I Don’t Know What You Can Do About the Refugee Crisis

A couple of people have asked me if there is anything they can do about the refugee crisis.

The short answer is ‘I have no idea’, but here are some things to bear in mind…

It’s virtually always better to donate money rather than clothes. It’s often an illusion to think ‘I have no money but I can help in a way that doesn’t cost money’ – transporting clothes costs money. It may not cost you money, but it’s going to cost someone. Transferring money costs nothing. One of the toughest issues about crises is logistics – clothes don’t help with this. People that think I’m being annoying should read this from the government, or even better this from a group in Calais (the group are sited on a Guardian piece saying they urgently need clothing donations, whereas the line ‘The storage is overflowing and they can’t take anymore’ suggests it’s not so simple). It’s also worth bearing in mind that often just selling the thing yourself and donating will do more for the cause; outside somewhere as close as Calais, UNHCR can provide clothes in a way that is much more effective, and generally they can use your money to provide things these people need much more than clothes.

Friends who have donated clothes please don’t take this personally, I genuinely think you are better people than me.

The three places I would consider giving to are:

UNHCR

  • The burden is heavily falling on UNHCR, and they have a lot of reasons to move their total intake of money in the best way possible (someone pointed out to me this was a golden opportunity to make the UN look good).
  • A huge amount of problems come when charities have no idea what’s going on the ground level, in this case the UN are the ground level.
  • My only concern about giving to UNHCR is that given that the problem they face is predominantly a logistical one, and that the vast majority of money they receive will not be from private donors, they are unlikely to rely on, or change their actions much with, the money you send them. On the site they say things like your money  ‘Could provide two families with synthetic mats’. but they would be crazy if they were making decisions on how many bed mats they were going to provide based on private donor money. Appeals generally do this because there is an overwhelming amount of studies that show people are more likely to give if they can visualise their impact. Saying that, the UNHCR currently have only 37% of what they think they need, so they seem fairly confident that they can move more money in effective ways, and whatever happens your money will be useful as part of the overall pool.

Doctors Without Borders

  • Doctors without borders have been highly praised for their transparency by Givewell who are usually quite critical of disaster charities, they have been giving them growing support since their work on the Haiti appeal.
  • Doctors without borders do allow you to earmark donations (see FAQ 5) but they don’t recommend it. This is fair on their part: you can’t expect them to just suddenly up and leave all their other programs; fire doctors that have relevant skills and needs; hire new ones; leaving their logistical infrastructure badly damaged.
  • They give thorough information on what they are doing in the refugee crisis.

Oxfam

  • I trust them basically. It’s hard to be transparent about a lot of what they do, but they are making increasing efforts to do so. I have watched a few interviews with Ray Oppenheimer – the head of the USA branch – and he makes good arguments for the motives of the organisation. Singer supports them also, which whatever you think of Singer, if they did anything fishy he’d be the first to not take any bullshit.
  • They actively encourage directing funds into emergency appeals, and it’s something they’ve become more experienced in recently. They are basically somewhere in between the other two organisations in this respect, although I can’t work out if this is hedging bets, or getting the best of both worlds.
  • Any money they don’t use on this crisis they will use in another one.

Giving to Emergencies

To be honest it’s only through writing this that I’ve decided I will donate. I have read a lot in the past about how disaster appeals are just not effective ways of giving. And was appalled to find out how badly a charity I previously gave to responded to Haiti. Particularly the thing that made me think twice before giving to emergency appeals was this report on giving opportunities in the Ebola outbreak: although NGO’s had acted significantly better than they had done in previous disasters; and they had found some good giving opportunities; Givewell were still confident this wasn’t as an effective use of money as giving to the Against Malaria Foundation. For those of you who don’t know Givewell and are sceptical that any organisation could be unbiased, it’s worth taking a look at the report, and also having a look at the way they measure the impact of the charities they recommend giving to.

On reflection though, I’ve realised that some of the main criticisms of disaster relief – not using all the funds, applying the funds so slowly that the intervention is irrelevant, not having the necessary communication networks on the ground – were not relevant here.

BUT, I still think it’s worth bearing in mind that against the approximately 60 million refugees in the world there are roughly  200 million people with Malaria.

Malaria does cause horrendous suffering, also 4% (2.2 million each year) of deaths in the world are caused by bad water sanitation. Both of which you can definitely have a very positive impact on here and here.

But because of some thoughts about the nature of suffering relating to: duration; acclimatisation; future and past projection; torture; expected quality of life; political and social impacts; I have decided there is enough doubt for me to give a bit extra for this. If you simply want to give to the worst off then you should still give to Malaria victims or people with poor water sanitisation.

Whether there is something more qualitative you can do I’m not sure. The group in Calais mentioned earlier are requesting help from people, particularly with practical skills. But you may also be able to help with distribution in the camp.

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The Supposed Importance of the Deficit

This post is not about whether austerity works as an economic policy, nor is it about the governments’ commitments to the disadvantaged (this isn’t the apocryphal austerity blog I was writing that I may have told some of you about – that got really long). This is primarily a response to many friends that, although they think austerity doesn’t work, and that our commitments to the disadvantaged are more important, still are very worried about deficit. I’m not saying here that we should just ignore deficit, more just that there is a lot of theory and evidence out there to suggest that deficit is not nearly as bad as politicians would have us believe.

Basically when we all worry about deficit, we worry that we are spending more money than we are earning, like in the same way we would worry if it was our bank account. But it’s not quite like that.

Firstly – as some of you may know from Cameron’s blunder back in 2013 – there’s a difference between deficit and debt. The deficit is how much more the government is spending than it’s taking in revenue (that revenue being mostly taxes), whereas the debt is how much overall debt we’ve accumulated. Deficit fear mongers tend to stress the former whilst Krugman and his Keyensians emphasise the difference between our debt and our GDP (how much stuff we have and how well our economy is producing). The reason for this is that the deficit has been slowly zig-zagging upwards since the 50’s (please note the last few years on the graph are projections),

net-borrowing-55-14-600x446 (1)

whilst the debt to GDP ratio is historically speaking not too bad (you can’t see it that clearly on this graph but we are currently loitering around the 100% mark).

UK_GDP (2)

Admittedly that post-war debt wasn’t paid off until 2006, which is not ideal but interest payments were always manageable.

UK_National_Debt_interest

Internationally there is also other countries with higher debt to GDP ratios: Japan is currently at 255%; and a handful of other European countries are also slightly above us (Follow the link for a great interactive map put together by the economist 3). Perhaps something that speaks louder is the fact that Germany – that economic powerhouse, eurobully – is at 80% to our 100%.  So to stretch the personal bank account analogy, it’s like we are spending more than we’re earning, but we’ve been having a bad time recently and we’ve got some breathing space in our overdraft.

But which makes more sense to look at: spending to revenue (deficit); or debt to GDP? I will come back to spending and debt later, but first I want to pick up on the point made by Jeffrey Dorfmann that although high GDP increases potential for tax revenue, it doesn’t necessarily generate high revenue, and given it’s your revenue (how much you’re taking in) and not your GDP (how much your stuff and activity is worth) that’s going to pay that debt, this is an important difference to consider (4). I won’t bore you by pointing out how many of Dorfmann’s arguments are awful – and please don’t take the rest of his article seriously – but I will say I think he’s right – it does make more sense to look at revenue than GDP (although GDP may be a better when thinking about employment). If we take a look at the actual way that the countries get reshuffled on the screwed-to-okay list detailed in the Dorfmann article – the salient points are still pretty similar: no one is denying that the US and UK have pretty large debts internationally speaking, but Dorfmann’s picture of crippling debt payments ignores the ultimate truth that we’re really not paying too much interest on that debt.

interest-payments-percent-uk-debt-500x355 (5)

This graph only goes up to 2010, but you can see from the pie chart below that Interest payments are currently about 4% of the national budget,

UKExpenditure (2)

which if it was my bank account I’d probably want to reign it in a bit if I’m honest, but half of my income goes on my rent, and I am generally financially risk averse in a way that would never be advisable for national economy (or a person for that matter), all of which illustrates how the household analogy doesn’t really work.

Further Disanalogies Between National and Personal Debt

The other important thing to understand is that unlike me and my back account, the government don’t have to wait until payday before they start spending money. When the government spend money they create it, the money essentially appears in the accounts of wherever they’re spending it; conversely when people pay taxes it doesn’t go anywhere, it just disappears from their accounts. If the UK really wanted to get rid of its debts they could just create more money, as is attested by many economists (6) going back to Paul Samuelson and including Paul Krugman (7), and even Alan Greenspan (8). So when people say, ‘the money’s got to come from somewhere’ the truth is it doesn’t really (this is, I believe, what the band Queen really meant when they wrote ‘It’s a kind of magic’…ignoring all the other lyrics). But what about Greece? What happened there? This is just the point – Greece can’t print their own money and the European banks were either too slow, or unwilling to bail them out in time.

The difference (the debt) is funded mainly by bonds, that is, the government gives people little golden IOU’s with promises to pay them back with interest – which they have never failed to do. And nor could they as discussed.

It gave me brain-ache thinking ‘surely they can’t just make the numbers up as and when they please?’ Well in a sense the government can, but once that money is out in the world it is real: money is a means of equating and mobilising value – values of things, people’s time and services – if you put too much out there, then you just raise the number that things are held to be equivalent at – that is, it causes inflation.

This is where another very salient contingent fact comes in: inflation rates are so low that earlier this year they even actually fell below zero (9). This is not great for the economy, which is why Japan have desperately been trying to create inflation (10), but the point here is that worries about creating inflation by generating money are just not relevant.

So why would governments want us to believe there is such a problem? There are many answers to that and I’ll let you make up your own, but my feeling is it’s a mixture of ignorance and scare mongering. This video – although a bit cringey – gives a really good impression of that, and surmises quite a lot of what I’m saying in the latter half of this post (11). For the more economically educated of you there are a bunch more confusing arguments on how we are not crippling our kids in this article (12).

Some Thoughts on Violent Demonstration

In this post I question the effectiveness of violent demonstration. By this I don’t mean ‘violent’ in the broad sense used by some theorists to include verbal attacks and even systemic control, but at the same time I also don’t want to include full-scale militant revolution. This post has come mainly from talking to friends that think that damaging property or attacking authorities may be the only – or at least the most – effective or appropriate way of redressing a serious issue. This also does not include acts of civil disobedience such as the Rosa Parks Montgomery Bus Boycott which although unlawful I do not deem to be violent.

The first thing to notice is that violent protest doesn’t typically redress a problem by force. Short of full scale revolution, violent protest can only really hope to change things by raising awareness of an issue. The pro’s of violent protest are that it will usually lead to increased coverage of an issue, and can demonstrate a level of emotional investment as well as conviction.

The former argument is probably less controversial than the latter, but I have never been as convinced that expression was an important element in violent protest than when I watched a documentary on the Chilean school occupy movement: watching some very well educated, startlingly intelligent teenagers who had occupied a school, say they had come to the conclusion that they shouldn’t condemn the expression of violent protesters meant a lot, because they were aware that their privilege and intelligence gave them no more right to express themselves in their own way than anyone else.

But the question I am interested in here is not whether we should demonise people that engage in violent protest, but whether it can really ever change anything for the better?

For one thing the recent anti-tory demonstrations show, that as much as change through peaceful protest is not assured, significant boost in media coverage through violent demonstration is not necessarily assured either.

Conversely to emotional expression being a positive, violent protest is a relatively inarticulate method of getting a message across: although it may raise awareness that some people are dissatisfied it rarely manages to get across in any detail what they are dissatisfied about. It is usually only if people decide to find out why people are so emotionally invested (which most people won’t) that any meaningful awareness will be raised. As a violent protestor the chances that it will be your message that people will come across if they do any research are very slim, so it’s a good idea to think about what values you are going to be seen to be allying yourself to when you protest. By the same token, typically the majority of protesters would rather protest peacefully; when violent protesters receive most of the coverage on an issue, it obscures the expression of the majority of the protesters.

Aside from not getting a message across, many reasonable people may lose sympathy with a viewpoint if they associate it with violence. People that dismiss all violent protestors as either opportunists, or people un-politically venting aggression are clearly wrong to, but their dismissal does have some base in evidence, and more importantly, regardless of how right they are, if you are trying to reach a broad group of people your actions will still have an unwanted affect.

Living in a world in which those that inherit the most wealth have the most control is not ideal, but if violent protest did work and became the norm, we would essentially live in a community where might makes right – those minorities that are willing to shout the loudest would get their way. It’s quite clear that the Baltimore riots have bought a great deal of attention to an important problem that it may not have received peaceably, but what triggered those riots was not only not democratically voted in, it was in fact unlawful. It’s interesting the amount of people I have talked to about this, that were aware of the riots but didn’t know what they were about.

Unless many people are better informed or change their views in this country, then austerity, privatisation, tax loop-holes and ill-considered anti-European sentiment are only going to continue to resurface. In terms of demonstrating a level of conviction, risking imprisonment through civil disobedience, and tirelessly engaging in peaceful political activism surely show a great deal more effort than violent demonstration because they take a great deal more effort.

In conclusion, I think that although it is often not good to judge people that demonstrate violently negatively, it is very rare that it is an effective way of raising awareness and expressing dissatisfaction of something with any kind of significantly clear message – to either authorities or onlookers – usually it should be avoided if more peaceful or at least civil means are available.

Why I Think You Should Vote

This was originally written in three separate messages for social media shortly before the last election. In it I address three basic arguments against voting that I think are wrong footed.

1. Voting makes you complicit in a corrupt, undemocratic or failing system

How many people would it take not voting before that system collapsed? How much will you influence other people by not voting?

People that vote Tory or UKIP are unlikely to stop voting because they think the system is failing – do you want to give them more representation in a corrupt system? Do you think they are going to create a less corrupt or failing democratic system with their increased power?

Not voting is not going to help, more importantly it will make things worse.

2. Our democracy doesn’t work

Not everyone votes, first past the post drowns out many votes, the electorate are not always well informed, sometimes they vote in biased ways, minorities are not as well represented, corporations have powerful lobbies, political parties don’t stick to their policies – all these things could be improved to make the state something that is truly controlled by the people. But look at countries that don’t have a vote, look at the welfare of those people and how well their views are represented. This isn’t a coincidence.

Choosing between two parties that don’t represent your views can be frustrating, but those parties do at least, to some incremental degree, have to appeal to you – the electorate – in order to get that vote, even if it’s only when it interests them.
Voting if nothing else can act as a safety net that will stop standards falling below what the majority deem acceptable.

Yes there are countries that have democracy and the people’s welfare is still in a very bad way. Those countries are corrupt. Democracy doesn’t cause corruption; corruption is undemocratic and often damages democracy further.

3. Voting in a constituency with a strong majority is a waste of time

First of all – you better be sure about that.

Secondly, if you are, then great! Vote for the parties who most closely represent your views.
Political parties don’t gain public approval overnight, the minority party that represent your views will never be anything but a minority if you don’t vote for them. The dominant party in your constituency still want your vote as well, they will look at how you voted, and if they think they can realistically make a policy change to get your vote as well then they will.

The whole system of voting is based on the principle of collective agency, you are only one of thousands in your constituency, but what an important thing to be one of.