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Ties That Bind

ISSUE:  Spring 2016

Rwanda, 2015. Photograph by Juan Herrero. At a glance, the story of a drilling crew in Antarctica might seem to have nothing in common with a profile of a trainer and her beloved pit bulls. Nor does an essay on the fate of sea snails seem to have anything in common with the memoir of a health-care worker and her crushing medical debt. But linger awhile in any of these stories, adjust the angle a bit, and parallels begin to form.

In each of these stories—as well as others in this issue—we witness inextricable bonds that speak to more universal experiences. The ice drillers face costly, humiliating failure if they don’t improvise together to reach a subglacial lake before the onset of Antarctic winter; dog trainer Diane Jessup has dedicated her life to educating the public about what she considers a grossly misunderstood breed; the health of pteropods, which are vital to marine ecosystems, is rapidly deteriorating due to ocean acidification, a consequence of pollution. And how does being shackled to a seemingly insurmountable debt affect the compassion of someone who works in hospital billing? Underneath these circumstances lie larger questions that will resonate with many readers for whom the ground—political, economic, cultural—appears to be shifting under their feet. 

Our cover story raises a particularly poignant question: What do we owe one another as entrepreneurs and consumers? For the last decade in India, poor women have carried the children of foreigners who cannot bear their own. On one level, the Indian transnational surrogacy market is an unusual update on the old tale of supply meeting demand. But as reporter Abby Rabinowitz writes, this business is anything but fair, and certainly more complicated than either the “win-win” narrative or the narrative of exploitation have portrayed it as being. A couple returns home with a dream fulfilled, while the surrogate faces medical problems, grief, and a sum of money that is not, as advertised, “life-changing.” Worse still, surrogates have often returned again and again—to donate more eggs; to carry more children—with the hope of a better outcome each time around. And yet these women have the right to employ their bodies as they choose. So, echoing sociologist Amrita Pande, Rabinowitz argues that “paid surrogacy should instead be framed as a form of work, no matter how problematic.” Doing so “makes it possible to imagine reforming rather than banning the practice—and, appealingly, women claiming a voice in that reform.”

While transnational surrogacy reveals how the global marketplace can exacerbate poverty and inequity, there are plenty of examples of how the market can effect transformation. In Rwanda, a generation raised in the shadow of genocide has embraced start-up culture in an attempt to redefine their country. A little more than two decades after a devastating 1994 genocide left as many as a million Rwandans dead, the capital city of Kigali seems reinvigorated by Silicon Valley spirit—in part because of the natural ambition of its millennials, but also because it has become a priority of President Paul Kagame’s government to push entrepreneurship as a way to rebuild the country. Photographer Juan Herrero captures this culture of opportunity through portraits of young inventors and scenes at various Kigali tech hubs and incubators; meanwhile, in his introduction, writer Tik Root asks what the net gains of this entrepreneurial push might be in a country where the majority of people still lack electricity, and where, despite youth empowerment, an autocratic president shows no democratic impulses.

These questions are crucial to Rwanda’s future, but resonate well beyond it. As history shows, regardless of where it falls on a map, a country’s success—its health, its wealth—isn’t measured just by the prosperity of a few, whether its young or its 1 percent, but by the well-being of its people as a whole. 



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