Eric Wuestewald

Eric Wuestewald

Senior Editorial Fellow

Eric Wuestewald is a San Francisco-based Mother Jones senior editorial fellow whose work has previously appeared at Alternet and The Nation Institute. He can be reached at ewuestewald (at) motherjones (dot) com and on Twitter @eric_wuest.

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Portraits of People Living on a Dollar a Day

| Mon Apr. 7, 2014 3:00 AM PDT
Subadra Devi left India after a drought killed her crops. Now she's a laborer in the Himalayan foothills.

Living in a wealthy nation, it's easy to forget that a whopping one-sixth of the world's population subsists without stable sources of food, medical care, or housing. More than a billion people around the world are believed to live on a dollar a day—and often less. While the circumstances leading to that sort of extreme poverty are varied and complicated, the situations faced by the planet's poorest are depressingly familiar. A new book out this week painstakingly documents the circumstances of some of them. Written by Thomas A. Nazario, the founder of a nonprofit called The Forgotten International, and vividly reported and photographed by Pulitzer Prize winner Renée C. Byer, Living on a Dollar a Day: The Lives and Faces of the World's Poor offers a window into these people's everyday lives, and calls for action on their behalf. I spoke with Nazario about his motivations, global inequality, and how to avoid the savior complex.

Mother Jones: Tell me a little about why you created this book.

Thomas A. Nazario: It grew out of a foundation I established about seven years ago. I was tired of spending time with people on the street all over the world who had simply been forgotten—by their families, by their village, and by whatever communities they might be associated with. There seemed to be so many of them, particularly in developing countries. It hit me that something had to be done. I wanted to bring to the attention of the world community that every day these people exist on almost nothing. We spend an awful lot of time in malls and taking care of ourselves and our immediate needs, and these people never enter our consciousness. Why does it take a typhoon or an earthquake to wake up people to the truth that far more people die of poverty every day?

In a New Delhi slum, six-year-old Vishal Singh cares for a baby while her mother is away. Renée C. Byer

MJ: What was your selection process like?

TN: I wanted there to be some cultural and ethnic and racial diversity. I certainly didn't want to just focus on places like Africa, or those first places we think of when we think of extreme poverty. I also knew of circumstances that existed in given countries that were really quite compelling. So I came up with 10 countries and began to organize trips. That doesn't mean we caught every story we wanted to catch, but there were also stories we found along the way.

A six-year-old herds cows for his father in Ghana. The family's economic circumstances make it unlikely he'll ever go to school. Renée C. Byer

MJ: Which stories affected you the most?

TN: There are three. One was the kids who live on an e-waste dump in Ghana. That was quite compelling for a variety of reasons, but I think if you look at the book and see those photographs and read that piece, it'll hit you pretty hard.

"We hear terrible things about sweatshops and phone centers, [but] in many ways they've done more to lift people out of poverty in the last 20 years than almost anything else."

Another piece was a family in Peru that lives on recycling. That, in and of itself, is not a big deal. Recycling is probably the second-largest occupation of the poor. But [the mother's] personal story, about how she had been abused by two different husbands, how her boys were taken away because they were needed to farm, and she was given all the girls—and how her kids will probably not ever go to school. She gets constantly evicted from one place or another because she can't find enough recycling to pay the rent. When we left her—we gave everybody a gift of at least some kind for giving us their time and telling us their story—we gave her $80, which is about as much money as she makes in two months. She fell to her knees and started crying. Not only did I learn that 25 percent of garbage produced in developing countries is picked up by individuals like her, but that one of the biggest drivers of global poverty is domestic violence, and how women and children are thrown into poverty largely for that reason.

Eight-year-old Fati scavenges scrap metal in an e-waste dump in Accra, Ghana, and carries it in a bucket on her head. She is crying from pain caused by malaria. Renée C. Byer

The third story that really touched me was about a woman and her family in Bangladesh. She works in a sewing factory about 8 to 12 hours a day, six and a half days a week, and makes 17 cents an hour. Of course we've heard about these sweatshops. They fall apart, they kill people, the working conditions are terrible; people sleep on the floor. But instead of finding someone who was beaten up emotionally, we found someone who was smiling most of the time because she was getting a regular salary, her husband was working, and she actually had a husband who was a kind and gentle fellow. That made it possible for her to keep her kids in school, to educate them properly, to have some hopes and dreams for them in the future, and to probably break out of poverty—if not in this generation, then the next. That meant the world to her. The truth of the matter is that, even though we hear terrible things about sweatshops and phone centers, in many ways they've done more to lift people out of poverty in the last 20 years than almost anything else. That was a realization that I didn't expect.

Hora Florin, who grew up in Romanian orphanages, spends his nights near underground heating vents to keep warm. Renée C. Byer

MJ: There are many contributing factors to poverty, and gender can be a huge one. Can you elaborate?

TN: It's one of the biggest reasons why women and children live in poverty. Not only do they make far less than men doing the same kind of work—even if they get the same kind of work—but often they're saddled with raising the children, and that keeps them at home. So they have a limited number of hours and they usually work in labor markets that are informal at best. If you couple that with the fact that they are often required to get water for the family—which in many cases takes three to four hours a day—and that they have to get the food and so forth. Many families think of women as a liability rather than an asset, which is why they're often sold as children into prostitution or trafficking.

The women of Nkwanta, Ghana, carry cassava, an edible root that they farm. Renée C. Byer

MJ: Climate change plays a big role, too. People on the financial margins are more likely to be affected. Did you see that playing out at all?

TN: We met a woman in Bolivia. She's over 80 years old. She works her own little farm. She grows wheat and beans. And she frankly didn't like us— largely because we were from the US. Over the past 20 years, she says, her wheat no longer grows, there's not enough rain, there's too much heat, and her beans are almost worthless. She says the biggest reason for this is countries like the United States putting so much carbon in the air. Her climate has changed and made it impossible for her to live. She lives on a mountainside where there used to be quite a bit of rain, snow, and fresh water. Climate change is affecting an awful lot of the poorest of the poor. When you think that subsistence farming is the largest job of the world's poor, it's no wonder they're the first to feel the effects when there's not enough rain or there's more drought or flooding.

Nine-year-old Alvaro helps out with the family's alpacas and llamas since his father died. He was one of the few children in the book who attends school. Renée C. Byer

MJ: According to Oxfam, the 85 richest people have as much money as the poorest half of the world, and 70 percent of people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last three decades.

TN: It seems to be getting worse and worse and worse. When we talk about poverty, we talk about how that is associated with lifespan. If you live in a very, very poor country, you'll probably live about half the time that you' live in a rich country.

The other thing that's troubling is that we have a number of billionaires in this country, and they control an amount of wealth so disproportionate that it's frankly immoral. I think the more people learn about that, the more I think we're looking at conflict resolution in parts of the world where these kinds of wealth disparities exist. The more it becomes obvious and the more it becomes troubling, the more people will rally around that and the more it will seem unfair. That's one of the reasons we had the 99 percent movement not long ago.

The Kayayo Girls of Accra collect waste or serve as porters for wealthier residents. They often live in communal settings near or atop the city dump. Renée C. Byer

MJ: We often hear that a disproportionate number of the poor are in the Global South—with one-third in India alone. Why is that?

TN: I think there are some historical reasons—certainly imperialism, and totalitarian systems, and government structures that have used the masses to build wealth have played a part. A country like the US really began to build wealth during the time of industrial revolution—once that happens and you build universities and provide young people with education. Then it kind of snowballs: Countries get richer largely because they have the infrastructure, the education, and the kinds of benefits that you'll find in a wealthy country. Two hundred, maybe 250 years ago, there really wasn't a big difference between rich countries and poor countries, rich people and poor people. We were pretty much all poor. Now we have enormous wealth in some countries and very little wealth in other countries.

Hunupa Begum, 13, and Hajimudin Sheikh, six, beg for food in New Delhi. Begum is blind and Sheikh suffers from abnormal fluid build-up in his head. Renée C. Byer

MJ: There's a concern in the international development sphere about people acting out of a so-called savior complex. How do we separate this from genuine concern?

"My experience is that most poor people actually have a pretty good sense of what would improve their lives."

TN: One of the mistakes we often make is we go in on our white horse and try to dictate what might be best for other people instead of being far more inclusive and spending time with indigenous communities and really asking them. My experience is that most poor people actually have a pretty good sense of what would improve their lives and the lives of their children. They just don't have the money or the means to get there. It's that top-down thing that's a problem, particularly if you have a white face and you're in a community that sees no white faces. You really do have to work with people and come in with translators and get a sense of what the real needs are and help from the bottom up.

Ana-Marie Tudor in the Bucharest, Romania, home from which her family faces eviction. Renée C. Byer

There are some things that almost always help alleviate poverty, and one is, of course, education. There's almost nothing terribly political or ugly about providing decent schools in villages that have none—or clean water, or things that are so basic that no one's going to argue with.

One message in the book is that you don't have to be Bill Gates or Warren Buffet to go out and help. Everybody—particularly those in the middle class—are people who have enough money to go out once a week and buy a nice dinner. All of those people need to make a concerted effort to once a week or once a month really carve out a little of the funds that they don't need and help somebody, whether it's an individual or a family or a village somewhere or a school. We all have a duty to make the world a better place.

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Google Bus Protest the Most San Francisco Thing Ever

| Tue Apr. 1, 2014 2:39 PM PDT

This morning, a few dozen housing and inequality activists from Heart of the City surrounded a Google shuttle at 24th and Valencia Street in the Mission District of San Francisco. The purpose: to draw attention to a proposed tax hike on San Francisco's Municipal Railway (Muni) public transportation system and to get the Bay Area's technology companies to pay more for using public bus stops to pick up shuttle riders. It was the latest in a series of attempts to raise awareness about the tech industry and its effect on the city. What followed was a unique bit of performance theatre that might just be the most San Francisco protest ever.

As an April Fool's day parody, protesters announced that Google would unveil a "Gmuni" program. They handed out fake bus passes to bystanders, set up a microphone for a Gmuni spokesperson, and surrounded the Google bus with a dancing team of colorful acrobats—one dressed as a Google surveillance camera on stilts, while six others in futuristic clown costumes toted yoga balls emblazoned with a logo fashioned from the search engine's omnipresent typography.

Clad in a pinstripe suit and fake Google Glass, Judith Hart, the acting President of Gmuni, took over the loudspeaker.

"The Gmuni program is here today to offer free privatized bus service to the citizens of San Francisco. The Muni program is in decline because of underfunding. They've been cutting lines. We thought, you know what, let's try a pilot program and see if we can use our customary bus service to go ahead and provide service to all the citizens of San Francisco."

After a round of cheering, she added:

"Everyone in the entire Mission—in the quad, really—should be able to get on the bus with one of these passes. As you can see," she announced, pointing to a stranded bus, "the Muni is not adequate enough to stop at their own stop—the Google bus got here first, so we're just trying to let people on."

The crowd then jokingly asked questions about the program, "Excuse me, will there be regular coffee or gourmet coffee?" "Gourmet coffee, absolutely--it's all Blue Bottle." "Will there be yoga?" "Will there be yoga on the bus? Currently, there is no plan for on-bus yoga practice; however, we have been looking into a development study about what we can do with the luggage compartment."

Throughout Hart's speech, several people tried to board the real Google bus with their fake passes, but were quickly stopped by the driver and police. After about a 20 minute delay, the police pushed back protestors far enough to allow the bus to roll along its way.

Following the speech, organizer Amanda Ream dropped the tongue-in-cheek circus act to explain the move. This afternoon, the Board of Supervisors are considering a series of transportation changes, including a Muni fare hike and a proposal to generate $1.5 million by charging tech companies $1 a day per stop. Ream and the other activists would like tech companies to pay more. "While we appreciate [the proposal] and that Google funded the free Muni for Youth program, we want to see that the tech industry in San Francisco pays their fair share and actually pays taxes so the people of San Francisco can fund Muni." 

Deepa Varma, a housing rights attorney and spokesperson for the protest, elaborated. "Today, there are hearings about Muni increasing their fares and that's happening at a time when wages aren't going up for most people in the city, but they're going up for the people riding the free buses. To pay even more for transportation to just get to and from work is not viable and it's not fair." As a result, she says, many people are being displaced.

She went on to explain that the Google bus is largely a symbolic stand-in for issues of gentrification and fare hikes, and that the protests aren't directed at employees of Google or any other tech giant. "It's absolutely not a housing activist against tech worker dynamic. It looks like that right now, but it's more about trying to draw attention to the fact there is this disparity in terms of how people are treated and in terms of what people have access to at city hall."

Ream agrees, "We want to stop the gentrification, and the displacement, and the Ellis Act. We believe that all these issues are tied together. The tech industry has an opportunity to show real leadership and be a good neighbor and make it possible by paying taxes for Muni to actually be affordable and accessible to people all year round—not just with their gift to the city."

According to polling by EMC Research on behalf of the Bay Area Council, San Franciscans are generally positive about tech buses, although 48% of those surveyed do believe employee shuttle buses are contributing to gentrification and 38% think they're causing the growing gap between rich and poor.

For more on the protest, our friends at Mission Local have a great video of the demonstration here.

What's Happening in Ukraine, Explained (Updated)

| Tue Feb. 18, 2014 4:08 PM PST

This article is being updated as news breaks. Click here for the latest.

At least 26 were killed and several hundred were injured Tuesday and Wednesday in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, as police cracked down on the protest movement that has gripped the Eastern European nation for months. Several local news outlets—including Ukraine's Espreso TV—are live streaming the swelling crowds, large-scale fires, and numerous explosions at the opposition camps. The harrowing video feed is below:

The EuroMaidan protests, which started on November 21 in response to President Viktor Yanukovych's rejection of a European Union trade deal, have been going on for nearly three months. Early Tuesday, the US Department of State released an emergency message warning about escalating violence and potential "extraordinary measures" by the Ukrainian Security Services.

As the Washington Post's Max Fisher explains, the conflict is fueled by sharp political and ethnic divides. A significant portion of the population wants closer ties to Europe, but Putin has been pressuring Yanukovych's government toward closer economic integration with Russia.

The protests turned violent in late November, with police deploying batons, tear gas, and even attacking journalists. In mid-January, the government enacted a series of anti-protest laws restricting freedom of assembly and speech. Though Prime Minister Mykola Azarov resigned and many of these laws were later repealed, the damage was already done. Yanukovych, who had previously been linked to vote-rigging during the infamous 2005 Orange Revolution, has also been accused of corruption, mismanagement, and human rights violations. To many citizens, the laws only reinforced that view. Allegations of torture and disappearances continued throughout January as the protests spread.

Protesters in Kiev have occupied city hall and other government buildings for the last two months. This weekend, after officials promised to give them amnesty if they ended their occupation, the demonstrators agreed and partially dismantled their barricades, making Tuesday's crackdown all the more ironic.

As with any uprising, it's too early to call which direction the protests could go, but some analysts are warning a civil war is possible. Here are a few recent images of the scene in Kiev:

Ukrainian Demonstrator

Jacob Balzani Loov/ZUMA

Ukrainian Police
Maxim Nikitin/ITAR-TASS/ZUMA

Ukrainian Truck Explosion

Ukrainian Clashes
Yevgeny Maloletka/ITAR-TASS/ZUMA

Ukrainian Protestor
Yevgeny Maloletka/ITAR-TASS/ZUMA

Ukrainian Protestor

Nikolai Nikitin/ITAR-TASS/ZUMA

Ukrainian Car ExplosionYevgeny Maloletka/ITAR-TASS/ZUMA

Ukrainian Riot PoliceYevgeny Maloletka/ITAR-TASS/ZUMA

Phantogram's Confident Second Act

| Mon Feb. 17, 2014 4:00 AM PST

Republic Records

Phantogram has long played a particularly unique form of warm, experimental pop. Their music teems with buzzing synthesizers, shoegaze guitars, and singer/keyboardist Sarah Barthel's beautiful vocals all coalescing in front of a driving hip-hop drum beat. On Voices—their second LP and their first since 2009's Eyelid Movies—that sound is even more prominent, with Barthel and guitarist Josh Carter confidently harnessing and perfecting their material with a crowd in mind.

"We didn’t even have an audience at first. We were just trying to make music that we really wanted to hear," Carter explained. "The same goes for Voices, but we knew that we had more of a platform and we were going to be performing things live." As a result, there are some real scorchers on this record. "Black Out Days," "The Day You Died," and "Celebrating Nothing" are all huge songs well-suited for the year's festival circuit. I can speak from experience. When they performed at the Treasure Island Music Festival back in October, they had the entire crowd in the palm of their hands—even as some of that crowd held up and danced under a sea of artsy, luminescent jellyfish.

Phantogram Voices Cover

Though surreal, this fusion of art and sound made perfect sense. At their core, Phantogram is a strikingly visual band. As Barthel's voice resonates overtop Carter's echoed guitars, the listener is constantly hit with a cinematic sense of space. Electronic textures and ambience are the norm here. Slower ballad "Bill Murray" is a perfect example. "We were talking about what songs reminded us of," says Carter. "We kept going back to that scene in Rushmore where Bill Murray jumps off the diving board and just sits on the bottom of the pool. So we were like let’s just name it Bill Murray."

Though the band is convinced they'd make the same music anywhere, some of that sense of space might be owed to the band's humble origins. Started in Saratoga Springs, New York, they were afforded the opportunity to use a family barn for practice space—an act they continue to this day. According to the band, this laid-back location helps focus their writing by blocking out all the distractions. "Being in the country—there's a certain beauty that caters to creating." He explains, "When we started writing for Voices, we were in a very small rehearsal space and were surrounded by several other bands who were playing all the time. We just couldn't really think. You had like John Bonham on one side and John Paul Jones on the other side practicing bass."

Even in his speech, you can hear the band's musical depth. The two listen to everything from Prince to the Cocteau Twins. Carter grew up surrounded by guitarists, pianos, and albums from groups ranging from Pavement to the Beastie Boys to John Frusciante. "When I first started playing guitar, I got really into [Frusciante] albums when he was all strung out on heroin. I really loved his style of playing, and the gut-wrenching honesty behind his music. He had this real passion and desperation," he explains. "But I'd say my first love for music that I chose myself was hip-hop. My first two albums were Fear of a Black Planet and License to Ill."

Voices is a product of this diverse range of influences, but with a sound distinctly all its own, and—considering the growing festival and promotional spots—released at exactly the right time. The band is eventually planning a collaborative record with Outkast's Big Boi. If Phantogram's merging of pop, hip-hop, and psych is any indication, the trio should get along perfectly. "We've gone from being the band on a bill of a festival that says “and many more” to the smallest band written on the festival bill to constantly graduating up in the lineup. We have a very loyal, cool, fan base, and we just love to play live shows."