Friday, 29 April 2005

Making Poverty History

The beginning of 2005 has seen a lot of publicity about a campaign to 'Make Poverty History'. In the UK leading politicians have committed to using both the G8 and EU presidencies to make a significant difference on the policies affecting the world's poorest nations. Charities are also being urged to play a major role. However, I would like to question that this is a priority for charities involved with international work. For several years the relief of poverty has been among the criteria at the forefront of decision making when giving grants by the national lottery or DFID.

But is this really the responsibility of charities based in the UK? First one should closely examine the cause of poverty, and then see if the use of charitable funding is going to solving that problem. And the answer is usually that not only is the use of charitable donations not solving the problem, in many cases it is actually exacerbating it. Most of the poorest nations in the world are not poor because of a lack of money, they are poor because of an unequal distribution of resources and wealth. Charitable donations take away from the governments the responsibility of looking after their own people. And end up creating refugees who become aid dependent. Most of the African countries that UK charities support at present, spend more on buying arms, than the charities donate in relief. There is plenty of highly visible, ostentatious wealth in India.

I have just returned from India, working on new projects with our partners. While there, I passed through some of the areas affected by the tsunami, and it is quite apparent from even a superficial overview, that some (possibly most) of the foreign aid has caused considerable social disruption. It will be sometime yet before it is known how much of the millions poured into the public appeals actually got to those affected -- to the families who lost children, parents and breadwinners. But I will bet that it is a pretty small percentage. And I am pretty certain that most of the decision making will be by outsiders, and that the villagers affected will have very little say how the money is spent. Evidence of this was already visible in the rows of (largely unused) brand new fibre-glass boats on the beaches, replacing the traditional boats built from sustainable local resources. Almost everything I saw suggested that almost no thought had been goven to sustainability, and that no thought had been given to the impact on traditional ways of living. On the bright side, there was an incredible awareness of the linkages between the loss of mangroves and the increased risk of damage from tsunamis and other natural phenomena.

I would be very interested to hear of any one else who has observed negative effects of aid -- we generally only get the up-beat news from the agencies delivering aid.

Friday, 15 April 2005

Charity being stung by railway company

Readers may be interested to know the sort of day to day trials and tribulations that a small charity such as the World Land Trust has to contend with. The following is a letter I sent today and is largely self explanatory. After it I have appended some other notes, which may be interesting to anyone living in East Anglia, or perhaps other parts of Britain.

Commercial Manager
ONE Railways
Burrell Rd
Ipswich IP2 8AL 14 April, 2005

Dear Sirs,

I wish to make a serious complaint about the 'One' ticketing Wednesday 13 April I travelled to London accompanied by two members of staff. We travelled on the 09.30 from Halesworth to London, purchasing saver returns (enclosed). We returned, on the 16.30 from London as is often the case, changing at Ipswich. We were aware that if we had travelled on the 17.00, which is the connection to Halesworth, this would have been subject to a surcharge, which is why we travelled on the 16.30. The ticket inspector checked tickets just before 17.00 hours and informed me that we were subject to a surcharge as we were travelling on saver tickets. I argued that this had never previously been the case, and the conductor seemed very confused, spent many minutes consulting his handbook before finally contacting a colleague by phone. He was then insistent that a surcharge was payable. So I paid. I asked for a leaflet showing the charges and availability of tickets, but was told he did not carry any. On alighting at Ipswich I went to the ticket counter and showed the salesman my tickets and the surcharge vouchers, and was informed quite simply 'You've been diddled'. I asked for a leaflet outlining the ticketing, but was informed none existed. I have several serious concerns which I would like addressed:

1. The lack of printed information concerning the availability of tickets.

2. The conductor identified the Train as the 17.06. There is no such train, this was the time he took payment from me.

3. I have wasted a considerable amount of time dealing with this matter, which were it not for the fact that I am a regular traveller, and well informed, would have gone unquestioned.

4. I, and my colleagues travelling that day, work for a small charity, which can ill afford to pay charges which are not appropriate.

5. As I am about to travel abroad you may wish to phone and speak to me today about this matter.

Yours sincerely,

John A Burton
Chief Executive, WLT

In fact the little information available (on the 'One' website) is quite confusing. It states that the return portions of saver tickets are not valid on trains departing between 17.00 and 19.00 hours, and after talking with colleagues it appears that different conductors have different interpretations of this. It is not clear if travel is permitted on either the 17.00 or the 19.00 hour departures, or both (think about it, it has to be at least one of them). And despite a clear statement on the 'One' website that the close-out period does not start until 17.00 it is frequently broadcast on the train that travelling on a saver is not permitted on the 16.30.

How many people have been ripped off by 'One'? How many people have got off the train and wasted time waiting at Liverpool St station until 19.00 pm?

Friday, 8 April 2005

More thoughts on the population bomb

In all the current talk about sustainability, sustainable development, biodiversity, conservation of natural resources, one factor is prominently missing. Human Populations.

In the solutions offered, re-use, recycling, sustainable harvesting and all the other clich├ęs are trotted out, but how often does anyone suggest curtailing the urge to reproduce? Around 30 years ago, the subject was much higher on the agenda, and I made the decision not to reproduce, a decision I have never regretted, and as I travel around the world and see the impacts of more and more people aspiring to more and more material wealth, I realise limiting reproduction to one or none, is the greatest single contribution any of us can make to the future of the planet. Particularly those who live in the developed, all-consuming world. Britain is now in a panic over its aging population, requiring medical care and pensions. However, the reality is that young populations are much more dangerous in terms of the need for resources. The elderly often have savings and property -- the problem is they want to hang on to them and not use them for paying for their medical care and retirement. They want to be able to pass them on to their family -- and the greater the number of decendents the more they want to hold on to.

The argument goes that if the birth rate falls there will be fewer young people to support the ageing population. But this is a myth. If the birth rate were to fall dramatically, many older people would work longer -- many don't actually want to retire -- and wealth tied up in an aging population is significantly greater than in a young population. It's simply a matter of ensuring that capital is released in their lifetime, and not just passed on to the next generation, thereby making the gap between rich and poor wider and wider.