Thursday, January 8, 2015

Development Dilemmas: My Day in Dubai

From where I'm sitting I can see the bottom edge of a three-stories-tall tank with sharks, rays, and all sorts of giant fish. What's strange about this is that I'm not in an aquarium. I'm in a mall.

This is the aquarium at the Dubai Mall. You know, the one right next to the tallest building in the world with over 1200 stores to choose from. The point of this article is not to marvel you with this mammoth of a building, but doing so helps to make my actual point, so here are some of the mind boggling facts:

  • The mall covers more area than any other mall in the world - 5.9 million square feet of internal floor space
  • It is home the world's largest candy store, Candylicious, as of 2009
  • In 2010, the mall had 47 million visitors - a new world record and an annual increase of 27% despite the economic crisis
  • The mall is valued at 20 billion US dollars

What I haven't been able to find is how much money is spent at this mall every day. I'm confident that multiple millions (of dollars) were spent just in the hours I spent at the mall. With high-end stores like Burberry - and their child-sized duplicates - on every corner, it's easy to see how the revenue can strike a high note every day. Oh yeah, and there's a dinosaur inside:

I heard more languages there than I ever thought possible in one place - more than in most airports! I've probably also never been surrounded by so many wealthy people in my life either. My original plan was to take the city by storm and see all the sites. However, I forgot that Fridays are like Sundays in Muslim countries. Even the metro was closed until this afternoon. My options were sit in an airport all day or sit in a mall all day. To be honest, all that really drew me to the mall at all was the wider selection of food and free wifi. These are becoming increasingly more important decision-making factors on this trip. I was grateful, though, that my day in the mall gave me some time to reflect on a question I've been pondering for a while:

Does economic development naturally lead to an increase in the protection of human rights?

Short answer? No.

Look at countries like China and India. Their economies have exploded in recent years, but they are also notorious for human rights abuses and extreme poverty. Wherever fast and furious economic development occurs, the poor almost always get left behind. The U.S. has this problem as well, with a widening gap between rich and poor.

Let me be clear. I'm not saying that economic development is bad. It is necessary for an increase in human rights. More simply, money is needed for the infrastructure necessary for human rights protection. However, economic development alone does not do the job.

I suppose the better question would be "Why not?" While I had learned the answer to this in classes and books on economic development, I wasn't able to grasp the obstacles to human rights protection until I saw the problem on a small scale in the Mall of Dubai.

Killing time before my flight, I sat for a while at a coffee shop where I could look over four stories of people and shops. The people scurrying around with bags of purchases and looking for their next stop reminded me of the theme park computer games I used to play as a child. Each visitor had a dollar sign over their head, and the more money I pumped into trivial things like roller coasters and hot dog stands, the more money came out (most of the time). The workers, on the other hands, took a way from this profit, and I shrewdly only hired the bare minimum needed to keep my customers happy. As a 12 year old "tycoon," I never really thought about my workers' rights, just bringing in more money.

Similarly, in the Dubai Mall there is little incentive to run a company that respects the rights of its workers if there is no infrastructure in place for these workers to make their voice heard or enforce their rights. Unions and strikes are illegal across Dubai, where money is power. Now, I'm not saying definitively that the Mall of Dubai treats its workers unfairly, but at every store I saw signs about my rights as a customer, as if I was the one at risk. What's more, I looked around and saw how many of those in service positions were from places like India, Pakistan, and the Philippines. The customers were largely from the U.A.E., U.S., and Europe. Talk about a power imbalance.

The Dubai Mall, to me, was a microcosm of what nearly all countries face, especially those with recent and speedy economic development. I could see how seamlessly human rights abuses can occur. A desire to bring in the cash overshadows the protection of the vulnerable. Companies in Dubai and all over the U.A.E. have been called out many times in recent years for abusing migrant workers and even using slave labor (source).

Even worse, workers' status as migrants make them particularly vulnerable in Middle Eastern countries like the U.A.E. due to the kafala system. Two summers ago, dozens of migrant workers were deported after a strike from the construction company where they were employed (source). This was made possible because, though technically illegal in some countries, the kafala system is still strong all over the Middle East. By this system, all immigrants are required to have an in-country "sponsor" - usually their employer. This gives employers the power to confiscate passports or deport foreign workers. These workers even have to seek permission from their sponsor before changing jobs; permission that is unlikely to be granted when their sponsor is their current employer and is reaping the benefits from their vulnerability.

So what does this have to do with my project? Well, everything, really. A country that has a fairly well developed (or developing) economy but a lack of human rights protection is, unfortunately, the breeding ground for sexual exploitation. While lack of economic development also can be correlated with high rates of sexual abuse, rampant sexual exploitation usually requires the perfect storm of a cash flow and a lack of human rights. One of my goals is to understand the roots of these problems, and the roots are deep.

Though my passion is for aftercare, my necessary understanding of the larger issue requires me to venture into areas where I don't necessarily excel, like economics. That being said, please do not take my understanding of the economic roots of the problem as authoritative. This post has merely been a summary of my reflections and research in this area. Please look to other sources (like the ones I have linked to here) for authority.

As is usually the case, these reflections only brought about more questions in my mind, such as, "What can be done to fix this problem?" and "Why is this discrepency worse in some countries than in others?" A couple people much smarter than me wrote a book to answer these very questions, so look out for a post coming soon, where I will review The Locust Effect for answers to these questions.


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