Geography in the Media

Geographical Fantasies in Foreign Policy Magazine

Warnings about the impending “decline of the West,” which date back at least to 1918*, have grown increasingly common in recent years—as have works debunking such predictions. The most recent entry in the latter category is an article in the current edition of Foreign Policy by Bruce Jones and Thomas Wright entitled “Meet the GUTS,” the wordy subtitle of which reads, “The West Isn’t Declining. Here Are Four World Powers Enjoying an Astonishing Renaissance.” Although Jones and Wright make some cogent points about differential economic growth and political clout, their spatial framing of the issue is pure fantasy, based on the redefinition of basic concepts of world geography to fit their strained arguments.

The newly coined term “GUTS” refers to the four countries that are supposedly leading the Western “renaissance”: Germany, the United States, Turkey and South Korea. Whether these states are actually experiencing a sustained resurgence that will refashion international relations is highly debatable: Germany is beset with the Euro-zone crisis, the U.S. remains economically troubled and hamstrung by political gridlock, mounting inflation threatens to undermine Turkey’s recent boom, and South Korea, with one of the world’s lowest birthrates, faces an impending demographic implosion. But regardless of their economic standings, how can Turkey and especially South Korea be so casually classified as “Western” countries? South Korea, after all, lies at the eastern extremity of the Eurasian continent, the landmass that gave rise to the supposed global division separating “the West” from “the East.”

The longitudinal divide that yielded “the West” and “the East” has a long and complex history, as analyzed at some length in The Myth of Continents. In simplified terms, the idea traces back to the division of the Roman Empire under Constantine, and was reinforced by the much later split with Christianity between Eastern Orthodoxy and the Western tradition (Roman Catholicism and later Protestantism as well). In the modern era, the geographical focus of the West grew less stable, but it generally remained focused on Western Europe and its North American offshoot. The idea of the “East,” in contrast, separated into two separate concepts, that of a cultural East (or “Orient”), largely coincident with “Asian Civilizations,” and that of the geopolitical East, which tended to focus on Russia. During the Cold War, geopolitical framing usually prevailed, pitting a Soviet-dominated East against a West defined around the NATO alliance. During this period, industrialized East Asian allies of the U.S., especially Japan, were occasionally associated with the West, but their far-eastern locations, along with their non-Western cultural and historical backgrounds, usually kept them out of the so-called Western World. The “Western Civilization” courses that once formed a mainstay of U.S. college education, for example, had no room for Japanese or Korean history.

With the end of the Cold War such geographical framing ceased to be appropriate, and as a result the concept of the geopolitical East, much like the closely related idea of the “Second World,” essentially disappeared. Yet Cold-War thinking still undergirds Jones and Wright’s definition of “the West.” South Korea is a Western country, they tell us, because it is “one of America’s oldest and most reliable allies.” By the same token, Turkey’s NATO membership, along with its basically democratic governance, is viewed as placing it firmly within the Western camp.

But if Jones and Wright define the West on strategic, geopolitical grounds, how do they frame its rival, the region of the world that it is supposedly competing with? Here they focus on the “rise of the BRICs,” which has been associated with the “supposed decline of the Western powers.” But the so-called BRIC countries—Brazil, Russia, India, and China—are tied together by nothing beyond the facts that they are large and have experienced significant economic growth over the past decade. India and China are actually regional rivals, and democratically governed India has been building close economic and military ties with “the West” in recent years. Brazil, moreover, is much more easily construed as a “Western” country than is South Korea if one moves beyond narrow strategic considerations.

Regardless of what “the West” is pitted against, it is highly questionable whether the region, as defined by Jones and Wright, has any real coherence. I suspect that few Koreans would place their country within the Western World, and that many more would take offence at any such notion. In Turkey the issue can be assessed more directly. When the country was under authoritarian rule, it certainly inclined toward Western Europe and the United States, but under democratic rule the Turkish electorate has essentially rejected the notion that Turkey is a fundamentally Western country. Public opinion polling, moreover, shows that most Turks view the United States and Western Europe in unfavorable terms, in part because of the deep cultural and social divisions that separate their country from “the West.”

Lest one accuse Jones and Wright of being too optimistic about “Western” prospects, that admit that “the West is also hobbled by four countries that have yet to recover from the financial crisis: Britain, France, Italy, and Japan.” Including Japan in the West is of course as problematic as including South Korea. And placing Britain in the same economic category as Italy and Japan betrays a distressingly short-term sense of economic trajectories. But perhaps we can be relieved that the authors did not frame the lagging foursome as the “BIFJs,” as they think that acronyms have real significance, concluding their article with the observation that, “Perhaps these rising powers need an acronym if they are to be taken seriously. Is it time for the BRICS to meet the GUTS of the West?”

Between the rising GUTS and the languishing “BIFJs,” Jones and Wright locate a single intermediate Western country, Australia. They admit that Australia has done very well economically in recent years, caution that it “has not had the impact of a rising power,” yet go on to state that its “geographical position, close security relationship with the United States, and vast energy supplies means it is likely to become more influential in global politics”—seemingly implying that the GUTS may soon become the GUTAS. But what of Canada, a significantly more populous and economically powerful country than Australia? As is so often the case in U.S. publications, Canada simply goes unmentioned.

*1918 was the year in which the first volume of Oswald Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes (or Decline of the West) was published.


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NY Times The Geography of Government Benefits Map

GeoCurrents reader Brett Lucas recently brought to my attention a fascinating interactive New York Times map of “The Geography of Government Benefits,” which shows the share of income in each county that derives from government benefits (social security, medicare, medicaid, etc.). Brett also makes some interesting observations about the map. As he notes, “In the Pacific Northwest, the counties with some of the lowest percentages of government payments as defined on the map are counties with universities (i.e. Benton, County, OR; Whitman, County, WA; Latah County, ID; etc).  Kind of interesting, as these are all major land grant research universities.  How much other federal funding are these counties receiving?” (I have outlined these three counties in my reproduction of the map in blue.)

In general, poor counties receive the largest relative benefits, as would be expected. But there are some interesting exceptions, which are visible by comparing these two maps. The northern part of Michigan’s lower peninsula is not a wealthy area, but its intake seems out of line with its overall standing.

Bret also wonders, “how this data will play into the presidential election cycle.” I do as well.

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GeoCurrents Advertising Policy AND British Slang in The Economist

K&J Web Productions

Attentive readers may have noticed a small “advertise on GeoCurrents” banner on the website. This feature was added after the blog was approached by several firms interested in posting ads on specific pages that pertain to tourism. In accommodating advertisers, GeoCurrents seeks not to become a profit-making venture, but rather merely to defray some of the costs of running the site. The ultimate finacial goal is to break-even, which currently seems rather distant.

In regard to commercial endeavors, I would like to draw readers’ attentions to the new firm of Kevin Morton and his partner, Jordan Sandoval, K&J Web Production.  Kevin has been managing GeoCurrents for the past half year, after having completely revamped the site’s look and feel. I have been more than pleased with his work, and I would urge anyone interested in hiring outside help for website design and management to contact K&J Productions. According to their promotional materials:

K&J Web Productions as an alternative way for individuals, groups, or small businesses to create elegant and effective websites at the web-savvy college student price. The idea was born out of learning that many businesses in our hometown of San Diego were shelling out ridiculously high monthly payments for mediocre websites. We thought, why not offer an affordable price for a beautiful site? It can be done, and that’s what we’re looking to accomplish. We have a passion for making valuable information, such as that found on GeoCurrents, available in a way that is optimized with technical nuance, making it easily accessible to web surfers.  As a result, we offer academic or article-based pursuits a 50% discount off our normal development rate, and we invite such non-commercial endeavors wholeheartedly.

On a completely different note, GeoCurrents recently criticized The Economist for its use of “crude British slang.” Several readers objected, asking for specific examples—which I could not supply. This week’s edition of the magazine happens to contain several choice instances, all from the “United States” section of the publication.

On page 36, an article on the alleged Iranian bomb plot begins with the assertion that “Iran is a rum country…” A rum country? In querying my family members about the meaning of this term, I received responses varying from “bad” to “drinks a lot of alcohol.” (Jamaica is the quintessential “rum country” to some; see the “rum index” map.) Yet according to the standard definition, “rum” is a “chiefly British term” primarily meaning “strange” and secondarily meaning “presenting danger”—presumably the author had the latter usage in mind. A few pages later (42), an article on Chinese-U.S. relations informs us that the American senate recently passed a bill by a “stonkingly bipartisan margin.” Stonkingly? No one in my family had ever encountered the word “stonking.” Based on context, we all assumed that it means “big.” Yet according to the Urban Dictionary, “stonking” is a “British colloquial expression” meaning “impressive” or “wonderful.” On very next page, the “Lexington” opinion columnist informs his or her readers of the “general bolshiness of assorted Russians, Arabs, and Persians…” Bolshiness? My family members were clueless here, with one volunteering that it might mean “squishiness.”  I had previously encountered “bolshie” as a slang term for “Bolshevik,” and I therefore assumed that the author was arguing that Marxist political beliefs are common in Iran, Russia, and the Arabic-speaking world, a view that is difficult to support, especially for the Arabic realm. The Free Dictionary, however, tells us that this “Brit informal” term actually means “difficult to manage; rebellious.” (A secondary definition, however, does pertain to the radical political left.) Oddly, a Google image search for “bolshie” yields many photos of naked women.

The question remains open as to the effect that such British slang has on the magazine’s large non-British readership. Clearly some confusion is generated, as demonstrated by my querying of an admittedly small sample of American English speakers. But the same group also found the terms quaint and colorful, valuing the British flavor (flavour?) that they impart to the magazine. Rum perhaps, but evidently stonking nonetheless.

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Global Economic Convergence? The Economist’s Unfortunate GDP Map

Map of global GDP from The Economist MagazineLast week’s (Sept. 24, 2011) issue of The Economist magazine featured a special report on the world economy, the central thesis of which is that the globe is currently undergoing a “great convergence in living standards,” pushed forward as “poorer countries speedily adopt the technology, know-how, and policies that made the West rich” (page 3). The thesis is debatable. Certainly China and India are quickly gaining ground, as are many other historically underdeveloped countries. It is also true that most long-developed countries are experiencing slow growth if not stagnation. Yet many poor parts of the world continue to lag, showing no signs of convergence with the zone of wealth and power. According to the International Monetary Fund, the Haitian economy shrank over the past year by more than five percent, the lowest “growth rate” in the world. At the same time, wealthy Singapore and Taiwan grew faster than either India or China, while hyper-wealthy Qatar topped the list, with a growth rate of 16.2 percent. “Convergence” may be a general trend, but it is clearly not the global norm.

Accompanying The Economist article is a world map of per capita GDP (in PPP for 2010), which includes as well population figures and forecasts of economic growth for 2011. The map is designed to drive home the article’s main point, that of global economic convergence. It does so, however, in a misleading, confusing, and, in places, erroneous manner. As such, in does not inspire confidence in the article’s central thesis.

The map’s initial flaw is its simplistic bifurcation of the globe into two zones: the “rich world,” composed of places with per capita GDP figures above $30,000, and the “emerging world,” with figures below $16,000. Each of these groups is in turn split into three subdivisions and mapped accordingly. The middle ground—places with GDP figures between $16,000 and $30,00—is unmarked. An unwary reader might assume that the grey countries unlabeled on the map constitute the missing middle, but that is not the case. In actuality, some of the world’s richest states (Norway, Switzerland, Singapore) and some of the poorest (Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh) fall into this unmarked non-category. Alternatively, one might conclude that the middle position is actually unfilled, yet according to the IMF, twenty-six countries report per capita GDP figures between $16,000 and $30,000. Equally problematic is the map’s pairing of the “rich world” not with the “poor world” but rather with the “emerging world,” which seemingly assumes that the entire globe is automatically heading into prosperity. Yet what exactly, one might ask, are Somalia and DR Congo “emerging” into? These countries, after all, were more highly developed by most conventional measurements thirty years ago than they are today. It is of course possible that they will recover and forge ahead, but continuing chaos seems more likely, at least for the next few decades. Classifying such countries as “emerging” is thus little more than an exercise in unwarranted, if not mindless, optimism.

The Economist’s map manages to portray the poor parts of the world as rapidly developing by taking a single-year snapshot of economic growth and then engaging in a little cartographic sleight-of-hand. By grouping all sub-Saharan African countries together, for example, the region as a whole can be shown to be economically expanding at the rapid clip of 5.8 percent, easily besting the 1.8 percent growth rate of the United States. Africa’s per capita economic expansion, however, is not actually so high, as the region is also experiencing rapid population growth. The figures given, moreover, pertain only to the present year, and are thus not necessarily representative of recent trends, let alone future trajectories; if the Chinese economy were to stumble, many African countries would follow suit. Grouping all sub-Saharan countries together also hides the areas that are not currently growing. And even the growth that is occurring can be deceptive. Zimbabwe notched up a very impressive nine percent expansion rate last year, but that was largely due to its very partial recovery from its much more spectacular collapse during the first decade of the century.

The hazards of predicting future trends from current figures are best exemplified by Yemen. In 2010, Yemen’s economy reportedly grew at the sizzling rate of eight percent. Yet as local papers noted, precious few Yemenis benefitted from such expansion, which was based more on pricy oil exports than on genuine economic development. Considering the fact that Yemen’s oil is running out, as is its water, the country’s economic future looks far from bright—and that is not even taking into account its two major rebellions, its fractious tribal politics, its massive and brutally repressed anti-government demonstrations, and its entrenched networks of radical Islamists. The Economist’s map may classify Yemen as mid-level emerging economy, but I wonder if the magazine’s editors would be willing to invest any of their own money in such an envisaged emergence.

It might seem disingenuous to criticize The Economist for lumping together the economies of separate countries when that is exactly what I did in the Demic Atlas. But if one is going to aggregate data in such a manner, one has the obligation to do so in a consistent and justified manner, which is hardly the case here. Instead, some countries stand alone, others are grouped together in conventional categories, others in unconventional categories, and others are simply ignored. Some of the categories employed, moreover, overlap; Russia, for example, is portrayed as one entity and the rather insignificant Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as another, yet Russia is by far the largest and most important member of the CIS. The cartographer also seems to place Georgia, Turkmenistan and Ukraine within the CIS; in actuality, Georgia does not belong at all, Turkmenistan is an unofficial associate member, and Ukraine is a “de facto participant.”

The map’s depiction of Latin America and the Caribbean is even more problematic. To begin with, it excludes the region’s largest components, Mexico and Brazil, even though these countries are always placed within Latin America. More egregious is the placement of the rump Latin America in the lowest GDP category, with an aggregate GDP figure below $5,000 per person. In actuality, only a few of the demographically smaller countries of the region fall below that threshold, while all of the larger ones rank well above (Argentina $15,900; Chile $15,000; Peru $9,300; Colombia $9,600; Venezuela $12,000). To classify Latin America, with or without Mexico and Brazil, in the world’s lowest economic grouping, alongside sub-Saharan Africa and India, is absurd, reflecting a lack of familiarity with basic patterns of global economic geography.

Similar problems are encountered in the map’s portrayal both Europe and the Middle East & North Africa. The cartographer implicitly divides Europe into four regions, mapping separately the Euro area, Britain, and Central & Eastern Europe, while leaving the rest of the region in the unmarked grey category. But the map gets its own classification system wrong, as it neglects to include Euro-using Slovenia and Slovakia in the “Euro Area.” The “Central and Eastern Europe” bracket, moreover, seems to be a relict of Cold War geography with no contemporary significance, yet it oddly leaves out the Czech Republic. The map follows a more conventional definition of the Middle East & North Africa, although it excludes Turkey and Sudan, countries that are usually appended to the region. Although Turkey is correctly mapped as having a per capita GDP figure in the $10,000-16,000 range, it is unclear whether it is classified on its own or, unconventionally, as part of Central and Eastern Europe (articles on Turkey in The Economist are placed under the “Europe” heading, which seems increasingly inappropriate). The general portrayal of the Middle East & North Africa as an “emerging region,” with a per capita GDP figure below $16,000, is also misleading, as the Persian/Arabian Gulf sub-region boasts some of the highest per capita economic figures in the world.

The mapping of East Asia is also off-base. It is unclear if Mongolia is depicted on its own or as part of the CIS, but in either event the information given is incorrect. Mongolia has never been a member of the CIS, as it was never part of the Soviet Union. Its per capita GDP figure, however, falls well short of the $5,000-10,000 range in which it is mapped. Finally, the portrayal of Taiwan is nothing less than bizarre. At first glance, it looks as if the island is mapped as part of China, a maneuver that might curry favor with Beijing at the cost of ignoring reality. Close inspection, however, shows that the Taiwan is actually mapped as poorer than mainland China, placed in the same category as sub-Saharan Africa and India. In actuality, it belongs in the second highest category, with a per capita GDP figure above $35,000.

I am a fan of The Economist, valuing its depth, global coverage, and witty captions. I even use it as a basic text in my courses on current events. But the magazine’s incessant editorializing, habitual use of crude British slang, and sloppy cartography sometimes make me question that decision.

Global Economic Convergence? The Economist’s Unfortunate GDP Map Read More »

Problems with Global Infrastructure Rankings

Map of World Economic Forum's Infrastructure RankingsSeptember 17th 2011 article in The Economist stresses the inadequacy of Colombia’s transportation system, arguing that poor roads hold back the country’s economic growth. As evidence of the severity of the problem, the author notes that in terms of overall infrastructure, Colombia comes out “79th of 139 countries’ networks ranked by the World Economic Forum.” In actuality, it seems to rank slightly lower than that; the World Economic Forum’s “Global Competitiveness Report 2011-2012” places Colombia in the 85th position out of 142 countries surveyed (page 18).

Yet as the GeoCurrents map constructed from the World Economic Forum data indicates, Colombia’s standing is similar to those of its neighbors. Overall, Latin America fares poorly in global comparisons of infrastructure; only Chile, Uruguay, and Panama placed within the top 60. Such standings are lower than what might be expected based on the region’s overall economic development. This in turn suggests that investments in Latin American transportation and communications could return substantial economic benefits—precisely what is argued in regard to Colombia in The Economist article referenced above.

Intriguingly, fast-growing Panama stands out in the World Economic Forum’s infrastructural rankings, where it occupies first place for Latin America and 38th for the world as a whole. The report highlights Panama’s relatively high level of “competitiveness” overall, noting that it has “the strongest competitive position in Central America.” It especially touts Panama’s recent improvements in its “port and air transport infrastructure,” while acknowledging that the country is held back by its lagging educational system and questionable governance.

World Economic Forum's Infrastructure Criteria The infrastructure index compiled by the World Economic Forum assesses transportation, energy, and telephone networks, as can be seen in the chart posted here. It is unclear whether the methodology employed is adequate to the task. Although some components of the index use hard data (per capita telephone lines, for example), most are based on subjective assessments established through surveys. Respondents are asked, for example, “How would you assess port facilities in your country? [1 = extremely underdeveloped; 7 = well developed and efficient by international standards].”* Such personal evaluations, however, are unlikely to be determined in the same manner across the globe. Some of the other “competitiveness” indicators tracked by the Forum are even more misleading. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for example, are ranked alongside Denmark and Iceland as having the least organized crime (p. 404). The notion that Egypt, where human trafficking is a major concern, is less plagued by Mafioso activity than Singapore or Sweden is not credible.

Similar data issues may account for some of the surprising rankings on the infrastructure index. Australia (24th), for example, barely beats Malaysia (26th), a much less developed country. Australia does not place in the top twenty positions in any of the infrastructure sub-indices except that pertaining to airline travel. Its lowest showing (69th) comes in the objective category of mobile cellular telephone subscriptions per 100 population. That Montenegro ranked 3rd, Vietnam 5th, and Suriname 6th on this particular measurement calls its significance in question; high levels of cellular telephone use are often linked to underdeveloped land-lines, and thus make poor indicators of infrastructural development in general. It is also notable that other sources from only a few years earlier give strikingly different figures on global cell-phone usage, which casts doubt on the data themselves.

I am attracted to such indices as those provided in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report largely because they are easily mapped, generating clear visual pictures of particular aspects of global socio-economic development. Yet when I examine such indicators in detail, I am usually disappointed. Numbers that seem solid often melt into air.

*For landlocked countries, the question is as follows: How accessible are port facilities? [1 = extremely inaccessible; 7 = extremely accessible].”

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India’s Second Most Dangerous Border?

Map of the India-Bangladesh Border

Map of the India-Bangladesh BorderThe May 21-27 issue of The Economist describes the line separating India from Pakistan as “the world’s most dangerous border,” an assessment difficult to deny. But India’s 4023-kilometer (2,500-mile) border with Bangladesh is perilous as well.

The Indo-Bangladeshi boundary is in some respects more barricaded than that between India and Pakistan. Half of the border is already fenced; most sections consist of parallel barbed-wire fences, some of which are electrified. In theory, India is fencing off its entire extent. But the $1.2 billion project, originally scheduled for completion two years ago, has become bogged down. According to Vikas Kumar, progress has been slowed by “the riverine landscape and incomplete demarcation of the international boundary.” Fencing off the shifting river channels that abound in Bangladesh is no easy task.

India’s barricading of the border was propelled by geopolitical and demographic considerations. Illegal immigration is a major concern; estimates of the number of Bangladeshis in India range from two million to twenty million. Religious differences generate social stress; since most immigrants are Muslim, the sectarian balance in northwestern India is shifting, worrying Hindu nationalists in particular. Such anxieties sometimes morph into geopolitical fears. A 2009 report in Bengal Spotlight highlights these concerns, as can be seen in the maps below. The author argues:

Maps and tables of immigration from Bangladesh to India “West Bengal [in India] has 1528 km border lines to Bangladesh, out of which the fencing is completed up to 1200 km only. But it is evident that more than 500 km of this Indo-(WB)-Bangladesh Border Line is un-wired or critical through which the Anti Indian Elements are coming Day and Night. Government knows it very well. These areas are being used as “Muslim Bangla Corridor” or “Extended Bangladesh” as you like to emphasize.”

The Indian government’s main geopolitical worry focuses on the Bangladeshi sanctuaries supposedly used by insurgent groups from northeastern India. India once accused Bangladesh of harboring 190 militant bases, mostly linked to the Tripura insurgency. The rebels’ reliance on Bangladeshi havens is hardly surprising, as the Indian state of Tripura is almost engulfed by Bangladesh. By 2010, this particular rebellion had largely dissipated. But other northeastern Indian uprisings continue to simmer, and Tripura could easily flare up again.

Map of the Indian State of TripuraSmuggling, especially of weapons, is another concern. Most illicit trade, however, runs in the opposite direction, from India to Bangladesh. A variety of goods are bootlegged across the border, with many shipments carrying such mundane loads as rice and saris. More troublesome is phensedyl, a codeine-laced cough syrup made in India that is illegal in Bangladesh. Moving phensedyl is big business; between January 2009 and September 2010, Bangladeshi agents seized nearly two million bottles. Bangladesh is now pressuring India to take more stringent efforts against drug smuggling, offering to collaborate more extensively on security issues.

By most reports, the fence has done little to stop smuggling. Partly this is due to the fact that it is not finished, but it also reflects the inadequacy of the barrier itself. In many areas, villagers simply cross over on ladders. Elsewhere, smugglers have finagled more formal crossing points. Bribes are required to keep them open, and payments not uncommonly come in the form of sex. As a result, a linkage has developed between prostitution and smuggling across the Indo-Bangladeshi border. A recent article on the resulting sex trade in The Hindu, evocatively titled “No Woman’s Land,” describes the crossing system:

As against half a dozen legal entry points between the two countries on this stretch of the border, there are 17 illegal ones, called ghats [literally “steps”]. Like liquor vends, these ghats are auctioned and the ghat maliks [“crossing lords”] set their own rates of commission for permitting the illegal activity. There is also a loose network of line-men, agents and carriers who facilitate the smuggling of cattle, rice, shimmering nylon saris and phensedyl … across the barrier.

Owing to the porosity of the border, whether fenced or not, India relies heavily on military patrols to reduce transgressions. The Indian Border Security Force (BSF) is a gargantuan paramilitary organization, with some 240,000 employees. The BSF is much criticized for its violent enforcement measures. Human rights organizations claim that it has killed nearly 1,000 Bangladeshi border-crossers in the past ten years. According to some sources in Bangladesh, other violations are commonplace. The Daily Star claims that between 2008 and 2010, “64 Bangladeshis were tortured to death by BSF, … while 116 were abducted along the border,” allegations that India denies. International outrage was generated in January 2011, when a BSF guard shot and killed a fifteen-year-old Bangladeshi girl; her lifeless body hung from the fence for five hours before Indian troops hauled it away on a bamboo pole.

Although India apologized for the killing, its response was widely viewed as feeble, fomenting yet more furor in Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi government, however, played down the row, as it has been pursing rapprochement with India. Dhaka is currently pushing New Delhi to liberalize trade, focusing on the quotas that it imposes on Bangladeshi textiles. As Bangladesh runs a significant and growing trade deficit with India, such concerns weigh heavily on its leaders.

Meanwhile, construction of the Indo-Bangladeshi barrier continues. Determining exactly where the barrier will run is no simple matter, as we shall see in tomorrow’s post.

India’s Second Most Dangerous Border? Read More »

The New York Times Misleading Map of Religion in Syria

New York Times Map of Religious Diversity in Syria I was delighted to find in the New York Times this morning a large, colored map of cultural diversity in Syria and neighboring areas, focusing on religion but including some linguistic information as well. It was immediately apparent that the map was based on M. Izady’s work at the Gulf 2000 project, the best available source for maps of this kind. Close inspection, however, revealed that the Times cartographer either did not understand Izady’s original, or was simply not able to replicate it accurately. The map published this morning contains several glaring errors, as well as a number of misleading depictions. I have highlighted some of these problems with red labels on the reproduction of the map posted here.

The biggest problem with the map is the fact that it exaggerates the range of both Shi’ism and its Alawite offshoot. Note that virtually the entire Mediterranean coast north of Israel is depicted as Shi’ite (whether mainstream or Alawite), whereas in actuality, northern Lebanon and several other parts of the country are solidly Sunni. (In the Times map, the only part of Lebanon depicted as Sunni is the extreme south, an area that is actually Shi’ite!) Syria’s core area in and around Damascus is also shown as Shi’ite, whereas it is largely Sunni. The inset map of the distribution of Shi’ites throughout the Middle East is also highly exaggerated, showing many areas with at best Shi’ite minorities (upper Egypt, far western Turkey, much of Pakistani Baluchistan, etc.) as if they had Shi’ite majorities. The Alawite zone is also unduly inflated. It erroneously includes an area of Alevi Islam (a different Shi’ite “off-shoot”) in central Turkey, and the large Alawite blob depicted in central Iraq is purely imaginary.

The grey areas on the map, labeled “other religion,” are also curious. As this category includes Yezidi areas in eastern Syria and northern Iraq, Jewish areas in Israel, and a largely Christian zone in southern Cyprus, it should at least be labeled “other religions.” And as Christian areas elsewhere on the map are depicted as such, it seems odd that southern Cyrus would be thrown into the “other” category.

Finally, the Kurdish-speaking area, depicted with diagonal lines, is misconstrued. Kurdish is spoken over a somewhat larger area of Syrian than is indicated; more important, the Kurdish area extends over Syria’s borders across northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey. As the religious communities depicted on the map are not shown as terminating at the boundaries of Syria, it seems odd that the Kurdish area is.

For GeoCurrents maps of Syrian religious and ethnic diversity, see this post.Wikipedia Map of Arab Israelis

M. Izady's map of religion in northern Israel and environs

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Disparate Interpretations—and Misinterpretations—of the Conflict in Ivory Coast

Map of the Division of Ivory Coast in 2007

Map of the Division of Ivory Coast in 2007Understandings of the recent conflict in Ivory Coast (officially, Republic of Côte d’Ivoire) vary significantly among different sectors of the news media. Mainstream sources in the United States often mention the Ivorian Civil War of 2002-07 that effectively divided the country in two (see map), but they focus primarily on the presidential election of 2010, which the defeated incumbent Laurent Gbagbo refused to honor. The framework applied is generally one of political obstruction and transformation, with Gbagbo representing the old order of unaccountable African strongmen, and election-winner Alassane Ouattara depicted as upholding democratic rule and responsible governance. In this reading, honoring the verdict of the Ivorian people required the military intervention of France, with the approval of the United Nations. Reports from the African press, however, present a much less sympathetic picture of Western military involvement. As detailed in a recent Le Monde article (translated and reprinted in The Guardian), journalists in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Senegal welcomed the downfall of Gbagbo but not the foreign intervention that ended his rule. Ghanaian and Cameroonian newspapers, on the other hand, more often denounced the regime change as a French neo-imperial power-grab, stressing the atrocities allegedly committed by Ouattara’s forces. Ghanaian reportage can indeed be harsh, as demonstrated in a recent GhanaWeb post—which may set a record for the most lavish use of exclamation marks in an article:

Right now, the elected president according to Ivorian law has been kidnapped by the French and Ouattara’s men and, there is no outrage! No pride! Very few men of integrity who have spoken out!! All of this while in essence a precedent has been set which states that in Africa our laws don’t matter! Our constitutions are toilet paper, and if the west does not back who wins their UN neocolonial army will bomb you out of power!!!!

Despite differing interpretations, the mainstream media, whether in the United States or Africa, tend to frame the conflict as one of national party politics and international geopolitical maneuvering, downplaying ethnic and religious dimensions. Religion, however, is emphasized in certain highly partisan segments of the media, which see the contest as one between Christianity (Gbagbo) and Islam (Ouattara). Here France again gets singled out for censure, though for opposite reasons in different quarters. Muslim reporters have long castigated France for supporting Ivorian Christians while thwarting its Muslim population; today’s anti-Islamic websites denounce France for supporting Ivorian Muslims and thwarting its Christian population.

A 2000 Islam for Today article lays out the former perspective most explicitly. According to its author, Muslims constitute sixty percent of the Ivorian population, yet have been systematically excluded from the government. Instead, up to the turn of the millennium, “power has rotated among the Christian Baoule people of central and eastern Ivory Coast, who account for about 22% of the 16 million citizens…” France, the author contends, was largely to blame: “The Islam-phobic French empowered the mainly Christian Baoule at the cost of the Muslim majority. Today, the country’s Muslims are determined to reclaim their due.”

Anti-Muslim websites dispute the direction of French favoritism, while agreeing about Muslim designs and French perfidy. A recent posting in the hard-right website Atlas Shrugs claims, “We are witnessing an Islamic takeover of the Ivory Coast. And the French (and the UN, US, and Europe) are helping them. Sick.” The post further contends that Ivory Coast is “about to toggle” from being a Christian-majority country to a Muslim-majority country, largely because of unrestrained, illegal immigration from Muslim lands to the north. Such commentators often denounce the close personal ties between the French political elite and both Ouattara and his Algerian-born French wife, Dominique Folloroux-Ouattara—although rumors that Nicolas Sarkozy himself presided over the couple’s wedding are apparently not true.

As the disparate figures used in these articles indicate, the religious demography of Ivory Coast is highly debatable. Overall, the entire conflict is much more complex than is indicated by most recent media reports. Religion does play a role, but so do a number of other factors. GeoCurrents will thus delve into the Ivorian situation over the next week, examining maps of ethnic identity, religious adherence, electoral returns, and migration flows in hopes of bringing some clarity to an intricate, murky, and important situation.

Disparate Interpretations—and Misinterpretations—of the Conflict in Ivory Coast Read More »

The Simplistic World-View of Thomas L. Friedman

Ethnic groups in MoroccoIn his April 13, 2011 column in the New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman argues that the recent uprisings in the Arab world will probably not lead to the kind of mass democratization that occurred in eastern and central Europe after 1989. Although I must agree with Friedman’s basic thesis, I reject his reasoning, which is both simplistic and geographically misinformed. Owing to the influential nature of Friedman’s work, I fear that his interpretation will muddy rather than clarify the public understanding of contemporary Middle Eastern politics.

Friedman’s argument rests on the idea of the unified nation-state, which he finds lacking in the Arabic-speaking realm but well-established across Europe. As he puts it:

In Europe virtually every state was like Germany, a homogeneous nation, except Yugoslavia. The Arab world is exactly the opposite. … In the Arab world almost all of these countries are Yugoslavia-like assemblages of ethnic, religious, and tribal groups put together by colonial powers—except Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco, which have big, homogeneous majorities.

Friedman is correct in noting that most Arab countries were artificially created by colonial powers and hence lack the deep national bonds that characterize genuine nation-states. I also agree that Tunisia and Egypt are exceptions to this rule, although Egypt’s unity is potentially compromised by the chasm separating its Muslim majority from its substantial Christian minority. Morocco, however, does not fit into this category whatsoever, as it is deeply divided between its dominant Arabic-speaking population in the lowlands and its Berber-speaking peoples of the highlands. Admittedly, Morocco does derive some sense of unity from its heritage as an indigenous kingdom. But so too does Oman, an Arab state that Friedman ignores, but which has a more homogeneous population than Morocco. Oman is divided between its dominant Ibadi Muslim population and its Sunni Muslim minority, but that gap is not nearly as wide as the one separating Arabs and Berbers in Morocco.

Friedman is equally misinformed when it comes to Europe. Most of the former Communist countries of the region had significant ethnic divisions in the 1980s, and many still do. The split between Czechs and Slovaks in Czechoslovakia was large enough to break the country apart, albeit in a peaceful manner. Slovakia, moreover, still has a large Hungarian minority, as well as a vocal and politically significant anti-Hungarian, hard-core Slovak nationalist movement. Romania also has a large Hungarian minority, and is still troubled by Romanian-Hungarian tensions. At the time of its revolution, it also had a sizable German population, but most Romanian Germans decamped for Germany after democratization. Hungary’s minority groups are not as large, but far-right Hungarian politicians constantly remind the country’s voters that a third of the Hungarian-speaking population ended up outside of Hungary’s truncated boundaries. Bulgaria has a substantial Turkic-speaking Muslim population, as well as a Bulgarian-speaking Muslim population (the Pomaks); Bulgarian Muslims, moreover, were much more numerous before the expulsions and “Bulgarianization” programs of the 1980s. The Baltic states, especially Estonia, have large Russian minorities, which are often seen as threatening national unity. Albania is divided between the Gheg- and the Tosk-speaking dialect group, and is historically rent by tribalism. And throughout the region, and particularly in Romania and Bulgaria, large Romany (Gypsy) populations remain marginalized, largely outside of the national communities.

It is tempting to wash away such diversity in order to give easy and popular explanations of large-scale social and political processes. But in doing so, we only delude ourselves, doing injustice to the complex world that we all inhabit.

The Simplistic World-View of Thomas L. Friedman Read More »

The Economist’s “Shoe-Thrower’s Index”: A Success?

As revolution in the Arab World spread from Tunisia, The Economist magazine developed a “Shoe-Throwers Index” (STI). The STI combines available data for most of the Arab League to gain insight into what countries are at the greatest risk for revolution. Originally published on February 9th, the STI came out two days before the departure of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Since then, several countries high on the list have also experienced massive unrest.

The STI is formatted through several indicators, which are all weighted separately (as shown in this Economist video.) By far the most heavily weighted factor of the index is the percentage of population under 25 (the greater the percentage, the higher the score), which accounts for 35% of the total STI score. Other factors include the number of years a ruler has been in power, democracy rankings, and corruption rankings, each of which individually account for 15% of total score. (For a more in-depth analysis of the variables, go here.) Overall, the STI compiles a unique set of information, often relying on other rankings to complete the index. However, The Economist was careful not to include every piece of relevant data.  For example, the data on unemployment was considered “too spotty” to be used. More recently, The Economist has provided an interactive index, which allows users to change factor weighing, and thus generate unique “Shoe Thrower” indices.

Several relatively straightforward geographical patterns are apparent with the STI, as shown in the map above. The clearest pattern is found among the rich Gulf States, especially Qatar, Bahrain, and the U.A.E. Here, oil and gas wealth in combination with higher levels of social development has generated low STIs; these countries have some of the lowest percentages of population under the age of 25.  The Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia) also scores relatively low in the STI, as in all three countries less than half of the population is under 25. The countries that top the STI list –Yemen, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt — do not share much geographically; beyond the fact Egypt/Libya and Iraq/Syria have common borders.

Has the STI been successful in forecasting which countries in the Arab world are at the great risk for further unrest? In many cases, the STI has been on target, especially in regard to countries at the top and bottom of the rankings. Yemen, the highest scorer, was relatively calm when the index came out, but since that time it has undergone intense turmoil, with prominent government officials resigning. The country with the second highest score, Libya, has experienced not just protests but an actual revolution, eliciting a major international response. In third-ranking Egypt, protests were already in progress when the index was created, which eventually dislodged Mubarak. The fourth country on the list, Syria, has also experienced recent protests and crackdowns. On the other end of STI, Qatar, Kuwait, and U.A.E. have not been substantially impacted by unrest, and Qatar and U.A.E. have even provided military help to the international mission in Libya.

In some countries, however, the STI fails to explain recent events. Most notably, Bahrain has the fifth lowest score, but has still seen intense protests. Iraq, fifth on the list, has experienced some anti-government demonstrations, but they seem unrelated to the democratic wave moving across the Arab World. Furthermore, the country that set-off the wave of unrest, Tunisia, ranks as relatively stable. Although the index does highlight zones of potential unrest, it does not do so perfectly.

Analyzing the STI indicates some problems that arise when one attempts to create a single index for a continually changing dynamic of contemporary events. One of the first issues faced by The Economist’s researchers was to decide which countries to include. They initially selected the Arab League, but “took out the Comoros and Djibouti, which do not have a great deal in common with the rest of the group, and removed the Palestinian territories, Sudan and Somalia for lack of data.” Although this maneuver may seem reasonable, the STI left out Iran, which, although not in the Arab League, has also experienced significant protests. On the BBC website, an informational map of the unrest diverges from The Economist selection. The BBC includes Iran, but leaves off Iraq Qatar, Kuwait, and U.A.E. Although excluding the Gulf States for a map of unrest is understandable, the BBC map contains a significant difference in viewpoint from that of The Economist.

Another problem with the STI is that of signaling a country’s chance for uprising with a single number calculated through a standardized system. Although Libya and Bahrain may be grouped together into the same region, they are separated by vast social, political, and economic differences. Libya, for example, is noted for its harsh autocratic rule and its tribal divisions, whereas the major challenge facing Bahrain is its religious schism between the ruling Sunnis and the majority Shi’ites. Libya and Bahrain demonstrate that while the STI does provide some insight into some of the factors that cause unrest, it cannot predict where unrest will occur or what form it will take.

Create Your Own STI With Custom Factor Weighting


The Economist’s “Shoe-Thrower’s Index”: A Success? Read More »

Uses and Misuses of the Mercator Projection

The World Bank is not the only organization to misemploy the Mercator projection for basic world maps. In a Google image search of “world map,” roughly a third of the initial set of maps returned greatly inflate the high latitudes. Not all, however, grotesquely exaggerate Greenland; one particularly unsightly map, reproduced above, solves the problem by erasing the island. The most egregious misuse of the projection is perhaps found in television newscasts in the United States. Here Mercator’s world image seems to serve as an icon of global breadth, adding gravitas, if counterfeit, to the stories of the day. The image is so emblematic of respectability that a caricature version is employed by the satirical Daily Show. In the image above, a gargantuan Canadian archipelago crowns Jon Stewart. Note as well the attenuated and misshapen depiction of India, the slug-shaped Japan, and the numerous non-existent land bridges.

The Mercator projection was designed by its creator for shipboard use, the title of the original map telling us as much: Nova et aucta orbis terrae description ad usum navigantium emendate et accomodata (“new and improved description of the world amended and intended for the use of navigators”). Critical thinkers have long noted the absurdity of using Mercator projections for general purposes. In 1943, the New York Times opined that, “We cannot forever mislead children and even college students with grossly inaccurate pictures of the world.”* Yet mislead them we still do, although to a lesser extent than in the mid-twentieth century.

That is not to say, however, that the only appropriate uses of the projection are navigational. Google Maps, for example, employs Mercator’s perspective because it retains the correct shape of landmasses at any scale of resolution. (Or, as the Wikipedia puts it, “Despite its obvious scale variation at small scales, the projection is well-suited as an interactive world map that can be zoomed seamlessly to large-scale (local) maps, where there is relatively little distortion due to the projection’s near-conformality.”) As a result, Google Maps are quite serviceable for local or regional uses, but at the global scale they are worse then useless, depicting Ellesmere Island (population 146) in the Canadian arctic, for example as roughly the same size as Australia.

A considered defense of the Mercator projection is found in Andrew Taylor’s The World of Gerard Mercator: The Mapmaker Who Revolutionized Geography (2004, Walker & Company, New York). The book is well written and well researched, recommended to anyone interested in the history of cartography. Taylor’s vindication of his subject’s famous projection, however, is poorly considered. He embraces the Mercator projection for general purposes essentially because it is widely embraced: “It is Mercator’s map that appears on schoolroom walls, in diaries and magazines, and, most important of all, in peoples’ minds. That approval is the ultimate democracy” (p. 255). Such claims are extraordinarily anti-intellectual; if nonsense is widely held, we are told, it should be celebrated, as anything else would be an anti-democratic insult to the will of the people.

Epistemological populism, which equates truth with popularity, is a rare and extremist stance. It is difficult to imagine its claims being made so boldly in fields other than geography. When it comes to geography, however, lower standards often apply.

*The quotation is from Andrew Taylor’s book, referenced above.

Uses and Misuses of the Mercator Projection Read More »