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16 February 2018

Thoughts on the Oxfam scandal

Years ago at a wedding, I found myself making small talk with a friend's boyfriend who worked in famine relief in Africa. I'd recently been involved in a campaign to relieve unfair third world debt, so in an attempt to keep our rather stilted conversation going, I asked him what he thought of that campaign. His answer shocked me:

"You'd lose control over them." he said shaking his head.

"Them" It was like he was talking about infants, not one of the most vibrant continents on earth. And the whiff of colonialism was unmistakeable.

If we look at all the big sexual abuse scandals: Weinstein, sports coaches, paedophile priests, it has always been a case of the powerful exploiting the powerless and the Oxfam scandal fits right into this mould. Those Oxfam officials in Haiti clearly saw themselves as colonial overlords with droit de seigneur over 'the natives'.

As Lord Acton famously put it "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

But, how do so many get away with so much for so long? Why does nobody say anything?

One of my great frustrations in life is the way gang mentality rules in large organisations. If you ever try to make a complaint about an injustice you will find your point slowly sandpapered down to something which can be 'resolved' by 'lessons have been learnt' or some such rot. I once received a rather convoluted argument explaining how someone libelling me (which wasn't disputed) didn't breach the organisation's code of conduct re 'respecting other people'. Because nothing says 'respect' quite like defamation.

At present, whistleblowing is rarely a good career move: you'll be made to feel uncomfortable in the post and, if you look for a new job,  others may worry they're taking on a liability.

So what can we do?

I take some comfort in the new breed of whistleblowing policies which make it a duty to report wrongdoing. Perhaps if enough people get disciplined alongside perpetrators for not reporting corrupt practice, it could start to shift the paradigm. I live in hope!


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5 December 2016

WaterAid makes me think twice!


A couple of years ago, the kids asked could we "send some money to poor people in Africa" and it has now become a regular thing to do a bit of fundraising on the run in to Christmas. The two years we gave to SolarAid, this year the kids wanted something related to water so WaterAid was the obvious recipient. As with last year, we ran a yard sale, and although we didn't shift that much stuff, we raised over £100.00 and caught up with the neighbours over a glass or three of mulled wine. It's a nice antidote to the traditional consumerism and gluttony, of which we partake liberally.

When I was clearing the garden to put up the stalls, I realised I needed to clean the decking as it gets very slippery during the winter. So I filled a bucket with hot soapy water and gave it a scrub. I went back to the kitchen to get some cold water to sluice it down. Just as I was about to fill the bucket, it dawned on me. "We're raising money for WaterAid and you're about to throw buckets of drinking water quality water at your decking, you idiot." I went back out into the garden and filled it from the water butt.

Goes to show how behavioural change requires interruptions, even for someone who eats, lives and sleeps sustainability every day!


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19 February 2016

Book Review: Doing Good Better

41pTZkw0-4L._SL160_When I was an undergraduate, I unexpectedly came into a small amount of cash as I'd been underpaid for a summer job. Rather than fritter (all) the money on beer, I thought I'd do some good and sponsor a child in a third world country. £144.00 a year seemed a small price to pay to salve my shame at being born relatively rich.

My naiveté was shattered when I realised that the whole child sponsorship thing was just bait to get well-meaning people like me onto a mailing list so I could receive a begging letter from the charity every month - a typical opening sentence was "Imagine waking every morning to hunger gnawing at your stomach..." I also discovered the money was not going directly to the child concerned, but unspecified "projects in the area". My dream of dragging one child out of the mire of poverty had absolutely no basis in reality. I'd been had.

When I later found out how much the CEO of that particular charity earned, I got very angry indeed – no hunger gnawing at his fat cat stomach I can tell you. I concluded the charity industry was just another way of keeping the rich rich and the poor poor – and one which was much less honest than the others.

Reading William MacAskill's Doing Good Better has blown that cynicism out of the water - not a bad effort for such a short, punchy book. MacAskill points out that if the only good thing that all international development aid in history has ever done is eradicate smallpox, then it is still money well spent, given what we spend on combating diseases in the developed world. He notes that many charitable ideas are worse than useless, and that even worthwhile projects have an difference in impact from the worst to the best of up to a factor of 500.

So, MacAskill argues, we should give to charity and make other acts of altruism, but instead of following our emotions, we should apply some highly rational analysis to our options to make sure our money is delivering. That analysis includes use of metrics such as quality-adjusted life year (QALY) and robust randomised controlled testing of different options. Doing this type of rigorous assessment, for example, revealed that deworming children has a much, much bigger positive effect on their education (and thus their life prospects) than an 'obvious' and sexier solution such as donating school books.

Likewise, MacAskill shows, many people would be advised not to work in an altruistic job unless they have particularly in-demand skills (such jobs are usually over-subscribed so it makes little difference whether you do them or someone else does), but would make a bigger impact by earning a higher salary in a conventional job instead and donating a chunk instead.

When he moves into issues, such as climate change, MacAskill takes a similarly hyper-rational approach as Mark Lynas, blowing myths about carbon offsetting out of the water. He points out that, if you want to save a tonne of carbon a year, you can either go veggie (which MacAskill already is), or buy the equivalent offset from, say, Cool Earth for just $5. You can easily save more carbon than you emit by donating a modest amount to an effective scheme. Fairtrade, on the other hand, is exposed as structurally unsound.

The one point where I felt MacAskill was getting a bit too carried away with his contrarian thesis  was sweatshops where he made the 'better than hard scrabble farming' argument. That's true if those are the only two options, but there is a third – manufacturing jobs with decent working conditions.

If you give money to charity on a purely emotional basis, then you should read this book – it will make your money go further and keep charities on their toes. If, like me, your donations have dried up due to scepticism about whether I'm doing good or paying someone to make me feel good, you should read this book. It may be a rather cold, hard look at altruism, but in my opinion that's exactly what's needed.


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7 December 2015

Raising Cash for Solar Aid

Yard sale

I'm exhausted this morning after doing the grunt work for my sons' yard sale yesterday. Every year the boys raise cash for Solar Aid, but this summer they saw the multifarious yard sales in Portland and decided to import a little of that to Newcastle. It was a lovely event with friends, neighbours and the occasional passerby having a good rummage through our old stuff.

solar lampThey raised £168 – enough for 54 of Solar Aid's signature solar lamps/phone chargers (right). These bring clean electricity into remote villages allowing kids to study at night without choking on kerosene fumes and people to charge portable electronics. The lamps aren't given away, instead Solar Aid creates social enterprises, creating employment and ensuring the recipient values them. That hits all kinds of buttons for me (I believe hand outs can often do more harm than good).


It was a good introduction to the world of commerce for the boys – these guys would skin The Apprentice candidates with nary a shiny suit in sight!

You can see more about Solar Aid & donate here.



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