The 20 best longform articles of 2016

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The future of journalism may be uncertain, but I think there’s no disputing that we’re in a golden age of longform reporting in English.  Here are my picks for the 20 best longform articles of the year, in no particular order.  If you’d like to read more like this, check out my recommendations on Pocket.

  • The white flight of Derek Black Washington Post.  “But the unstated truth was that Derek [Black, a youth leader in the white supremacist movement]  was becoming more and more confused about exactly what he believed. Sometimes he looked through posts on Stormfront, hoping to reaffirm his ideology, but now the message threads about Obama’s birth certificate or DNA tests for citizenship just seemed bizarre and conspiratorial….   He had always based his opinions on fact, and lately his logic was being dismantled by emails from his Shabbat friends. They sent him links to studies showing that racial disparities in IQ could largely be explained by extenuating factors like prenatal nutrition and educational opportunities. They gave him scientific papers about the effects of discrimination on blood pressure, job performance and mental health…  ‘I don’t hate anyone because of race or religion,’ Derek [later] clarified on the forum.”
  • 28 days in chains. The Marshall Project. “According to inmates’ lawyers, Lewisburg staffers, and more than 40 current and former prisoners … restraints are used as punishment at Lewisburg, often for those who refuse their cell assignments. Inmates have no say over who shares their cell, even if guards place them with someone who has a violent history, is from a rival gang, or is suffering from a severe mental illness. If they try to refuse a cellmate out of fear, as [inmate Sebastian] Richardson said he did, they are locked into metal “ambulatory restraints” for hours or days until they relent…   Richardson said they ignored his complaints: his swelling hands, his soiled clothes, his cut ankles. Instead they reiterated his options — be locked in a tiny cell with a violent man or cope with the restraints.  [He] remained cuffed for 28 days.”
  • When detectives dismiss rape reports before investigating themBuzzFeed. “Across the country, some police departments claim a vast number of rape reports are false. A BuzzFeed News investigation into a year of ‘unfounded’ rapes in Baltimore County reveals that detectives often don’t investigate them at all — even when the man had been arrested for rape before.”

  • The real Spectre1843 Magazine. “The ’Ndrangheta (pronounced ehn-DRANG-eh-ta, with the stress on the second syllable) originated in Calabria, the toe end of the Italian ‘boot’. Over the past 20 years its reach has extended to the farthest corners of the world… ‘There is no other criminal group with the same ability to insert itself in unfamiliar social environments by means of day-to-day infiltration,’ says Federico Cafiero De Raho, the chief prosecutor of Reggio Calabria, the biggest city in the organisation’s native region. ‘The ’Ndrangheta colonises.'”
  • Here I have nobody:” life in a strange country may be worse than GuantánamoThe Guardian. “On really bad days, Lutfi Bin Ali retrieves his Guantánamo Bay suit from under a pile of clothes and pulls it on. The outfit, which by this point has faded from its infamous orange colour to more of a salmony pink, reminds him he was once worse off than he is now, and helps him to calm down.  Sometimes, though, he wonders if his current predicament might actually be even worse than the 13 years he spent in the notorious prison. Lonely and isolated in the Kazakh steppe, the 51-year-old Tunisian has found life since his release from Guantánamo no easier than life inside.  ‘At least in Guántanamo there were people to talk to. Here I have nobody,’ Bin Ali said during the Guardian’s two-day visit to his new home, a dusty town in northern Kazakhstan famed for being a Soviet nuclear testing site.”
  • My bloody ValentineBuzzFeed. “Valentine Strasser was once the world’s youngest dictator, ruling Sierra Leone for four turbulent years. But his fall from power left him broken, exiled, and eventually back home as a mysterious and feared recluse. BuzzFeed News makes an uninvited house call.”
  • The alphabet that will save a people from disappearingThe Atlantic.  “‘Why do Fulani people not have their own writing system?’ Abdoulaye Barry remembers asking his father one day in elementary school. The variety of writing styles made it difficult for families and friends who lived in different countries to communicate easily. Abdoulaye’s father, who learned Arabic in Koranic schools, often helped friends and family in Nzérékoré—Guinea’s second-largest city—decipher letters they received, reading aloud the idiosyncratically modified Arabic scripts. As they grew older, Abdoulaye and his brother Ibrahima began to translate letters, too. ‘Those letters were very difficult to read even if you were educated in Arabic,’ Abdoulaye said. ‘You could hardly make out what was written.’  So, in 1990, the brothers started coming up with an alternative.”
  • How spring rolls got to SenegalRoads & Kingdoms.  “France sent more than 50,000 soldiers from African colonies to Southeast Asia in the decades leading up to its final defeat by Vietnamese liberation forces in 1954. Senegal was particularly well represented among the ranks. While the colonial infantry corps was drawn from many countries in West Africa, they became known collectively as the tirailleurs sénégalais, the Senegalese riflemen.  As many as 100 Vietnamese women moved to Dakar during the Indochina War as soldiers’ wives, according to Helene Ndoye Lame, the unofficial historian of this community.”
  • King Ruinous and the city of darknessRibbonfarm.  “Legend has it that the ruler of Gujarat declared that there was no room for immigrants, pointing to a pitcher of milk, full to the brim.  ‘The country is full,’ he said.  The Zoroastrian priest leading the refugees responded by adding a pinch of sugar to the milk, which dissolved without causing the milk to spill over. That sweet little visa application earned them asylum… Of course, they hadn’t really escaped their dumpster fire. The fight followed them to Gujarat within a century. History is not geography. History can follow you across borders.  One does not simply exit history.”
  • Two women unite to take ‘honor’ out of killing in PakistanYahoo News.  “Naeema Kishwar shrouds herself in a burqa, showing only her eyes. She belongs to a political party that has been linked to the Taliban. And she comes from deeply conservative tribal lands where girls have been killed for going to school.  Sughra Imam sometimes wears a scarf draped lightly on her hair, but often her head is bare. She belongs to a liberal party whose leader, Benazir Bhutto, the first female prime minister of this predominantly Muslim nation, was assassinated by extremists…  Although they have never met, and usually are on opposite sides of the aisle, Kishwar and Imam became unlikely allies in the battle to pass a historic law to protect women from murder by members of their own families.”
  • I’m on the Kill List. This is what it feels like to be hunted by dronesIndependent.  “I am in England this week because I decided that if Westerners wanted to kill me without bothering to come to speak with me first, perhaps I should come to speak to them instead. I’ll tell my story so that you can judge for yourselves whether I am the kind of person you want to be murdered.”

  • The price of a lifeNew Statesman.  “In 2014, Islamic State fighters murdered thousands of Yazidis and kidnapped many others, mostly women and children. Their desperate relatives are now trying to buy them back.”
  • The irrational downfall of Park Guen-HyeAsk a Korean.  “For years, [South Korean President] Park’s aides complained about the mysterious off-line person to whom the president would send her draft speeches–when the drafts returned, the professionally written speeches were turned into gibberish. We now know that one of [cult leader] Choi Soon-sil’s favorite activities was to give comments on the presidential speeches… The aides who dug too deep into the relationship between Park and Choi were dismissed and replaced with those close to Choi, to a point that Choi’s personal trainer became a presidential aide. No, really. I wish I were joking.”
  • Your brilliant Kickstarter idea could be on sale in China before you’ve even finished funding itQuartz.  “Lindtner compares the culture of Shenzhen’s manufacturing ecosystem to the open-source movement among software developers. Much like how programmers will freely share code for others to improve upon, Shenzhen manufacturers now see hardware and product design as something that can be borrowed freely and altered. Success in business comes down to speed and execution, not necessarily originality.”
  • The secrets of the wave pilotsNew York Times.  “For thousands of years, sailors in the Marshall Islands have navigated vast distances of open ocean without instruments. Can science explain their method before it’s lost forever?”
  • The mirror effectLapham’s Quarterly. “The development of glass mirrors marks a crucial shift, for they allowed people to see themselves properly for the first time, with all their unique expressions and characteristics…  People’s ability to appreciate their unique appearance led to a huge rise in the number of portraits commissioned, especially in the Low Countries and Italy.”
  • How woodpeckers will save footballNautilus.  “An audience member, worried by mounting reports of traumatic brain injury from blasts among American soldiers, mentioned, of all things, woodpeckers. If someone could figure out how woodpeckers do it—they slam their beaks into trees thousands of times per day, generating forces far beyond what most people experience in car wrecks—then maybe we could better protect soldiers.”
  • Physics makes aging inevitable, not biologyNautilus.  “If this interpretation of the data is correct, then aging is a natural process that can be reduced to nanoscale thermal physics—and not a disease. Up until the 1950s the great strides made in increasing human life expectancy, were almost entirely due to the elimination of infectious diseases, a constant risk factor that is not particularly age dependent. As a result, life expectancy (median age at death) increased dramatically, but the maximum life span of humans did not change. An exponentially increasing risk eventually overwhelms any reduction in constant risk. Tinkering with constant risk is helpful, but only to a point: The constant risk is environmental (accidents, infectious disease), but much of the exponentially increasing risk is due to internal wear. Eliminating cancer or Alzheimer’s disease would improve lives, but it would not make us immortal, or even allow us to live significantly longer.”
  • When the US Air Force discovered the flaw of averagesThe Star.  “In the late 1940s, the United States air force had a serious problem: its pilots could not keep control of their planes…  Back in 1926, when the army was designing its first-ever cockpit, engineers had measured the physical dimensions of hundreds of male pilots (the possibility of female pilots was never a serious consideration), and used this data to standardize the dimensions of the cockpit. For the next three decades, the size and shape of the seat, the distance to the pedals and stick, the height of the windshield, even the shape of the flight helmets were all built to conform to the average dimensions of a 1926 pilot. Now military engineers began to wonder if the pilots had gotten bigger since 1926.”

Links I liked

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“The International Community” (via Ken Opalo)

  • World Politics Review has a series of ten articles covering the rise of protest movements across Africa.  Another important source of information about political activism in Africa is the Afrobarometer, which currently faces cuts to its funding.  If you’ve used Afrobarometer data in your research, please fill out this survey to demonstrate its importance.

china-in-africaSource: African Visual Data

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ahmed-vision

The Indian construction companies rebuilding post-conflict states

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Indian businesspeople waiting for a flight in South Sudan, via Caravan

Caravan magazine recently published a fascinating article about the Indian-owned construction firms which are waiting out the war in South Sudan.  Many of them have previous experience in other African countries experiencing or emerging from conflict, including the DRC, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda.

Kuber D, an Indian who runs a restaurant on the outskirts of Juba, had earlier set up a business in Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He told me that during the Second Congo War, in 1998, he was held hostage in his home as rebel forces looted his stock. Other Indians I met last year during a visit to South Sudan narrated similar experiences. A commodity trader I met in a hotel told me how he was once assaulted while taking photographs in a market in Mogadishu, in Somalia; another businessman recounted how he had driven lorries through the rebel-held jungles in the DRC. Most of the people I spoke to seemed to find these risks exciting, and part of the challenge of making it in a new country. “We chase the money. We don’t care if we die,” one commodity trader said, “We’ll be born again anyway, right?”

Extremely low levels of development and industrialization in post-2005 Juba offered excellent opportunities for Indian businesspeople elsewhere in east Africa who were willing to relocate.

But compared to much of central and east Africa, South Sudan was magnitudes less developed and had been a battlefield for the better part of the previous century. Even with their experience, for these Indians, moving their jobs and businesses to Juba was a leap of faith.

At the time they moved there, Kuber told me, the city contained only a few brick structures. The rest was largely tukuls—thatched huts. The infrastructure that now stands—roads, markets, even government offices and courthouses—was scant. Many of the people I spoke to said there no power or water. “We were spending $100 a night to sleep in tents, but we didn’t mind,” Kuber told me.

Part of the allure of Juba was the presence of various non-governmental organisations from the United States or Northern Europe, which had large budgets and could contract businesses in the city. It was “a new market,” said Reddy, an Indian water driller who had previously worked in Tanzania. Sandal Raj, who also works in the drilling business, said he brought his business to Juba because he “saw the opportunity there was with aid groups.” “Even during the oil crash, we were fine,” he told me. “There were still good dollars coming in.”

The current conflict in South Sudan hasn’t completely displaced the Indian business community, but the longer it drags on, the more difficult it has become for many businesses to break even.

With the South Sudanese Pound losing several points to the US dollar almost daily, the situation has become untenable. Sanjay Patel, the director of Jit Mart, the largest supermarket in Juba, bemoaned the circumstances. Patel had been working with Jit Mart in Tanzania, and brought the franchise with him to Juba when he came, in 2006. “By the time it goes from the shelf to sale, I’m losing money on everything. The floating currency is worse than the war,” he said. Even so, he sent off his friends at the airport last week, electing instead to stay back.

Which African news stories are undercovered?

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Early 20th century masthead of the Central African Times, now the Daily Times, one of the longest running newspapers in Malawi

Daniel Kopf of Priceonomics put an interesting question to me recently: which stories about African economies don’t get the news coverage they should?  I thought of a number, and also Storified some great responses I got on Twitter.  What would you add to this list?

  • The Continental Free Trade Area has the potential to be the biggest trade deal that no one’s heard about.  I read African news constantly and I hadn’t heard of it before last week.  Where did this come from, and what are its prospects?
  • I’m quite interested in the expansion of both rail infrastructure and air travel.  Rail transport is much cheaper than road, particularly for the bulky commodities that get traded regionally or exported, but it seems like governments are more inclined to invest in roads, and it’s not clear why.  Light rail also has promise for urban areas but is being stymied by weak urban planning & the influx of motorcycles.  Similarly, air travel has huge potential but there’s all manner of politics around deregulation.
  • The insurance market is another place that looks like it should be taking off but has been slower than expected to do so.  For example, researchers were very excited about cheap rainfall insurance for subsistence farmers a few years ago, but takeup has been very low.  Personally I think there’s a rational distrust of institutions at play here — many people are accustomed to government officials extorting their money, or banks failing, and probably have good reasons not to hand over money now and expect a payout later.  (There’s also some interesting discussion of a move from humanitarian aid to catastrophe insurance for individuals, but presumably it would face the same challenges.)
  • The huge focus on China’s investments obscures the fact that many other middle- and low-income countries are building relationships in Africa.  Some of it is fairly benign, like India and Turkey‘s investment plans; but Israel is looking for countries to house deported African immigrants and North Korea is exporting weapons.
  • One thing that strikes me about African tech start-ups is that they’re consistently solving different problems than American start-ups do.  For example, they’re substituting for effective fire departments and national blood donation agencies in places where these institutions are weak.

Workfare and the politics of dignity

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MGNREGA backgrounder, via I See India

The Effective States and Inclusive Development program has just published an interesting interview with Indrajit Roy, whose research focuses on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.  Key quote:

In rural India, my research found that despite having other alternatives, such as working for local farms and employers, when given a choice people would always choose to work on MGNREGA. I wondered why. At first glance it seemed this was because MGNREGA paid better –  but there were delays and corruption to payment, whereas local employers always paid on time, often in kind, which for rural poor people is more important than higher pay. So why do people want to work on MGNREGA?

What I found is that MGNREGA gives people dignity. People spoke of MGNREGA as providing dignified work, working for the government, whereas farmers and local employers often discriminated on the basis of caste. The rural poor tend to be from lower castes or untouchables, while farmers are from middle castes, so agricultural work entails all kinds of discriminatory attitudes towards workers. MGNREGA is not bound up in discriminatory relationships. For the rural poor the MGNREGA programme is a very practical manifestation of their rights, which demonstrates that the state of India cares for them.

What seems to matter most is that MGNREGA is a programme that allows people to live in dignity in their villages without having to leave to find work in towns. MGNREGA has not stopped migration from the villages, but it has allowed people to choose where and when they go, to space out their movements more than was previously possible. They are no longer desperate to leave their villages to find work.

There is a great deal of discord around MGNREGA. Farmers don’t like the programme because it  offers their labourers alternative opportunities, so it does not always promote a sense of community. But promoting egalitarian social relations and social justice often requires long-established community relations to be broken. Poor rural areas have seen popular movements for decades, but MGNREGA has weighed in on the side of the poor in their daily struggles. It has promoted a sense among the poor that the government cares for them and that they have more autonomy.

Highlights from APSA

I had a fantastic time at APSA last week.  Early-stage PhD students, it’s definitely worth attending even if you’re not presenting.  Here are some of the papers that really stood out to me: