Over the past 15 years, Australia’s immigration debate has focused on whether “illegal” boat arrivals can be prevented by policies in the home country, or whether they are determined primarily by refugee flows in the countries of origin. This is broadly referred to as the debate about “push” versus “pull” factors in immigration. On the one hand, commentators (generally “conservative”) suggest that Australia’s “lax” immigration policies, and generous policies towards refugees, encourage people to try to come here. These “lax” policies seem to be primarily represented by the visa system, and so the Howard (“conservative”) government introduced Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) which offer no guarantee of a long-term home – theoretically the holder of a TPV will be required to return home when their national situation stabilizes. This seems hardly likely to be a deterrent given that the national situation in nations like Afghanistan and Sri Lanka doesn’t stabilize over periods of less than a decade, but a deterrent it is believed to be. Other policies are often seen as part of this process of reducing “pull” factors – offshore processing, reduction of benefits (a big issue in the UK, where asylum seekers cannot get any benefits or access the NHS), restrictions on family reunions, etc. Of course, all of these policies are predicated on the idea that in amongst this flood of refugees is a certain non-trivial proportion of people who are not “genuine” refugees, and that for some reason these people need to be weeded out and prevented from “taking advantage” of our “generous” systems.

On the other hand, some commentators (generally “left wing”) suggest that immigration flows are primarily driven by the situation in the countries where people come from, and desperate people are largely unconcerned about the policies of the countries they are fleeing to. Under this “push” philosophy, people flood out of their home country when everything goes to shit, and the policies of the countries they’re heading to don’t amount to more than a temporary impediment. Basically under this model a bunch of people from Syria, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Myanmar have been heading away, and some of them have got trapped in Malaysia and Indonesia. From there they dribble out on boats to Australia, and Australia’s specific processing and visa policies aren’t relevant because people will do remarkable things when the alternative is either dying in their homeland or rotting in a transit camp in intermediary countries.

Unfortunately, the truth of this battle – which to Australians is important, because we’re the 8th richest country in the world, so it would be a disaster to us if a couple of thousand people took advantage of our hospitality – is difficult to resolve in the Australian context. National visa and asylum seeker management policy has changed frequently, but drivers of refugee flow have changed separately in a complex way: the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq has ebbed and flowed, wars have sprung up in Syria and Libya, the war in Sri Lanka flared up and came to an end, and the situation in Myanmar and Pakistan is complex and unknowable. Furthermore, at various times the Australian government’s policies of direct intervention against boats – turning them back, or leaving them to drift against international maritime law, or sending the SAS to raid boats that rescued refugees – has changed. Currently the government refuses to report numbers of arrivals or boats turned back, so it’s impossible to assess the success of the current policy. So the debate in Australia – and let’s face it, knowing whether these people are trying to take advantage is far more important than helping them – has been difficult to resolve.

This week the Guardian had an article describing how refugee flows have changed in Europe, and this article – if true – gives some further information about the relative importance of push vs. pull factors. The situation in Europe is dire, and dwarfs Australia’s refugee “problem”, and the level of human catastrophe also dwarfs the situation that the Australian Prime Minister was crying crocodile tears about while in opposition – hundreds of people drown at a time on a regular basis in the Mediterranean. From the clinical standpoint of trying to answer the oh-so-important question of whether they’re all grafters, Europe is a much more useful experimental setting, because it involves multiple countries with multiple different policies on asylum and refugee management. The refugees are targeting France, Italy and Greece, and they have been coming overland and by sea. Since Greece built a wall more have been coming by sea, and the numbers have exploded since the war in Syria – 350 in 2012 compared to 7000 in 2013 – and these refugees are targeting several countries that, as far as I can tell, haven’t changed their migration and asylum-seeker handling policies at all. It’s also worth noting that the mediterranean doesn’t have any interim processing centres – people flee straight to the reception countries – whereas Australia is the target of people spilling over from processing centres in Indonesia and Malaysia. So presumably Europe’s experience measures actual changes in flow, rather than changes in interim processing centres. The UN is proposing processing centres to handle the huge numbers and reduce the appalling fatalities at sea, but no one appears to be proposing changes in European policy that would “discourage” asylum seekers – neither is anyone proposing resettling them all on a malaria-ridden remote island where they can riot at their leisure without being filmed. Uncivilized brutes, those Europeans. But this lack of “deterrent” measures is not new, yet the flow has changed – at just the time that the west is also receiving reports of new brutalities in Syria, and the collapse of the rebel efforts there.

I take the events in Europe as strong evidence for the “push” theory of refugee flows. That isn’t to say that changing “pull” factors wouldn’t affect these flows, but given there is literally nowhere else for these people to go (except Australia?) it seems unlikely they’d make a difference. The European experience confirms my suspicion that refugee flows are primarily determined by what is happening in the origin country, not by the policies of the destination countries. Which, unless we can find a way to stop the chaos happening in the middle east[1], is going to mean accepting that we need to start accepting more refugees, and preparing for bigger flows in the future. An unlikely political outcome, at best …


fn1: I wonder if not supporting insurgencies might be a good start?

Aggressiveness: 10. Ferocity: 10.

Aggressiveness: 10. Ferocity: 10. Come visit his country …

As some of my readers know, I have been having fun conquering the world as Japan in Hearts of Iron 2, and that I’m reporting it all cynically in the tone of a Japanese leader forced to war to defend Asia against colonialism. Before I played Japan I had a go as Germany and didn’t do very well – the Soviets declared war on me in 1942 (I can’t think why!) and I got wiped out because my army was busy trying to secure oil in Africa.

Something noticeable about Hearts of Iron (HOI) and its successors is that there is no genocide option, even though some people believe the Holocaust was crucial to German war aims and so should probably be in the game. I understand that there is some debate about whether the Holocaust was a net benefit for the Nazi war machine, but some historians argue that the Holocaust policy developed slowly, piece-by-piece, in response to changing economic and industrial demands, and was actually primarily driven by the need to secure economic resources, especially food. Taking this as the basis for the Holocaust, it’s easy to imagine that a mechanism to represent it could be included in the game, to make it easier for certain countries to develop rapidly in the run-up to total war, or to respond to war needs.

The easiest way would be to incorporate a slider, that runs from 0 to 100 representing just how horrific your intended genocide is. Maybe 5 just means marriage and employment restrictions, while 100 is the fully mechanized destruction of entire races. The process is abstracted, and essentially represents a transformation of money, manpower and transport capacity into a reduction of supply needs and an increase in industrial capacity (or even an increase in supplies). This is pretty much what the historians I linked above argue: that the Holocaust was designed the way it was in the steps it was because it was aimed initially at seizing the economic assets of European Jews, to make production more efficient, and then at restricting their food consumption in order to ensure that other Germans didn’t starve. This is also what Stalin was doing with his “dekulakization” in the 1930s – forcing small, unproductive landholders off of their smallholdings into large collective farms, and because these farms were intended to feed many more people than those who worked in them, the excess population of smallholders would have been an economic deadweight – hence they were sent to the camps to die. Plus of course, when Germany invaded Eastern Europe they expropriated huge amounts of food and money, and essentially instituted a policy of starvation to ensure that no untermenschen used food that could have been feeding Germans. Under this analysis of the Holocaust, it was beneficial for the German war effort. If so, it should be modeled in the game in the interests of historical plausibility[1]. Wouldn’t it be great if when you were starting to lose you could slide your slider up to 100 so that you weren’t vulnerable to blockades? The computer could even use the demographic composition of your empire to give you options about which race to exterminate. We’re all about historical plausibility, right?

Suggesting such a process sounds kind of sick, doesn’t it? Which is why Paradox Interactive made a specific, explicit decision not to model this in the game. I remember somewhere a statement from Paradox about this, but I can’t find it any more – maybe it was in the Hearts of Iron manual that I no longer have. Anyway, we can find this on their forum rules for HOI3:

NOTE: There will not be any gulags or deathcamps (including POW camps) to build in Hearts of Iron3, nor will there be the ability to simulate the Holocaust or systematic purges, so I ask you not to discuss these topics as they are not related to this game. Thank You. Threads bringing up will be closed without discussion.

NOTE: Strategic bombing in HoI3 will be abstracted and not allow you to terror bomb civilians specifically. Chemical weapons will also not be included in the game. Any threads that complain about this issue will be closed without discussion.

Not only did they decide not to model these things, but they make very clear that they aren’t going to talk about their decision. We all know why: games that model the holocaust are beyond poor taste, and any gaming company that included such a mechanic in their wargame would be toast pretty fast.

It is, however, okay to model genocide in Europa Universalis 3. Yesterday commenter Paul pointed me to this post in which someone trying the game for the first time talks about how uneasy the colonization process makes her feel. I agree with a lot of this writer’s criticisms of the way the Native Americans are portrayed in the game, and I would like to add two.

  1. Terra nullius: by making colonizable land grey and devoid of units or cultural structures of any type, the game essentially buys in to the legal fiction of terra nullius – that no one owned the land or had a use for it before white people came. This legal fiction was overturned in Australia in 1994, and where not openly declared the general principle often underlay the willingness of white invaders to breach treaty agreements (as they did again and again, for example, when dealing with native Americans). In the game, although the natives are known to be there (you get a count in the colony window), they are not represented as unit types and structures the way Europeans are – the land is not owned in the sense that European land is owned, it just has some people on it. Terra nullius is a pernicious and evil concept that does not reflect the actual state of indigenous life, only the racist perceptions of the colonizers, and it’s sad to see it being reflected so clearly in this game
  2. Elision of native struggle: A common phenomenon in western popular and academic depiction of colonization is the minimization or dismissal of indigenous struggle. This is very common in Australia, and until the publication of Blood on the Wattle, popular understanding of Aboriginal history was that they didn’t really fight back, a belief that derives from early 20th century racial ideas of Aborigines as “weak.” Obviously in the US this is not so readily done, but for example the Sand Creek Massacre used to be referred to as the “Battle of Sand Creek,” though there were very few Indian soldiers involved, and popular lore about Custer’s Last Stand doesn’t usually include awareness that he was attacking a civilian camp at dawn when he was beaten. In the game, native struggle is implied in the aggressiveness and ferocity statistics for each province, and the effect they have on colony growth, but it is not actually visible or witnessed through the need to coordinate military actions against active opponents as happens in any European conflict between even the most irrelevant powers – it is a low background noise to your successful colonization, mostly

I think these two points show that the designers of Europa Universalis haven’t just implemented a game with a colonization strategy; they have implemented a game with a colonization strategy that implicitly reinforces common modern misconceptions about how colonization worked that tend to underplay its genocidal and military aspects (see also the way natives are absorbed into your population once it becomes an official province – this takes about 20 years and is in no way reflective of how colonization absorbed real native populations – such absorption took more than 100 years in Australia, for example, and only occurred at all through massive force and state coercion). I don’t really think this is a moral decision, but I also don’t think it’s defensible. There are lots of other ways that the game could have been designed, from making America the same as Asia to having a single Native American “state” and a different conquering mechanism – or, as April Daniels suggests, just a better and richer experience playing the Natives. There is DLC for this, but that’s not a defense, and neither are the butthurt bleatings of the gamers in the comments. It’s also noteworthy that the people attacking Daniels in comments of that blog are tending to subscribe to the same misconceptions that are buried in the game itself – there wasn’t much war, might makes right, smallpox did it not us!, natives really did get merged into the colonial population without a fight! This kind of response just shows that the west hasn’t come to terms with its colonial past yet.

So here’s what happened: Paradox spent years developing a game set in Europe in which they explicitly avoided modeling a genocide that occurred in Europe and that was crucial to the historical plausibility of the game; they also spent years developing a game set in Europe in which they explicitly developed a model for genocide that occurred outside Europe and that is crucial to the historical plausibility of the game. The former decision was probably (to the best of my recollection) made for moral and political reasons; defenders of the latter decision want me to believe it was for game mechanical reasons, even though the model they developed happens to reproduce some common misconceptions about how the native American genocide unfolded. I’m unconvinced. I think the designers didn’t consider one genocide to have the same weight as the other. Which isn’t to say that they consciously made that decision, but neither did all the cowboy movie directors in the 1980s who made multiple movies that included the Sand Creek Massacre, but didn’t ever get around to depicting Babi Yar from the Nazi perspective. Our culture makes some stories acceptable even though they are steeped in evil, and some stories unacceptable. Many people reproduce those stories without thinking, and that is what the designers did. (It’s also worth noting that Paradox is a Swedish company, and Sweden was not a colonial country in recent time; maybe for them the horrors of world war 2 are much closer than the horrors of genocidal America, and everything that happened in that period in those far-flung places is just a story).

I think there are some big questions buried in EU3, which we also need to ask when we play GTA or watch some nasty slasher pic, and April Daniels asked some of those questions in her blog post. Those questions are also relevant to the genocide issue in EU3 but they’re bigger than that. Why do we make games about war and killing at all? Why do we think it’s okay to drive around LA killing cops but we universally object to rape stories? Why are we so complacent about the destruction of whole cultures in Australia and America, but so touchy about mass murder in Europe? And why do some fanboys get so stupidly butthurt when people who enjoy the game (or the movie) analyze it a little more critically than wow!wow!wow!? My Ottoman Empire has begun its colonial project, in Cameroon and Cayenne and St Helena, and I’m playing that part of the project with the same sarcastic amusement with which I describe the Empire’s “reclamation” of knowledge in Northern Italy; I will probably kill a lot of natives if I have to, and convert the rest[3]. I’m not particularly fussed about this. But I’m also aware that this game is racist on many levels, and it includes genocide as a central mechanic. Some people may not be comfortable doing that, and they may want to write about it. I think it’s possible to simultaneously enjoy the game and accept these things, but I also think the game could have done better on this issue. If I’m going to kill natives and steal their land, why should it be different to the way I kill Germans and take their land – is there something the designers want to say here? There is a long, long way to go before people in the west can accept and understand the genocide that made America and Australia possible, and the deep wounds colonialism left on Africa. Until we do, I guess we can expect that games like EU3 will fall short of genuinely trying to describe the histories and cultures of the people who were exterminated.

fn1: though actually a very interesting experiment would occur if paradox were to include the Holocaust as a single historical decision that was actually bad for the German war effort, and secretly spied on players[2] to find out how many clicked “Yes, do it!” even though the decision is negative.

fn2: or used NSA data

fn3: actually since I westernized[4] I’m so far on the “open-minded” slider that I can’t actually generate missionaries, so I can’t convert anyone. I’ve conquered so much of Europe that my culture is more christian than Muslim. What to do…?

fn4: racist much?

Every time you criticize Mandela a fairy puppy dies

Every time you criticize Mandela a fairy puppy dies

Nelson Mandela’s passing was only a few days ago and already the left-wing press and counter-press have managed to come up with a wide range of criticisms of someone who should, ostensibly, be their hero. Slavoj Zizek, that staunch opponent of anything modern in the left, is recycling the old claim that Mandela simply changed the skin colour of the overlords; Counterpunch is leading the charge to claim that he was just a neo-liberal friend of the rich, and black people didn’t benefit from the ANC at all; the Guardian managed to give a thoroughly negative review of his funeral, with the cherry on the icing being their focus on Obama rather than, you know, the South Africans who Mandela led; and they even managed to give Simon Jenkins a go at criticizing the coverage of Mandela’s death. I can’t decide which part of Simon Jenkins’s article is worst – the fact that he paraphrases the title of a profoundly important book about the holocaust in order to criticize coverage of a hugely liberating figure; or the fact that he is writing it at all, given that he is a confirmed HIV denialist and was directly involved in promoting HIV denialist science, which cost South African blacks so many lost lives and chances.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no fan of hagiography and I’m happy to criticize my heroes, but I would have thought that in this case someone as profoundly important as Mandela could be given a week or two before the critical analysis of his legacy began. I mean, he only just died and the left – which historically was most broadly supportive of him – have been really quick to start pissing all over his legacy. I guess it’s largely the British left I’m quoting here, but over at Crooked Timber’s comment thread on Mandela a wide range of commenters seem to have joined in with this “he didn’t immediately undo all the economic wrongs of apartheid so he was bad” chorus, and a lot of the commenters there must be American. It makes me a bit uncomfortable, especially since those on the right who were famously opposed to Mandela at the time (people like Bush, the entire Israeli government, etc) have largely refrained from resurrecting their criticisms of the time. Surely if his opponents of the time don’t feel it’s right to say anything bad about him for a week or so, it might be worth one’s while to stow it for a bit?

One of the main threads of left-wing criticism of Mandela appears to be that he didn’t do much to reduce inequality, and we see various strengths of this argument ranging from “he blew a chance” through “he let down his communist allies” to the extreme “he just swapped racial oppression for economic oppression” or “swapped one set of overlords for another” type arguments. I think there are two huge flaws in these opinions (aside from their obviously terrible timing): the first is that the data from within South Africa is not so clearly supportive of the conclusion that Mandela (and more broadly the ANC) have failed to do anything about inequality; and the second is that progress on inequality and the related left-wing complaint of a failure to rein in neo-liberalism’s negative effects needs to be judged against the context of progress in the rest of the world over the same period, and against the backdrop of HIV in South Africa.

What does the data say on inequality in South Africa?

My first complaint with criticisms of these claims is that the data on inequality in South Africa is not being well assessed, and that the broader development issues South Africa faced are not being considered. Let’s consider that second complaint first. In the Counterpunch article I linked to above, for example, Patrick Bond writes critically:

the sustained overaccumulation problem in highly-monopolised sectors continued, as manufacturing capacity utilization continued to fall from levels around 85 percent in the early 1970s to 82 percent in 1994 to below 80 percent by the early 2000s

This seems hugely unfair to me. I don’t know a great deal about South Africa, but I’m guessing that “manufacturing capacity utilization” in the 1970s was highly dominated by the use of cheap, exploitable labour who had no rights and no capacity to control the extent to which they were “utilized.” Furthermore, the sanctions of the 1980s would have further restricted the ability of South African industry to modernize in a way that would improve capacity utilization, and by the time their investments were up and running in the early 2000s they faced … China. This capacity utilization also looks pretty favourable when compared to the USA, where in 2009 it was 64%. It doesn’t seem to me that this claim is fair.

We’ll come back to this problem of context and comparison with the USA later, but for now let’s look at the data. It’s true that South Africa has a terrible level of inequality, with a Gini index of between 0.6 and 0.7 depending on how you measure it. The world bank suggests that there has been an increase in inequality (measured using the Gini), with Gini values in 1995 of 57 and in 2010 of 63. That’s not a big change, though – this UNU working paper shows that World Bank estimates of the Gini coefficient in 1995 showed a wider range of values than the entire change recorded by the World Bank between 1995 and 2010. There is no clear method for calculating variance in Gini coefficients, and not enough data generally to establish what that variance might be, so whether or not the change from 1995 to 2010 is significant is hard to know.

The story becomes even more complicated than that when you consider the data challenges in nations like South Africa, and look at more nuanced research into inequality in South Africa. It’s difficult to believe that data on black South Africans collected before 1995 was really very good or complete, so the true depth of inequality in apartheid South Africa is hard to be confident about. Furthermore, assessment of wealth in low income countries is not so simple as simply calculating income – it is typically done through assessment of consumption expenditure. This is done because poor people in low income countries tend to underestimate or misreport their income, and much of their wealth can be tied up in informal markets and means of exchange (e.g. they have land and pigs but little money). Measures of Gini in South Africa based on consumption expenditure tend to be different to those based on income, and measures of wealth based on consumption are not readily available in earlier years. Furthermore, the Gini is a very poor measure of inequality – not only is uncertainty usually not calculated, but it doesn’t give any meaningful distinction between different types of inequality, and I seriously doubt it’s linear. For example, a change in Gini index from 0.35 to 0.40 may have a very different meaning to a change from 0.57 to 0.63. I don’t think any realistic work has been done on how useful the Gini index is for either within- or between-nation comparisons.

However, there is some recent research available on inequality in South Africa that paints a more nuanced picture. This research, from the University of Stellenbosch, suggests that poverty – measured in absolute and relative terms – has declined in South Africa, and that inequality within racial groups has increased while inequality between racial groups has decreased. In fact, according to this report:

  • The proportion of households with children reporting any form of hunger has declined by 15% in the past 6 years
  • The share of black people in the middle class has increased from 11% in 1994 to 22% in 2004
  • Poverty headcount rates have declined from a peak of 53% in 1996 to 44% now, a record low
  • Income growth over the period 1994-2010 has been approximately similar amongst whites and blacks
  • The proportion of total income earned by black people has grown from 33% to 39%, while amongst whites it has declined from 55% to 48%
  • Within-race inequality contributed only 39% to inequality in 1993 and now constitutes 60%

The report also points out that World Bank Gini coefficients don’t properly adjust for household size, and household-weighted Gini coefficients were 0.67 in 1993 and are 0.69 now. They write:

A decomposition of the Theil index shows that the decline in income inequality between race groups throughout the period offset the rising inequality within groups. This trend of falling inter-racial inequality coupled with rising intra-racial inequality is also a continuation of a phenomenon first observed in the 1970s (Whiteford & Van Seventer 2000). Note that these estimates of the population Gini are near the upper end of South African Gini estimates, although they remain smaller than those calculated by Ardington et al. (2005) using the 2001 census. The trends in inequality derived from the AMPS data are likely to be more reliable than the estimated levels, as the levels may be more affected by the nature of the data (household income estimates in income bands based on a single question).

The Gini coefficients shown here are higher than those often reported. The reason for that is that many Gini calculations use the weighting for the household, without multiplying that by the household size, as should be done: Larger households have more members, and this should be considered in calculating inequality. The Gini coefficients here are thus the correct ones, and much higher than those reported by among others the World Bank, which are based on inappropriate weights. The Gini coefficient of 0.685 reported for 2006 would have been only 0.638 if the more common, but incorrect, weights were used.
This report overall paints a picture of small but noticable reductions in inter-racial inequality, and reductions in the levels of absolute poverty seen before the end of Apartheid. It’s pretty modest, but overall it seems safe to say that South Africa may reduce inequality slightly and cannot be said to have significantly increased it. This claim may seem weak, but when we compare it to the rest of the world and consider it in its proper context, it’s important.
Considering South Africa’s economic changes in the global and regional context
In economics there is a simple method for assessing the effect of an intervention called the Difference-in-Difference model. In this model you compare the actual change in the group that received an intervention with the counter-factual that would be expected if they haven’t; you estimate the counter-factual from a control group measured before and after the intervention. In this case the intervention is the end of apartheid, and the control group is other countries. Consider, for example, how income inequality has changed in South Africa and the USA since the 1970s. According to the World Bank, the top decile of income earners in South Africa control 58% of all income in 2010. Research from Stanford University puts the equivalent number in the USA at 50%, but look at the curve: since the 1970s the share of income held by the top decile of US income earners has increased from about 35% to 50%. Income inequality has increased rapidly in many high income countries under the influence of various forms of neo-liberalism and/or trade liberalization. For example in the UK the Gini coefficient has increased from 0.35 to 0.41 since 1990, a much larger (proportionate) increase than observed in South Africa. Seen against the backdrop of international changes brought about by major international movements, it appears that Mandela and the ANC have managed to resist many of the worst changes that have swept through the industrialized west. It is this international context that is missing from the Counterpunch article linked above, where they provide critical statistics about South Africa’s industrial and economic performance without any comparison to overseas, where equal or far worse changes have occurred in the same time frame. The industrial economies of much of the rich west have been hollowed out by a mixture of ponzi economics and the rapid growth of Asia; South Africa seems to have escaped the worst of some of these changes, and though things clearly aren’t pretty in the economic statistics that South Africa presents, it is also clear that they have got vaguely better and certainly not much worse, against a backdrop of really challenging international and domestic changes.
The domestic changes also need to he emphasized when assessing Mandela’s legacy. He inherited a corrupt one party state with a political system built on state violence against a powerless minority, crippled by years of sanctions and sitting on the silent time bomb of HIV. While the ANC’s response to HIV was terrible, it’s worth noting that the first 10-20 years of growth of HIV happened under apartheid, and it’s really hard to believe that since HIV was identified in 1984 the white regime was doing much to prevent its spread. Against a backdrop of revolution, poverty, discrimination and chaos, what kinds of interventions did de Klerk have in place? And even after Mandela took the reins, most of Africa was still unaware of how to deal with HIV and just how terrible it was going to become; much of the context of the epidemic that unfolded subsequently had already been set and although the response could have been better handled since 1994, and certainly since 1997, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that even a really pro-active intervention would have failed under the circumstances. As a result of this epidemic, life expectancy in South Africa has collapsed, and South Africa is one of the countries facing serious economic challenges because of the epidemic. I have written before about how terrible this epidemic can be for societies suffering it, and challenged readers to consider alternative futures where it arose as a generalized epidemic in the USA or Europe. Does anyone think that the USA would have experienced the same economic growth and changes since 1994 if it had suffered the epidemic the way South Africa is? This needs to be considered when criticizing health spending and economic growth in South Africa.
Given this context, I can only summarize by saying that Mandela and the ANC did okay in handling inequality. Obviously not as well as anyone would have liked but also much better than, say, the US under (lefty) Clinton or the UK under (lefty) Blair. So I think leftists should perhaps be a little more circumspect in their criticisms of Mandela and the ANC’s legacy. Perhaps it would be good if they took a week to laud his obvious achievements, and to read the literature.
A final note about iconoclasm in coverage of Mandela’s death
In case you thought the mainstream left was alone in being a little too quick to criticize Mandela, spare a thought for the lunatic right. The National Review Online editors’ piece on Mandela was remarkable, managing to wrap a vicious and angry rant inside a thin shell of flattery; and its commenters still complained that the NRO has become too left wing in its coverage, and that Mandela committed genocide. But perhaps best is the efforts of the white power losers from the OSR blogosphere, who hate-bombed a thread about Mandela on Dragonsfoot with complaints about his terrorism and white genocide. Remember that next time an OSR blogger drifts over here to complain about my criticisms of Tolkien … still, the OSR being caught up in 1986 I guess they haven’t worked out that apartheid is over.
Anyway, I don’t feel like this has been a great week for the mainstream left media, such as it is, and I hope that some of Mandela’s critics on the left will find this piece and consider a slightly more nuanced understanding of what he did in power. I also hope that people will start using slightly better measures of inequality than Gini indices … but that’s a post for another day!

Is it just me, or has the Guardian embarked on a project of excessive tastelessness[1]? In the last two days they have shown video footage of 17 people dying in a hot air balloon (apparently you can see people jumping to their deaths) and of a man being dragged to his death by a South African police van. WTF? I don’t want to watch people die. I was always of the understanding that snuff videos were an urban myth. Call me crazy, but I don’t think media outlets should be showing footage of real people dying. I don’t want my death to be on film, and I don’t want to watch you die. Maybe occasionally there is some social value to watching you die, but in general I think your death should be something kept between you, your family and your god or gods.

I remember years ago some stupid American politician shot himself in the face in front of the media, and pretty much every Australian TV station chose not to play it. I recall one station even had a statement about why they “censored” the sight of a man blowing his brains out. What has happened in the intervening years that grainy footage of some holiday-makers having an otherwise great day ruined by their horrible fiery deaths has become news? Why do I need to see some kid in South Africa being murdered?

I think I can chalk this up as another example of how journalists and the media generally are losing track of reality. But let me say this: to the best extent that I can, I will try to avoid watching you die. Obviously, some stupid media may trick me into watching their horrid snuff films, but if I have any say over the matter, I will not watch you die.

I’m sure that will make you feel better when you do.

fn1: Obviously for a lot of people this has been a rhetorical question for a very, very long time now.

Many Australian public hospitals maintain a ban on circumcision. The Royal Australian College of Phsyicians (RACP) recommends against circumcision, and it is now so unpopular that 80% of Australian boys are uncircumcised. However, a committee of public health experts has recommended reversing this ban and moving to encourage circumcision, on the basis of the many health benefits of circumcision. These health benefits have been known for a long time, but the medical fraternity have responded to strong public pressure in advising against non-medical circumcision, because it is seen as a form of child abuse. Indeed, in America recently there were efforts to ban the practice on the basis that it is a form of child abuse.

This would all be a largely irrelevant debate about men’s willies and the aesthetics thereof, except that circumcision has now been shown to be an extremely effective tool in the battle against HIV. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and various international aid agencies are scrambling to fund circumcision programs in Africa, where they believe that this simple and harmless procedure can significantly reduce the transmission of one of the world’s nastiest diseases. Recently at a training course in the UK I met people involved in this process and saw examples of the kinds of non-surgical devices being used to circumcise adult men (it’s a kind of ring, and after just 1 or 2 days the whole process is over and you can go back to work).

Australia is undoubtedly contributing financially and organizationally to this effort as part of its increasing aid contributions to Africa. But isn’t there something wrong here? Circumcision is essentially banned in government run hospitals in Australia, is on the nose in the USA and is frowned upon in the UK, yet these same countries are recommending circumcising the entire African continent. It’s morally unacceptable child abuse in Australia but an acceptable public health intervention in Africa? How does this kind of attitude differ from previous eras when population control was conducted through sterilization, often not clearly explained to the recipients? Is it just another example of aid-as-imperialism? How is this different to a country where abortion is strictly illegal (say, Ireland) funding abortion-based population control programs in Africa? And how can the Australian aid community (or its public health activists) criticize Chinese aid programs while we’re doing something like this?

It’s also worth remembering that historically white colonialists have been extremely uncomfortable about black men’s sexual fecundity (and their mythically enormous willies). Yet here we are – advocating chopping the end off of those massive, fecund members in the interests of stopping a disease which (apparently) cannot be stopped in Africa through behavioral change alone. Even though in Australia we have it under control through – you guessed it – behavioral change. The public health double standard is disturbingly close to the sexual insecurity …

Don’t mistake me here – HIV is a desperate situation and circumcision a minor operation that I don’t think we should shy away from as a control technique. Furthermore, I think the western bans on circumcision are silly and of the same character as the AMA’s opposition to boxing. It’s not liberal. But this hypocrisy, in which doctors won’t tolerate it in Australia or the UK but will support funding for its widespread use in Africa, reeks to me of cultural imperialism. If you won’t tolerate it here, don’t do it there.

I have become involved in research on Female Genital Cutting (FGC) in Nigeria, as part of my work, and in preparation for this work I had to read a report on the prevalence and distribution of the practice in Nigeria. This report makes for interesting reading, and in particular it seems to run counter to a lot of the stereotypes and propaganda being put out by various individuals, organizations and movements on this much-discussed topic. Some of the findings in the report I read really contradict what I think is the prevailing wisdom, and so I thought I’d give a little summary and discussion of the contents of the report here. None of the work presented here is my or my department’s research, and I don’t intend to say anything about our research because it’s not published, and I don’t want to present anything in the public domain in any way shape or form until it’s been published officially. This post then is my review of someone else’s research report, with a few opinions and some musing that are entirely my own. Also, I’ll use the term “Female Genital Cutting” (FGC) here rather than “Female Genital Mutilation” (FGM) because that’s the term the report uses, and (for reasons I think we’ll see) it’s probably a more accurate term.

The report I’m talking about here is Chapter 18 of the 2008 Demography and Health Survey of Nigeria (more information on that below), which can be downloaded here.

Female Genital Cutting

FGC is the practice of cutting into or excising parts of the female genitals, or (in its most extreme form) closing up part of the female genitals, with or without the removal of some flesh. The most severe forms of FGC, infibulation, can have potentially life-threatening and/or (usually “and” I think) fertility-impeding results. It’s not clear that all forms of FGC are harmful, though I am told there is a lot of debate about the health consequences of the most minor examples of the practice. The term FGC covers a much wider range of practices than male circumcision (which is also, obviously a form of cutting); from small ritual scars, removal of flesh (e.g. the clitoral hood); excision of the clitoris; and infibulation. I don’t think there’s any debate about the health effects of the more extreme forms of FGC, which are generally accepted to cause loss of sexual arousal and function, physical harm, trauma, sometimes difficulty with basic functions, and extreme difficulty in childbirth, with increased risk of maternal and infant mortality.

In the popular press over the past 10 years, FGC has been associated with Islam, and is presented as a common, even ubiquitous practice amongst muslim communities through north Africa and the middle east. I think you can probably find people claiming it is prevalent all the way across to Indonesia, though I doubt the people you’ll find saying such things are credible, and they probably also have published blog posts on how the unmarked helicopters will soon come for your carbon. Many muslim activists and feminists have pointed out that FGC is prevalent in non-muslim communities in Africa, and that it comes in different forms and isn’t necessarily popular with men or women in the countries where it is practiced. It is also a highly controversial topic in western political debate, often presented as a pressing example of why the west needs to “act” to instill our “civilized” values in these countries; discussion of FGC is entangled with the complex of post-colonial and post-9/11 thought that delivered us the “Arab Exception” (Arab countries can’t support democracy), “liberal intervention” (bombing people can be a viable way to introduce democracy) and, to my mind most odious of all, claims to be defenders of women’s rights from the neo-cons who orchestrated the slaughter of a million people in Iraq.

Of course, discourse that is tangled up with these issues inevitably tends to avoid inconvenient things like “facts,” or tedious tasks like “assaying the available evidence.” I don’t intend to stray from this time-honoured tradition by giving a complete review of the literature on FGC. But I do want to talk about the facts as they have been gathered in this DHS Report. Consider it my small contribution to 0% of fuck all on the topic.


Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, and is characterized by a wide diversity of geographical regions and a large number of different tribal and ethnic groupings. It was ruled under a dictatorship until about 1999, and is a member of the Commonwealth. Like a lot of countries it is home to a lot of different religions, but primarily Christian and Muslim in a roughly 50-50 split. Nigeria’s first census was in 1866 and its current population 140 million. It has significant oil reserves and the exploitation of these reserves by Shell (and other companies) has been a matter of some controversy, with accusations of both reckless behaviour and a low level conflict between residents of the oil-drilling areas and the central government. I think there are areas in the North of Nigeria where some sort of tribal and/or Sharia law applies. Nigeria is an ex-British colony, which presumably means it has a cricket and a rugby team. The wikipedia run-down on Nigeria is probably all you need to get an overview of a diverse and interesting country still struggling with its post-colonial problems and the (sadly typical) legacy of a post-colonial military dictatorship. Like most developing nations in Africa, it is rapidly reforming and improving its health sector to try and meet the Millenium Development Goals, focussing on those connected to population planning (i.e. maternal and infant mortality). Nigeria’s HIV prevalence is low compared to some African countries – about 3.6% – but still punishingly high by international standards, and primarily transmitted heterosexually.

The Demography and Health Surveys

The Demography and Health Surveys (DHS) are a standard population survey funded and developed by USAID and implemented in a variety of developing nations on a roughly 5-yearly basis by local statistics offices in conjunction with USAID and sometimes the UN (in Nigeria, the UN Population Fund has been involved). The surveys are conducted nationally and are intended to provide a representative sample of the population. They focus on population-planning and women’s health issues, especially fertility and infant mortality, because these issues are the crucible in which health development happens. Some surveys include sub-samples for examination of specific topics, including fingerprick samples to estimate HIV prevalence. In many instances these surveys are the only way in which developing nations are able to get a snapshot of key health problems like infant mortality, due to poorly-functioning central population registers, or limited funds for aggregation of data.

The DHS are implemented in a door-to-door interview style on a random sampling basis that is analysed in a manner similar to the analysis of  national household surveys in the west – for example Australia runs a National Drug Strategy Household Survey every 5 years along similar lines. The data is then analysed and published in reports on the DHS website, and also made available free of charge upon application to interested researchers (e.g. Yours Truly). They provide a wealth of opportunities for research into development and health issues in the developing world. The 2008 Nigerian DHS sampled about 33,000 women and 16000 men, which is a huge sample by anyone’s standards, and an excellent opportunity to ask all sorts of interesting questions of Nigerian women. Note that the DHS surveys usually only concern themselves with women aged 15-49, and that is what “women” in the remainder of this blog post should be taken to mean.

FGC in Nigeria

So, chapter 18 of the report first gives us the rather surprising result that only 61% of women aged 15-49 have ever heard of FGC in Nigeria. Assuming that those who have never heard of it have never experienced it, they then calculate a stark figure of 30% of all Nigerian women having experienced some form of FGC. This figure doesn’t seem to be afflicted by missing values, but we can see from Table 18.1 that a mighty 45% of all women who have had FGC do not report the type they have received. The DHS divides FGC into three categories, and 45% of women who had experienced FGC classed themselves in the “cut, flesh removed” category. What this means is not clear and inspections were not done, so whether these women were mostly seriously affected or suffered nothing more sinister than a female equivalent of male circumcision is not known from this data. Eighty percent of women had been cut before their first birthday, suggesting that this practice in Nigeria is not a coming of age ceremony or adulthood rite, but something committed largely post childbirth. The majority of cutting was administered by a traditional circumciser or traditional birth attendant, but 2% were performed by doctors.

Some of the demographics of FGC are show in Table 18.1, and here we start to see our western notions of the causes and reasons for FGC running into the brick wall of reality. FGC is much more prevalent in urban rather than rural areas, and its prevalence is proportionate to wealth. That is, the richer you are, the more likely you are to have experienced FGC. My original image of FGC was that it was a phenomenon of poor, rural women but the opposite appears to be the case. We’ll get on to discussing confounders for this conclusion in a moment, but let us first consider one other remarkable fact – the more educated a Nigerian woman is the more likely she is to have experienced FGC. Rather than being a phenomenon of poor, ignorant rural women is it actually a fad of the urban upper class? Perhaps a cohort effect? There does appear to be a linear relationship between age and circumcision and, since circumcision occurred mostly before age 1 this linear relationship does suggest a cohort effect.

The problem we have with drawing strong conclusions about the demographics of FGC from this report is that there is no multiple regression model. We note that FGC is more common in urban areas, but we can also see that it is much more common in the South than the North; and Nigeria’s cities are all in the South. If a tribe is distributed unevenly across the country and has a strong history of FGC, then it will confound conclusions about the demographic associations. It could also be that there is some historical effect, perhaps because a tribe that controlled access to education and wealth during the dictatorship also had a high prevalence of FGC. Nonetheless, the closest you can come to an iron law of development and health is that education improves women’s rights, so it’s interesting that FGC is more prevalent amongst educated women. However, in the absence of a multiple regression model, conclusions about the meaning of these demographics are weak.

Religion and Tribal Effects on the Prevalence of FGC

Looking at Table 18.1 again, we note that FGC is much more common in the South than the North – overall prevalence in the North is about 13% vs. about 35-40% in the South. It’s almost non-existent in the North East. These, incidentally, happen to be the areas of Nigeria with the largest Muslim populations, while the South has the highest prevalence of Christians. Unless there is a seriously skewed distribution of FGC between Muslims and non-Muslims, the striking conclusion of that result is that Muslim women appear to be much less likely to have experienced FGC than non-Muslim women. In fact some areas of the North the majority of women don’t even know what FGC is. One noteworthy point though is that Northern circumcision is more likely to be reported as the most severe kind (sewn closed); but also the lowest rates of refusal to report the type of FGC are in the North. Of course, the broad categories of definition and the large proportion of missing data make this information almost meaningless.

The authors wisely chose to eschew reporting on religion and its relationship to FGC, which is a no-win game for all concerned. If you find high levels of FGC amongst Christians, then right-wing cultural warriors will crucify you for attacking religion; if you don’t report them, right-wing cultural warriors will accuse you of covering up the true prevalence amongst Muslims. The best thing to do is to try strenuously to avoid your health research being used to confirm or disconfirm other people’s biases. Our concern as health researchers is behaviour, not categories of people, and categories of people are only of interest in so much as they form useful markers for behaviour, or useful media for changing behaviour; this is why HIV was renamed from GRID (Gay-related Immune Disorder) when the behaviour that caused its transmission was identified – the category was no longer analytically useful. Categories like “gay” or “Muslim” (or indeed, I suppose, “gay Muslim”) may be useful as health promotion tools (you can, for example, disseminate health promotion messages in gay mosques!) but as analytic categories they are always superceded by direct research into behaviour. Especially when, as in this case, “Muslim” as a category is so general that it spans multiple regions, levels of wealth and education, and tribe.

Next we can also notice a large variation in rates between tribes. I am under the impression that most Nigerian tribes include members of several religions, though I could be wrong. I can’t find evidence online for the proportion of the various tribes that are Islamic and I don’t trust Wikipedia on this (the source is given as the “World Christian Database” and some of the “tribes” listed there don’t seem to match those in the DHS), but if we assume that the three biggest figures given there are correct in at least their ranking, we can see that the three tribes with the largest Muslim populations (Yoruba, Hausa, Fulani) have the two lowest rates of FGC (and one has the highest). Again there is huge confounding here, since the Yoruba tribe is mostly in the Southwest (a hotbed of FGC) and also has a heavy mix of religions – Wikipedia puts the Muslim population at 8 million, but the overall Yoruba population in Nigeria at 29 million. Similarly sketchy Wikipedia accounts suggest the Fulani are primarily Muslim, and they have a very low prevalence of FGC (8.5%). So, we can do ecological analysis wikipedia style[1]: a tribe with a minority population of Muslims has a very high FGC rate, while a tribe with a majority population of Muslims, credited by wikipedia with spreading islam to Nigeria, has a very low FGC rate.

Shall we join the dots? There is weak evidence from this DHS report, relying on an ecological-level analysis of population prevalence of FGC, that being Muslim is protective against FGC, and FGC is most prevalent amongst Christians. The only way to know if there is any substance to this conclusion is to do a multiple regression at the individual level, adjusting for wealth, education and location, to see whether there is any association between religion and FGC. My guess is that when one does this one will find that FGC is a cross-religious phenomenon, driven primarily by class- and tribe-specific cultural factors that transcend religion.

Opinions on the Continuation of FGC in Nigeria

Men and women were asked in this survey what they thought the reasons for FGC were, and whether they would submit their own daughters to it. Responses to the former question for men and women seem broadly similar: there are no benefits to FGC is the commonest response for both sexes (Tables 18.6.1 and 18.6.2). The second most common response (and it’s a distant second overall) was “to prevent pre-marital sex and preserve viginity” and this was heavily over-represented in the South, where the practice is most common. Seven percent of men indicated it was done to improve sexual pleasure for men, vs. 4 % of women. This set of results hardly supports the view from abroad of populations of benighted savages, ignorant of the true consequences of FGC and persisting in silly notions about its benefits. This foreign view of FGC is further dispelled by women’s reports of whether they aim to subject their own daughters to circumcision: only 6% of circumcised women intend to do this, and the proportion of women intending to do it is lowest amongst the highest-educated. That is, where it is most prevalent it is least popular. It is also least popular with the youngest women, who are most in control of girl children’s fate.

I think there is a well-established counter current of feminist thought in the West – so well established that I can’t even be bothered googling it – that women play a significant role in decisions about whether to circumcise daughters, as part of the generally well-established role that women play in policing the boundaries of femininity. This idea is well presented in the inscription at the front of Alice Walker’s book on FGC, in which the trees in the forest notice that the woodsman’s axe has a wooden haft. I think it’s pretty likely that the traditional birth attendants and circumcisers responsible for cutting the majority of women in this sample are also mostly women. So at the point where women decide it’s not happening to their daughters then it probably doesn’t take much in the way of empowerment of those women’s decisions to see their will enacted.

Interestingly, the DHS includes a lot of questions about the household’s attitudes towards women’s equality, couched in practical terms (“he lets me make purchasing decisions”) and ideological questions (“it’s okay to beat a woman if she burns dinner”). So it is possible that some enterprising social scientist could analyse attitudes to the continuation of FGC and work out exactly what is required to empower women’s decisions to make it go away. However, I suspect the most likely answer will be “nothing.” Nigerian women appear to have decided they don’t want the next generation of girls to have FGC, and my guess is that will be sufficient for the practice to die out by itself within 2 generations.


This report presents weak evidence against two commonly-held stereotypes of FGC:

  • It is a predominantly Muslim practice
  • It is a problem of poor, uneducated rural women

at least in Nigeria. It also gives weak evidence in favour of the possibility that FGC is much more common in Christian communities; or at least that being Muslim is protective against FGC. These conclusions cannot be drawn definitively without individual-level analysis of attitudes and practices in a proper multiple regression, that adjusts effects of religion and tribe for region, personal beliefs, wealth and education. To do such analyses is not the responsibility of health researchers, who should be avoiding feeding the fires of this kind of debate (in my opinion) and focussing on the practical aspects of the issue. Maybe. It’s also possible that there is a cohort effect in the prevalence of FGC in Nigeria, in that it may have been widely practiced 20 or more years ago and/or amongst a particular tribe or group of tribes.

This report also suggests that FGC is going to disappear rapidly in Nigeria through natural attrition, and that the single cheapest, easiest way to make this happen is to empower women to have full control of the perinatal process. When women can choose the timing of childbirth and have access to good medical care, and are able to assert their own authority over the child-rearing process and associated decisions, the results in this report suggest that they will choose overwhelmingly against FGC for their own daughters. The report also suggests that the majority of men don’t have strong views on the importance of FGC, and so it is unlikely to continue even if western feminism does nothing about it. As is usual in development health, the simplest way to reduce the dangers to women’s health and to improve children’s health is to enable women’s self-empowerment. But in this case it is not clear that increasing girls’ access to education will protect them against the phenomenon.

This really is a topic crying out for detailed sociological research and I hope it’s being done!

A side point on the analysis of hysterical political campaigns: as usual, the right wing shock-jocks are wrong, and my standard method for making a first-pass judgement about a political problem worked. This method is: if group A hates group B, and group A is claiming that group B do nasty behaviour x (child-eating, FGC) then probably the opposite is true. In this case group A is right wing shock jocks / neocons (and some feminists); group B is that most nefarious and broad of categories, “Muslims” and my conclusion is, as ever, correct in all of its particulars.

fn1: i.e. get it completely wrong!

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