Anthro in the news 5/5/14

  • President Obama in Indonesia: The son of an anthropologist
Stanley Ann Dunham (left) with her two children, Barack (middle), and Maya (right). Source: stanleyanndunhamfund

That’s meant to be a compliment! The Washington Post and other media covering the President’s trip to Asia noted that President Obama appeared to be especially comfortable during his visit to Indonesia:

“While Obama often utters a few halting words in the language of the countries he visits, he tossed off Malaysian phrases with ease during a state dinner in Kuala Lumpur. He also broke into a spontaneous exchange in Indonesian during a town hall meeting the next day. His personal connection to the region showed up in more subtle ways as well, as when he slowed his pace to keep in step with Malaysia’s king — a move many Malaysians saw as a cultural gesture of respect for an elder.”

Obama lived in Indonesia between the ages of 6 and 10. His mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was a cultural anthropologist whose second husband was Indonesian. Their daughter, Maya Soetero, is President Obama’s his only sibling. Dunham spent two decades living in the region doing anthropological research on local artisans. She died at the age of 52 in Honolulu.

  • Vetiver: Wealth from Haiti’s land whisked away

According to an article in Reuters, the vetiver plant, a tropical grass, is a little-known Haitian agricultural treasure, producing one of the most prized essential oils for high-end perfumes. The crop is a major employer in southwest Haiti, where farmers have harvested vetiver for decades but earn little from it. Production of the plant in Haiti collapsed in the late 1960s during the three-decade-long dictatorships of Francois Duvalier (Papa Doc) and Jean-Claude Duvalier (Baby Doc). Pierre Léger, a Haitian agronomist, revived vetiver farming in the 1980s. Léger took samples to the top French and Swiss perfumers. “The quality was so good, they couldn’t believe it was from Haiti.”

The question now is: given the global value of Haitian vetiver, how can Haitian farmers benefit from it? Critics say the fair-trade system may not help the farmers enough given the precarious situation of vetiver famers. Cultural anthropologist Scott Freeman, a visiting scholar at George Washington University and author of a 2011 paper on Haitian vetiver, said events often force farmers to dig up immature roots to cover medical care, school fees or a funeral: “When they find themselves in a tight squeeze, they dig up the vetiver.” Continue reading “Anthro in the news 5/5/14”

Anthro in the news 4/14/14

• Health equity, smart aid, and “stupid deaths”

KPBS radio (San Diego) interviewed medical anthropologist and health activist Paul Farmer about how to improve health care around the world.

Farmer talked about how to ensure equal access to health care through smart aid and the need to avoid what he calls “stupid deaths.” He comments on the “equity approach” in responding to a question about the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide.

He also addresses tough questions about HIV/AIDs and how to help the poorest people.

• Jim Kim: On leadership and cholera

The Washington Post carried a brief interview (embedded below) with Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank and a medical anthropologist and physician.

Kim discusses leadership and the need to develop a thick skin, in some areas, and openness in others.

During the April 12 meetings of the World Bank, Kim called for a renewed sense of urgency and more coordination from the international community to help Haiti eliminate cholera, which has killed thousands of Haitians since its outbreak in October 2010.

Continue reading “Anthro in the news 4/14/14”

Anthro in the news 3/24/14

• Flight 370 mystery shrouded in politics

An article in Firstpost reviewed several puzzles involved in the missing Malaysia Airline Flight 370, and discussed how various theories implicate Malaysian politics.

It suggests that unchallenged power has bred political apathy and inefficiency. In terms of the stumbles over the missing plane search, the article quotes Clive Kessler, emeritus professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of New South Wales, who says that the government “lacks the ability to handle many technical matters with assurance and to communicate its purposes globally with clarity and agility.”

• From Haiti: After all, what has been done for us?

The Montreal Gazette carried an article about a new documentary film, Ayiti Toma, The Land of the Living.

It explores the problem of outsiders trying to aid Haiti without truly knowing Haiti. Montreal filmmaker Joseph Hillel’s film opens with a “full-frontal assault” on the role of international aid in helping Haiti. The article mentions anthropologist Ira Lowenthal, who says that the United Nations and other institutions are, “not focused on bettering Haiti.”

Echoing, even more forcefully, Lowenthal’s view is the comment from a man in one of the many neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince hit hard by the 2010 earthquake: “…what has been done for us? Absolutely nothing.”
Continue reading “Anthro in the news 3/24/14”

Anthro in the news 1/13/14

UN Headquarters Haiti after 2010 Earthquake. UN Photo. Wikicommons.
  • Where did the money for Haiti go?

A Montreal group is blasting Ottawa’s earthquake relief in Haiti for its lack of transparency and poor results. The Coalition for Haiti, citing a report by Paul Cliche, an anthropologist and researcher on development issues with the Université de Montréal, notes that conditions remain dire in Haiti following the devastating earthquake on January 12, 2010. In addition to the lack of transparency, Cliché concludes in his study that Canada’s approach to humanitarian aid in Haiti is flawed on several fronts. For example,  too much Canadian aid money has been spent on Band-Aid-type fixes, including offering rental subsidies to persuade Haitians to move from emergency camps to substandard temporary housing rather than building permanent homes or repairing damaged homes. Cliche says that it is impossible to determine who received over two thirds of the $554.8 million reconstruction money Canada sent to Haiti.

  • Four years later: Too bitter, too little, too late

The Haitian Times published an article by cultural anthropologist and professor at Northern Illinois University, Mark Schuller, in which he comments on the situation in Port-au-Prince four years after the earthquake:

“On the surface, things are calm. Port-au-Prince appears to be in security. Kidnapping stats are way down from the end of the year. Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe presented a list of accomplishments four years on, which include the construction of 5,000 houses. The protests that engulfed the streets almost daily in November and early December, including thousands recently for an increase in Haiti’s minimum wage to 500 gourdes a day (about $11.35, or $1.42 per hour), have dissipated for the holiday season.”

Schuller then describes a fire in one of the camps that destroyed the entire camp. And, “Today a large march is scheduled to advocate for housing rights. Word is that other larger, more politically motivated, protests will resume in the week.”

  • Link between U.S. soldiers’ suicide and toxic leaders

Forbes Magazine carried an article about a National Public Radio news investigation aired this week covering the topic of toxic leadership in the military. It focuses on research by David Matsuda, an anthropology professor, who was working with the U.S. army in Iraq to help understand local cultures. While there, a general asked him to investigate the high suicide rate among U.S. soldiers, which prompted Matsuda to study the culture of the Army. The standard investigation of a suicide in the Army is to ask what was wrong with the individual soldier, such as a history of mental illness or a marital breakup. Matsuda pursued a different angle and discovered that soldiers who took their own lives usually did have personal problems, but they also had leaders who were pushing them over the edge by making their lives a living hell. The NPR link provides access to the audio. Continue reading “Anthro in the news 1/13/14”

Anthro in the news 12/2/13

• Breast cancer screening in Israel: opportunity or not?

In Israel, a push to screen for a breast cancer gene leaves many women conflicted, according to an article in The New York Times. Israel has one of the highest rates of breast cancer in the world, and many scientists are advocating what may be the first national screening campaign to test women for cancer-causing genetic mutations that are common among Jews. But the tests mean that women have to choose between what they want to know, when they want to know it, and what to do with the information.

Komen Race Jerusalem 2012
Komen Race for the Cure (for breast cancer) in Jerusalem 2012. Flickr/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv

Jews of Ashkenazi, or central and eastern European, backgrounds, make up about half of the Jewish population in Israel and the vast majority of those in the U.S. They are much more likely to carry mutations that pose risks for breast and ovarian cancers, according to the National Cancer Institute.

The debate about screening is economic — will the state cover the costs of testing — and ethnic — will only Ashkenazi Jews be routinely tested? Israel is a melting pot of both Arab citizens and Jews from all over the world, and only half of the country’s six million Jews are of Ashkenazi ancestry.

Moreover, even though the testing would be voluntary, women could feel pressured to participate, said Barbara A. Koenig, a professor of medical anthropology and bioethics at the University of California, San Francisco. “When you institute mass screening, you’re making a collective decision that this is a good thing.”

• Sharing amidst poverty in the U.S.

An article in The Los Angeles times described how L.A.’s close-knit Tongan community struggles with poverty while maintaining their strong cultural tradition of sharing. Statistics show half of Tongan Angelenos live in poverty. But, they say, a culture of sharing means “no Tongan is here to get rich”—because even the smallest thing is given.

Scholars believe the numbers of people in the Tongan diaspora is larger than the population of Tongans on the islands. The article quotes Cathy A. Small, a Northern Arizona University anthropology professor who has long studied Tongan communities. When visiting a classroom in Tonga a few years ago, children were told to write letters to their mothers in New Zealand, saying what they wanted for their birthdays. “Nobody found the assignment strange.”

Continue reading “Anthro in the news 12/2/13”

Anthro in the news 11/11/13

Containers of Nourimanba organized for storage at newly opened Nourimanba Production Facility in Haiti. Photo: Jon Lascher/Partners In Health

• Peanuts! For health and prosperity

ABC News reported on the opening in Haiti of a new plant in Haiti’s Central Plateau that is making Nourimanba, a peanut-based food used to treat children for severe malnutrition. The peanuts are grown by Haitian farmers, and the project was launched by Paul Farmer’s non-profit, Partners In Health. The first shipments produced at the facility have been distributed to clinics run by Partners In Health. A pilot program will provide support for about 300 farmers to improve the quality and quantity of the peanut supply. The project will improve child health and increase farmers’ incomes.

• On Obamacare

Cultural anthropologist Paul Stoller writes in The Huffington Post about his experience with being diagnosed with cancer in 2001 and the risks of living in the U.S. without Obamacare (the Affordable Health Care Act):

“If I hadn’t had superior health insurance, I would have died many years ago — a life cut short by a lack of access to health care. It makes me angry that millions of Americans cannot not share my good fortune. For any number of reasons — a work-related accident, a sudden debilitating illness, an unexpected job loss — a hardworking person can be rapidly thrown into poverty, which usually means living without health insurance.”

Continue reading “Anthro in the news 11/11/13”

Washington, D.C. event: Book launch of Fault Lines – Views across Haiti's Divide

Author Beverly Bell will conduct a reading, Q&A session, and book signing.

When: Sunday, October 20, 5:30 pm,

Where: The Coupe
3415 11th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20010

Fault Lines is a searing account of life in Haiti since the earthquake of 2010. The book combines street journals, interviews, and investigative journalism to impart perspectives rarely seen outside the country. It studies the strong communities, age-old gift culture, and work of grassroots movements for a more just nation.

Beverly Bell is an award-winning author who has worked and lived in and out of Haiti for 35 years. She runs the economic and social justice group, Other Worlds, and is associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Books will be for sale. (To order a copy from afar, or for more info on the book, visit

Hosted by Beyond Borders and Just Haiti