Abolish EDMs! Abolish Bob Spink!

For fucks sake…


Spink, Bob

That this House notes that posters with the slogan There’s Probably No God. Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life, appear on 800 buses in England, Scotland and Wales, as well as on the London Underground; notes that this causes concern to Christian and Muslim people, many of whom feel embarrassed and uncomfortable travelling on public transport displaying such advertisements and would not wish to endorse the advertisements by using that public transport; regrets that the British Humanist Association backs the campaign; and calls on Ministers responsible for public transport and advertising media to investigate this matter and to seek to remove these religiously offensive and morally unhelpful advertisements.

An Early Day Motion, for those that don’t know, is “a pointless and ineffectual statement by a group of MPs, pronouncing judgement upon some event, or calling for some course of action, which other MPs are invited to add their signatures to.”

What do they achieve? Well, usually nothing, but they are a good way for MPs to be seen to be “doing something.” Even if that something is ineffectual and pointless.

The above EDM is a particularly sub-par example, but it gives you an idea of the sort of cretinous ramblings which MP’s in marginal constituencies with sincere concerns promote.

Anything that is “religiously offensive and morally unhelpful” should never be banned. Read that again religiously offensive and morally unhelpful, he wrote those words and thought “Yeah, lets ban those fuckers from being morally unhelpful!”

For Christ’s sake, [1] you know what would be morally unhelpful Bob? Shutting up, it would lower my blood pressure and might get me a few more years in. Although that would require thinking less, and if you thought less then you might slip into a catatonic dose. [2]

This is the point of living in the UK, we’re better than fucking Saudi Arabia, we can say, and promote what we want. No amount of swing voters concerned members of the public are worth appeasing over those freedoms.

Parliament does a lot that is unhelpful, sometimes, perhaps often, it does things which are damaging. But, tying up its time which could be usefully spent with useless shit like this is the height of arrogance and ignorance. Well done Bob, hope there’s lots of easily manipulated Christians and Muslims in Castle Point in Essex, because you’ll need their support, nobody sane would vote for you.

Just written this and realised its a rather old EDM, doesn’t matter, the man’s still a credulous nincompoop.

[1] Religiously offensive; check.

[2] Morally unhelpful; check.

Does Socialism cause Racism?

Alternatively Titled: Does Libertarianism cause Stupidity?

Sunny Hundal has demanded Labour adopt a Class War strategy. Devil’s Kitchen has decided that this is analogous to a Race War strategy. It appears I have to come out of my brief pre-2010 hibernation to settle something.

The relative merits of concentrating on the class interests of the Tories will be discussed elsewhere by others (as will DK’s total misunderstanding of what class is). What I want to turn to is why DK feels it necessary to reach for polemic where Sunny is talking about electoral strategy.

Once again, we see how the Left prefers to label people by their differences—and why? So that human beings can be kept at each others’ throats—through the generation of class envy, race hatred, religious differences. This is an old, old tactic which I call divide et impera—divide and rule—and I have written about it extensively.

It is better for people to be labelled, put into boxes and the differences between them emphasised—rather than uniting them in the realision that we are all human beings together—because that causes problems and tensions.

And then slimy political fucks like Hundal can rise up and present their solutions to the problems that they created in the first place. In short, people like Sunny want to pigeon-hole people and to create emnity between them because it allows cunts like Sunny to seize power.

Last month DK’s quote of the day from Charlotte Gore and her post inspired by Hayek’s Road To Serfdom.

It may be that the socialists are the most vocal anti-racists, but it is they who’ve created the economic conditions in which racism thrives. It’s they who’ve created a country with a growing obsession with stopping “foreigners” taking advantage of our welfare state, and it’s they who’ve spent the last 100 years telling everyone that Free Trade (which includes free movement of people) is a bad and terrible thing, it’s they who’ve told everyone that the job of the state is to pick sides and pick winners…. and they’re acting surprised, shocked and outraged when people who see themselves as losers in the current system want to use the state for their own purposes?

What exactly did they think would happen? I mean, really? The only way to stop National Socialism in the UK is to stop socialism.

For DK and Charlotte this is one of key critiques of even fairly mild state intervention. In my view it is a totally fallacious one. What Charlotte Gore, and DK, suggest is that once states (read: Socialists) have created even a modest welfare state they have set the scene for conflicts because they have been seen to pick sides and the creation of an “other” becomes central to politics.

We will look at 4 countries – US, UK, Australia and Germany - because they are the ones I have information for and because I think they provide a reasonably adequate sample. Of course, I would prefer to do more but I don’t have the resources or the time at the moment.

If DK and Charlotte Gore are correct then you would see a fairly strong correlation between the introduction of a relatively comprehensive welfare state institutions and the introduction, shortly afterwards, of restrictive immigration controls.

In Great Britain we introduced Industrial accident insurance in 1897, relatively comprehensive Healthcare and some unemployment insurance in 1911 and had a state Pension by 1908. In contrast to this the UK passed its first Aliens Act in 1905 three years before the introduction of the state pension. The controls in the act were fairly mild but it did represent a big break with the past where Britain had allowed total free movement of people, to match its free trade rhetoric. The big restrictive act was the Aliens Act of 1914, which was later augmented in 1919. This act was very restrictive and in effect barred even those claiming asylum entry. But this act was instigated by the greatest war the world had ever seen; the state whipped up hatred but this was hardly something dreamt up by those of the left. In fact, in 1948, the the year the NHS was foundered, Labour passed a law reaffirming the right of all subjects of the British Empire to settle in these isles.

A similar, although different story is evident in Germany. In many ways autocratic Germany lead the way in social insurance, it was the first state to introduce Industrial accident insurance in 1871 with healthcare following in 1883 and a pension in 1889. A relative laggard in comparison to other institutions in place. unemployment insurance was introduced in 1927. The were also early restricters of the right to migrate, passing their first law before our own 1905 Aliens Act. This part of Germany’s story (very) roughly matches DK’s and Charlotte’s view, but the post-war Federal Republic of Germany confounds it again. In the post was period Germany lacked legislation covering minimum wages and so on but possessed an advanced welfare state. However, up until 1993 German had the most liberal law on asylum in Europe and perhaps the world. Its Basic Law read “Persons persecuted on political grounds shall enjoy the right to asylum.” This no ifs and buts policy led German to become the one of the largest refugee accepting country in Europe up until 1993 when the law was changed.

Even the country most likely to follow DK and Charlotte’s picture of the world, Australia, tells a different story. Race relations in Australia have always been fairly strained, and its mistreatment of its aboriginal peoples well documented as is the unofficial “White Australia” policy that operated until the late 1960s. They introduced Industrial accident insurance in 1902, a pension in 1909 and Healthcare and Unemployment insurance in 1945. Following these reforms they followed a racist immigration policy to safeguard them. But the genesis of this policy was not in response to the above reforms, the framework was instigated by the Immigration Restrictions Act 1901.

The most interesting country to turn to is the United States, because this is one which utterly frustrates their arguments. In 1924 the US introduced an incredibly harsh immigration regime, that limited the number of immigrants who could be admitted from any country to 2% of the number of people from that country who were already living in the United States in 1890. However, it was not until 1930 that Industrial accident insurance was introduced, 1935 that a state pension and unemployment insurance was introduced, and 2010(?) before relatively comprehensive healthcare was introduced (lagging Germany by 127 years).

The idea that racism and religious sectarianism spring from the very people who battle against it is hardest must be appealing to the right. Everyone loves a counterintuitive insight, especially one which is so satisfying and provides a stick with which to beat one’s enemies. Sadly for the DK and Charlotte their’s is not an argument based in fact. It seems racism is a far more complicated phenomenom than they are willing to accept.

That’s it for now

I hope you all enjoyed Christmas. I doubt I’ll be blogging again until the New Year. Its been a blast blogging in 2009 and I hope things will only get better in 2010.

I would like to say a big Thank You to Paul and Dave at Though Cowards Flinch, Phil the Very Public Sociologist, Anton Vowl of the enemies of reason, MacGuffin of Tabloid Watch, Sunny and everyone who’s written at Liberal Conspiracy this year, everyone who blogs at The Third Estate, Claude of Hagley Road to Ladywood, Angry Mob, Unity of the Ministry of Truth, Chris Dillow, Jamie Sport of the Daily Quail, Giles Wilkes the Free Thinking Economist, Duncan with the economics blog, the ever readable Tim Worstall, Eric the Fish, the entertaining and insightful Mr Eugenides, Five Chinese CrackersPaul Sagar of Bad Conscience, Paul Krugman, Ben Goldacre of Bad Science, Will Straw and all at Left Foot Forward, Carl Packman of Raincoat Optimism, Thomas Byrne of “best named right wing blog 2009″ ByrneTofferings, the Heresiarch of Heresy Corner and the much missed John Q Publican.

You are the boggers who inspired me to start blogging, or who I discovered through my first 8 months and helped me keep going. Thank you all and I wish you all the best of health and success through 2010.

A Happy New Year to you and all the blogosphere!

Shoplifting: A Just Crime

Its delightful when an Anglican clergy man finds himself fighting for the same cause as someone called PigDogFucker. But this is the situation in which we find ourselves when the subject turns to shop lifting. Father Tim Jones has said it is entirely justified for those in his congregation to steal if they find themselves in genuine need. He goes on to argue that theft from large national firms is more easily justifiable than theft from small family businesses. In a similar vein, PigDogFucker approvingly quotes the CEO of  Iceland trying to sound sarcastic but failing:

Petty shoplifting has been decriminalised – it’s not really a crime at all, is it? No one suffers, the shop can afford it. It’s victimless.”

While it is clearly controversial to claim that it is moral to shoplift, philosophically speaking it is not particularly difficult to justify. It all comes down to property, who has a right to control what, and whether or not that right is absolute.

The archetypal (or should that be archaic?) justification for private property comes from Locke.

Labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to. As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property.

However a number of problems flow from this argument for property rights. First of all, Locke argues that the world is at first ours in common because God has granted it to all of us. By mixing our labour with part of the world we come to own part of it. This a priori assertion is thoroughly unsatisfying in the search for a rational basis for private property.

As Locke was writing in the 17th Century vast swathes of untouched land were being discovered, and England was still a patchwork of common land, conurbations, crown and private estates, [1] so he added another proviso to his “mixing labour” argument. He argued that the acquisition of property is only legitimate if “enough and as good left in common for others.”

While this would have been a possibility in Locke’s time, in a world of 6 billion souls, and in a medium sized island like out own this proviso is much harder to realise. Therefore, in order to justify private property some mental gymnastics are necessary. Between the 17th century, when Locke was writing, and our own time private property has become firmly entrenched, and it would be somewhat churlish to argue that the explosion in wealth, prosperity and comfort which we have seen since then is just a coincidence.

So, although enough and as good has not been left in common for others, the increase in wealth which has followed means that we are all better off as a result, even though – perhaps exactly because – private property rights have meant that there is not as much or as good left in common.

This then brings us to the subject of shoplifters. There are a lot of reasons to shoplift; hunger can lead the homeless to steal for a hunk of bread to eat, but addiction can lead others to steal because they need something to sell for a rock of crack to smoke, others steal because it is an addiction in itself.

In the case of the homeless you have to weigh the rights of one party to property against the rights of another to freedom from hunger. It is possible to argue, and some have, that the homeless should indeed go hungry and starve if they cannot find someone to give them food, because property rights are sacrosanct. Although the homeless person is worse off – i.e. dead – if property rights are enforced in this way, he is no worse off than if he lived in a state of nature where his life would be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

That this idea repulses us is a fairly good indicator that we may have some across a formulation of property rights that is untenable in the real world. This example illustrates that we must accept property rights are far from absolute, and that in fact it is a just outcome for you to be separated from your property.

However, our priest said society’s attitude to those in need “leaves some people little option but crime.” His was not just a justification for taking just what is needed to secure a life free from hunger, but as a way to extract what is justly theirs as members of a liberal society. This is why he prompted those in need to steal from national chains and not small businesses.

By taking what is needed from large businesses the costs of those crimes get recycled back to us in the form of higher prices. Rather than the beggars, our priest’s call was to “people are released from prison, or [those] find themselves suddenly without work or family support.” These are people who have been let down by society but who are not in imminent danger of expiring.

This leads us to an altogether more difficult set of moral dilemmas. For example, the support that those who leave prison get is derisory, and certainly counter-productive, but this unilateral socialisation of the costs of this failing is not just on the terms described above.

Society has failed some people, the idea that the costs of these failings should be socialised not by state support or voluntary associations but by theft is not justifiable. Although “need” must be understood as something more complex than mere physical subsistence – for example, nappies, bathing products, warm winter coats – the people this is aimed at can never get the support necessary through theft alone.

Our priest wants to argue that these people must get the support they need by hook or by crook it is not possibly to steal counselling, or to steal a stable home or steal full time employment, and these are things is that those in need probably need most. Although it is possible, and easy, to justify some theft the help this priest wants to provide will never come of it. The answer is more state support for those who leave prison, and not knee jerk “crack downs”, the answer is a proper drugs regime where addicts can access clean needles when they need it, and counselling and support when the need that too.

Unfortunately this stuff does not come cheap and this cost must be socialised, luckily, rather than shoplifting we have a state that can do all that.

[1] That’s how it was seen at the time. The Amerindians, Indians, Aborigines, Bushmen and Inuit did get in Locke’s way somewhat but he skirted around this. In any case, they soon died of flu and syphilis and freed up space, so all’s well that ends well.

Because its snowy and I hate Dan Hannan more than I do the EU

Dan Hannan has a dreadful top ten reasons to leave the EU (H/T Thomas Byrne). As indicated above, I hold no love for the EU but I hold Dan in even deeper disdain. This list has not changed my mind.

1. Since we joined the EEC in 1973, we have been in surplus with every continent in the world except Europe. Over those 27 years, we have run a trade deficit with the other member states that averages out at £30 million per day.

  • Correlation is not Causality. Perhaps, just perhaps, not being in a free trade area with other European states would have lead us to run a worse deficit with the rest of the world. Perhaps, just perhaps, allowing UK Governments to protect inefficient UK firms would have lead us to run smaller surpluses with other continents. I certainly don’t know; evidently neither does Dan Hannan.

2. In 2010 our gross contribution to the EU budget will be £14 billion. To put this figure in context, all the reductions announced by George Osborne at the Conservative Party Conference would, collectively, save £7 billion a year across the whole of government spending.

  • To pretend that it is possible to work out the exact gross contribution of the UK to the EU is to ignore all the economics you might have ever learned. You would have to map the workings of a continent-wide multi-national economy. Dan Hannan doesn’t believe any state planner can do that (and they can’t) and I don’t believe he can (and he can’t).

3. On the European Commission’s own figures, the annual costs of EU regulation outweigh the advantages of the single market by €600 to €180 billion.

  • The fact that this figure is so different to the one above suggests that, rather than working from a coherent set of beliefs, Dan is picking whatever Euroskeptic statistics catch his eye.

4. The Common Agricultural Policy costs every family £1200 a year in higher food bills.

  • Probably true actually. I’ll let Dan have this one (how magnanimous of me!). The CAP is an interesting bugbear of just about everyone on the left and right and if Dan Hannan could provide some sources – which he hasn’t done – he may even be able to prove the figure given is accurate or at all relevant.

5. Outside the Common Fisheries Policy, Britain could reassert control over its waters out to 200 miles or the median line, which would take in around 65 per cent of North Sea stocks.

  • And yet, we would still be faced with a situation where fisherman are fighting for the right to overfish their waters. The EU is dreadful at managing its fisheries, but Dan has provided us with no reason to convince us that the UK in a condition of anarchy could do better. Although its entirely possible to manage natural resources by voluntary arrangement, important matters also lend themselves to global or regional governance too.

6. Successive British governments have refused to say what proportion of domestic laws come from Brussels, but a thorough analysis by the German Federal Justice Ministry showed that 84 per cent of the legislation in that country came from the EU.

7. Outside the EU, Britain would be free to negotiate much more liberal trade agreements with third countries than is possible under the Common External Tariff.

  • Possibly, but would we have? Before joining the EU we were still set on a semi-Imperial trajectory. Dominions, colonies and the common wealth gained preferential treatment and our post 1930s Ottawa Conference world may not have given way to our free trade heritage as Dan Hannan fantasises.

8. The countries with the highest GDP per capita in Europe are Norway and Switzerland. Both export more, proportionately, to the EU, than Britain does.

  • What?! Nor-massive Natural Gas reserves-way and Switzer-banking hub-land? Once again, I think Dan is confusing correlation and causality.

9. Outside the EU, Britain could be a deregulated, competitive, offshore haven.

  • The idea that we are not an already heavily deregulated economy is a little silly. We are far from the ideal Devils Kitchen or Charlotte Gore might want to see, but compared to the actually existing capitalist world we are not overly burden by regulation (I’m a little lost as to how Dan thinks leaving the EU will make us more offshore than we already are).

10. Oh, and we’d be a democracy again.

  • This seems somewhat at odd with point 9. The great deregulated, competitive offshore havens tend to be fairly undemocratic. Whether it is illiberal but tidy Singapore, wealthy but undemocratic Hong Kong or sponsored by Lord Ashcroft Belize the “deregulated, competitive, offshore haven[s]” Dan describes are rarely democratic. I know I’ve harangued Dan for his confusion of correlation of causality but there are lots of reasons to suggest that liberal economics and democracy are not particular compatible.

Contrary to what you have read Dan Hannan is an intelligent man, and he must surely know that some of his Top Ten reasons to leave the EU are based on distortion and outright speculation. He knows that even those that are based on actual facts are so augmented by guesswork and historic counterfactuals that no one could seriously consider them for inclusion in any sort of Top Ten.

This post was about firing up a base of Euroskeptics who will believe almost any anti-EU propaganda fed to them. Sadly it appears that Dan Hannan is far more interested in being popular than in being accurate.

Brecht on X Factor

Rage Against the Machine have secured the Christmas Number One, narrowly beating X Factor winner Joe McElderry’s The Climb by 50,000 copies.

However, the fact remains that 450,000 copies of McElderry’s dirge were sold. Its things like this that make me despair of the General Public and forces me to read Brecht and think, yeah, dissolve the people!

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had thrown away the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

Top Blogging for the Weekend

No Words

I was going to title this with an expletive but I couldn’t.

This sign, which has become a symbol for the cynical torture of all those murdered at Auschwitz, was stolen between 0330 and 0500 local time on Friday.

There’s not much to do but watch what develops, and hope those involved are caught.

Stream of Consciousness and some Top Blogging

I’ve finally bought Capital! And I got 70% off at Borders. Take that gale of creative destruction and put it in your centralisation of capital pipe!

I also bought 9 other books totalling about £40 so I’m a happy bunny. Got Eric Hobsbawm‘s Age of Capital, Empire and Extremes, Paul Krugman‘s Conscience of a Liberal and The Return of Depression Economics, Keay‘s China: A History, StiglitzMaking Globalisation Work, Dostoevsky‘s The Idiot and the Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

So I’ve a pretty good Christmas ahead of me once I finish Lolita (which is written even better than I expected but which is dragging a little) and  SchwartzStates versus Markets I will be diving in to this lot.

And recommendations on where to start?

Once again I find myself in broad agreement with Dave Semple. I would very much like to see the court ruling which has barred BA staff from striking, but from the outset it looks as though democracy has been damaged by a technicality.

Also of note is that Peter Tachell has stood down as Green Candidate for Oxford East. I was aware that he’d suffered some injuries while on marches and protests but I had no idea that they might stop him campaigning and fighting. I wish him a peaceful christmas and a recooperative 2010.

In Memorandum

It is always difficult to blog about a child dying. Gabrielle Price died last month, I understand there’s a small chance that some of Gabrielle’s friends may find this site and I would like to make clear that I mean no disrespect by discussing her tragic death.

What I would like to take aim at is the disgraceful speculation which has followed her  death. Most notably, scaremongering in the gutter press, such as The Daily Mail and The Sun and cheap moral populism from papers such as The Telegraph.

From the BBC we know that the events of the night of her death included: the arrest of a 17 year old man and 39 year woman on charges of possessing and supplying drugs; drug taking at a party and the death of a 14 year old girl. Further details emerged that the drugs in question were Mephedrone, a legal high, and Ketamine, a horse tranquilliser.

This is all that was known that this point. However, bastion of investigative reporting that they are, it appears that The Sun found “a neighbour” and The Mail found multiple “neighbours” to come forward to claim that:

[T]he student had taken the clubbers’ drug [mephedrone] – which can be bought legally – mixed with illegal ketamine

Of course following Gabrielle’s death The Daily Mail made it quite clear that “a post-mortem examination had failed to pinpoint the cause of death and that toxicology reports had been ordered to establish what the girl had taken.” Sadly this did not stop their cynical attempts to capitalise on her death.

The Daily Mail helpfully put its idle speculation in speech marks and I am sure this was of much consolation to the girl’s family. Likewise The Sun’s “tasteful” headline was also written with the “best” of intentions.

Of course a subsequent article left little doubt about what The Mail had decided had happened to Gabrielle Price. “Mephedrone menace: The deadly drug that’s cheap, as easy to order as pizza… and totally legal.”

Disgracefully, The Telegraph claimed that “Miss Price’s death is not the first harrowing account of the devastating effect the drug can have.” As reported in The Argus Gabrielle Price died of natural causes so it most certainly is “not the first harrowing account” it is not an account of a drug related death at all.

Teenager Gabi Price – whose death triggered fears over the dangers of ‘legal highs’ – died of natural causes, a coroner has revealed.

A pathologist’s report showed the 14-year-old died of broncho-pneumonia following a streptococcal A infection.

Mephedrone is not a controlled substance but has effects similar to ecstasy and cocaine, it was originally manufactured by a “legal high” company called Neorganics in Israel but was discontinued in 2008 when Israel made Mephedrone illegal. Production has since shifted around the world, with much of it now produced in China. It is available over the internet for as little as £7 a gram, and that includes Royal Mail recorded delivery.

Since Gabrielle’s death interest in the drug has surged as has the incidence of dreadful newspaper articles bemoaning those that take, sell or fail to regulate legal highs.

I certainly do not want to engage in the same proselytising here. While I hope my own views on drugs and drug use have been made clear elsewhere this is neither the time nor the place to advocate one drug policy regime over another.

As Professor Nutt discovered it is difficult to discuss drugs in anything other than the most derisory terms. Our press have meekly followed – as well as helping to create and enforce -this rule in the articles discussed above but in doing so they have descended to out right speculation and evidence free moralising.

What this death offered was a chance to be be honest and nothing more; nobody was forced to write an article with any more detail than that which was put up by the BBC, linked to above. As has become clear Gabrielle’s death was linked to drugs only by proximity and hearsay but this did not stop a string of articles in the quality and gutter press taking advantage of the circumstance of ther death.

I can see at least three reasons why this may have happened. First of all, paper’s staffing levels have dropped significantly while they have maintained a similar word count to a few decades ago. On top of the erosion of fact checking and real investigative journalism, this means that personal tragedies which can be given a wider angle have become essential to creating a full newpaper at the expense of journalistic integrity. See Flat Earth News for more on this.

The angle given to this story, that of the menace of drugs, has become something which is guaranteed to increase sales and hence revenues. Provocation has become one of the most important ways to sell papers. For example, every Express front page has this element, but this stands out for me.

Lastly there is of course the moral certitude of those working and running these papers that means they thought they already knew what had happened before the coroner or Sussex Police. It turns out their “spcualtion” was incorrect yet don’t expect to see correspondingly sized retractions, or any retractions.

My heart goes out to her family – I am truly sorry that her death has became a good way to sell papers and a talking point for illiberal reaction.

Quote of the day

Anton Vowl on “The Greatest Newspaper in the World” The Daily Express:

It’s like the Mail, but worse. It’s as if someone had seen the Mail and thought: “That looks quite entertaining, but can we possibly make it less good, more racist and more comically awful to look at? Let’s really go for it!”

His post would normally go in my “Top Blogging” but this post deserves a little accolade all of its own.

Top Blogging for the 16th December

  • Paul Cotterill thinks Moody’s are predicting a riot.
  • Paul Sagar sets up a duel between Simon Cowell and Joseph Schumpeter.
  • Claude has more on the attack of Berlusconi and what it means for freedom of expression in Italy.
  • The NEF have produced a frankly disappointing (actually not disappointing, lamentably predictable) report. Giles Wilkes has more.
  • Unity continues to patiently, and occasionally impatiently, point out why Global Warming is real, and why its man made, and why we might want to do something about it.

A Model For Micro Finance

For the second time in a week, I was late for work following a conversation with a street “chugger.” I’m not really in a financial situation to be committing to all these direct debits (which in the past have caused me to ‘donate’ more to the banks with their extortionate overdraft charges) but I always like to hear their pitch, see what the charities are pushing and get an indication of how they’re doing. Its a bonus too that usually the collectors are genuinely interested in the cause and it always makes for an interesting conversation.

But it came to me, when making my excuses upon arrival at work, that I seem to spend far too much time defending charity. Lately I’ve found myself mounting this defence, particularly to the upper-class, ‘more experienced’ friends of my parents who generally take a sympathetic, but sceptical approach to it. Anything that you’re passionate about you will defend to the death. But if something keeps failing you have to reconsider your stance.

As passionate as a Tranmere Rovers football supporter may be, does he really believe it when he sings that his team is “by far the greatest team, the world has ever seen”? That kind of blind passion, leading the heart to rule the head is something that the developing world does not need. And constant criticism causes you to analyse your stance. If I think about charity honestly, it has a vital part to play in a lot of people’s life, but should not be considered the be all and end all. The major focus should be on development – a concept so broad it is difficult to define and effectively evaluate in a lengthy textbook, let alone a humble blog post. So following these defences my focus today is on one particular developmental concept I have some experience of – micro-financing.

Micro financing as an ideal is a fantastic concept. Small, manageable loans presented to families within a community where their services are paramount to the whole group. Where their financial advancement can encourage and inspire business and investment among the whole community. When the results yielded are positive, as they often are, then it is an undeniably great service. As such, micro-financing has been widely embraced in the developing world, but like many other great ideas in life, has been open to be exposed by the greedy and the selfish. Whilst development initiatives have, by their very nature, their fair share of hurdles to cross, the added bonus of corruption and greed is particularly unwelcome. It can inspire cynicism and retrogression, and become a significant and disheartening stumbling block.

When the weak financial systems in place in developing nations are relied upon so heavily by the vulnerable, uneducated and, to be frank, predominantly desperate population, it’s a recipe for disaster. If we’ve learnt anything about development in the last few decades, it’s that progress must not rely on the goodwill of the more fortunate. Providing a poor population with the means to provide for their own needs is the basis of all development ideals. It’s why, when successful, this concept is so great.

Unfortunately a number of micro-finance institutions (MFIs) have found that there are weaknesses to be exploited. Generally speaking, much of the developing world has been without both education and experience of money. Both of which are clearly useful when considering how to handle a loan. At the start of the micro-finance process, literacy levels are generally low (the majority of MFIs I came across used a fingerprint instead of a signature due to widespread illiteracy), moreover a prior knowledge of the notions of interest, structured repayments and banking are often lacking too.

All of this means this means that the naivety of the loan applicant is so often easily manipulated. In placing down collateral, the only option is often land and what little property they might have, which subsequently may, and often will be repossessed. Even those micro-finance organisations with a moral conscience will not be too eager to take on such high risk applicants in this ‘current economic climate.’ Especially considering that even if the applicant happens to own land, the legal system in their respective country may not have afforded them effective title to it.

A major problem is reliance on good will and a charitable nature. No-one needs to explain to people living in the third world the notion that the wealthy majority are not only willing to benefit off the poor majority, but often actively seek to do so. This international relationship can map onto power relations at a national level. Rather than inspire some sort of revolution, this injustice can encourage local entrepreneurs to follow their lead, and exploit any marginal position of power they may gain. Small, local NGOs providing micro-financing facilities often have bad reputations for corruption in poverty stricken areas due to this very process. It alienates the community and restricts the grassroots organisations by limiting funding opportunities. The powers-that-be all to often prefer larger, more trusted organisations to handle the financial resources. If one of the primary goals of micro-financing – that it should be able to fund itself and provide economic growth to an area is to be achieved, then this cannot continue to be the case.

Regretfully there are no simple solutions to this problem. We also have to navigate problems concerning the traditions and customs of poverty stricken areas. Having experienced cultures around sub-saharan Africa and southern Asia, it immediately became apparent that males are held with much higher regard than females. In Uganda for example, the stereotype of a male, head of the house, was of little assistance to the family – floundering the family’s money on alcohol and ladies of the night. The usual reaction appeared to be to accept it as being “part of the culture” reminiscent of a disability that society has managed to adapt to. It’s unfortunate, but not always a million miles from the truth, which makes a MFI’s scepticism more understandable.

It’s not in my nature, however to take such a gloomy, pessimistic view on great ideas like this and it doesn’t take much searching to find great results.

I came across a hugely inspired example of this in northern Uganda, an area still very unstable despite the near expulsion of Joseph Kony’s child-fuelled LRA. A noticeable side effect in post-conflict areas is on the male to female ratio. A side-effect, that in areas often dependent on a male breadwinner often proves very serious. In northern Uganda, traditionally women are far more poorly educated, have far fewer rights, and are considered as being of far lower standing than males. For a woman to elevate herself to the status of breadwinner requires a significant level of achievement. This societal oppression has forced adaption to long hours, tough work, and set-backs – the flipside of which is that it makes an ideal candidate to benefit from a properly executed education and opportunity for a life-changing loan. In taking this focus it can also strengthens bonds among the community. Walking though rural villages it was alarming how few adult males were amongst the hordes of children and mothers, popping in and out of random huts and sharing responsibilities amongst themselves.

The grassroots, non-profit MFI I encountered took this community element as a core focus of its work. In doing so it showed great ambition to attempt to empower women within the community. Rather than depriving resources due to cynicism of the males’ supposed spending, it encouraged groups of women to come forward and apply for community based loans. Completely blurring the lines between an advice and education centre and an MFI it followed aims that were simple enough, but each idea was thought out to benefit the community at large:

  • Acquisition of the loan requires a community based group of at least 5 people, but is open to anyone, regardless of tribe, wealth, age, social status or level of literacy.
  • All prospective applicants must be willing to complete a course of education prior to collecting the loan. It is strongly impressed on all new applicants that it is not ‘free money’ but an aid for investment, and an opportunity to build a business.
  • Only once every member of the group has been assigned a role (eg treasurer, president) and demonstrated enough of an understanding of interest, business and how the loan works, will they be eligible for the loan.
  • The whole point of a community-based loan is that there is no need for collateral. Trust is an incredibly important part of the process and works two ways. If one party cannot make a repayment then it is the other parties’ responsibility to help with repayments.
  • If a group feel that they will be unable to make a repayment then as long as they come to the office and honestly explain the situation they will be able to arrange extensions and seek assistance.
  • Once a loan has been fully repaid, the group are encouraged to keep in contact and to share their experience and the things they have learned with prospective applicants.

The organisation didn’t take long to be able to support itself through the low level of interest accumulated, and has subsequently branched off to support and rehabilitate former child soldiers, provide community based education regarding HIV/AIDS and support groups for sexual and gender based violence. It has incorporated the culture of the area and furthered the empowerment of women by arranging tribal dance and drama performances with an educational focus to school groups, whilst providing further opportunities to strengthen businesses and investment opportunities amongst the poor communities who have suffered so much in the past few decades. If this blueprint were more universally applied at a grassroots level, the development possibilities could be endless.

Calling all bloggers – Help beat the gag on the BBC

I can’t embed videos, but I do hate Trafigura. Apparently I can embed videos, and its very easy…

Regardless, that means:

John 8:32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

John 8:33 Unless you’re Trafigura, then you can pay people to hide the truth, and no one shall be set free.

Say hello to a new Left Outsider

I have been blogging since April and I have always tried to get my friends involved too. I have convinced one of them to join as a part time contributor to this blog.

As far as pseudonyms go he could have done a lot worse than “Otimtom”; Left Outside is one particularly dreadful possibility that springs to mind (yes; its the queer voice of Madison Student Radio, no; I didn’t know that in April, but I knew it in May. When I think about it, Unity isn’t such a great name either). Anyway, in his own words:

I am a graduate victim of the “current economic climate” having skipped between tedious labouring, waiting jobs and spells of unemployment.

I channel my disillusion, and sometimes disgust with the structure and state of the world in a positive way. Consider me a hopeful optimist with the genuine belief that there lies an – often all to deeply rooted – inherent good in the human race. I like to reflect on progression, development and hope where others may have lost faith in the things that matter: creativity and the dynamic human spirit that refuses to submit.

I find huge levels of inspiration in seeing people triumph over adversity and from seeing a smile on a face where others could only fashion tears. I have a different background but retain the same ideals and goals you would associate with Left Outside.

We will soon be running a post on micro-finance and hopefully many more after. So say hello, he’s sure to become a regular fixture.

Friendly Vegetarians

In response to my last post, I was sent a fairly appreciative e-mail by The PB&J Campaign:

The PB&J Campaign is working to combat environmental destruction by reducing the amount of animal products people eat. The PB&J Campaign approaches positive change one meal at a time by illuminating the differences one single dining decision can make.

I’m not sure they noticed my last post on food declared the opposite of this , but it can’t hurt to give them a plug.