supported by a wide swath of the public. I am also, rather relevantly, a cyclist, and I want other cities to put in bike lanes so I can bike on them and not die!
So—*cracks knuckles*—how did London cycling campaigners do it? What are the lessons that the broader field of social campaigning can take from this particular one?
1. Get Your Shit Together
The most striking thing about cycle campaigning in the UK is the 60 or so years they wasted broadcasting the wrong messages and arguing for the wrong policies.
Cycling peaked in the UK in 1949, at 37% of all miles traveled. As the road-building and car-buying frenzy of the 1950s took off, old-school cycling campaigners, led by an NGO called the Cyclists Touring Club, landed on the idea that separated, dedicated bike lanes were a bad thing.
Here’s a cartoon from the 1930s that sums up the opinion among many cyclists at the time.
The idea here is that building special roads for bikes represents a surrender. Cyclists had been using the roads for decades, since way before mass car ownership. Being separated from cars, shunted off onto their own little lanes, was a form of marginalization, a way for drivers to colonize space that rightfully belonged to cyclists. We have the right to be in the road, the CTC argued, and that’s where we’re going to stay.
This is, obviously, utter fucking madness. While Danish and Dutch cycling campaigners were pressing their governments to build roads that kept them away from speeding vehicles, UK cyclists were fighting to be right in their path.
For the rest of the 20th century it went on like this, the CTC promoting the baffling, murderous idea of “vehicular cycling“—bikes should act like cars. If you’re nervous about traffic behind you, or unsure about how to cross an intersection, you should “take the lane”: Bike in the middle of the road, block all the cars behind you, go through the infrastructure just like a car would. Rather than advocating for roads that would make cycling safe for children, the elderly or the disabled, the CTC actively encouraged infrastructure that kept cycling a niche pursuit, an option only for the brave, the stupid, the Spandexed (in Britain they call them MAMILs—Middle-Aged Men in Lycra).
The CTC gave training to cyclists, encouraged them to wear helmets and bright orange vests and hoped that drivers would finally, magically, pass them with more distance. They even argued that the bike lanes in Denmark and the Netherlands, which had steadily reduced accidents, deaths and injuries, were generating “incompetent” cyclists. Meanwhile, the proportion of Brits biking to work plummeted to just 2.8 percent. These days, despite the fact that the majority of children in the UK live less than 3 miles from school, less than 2 percent of them get there by bike.
The broader lesson here, other than “never trust anyone wearing Spandex,” is, I think, something about in-groups and out-groups. You can’t really blame the CTC for employing such a self-annihilating strategy. It’s a membership organization. Once all the roads got built, the only people left biking on them were hardcore cyclists—the dudes you see bent over their handlebars, helmets on, earbuds in, wrapped in bright yellow vests, running red lights through central London. Those guys were the CTC’s constituents—not the 50 percent of the population who consistently tell researchers they would bike if the infrastructure was better.
Their own mandate ensured that they were working for current cyclists, not potential ones. The CTC made various attempts over the years to change its strategy, but its own members revolted, reiterating their commitment to biking on the roads, not on bike lanes. It was only in the 2000s—when the CTC finally got competition by rival NGOs, when its bullshit started getting called out on bike blogs—that it updated its strategy.
This is relevant for all kinds of social issues beyond cycling. As much as we (rightly) lionize grassroots organizations, they’re all beholden to their own internal constituencies, vulnerable to advocating for the wrong ideas. For decades, the CTC “owned” the issue of cycling promotion just like Amnesty International “owns” abolishing the death penalty and Greenpeace “owns” not hunting whales. Most social issues are like this, they have one NGO that leads the work on gathering information and communicating it to back to the public. Some of these NGOs are great and some of them suck. And it can take decades to detach the sucky ones from an issue and replace them with one that will actually get something done.
There’s also a lesson here about appropriation. Transport for London, the agency in charge of (not) building bike lanes, must have loved the CTC. It could invite the CTC round, show them some deathtrappy infrastructure, get their sign-off and start building. The government got to save money on building bike lanes and got the added bonus of saying “Hey, we consulted cyclists before we built this” if anyone complained.
You see this everywhere in human rights: The NGOs that are the most comfortable with the status quo, the ones that are already cuddle-distance from politicians, are the ones that get invited to the consultation, that get a speaking slot at the conference, that get repeated and retweeted by people in power. For a shark, the best thing about having a favorite remora is that it keeps the other remoras off of you.
2. Kick It Old School
Cycling started to get successful in the runup to the 2012 London mayoral elections. The new cycling NGOs, the ones challenging the CTC’s monopoly on bipedaling, launched a campaign called “Love London, Go Dutch” and started lobbying candidates to sign it. Since then, they’ve persevered, timing advocacy to coincide with major political events and pressuring politicians to include cycling in their manifestos.
Considering how recent this all is, you would think it would be a parable about the importance of new media, how cyclists twitterred and Facebooked and Snapchatted their way into a bike boom. But, the more you look into it, the more it starts to look like an example of the opposite.
The London Cycling Campaign, the main NGO advocating for better bike lanes, has 12,000 members, 30,000 supporters and handful of franchises—the Camden Cycling Campaign, the Hackney Cycling Campaign, and so on—focused on each of London’s boroughs. This entire network has been mobilized to relay a clear, simple, specific message to London’s politicians at every level: Build us more bike lanes.
Most of the ways they do this are decidedly old-school. They hold protest rides. They show up at town-hall meetings. They give their members the contact details of their ward councilor. One of the smartest things they’ve done is the annual “Sky Ride,” one Sunday a summer when London closes all its highways so families can bike on them. This not only generates positive messaging (you can only bitch at Transport for London so many times), it also produces photos of adorable children on bikes that the LCC can show to politicians and ask “Why can’t kids do this every single day?”
Another analog strategy they’ve used is converting cycling deaths from statistic to tragedy. As anyone with eyes and a brain will tell you, biking in London is dangerous. What it’s not, though, is uniformly dangerous. The vast majority of cycling deaths happen at intersections—at, in fact, the same fucking intersections, over and over again.
In 2013, after six cyclists were killed in two weeks, most of them by delivery trucks, the LCC started pointing out to the media, the public and politicians that these deaths were not inevitable. They gave names and backstories to the people that were killed and organized a mass ride to London’s 10 deadliest intersections. Stop Killing Cyclists, another NGO, held a mass ‘Die-In‘ outside Transport for London. All this direct action demonstrated the argument that biking is not dangerous. What’s dangerous is how London’s governing bodies arrange public space so cyclists have to share it with trucks and taxis and buses. Accidents are the result of negligence by engineers and planners, not carelessness by cyclists.
Earlier this year I interviewed a consultant who has advised the Gates Foundation on its use of technology to solve global poverty. The National Rifle Association, he pointed out, is one of the most effective lobbying organizations in the world. And sure, it has a website, it’s on Twitter. But mostly, it wins at everything not because it uses new media but because it has perfected the old: Forming a constituency, articulating a clear agenda and threatening politicians with the loss of a voting bloc if they don’t fall in line. Cycling campaigners finally figured out that if you want politicians to listen, you have to hit them in the only place it hurts.
3. Take the Right Lessons from the Right Countries
This is Exhibition Road, in West London. On the left is what it used to look like. On the right is what it looks like now.
The idea here is “shared space”: Rather than a forest of signs telling drivers, bikers and walkers how to behave, the street allows everyone to interact with each other, to negotiate between themselves. We’re all adults here, after all, and it’s a kind of freedom to be in a space that’s open to improvisation, rather than striped into types and speeds and modes.
This concept, its architects love to point out, is actually borrowed from the Dutch, who famously pulled out stop signs at intersections and un-painted bike lanes in favor of streets that were uniform, interactive, human.
It’s a super appealing idea! We’ve all been to streets where people are sitting at cafes, or cruising past on their bikes, or slowly cruising past in their convertible. They’re delightful.
The only problem is what Exhibition Road is actually fucking like.
A friend of mine works nearby, so I bike down this street nearly every time I’m in London. Pulling out the stop signs and putting in those painted roundabouts has given cab drivers license to careen though them with barely a swerve. Pedestrians and bikers, far from “sharing the space” with the cars whizzing past, are huddled onto the sidewalk out of their way, the same way we are on every other goddamn street. Who wants to sit at a café where you breathe in diesel, where you shout over engine noise, where you’re boxed in by parked cars?
This is what Mark Treasure calls “placefaking.” Everyone agrees, in principle, that neighborhoods need destinations: Plazas and streets made for visiting, rather than driving through. Dutch cities have a lot of these. They’re clean, peaceful, cute, slow. You find yourself using words like “stroll” and “wander.”
And, yes, those Dutch streets have pretty pavements and very few road signs. But that’s not what makes them places. What makes them places is that they have barely any cars on them. The Dutch do this deliberately. They put blockades at one end of a street to keep cars from using it as a through route. Or they create loop-de-loops of one-way streets so they don’t actually lead anywhere. Those streets are cute and quiet because the only people who drive on them are people who live there or are delivering something. Pretty paving is fine, sure, it can stay. But it’s the least important thing about what makes a place a place.
This is the constant danger of any type of campaigning: The actors you’re aiming it at will take components of the shit you’re asking for and ignore the purpose behind it. They’ll try to give you what you want without taking anything away from anyone else. The way countries do this is by passing laws that campaigners ask for, then refusing to enforce them. The way companies do this is by finding easy, profitable fixes to their sustainability problems. They switch to fluorescent light bulbs, or they sell their waste to recycling companies. All this shit is frosting, ways for governments and businesses to look like they’re improving while continuing to violate human rights or run a polluting factory. Well, we tell ourselves, it’s better than nothing.
This is what I always found to be the hardest part about campaigning: Not the messaging, but the monotony. Exhibition Road used to be a clogged esophagus for cars. It remains one, but improving it any further just got exponentially harder. Taking two steps forward and one back is, as I have argued in basically everything I’ve ever written, the way the world works. And it is exhausting.
4. Focus on Structural Solutions
One of the most ubiquitous insights of the last 10 years is that the countries that have the highest percentage of organ donors are not the ones that cajole their citizens through public awareness campaigns. It’s the countries where donating your organs is the default on the form. It’s that simple. By making it the norm, that little tick box teaches people that donating their organs is the baseline, expected, that they should have a reason not to.
The idea that our environment affects our behavior, often in invisible ways, has wormed its way into the zeitgeist, from tax forms to TED Talks, and there’s nothing governments like these days more than bragging about how they’re “nudging” their citizens toward pro-social behavior.
The implications of this—both the idea and its current faddishness—for campaigners in general and cycling in particular are obvious: Streets teach you how to drive on them. The width of the lanes, the sharpness of the corners, the smoothness of the tarmac, they’re all telling you the “right” speed to drive at, whether you’re consciously hearing them or not.
A few years ago, some cycling NGOs in the UK launched a campaign called “20 is plenty.” They wanted cities across the UK, as well as large parts of London, to make the speed limit 20 miles per hour. Slowing traffic, went the logic, would encourage people to bike, would quiet streets to make them more walkable for pedestrians, more play-innable for children.
This, it turns out, was a huge waste of everyone’s time. Islington, one of the London boroughs that imposed the lower speed limits, found that it reduced the speed of traffic by … 1 mph. Portsmouth, an entire city, did the same thing and saw average speeds fall from 19.8mph to 18.5mph and the number of deaths and injuries actually increase.
Since that campaign, cycling campaigners have wised up. These days it’s all about structural solutions—updating intersections with separate traffic lights for bikes, or retrofitting trucks so drivers can see the cyclist at their flank before they turn on top of her. As a government report on the Portsmouth experiment notes, “20mph limits are most appropriate for roads where average speeds are already low.” In other words, update the roads, not the rules.
Not that that’s easy. When I used to consult corporations on how to protect human rights, the first thing they always suggested was a handbook: A little guide with tips for their managers on spotting child labor or gender discrimination or human trafficking. We would spend a month researching it, a month writing it—and about 10 minutes implementing it. Making up new rules and delivering new messages is easy. That’s exactly why it’s the first resort of under-budgeted government departments and marginalized corporate sustainability departments.
If you look at the two social issues where companies have genuinely improved in the last 30 years—workplace accidents and corruption—it’s because they started monitoring their own performance, gave bonuses to managers who improved and fired managers who didn’t. Alcoa famously started examining all of its workplace accidents, poring over them like plane crashes, to make sure they never happened again. Siemens installed an ombudsman whose entire job was to root out corruption in his own company. That’s what institutions do when they actually want to solve a problem. Handbooks and rules and awareness-raising are what they do when they want to seem like they are.
5. It’s the Money, Stupid
Here’s a graph of the percentage of trips made by bike in the UK. Joe Dunckley of At War With the Motorist has handily added boxes for each time a politician has declared that a “cycling revolution” was afoot.
This is both extremely cynical and extremely accurate. Every 7-10 years for the previous 50, the UK government has released a “Let’s Get Britain Cycling!”-type strategy document. The fonts have changed over the years, but the content is remarkably consistent. The survey of existing biking levels. The consultation with cyclists. The statement of the urgent need for better infrastructure. The same sore-thumb-obvious observations that cycling is good for health, environment, pocketbook. A dash of concern for its maleness and whiteness, a sprinkling of the word “inclusive.” Then a dozen or so recommendations for making it mass. Build infrastructure, train kids, sensitize drivers.
The pdfs recede into the tangled ivy of the Department for Transport website. The recommendations are ignored, their contradiction with binding engineering policies unresolved. And the targets—get 10% of Brits biking to work, double the number of kids biking to school—get repeated, verbatim, in the next strategy, the next decade.
Let’s not pretend to be surprised by any of this. Bold announcements and flaccid follow-through are inherent to the structure of democratic politics. Our representatives get acclaim for announcing things and criticism for actually doing them. It is cheap and easy to hold consultations, produce models and projections and release a target and a “roadmap.”
Actually doing stuff is where it gets hard, expensive and vote-subtracting. Getting people cycling requires coordinating overlapping jurisdictions, tendering out contracts, meeting a timetable, allocating a budget. This is the stuff of trade-offs and sacrifices, the exact kind of things for which we need politicians—and for which we never reward them.
It is tempting to say that this time is different. Boris Johnson, before he became the most hated man in Britain, was the mayor of London for eight years. He was also a cyclist, and the first London politician to (sort of) follow through on the government’s commitment to promote biking. As one of his last acts in office, he installed a big, fat, separated bike lane right along the Thames, narrowing the road and pissing off thousands of drivers. Nearly every single mayoral candidate in his wake signed on to keep expanding bike lanes.
Which is great! But then, a week after the election, after the political commitments and pastel statements, the government released its nationwide Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy … and steady cuts to the cycling infrastructure budget. By 2020, cycling will be funded by the UK government at roughly the same level as hoverboarding.
The lesson that emerges from all this is an essential corollary to the earlier rule, the one about forming a voting bloc and mobilizing it: The only thing that matters is the money.
All of those earlier strategy documents failed to allocate any significant budget to cycling infrastructure. The 1996 strategy envisioned the creation of a “National Cycling Network” across the country, but didn’t fund anyone to pave it. Local councils got some volunteers to clear branches off rural trails and put up a few signs, that was it. In 2001, the government announced a Cycling Project Fund that would encourage cities to install cycle lanes. It was £2 million. Nationwide. That’s about what London spends on the Tube every two hours.
This is a tricky issue for the left. Progressives are constantly being accused of trying to increase government spending, of creeping toward communism. As a result, left-wing social movements are often reluctant to admit that social change does, in fact, cost money. Instead of arguing that our issues require—and are worth—investing in, we act like they’re freebies. Organic farms are cheaper than industrial ones! Renewable energy pays for itself! Higher wages will improve productivity! And we accept, infuriatingly, plans like the last dozen or so in the UK, ones that make all the right commitments but aren’t willing to pay for them.
At my dayjob, I’ve spent the last three years helping developing countries write National Action Plans. The idea is to get a government to commit to taking action, to make binding targets, to finally coordinate all its ministries and agencies toward a shared goal. Women’s rights, child labour, HIV/AIDS, climate change—pick your issue and at least a dozen developing countries have one of these plans to address it.
But in all the processes I participated in, no one ever seemed to check what had happened to all the previous plans, why the last set of targets weren’t reached. For me, brought in as a consultant, my job was the make sure the plans made the right commitments, not whether they were ever carried out. I could go home and tell my donors that, because of me, the government of Country X adopted a plan on Issue Y and promised to reduce Problem Z by 50 percent before 2025. Then, my job was over. No one wanted to pay for someone local to show up every day after that, to make sure these commitments ever become anything more than a wish list.
In the last few years, London cycling campaigners have gotten smarter, and angrier, about this. There was a huge outcry when the stingy Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy was announced, and campaigners felt comfortable, finally, pointing out that the bike lanes on London’s bridges carry more people every day than all the car lanes combined, and it’s about time they got paid like they did.
For decades we’ve been doing it backwards, trying to get the targets first and hoping the funding will follow. Campaigners have finally realized, fuck the targets. Get the cheddar first and then start debating how to spend it.
We like to think of social change as a rolling snowball, that it builds speed and momentum as it goes. And maybe, at some point, it is. But for the decades before that, it’s a child learning to walk. Teetering, spinning, going backwards, falling down.
It’s not clear that this “cycling revolution” in London is going to last. Social change of any kind is fragile. Britain has, understandably, more pressing issues to focus on at the moment. Maybe in 10 years biking will be gone and the new lanes Boris built will be filled with self-driving Razor Scooters or something. Or, maybe London will finally be as safe and fun as Amsterdam to bike in. But at least, finally, campaigners have figured out the right thing to ask for and the right way to ask it. Campaigners for other issues should make sure they’re doing the same thing.
This video, and the article it’s based on, are the culmination of about 10 years of feeling increasingly powerless in what I do for a living.
Things were never good in Chisumbanje, but they have never been this bad. One of Chachengwa’s granddaughters is 13 years old. After she stopped going to school because Chachengwa couldn’t afford the tuition anymore, she became one of the many wives of a village elder. She’s already pregnant. The daughters of Chachengwa’s neighbors and friends have jumped the border to Mozambique, becoming prostitutes in the cities or on the highways, making just enough money to eat plus a little extra to send back home. The men were promised jobs on the sugarcane plantations, but the company running them only hires temporary workers and pays just $2, plus a warm meal, for a day’s work.
You know where I’m going with this, right? I’m about to tell you that the company behind all this is Monsanto, or Shell, or Coca-Cola. That your car is running on the ethanol this plant is producing. That the U.S. government is funding or facilitating or failing to prevent what is taking place here.
But none of that is true. The company responsible for all this is called Green Fuel. It is headquartered in Zimbabwe, it isn’t listed on any stock exchange, it doesn’t sell any products in the United States, and it has no Western investors.
And it is, increasingly, the rule rather than the exception. When you think of the worst abuses in poor countries — land grabs, sweatshops, cash-filled envelopes passed to politicians — you probably think they’re committed by companies based in rich ones: Nike in Indonesia, Shell in Nigeria, Dow in Bhopal, India.
These are the cases you’re most likely to hear about, but they are no longer representative of how these abuses actually take place — or who commits them. These days, the worst multinational corporations have names you’ve never heard. They come from places like China and South Africa and Russia. The countries where they are headquartered are unable to regulate them, and the countries where they operate are unwilling to.
Every time I travel to Africa to find out how corporations are violating human rights, I hear the same thing: The western companies, the ones we boycott and rally against and shout down, aren’t the worst offenders. In fact, they’re barely on the radar. The worst companies, the ones that really terrify people, are the Chinese, the Korean and the Indian ones.
For years now I’ve been asking people in my field, at conferences, during trainings: What are we doing about south-based companies?
So far, the answer I hear the most is that we have to wait for consumer movements to spring up in the BRICs, for Chinese consumers to chase down their companies in Africa the way we chased down Nike in Indonesia.
In other words, what we should do is a) wait and b) hope.
That fucking sucks, obviously, but it’s not like I have a better answer. When you write these articles you always have to end on a note of optimism, no matter how false, just so you don’t drag readers down into despair with you. But somehow I couldn’t muster that this time. I genuinely don’t know what to do about this problem and, as far as I can tell, no one else does either.
I’ve been watching, impotently, as my home city has embarked upon a giant infrastructure project that has no chance of success. Two weeks ago, I decided to stop boring my German friends by complaining about this all the time and start boring the entire internet!
Here’s the video I made about the huge mistake Seattle has made, and why other cities make the same one over and over again.
I did a live interview on Leonard Lopate’s show on WNYC yesterday. According to the comments on their site, I am an insufferable upspeaker? Whatever, I managed not to curse for a whole 40 minutes. I consider this a major accomplishment.
Today I have an article on Highline about how Mark Zuckerberg should give away his $45 billion.
It’s a big deal for me! Not like because it’s on the internet and super long and got fact-checked and stuff. It’s the first story I’ve written that I didn’t show to my mom before I showed it to my editor.
In the last two years, since I started experimenting with this whole journalism thing, it’s always felt like a hobby. Even as I started getting paid, started dealing with editors, started getting invited to say stuff on panels, it always felt fake, like any moment they will realize I’m just this asshole in his pajamas.
But on this one I was like ‘OK Mike what would a real journalist do?’ I called up hella people. I learned what the terms ‘off the record’ and ‘on background’ mean. I looked at tax filings. I called up the organizations I was complaining about and asked them to respond.
All of that is work. And, for the first time, this little journalism project of mine felt like a job. I had, of course, a ton of help. My editors are great, the infographics people made everything look terrific, the fact-checker was exactly the kind of junkyard dog you need him to be.
I have no idea if this little hobby is ever going to lead to anything real. Maybe I’ll always feel like I’m faking it. Maybe the people already doing it feel like that too. At least from now on, I’ll take some of the pressure off my mom.
British trains used to ‘slam doors’, metal slabs that swung outward, a latch on the outside. If the train was pulling into a station, passengers could reach out through the window, swing the door open and hop off without waiting the extra few seconds for the train to come to a full stop. During long delays, they could lean out, have a cigarette and shut it again when the train started moving.
The downside of the slam doors was the accidents. Every year, a few people fell off the back, pulled under the wheels. Passengers waiting at train platforms got bashed in the face by the doors as they swung open. The trains put up signs, of course, don’t open this, watch your step, but every year, the doors caused between 5 and 10 deaths, and dozens of injuries.
The need for replacing the doors seems obvious, but for decades, the UK stubbornly refused. Updating the doors would have required designing an automatic opening mechanism, then paying workers to replace each swinging door with a sliding one. With hundreds of trains, thousands of doors, the cost was in the billions. So Britain did nothing. It left the doors as they were, cleaned up the mess from the fatalities but did nothing to prevent them.
I spent last month in Seattle. The city has been in a decade-long debate about what to do about the Alaskan Way Viaduct, an elevated waterfront freeway, one of the city’s busiest north-south arterials. In 2001, an earthquake rattled the viaduct, weakened it. Even after the city added extra steel and sensors to all the weak points, everyone knows it’s not going to survive the next earthquake. As my friend, a Seattle city planner, puts it, ‘the next time someone sneezes on that thing, it’s coming down.’
And again, it seems obvious what the city should do. Close the viaduct, tear it down, build a safer one. But they haven’t. Fourteen years now, it simply remains, carrying just as many passengers as before. When the next earthquake happens—and in Seattle, it is indeed a when, not an if—a not-insignificant number of people will die in their cars, crushed by concrete and steel. There’s even a road underneath the viaduct, a popular tourist area, bike lanes, hot dog stands. Those people, if the earthquake is during the day, will probably die too.
Countries have a formula they apply to these sorts of problems, it’s called the value of preventing a fatality, of VPF. In Jonathan Wolff’s Ethics and Public Policy, where I read about the train doors, he notes that in the UK, the value of a human life is £1.4 million. In the United States, it’s apparently $6 million.
What that means is, since the train doors killed up to 10 people a year, Britain was willing to invest up to £14 million in retrofitting them. If the cost went over the VPF, it would leave them. It did, so it did. In Seattle, tearing down the viaduct, spending years rebuilding it, would interrupt the commute of millions of people, would cost billions in lost productivity. Whatever mayor or governor decided to do it would be voted out of office.
I’m not even sure I disagree with leaving the viaduct up. I biked beneath it almost every day in Seattle, I took that photo standing right under it. A small chance of, say, 60 people dying in exchange for keeping a major urban arterial might actually be a worthwhile trade-off.
What’s interesting to me isn’t that we make these choices, but that we are only allowed to make them invisibly. A politician who stood at a podium and said ‘saving 10 lives isn’t worth more than £14 million’ would be seen as a monster. Yet that is indeed the decision Britain’s politicians reached, and the one we live with intrinsically in things like our drinking age, our speed limits, our pharmaceutical regulations, our sentencing laws. At the population level, almost every decision means lives lost. Since 1979, 10 people have apparently been killed by Bic cigarette lighters. Is banning them worth the inconvenience of millions of people taking slightly longer to light their cigarettes? Meh, probably not.
This month, the international community will come together to sign the Sustainable Development Goals, an ambitious framework to end poverty, achieve gender equality and improve global health. As I’ve written before, it’s a mess, a soup of unmeasurable indicators and undefined targets, things like ‘halve per capita global food waste’ and ‘encourage companies … to adopt sustainable practices’
One of the reasons it’s so bad, I’m convinced, is that in development, we aren’t allowed to talk about these trade-offs, the kinds governments and citizens make every day. With the viaduct, with cigarette lighters, we traded a small risk of fatalities for the inconvenience of preventing them. With train doors, Britain decided there were more pressing risks to spend its resources on, more passengers it could save for its pounds elsewhere.
Yet in development, we never talk like this. One of the main criticisms of the Millennium Development Goals, the precursor to the Sustainable Development Goals, was that they neglected some development issues in favor of others. Domestic violence, human trafficking, corporate tax evasion, all of them got left behind.
I remember a meeting at my last human rights job. We were a department of four people, trying to plan our activities for the next year. We brought in a strategy consultant, he gave us each a matrix of organizational priorities, stuff like land resettlements in Africa, foreign direct investment in Myanmar, sexual harassment in the Middle East. He asked us to rank them in priority from high to low.
After a few minutes of scribbling, one of my colleagues reported that she had marked every issue as ‘high priority.’ The consultant looked confused. ‘Those are all really critical issues,’ she said, ‘with profound impacts on peoples’ lives. We should be working on all of them.’ I looked around, everyone else in the department was nodding.
It’s understandable, this. No one wants to argue that one development issue is more pressing than another, to stand up and declare ‘state surveillance of political dissidents affects fewer people, and less severely, than human trafficking. Lets prioritize the latter.’ No one wants to admit that working on one problem leaves all the other ones in place.
When you work at Nike, when you have to decide on launching an ad campaign for sandals instead of sneakers, you’re allowed to make arguments why one should take precedence over the other. But in development, lives on the line, you can’t. So we say yes to everything, we plan our years without differentiating between priorities, we stretch ourselves thin. And we fail, again and again.
I don’t know what’s going to happen with the Sustainable Development Goals. Maybe governments will pick the ones they want to reach, will defend the choice to leave others behind. Maybe they will be honest about the choices they make, we make, all the time, the trade-offs that come with resource constraints and political realities.
But I think, I fear, that they won’t. That the international community will fail to make the decisions that governments do every day, that we will give developing countries rules and principles, but no tools for choosing between them. That we will, once again, tell poor countries to replace their train doors and rebuild their viaducts all at once.
In 1913, Henry Ford started paying his workers $5 per day, a huge amount for the time and a more than 100% raise from what they were previously earning. It’s seen as a milestone in modern capitalism, the moment when employers realized that workers were also consumers, that raising their wages created a generation that would buy as well as work.
It came with some strings attached. The headline pay was divided into two parts: wages (about $2.40 per day for an unskilled worker) and “profits” (about $2.60 per day). All workers received wages for their work at Highland Park, but they shared in the profits only if they were deemed worthy. Six months’ service was required to qualify.
Married men were eligible, as were men under the age of 22 who were supporting widowed mothers or brothers and sisters. All women supporting families also qualified. But unmarried women and men who were not supporting dependents were excluded.
Ford made it clear that a “clean, sober, and industrious life” was required to receive the higher pay. An employee had to demonstrate that he did not drink alcohol or abuse his family. Moreover, he had to make regular deposits in a savings account, maintain a clean home, and be of upstanding moral character.
Workers who accepted the new wage would also be subject to company rules about how to conduct themselves during off-hours. As Ford explained it, “The object was simply to better the financial and moral status of the men.”
To enforce his lifestyle dictates, Ford mobilized an army of investigators that at one point numbered 200. They were expected, Lacey writes, “to make at least a dozen house calls every day, checking off information about marital status, religion, citizenship, savings, health, hobbies, life insurance, and countless other questions.” To help them meet their quotas, Ford provided each inspector with a new Model T, a driver, and an interpreter for help in ethnic neighborhoods.
I know this sort of thing isn’t all that surprising, but it really does bum me the fuck out. This is exactly what people mean when they talk about privilege. Here was one of the best jobs, in one of the nation’s most economically dynamic cities, and it was only open to men who were the right religion, the right background, who passed the similarity test by their bosses.
I remember chatting with a retired government worker from Belfast at a conference a few years ago who told me that he had a set of interview questions to determine which candidates were Protestants and which ones were Catholics. What primary school did they attend? What neighborhood did they grow up in? What sort of work did their parents do?
It’s appalling, this, not to mention wasteful, and it makes me wonder the ways we do this now. As a gay person, I always feel a bit guilty about the fact that I’ve never experienced any discrimination directly. I’m pretty invisible; by the time people find out I’m gay I’m usually hired.
We talk a lot in this country about how quickly we’ve all made the turnaround on gay rights, and I wonder how much has to do with gay people’s ability to pass these little tests. We were already in the boardrooms and behind the judicial benches way before it was safe to do. Once it was, we had friends and colleagues who had a financial incentive in keeping us there. Most other marginalized groups never get that chance.
I talked to someone at a well-known labor NGO about this and he said he has three staff members. The best way to stretch that into impact is to go after Apple, which can improve conditions for hundreds of thousands of employees with a snap of its fingers. Or at least that’s the perception. Individually it’s understandable. But collectively, it means no one is looking at where the worst violations are.
The next day I got an e-mail from Kevin Slaten, a Program Coordinator at China Labor Watch. He’s the guy I was talking about. Here’s what he said.
I did not say that we just focus on Apple, Michael. We focus on companies that have major buying influence in a given factory or industry supply chain–which includes Apple, among many other buyers which CLW has reported on over the past 15 years. Look at CLW’s report database for a list of reports by industry and related brand companies.
While I understand the general point you are making–lots of manufacturing takes place in small firms–you failed to mention the sectoral (or even broad economic) pull-on effect from raising the bar among large groups of workers: it changes the expectations and demands of other workers. We talked explicitly about this logic. (An additional academic paper bearing out this point.)
For example, ever since the Yue Yuen show factory strike in April 2014, in which as many as 60,000 workers demanded arrears on years of unpaid insurance, workers all around the region (and even throughout China) have increasing protested over this exact issue. Workers’ consciousness has been shifted.
Another example: when I did field work for my MA in NE China (on labor rights defense), workers in an industrial zone (with hundreds of thousands or millions of workers) from different companies would talk knowledgeably about their working conditions relative to the industry or region. This caused many people I interviewed to “vote with their feet” and find better work. It radicalized others to protest.
To put it in the terms you used: workers in smaller and more abusive plants are more likely to protest or find a new job (starving the poorer plants of labor) if those workers believe that there are better conditions elsewhere. In this interview (and in your article) you focus on the concept of increasing amounts of products going to countries whose consumers seem to “care less” about sweatshops. Putting aside the factual accuracy of this statement for now (there have been lots of anti-sweatshop protests in Taiwan, HK, and elsewhere in E. Asia), it ignores the power of improving working conditions at key locations within an industry.
Anyway, most of the above information is context. My reservation is with your characterization of our interview. Your description suggests that our organization just focuses on Apple; this is not an accurate characterization of the interview or CLW’s work.
Sorry to Slaten for mischaracterizing our interview. He’s right, their reports offer a lot of nuance I didn’t capture in my piece. Go read ’em!
So on Wednesday I wrote this article for Highline arguing that consumer movements are never going to end sweatshops. The worst conditions are in sub-contractors, small workshops and factories producing for emerging markets. We can lean on multinational corporations all we want, they don’t have the information or the power to ensure decent factories, and neither do we.
Since the article came out, much of the reaction has been two covers of the same song. Either ‘Well I buy my T-shirt from sustainable brands’ or ‘Well I only buy local.’
Let me be super clear about this, in words I might have minced in the piece itself: that is impossible. And pretending it’s not is exactly what keeps sweatshops from being solved.
First, your T-shirt. Let’s say it really was produced by an American company, made in the USA, by people earning a living wage, and that wasn’t just a marketing ploy to get you to pay more for it.
Congratulations. But just because something was sewn together in the United States doesn’t mean that’s where it’s actually from. The vast majority of the world’s textiles are produced in India and China. For my article I asked a CSR manager of an international brand—you don’t wear it, but you’ve heard of it—how they monitor textile factories. ‘Oh we don’t,’ she said. ‘No one does.’
And that’s not the last layer. Most of the world’s cotton is bought and sold like oil, a commodity, consolidated in huge markets in Dubai, zig-zagging through middlemen. It’s hard to find out what country it comes from, much less how it was produced. As the Environmental Justice Foundation puts it, ‘six of the world’s top seven cotton producers have been reported to use children in the field.’
Then there’s how it got to you. Shipping is one of the least scrutinized industries in the world. Boats are in international waters, employees work around the clock, they dump weird stuff into the ocean. Who’s going to stop them?
But let’s pretend for a minute. Let’s say your T-shirt was produced in a decent factory, with decent textiles and decent cotton, that it came to you on a decent boat. Fine. That is one thing. Think of all of the stuff you buy. Your dental floss. Your furniture. That spatula you bought at the dollar store.
You can’t choose three or four products where’d like to avoid complicity in forced labor and low pay, and just decide not to worry about everything else. Your coffee might be fair trade, but what about the machine you’re brewing it in? Check the bottom, dude, I’ll bet five bucks it was made in China. Your car was welded together in Mexico, from iron ore mined in Brazil, smelted in Paraguay. The acetaminophen you take for a headache was produced by a company that keeps poor countries from producing generic medicines for its own people.
The point here is not to gloat, or to play the coastal-elite “I’m more ethical than you” game. The point is, you do not have the power or the information to implement your values. None of us want to promote sweatshops or poison tropical rivers. But we all do. No amount of label reading or better buying will escape this fundamental fact.
But that’s not the point either! The real question is, even we could buy ethical products, would that improve working conditions in the developing world?
In 1750, the Quakers concluded that slavery was an unjust institution and spent the next century advocating to abolish it. Imagine if, instead, they came up with a certification, a commitment that they wouldn’t buy clothes made from slave-picked cotton.
Think about what a gift that would have been to slave owners. All they had to do was rope off a section of their plantation, hire workers, then charge extra for ‘slave-free’ cotton. It would have been perfect: They make more money, get the Quakers off their back and, the best part, get to keep their slaves.
This is how we’ve spent the past 25 years: Instead of advocating to end the conditions that offend us, we’ve done exactly the thing that allows them to proliferate. Auditors told me that some factories in China are divided up with thick black curtains. Since brands only inspect the lines making their own products, suppliers can keep conditions however they want in the rest of their factories.
This is what you’re doing when you buy a fair trade T-shirt or an organic avocado: Concentrating your attention on the tiny corner of the global economy that is not shrouded to you. Instead of raising the floor, you’re raising the ceiling. Fair trade allows us to go around bad institutions and let the worst sweatshops remain, rather than take responsibility for the myriad ways in which we reward them.
“Many global actors assume there’s an institutional void, but there isn’t,” says MIT’s Matthew Amengual. “The state is involved. Positively or negatively, it’s there. Rather than transcending local institutions with global rules, we should be trying to work with them.”
What he means, and what I’ve seen again and again in the developing world, is that sweatshops don’t happen without the participation of their host governments, and they don’t get solved without them either.
One of the reasons India’s garment sector, to take just one example, is so exploitative is that only 2 percent of its textile factories use shuttle-less looms. Without equipment to make them more productive, the only way factories can compete is by extending shifts and keeping pay low. In China, 15 percent of textile factories have shuttle-less looms. The government provides loans and grants, it has deliberately invested in making small factories more productive. India’s own Ministry of Textiles boasts that its desperately poor workers are a competitive advantage: “Rising wages and cost of living in countries closely competing with India,” says the agency’s strategic plan, “provides a vast opportunity for India to capitalize.”
Domestic systems are decisive, and the lack of them can be devastating. Functioning courts, independent unions, empowered civil society, free media, this is the stuff that solves sweatshops, not companies with better CSR policies, not improving the performance of just a few factories. Comcast doesn’t treat you like shit because it’s an evil corporation, it does so because it’s a monopoly, because our government allows it to be one. Sweatshops happen for the same reasons.
Whenever I go on this little rant in front of my fair-tradey friends, they always give the same response: “Hey, it’s better than nothing.” I think that’s the worst argument ever, but for a second let’s entertain the possibility that it’s not. If that’s our only criteria, there’s a lot of other “better than nothing” stuff we could be doing instead. Give money to a NGO that helps register unions in the developing world. Sign a petition. Write your senator.
Our primary leverage over the developing world comes in the form of market access (bilateral trade agreements, TPP, the World Trade Organization) and financial instruments (the World Bank, the IMF, export credit). Companies lobby to protect their interests in these negotiations, and it’s about time we started doing it too.
These steps are small, slow, unlikely to leap us to instant improvements. But isn’t the argument of the boycotters “If everyone acted like me, things would get better”? Well if everyone put pressure on the institutions that can actually eradicate sweatshops, we might actually solve them. Otherwise, we’re just drawing the curtains.
The nice thing about these post-game interviews is that you can include caveats and nuances that didn’t make it into the article. A lot of NGO friends of mine have been like, ‘dude, why the hatorade on advocacy NGOs?’
There’s no incentive for [advocacy NGOs] to go after the Li & Fungs of the world, or the smaller companies that no one has heard of. Most NGOs are under-resourced, they’re trying to have the biggest impact with few staff, little time and this huge mountain of terrible conditions they have to bring to the world’s attention.
I talked to someone at a well-known labor NGO about this and he said he has three staff members. The best way to stretch that into impact is to go after Apple, which can improve conditions for hundreds of thousands of employees with a snap of its fingers. Or at least that’s the perception. Individually it’s understandable. But collectively, it means no one is looking at where the worst violations are.
And some more on the Brazilian labor inspectors. I need to write something about this for work-work one of these days. For all the developing countries I’ve been to, I’ve never seen one that has even tried to build up its domestic systems like this.
Brazil used to have a quota system where inspectors were assessed and paid bonuses based on the number of workplaces they inspected. Just like corporate auditors, this gave them a checklist approach. They were literally going door to door, inspecting small workshops instead of big ones because they were quicker to inspect and that’s how you could meet your quota.
Then, in the early 2000s, the government launched this big campaign to eradicate child labor. The inspectors pushed back, like ‘we’re never going to actually end child labor doing inspections this way.’ They were able to switch from quantitative to qualitative assessment methods, and they started prioritizing workplaces according to risk. They also started bringing in all these other government agencies. A weapon the academics talk about a lot is deferred prosecution agreements, where prosecutors tell farms ‘fix this by the time we get back, or we’ll take you to court.’ That threat of litigation is a huge reason why businesses fall into line.
And this is why solutions have to be domestically owned. The effectiveness of the inspectors comes from their mandate, their budget and their support from high-level politicians and the population. You can’t manufacture that from outside. And it’s not going to last if it’s not locally embedded.
And, if you’ve ever met me in real life, I’ve probably mentioned this within like six minutes: There’s no such thing as a good or a bad idea, only how it’s applied.
In development, we have a ton of ideas that aren’t world-changers, but provide modest gains if you roll them out right. Microcredit went through this lifecycle where when we first found out about it, it was going to SAVE THE WORLD. Then all these other NGOs jumped on the bandwagon and they didn’t know what they were doing and the results faltered. Then microcredit became A USELESS SCAM.
In the last few years, microcredit has levelled out to just this one tool among many that works under certain circumstances but not others. In a lot of places, it works really well, but it’s not the shortcut we thought it was. I actually consider that a huge success, but imagine pitching that to your editor.
He has finished his fieldwork for the week. He has a towel over one shoulder, a novel in one hand, bottles of water in a plastic bag.
Three teenagers have built an entrance to the beach, a scrapwood fence, a rope across it, an entrance fee to pass.
Soren’s first day in Nigeria, he got a pro bono briefing from the head of security for one of the companies setting up operations in the free trade zone. The first rule, he told Soren, is mind your own business. Keep your head down. You will see sudden outbursts of violence; ignore them; keep walking. Avoid traveling alone.
The second rule, he told Soren, is stay away from the area boys.
These are the area boys. They look around 15, wiry, grumpy like teenage employees the world over. They’re lined up in a row along the fence. Next to them, arm’s reach away, they’ve arranged a row of sticks and iron rods.
The Nigerian couple in front of Soren, used to this, weary of it, are haggling.
This is a public beach, they’re saying, you can’t just charge admission. The area boys don’t negotiate, really, they just wait for the couple to give in. Eventually they do, hand over a hundred or so naira, about a buck. The boys hand them an expired local bus pass as an entrance ticket—infuriating them even more—and wave them inside.
Soren is next in line.
‘Two dollars,’ one of the boys says.
Soren doesn’t look like the typical Dane, he’s short, compact, dark hair in his eyes. But it’s obvious he doesn’t live here.
‘I’ll pay it,’ Soren says, ‘but I want a receipt.’
The boy is silent. This is what the head of security told Soren to do: Pay bribes if you have to, but only pay them once.
‘I don’t want one of your buddies coming up to me later and charging me again,’ Soren says.
One of the other kids digs around in his pockets until he finds a scrap of paper and a pen. ‘Please this white men is pay’ he writes on the stub, signs it. Then, under the scribble, ‘No bouncing.’
‘Thanks,’ Soren says.
The boy doesn’t say anything, he just looks over Soren’s shoulder at the next customer.
The Nanjing Jiangning Economic and Technical Development Corporation describes Nigeria’s Lekki Peninsula as ‘an area one and a half times the size of Hong Kong, with a five-mile coastline of golden beach. On the peninsula the rainforest is always close, not far from the endless Atlantic.’
All of this is true, but it is not why they have come.
They are here to establish a free trade zone, a rectangle of low taxes, gleaming infrastructure, a port, an airport, a workforce that cannot douse their country’s development by going on strike or demanding higher wages.
The reference to Hong Kong is not a coincidence. The Chinese have leased a 157 square mile rectangle of land—about the size of Denver—on this peninsula for the next 99 years, the same length of time the British controlled the speck of China that worked its way up from poverty and now serves as a model for the rest of the country.
Nigeria shares the same vision for the zone, the same Sim City visual: Rows of factories, cranes pecking at shipping containers, worker housing, parks, hospitals, schools, supermarkets, a city in itself. All throbbing behind a perimeter fence, a rampart against the old ways, the Nigeria, around it.
This is why Soren is here too. He is spending five weeks on this moist strip of land, interviewing its companies, its investors, its workers. He is here to find out the realities of the Chinese and Nigerian aspirations, the sacrifices each will have to make to realize them.
Soren is staying in Eputu Town, halfway between Lagos and the zone. It’s only 25 miles from Lagos, but the drive takes three hours. At first the road is flanked by exclusive hotels, office buildings with oil company and Big Four logos on the sides, banks, gated communities, wetlands being filled with sand. Soon the buildings shrink, floor by floor, to shops, then shacks, then mangrove swamps, fishing villages dotting them.
Eputu is a village on the verge of becoming a suburb. The roads are dirt or mud, depending on the time of year, small stores on each side selling bananas, frozen chickens, instant noodles. The local bar, a frame of scrap wood topped with a sheet of corrugated iron, eight plastic chairs outside and four inside, serves hot pepper soup, plays music loud enough to drown out the generators.
Soren only met Solomon yesterday, but he offered Soren his spare room almost immediately. Mid-30s, muscular with a hipster beard, Solomon is a local fixer, last week he arranged meetings and locations for a French documentary crew. He lives on the top floor of a two-story bungalow. He lets Soren in through the front door, or what’s left of it. He ran through the glass panel a few nights ago dashing out to greet one of his neighbors.
It’s dark when Soren arrives, Solomon shows him inside by candlelight. The power is out at the moment. The utility company, NEPA, is officially the Nigerian Energy Production Administration, but he tells Soren everyone here calls it Never Expect Power Again.
Solomon introduces Soren to the neighbors. Downstairs is Mommy Loni and her six-month-old son, Uncle Loni. She shares the apartment with her husband, Olumide, and her sister, Toyin.
‘Come up here, you have to meet my friend!’ Solomon yells down the stairs. Toyin is the only one home, she comes up to say hi. Solomon invites her to sit down in Soren’s room, a mattress on the floor in the corner, a candle flickering in the center.
Almost immediately, Solomon announces he has to take a call and leaves Soren and Toyin alone in the room, sitting crosslegged across the candle from each other. Neither of them knows what to say.
‘Welcome,’ Toyin says. Soren nods. After a pause, she says it again. She is wearing her home-cloth, the Nigerian equivalent of sweat pants, but Soren cannot help but notice how beautiful she is. He thinks she must be 18, athletic, hair pulled into cornrows. Later he finds out she is 28, just two years younger than he is.
Over the next few days, Soren settles in. Whenever he has more than a few hours of electricity, he can expect to go without it for days afterward. Soren’s desk is a piece of plywood laid across two upturned paint buckets. He sits on the floor and types until his battery runs out, then reads World Bank reports and Nigerian novels by candlelight.
Nigeria already has eleven free zones in operation and another eleven under construction. The Lekki Free Trade Zone, whether you measure by square miles or investment, is the largest.
In February 2006, the agreement was signed and the partners officially founded the Lekki Free Zone Development Company, gave it the mandate to lease land, attract investors, get the zone up and running. The partners waited for Nigeria’s dry season, then started clearing vegetation, filling the damp parts of the peninsula with sand, laying the foundations firm enough to steady tall buildings.
The ambitions for the zone follow a familiar narrative: It will start with low-skilled manufacturing—clothes, shoes, the things Hong Kong, then Taiwan, now China, make for the rest of the world. Once the engine of development has been sufficiently revved, the zone will—in the parlance of the banks whose investment they are trying to attract— ‘move up the value chain’ to skilled labor, services, design, marketing.
Meanwhile, the zone will invite investors in natural gas and tourism, will build roads and resorts and worker housing, will establish itself as an example for the rest of the country, the continent.
Nigeria will supply the land and the people; China will supply the money. The Chinese partners have already pledged $263 million for the first phase, will eventually attract more than $1.1 billion. It is set to be the largest Chinese-funded free trade zone outside of China.
In exchange for their investment, the Chinese will not only get operating rights to the zone for 50 years, but a series of perks to ensure they get their money’s worth: A full federal, state and local tax exemption; one-stop permit approvals; customs- and tax-free imports of raw materials; a Zone-specific set of labor laws; prohibitions on unions and lock-outs for workers.
It is 2008, two years after the zone was established, and the peninsula is already humming with activity, criss-crossed with tractors, striped with roads. Soren has five weeks to find out what this means for the people arriving and, especially, the ones already here.
‘What do you think you’re doing?!’ The Nigerian fisherman is livid.
He is in his late 30s, wearing jeans and a short-sleeved, savannah-patterned shirt, standard attire for residents of the fishing villages here on the peninsula. ‘Why are you measuring this land? You haven’t paid us any compensation! We’re not going to get anything, are we?’
The man he is shouting at is Mr. Zhang, a Chinese promoter of the zone. His job is to visit companies, bring them to the zone, convince them to put their money here.
Today Mr. Zhang is showing a group of Nigerian investors around the zone, he’s invited Soren to come along. This is vacant land, Mr. Zhang told them in the car, gesturing at the wetlands, the shrubs along the road. Almost as soon as he stopped the car to let the investors walk around the site, the villager appeared from a path through the bushes.
‘We’re still living here!’ he’s shouting. ‘We’re not leaving until we get compensation.’
‘The Lagos government is in charge of compensating you,’ Mr. Zhang tells him. ‘These investors,’ he gestures at the men with him, wearing suits on an 80 degree afternoon, carrying measuring tape and bulky cameras. One of them is peeing in the grass, ignoring the conversation six feet away. ‘They’re here to put money into this community. They’re going to create jobs.’
The villager has been fishing, farming, living here his whole life, he shouts at Mr. Zhang. These men are going to create jobs for other people. Meanwhile, he’ll be kicked off his land. What will he do then?
It’s been like this for two years now. In the early days, the paperwork stage, the communities living here petitioned the Lagos State government, federal ministries, pleaded with authorities not to forget them when the bulldozers came. At first, the government listened, held meetings, drew up strategies. Then … nothing. The ministries stopped responding. And then, the bulldozers came.
In 2007, villagers blocked the roads, kept Chinese equipment and workers from reaching the zone. It was the only way to get the government’s attention.
All the unrest made the Chinese investors antsy. With national elections just around the corner, the Nigerian government finally agreed to work on a memorandum of understanding with the communities living on the peninsula, to define who would get compensated for their land and their livelihoods, to devise formulas to determine how much they were worth.
Still, even after years of debate and conflict, only a handful of villages participated in the actual consultation. They had seen this play out too many times. They didn’t trust the Chinese, but they trusted their own government even less.
It wasn’t even six months after the MoU was signed that events corroborated their cynicism. The MoU with the Lekki Free Trade Zone Development Company said all villagers would be compensated for loss of land. The only problem was, to get the compensation, they had to prove the land was theirs. Almost no one on the peninsula had title deeds. Living and working on a piece of land, no matter how long they had done it, was not proof that they owned it. Without the piece of paper saying the land was theirs, it wasn’t.
The villagers and the government set up a committee to solve the problem, to divvy up payouts according to who used the land, not who technically owned it. Right after the committee was established, the government started circumventing it, paying village chiefs directly, drawing lines down the middle of communities, buying the land out from under villagers without telling them.
Once the side deals started, it was every villager for himself. Fishers and farmers started contacting the government directly, negotiating compensation, trying to get an offer before it got pulled off the table.
Soren is not sure how much of this Mr. Zhang knows.
This happens, he tells Soren, every time he visits the zone. The conversation is always the same: The villagers ask him when they will be paid for their trouble, their loss. Mr. Zhang tells them that he is sorry, that it is not his job, that he hopes it will be soon.
‘Why,’ he asks, ‘do they keep coming to us?’
Aside from the interviews, Soren doesn’t have much to do. Solomon is away a lot, arranging funeral rites for his mother, who passed away a year ago. The anniversary of a death in the family is a celebration in Nigeria. Solomon has made more than 400 invitations, spends most of his time in Eastern Nigeria, his hometown, hiring a band, renting a venue.
On the days when he interviews Chinese companies, Soren goes to Victoria Island, near Lagos, on public transport, a minibus heaving with office workers and manual laborers, a kid leaning out the sliding door, shouting its destination at every stop.
There’s no public transport to the zone, so on days when he interviews residents or local chiefs, Soren hires a taxi to get there. One afternoon, on the way home, three area boys jump in front of the taxi, armed with sticks. They stand around the car, two in the front and one at the back tire, threatening to let the air out while the driver haggles over the bribe.
But mostly, it is as boring as any other commute in any other city. Soren is home most days around three, spends the afternoon transcribing interviews, sprawled on his bed, reading about the country around him.
It is on one of these empty days that Toyin comes up to offer him lunch: Catfish, amala, spicy okra sauce. She shouts ‘Soren!’ through the hole in the door, reaches in to open it. These are just leftovers, she says, but tomorrow he can come downstairs and eat lunch with her family if he wants. Soren has been living on frozen mackerel, fried eggs, Indomie noodles—Nigerian Top Ramen, basically—and the occasional fruit the pastor next door drops off.
‘Don’t you want to eat with me?’ he says.
She tells him she hadn’t planned to, but she sits down as she says it.
She is, it turns out, a newcomer here, just like he is. She’s from Zaria, in the north, a city once known for its diversity, the university attracting students and professors from all over Nigeria, Africa, the world. She was used to seeing Indians and Europeans growing up, her Christian family attending street parties with Muslim neighbors..
These days, she tells him, the city is known for its strife. The first time the churches were burned down, Toyin was 7 or 8. She can’t remember if it was her mother who woke her up or the sounds outside. Her Muslim neighbors, the ones she had known all her life, scraping their knives on the pavement, shouting they would slaughter any Christians who stayed. She lept in military barracks for a few nights until it stopped. It did, and then years went by, and then it started again.
But that is not why she left. She left because she finished her English Literature degree and got a spot in a government program teaching English in Ede, just outside Lagos. She moved in with her sister and her husband here in Eputu when the program finished. They both leave early, Mommy Loni to open her shop along Eputu’s main road, Olumide to beat the traffic into Lagos. Toyin spends her days filling out job applications and taking care of her nephew, Uncle Loni.
After that, she starts waving to Soren every time she walks across the street to get water from the well, stops to sit with him on the porch on the way back. One Sunday she invites him to her church. She is an usher, she can’t sit with him, so she leaves him on the pew, bouncing his knee in time to the singing, the dancing, the trumpets. He grins at her, standing at the front, and she grins back.
They get used to seeing each other every day.
It’s a blinding weekday, and Soren is visiting a dormitory for Chinese workers on the zone. The building is an old warehouse, a skeleton of wood covered with iron. termites have chewed through most of the doors, some of them look like they’re being held up by the paint.
Soren’s guide, Mr. Zhang, tells Soren with pride that these are the simple, unsophisticated conditions of the Chinese workers here. At first they were disturbed by the bits of wood raining on them from the rafters while they slept, termite leftovers. Now they simply brush them off and roll over.
‘The only entertainment for the workers,’ he says in Chinese, ‘is a basketball.’
The workers have never met a white person who speaks Chinese before, and they are slightly baffled about what Soren is doing here and why he is asking them how they feel about this strange country they live in . Most of the workers are from rural China, they know what it is to be poor. They do not know, however, what it is like to be poor in this specific way, in this specific place.
This, Mr. Zhang tells him, is how the investment will work. It’s not just money China is shipping over but its workers, its technology, its way of doing things. The investment comes as a bundle, wrapped in a chain link fence, a kit for establishing a small enclave of China in this sweltering outpost on the Atlantic.
Mr. Zhang tells Soren that Chinese workers are the opposite of Nigerians. They work hard all year for the reward of relaxation, a break for the New Year or the short summer holiday. For the Chinese, he says, the rule is ‘eat the bitter first.’
For Nigerians, he says, relaxation is the default, they must be forced to work as hard as the Chinese. He tells Soren about a group of Nigerian machine operators meeting Chinese workers doing the same job. When they saw how quickly the Chinese were working, they said it had to be magic.
To European ears, these sound like colonial observations, the kind Soren has seen in James Cook diaries, letters home from 19th century tropical pillages. The manager says things that sound familiar. Nigeria is rich in resources, removed from natural disasters, un-tormented by strict seasons. The land has not endowed its people with the mentality or fortitude to struggle their way out of poverty.
Without the burden of history, the Chinese are not careful in their characterizations, not self-conscious about what it sounds like to be saying them. It seems like they are discovering this continent for the first time.
Soren hears the same thing from the workers living in the dormitory. If we do not work, they tell him, we can’t afford clothes, we’ll freeze in the Chinese winter. If the Nigerians don’t work, they pick fruit from a tree and wait in the shade for the next day to come. They repeat rumors they have heard about Chinese workers being robbed at gunpoint, disappearing from the streets. They show off the frugality and simplicity of their living conditions, tell Soren their hopes of the modernizing influence their presence will have.
It turns out Mr. Zhang was wrong about the entertainment. Every week, on their one-day break from work, the Chinese workers stack benches and create a theatre in the dormitory and watch Chinese movies back to back. It is the only thing here, they tell that reminds them of their villages back home.
Soren knows he has to say something to Toyin before he leaves.
They are spending more time together. They eat lunch together, work and read in the same room in the afternoons. She doesn’t drink alcohol; he starts to find excuses not to join Solomon for after-dinner beers at the local bar or on his balcony. Soren asks her about her childhood in Nigeria, she about his in Denmark, each marveling at the other’s strangeness. It’s obvious he likes her—Toyin says she should start charging Soren every time she catches him staring at her over dinner—but her family is traditional, he’s not sure how this works here.
One night, with just a few days left in Nigeria, Soren and Solomon are on their way to see Femi Kuti in Lagos. Solomon spent much of the day calling drivers, trying to find one with a reliable car. He can’t have a breakdown in the neighborhoods they have to drive through to get there. As they’re leaving, Toyin stops Soren as he passes, says she needs to tell him something. Solomon insists they have to leave before it gets dark. Soren calls goodbye back to her and goes.
After the show, driving home, Solomon makes Soren lie on the floor in the back seat. He doesn’t want to be driving through Lagos at 11pm with a white face glowing out through the window. Soren lies on the floor, staring up, wondering what Toyin wanted to tell him.
Finally, just before he leaves for Denmark, he goes downstairs, they sit on the living room floor. He holds her hand, closes his eyes, tells her that he likes her, that he wants to see her again, more, differently. He finally opens his eyes when she squeezes his hand so hard it hurts.
She tells him she feels the same way. Of course she does. But she’s only known him a month, she’s not sure how real this is, that she’ll even see him again. She says this has to be goodbye. Soren drives to the airport alone.
Toyin was right and so was Soren. Life got in the way. Right after he gets back to Denmark, Soren is posted to Beijing for eight months, his Nigeria project put on hold.
In China, Soren talks to Toyin over Skype almost every day. A year after his fieldwork, he comes back to Nigeria. Toyin couldn’t find work in Lagos, so she moved to Ibadan, five hours inland, to get a postgraduate diploma, to wait out the job market there.
When Soren visits she has more time for him than he expected. First, the teachers are on strike for weeks. Then, a flood washes away the bridge Toyin walks over to get to the university. Eventually, some area boys build a new one, charge a toll to cross it.
Soren goes with her to campus, sits at the library, writes and reads about the zone. Since he left, it has maintained its anthill momentum, added rows of factories, a power plant, water treatment, canals dug into the swamps. The port, the deepest in West Africa, is set to open in 2017.
Soren still has the scrap of paper, the one with ‘please this white man is pay’ on it, in their home in Aarhus, Denmark. They got married in 2009. They’re thinking about moving, with their two daughters, Aimi and Anke, to China next year.
He still teases her about the night they met, repeats at her ‘welcome … welcome’ over and over again.
So I made a video with some thoughts I had during my recent work-trip to Uganda.
I have a knot in my stomach putting this kind of shit online. Another white guy, in another African country, broadcasting another set of un-earned conclusions. The whole point I’m trying to make in the video is that I have no idea what I’m talking about, but maybe that means I should have just not talked at all.
Anyway, now it’s out there, embarrassing but irrevocable, just like the rest of the internet. Next time, I’ll try making one of these I don’t feel the need to apologize for.
I don’t know why I love making these so much. The process is so slow, the rewards so incremental, compared to writing. Presenting information visually is in some ways easier and in some ways harder than writing it, but I have so much less practice! I’ve been telling people stuff my whole life. Showing them, I’ve been at it less than a year.
There’s no physics inside a computer. Objects don’t have weight, they don’t know the others are there. An object can be in one place, then 1/24th of a second later (or 1/30th or 1/60th or 1/1000th, it’s up to me!) a completely different one, in a different color, with a different shape. When Hiccup rides Toothless in the How to Train Your Dragon Movies, they’re not really touching, not in any recognizable physical sense, the animators have just placed them, lit them, put effects on them, that trick us into thinking they are.
What I like about this is that it’s exactly the same as every other art form. George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men aren’t any realer than Hiccup and Toothless. Lennie can be tall and fat on one page, then, on the next, bright purple, female, with tentacles and the flu. Writing, painting, animating, whatever, they’re all equally unlimited. The hard part in animation is making objects look like they have weight, mass, purpose. The hard part in writing is the same: We have to care where these objects are placed, where they go, how they bump into each other.
I’m sounding grandiose now. I don’t mean to compare myself to real animators, real writers. Everything I’ve done has been riding on the dragon (sorry) of reality, a story that’s already happened, the relationships between the objects established, arranged to be retold. All I’m saying is, when you think of the sheer fucking blankness of a unwritten novel, an undrawn animation, it’s amazing people can make us feel anything bumping these silly little objects, characters, into each other.
Anyway, shut up, Mike, it’s just a stupid little animation. I hope people enjoy this! It’s an issue I became totally obsessed with when I was writing my story, and it deserves to have more, smarter people obsessed with it. I tried really hard to treat this video, these unbearable statistics, with the respect they deserve. There’s a tendency for these animations to appear cute and light, and I’m genuinely sorry if any of this comes off as inconsiderate.
I want to especially thank Forrest Gray, who let me use his beautiful song ‘Sunset’ for the music bed. Also Dan Deacon, who in addition to being broadly awesome, releases the stems of his songs on Soundcloud under Creative Commons so people like me can use them. Thanks guys!
And of course, a huge (re-)thanks to all the brilliant and kind epidemiologists who let me interview them for my story.
The more I look at development, the more I think the age of the game-changer is over. Sixty percent of the world’s poor live in middle-income countries; only 14 percent of them are in fragile of conflict-prone ones. The countries still getting aid are getting less and less of it. Charles Kenny, who wrote an entire book about how much better the developing world is now than it used to be, points out that in the 1990s, 40 percent of aid-receiving countries relied on donations for more than one-tenth of their budgets. Now, that’s below 30 percent, and dropping.
Not that we should ignore the Afghanistans and Burundis of the world, but by 2030, up to 41 countries are going to move into the middle-income bracket. Increasingly, their challenge, as ours, will be the distribution of resources, not the creation of them. The development technologies of the future aren’t going to be boreholes and school buildings. They’re going to be labor inspectors, census bureaus, government administrators, state pensions: All the boring stuff that makes our own countries function.