Thursday, September 20, 2012

Force feeding African children: the conclusion

A little sheepishly I write you to admit that just after I wrote you my earlier blog post, in which I presented a few options for how we might consider dealing with the aid issue, I found out that these options actually more or less represent the two sides of a long-term and very heated debate between two of the world’s leading economists. No wonder I didn’t have an answer all by myself! However, by the end of my time in Ambovombe, I had also come to a decision as to which side I support, and before I close the book on this subject (for now), I’d like to tell you why I’ve come to believe what I believe. Let’s look back at my options from last time.

Option 1: Force feed the children. As it turns out, this is a mild exaggeration of the argument put forth by Jeffrey Sachs of the Earth Institute (at Columbia, coincidentally). Banerjee, in Poor Economics, dubs this the “supply wallah” argument. Essentially he posits that poor countries remain poor because they are stuck in “poverty traps” (they are landlocked, have lots of disease, don’t have clean water, etc), and without an initial infusion of aid and cash, they can never break the cycle. Additionally, giving them that initial influx of aid will set off a virtuous cycle.

Option 2: Forget it and wait for them to ask us to help. William Easterly, an economist at NYU, is the very vocal proponent of this option, arguing that aid does more harm than good by essentially giving people an easy out, which corrupts local institutions and diminishes creativity and ambition amongst local people who would otherwise be searching for a solution to their problems. Essentially this is the free market – what Banerjee calls the “demand wallah” – argument, in which there is no such thing as a “poverty trap,” and given the right incentive people will always strive to find a way out of their predicament.

Many books have been written by experts on these topics, and if they are still fighting it out amongst themselves, I certainly don’t expect to convince anyone here. But nonetheless, before I even knew who Sachs and Easterly were, I had already settled on option 1. Here are some of my reasons:

1)  In the world of children’s health and malnutrition, certain barriers to advancement really are a trap. There are tons of studies that show increases in educational achievement, IQ points, and lifetime earning potential that are independently linked to small interventions such as giving iodine supplements to pregnant women or deworming treatments to children. If you consider that these micro- and macro-nutrient deficiencies are essentially causing a form of brain damage (as evidenced by the significant functional improvements seen after targeted interventions, or by studies such as one done in Ecuador that showed a decrease of 10-15 IQ points in children of iodine deficient mothers), then it is reasonable to assume that as long as that biological disadvantage continues, it is going to be that much harder for those people to pull themselves out of the cycle of poverty or even to be able to see that they need to.

2)    Aid is not universal, it doesn’t reach every tiny little corner of every country, so if option 2 really worked, we’d be seeing more little pockets of progress where people got fed up by their situation and tried to improve it. We are not seeing very much of that. Mostly people just keep on going the way they always have.

          3) If we don’t choose option 1, then we have a double standard. We consider that in our own countries a woman should not be allowed to starve her child, education and vaccination are mandatory for children, and not providing basic health care is considered neglect. If we believe we have a moral imperative to protect American or European children from neglect, even if it means forcing the mothers to do something they don’t want to do, why do we think it’s ok to let African children suffer from the same kind of neglect?

Furthermore, as Banerjee points out, we take for granted that a lot of these decisions are made for us in the rich world. Our water is piped into our houses already cleaned and disinfected, and our waste is pumped back out again and disposed of properly rather than polluting our waterways (most of the time). We don’t even give a second thought to the fact that the government is “forcing” this on us, because we all know and accept it’s for our own good. But a poor person in the developing world has to go out and buy chlorine if he wants to sterilize his water, and each time he gets a bucket of water, he has to actively put the chlorine in it. Does it really make sense for us to wait for him to realize that he’ll be better off with clean water and that in the long run the economic benefits of improved health will outweigh the costs of the chlorine, or is that really too much to ask of anyone who isn’t an economist or public health specialist? We have already decided it’s too much to ask of our own citizens, so why are people in poor countries any different? Given that the benefits of clean water are well known and indisputable, shouldn’t we help this man? I think so.

I could go on, but I wont. I encourage you to have a read through of some of the books on my list if you are interested in learning more, and even more, to go to one of the countries in the “bottom billion” and experience it for yourself, as there is truly no better way to decide about which side you take in this argument.

Tips for visiting Madagascar’s national parks

In visiting several (but nowhere near even a majority) of Madagascar’s national parks and reserves, I have learned that the guidebooks are woefully inadequate and out of date, there is scant information on the internet, and the staff (including guides and park employees) locally don’t seem very informative either. To that end, in order to help you avoid the mistakes I made and have a more efficient and enjoyable trip, here is a bit of practical information about the parks I visited, which was up to date as of August 2012, although may have changed by the time you get there.

For extremely useful information about several national parks, I refer you to the excellent website of a Czech solo traveler who posted his experience in detail.  I make the following updates to the information on his site (and it goes without saying that the prices for absolutely everything have increased since he wrote his website):

Montagne D’Ambre NP: The trails are no longer sign-posted, so although they are clearly trails, you will have to guess a little which one you are on. As long as you don’t mind wandering a little, you’ll eventually come back out to the road and are unlikely to get lost. The exception is the Mahasarika Trail, which is a tiny little path off to the left of the main path to Amber Mountain summit just before the main path gets completely grown over. If you don’t look carefully for it you will miss it, and it is completely unmarked, but you’ll know it because it is quite steep and goes through the dense forest.

It was absolutely worthwhile to camp in the park (lemurs wandered through my campsite and there were all kinds of animal calls throughout the night). I didn’t see tourists start to show up with their guides till around 8am, so if you start walking at 6am you have a solid 2 hours to see things on your own before you risk getting caught hiking the trails unguided.

Note that the walk from Joffreville to the campsite is quite a steep uphill, and walking in the hot sun with my camping gear it took me about an hour to the park office and another hour to the campsite, although arguably I’m somewhat slower than average.

Reserve de l’Ankarana: Depending on your interests, one day here may well be enough. You can do a four hour walk to the petits tsingy and you will see basically what the park has to offer. The Lac Vert walk I’m told is overrated and extremely hot and you are unlikely to see animals, so if you are after lemurs, you might want to skip it. The grotte des chauves-souris does indeed have a lot of bats, but note that you have to descend (and then later ascend) an extremely steep, uneven staircase and then climb around inside the slippery cave in the dark, and you will really only see the shadowy forms of the bats (which incidentally smell really bad). Let’s just say if I had it to do over, I’d skip it. But if I’d never seen a cave or a stalagmite or a bat before, then I guess I would still do it.

There is a campsite in the park that you can drive or walk to, but it doesn’t seem like it affords any advantage over staying at the basic bungalows near the park office (10,000 Ar), where they also serve very generous portions for lunch and dinner at their restaurant.

Andasibe-Mantadia NP: Note that the Mantadia park and access road were very heavily affected by a cyclone and are now essentially inaccessible. It is possible you might be able to walk there (I didn’t try), but I was told all of the paths except the Sacred Falls are closed.

Mitsinjo Reserve is especially worth a visit at night, since it’s the only place you can do a guided walk at night, but do note that all walks in the park have a guide fee that is per person, not per group, and they are not cheap.

Camping is now 10,000 Ar for a spot with a cover and an actual bathroom, or 5,000 Ar for a spot with no cover and drop toilets across the road from the park center, but this latter often has groups of school kids camping in it and can get loud. Note that the restaurant near the park office is no longer operational, so the only places to eat are a couple of local places in town or at the hotels, all of which are a couple of km from the campsites. There is no good place to stock up on provisions even in the town of Andasibe, so consider buying your food and snacks in Tana or Moramanga.


Reserve de Kirindy: This reserve is outside of Morondava and no one in Morondava seems to be able to tell you anything about it. It is a lovely reserve where you will see lots of lemurs, reptiles, birds and even, if you are lucky, the very evil-looking fossa.

People will tell you it is impossible to reach the park with public transport, but they are wrong. There are taxis brousses going every morning in the direction of Belo-sur-Tsiribihina. They leave from the bus station (“estacionnement”), which is just beyond the main market. Cost is 10,000 Ar and it takes about 2 hours to reach the entrance to the road to the park. From here it is a hot but thankfully flat 4-5km walk (took me about an hour) to the visitor center. The path is off to your left when you are standing at the entrance on the main road, and it is clearly visible as the only place where cars could drive.

Note that camping is no longer allowed in the park due to the presence of fossa (predatory wild cats) near the visitor center (I found this out only after lugging my camping gear all the way over there). There are bungalows (upwards of 60,000 Ar) or dormitories (27,000 Ar per bed) but they are frequently booked due to the presence of researchers staying there long term, so it would be wise to call ahead.  They include mosquito nets, bucket showers, and drop toilets. There is an overpriced restaurant at the visitor center so you do not have to be self-sufficient with food (meals are 20,000 Ar for just the main course with side) unless you are on a budget. Do bring lots of water, as it is hot there and the water is expensive.

It’s worthwhile to do a night walk (30,000 Ar for up to 4 people) and a morning walk (20,000 Ar for up to 4 people), and you can often see the fossa wandering around near the visitor center in the afternoon. The giant jumping rats come out at 10 or 11pm, after the lights go out, and for 20,000 Ar one of the guides will wait by their burrows and come running to get you when one pops out. I felt silly about this and didn’t do it, but if you really want to see the giant jumping rats and don’t want to risk getting eaten by a fossa while you wait alone in the dark, this is the way to go.

Getting back to Morondava there is almost always somebody going in a private 4x4 so if you are friendly you will likely get a ride. Most of them stop at the Avenue des Baobabs on their way back, though, so be prepared to wait or to get a taxi brousse from there. Alternatively, walk back out to the main road the same way you came and you can catch a taxi brousse from there.

Kirindy-Mite National Park:  This is a very new national park and is still very much under development. The information available is extremely little, even from the people in the national park office in Belo-sur-Mer. First of all, to get to Belo-sur-Mer you have to either rent a 4x4 from Morondava (3-4 hours, at least 200k Ar) or rent a pirogue (around 100k Ar, closer to 6-7 hours or a lot more, depending on the wind). In Belo-sur-Mer you can arrange a pirogue to take you to the national park for about 80,000 Ar for the day. Also, if you make a tour for the whole day, no one will think to include lunch, so unless you want to eat your own stale crackers, ask them to cook you lunch (you buy the ingredients and they will cook it on some makeshift coral barbeques without charging you extra). There are two parts to the national park: the marine part and the land part. Park entrance fee is 10,000 Ar per person for the land portion.

Marine: This consists of the famous islands everyone tells you about off of Belo. Be aware that if you just ask a guide and piroguier to take you to the islands and you say you want to snorkel, they will not necessarily take you to where you can see any fish. I would suggest talking to the folks at the NGO Blue Ventures to ask exactly where you should go for good snorkeling, and have them discuss it with your piroguier so that you go to the right place. The water right around the islands themselves is rough, there are jellyfish (annoying and mildly painful but, I’m told, not dangerous), and you wont see any fish or coral there.

Land: This part involves climbing up steep sand dunes, and if you include it as part of a one day tour with the islands, you’ll climb up to the top of one dune where there is a nice view out over a huge lake dotted with flamingos, and that’s it. What no one will tell you in advance, however, is if you have the time (at least an hour and a half), you can walk down to the edge of the lake and actually hike around it. Furthermore, you are allowed to camp there if you want, but they wont tell you this because they think foreigners can’t handle camping without amenities, and there are none there (no toilets, no sheltered campsites). But if you have a tent and don’t mind wild camping, it is allowed. Of note, they are currently developing this park for tourism and by the time you get there, there may well be toilets and sheltered camp sites.

Andohahela National Park: To be clear I didn’t actually visit this park. It is currently closed due to increasing violent attacks by zebu-stealing bandits (the dahalo) in the area. If you are thinking about going, be sure to ask around first to find out if it’s open. That said, if you get a taxi brousse heading west towards Ambovombe, you will pass the park office for Tsimelahy about 2 hours in (clearly visible from the road). But I’m told it’s a long, hot walk from there to the actual park, so be prepared. 

Adventure map for 2009...