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Does This Colombian City Prove You Can Be Poor And Happy?

Latin America is starting to measure happiness or "well-being" levels to gauge social trends and set public policy. Surprising results in Cali, Colombia.

In Cali, the "happiest city in Colombia"
In Cali, the "happiest city in Colombia"
Lina Martinez

CALI — Gauging satisfaction among citizens has become a key factor in formulating public policy. It involves countless factors that all affect quality of life, but in broad terms such surveys tell us how people feel about their lives and perceive their immediate future.

"Subjective well-being," or SWB, as the survey jargon calls it, includes a range of qualitative and quantitative data that become relevant when considering how macroeconomic data fail to inform governments about issues of concern to the citizenry. Per-capita gross domestic product or infant mortality rates, for example, are useful measures, but they offer few clues about whether, and how much, people are satisfied with government services.
Obviously, life satisfaction is also based on non-government factors, such as family relationships and life within a couple. Other factors concern the public sphere and relate to policymaking, like whether people feel safe on the streets or whether health care is accessible, affordable and effective.
European states have been measuring SWB since 2011. An example of this is the Better Life Index in OECD countries, probably the largest-scale continuous measurement of life satisfaction with relevance to policymaking. The same practice is just starting in Latin America. Public opinion surveys such as Latinobarómetro and similar polls are increasingly including questions about how people feel about their lives, and these results are beginning to be included in official statistics in places like Colombia.
In the Colombian city of Cali — known for salsa, a steamy climate and stubborn crime rates — authorities have been implementing the CaliBRANDO surveys developed by Cali's ICESI university. The name plays on the ideas of "calibrating" and "branding." The first poll found that Cali residents were reasonably satisfied with their lives, on average scoring 8.3 out of a possible 10 points. This was the highest in Colombia and well above the average of 6.6 points reported for European states.

Yet this average hides factors that are hugely relevant to creating public policies. For example, the results show that people of ethnic minorities are less satisfied, which is at least an indicator of discrimination. Women on average declare themselves to be more satisfied with their lives, but they are paid less money or are far more affected than men by unemployment or the inability to save money. People without children say they are more satisfied than those with children, as do those who have a good education, compared to those have not.

Cali's citizens are incredibly optimistic about their economic conditions, though almost half work in the informal sector and very few have enough savings to last them three months, in case of an external "liquidity shock." Furthermore, very few people are able to buy assets here, fewer than 30% own some type of real estate, and only 31% own a motorized vehicle. But they believe they are doing better than their parents and are generally happy with their living standards. That may suggest the average resident in Cali is conformist or that their personal references allow them to be satisfied with what they have. The poll results prompt many questions, such as with whom people in Cali compare themselves.

The CaliBRANDO survey began in 2014 and is to be conducted annually to offer representative data for the city. These results, it is hoped, will help improve municipal governance, allow smarter allocation of resources, and inform the local government about whether it's successfully communicating its actions.

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Society

In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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