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Are slums good for the environment?

Third world slums have long been viewed as Hobbesian hells. Lately, experts have recognized their benefits -- as economically-vibrant base camps for a new wave of urban opportunity. GlobalPost's Erik German, who investigated the issue from Dhaka, Bangladesh, discusses his findings.

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Good afternoon, and welcome to the conference call on GlobalPost’s Megacities series. It’s Friday, September 24th. I’m David Case, editor of GlobalPost’s membership service. We’re joined today by Eric German, who, along with Solana Pyne, wrote the Megacities series. Eric, are you still there?


Eric German: I am. Thanks for having me.


GlobalPost: Great. I must say, we very nearly had to cancel this call. After doing the Megacities series, Eric took a new assignment for GlobalPost in Brazil, and he’s been out exploring some of the more remote parts of that vast country. So I was recently abroad myself as well, and when I got back, I emailed Eric to remind him of the call, and I heard nothing. So I began to get a bit worried, and then last night I got an email on my Blackberry. Eric was in an airport in Brazilia, and he wrote me that he’d finally managed to get out of the jungle. What he wrote was, “We very nearly didn’t manage to get out, which is a longer story involving submerged trees, a broken canoe motor, and a few hours of unplanned paddling.” So, was it a good trip, Eric?


German: It was an amazing trip. It was just a little more difficult than we expected. We were in the homeland of an indigenous group called the Yawanawa, which is in a remote state of Brazil in the far western Amazon. To get there, we took three planes, a flatbed truck, and then the last leg of the journey was aboard motorized canoes. On the way back—it’s the dry season now, and the rivers are very low—our motor broke. I think the propeller shaft hit a submerged tree, or maybe it was just a really old motor. Anyway, for several hours we were forced to push the canoe along with poles, actually. We stopped on the side of the river and cut pieces of cane from the undergrowth. We pushed the canoe by hand for a while. They fixed the motor and it broke again—anyway, it turned into a much longer trip than we expected, but we did very narrowly manage to get back and catch the last car out of the bush, and we caught our plane.


GlobalPost: Well, thanks for making the effort. Now, back to the Megacities series, I’m going to start by embarrassing Eric a little bit here. I think he and Solana accomplished something with this series that’s quite difficult to achieve—namely, they made poverty and urban blight interesting. In fact, they made it interesting enough to land a number of hits for GlobalPost across the Internet and TV landscape. Our managing editor, Tom Mucha, was interviewed on ABC News Now, the piece was picked up by The Huffington Post, it was deemed “Best of the Web” by Talking Points Memo, and our partners at the PBS NewsHour ran some of the footage as well. Afterward, we got an email from the NewsHour’s executive editor. She wrote that Jim Lehrer marveled at how much material you guys packed into a relatively short story. Jim Lehrer thought it was a fascinating piece, and the kind of story you rarely see on television. So, excellent work, Eric.


German: Thanks a lot. That’s really nice to hear.


GlobalPost: And excellent work Solana, I hear she’s sitting there with you as well.


German: She’s right here, yeah.


GlobalPost: So, your project is about megacities, but it focuses on Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Why did you choose Dhaka?


German: Well, we chose Dhaka because of the world’s 20 or so megacities, by some measurements, it appears to be growing the fastest. Lagos, Nigeria, is also growing very quickly. Statistics in these places are not 100 percent reliable, but according to the World Bank, Dhaka seems to be growing faster than the rest of these urban conglomerations, so we thought it would be a great lens with which to view this big shift that people are making across the world to the cities.


GlobalPost: Excellent. And just how fast is the city growing?


German: Something like 300,000 to 400,000 people per year, which averages out to roughly 1,000 a day. It’s on track to be bigger than Mexico City, Beijing, or Shanghai.


GlobalPost: And these people are coming from the countryside. To what extent is this kind of migration happening elsewhere in the world?


German: It’s happening all over the place. You see it happening in Africa, in Asia, in South America—even, to some extent, in North America and Europe, too. The real action, though, is in the more medium-sized cities. There are just so many more of them, cities that are smaller. But really this is a phenomenon that’s changing the face of the planet in pretty much every region of the planet.


GlobalPost: It was a major milestone a few years ago that the—I believe it was the United Nations—that for the first time in human history, more people are living in cities than in rural areas.


German: Yeah. That was a 2007 report called “Unleashing the Potential of Urban Growth.” That’s where that announcement was made.


GlobalPost: And, incidentally, here at GlobalPost, we published another piece about Chongqing, a city in the Chinese heartland with a population of 33 million, which is roughly the same population as the entire country of Canada.


German: Yeah, right.


GlobalPost: So here’s a question that we had from one of the readers. A reader left this question in our comments section: “Why exactly are so many people leaving their rural villages behind?” When you go through the countryside in the developing world, many of these places look idyllic, with emerald rice patties and a rural traditional, simple lifestyle that Westerners sometimes idealize.


German: Right, well, one of the people I interviewed had something interesting to say about that. He said, “I used to have very romantic ideas about village life, but that’s because I never lived in one.” I think the reason people are leaving the villages—there are push and pull factors, but the biggest pull is economic opportunity. There aren’t really large cash economies in the villages, there aren’t a lot of choices when it comes to employment, and there’s not a lot of opportunity to make much money. So there’s a real draw to move to the city. The opportunities that are available in the city are pulling people out of their villages. There are push factors as well. A lot of villages are quite vulnerable economically and environmentally. So people are literally going hungry in some parts of the world. So the move to the city can be a real life or death kind of decision.


GlobalPost: so this is huddled masses in the nineteenth century or twentieth century, people would come to the United States, or to the New World, but now many of them are going to the cities in their own countries.


German: Yes, absolutely.


GlobalPost: What portion of these migrants end up in the slums?


German: This is an interesting question, and it’s hard to say. The experts we talked to in Dhaka are saying probably more than half. Because these are communities that are not on the grid, where people aren’t necessarily registered to vote, they don’t have leases or contracts with utility companies, they’re very hard to count. But by all estimates, it seems that more often than not, the people who are migrating from the villages now are ending up in slums.


GlobalPost: These slums seem quite squalid from a distance. You actually spent some time in them. Are they squalid?


German: I mean, that was my reaction at first, but that’s a reaction that’s conditioned by where I grew up and the kind of communities that I’m used to—I’m used to wide streets, storm drains, air conditioning, and carpeted homes. These places are by most standards much dirtier, more cramped, much more chaotically laid out, but you know, the more time Solana and I spent in these places, the more people I talked to, the more we realized that the people who are moving there are making a very considered choice to do so. They’re not passive victims in every case. These are people who are trying to make their lives better, and they’ve decided—for some very good reasons—that moving to these communities is going to be better than staying in their villages. It means having enough to eat, it means having a place to educate your kids, it means having a job that’s better than putting seeds in the ground and waiting for it to rain.


GlobalPost: Interesting. Can you paint a picture for us, you spent some time walking around these slums. What was it like to actually be there? What did you see? How were people’s houses?


German: Well, one of the first things that surprised me is that the slums are very heterogeneous. There are different kinds of slums, even in the single city we were visiting. You would see houses that were built out of wood and garbage and sort of cast-off trash, and those were usually the newest and youngest places, but as the slums became older, the buildings became a lot more solid. The streets started to be paved, the inner courtyards of houses and compounds began to be paved, and we started seeing houses made out of metal and out of stone and brick, and you started to see people hooking themselves up to an electricity grid or getting informal plumbing. And so, by and large, though, they were, by our standards, very tightly packed. Life is, to a large extent, lived outdoors. So there’s not a lot of privacy. Walls are very thin. A lot of cooking is done above a fire. These places, in a lot of ways, resemble villages—very, very tightly packed villages. But they were surprisingly ordered. If you’re looking at it from the air, it was extremely chaotic, but people were very organized as a neighborhood, by family. People had their own streets and there was private space and public space. It was just cramped, packed.


GlobalPost: Is there any sort of authority that manages these places to make them orderly? Or is there just an informal system that comes up when people move there?


German: It depends upon the place, but a lot of the places we visited had associations, such as informal businesses banded together, to organize business communities in various forms. But disorder doesn’t really last in any community, absent of law, because these were places where the law wasn’t really present, another kind of order arises. It seemed to me to be an older kind of order, where you had older people who kind of ran the show. I’m not sure if it was kind of—mafia might not be the right word—but there were people we visited that there were people who were informally in charge, who made decisions about whether plumbing was coming in, who made decisions about who could adjudicate a dispute between tenants and landlords and things like that. But it certainly was all unofficial. It was all black market.


GlobalPost: It’s an interesting sociological phenomenon, isn’t it—you put people in a place and they will organize themselves. Certain people will emerge as leaders, others as followers, and order will come about.


German: Yes, that was one of the most surprising things about Dhaka. It appeared so chaotic at the beginning, but it was in fact highly, highly organized.


GlobalPost: Now, here you are, two Westerners walking around south Asia carrying expensive video equipment through some of the most poverty-stricken areas of that part of the world, or even of the world. Did you have any problems?


German: No, I would say the only problems we had were that the Bangladeshi culture, as we experienced it, was very curious and open. So we would go into slums and, I think, the main reaction was one of shock that we were there at all. And then immediate, intense curiosity. This is a former country in the British empire. There’s a lot of English spoken. So a lot of people would just start asking us questions about where we were from, what we were doing—and I mean, a lot of people. Sometimes we would have crowds of 100, 200, 300 deep around us as we worked. The only real problem we had was trying to get shots of the community that weren’t completely filled in by faces, people looking back and straining to get a look at our lens.


GlobalPost: Interesting. I also want to ask anyone in the audience, if you do have a question, we welcome and encourage participation. All you need to do to ask a question or make a comment is press Star-6 on your phone and we’ll be able to hear you. When you’re done, you press Star-6 as well to re-mute yourself. Any takers?


OK, next question then for me, Eric, is if some people are really improving their situation, can you describe in concrete terms what that looks like? You already talked a bit about how they are making better houses for themselves.


German: Right. Well, it really makes sense if you look at it in terms of people whom we met. For example, there’s a 23-year-old woman named Mahkmouda who had been in Dhaka for about seven years. She worked in a garment factory and worked really long hours for pay that by our standards was extremely low. Garment workers in Bangladesh are some of the lowest-paid in the world. But the difference between her life in Dhaka, and her life in the village, where she came from, is extremely stark. She was married at about age 15, 16, and she chose her own husband in a culture where marriages tend to usually be arranged. So she and her husband were left largely on their own. They ended up staying with Mahkmouda’s family, which was extremely poor. They didn’t have enough money for food. She and her husband had a baby, and the baby died of malnutrition not too long after it was born. And the difference between the life that she lived in the village and the life that she lives now is the difference between having enough to eat and not, having enough money to buy meat, and not having the money to buy meat.


Now, she and her husband have moved. They’ve lived in Dhaka for a while together; they live in a brick walk-up apartment building, and they’re talking about restarting their family now. So that’s the kind of difference we’re talking about. By many standards, her life now is still very difficult, but if you compare it to what she was facing in the village, the choice is a clear one. She clearly made the better choice to move.


GlobalPost: I found this to be a heart-wrenching part of your series, how they couldn’t stop the baby from screaming because the baby was hungry, and then the baby just finally fell silent.


German: Yes. It was really, really sad. The interview itself was a real heart-breaker, talking to her.


GlobalPost: How did you go about finding people like her?


German: Well, one of the things that tells you you’re on the right track and you’re reporting on a trend is when most of the people you ask seem to fit in with the trend that you’re looking at. And when we were going around in Dhaka, we had an extremely talented translator, a brilliant journalist in his own right who writes huge stories for the Daily Star in Dhaka all the time. He was sort of our liaison on the street, with people. But the method was quite simple. We would just show up places and start asking around. I almost never met someone from Dhaka who hadn’t migrated from somewhere else. And so what we did was, everywhere we went, every slum that we went to, every garment factory we visited, we just asked around and said, “Where’d you come from? What was it like there before? What’s it like now?”


And the people’s stories who seemed to most compellingly illustrate this shift from village to city were the people we ended up putting into the final, published series.


GlobalPost: So, mainly this is a story of optimism, of people moving from the villages in the countryside where land is becoming more scarce and where there are environmental problems, especially in Bangladesh, where there are rivers rising. For example, you mentioned another person in your series lost his land when the Brahmaputra River  shifted course and wiped out his village. But then they go to a place like these slums where something like half the people in Dhaka live—maybe seven million people in Dhaka live in slums. What are some of the potential risks posed by packing so many people together in one place like that?


German: There are a lot of problems with sanitation in a lot of the slums. People are defecating into—I mean, you couldn’t even call them sewers, they’re just ditches that run right through the middle of the street. And then the water pipes that they’re drinking out of are running through those same sewers. People are packed so tightly together that if you got a serious pandemic, it would just run through these communities like wildfire. There’s a real problem also with, if you had any kind of civil unrest, in a city like Dhaka, there’d be absolutely no way to control it, because there’s no arterial roadways, there’s no real way to know how many people are in one place. They’re cities which are not legible by modern standards. It’s very hard to know what’s going on, it’s very hard to control what’s going on. And then there’s also a sense in which some of these cities are undoing some of the more positive trends of modernity. I mean, the order we were talking about in these cities, it isn’t a democratic order. They’re sort of local strongmen who are taking control of you know, delivering services to people like electricity or delivering water, delivering security. So they can become kind of extortionists. You can have really, really large segments of the population who are living under conditions where, you know, it’s just not really democratic anymore at all.


If it’s an optimistic story, it’s sort of cautious optimism. There are positive aspects of this organization, but there are some real ugly, ugly aspects to the kinds of communities that are drawing off that.


GlobalPost: So there’s a lot of economic activity, but then there are a lot of downsides as well. And these local strongmen, are they getting rich off of their fellow slum-dwellers?


German: I wish I had a good answer for that question, but it seems like in some cases, yes. I’ve been told by people in Dhaka that, for example, running a slum, a slum rent scheme, is highly profitable. Slum rentals are actually some of the most profitable rental real estate in the city. We weren’t able to find anyone that would discuss this with us in a way that we could report on. But it looks like, yes, there are some segments of the population that are getting rich off of either illicit activity that’s occurring in the slums or extortionate economic activity that’s occurring in the slums, like charging exorbitant rates for electricity or water, or for rent.


GlobalPost: Speaking of water, you spent an entire section of the project just focusing on the issue of water. Why did you do that?


German: Well, I started my career as a municipal reporter, so I was a town reporter. And the things that matter the most on a municipal level are police, electricity, garbage, transit, and water. We wanted to look at all of those things but didn’t have enough time or space, so we figured water would be a good lens through which to answer the question, How well is this place delivering necessary services to people? So that was the reason why we picked water. It’s an easier one to find in the slums, too. It’s a tougher question to say How secure do you feel? It’s an easier one to say, Where’s the faucet?


GlobalPost: Who owns the land where these slums are located?


German: It differed from slum to slum. Some were government land, public land, which some people had just sort of squatted on for 20 years or longer. Some sections of the land were privately owned, and in many of those cases, those private owners also owned the buildings and the water connections and electricity connections, too.


GlobalPost: Actually, that brings back a memory. I myself spent some time living in Jakarta. There, the government has a tendency that some of these slums are on public land or on wealthy landowners’ holdings, and the government comes in and just bulldozes them. Or, alternatively and even worse, you have these massive fires that erupt in these slums. Overall, the likelihood is that someone is trying to get people off the land. Does that kind of thing happen in Dhaka?


German: Yes. What we were hearing is that because land is at such a premium in Dhaka—it’s a city built in a river delta, the whole country is a river delta country. But this is a city that’s cut through by a dozen different small channels, lakes and rivers, so there’s not enough land. What happens is people would move into swamp or marginal land and, in many ways, rehabilitate it, make it more valuable—fill it in, either with garbage or dirt. And somebody with a lot more power would come along and say, Hey, I’d like to build an apartment building there, or something like that. So we heard about cases of slums in the city simply being cleared out as soon as a premium was placed on the land where the slum had been.


GlobalPost: Your reporting suggests that there may be some surprising upsides to urbanization, too. Can you talk about what some of those are?


German: It comes back to the reasons people gave for moving from their villages to the city. They’re moving because they can educate their kids in the city. They’re moving because there’s a lot more economic opportunity in the city. Finally, a step back from that, living in these cities seems to be a lot more efficient in a lot of ways, in terms of energy consumption. The people who live in the city have a much smaller carbon footprint than someone who’s chopping down the forest every night in order to keep warm.


GlobalPost: That’s a sharp break from some of the prominent earlier studies of mass urbanization, like Mike Davis’ 2006 book, Planet of the Slums. He talks about “Hobbesian hells” to describe third-world shantytowns. What was Davis getting wrong?


German: One thing that you get from Davis’ book—it’s a broad survey of all the sociological literature which had been produced about third-world slums up until about 2006. And he refers to that literature with deep familiarity. But I don’t think he ever visited a slum himself. I don’t think he ever talked to anybody who lived in a slum. There’s a real sense in that book that people living in these communities are simply passive recipients of huge world-historical forces, and they’re victims who need to be pitied, to some extent. Yet when you talk to these people, who live in these communities—the way they articulate their own stories is in many cases stories about choices. They’re making choices, they’re making decisions about their own lives. They’re making the same decision I would make if I was in their position. The last thing is that Mike Davis, if you read the rest of his work, is a Marxist theorist, so his theory about where the world is headed is toward a collapse that’s going to spark an abstract revolution of some kind. It fits into his argument that these places are just going to become increasingly worse, until they explode, and then there’s going to be some kind of large, worldwide overturning of the capitalist order, I guess. I’m not necessarily sure that kind of analysis of history is accurate.


GlobalPost: You’re seeing more or less the opposite, where the slums are a land of opportunity where young people are going and they’re vibrant members of a capitalist economy.


German: Yeah, they’re becoming individual entrepreneurs. I don’t really see people—you know, everyone’s working for their own private gain. I didn’t see people merging into some mass proletariat consciousness in any of these places.


GlobalPost: So, what are some of the chief environmental benefits researchers are seeing from the broad shift from the countryside to the city?


German: Well, it differs from the developed vs. the developing world. In the developed world, the biggest story is that living downtown is a lot more energy efficient. You’re just going to be using a lot less energy if you’re living in an apartment building and taking the subway to work instead of a car. In the developing world, the biggest part of the story seems to be that cities themselves are populations. If you’re living in a village, there’s a huge economic incentive to have a huge family, because you’ve got livestock to raise, you’ve got crops to get in, and a big family is an economic asset on a farm. In a city, in an apartment building or in a slum, a big family is a huge problem. So what demographers have been noticing is that as soon as people migrate to the city, their birth rates decline to a less than replacement rate. What that means, when you take a step back from the numbers, is that the world’s population is no longer going to be growing at the exploding rate that it grew through the 20th century. In fact, the U.N. seems to think that by the mid-21st century, it’s going to level off to about 9 billion. To people who are concerned about the population bomb, it could be that this giant shift to the city will defuse that bomb.


GlobalPost: Let me invite the audience, once a gain, the audience to ask a question or make a comment. All you need to do is press Star-6 and that will unmute your phone line. Hello, we can hear you.


Listener: Hi there, I’m enjoying the discussion here. Quick question: as folks migrate from the countryside and into the urban areas, how are they managing with the job market there? So, in other words, they’re being lured by economic opportunities. Are these really basic, low-skill jobs that somebody can come in from the countryside and learn from somebody shoulder to shoulder? So that’s the first question: how are they orienting them? Why are they being drawn to these economic opportunities more so now than in the past? Is it because the local economies are growing, or because transportation is making it easier for them to move into the city? So is it a transportation or access issue, or is it a growing economy issue? If economic opportunities are drawing them in, what is driving the economic opportunities?


GlobalPost: Great question. So, Eric, two-fold question. First, how do people get an economic foothold when they first arrive in the city? I imagine it’s quite a daunting thing to arrive in a city and move into a slum and try to find some ways to make ends meet. The second part of the question was, Why now? Was it transportation that’s making it easier for people to arrive in the cities or is there some other economic force that’s driving them?


Could the caller also press Star-6 again, if you don’t mind? You can follow up if you like but it’s just because we have an international line, so if we can keep the background noise to a minimum, that would help.


German: I have a good answer for the first question, and only a guess for the second question. But I think the answer to the question of what kind of jobs are they finding when they first arrive is that they’re finding really, really low-pay, low-skill jobs. The kind of economy that they’re joining is described by a lot of researchers as the “rickshaw economy,” which is the pedal or human-powered taxis that are all over the place in Dhaka and a lot of other Asian cities. A lot of the people we talked to said that those were the kind of jobs that they first got when they moved do the city, jobs that required no skill, jobs that there was almost no investment before beginning to do them. So you’d see them peddling rickshaws through the streets, working any kind of job where you didn’t necessarily have to have a skill. As we talked to people who had been in the city longer, after they’d been there longer, they had more connections, gained more knowledge, they worked their way up the economic ladder. So the people who had been there longer had jobs at the factories and things like that, employment that was a little more steady and was part of the formal economy. But those sort of informal jobs—very small tea stalls, very small convenience shops in the slums, a rented rickshaw, anything like that—those are jobs that, according to a guy we talked to at the International Labor Organization, they made up as much as 80 percent of the economy. So when people first arrive, they’re originally absolutely at the bottom rung of the economic ladder. After a certain amount of time, some percentage of them manage to move up into jobs that require a little more skill and pay a little bit better.


The second part of the question, Why now? Why is it happening right now? I can only guess that now there’s a lot more mass communication than there was before, and so people in villages are much more aware of the opportunities that might be available. They’ve got satellite TV and cell phones out there, and they have images all the time of a life that is beamed to them of a life that is very different than the life that they’re living. Now, also we have more infrastructure and roads, so it’s a lot easier to buy a bus ticket or buy a train ticket and move from where you are to someplace where you think it’s going to be better. There’s also more people, so it’s possible that it has always been going on, that people have always been making this move, but because the world population is so much bigger, it shows up on our radar screen in a much bigger way. Again, that’s kind of speculation on my part.


GlobalPost: OK, great. Caller, do you have a follow-up question, or does anyone else have a question before we go?


Caller: I have a follow-up question.


GlobalPost: Sure.


Caller: OK, super. As they move to the urban marketplace and start to open up their tea carts and become part of the formal economy, how are they managing access to credit? So, in other words, do they borrow from friends, is there an informal lender, is there access to money through the strongmen? I’m just curious about the financing part, if you could add to that. Thanks so much.


German: I heard three different ways that people were getting access to credit. One, sometimes NGOs in Bangladesh would lend money on a very, very small scale—microcredit lending—with the hope of helping people start a business, borrow $50 or $40 to start a vegetable stand or a tea stall or something like that. And that kind of lending is very widespread in Bangladesh—it actually began in Bangladesh with an NGO called Graeme Bank. The guy who started that NGO I believe won a Nobel Prize for his work with launching this whole idea of microlending.


GlobalPost: I think you’re right.


German: The other way that we heard was people borrowing money from family and friends. A lot of the migrants we talked to in order to finance their move would borrow money from people in their village and then pay it back over the course of a year. And the last way that we heard people describe money being lended was through these sort of informal slum associations. It was never clear to me whether these sort of associations or businesses were like a sort of Chamber of Commerce, where a bunch of high-minded local businessmen get together for the good of the community, or whether these associations were more like the Mafia. It was the most powerful local guys just sort of thuggishly taking control. But it seemed that in the slums we visited, there was a sort of hidden order, and those organizations also seemed to be a source of credit as well.


Caller: Hi, me again—I’m just going to jump in. Thanks so much. My name is Rafael, by the way, so thanks again. Quick question: so, after folks start to kind of funnel their way in to these tight spaces, are we at the point where we’re seeing kind of architecture reflect that, or are these areas going more vertical and building structures that they traditionally have? Simply, are these changes being reflected in the architecture yet?


German: Thank you. It depended very much upon the age of the slum community. In communities that were brand new, you saw people living in shacks made out of bamboo and wood and trash. In areas that were older, you saw people living in small houses that were made out of tin and wood and, in some cases, brick, and that’s when you would see multiple stories being added on. And so the older the communities were, the more solid the construction was, and the more vertical construction was—you’d start to see multiple stories. There aren’t a lot of extremely tall buildings in Dhaka, which are actual high rises and things like that, which are in more middle and upper class sorts of neighborhoods.


GlobalPost: OK, excellent. I think that’s all we have time for today. Eric, fascinating series. Thank you very much for joining us.


German: Thanks so much for having me on the call. It was really fun talking about this project again.


GlobalPost: Keep up the good work out in Brazil, we’ll be looking forward to seeing what you have to file next. Thanks to everyone who joined us today, we’ll be doing another one of these calls soon. So please check to the GlobalPost membership site, and you’ll get the latest update. We’ll also have a transcript of the call online shortly.