I Could be a CIA Operative – Maybe

I spent considerable time this morning learning details of the country of Yemen from the CIA World Factbook. The country has a population of more than twenty-eight million people; more than thirteen million of them do not have access to electricity. Fifty-four percent of the population live below the poverty line (the local measure of which I do not know). The country is in debt beyond my ability to comprehend. In 2016, the country’s revenues were estimated at $1.684 billion and its expenses $4.917 billion. Huge numbers of its citizens face famine; many have fled to other countries to escape the war, becoming impoverished refugees with virtually no resources of their own.

The current condition of Yemen can be traced back to the Ottoman Empire. In 1918, North Yemen became independent. The area that became South Yemen in 1967 had been established as a British protectorate in the nineteenth century; the British withdrew that year. Three years later, the government of South Yemen adopted a Marxist orientation, prompting the exodus of large numbers of people from the south to the north. The two countries were united as the Republic of Yemen in 1990. Four years later, a southern secessionist movement was rapidly quashed, but erupted again in 2007.  There is, of course, more to the story. Suffice it to say the history of Yemen and the roots of the current civil war are deep and complex. Reading the full CIA World Factbook entry (ten subsections, each rather extensive) leaves me feeling that the situation in the country is essentially hopeless. Even if fighting stopped today and humanitarian food and water distribution across the county could take place without fear of attack, the scope of need is almost too big to comprehend.

So, what’s the point of reading about the almost insurmountable challenges of a country half a world away—a country whose people I cannot personally hope to help? If for no other reason, I read about Yemen to better understand the world in which we live. I read about Yemen as a way to give myself a cautionary note about what civil war can do to a country and its people. And I read about Yemen so I can discuss it with other people so the famine facing its people does not get erased in the political conversations of the day.

Sometime yesterday I encountered the phrase, “compassion as a lifestyle.” It could have been last night while I was watching a film by Susanne Suffredin, @home, about the work of homeless advocate Mark Horvath. Whether it was the film (which, by the way, was quite moving and thought-provoking) or not, I latched onto the phrase as if it were my own. I love the strength of principle it conveys. I love what it can mean, if people adopt it. I mention the phrase because thinking of it this morning is what brought me to explore more about Yemen. And that got me thinking about other things related to countries and compassion, leading me down another rabbit hole. As usual, while reading about Yemen, I got sidetracked; I perused other countries’ entries in the CIA World Factbook. One of the smallest countries in the world, Tuvalu, owes its existence to ethnic squabbles, like so many others. According to the Factbook:

“In 1974, ethnic differences within the British colony of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands caused the Polynesians of the Ellice Islands to vote for separation from the Micronesians of the Gilbert Islands. The following year, the Ellice Islands became the separate British colony of Tuvalu. Independence was granted in 1978.”

“Hmmm,” I said to myself, “what else can I learn while I’m here?”

Well, I learned that the governments of a number of countries whose citizens live comfortably and in relative safety and who enjoy considerable freedom get tax revenue equal to at least fifty percent of their Gross Domestic Product. They apparently have high taxes and enjoy some of the highest levels of quality of life on the planet. A few of the countries with such significant revenue from taxes include: Iceland (58.4%), Finland (54.2%), Norway (54.2%), France (53.1%), Denmark (52.9%), Sweden (51.0%), and Belgium (50.7%). The figure for the U.S. is 17.6%. Of course, the government tax revenue as a percentage of GDP tells only part of the story, but it suggests that high tax revenue tends to correlate well with generally high quality of life. Yet further exploration shows a generally high correlation, too, with high unemployment for youth between sixteen and twenty-four years of age. It occurs to me that, with the data collected about countries around the world by the CIA, someone with adequate computer and analytical skills could use those data to determine with some precision what types of governmental policies provide the greatest likelihood of decent standard of living for the most people, lowest infant mortality rates, lowest unemployment rates, etc., etc. I’m not the one to do it, but I wish someone would.

So ends my ramblings for this morning. If the data collected by the CIA through both overt and covert means were all used to improve the quality of life of people worldwide, I would be happy to be a CIA operative. But I may be a little old to start now.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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