The Arab obesity crisis

A recent visit to the Middle East opened my eyes to a reality that’s readily observable: the Arab world is suffering from an endemic obesity problem.

Based upon further research it was clear that beyond tentative observational conclusions, there is significant data to support the above view.

The bubble chart below shows countries listed by levels of obesity for women and men (y and x-axis respectively) with the size of the population of a country shown as the bubble size. The data sourced from has been filtered to only include countries with a population greater than 1 million (to remove small islands from the list).Obesity

The data shows that whilst obesity is a challenge for much of the world, including countries which are well-known for their high obesity levels including the United States, it is the Arab countries that have the most alarming BMI levels.

The problem is even more acute for Arab women, in fact of the top 10 most obese countries by female gender, 7 out of the 10 were Arab: Kuwait, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE, Libya.

How did the Arab world get to this position? Based upon my own cursory view of diet it was evident that the big driver is the consumption of processed food, large amounts of meat and carbohydrates which are part and parcel of the regular Arab diet. Overeating, coupled with an inactive lifestyle can only set the course of a people’s waistlines in one direction and unfortunately along with the United States, the Middle East typifies the consequence.

Death of the very young

The death of any child is heartbreaking and every parent will attest to the pain of even contemplating such a loss. It surely follows then that the study of child mortality should be a discipline given prominence within every country.

The graph below shows the relationship between child mortality (per 1000) for under-5 year olds and GDP per capita (average wealth in a country per person).

Child Mortality 2016

The relationship between wealth and child mortality is quite evident at least from a correlation perspective, shown as the grey curve in the chart; put simply and in general terms, as countries get wealthier child mortality levels are reduced.

If one takes the line of best fit as fundamentally sound then we can dig deeper with an analysis of outliers. The countries in red I’ve classified as negative outliers (countries that are doing worse than the fit) and the positive outliers, shown in green, are countries doing significantly better than the general prediction.

So why are countries including Nigeria, Pakistan, India, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and the United States doing significantly worse in protecting the lives of their children relative to the level of wealth that each country possesses? Likewise what are the salient policies that are resulting in countries such as Sri Lanka, Ukraine, Cambodia and Nepal performing better than their level of wealth would otherwise generally facilitate?

If you have any specific insights with respect to the countries cited above, I’d love to hear from you.

A Japanese Crisis

Driven by a rapidly declining birth-rate and an ageing population, Japan has the highest old age dependency ratio in the world at a value of almost 45% (source data, World Bank). In simple terms it means that on average there are just over two people of working age (16-64) to support one person of pensionable age (65 and above).

The graph below shows a polynomial forecast predicting Japan’s old age dependency ratio hitting 100% by 2040 i.e. one person of working age to support one person of pensionable age in just over two decades.


Even considering wartime scenarios an old age dependency ratio of 100% will likely set a historical precedence and will undoubtedly place huge pressures upon Japan, indeed raising questions around the very viability of its economy.

Attracting immigrants and boosting the productive population is one way to reduce the dependency ratio, however, Japan has historically stuck firmly to its course of maintaining an ethnically pure society; in fact amongst the leading industrial nations Japan has the notable status of being the most ethnically homogenous.

The United States and the European Union have similarly struggled with labour shortages (post-World War II) and an ever increasing dependency ratio. Both regions have responded with immigration as a remedial measure albeit with significant populist trepidation.

Japan at last seems to be having a tentative national dialogue on immigration, but is it too little and too late for its already ailing economy?

When Freedom does not mean Freedom

What do we mean by freedom? This question is a cornerstone of European Enlightenment curiosity and the conclusions reached were undeniably contradictory.

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin categorised the position of John Stuart Mill and others as advocates of negative freedom in contrast to positive freedom which was championed by the likes of Jean Jacque Rousseau.

What do these dual notions of freedom mean? Negative freedom begins with the premise that individuals have the right to do as they please so long as they do not infringe upon the rights of others; in our time it remains the dominant understanding of freedom. In contrast positive freedom refers to the use of political power to emancipate subjects.

Positive freedom’s most successful proponent is undoubtedly Rousseau. Rousseau begins in his magnum opus, ‘The Social Contract’ with the captivating premise that, “Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains”. Rousseau follows his observation with an extraordinary maxim, that those who fail to act for the general good of the State should be “forced to be free”.

In his work, ‘Freedom and its Betrayal’, Berlin highlights the impact that Rousseau’s ideas had, “there is not a dictator in the West who in the years after Rousseau did not use this monstrous paradox in order to justify his behaviour. The Jacobins, Robespierre, Hitler, Mussolini, the Communists all use this very same method of argument, of saying men do not know what they truly want – and therefore by wanting it for them, by wanting it on their behalf, we are giving them what in some occult sense, without knowing it themselves, they themselves ‘really’ want.”

Berlin goes onto conclude, “Rousseau, who claims to have been the most ardent and passionate lover of human liberty who ever lived, who tried to throw off every shackle, the restraints of education, of sophistication, of culture, of convention, of science, of art, of everything whatever, because all these things somehow impinged upon him, all these things in some way arrested his natural liberty as a man – Rousseau, in spite of all these things, was one of the most sinister and most formidable enemies of liberty in the whole history of modern thought.”

The effects of Rousseau’s ideas are not a historical anomaly, rather they have significance in our time. If you look at the arguments that are made by many today to constrain the basic freedom of others in their cultural norms, they are a verbatim spew of Rousseau’s ‘enlightened’ principle. Unchecked it will continue to act as a voice for demagogues to impose their singular values upon all of society in the guise of emancipation. To add, whilst historically Rousseau’s ideas were particularly successful in continental Europe, they are now unmistakably gaining wider favour.

Rough sleepers, society’s forgotten

Take a walk almost any day within the streets of our major cities and the sight of a rough sleeper will almost certainly be an observable reality. The Homeless Link estimated that there were 4,134 rough sleepers during an Autumn evening back in 2016 and that number was more than double that of 2010:


Crisis research, details just how dangerous rough sleeping can be. Rough sleepers are almost 17 times more likely to be a victim of violence; women are particularly vulnerable, nearly 1 in 4 have been sexually assaulted. Additionally, many who rough sleep for prolonged periods develop complex needs that include a deterioration of both their physical and mental health.

So how did we end up in this position and what are the remedial actions that should be taken? There are numerous causes that are cited, but for now I would like to focus upon one in particular, which is possibly the primary driver to the currently situation.

The graph below shows the historic view of new houses built per annum:

Houses built

What is apparent from the data is that local authority led builds fell off a cliff during the 1980s. Margaret Thatcher’s drive to move housing from the public to the private sector through the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme had a double whammy effect:

1. Critically, local authorities stopped building new houses and went into construction exile. Whilst new build volumes from the private sector and housing associations remained broadly flat (bar the 2008 financial crash induced dip), the loss of new housing supply from local authorities drastically reduced the overall supply of new homes. With supply unable to meet demand, prices invariably rose to levels which were not within the reach of the masses. ‘Right to Buy’ only works for the general populous when they are empowered to buy homes that are actually affordable!

2. Secondly, with council homes moving into the private sector, many of these same properties were rented out; in fact amidst the ‘Right to Buy’ property whirlwind, the ‘Buy to Let’ era was born. With poor regulatory oversight, landlords were all but given a free hand to place increased pressures upon tenants, not only in terms of rent value, but also in terms of the conditions of the properties rented.

So what of the solutions? Here are a couple of points as initial thoughts:

1. To start with, let’s begin with ourselves. Treat the homeless person with dignity; a kindly word can go a long way. This Guardian article provides some further practical advice.

2. The wider solution must surely be one driven by policy and the government doing the right thing. To have a roof over one’s head to protect against the elements is at its heart a fundamental human right. As a society with so much wealth, to have such a large number of individuals to be left destitute upon its streets must be a point of great shame. The matter of housing construction cannot be left entirely to the whims of the private sector, whose fundamental driver for building is return on investment and is certainly not predicated upon social conscience or needs. As such government should re-empower local authorities to build additional housing capacity according to the needs of the community. The properties that are developed should remain within the governance of local authorities who can ensure that rental rates are affordable and not subject to manipulation by market dynamics.

Collective guilt and hypocrisy

Take a blind-folded short journey …

Collective guilt is to blame an entire community for the criminal acts of a few. Can collective guilt ever be an acceptable premise? Think long and think carefully.

If you agree with collective guilt, then be fair and also apply the rule to the community that you also belong to. Every community has its criminals, therefore, by extension you would also be guilty of the crimes of your identified community.

In which case be faithful to your convictions and consider yourself guilty too. That’s at least taking a principled position.

Otherwise consider yourself a hypocrite who holds others to a standard that you do not hold yourself to and then feel free to rejoice in that.

The power of a mission statement

Elon Musk set out to shape the future of energy with a succinct and clear statement:

“Tesla’s mission is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.”

In their most bullish scenario, Wood Mackenzie believes that electric cars could make up 85 percent of all new car sales by 2035 ( In fact it’s becoming increasingly clear that we are on the verge of a seismic shift, with the automobile industry transitioning itself from the century old internal combustion engine to battery power.

The implications are tremendous. Coupled with the rise of solar and wind energy, it introduces a fighting chance for the world to meet the 2 degrees global temperature target required to avert what many scientists consider as climate catastrophe.

It also poses geopolitical questions. If demand for oil declines, what does that mean for the Middle East, which has gained a dubious significance within the global economy on account of the black gold amalgamated within its boundaries. A Middle East without a global oil interest may actually act as a spur for healing, quite simply as there will be fewer foreign interests vying for a slice of the oil pie. In addition, its rulers who are today characterised as the very byword for gluttony and decadence, may actually have to act in a manner which requires thinking and effort rather than idle privilege.

It’s still early days, and any future predictions are only that – predictions, but it’s quite possible that in 50 years we look back at Tesla’s mission statement as one of the most significant in history.

How the mighty are fallen

If current trends continue, printed newspapers will have reached their demise within the coming decade (see graph below from


In the legacy print media world, content creation and distribution was a unified affair, offering enormous power within the hands of select media moguls.

With the supremacy of social media platforms, content creation and distribution has become a democratised commodity. This has its upside in that marginalised voices can be more readily heard, but it also has its downsides too in that good journalistic standards become more arbitrary as everyone acts as ‘editor in chief’. One can only hope that on balance this is a good thing (it’s difficult to argue that print media did not and indeed does not continue to generate a very sizable portion of highly questionable content and that’s being generous with the English vernacular).

Software has eaten the world?

Marc Andreessen’s famous observation that “Software is eating the world”, has become almost a cliché today.

Nonetheless, it is difficult to consider his statement as anything other than prescient given that the top 5 publicly traded companies in the world by market capitalization (company value) are now all technology companies: Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook. A jostling is taking place for numbers 6 and 7 with the Chinese firms Alibaba and Tencent making their mark.

How long before the top 10 are all technology firms? Can we then say, “Software HAS eaten the world?”

Understanding genocide/crimes against humanity

If you want to understand the psychology of genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, there is possibly no better place to start than being aware of the ‘dehumanisation’ concept. It is the process of attributing outgroups (outside of one’s own identity) with animalistic or sub-human qualities.

The Jews under Nazi Germany were described as ‘rats’; in the early stages of the Rwandan genocide, radio propaganda labelled Tutsis as ‘cockroaches’ and ‘snakes’; and Myanmar’s state media have been describing Rohingya Muslims as ‘detestable human fleas’. The European colonial empire was also justified upon a Darwinian premise of rightful subjugation of inferior beings possessing a non-human essence.

Dehumanisation coupled with obedience to authority (exemplified by the famous Milgram experiment) are the two key drivers that make crimes against humanity a genuine risk no matter how ‘enlightened’ we may perceive our society to be.

The counter-narrative as Brian Konkol so elegantly exhorts:
“We need others to be human in order to be fully human ourselves.”