Monday, March 26, 2012

Where Now with DF-1502 and the #ConflictMinerals Campaign?

A conference on conflict minerals at the Center for Global Development last week revealed that the gulf between advocates and critics of DF-1502 remains as wide as ever. The speakers were Corinna Gilfillan of Global Witness,  Mvemba Dizolele of Stanford, Laura Seay of Morehouse, and Enough's Sasha Lezhnev. To my mind, the most revealing statement of the day came from Corinna, who at one point plaintively asked the room, "Can anyone honestly say that having people with guns running around in mining communities is a good thing?"

I won't attempt to summarize the meeting, mostly because I was in and out for chunks of it. I'll cover a couple of the highlights in a bit, but let me go straight to the bottom line: With all props to CGD for sponsoring this debate, I don't think that discussions about DF-1502 are particularly relevant any more.

Let me explain. Western-oriented firms more or less stopped sourcing minerals from eastern Congo in April 2011. That's when they instructed the two or three dozen smelters of the world that turn the mineral ore into tin and tantalum to stop accepting shipments from the region. The firms can't yet officially certify that their products don't contain Congolese minerals because they haven't got the policing mechanisms in place to prove it. The shouting match you are hearing right now between them and the advocates is over just how much policing they should be required to do. But the fact that companies don't want to spend money proving a negative doesn't mean that they are surreptitiously doing it. They're not. On the contrary, companies are getting all the minerals they need from safe-harbor countries such as Australia and Brazil. And nothing--absolutely nothing--is going to induce them to go back into eastern Congo any time soon. Quite apart from what the law says, the companies are immensely worried about their public image. It will be years before they're willing to turn the Congo spigot back on. [1]

So, yes, we can debate what impact the law has had on local communities; we can argue about whether civil society groups were properly consulted; we can have our Talmudic discussions about whether companies need to file rather than furnish their reports or whether mining can properly be said to be a form of manufacturing. But nothing that we decide regarding these questions is going to make any appreciable difference to what is happening on the ground in eastern Congo--either for the better or the worse.We have taken ourselves out of the game, and it shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that we are no longer able to affect the outcome.

Which is a shame. Because, as I've argued at length elsewhere, there was at one time a realistic alternative to DF-1502. We could have focused first on establishing mechanisms on the ground capable of distinguishing clean from dirty minerals, and used those mechanisms to delegitimize and slowly push to the perimeter the involvement of armed groups. How much that would have helped end the wars I don't know. But it certainly wouldn't have made things worse, which is exactly what DF-1502 has done.

With that bit of bellyaching out of the way, let me make a few random observations:

First, it seems clear to me that if we'd had the debate we are having now about DF-1502 while the bill was still under discussion, it would never have passed out of committee. The idea that wiping out one of eastern Congo's only viable economic sectors on some highly questionable theory that it might help end the wars there would have been laughed out of the room. Congress just flat-out failed to do its due diligence here, which is why the responsibility for this mess belongs far more to them than the advocates.

Second, I sort of regret that public policy students aren't required to take more English classes. They might learn a little about the seductions of rhetoric. For example, if I had a dime for every time I heard from an advocate that DF-1502 was "never meant to be a panacea," I'd buy a coffee at Starbucks. If I had a second dime for every time I was told that the legislation was never meant to be more than "one piece of the puzzle," I'd make it a grande. And if I had a third dime for every time an advocate justified DF-1502 by explaining that the situation was so dire that something needed to be done--well, in that case, I'd ditch the coffee and buy a bottle of tequila.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

What Now with #Kony2012?

Imagine you work in the development office of an NGO. Your job is to beg from the rich to give to the poor. Anywhere from a handful to several hundred people depend directly on you to raise money so that they can do their job. More importantly, thousands or millions of people depend on the work your NGO does.

Now ask yourself what Kony2012 taught you.

Sure, you heard the criticism; it wasn't exactly whispered. The video is self-involved sentimental crap. Auto-hagiographical. The sort of thing for which the word "jejune" was invented. Insulting to the people it would defend. Even Jesus, the twits say, had the good taste to let Paul do his deifying for him.

So what?

Let's do the math. On the one hand, you have one hundred million hits, $40 million in donations, the cover of Time, and a commitment of 5,000 soldiers. On the other, you have the carping of a few dozen armchair critics who won't be satisfied until they force you to sit through a 17-hour cinema verite about manioc production.[1]

So again: What has Kony2012 taught you?

Did it teach you to listen attentively to and scrupulously convey the complex and contradictory desires of local people? Did it teach you the importance of intellectual rigor and emotional honesty? Did it teach you that the way to proceed is to challenge people's preconceptions, to remind them of the hundred complexities that accompany the achievement of any goal, no matter how mundane, and to mute the Western interlocutor, no matter how attractive he or she may be?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Can you hear me?

Is this thing on?

As some of you know, my blog has been having technical problems for a while. If you can, please tweet or email me at daronson69 at to let me know if it's working.

Thank you!

How Many Wars Have there Been in Congo Anyway?

Tatiana Carayannis, over at the World Peace Foundation, has written an interesting article urging us all to think more clearly about the nature of the conflicts in the Congo. Because I woke up early this morning, with pressing assignments that I'm trying to avoid, I thought I'd write a short response. Five hours and 2,000 words later, here it is, my embarrassingly long (because uninvited) response.

Hi Tatiana,

 I think you are absolutely right to insist that we need to do a better job of conceptually disaggregating the wars in the Congo. We speak of the First (96-97) and Second (98-99 or -03) Congo Wars, as if there were only two, when in fact hostilities of various kinds continued long after the second war could be said, by whatever criteria, to have ended. Lumping what is and has been a complicated mess of disparate events into discrete categories can seem like an academic exercise. But failing to do so can result in something between confusion and blindness. Lacking the right “label-concept” to speak about the ongoing hostilities, we don’t really know how to talk about them–with the result that oftentimes we simply don’t.[1]

 That said, I’m not convinced that it’s quite correct to speak of three wars, either, with the third ongoing since Lusaka. (And don’t most accounts mark the end of the second war with the formation of the all-inclusive transitional government?) Or if we do want to talk of three wars, I think we should add the caveat that the third war, to a greater extent than the first two, has been characterized by several distinct phase changes.

 The first was from Lusaka in July 1999 to Laurent’s death, in January 2001. This was a period best described, I think, as a phony peace. None of the signatories believed (I don't think) that the Lusaka Agreement was anything other than a makeshift truce representing the realities of the current military impasse. The belligerents continued to probe the “frontlines” seeking weaknesses in the other sides and fought pitched battles to consolidate their position. (An example would be the fights between Rwandan and Ugandan forces over the gold mines of Kisangani of 1999 and 2000--an example that also gives lie to the contemporaneous claim, nauseatingly repeated, that the whole thing was about the FDLR.)

 The second period was from Joseph’s accession to the Sun City Accords. This period was marked by a genuine search for peace, at least on Joseph’s part. (His quest for peace during that period is still, I think, the best thing that can be said about the man’s career, and is on its way to becoming the only good thing.) What I thought was odd about the Accords–which you rightly put your finger on–was the extent to which everyone pretended this was really all about domestic power-sharing, when, as we all knew, Rwanda and Uganda still had major stakes in the country directly and via their support for the RCD and MLC. In retrospect, the Accords did succeed in laying the groundwork for the departure of (most of) the “negative” elements and for the de jure and de facto re-incorporation of the break-away regions (excepting the Kivus and Maniema) back into the country.

 The third period was from Sun City to November 2008, with the startling rapprochement of Kinshasa and Kigali. The hostilities during that period were confined largely to Ituri and the Kivus, and gradually devolved from opposing blocs of foreign-supported militia into something of a free-for-all. It was during this period that the proliferation of armed groups and the absence of a central governing authority combined to create a Hobbesian-like environment, akin to what we see in Somalia. Grievances formerly settled by local mechanisms or suppressed by the central government (Lendu-Hema or Banyamulenge-”authochtones”) predominated.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Swimming Upstream

For all I know Felix Salmon is one of the most brilliant financial journalists out there. But his piece yesterday pairing Mike Daisey’s fraudulent reporting on Foxxconn and Invisible Children’s documentary on Kony is a mess. In it, Salmon argues that the controversy generated by the two pieces reveals the weakness inherent in narrative--as opposed to ordinary--journalistic non-fiction:
One of the central problems with narrative nonfiction is that the best narratives aren’t messy and complicated, while nonfiction nearly always is. Daisey stepped way too far over the line when he started outright lying to his audience and to the producers of This American Life. But all of us in the narrative-nonfiction business (I’ve written such stuff myself) are faced at some point with a choice between telling the story and telling the whole truth, or the whole truth as best we understand it. . . . 
 Salmon concludes that it’s wrong to hold these sorts of stories (narratives, that is) to the same standard of accuracy that we hold daily journalism: “Maybe the mistake was made even earlier, when This American Life decided that a theatrical monologue could ever be held to standards of journalistic accuracy. This one certainly couldn’t, and in that I think it’s more the rule than the exception.”

 It is not entirely clear to me what Salmon means by “narratives” as opposed to “stories,” or “nonfiction” versus the “whole truth.” Nor do I entirely understand what he means when he says that the best narratives aren’t messy or complicated. (What is Hamlet, but one damn complication after another?) In fact, I suspect Salmon himself doesn’t really know what he means. He's too smart not to know that terms like "the whole truth" are essentially meaningless. The whole thing seems to be a loosey-goosey way of saying something provocatively PoMo: that the fault, dear reader/viewer/listener, lies not in the storytellers but in the genre.

 If that’s what he’s arguing—and like I say, who knows?—he’s wrong. First, I think we have to make a distinction between Daisey and IC. IC was manipulative and auto-hagiographical and vulgar, but Daisey made shit up. There’s a world of difference, and Salmon is flat-out mistaken to say that the two pieces are “equally problematic.”

 Second, I think Salmon’s claim that narratives are best when they aren’t messy and complicated is half right. It’s true that nonfiction--ie., life--is inherently “messy.” There’s always way more miscellaneous stuff going on in the world and in people’s heads than you could possibly convey. But selecting the details that are important and germane to the story, and omitting the rest, doesn’t make you a liar; it makes you a story teller.

Complications, on the other hand, are pretty much of the essence. Salmon is right that stories shouldn't be messy,  in the sense of containing unnecessary clutter, but he's wrong to say the best aren't complicated. Of course they are. They're as complicated as they need to be, which is to say, they include whatever information the reader needs to develop his or her own thoughtful reaction to the piece. We don’t need to be told everything, but we do need enough of the relevant facts to make a considered judgment. Good story tellers give us that.

The Old Fools

I don't know when, exactly, the TED talks went from being nerd cool to being the nerd musical; perhaps they always were, but at some point in the last two or three years the lights went out for me. So much hope in tomorrow! So much faith in cool gadgets! So much belief in belief itself! "We can change the world if we defy the impossible," declares one speaker on this autotune remix of the TED 2012 conference, expressing what might be the universal theme of technocrats and thespians everywhere. Isn't it pretty to think so! And how poorly equipped that fantasy leaves you for this cold intractable world. No wonder I've felt the need to read Philip Larkin after watching a TED talk or two, just to recalibrate afterwards.

So it was a relief to come across this article in New York Magazine, with its knowing take on the allure and the hollowness of TED: "Until recently, the universal self-actualizing creative ambition was to write a novel. Everyone has a novel in them, it was said. Now the fantasy has changed: Everyone has a TED Talk in them." And even more fun to watch this:

Saturday, March 17, 2012

"Africa, that's a Flyover Continent"

Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele are a couple of young, bi-racial comedians who host a new TV sketch show on Comedy Central.

The key word here is bi-racial. Both comedians have white mothers and middle-class backgrounds, personal histories that make it difficult impossible for them to identify exclusively with one or another culture. Of course, there's nothing new about biraciality en principe--ask Sally Hemmings or Barack Obama--but it remains surprisingly new and uncharted territory in America, where for centuries the one-drop rule has meant that anyone with a small percent of African ancestry is considered black. (Even the president, whose election Key and Peele cite as critical for the evolution of their own comedic perspective, self-identifies as as African American, despite having had almost no serious contact with black American culture growing up.)

What's surprising is how much comedic landscape opens up s a result. Some of Key and Peele's humor comes from the absurd expectations other people have of them: Whites expect them to be ghetto-tough and black one minute, white and conciliatory the next; blacks expect the same, only in reverse. And some of their humor amounts to a salutary criticism of a lingering adversarial culture that makes less and less sense. One sketch features Peele as a streetcorner thug bragging about his masculinity when Obama's motorcade pulls up. Obama looks the thug up and down and says:  "I'm the leader of the Free World."  Hard to out-hustle a guy who can launch hellfire missiles.

But a lot of Key and Peele's jokes come from their having a critical distance toward their own "blackness." Their spoofs on black credulity and opportunism come this close to licensing racism, as if they're giving their white audience the opportunity to laugh at blacks because, as "blacks," they're allowed to say things whites wouldn't dare to say. I imagine there are some whites who enjoy their comedy for precisely that reason, just as some people thought Archie Bunker was a truth-teller. As Key and Peele become more popular, I worry that they'll come under increasing criticism from within the black community for selling out or playing blackface. I hope not. What Key and Peele are doing is much interesting than that, and they're funny in part because of how daring they are. As you laugh you're thinking--as you never do when you watch say, the vulgarities of a Comedy Central Roast--Can they say that? (Not that the roasts aren't funny; they're just not daring.)

Take the following exchange, with which they opened up one of their shows:

Welcome to the show. thank you for coming.
Uh, I am Keegan. - and I am Jordan. Hello.
And this is Key and Peele.
[cheers and applause] - AND, UH, AFRICA IS TRULY [bleep]ED UP.
You just came outta the gate with that.
IT'S [bleep]ED UP, KEEGAN.
See, and I completely disagree.
I would go to Africa right now.
No, see, there are flyover states. 
For me, Africa, that's a flyover continent.
So, you're seriously telling me you would not want to see the Nile?
You would not want to see the plains of the Serengeti - no.
You would not want to see, uh, Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Kilimanjaro? - No.
You didn't. no, you did not.
I'm saying, ..
Slavery was an awful thing.
All I'm saying, silver lining, it got my ass out of Africa.
 Okay. - I said it.
But things are improving there, Jordan.
- it's not--it's not-- it's not different enough.
I'm sorry, no, I refuse to go to a continent that's so bad that people don't even care if there are flies on their face.

I don't want to comment on this too much. Jokes and frogs, for one thing. For another, I'm not quite sure what to make of it. Could a pair of white comics get away with saying this? Absolutely not. Could blacks? Maybe, but I've never heard any attempt it. Black comedians satirize blacks all the time--and wouldn't be doing their job if they didn't--but generally avoid doing it in ways that might embarrass their community in front of white audiences. That's where Key and Peele are ready to go. It's someplace we as a culture haven't been, and I wonder if we're ready to go there yet.

We Are the World

Many years ago, when I was young and harbored the dream of becoming the next George Orwell, I lived for a year in a shanty town in eastern Congo--then Zaire. The idea was that I would gather the life stories and daily experiences of some of the town's residents, throw in a few of my own impressions and feelings, add a sociological note or three, and--voila, the next Road to Wigan Pier. So, for example, I spent a few weeks with a cart pusher, one of those fellows who work with three or four others pushing out-size wheelbarrows loaded with 50 kilo sacks of manioc or twenty-foot iron rods up and down the town's hilly roads. Those roads are steep. The landscape of the region is all rounded peaks and valleys, like the inside of a corrugated egg container, and colored an emerald green streaked with dusty roads that after the rains turn into grinding rivers of rust-colored mud.

My cart pusher was an uncomplicated person, somewhat baffled by my interest in the minutia of his daily life, and like many physically imposing men he gave off a feeling of great gentleness. I remember thinking one evening as we labored to account for the $5.75 or so he had earned that day--this much to the cart owner, that much to his laborers, a small amount for the cart-pushers association, and then his family expenses, the food, rent, school fees for his younger siblings, and some 10 to 15 cents left over most days for a smoke--that as long as he had his health and those tendons and muscles of iron he would be OK. I also remember thinking that it was a shame he had to spend 50 cents a day renting the cart when he could have bought it outright for 50 dollars; today, of course, we know all about micro-credit, but  it wasn't on my radar screen then.

My own plans didn't work out, of course, and within a few years Bukavu itself would go from being a palmy, Graham Greene-ish backwater to the epicenter of Africa's world war, without ever losing its seedy, backwater feel. Sometime before then, around the time of the Sovereign National Conference, when it was briefly possible to be hopeful for the Congo, I wrote the following. The story's details are true, or mostly so, but the way I tell the story bears evidence of how young I was; here and there you can hear the squeaks of my voice changing. From time to time I've thought about re-writing the piece; I would be harder on myself; play it more for comedy; but then it wouldn't be a true bill of the experience. I wrote it over a month of stops and hesitations, like an inchworm flailing forward, looking for the next bit of leaf or ground to secure itself to, never quite sure what I could ask the reader to accept. It is my ur-story, such as it is.  

This was published in a magazine called DoubleTake in the Winter of 1997, five years or so after being consigned to a drawer in my desk. Doubletake was an immensely ambitious, coffee-table fine art magazine, published by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University under Robert Coles and Alex Harris. The magazine folded after a decade's work; the sincerity it exuded was not part of the zeitgeist, and if the age hadn't killed it the Internet almost surely would have. I remain grateful to them for publishing one of my earliest attempts.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Matter at Hand

I swear I wrote the title before the news broke. Obviously, there's nothing to add at this point. Any fancy way of saying that Kony2012 is vaguely masturbatory is now officially a cheap shot. Except, really? They didn't nab him for tax fraud? For smoking a joint? For domestic disturbance? Surely there is some German or Korean or Xhosa word for this sort of thing: A spectacular public confirmation that the alleged weaknesses of a person or work are literally and not just metaphorically true. Had the accusation against Strauss-Kahn stuck, for example, you'd have had an astounding vindication of some of the more radical charges that have been leveled over the years against the IMF.

What follows is the start of a piece I was working on, which will now remain unfinished. Basically, my point was that a surprising number of Kony2012 critics misunderstood--or so it seemed to me--the nature of their own reaction to the campaign. The video's faults are primarily aesthetic. Kony2012 icked us out because of its intense narcissism, its unearned self-regard, its treatment of other people as means rather than ends. (Surely Russell's interaction with his son is the most unfortunate bit of parenting caught on film since Hasselhoff's attempted mastication of a hamburger.) Yet most of the criticism focused on its intellectual errors or debatable policy prescriptions, faults that however serious didn't merit the intensity of the criticism leveled against it. This not only allowed the campaign's defenders to come off as reasonable by contrast effect (see here and here and here), but mistook what was so awful about the film to begin with.  Using the plight of some of the world's most vulnerable people as an excuse to engage in a bit of auto-hagiography is repellent, regardless of whatever else can or can't be said about the video, the group, or the cause it claims to espouse.

No one of taste or discernment can watch the Kony 2012 campaign without feeling that vague sensation of distaste that we feel in the presence of bad art--that is, of art that doesn't just fail on its own terms but which seems to deliberately and with ulterior motive falsify the experience it purports to convey. You know what I'm talking about: ghastly poetry slams, horrid "provocations" in which it is considered witty to spell America with a "K," the movie Titanic. The sort of thing we call adolescent and excuse adolescents from: If they are not producing bad art when they are 16, there is no hope for them at all.

So my first reaction to the video was mild disapprobation mixed with mild condescension. It didn't affect me strongly one way or the other and I doubted it would go anywhere. (This was when it had  only a couple of million hits.) In the history of those episodic

Ha, ha. The joke, it turned out, was on me. Not since I first saw MTV and thought, "I can't see this having a future," have my instincts proven so completely misguided. Eighty million hits?! Why stop there?


Friday, March 9, 2012

"Every death is, in a fashion, a murder."

Two good pieces out in the New York Review this week: Mischa Berlinski's ambivalent look back on his five years in Haiti, and Jeffrey Gettleman's review of William Reno's new book on Africa's small wars. The piece on Africa's wars has received more attention, but the essay on Haiti had more resonance for me. Haiti sounds so much like Congo--at once so hopeless and hopeful, so tragic and preyed upon and self-defeating:
I came to Haiti in the spring of 2007 when my wife found a job with the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission there. She was assigned to the southern seaside town of Jérémie, a place where donkeys outnumbered cars on the streets. Jérémie was just 125 miles or so from Port-au-Prince, but only a single dirt road linked the two, and the trip overland could take fourteen or fifteen hours. Otherwise, the only connection to the capital was by propeller plane, if one had the money; or, for the poor, the night ferry, the Trois Rivières.
About a week after we arrived in Jérémie, the Trois Rivières ran aground leaving the wharf. It had been loaded badly, its cargo heavy and high on the bow and its passengers perched precariously above the cargo. Another ship soon came to its assistance. Crew members ran lines between the two boats and the assisting ship reversed its engines. The Trois Rivières did not budge, listing instead under the tension of the ropes until its flank was at a sharp angle to the horizon. Then the lines snapped and the Trois Rivières, rolling fast back to the vertical, flung its passengers and goods into the shallow bay.
Eighteen travelers drowned. The bodies were gathered from the wharf and rushed to the Hôpital Saint-Antoine where in the middle courtyard they were tossed into a promiscuous heap—face down, face up, mouths streaked by weird smiles of sputum and sea foam. The next day or the day after that, the tides shifted and theTrois Rivières proceeded normally to Port-au-Prince. Several days later, the last of the drowned travelers was found on the wharf being eaten by a pig.
Here then was my introduction to Haiti, a classic Haitian tragedy: the careless, criminal incompetence; the gratuitous grief inflicted on the poorest of the poor; the absolute lack of accountability, on the part of both the boat’s owners and the bureaucrats responsible for overseeing maritime safety. ...
The local explanation for the grounding of the Trois Rivières was this: the owner of the vessel had made an enemy—the details were obscure. The enemy had secured the services of a boko, or sorcerer, who had employed magical means to curse the ship. The accident was thus a punishment, the dead bystanders caught up in a private feud.
And like Congo, there is for the Westerner the strange feeling of being always at sea, of never quite understanding what it is one is seeing:
I could be wrong about Haiti—my sense of its people could be entirely mistaken. One of the strangest things about life in Haiti is how mysterious a place it still is; how little the foreigner ever knows about Haitian life. Haiti is a nation where information consists chiefly of rumor, and where story dominates over fact. The structure of the society is opaque. Who is in power? Who makes decisions? To what ends? It is a place whose complexities increase over time: I’m leaving Haiti after five years with the dismaying sensation that I understand it only marginally better than when I arrived.
And like Congo, there is this, too: For all the frustration and anger, the sense of having received a gift one  isn't being asked to repay:
  I was the recipient in Haiti of a tremendous amount of kindness and generosity, and was the witness to many remarkable displays of courage and grace. For all of that I remain enduringly grateful.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Phase In Period Likely for Conflict Minerals

From Reuters:
Public companies whose products contain certain so-called African "conflict minerals" will not be forced to immediately start complying with the new disclosure regulations set to be adopted this year, the top U.S. securities regulator revealed on Tuesday."The commission is working to finalize the adoption and I'm hopeful in the next couple of months, it will be done," U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Mary Schapiro told lawmakers during a hearing on the agency's 2013 budget request."We will have a phase-in period, I don't know how long, that will ... give sufficient time for some of the supply chain due diligence mechanisms to be developed and put in place."
This is a clear "defeat" for the activists, in that they have been adamant in demanding an immediate phase-in. In truth, however, I can't imagine how a phase-in will make the situation any better or worse in the DRC. The fact is that the Western companies are avoiding the region as best they can already, and nothing in this ruling will induce them to return any time soon. The disclosure rules will affect how companies do the paperwork associated with the law, but won't affect what is actually happening on the ground. 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Is Everything We Know about Asia's Missing Women Wrong? (And Do More Women Go Missing in Africa?)

Most readers of this blog are probably aware that a substantial number of women are said to be "missing" in India and China. That is, if you look carefully at the demographics, you find there are roughly 100 million to 200 million fewer females than you'd expect in those countries. Most readers are probably also aware that there's not a similar gap in Africa.

Amartya Sen first reported on Asia's "missing women" in a 1990 article in the New York Review of Books. Because there is no ready biological explanation for the gap, and because--as the example of Africa appears to demonstrate--there is no simple correlation between the male-female ratio and the extent of absolute poverty or sexism in a society, the issue became a sort of high-stakes version of Clue. What--or more ominously, who--was killing the girls? Why, and when, and how? An entire academic cottage industry grew up around those questions.

Sen himself speculated that girls were comparatively less likely to find "gainful employment" in Asian societies than in African ones, and that this tended to discourage parents from providing as much care for their girls as they did their boys. A Chicago economist suggested that half the difference might be due to the rate of Hepatitis B infection, which appeared to reduce the incidence of female conception. (And later, in a rare bit of intellectual honesty, repudiated that finding.) My own pet theory, which I never hesitated to bring up despite having no relevant expertise, had to do with the relative prevalence of bride-prices and dowries.

Whatever the explanation, I never much doubted that the findings were accurate. I never doubted, that is, that some appreciable number of Asian women were missing. It wasn't hard to imagine that a poor peasant family in India would be more willing to spend their last rupee on medicine for the (male) child they expected would care for them in their old age than for the (female) child they would soon marry off to another family. Add in China's one-child policy and the ready availability of sex testing and selective abortion, and it all seemed to make terrible sense. The proliferation of stories about missing women in the media--The Economist, the NY Times, and the Today Show (if memory serves, though I can't find the link)--seemed to leave little doubt about the facts.

So I was surprised today to read in Tyler Cowen's Marginal Revolution that much of what I thought I knew about missing women may NOT be true. He links to a 2010 paper in the Review of Economic Studies by Siwan Anderson and Debraj Ray that finds that many of the "missing women" are adults, not children; that Africa appears to have an even higher incidence of missing women than Asia; and that America had a similar gender ratio to Asia's in the year 1900.

What does all this mean? Well, as the authors themselves emphasize, if the findings hold then the number of missing women--defined as women who have died as a result of discrimination--needs to be seriously revised downwards.

Like Cowen, I don't know whether these findings are true or not, and unlike him, I'm not even remotely equipped to referee the debate. I'm linking mostly because these findings don't seem to have permeated into the public discussion, even as a caveat. (For example, neither of the articles in the Times or the Economist mentioned that the number of missing women is in dispute, although both date from after the study's publication. My brief survey of the web suggests that this is typical. As far as I can tell, almost no one is disputing the notion that large numbers of Asian women are missing.)

It's possible, of course, that Anderson and Ray are wrong: In fact, it's more than likely, given the preponderance of studies to the contrary. Still, it highlights the importance of careful and parsimonious data collection to public policy, which, as readers know, is something of a fetish idee fixe obsession of mine.