This is not intended as a post about President Trump’s recently reported remarks about “s**thole countries,” but about what a Catholic cardinal, Timothy Dolan, said in response to those remarks. The Cardinal tweeted that Martin Luther King Jr., were he alive today, would remind people that “no country is a ‘hole,’ no person unworthy of respect.” In this post, I’d like to explain why I think the Cardinal is perfectly right on the second point and absolutely wrong on the first. I’m also going to try to define a “hole,” and make a tentative list of countries which I think would qualify, at the present time. Readers are welcome to disagree, of course.
Claims that President Trump, in a meeting with lawmakers last week, described Haiti, El Salvador and various African nations as “s**thole countries” have been described by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham as “basically accurate.” Let me note for the record that Senator Graham, unlike Senator Richard Durbin, who was also present at the meeting, stood up to President Trump directly when he asked why America was taking so many immigrants from these countries instead of countries like Norway. “Diversity has always been our strength, not our weakness,” declared Senator Graham. Trump has since walked back his comments, saying that he wants immigrants to come to America from everywhere. Not being an American, I have absolutely no desire to lecture Americans about which countries they should accept immigrants from, or how many people they should take. I’ll just mention in passing that about 60 million immigrants have arrived in the United States since the Immigration and Nationality Act was passed in 1965, and that of the 1,051,031 immigrants who became new legal permanent residents of the U.S. in 2015, just under 10% came from Africa, compared to 42% from other American countries, 40% from Asia and 8% from Europe. I should also add that of the 244 million international migrants worldwide, 19.1% reside in the U.S., where they make up 14.5% of the population, compared to just 10.3% of the population of Europe (2015 UN figures). In short: claims that America is not pulling its weight do not seem to be warranted by the facts.
Frankly, I was baffled by the U.S. media’s characterization of President Trump’s reference to certain countries as “s**thole countries” as racist. Have they forgotten what the term means, I wonder? OxfordDictionaries.com defines racism as “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” Trump’s angry outburst was (a) directed at countries, not at “someone”, (b) directed at nations rather than races, and (c) completely devoid of the ridiculous claim that some races are “superior” to others. Likewise, Republican Rep. Mia Love’s vehement insistence that people in struggling countries are “good people” was perfectly correct, but beside the point: good people do not necessarily make a good country. A country, like a cake, is more than the sum of its constituents. Culture matters. Systems of government matter. Good people can have the misfortune to live in a country whose culture is toxic or whose government is tyrannical and evil. That doesn’t reflect on them as individuals, but it does reflect on their country.
There seems to be a strange idea circulating about that if you insult a country, you automatically insult its people. Nonsense. If you insult a country, you insult its government, not its people. The Soviet Union was a terrible country. That doesn’t mean the people living in it were terrible; it means that its government was terrible (in fact, downright evil). The same goes for Mao’s China.
So, how should we define a “hole”?
After reading about Cardinal Dolan’s response to President Trump’s recent remarks, my first reaction was: “You’ve got to be kidding me.” So North Korea is not a “hole”? Seriously? You must be joking, Your Eminence.
But then I started thinking, “How would one define a ‘hole’?” The definition which first sprang to my mind was an intuitive one: a “hole” is a country that you would never want to visit, even with all expenses paid (including plane fares, food, accommodation, trains and buses and time off work). However, I soon realized that you might be willing to visit any country, no matter how awful, if you had a nice enough hotel and plenty of armed security guards accompanying you, to protect you from danger. So I decided to stipulate that if you were visiting these countries, you had to take your family with you, and you could not travel as part of a guided tour, or take a bodyguard with you, or stay in a luxury hotel. That would be cheating – as would spending all your day hanging around inside expensive stores, museums or churches, or riding around in a chartered taxi. Instead, you had to spend as much time as possible outside, in the company of the local people. Also, you could take a guidebook, a phrase book or an electronic dictionary with you, but not one of those fancy smartphones that spits out whatever you want to say in the local language (how lazy is that!) How many countries would you cross off your list then? And which ones?
There were some countries I was pretty sure I’d never want to visit, even if you threw in some extra cash: North Korea, Afghanistan and El Salvador, to name a few. But I realized that despite my travel experience (I’ve been to over 30 countries), there were a lot of African countries which I didn’t know enough about to be able to decide whether I’d want to visit them or not. Would I want to visit Nigeria, for instance? It’s a vibrant, go-ahead country with a booming economy, but it has also been subjected to raids by the militant group Boko Haram in the north. Hmmm.
Crime and violence
So I did some digging around. I looked at the list of countries by intentional homicide rate, and I found that of the top 20 countries, a total of 17 were either in the Caribbean [US Virgin Islands, Jamaica, Saint Kitts & Nevis, Trinidad & Tobago, Bahamas, Anguilla, St Vincent & the Grenadines, St Lucia and Montserrat], Central America [El Salvador, Honduras, Belize and Guatemala] or South America [Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia and Guyana]. Just two of these 20 ultra-violent countries (South Africa and Lesotho) were in Africa. One (Tuvalu) was in Oceania. Topping the homicide list was El Salvador, with a homicide rate of 108.64 – over 22 times higher than America’s and nearly ten times that of the Central American nation of Panama (11.38). The intentional homicide rate for number 20 on the list (Guyana, in South America) was 19.42 per 100,000 or about four times that of the U.S. (4.88), 20 times that of Australia and the U.K. (0.98 and 0.92, respectively) and over 60 times that of Japan (0.31). But if one is going to draw a line, it shouldn’t be an arbitrary one, so I decided to make an intentional homicide rate of 20 per 100,000 my cutoff point, leaving me with 19 countries, since Guyana was the only country on the list that fell just below that threshold. I would regard the level of violence in these top 19 countries as unacceptably high, meriting “hole” status in my book. Poverty does not account for it: as we’ve seen, as the very poorest countries in the world (which are mostly in Africa) don’t even figure on the list. Culture seems to be a more likely cause, when we consider the geographic distribution of the countries in question.
In all fairness, however, I should mention that there are plenty of Latin American and Caribbean countries which are not “holes” by the definition I’ve proposed above: in South America, Guyana, French Guiana, Bolivia and Suriname (with rather high homicide rates of 10 to 20 per 100,000), as well as Paraguay, Uruguay, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina and Chile (with fairly moderate homicide rates of less than 10 per 100,000); in Central America, Mexico, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama (homicide rates all between 10 and 20 per 100,000); and in the Caribbean, 14 countries with homicide rates ranging from 17.39 (Dominican Republic) down to 2.78 (Martinique). Haiti belongs in this group, with a homicide rate of 10.04.
I was not successful in finding an online ranking of countries by their overall crime rate (which, by the way, is hard to measure, as international statistics are not always reliable, so it’s a bit like comparing apples and oranges), but I finally came across an article by the insurance company Clements Worldwide, which listed the five countries with the highest crime rates (excluding theft) as South Africa, Honduras, Venezuela, Belize and India. The Wikipedia article on crime in South Africa is pretty sickening:
Around 49 people are murdered in South Africa every day.… In the 2016/17 year, the rate of murders increased to 52 a day, with 19,016 murders recorded between April 2016 to March 2017.…
The country has one of the highest rates of rape in the world, with some 65,000 rapes and other sexual assaults reported for the year ending in March 2012, or 127.6 per 100,000 people in the country. The incidence of rape has led to the country being referred to as the “rape capital of the world“. One in three of the 4,000 women questioned by the Community of Information, Empowerment and Transparency said they had been raped in the past year. More than 25% of South African men questioned in a survey published by the Medical Research Council (MRC) in June 2009 admitted to rape; of those, nearly half said they had raped more than one person. Three out of four of those who had admitted rape indicated that they had attacked for the first time during their teenage years. South Africa has amongst the highest incidences of child and baby rape in the world…
Kidnapping in South Africa is common in the country with over 4,100 occurring in the 2013/2014 period, and a child going missing every five hours.
In the light of these facts, I find South Africa’s recent protest against President Trump’s “s**thole” comments to be disingenuous and hypocritical.
Regarding crime in India, the same article notes:
Sexual assault is a major concern in India. More than 33,000 rapes were reported in 2014.
The rate of these assaults is increasing. Rape is one of India’s most common crimes against women.
When evaluating whether a country is a “hole,” one obviously needs to consider whether it is a safe country for women and girls to visit. At the present time, India fails to meet this criterion. See also here.
The Safety Index and the Global Peace Index
I also had a look at the Safety Index developed by the travel company SafeAround. Of the 34 countries identified by SafeAround as dangerous or extremely dangerous, 19 were in Africa (actually, SafeAround lists 20, but Yemen is actually in Asia), 12 are in Asia, 2 (Ukraine and Russia) are in Europe, and 1 (Venezuela) is in the Americas. The 12 Asian countries are Syria*, Yemen*, Afghanistan*, Iraq*, North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikstan, Myanmar and Uzbekistan, while the 19 African countries are South Sudan*, Central African Republic*, Somalia*, Democratic Republic of the Congo*, Libya, Sudan, Burundi, Mali, Eritrea, Nigeria, Mauritania, Cameroon, Guinea-Bissau, Niger, Rwanda, Ivory Coast (Cote d’Ivoire), Egypt, Djibouti and Guinea. I’ve asterisked the 8 countries which are very dangerous (deep red) and have a Safety Index of 20 or below. By comparison, Denmark’s is 94.7 (at the top of the list), the USA’s is 67.6, and even El Salvador’s is 50.7, while Mexico’s is 45.8 and Haiti’s is 41.9. I would unhesitantly classify the 8 asterisked countries as “holes,” and some of the remaining 21 dangerous countries as well. Since Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Pakistan all have a Safety Index of well below 30, I’ll count them as “holes” and make 30 my cutoff point. The remaining dangerous countries are more closely bunched together, and have a Safety Index of 30 to 40, so I won’t count them as “holes.” Actually, I’m being very lenient here: countries such as Burundi, Ukraine, Mali, Eritrea, Venezuela, Nigeria, Russia, Iran and Lebanon all fall on or slightly above the cutoff point, with values ranging from 30 to 35.
The Global Peace Index, in its 2017 report, lists 14 countries which it defines as having a “very low” state of peace: North Korea, Russia, Pakistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ukraine, Central African Republican Republic, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, South Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria (in descending order). A further 19 countries were listed as having a “low” state of peace: Bahrain, Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Chad, Eritrea, India, Philippines, Egypt, Mali, Burundi, Mexico, Venezuela, Israel, Palestine, Colombia, Turkey, Lebanon and Nigeria (again, in descending order). Two African countries (Botswana and Sierra Leone) received a rating of high, as did five Asian countries (Bhutan, Singapore, Malaysia, Qatar and Taiwan) and two Latin American countries (Chile, Costa Rica and Uruguay). Interestingly, the United States’ ranking was 114 out of 170 countries, while China’s was 116. I think it’s fair to categorize countries with a very low state of peace as “holes.” That includes Russia, Ukraine and Pakistan.
A list of “holes” that we’ve identified so far
So where are we now? Using intentional homicide rates, the top five crime rates, the Safety Index and the Global Peace Index, we have arrived at the following list of “holes”:
Europe (2 countries):
Russia and Ukraine.
Asia (7 countries):
India, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea and Pakistan.
Latin America and the Caribbean (16 countries):
Caribbean: US Virgin Islands, Jamaica, Saint Kitts & Nevis, Trinidad & Tobago, Bahamas, Anguilla, St Vincent & the Grenadines, St Lucia, and Montserrat.
Central America: El Salvador, Honduras, Belize and Guatemala.
South America: Venezuela, Brazil and Colombia.
Africa (8 countries):
South Africa, Lesotho, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Somalia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya and Sudan.
Why poverty makes more “holes”
Are we done yet? No. Extreme poverty can also make a country a “hole.” So I had a look at the Wikipedia’s list of countries by GDP per capita, as measured by PPP. Actually, there were three lists, put out by the IMF, the World Bank and the CIA. In the end, I decided to use the CIA’s list, because it contained the most countries (198 altogether). I then pondered where to draw my cutoff point. Some useful reference points were provided by the following countries: North Korea 1,800 dollars, Afghanistan 2,000 dollars and Zimbabwe 2,100 dollars. I think most people would consider these countries to be economic hellholes, quite apart from their political systems or their lack of safety. But then again, Uganda’s per capita GDP in PPP terms was the same as Zimbabwe’s. I finally decided to make 2,000 dollars per capita my non-arbitrary cutoff point. It’s a pretty modest cutoff point, really, when you consider that Bangladesh has a per capita GDP (in PPP terms) of 3,600 dollars. That of Africa as a whole is 6,136 dollars. India’s is 6,200 dollars, that of the Philippines is 7,300 dollars, while even El Salvador’s is 8,500 dollars. Of the 26 countries with a per capita GDP of 2,000 dollars or less, 22 are African countries (South Sudan, Benin, Rwanda, Burkina Faso, Mali, The Gambia, Ethiopia, Comoros, Sierra Leone, Togo, Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar, Mozambique, Guinea, Malawi, Eritrea, Niger, Liberia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Central African Republic, Somalia), two are Asian (Afghanistan and North Korea) and one is in the Americas (Haiti).
So the bad news is that Africa now has 26 “hole” countries: South Africa, Lesotho, Libya, Sudan, South Sudan, Benin, Rwanda, Burkina Faso, Mali, The Gambia, Ethiopia, Comoros, Sierra Leone, Togo, Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar, Mozambique, Guinea, Malawi, Eritrea, Niger, Liberia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Central African Republic and Somalia. That’s nearly half of the countries of Africa. (These 26 countries have a combined population of around 523 million, or around 43% of the total population of Africa.) Also, Haiti has been added to the list of Caribbean “holes,” on account of its very low GDP per capita.
There is some good news on the horizon, however: real GDP growth rates per capita (PPP) for many African countries are spectacularly high. Here are the World Bank figures for annual growth rates for the period 1990 to 2014: Equatorial Guinea 17.79%, Cape Verde 7.81%, Mauritius 5.72%, Ethiopia 5.43%, Uganda 5.41%, Ghana 5.09%, Lesotho 4.88%, Tunisia 4.85%, Burkina Faso 4.76%, Chad 4.74%, Nigeria 4.71%, Rwanda 4.71%, Morocco 4.61%, Seychelles 4.53%, Egypt 4.24%, Namibia 4.22%, Tanzania 4.17%, Zambia 4.07%, Malawi 3.61%, Mali 3.45%, Sierra Leone 3.36%, Benin 3.26%, Mauritania 3.26%, Algeria 3.21%, Swaziland 3.00%. That’s 25 out of 54 countries in Africa with a real GDP per capita (PPP) growth rate of 3% or more. [Unfortunately, Wikipedia doesn’t list any figures for the CIA.] [Updated – VJT.]
What that means is that many African countries which are “holes” now, because of their very low GDP per capita, won’t remain that way for very much longer. In ten years, the list of “holes” will be much shorter. (For example: a country with a current GDP per capita (PPP) of 1,228 dollars, which is growing at 5% per year, will reach 2,000 dollars and climb out of “hole” status in the space of just ten years.)
UPDATE: The bad news, however, is that if we look at the world as a whole, we find that its GDP per capita (PPP) grew at an annual growth rate of 4.34%, which was exceeded by just 14 of these African countries. Also, if we look at the 42 countries whose GDP for per capita (PPP) grew at an annual rate of less than 3% for 1990-2014, we find that 19 of those countries were African countries: South Africa 2.82%, Senegal 2.79%, Kenya 2.76%, Republic of the Congo 2.59%, Guinea 2.18%, Cameroon 2.14%, The Gambia 2.14%, Togo 2.08%, Djibouti 2.05%, Niger 1.98%, Gabon 1.89%, Cote d’Ivoire 1.88%, Comoros 1.54%, Guinea-Bissau 1.48%, Madagascar 1.23%, Burundi 0.53%, Zimbabwe 0.39%, Central African Republic -0.07%, Democratic Republic -0.39%. What’s more, nine of these countries belong to the 22 countries identified above as having a GDP per capita (PPP) of 2,000 dollars or less.)
Low freedom ratings make three more holes in Asia, and one in Africa [UPDATE]
A country may also be described as a “hole” if it is totally unfree. Freedom House, in its 2016 Table of Country Scores, gives 10 countries (not counting disputed territories such as Tibet, Crimea and Pakistani Kashmir) the worst possible rating (7) in all three of its categories: political rights, civil liberties and freedom rating. The countries are Syria, Somalia, Eritrea, North Korea, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Sudan, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea and Saudi Arabia. Most of these countries are already on our list, but four are not. Three of these (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Saudi Arabia) are in Asia, while one (Equatorial Guinea) is in Africa.
So, what counts as a “hole” and how many countries are “holes”?
We now have two European “holes,” 10 Asian ones, 17 from the Americas, 27 from Africa and one from Oceania, making a total of 55, out of 200-odd countries. (Updated) That’s about a quarter of the world’s countries. A “hole” can be non-arbitrarily defined as a country which:
(i) has an intentional homicide rate of at least 20 per 100,000 people; or
(ii) has a very high [top five] overall crime rate (excluding theft); or
(iii) has a Safety Index of 30 or less; or
(iv) has a Global Peace Index of “very low”; or
(v) has a GDP per capita of 2,000 dollars or less in PPP terms; or
(vi) has the worst possible rating (7) from Freedom House in political rights, civil liberties and its Freedom Rating. (Updated)
Whose fault is it, and does it matter?
Finally, I’d like to reiterate that calling a country a “hole” doesn’t necessarily mean that its misfortunes are entirely, or even principally, its fault. Some countries are innocent victims of meddling by foreign powers; others are victimized by dictators that seize power.
Nevertheless, if we’re really being honest, I think we’d have to admit that in today’s world, most countries’ troubles are largely home-grown, being generally caused by dysfunctional cultural values, religious bigotry and political corruption. It is easy to point the finger of blame at outside forces: the legacy of Columbus, or of slavery, or of colonialism, or of Pax Americana. And let us acknowledge that tens of millions died as a result of the conquest of the Americas and the slave trade, not to mention the awful toll of colonialism in the Belgian Congo and in British India.
But let’s face facts: Columbus lived 500 years ago, slavery was abolished in most countries well before 1900, and the majority of African countries have been independent for at least 50 years. There has to be a time limit on blaming past injustices for present misfortunes. If 50 years isn’t enough time for a country to turn itself from a “hole” into a thrifty but economically and politically stable country, then I ask: what is?
“What about poverty in Africa?” you ask. Surely the West is principally responsible for that? The Wikipedia article Economy of Africa paints a different picture, however. Consider this inconvenient fact, taken from the article: “Although Africa and Asia had similar levels of income in the 1960s, Asia has since outpaced Africa.” It’s surely fair to ask why. The article continues:
“One school of economists argues that Asia’s superior economic development lies in local investment. Corruption in Africa consists primarily of extracting economic rent and moving the resulting financial capital overseas instead of investing at home; the stereotype of African dictators with Swiss bank accounts is often accurate.”
That sounds like a home-grown problem to me.
Colonialism is often blamed for Africa’s woes. But consider this fact:
“Analysis of the economies of African states finds that independent states such as Liberia and Ethiopia did not have better economic performance than their post-colonial counterparts.”
The effects of colonialism were decidedly mixed. The colonialists did lots of evil things, but it was what they didn’t do that caused more harm to Africa, with many historians arguing that they should have done more to develop Africa’s infrastructure and open up the continent:
Historians L. H. Gann and Peter Duignan have argued that Africa probably benefited from colonialism on balance. Although it had its faults, colonialism was probably “one of the most efficacious engines for cultural diffusion in world history”. These views, however, are controversial and are rejected by some who, on balance, see colonialism as bad. The economic historian David Kenneth Fieldhouse has taken a kind of middle position, arguing that the effects of colonialism were actually limited and their main weakness wasn’t in deliberate underdevelopment but in what it failed to do. Niall Ferguson agrees with his last point, arguing that colonialism’s main weaknesses were sins of omission.
Language diversity is also a huge problem in Africa:
“African countries suffer from communication difficulties caused by language diversity. Greenberg’s diversity index is the chance that two randomly selected people would have different mother tongues. Out of the most diverse 25 countries according to this index, 18 (72%) are African. This includes 12 countries for which Greenberg’s diversity index exceeds 0.9, meaning that a pair of randomly selected people will have less than 10% chance of having the same mother tongue. However, the primary language of government, political debate, academic discourse, and administration is often the language of the former colonial powers; English, French, or Portuguese.”
Maybe some readers would still argue that the West (including America) should give more money to Africa. Not so fast:
“Growing evidence shows that foreign aid has made the continent poorer. One of the biggest critics of the aid development model is economist Dambiso Moyo (a Zambian economist based in the US), who introduced the Dead Aid model, which highlights how foreign aid has been a deterrent for local development.”
Economic protectionism in developed countries hampers Africa’s growth, as well:
“When developing countries have harvested agricultural produce at low cost, they generally do not export as much as would be expected. Abundant farm subsidies and high import tariffs in the developed world, most notably those set by Japan, the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy, and the United States Department of Agriculture, are thought to be the cause. Although these subsidies and tariffs have been gradually reduced, they remain high.”
Trade, rather than aid, is the best way to help Africa escape poverty. To the extent that the West is harming Africa, it is largely by refusing to trade with it. And if there is one country that deserves much of the credit for Africa’s astonishing growth in recent years, it is China, which has stepped up its volume of trade with Africa and invested heavily in local infrastructure.
A plea for balance
As for US intervention in El Salvador: let us remember that its UN-brokered peace agreement was signed back in 1992, more than a quarter of a century ago. Despite decades of peace, the GDP growth rate in El Salvador averaged a measly 0.72 percent from 1990 until 2017. That can hardly be America’s fault. Nor can the sky-high homicide rate be blamed on America.
And let’s hear both sides of the story, too. Quartz magazine has just published a long and indignant tirade enumerating the past wrongs suffered by Haiti at America’s hands, including a 19-year occupation by U.S. marines from 1915-1934, during which thousands of innocent people died under a racist government. But the article fails to mention that the U.S. occupation dramatically improved the island’s infrastructure: “1700 km of roads were made usable, 189 bridges were built, many irrigation canals were rehabilitated, hospitals, schools, and public buildings were constructed, and drinking water was brought to the main cities.” Let’s give credit where credit’s due, I say. And let’s also ask, fearlessly: what is it that continues to hold some countries (like Haiti) back, long after the Marines departed?
And above all: let us not be afraid of calling a “hole” what it really is. Before we can change the world for the better, we need to confront it in all its ugliness. And with that, I’d like to conclude my response to Cardinal Dolan. Over to you.