Shames and scandals: the ethics, and economics, of ‘painted houses’

Go anywhere in India – or, it seems, much of Africa – and you’ll see whole houses, sometimes whole communities, painted with advertising for various brands, usually Coke, Pepsi or mobile phone networks. I’ve always assumed the payment for these adverts is probably very low, and a recent Ecologist story confirms it’s often just a few dollars, and often the promised payment or reward never materialises.

Every day community elder Lucia Gazite sits on a stool in front of her modest house selling soft drinks. Her home’s 12-metre wide exterior wall is entirely covered with a Pepsi logo. She agreed to it as ‘some men came’ – she doesn’t know where from – and promised her a sunshade to sit under whilst she sells her drinks. It’s been ‘at least seven months’ and she’s yet to receive anything.

Lucia says she’d like to paint over the advert but can’t afford to. ‘In 2009 I had a Vodacom advert on this wall but I never received anything. I hoped this would work out differently but it hasn’t. I’m angry but I don’t know what to do. My neighbour painted over their wall (also adorned with an enormous Pepsi logo) but I can’t.’

Across the road it’s a similar story for 23-year old Isa (she refused to give a last name). Her small bar is a red and white shrine to Coca-Cola. She was promised – ‘by the men who come with Coca-Cola signs and bunting’ – a refrigerator in return for allowing the painting. She’s visited four different Coca-Cola suppliers to obtain the fridge but was turned away by them all. This was eight months ago. The fridge is yet to materialise and the men that come with new Coca-Cola marketing materials claim to know nothing of the promised fridge.

No one had explained to Lucia and Isa that Avenida Acordos de Lusaka is one of the most high-value, strategic marketing locations in Maputo. Both gasped at the thousands paid by brands to use the official billboards scattered down the road.

‘I had no idea,’ said Isa. ‘If I’d known I’d have asked for money. A few hundred dollars a month would change my life. I don’t mind putting up a sign for free so customers know I sell Coke. But my whole bar has been painted – and I don’t just sell Coke.’

So we have two things going on here: companies are promising people very little to paint their houses, much less than they pay for billboard space in the same area; and companies aren’t fulfilling the promises and actually paying or rewarding people.

One of these is a scandal. One is not.

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The big question: Can we have continued economic growth and tackle climate change?

This is the great question of the 21st Century, really, and it’s as hard to settle as it is vital.

For the longest time, it was seen as rather axiomatic that getting carbon emissions down to a sustainable level would mean saying “goodbye to growth.” This was phrased in different ways – usually with some vague comment about how we’d all be better off if we didn’t care so much about ‘stuff’ and how a post-growth society could be fairer, more peaceful, more equal, etc. (See for example Affluenza and Prosperity without Growth, or the provocatively-titled website Make Wealth History.) This seems to be intuitively sensible to quite a lot of people, and there’s a veritable cottage industry devoted to helping people ‘live sustainably’ by reducing their economic activity in order to reduce their personal carbon footprint – growing their own food and so on.

In more recent years, though, this reaction has been roundly challenged by a more optimistic view, apparently nicknamed ‘bright green’, which believes that a combination of technological improvements can enable us to reduce emissions to below dangerous levels without sacrificing (much) economic growth – or the key aspects of our cosy Western lifestyles. This view has quickly become the mainstream view amongst policymakers – particularly since the 2007 Stern report, which argued addressing climate change was achievable for the cost of a few % of GDP growth. (It’s also Al Gore’s basic position.)

It’s also a view I’m instinctively drawn to, as I wrote years ago.

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The Concerned for Working Children’s new website

I wrote much of the new website of the Nobel-nominated Indian children’s rights NGO The Concerned For Working Children, including this page on child marriage:

Our approach is to empower children to make change in their own communities. Members of organisations facilitated by CWC for the empowerment of children have prevented many instances of child marriage in their villages through campaigning in their own villages.

In 2002, for example, members of Bhima Sangha (the union of working children facilitated by CWC) staged a protest in their village to help their friend Vedha, 11, from being pushed into an early marriage. Despite the opposition of their parents and neighbours, the children marched to the police station and demanded action to stop the illegal marriage. Policemen gave Vedha to the children for protection until after the wedding date, and she stayed with other members in their small training centre. Since Vedha’s case, many children have been saved from early marriage by activism by their Bhima Sangha friends.

In defence of ‘the pornography of poverty’

Back in 2009, The New Republic editor Richard Just published a long, thorough takedown of academic Mahmood Mamdani ’s argument – articulated in his book Saviors and Survivors - that calls for humanitarian intervention in Darfur stem from neo-imperialism rather than a concern for human rights. It’s an enjoyable and, for the most part, entirely convincing piece. But one section also has relevance to a development question, that of the way journalists write about Africa.

Ever since the publication of Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay ‘How to Write About Africa’ in 2005, which pooped the Make Poverty History party by excoriating coverage which he argued focused on misery rather than reasons for optimism, there’s been a consistent refrain of grumbling about the generally depressing tone of Africa coverage in the Western media. It’s an issue obliquely referred to by Mamdani, and neatly dispatched by Just.

Perhaps Mamdani’s most annoying rhetorical tic is his repeated condescension toward the world of journalism. “Africa is usually the entry point for a novice reporter on the international desk, a learning laboratory where he or she is expected to gain experience,” he writes, more or less implying that journalists are too young or too stupid to understand the stories they are covering. Later he accuses journalists such as Philip Gourevitch of having sketched a “pornography of violence” in their coverage of Africa, and of reducing “a complex political context to a morality tale unfolding in a world populated by villains and victims who never trade places and so can always and easily be told apart.”

There is something reality-averse about Mamdani’s attack on journalism that reminds me of the way right-wingers used to carp about mainstream media coverage of Iraq during the dark, violence-filled days of 2006. Where in our media is the good news from Iraq? conservatives would howl. But the news from Iraq was bad not because the press turned away from good news, but because for a long time people were dying there in large numbers. The same goes for Darfur, especially during the early days of the genocide. When Reuters reports that a village has been attacked and dozens of people are dead, is that the “pornography of violence”? Or is it simply an empirical account of what just happened in Darfur?

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Tackle Malnutrition with panchayats’ help

Published in the Deccan Herald, August 2012

Step into any of Karnataka’s glistening malls and you will see a wide range of exciting world cuisine for sale. But away from the glamour, thousands of children across the state do not have enough to eat. It’s a disgrace that more than half of Karnataka’s children under the age of six are malnourished.

The Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), set up by the government to tackle malnutrition has been mired in corruption and controversy. Now with the threat of widespread drought looming over several districts, we can expect further reductions in availability of nutritious food for children. With the state failing to make ICDS work effectively, an alternative implementation framework is desperately needed, which places responsibility for feeding our children in the hands of those best placed to do it – the elected local governments – the panchayats and municipal corporations.

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