NHS reform: we’ve started so we’ll finish

The NHS, probably rightly, is one of the main controversies in current British, or rather English, politics.  The Coalition government has put it there after Labour, by dint of a massive increase in spending, had managed to take most of the heat out of the debate, bar a few controversial hospital closures.  Personally I am a bit perplexed.  From one side I am being constantly lobbied by the Social Liberal Forum, a Lib Dem pressure group, to express disapproval of what looks like almost the entire reform process.  On the other side is 18 years experience as a business services manager, reinforced by my regular reading of the Health Service Journal (HSJ), the weekly magazine aimed at NHS managers.  This takes the need for reform pretty much as read, almost on a continuous basis – and gives me an inbuilt suspicion of people who resist change.  Partly because I have been trying to get a management job there, I am better informed than most on the NHS; but I have found it very difficult to make up my mind.  Will writing a blog post help me?

First, let’s understand that there is something of a crisis in the NHS.  The figure of £20 billion of savings required by 2015 is widely accepted as a fact.  This is quite interesting.  The figure first emerged a couple of years ago from a leaked McKinsey report, which the government tried to deny.  But it is a now central theme of NHS Chief Executive Sir David Nicholson’s management.  But the NHS’s budget isn’t being cut: the Coalition is protecting it in real terms.  In response we get some rather airy stuff about the increased demands on the NHS from an ageing population, medical inflation and suchlike.  But if we are cutting £20bn, we must be adding the same sum back somewhere – but we aren’t being told where.  I have a dark suspicion that a lot of it is about large PFI rents coming back to haunt us from all the capital investment of the last decade, though I’m not sure if that quite adds up either.  I find it strange that so little is being said about this.  It has the signs of a manufactured crisis to inject a sense of urgency across the organisation.

If so, then I don’t particularly disapprove.  There is a massive inertia about the organisation, with almost any change proposal meeting outraged resistance.  When I reflect on my career as a manager in the private sector, we were in an almost continuous state of crisis.  As a result we pushed through change after change, so that after 18 years the business had been transformed out of recognition both in efficiency and business model.  This was the result of simple competitive pressure.  Such competitive pressure is largely absent from the NHS, so Sir David’s success in stoking up a comparable level of crisis is to be commended.  It is clearly helping him deal with the resisters and rally supporters of change.

There seem to be two main challenges to the government’s reform strategy.  First is along the lines of “we don’t need this” – it will disrupt the process of making the £20bn worth of savings.  The second is that the reforms themselves are wrong, because they will “privatise” the NHS.  The answer to the first depends to a great extent on how convinced you are that the previous government’s infrastructure was up to the job.  This rested on three levels of organisation to commission services from a series of notionally independent providers, in turn answerable to various parts of the bureaucracy.  It is easy to think that this was over-complicated, but the three levels (national, regional and district) have a resilience about them; the NHS seems to revert back to such a structure every time people try to cut a layer out.  A more valid criticism is that the system is accountable only upwards, to the Secretary of State, meaning that managers spend too much time managing their chain of command, and not enough on the patients.  Another criticism, which may follow from this, is the sheer volume of management blather that the system generated.  Heaps of guidance, toolkits, methodologies, procedures, silly names, acronyms, and such.  The commissioning framework was called “World Class Commissioning” and involved developing eleven competences, progress on which had to be reported up the system.  This sort of thing is a charter for mediocre management.  People who manufacture millions of words that somehow don’t get to the point.  A particular worry is the lack of management with any clinical experience, and a failure to integrate clinicians into management generally.

To many this management structure was incapable of driving through the change needed, except in a few lucky pockets.  The blather merchants would succeed in populating scorecards with green spots and burying their peers and seniors in verbiage, but be unable to deal effectively with entrenched resistance from clinicians, and politicians nervous about reactions to reconfigurations.  To these critics it was essential to tear this structure up, while trying to salvage some of the best bits.  I wasn’t so sure.  I would have opted for keeping most of the infrastructure intact but bringing local political accountability into the picture, while trying to cut back on some of the thickets of blather.

But it’s too late now.  Many managers have lost their jobs; many more face the prospect of their job disappearing an uncertain future.  The damage has been done.  Far reaching reform may not have been the best idea, but we must capitalise on the current fluid situation to create something that works better than the previous version.  This may well slow down the march towards the £20bn savings in the short term – but maybe these savings aren’t quite as urgent as it suits many to claim.

But are the reforms going in the right direction?  I’m nearly up to 1,000 words already.  this is a topic for another day.

Cardinal O’Brien: is this all that’s left of Christianity?

After a wonderful day out in the sun, I return home to a Twitter feed bulging with reaction to Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s Easter sermon in Edinburgh.  It was near top of the BBC news this morning, but it was surprising difficult to locate their coverage on the BBC website (here) this evening.  Archbishop Rowan Williams’s sermon (something about happiness) got much more coverage.  From this coverage I find it rather unclear what Cardinal O’Brien actually said, beyond an attack on “aggressive secularism”, and calling for all Christian denominations to unite against it in defence of traditional Christian values.  This was enough to get Evan Harris wound up and twittering.

I do support state secularism, but my deeper reaction to Cardinal O’Brien’s sentiments are about what it means to Christians.  There seems to be a large body of people for whom a (the?) fundamental purpose of Christianity is to defend its traditional values.  I have heard people on the radio suggesting that the Church got these values right at the start, and that to change them to suit modern fashion is a betrayal.  There is a massive reaction against accepting gays – quite disproportionate to the significance of the issue.  Likewise, many react badly to the idea of women priests and bishops, to the extent of switching from Anglican to Catholic denomination.

I find this very strange because it seems so at odds with the teachings of Jesus in the gospels, to say nothing of how the church has evolved since.  The central message to me of the Sermon on the Mount was that Christians should not be deceived by the letter of the law, but always go to the underlying purpose, and to do so with humility and love.  This is a dynamic message, allowing practices to be continuously re-interpreted.  One of the examples in the sermon was the observance of the Sabbath – where Jesus said that it was nonsense to be totally strict.  And so the church did adapt, notably by extending membership to Gentiles. And this adaptation has been dynamic.  Take its attitude to women.  It is quite clear that in the very early days, the time of Paul, women had a leadership role in the church.  But as Christianity became closer to the establishment this was less acceptable, and so doctrine changed (including some rather dubious epistles making it into the Bible, supposedly from Paul himself).  More recently, women have been returning to prominence, although the Catholic hierarchy are still determined to hold their line in the sand.

Defence of tradition actually undermines the core Christian message.  It is a doctrine to hide behind rather than face up to the challenges that real faith should lead you to.  It is a message of despair.  Is that really all that is left of this once great faith?  At least Archbishop Williams is trying to use his Easter pulpit to promote a message of hope.

Is Vince Cable right about AV?

The AV referendum campaign is hotting up.  The No campaign are throwing a lot at it, and seem to have captured the initiative.  By and large they are deploying the same old arguments (e.g. “save one person, one vote”), which are nonsense to those that know about the system, but which still serve to muddy the waters.  What has changed is the weight of campaigning.  David Cameron is taking a very high profile; it looks like the full Tory machine is distributing literature.  The Tory friends in the press, like the Evening Standard here in London, are throwing their weight in.  Opinion polling seems to show this is paying off.

But the campaign looks more Tory by the day.  So perhaps it is natural for Vince Cable to hit back to suggest that first past the post (FPTP) is a Tory plot to win power against “the progressive majority” of Labour, Lib Dem and (not usually mentioned, but relevant) Green voters.  What helps this argument is that the Conservatives clearly seem to believe it.  They are so vehemently opposed because they think it kills their chances of ever winning a majority.  One of the Tory papers (the Mail, I think) suggested with horror that Mrs Thatcher could never have won under AV.  Mr Cable clearly thinks that Tory voters are beyond hope, but that the Yes campaign may be able to do a better job of mobilising Labour voters.  Given that the Conservatives seem to command about 40% of the vote, and that many Labour activists and older voters are sceptical, this looks like a bit of a gamble.  But how solid is his argument?  Just because the Conservatives believe it doesn’t make it true after all.

The “progressive majority” is an old idea, hatched in the 1990s (if not before) when the Conservatives were last in power.  It is founded on the observation that if you add Labour and Lib Dem votes together they pretty consistently get a 3:2 advantage over the Conservatives.  Certainly, it is difficult to see that small-state Conservative policies (much lower taxes, much lower benefits abd public spending), beloved of the Tory right, will ever command majority support.  There is an anti-right-wing-Tory majority.  But to call this majority “progressive” is a stretch.  Much of the opposition to such a right-wing agenda is conservative – something that characterises large parts of the Labour party (and dare I suggest some Lib Dems?).  Remember Tony Blair railing against “conservatism” in his own party?  It may be truer to suggest that there is an inbuilt conservative majority that opposes radical ideas, left or right.

Semantics, perhaps.  Would AV permanently stop the Tories?  It wouldn’t have stopped Mrs Thatcher.  The SDP-Liberal Alliance would have picked up some more seats from the Conservatives, no doubt.  But the Labour party of the time was so distrusted that they would not have picked up enough second preferences to take enough further seats off the Conservatives; they may even have lost one or two more seats to them.  AV is good for a political party with momentum (which sways second as well as first preferences) – and Mrs Thatcher had that.  She won because the Labour Party was strong enough to block the SDP-Liberal Alliance, but too weak to be a credible alternative to the Conservatives.  This dynamic would have been almost as deadly under AV as it would under FPTP.

But the Labour Party is a much superior political machine now, that knows it has to win votes at the centre.  For the Conservatives to beat them under FPTP and get a full majority they need other parties to undermine Labour, be they Lib Dems, Greens, or a future left-wing threat.  Meanwhile they need to hang on to at least 40% or so of the vote themselves.  This is a tall order if the Tory right was in the ascendant…but it would be more difficult for them to pull this off under AV, provided that the Labour Party made some attempt to attract middle ground voters.   Strategically Vince is mainly right.

Tactically – by which I mean up to the next election – the picture is much less clear.  As I have observed before, the Conservatives will be under attack from left and right simultaneously.  UKIP are showing real resilience and are gradually earning the right to be seen as a proper political party (like the Greens, but unlike the chaotic BNP).  The Lib Dems will want to make the best of their coalition nightmare with the voters by appealing to softer Tories.  The more Mr Cameron tries to appease one group, the more he will put off the other.  AV would make this situation much easier to manage.  So far he is keeping this nightmare at bay quite successfully – but there’s a long way to go.

AV will help stop a radical party on either side of politics take exclusive power without  genuine near-majority support.  Mr Cable is right about that.  But there is no progressive majority.  And the effect of AV (or FPTP) on the next General Election is much too hard to call.  The best reason for voting Yes is that AV is a fairer system that preserves the essence of the present one (single member constituencies; likely one party government).  Voting Yes or No because it will be good for the party you support is the road to disappointment.  For all three main parties.

Why I won’t invest in gold

Want to see the world’s financial system at its most dysfunctional?  Visit a gold mine.  Huge expenditure of human and physical energy; destruction of landscape; poisoning of local people with its polluting by-products; lots of horrid, dangerous jobs.  All for what?  Digging up something that the world doesn’t need, and adds no value to anything.

Gold has real value as a decoration.  It is soft and easy to work; best of all it is inert and does not lose its shine in the air; it is virtually indestructible.  But most of the world’s gold is not used for decoration; it sits unseen in vaults.  It is used as money.  And the thing about money is that producing more of it (printing paper money or digging gold out of the ground) does not make the world any richer.  It is just an attempt by one person to pull a fast one on somebody else.

Money is a confidence trick, literally.  Things can only act as money by mutual agreement and confidence.  Money has no intrinsic value of itself.  Gold has been used as money since Croesus in 550BC, with widespread acceptance in both Europe and Asia.  But not everywhere.  In the American cultures found by European explorers gold was valued as a decorative resource, but not as money.  The explorers could not buy anything with gold coin.  In the modern age of paper and electronic money, there is no good reason why gold should fulfil this  role.  Its advocates point out that, unlike these modern forms, its supply is physically limited, with just those hateful mines and the melting down of works of art adding to supply.  Some suggest that it is real money compared to potentially valueless “fiat” money.  Well yes, but how to value it?  Just what law of nature says how much wheat, or wine, or how many haircuts an ounce of gold should buy?  At least proper money is hardwired into a mass of contracts; and the fact that we can regulate its supply more easily is a benefit, as well as a risk.  Gold as money is obsolete.  Or, as economist Willem Buiter put it (in his days as an FT blogger) Gold is a 6,000 year old bubble, with no more inherent value than cowrie shells (though according to Neil MacGregor of 100 objects fame it is only been going 2,500 years) .

Gold is an emotional investment.  Its advocates feel some sort of connection with the ancients who originally started to use it as money.  It is in the Bible.  My emotions are at least as strong.  Gold is the essence of evil when used for anything other than its beauty.  And that view has plenty of biblical support too.  I will not pay real money to invest in the stuff.

As gold shoots through $1,500 an ounce it is time to question what it is for.  Let’s stop using it as money. Let all central banks sell off their stocks for use as jewelry and gold leaf.  The world would be a much better place.

Vickers Commission: so far, so good

I have deliberately paused before commenting on the interim report of the Vickers Commission on UK banking reform.  I wanted to read more about it; it didn’t help that the post office delivered my Economist several days late.  Unfortunately I still have not had time to read the report itself; let me come clean on that.  Most of the commentary seems to be that the banks have largely got away with it, and are heaving a sign of relief.  My answer is “not necessarily”.  It may be clever politics not to go for the more totemic ideas, like a full split between retail and investment banking, since that clears the path for the reforms that really matter.

The report primarily concerns itself with two things: preventing a future UK government being forced into bailing out or underwriting banks, and increasing competition between the banks.  The latter was behind one of the more controversial recommendations: the breakup of Lloyds Bank.  But I don’t think that’s the main battle.  I despair about the lack of competition in UK retail banking, but I don’t see that the costs to the economy are that large.  The main game is preventing the next bailout.

The suggested strategy makes plenty of sense.  Ring-fence retail banks, force them to hold more capital, and leave investment banks to their own devices.  The significance of the second part of that proposition needs to sink in (as this article from John Gapper in the FT (£) makes plain).  An investment bank may be “too big to fail” in global terms, but the UK government will say is that this is somebody else’s problem, so long as our retail banks are protected.  This is an entirely realistic admission that the UK government is now just a bit part part player in the world of global banking.  If one our big investment banks fails, then we don’t mind if it is bought up by foreigners.  This is a striking contrast to the approach taken by the Swiss government.

But it leads to an obvious issue.  How do you prevent a meltdown in investment banking infecting the supposedly ring-fenced retail banks?  The collapse of Lehman’s in 2008 caused such chaos not because it was so big and important in its own right, but that it was too entangled with banks that had big retail deposit bases.  A retail bank will gather in lots of retail deposits; the question is where does all this money go?  If the bank is to make money it needs to get lent out.  If this lending gets into fancy investment banking products, then the ring-fencing has failed.  There must be some pretty heavy restrictions; the assets don’t need to be absolutely safe, but we want to insulate these banks from the complexities of the investment banking melee.  This will not be easy, as John Kay points out (in another FT paywall article, I’m afraid); all that is needed is an oversized treasury department, which is supposedly there just to oil the wheels of the machine.  Mr Kay knows this from bitter experience; he saw (as a non-exec director in the earlier days) how a runaway treasury department at the former building society The Halifax took that institution down a route that led first to demutualisation and eventually its own destruction; each step presented as innovative and sensible.  The detail must be subject to intense scrutiny.

But what of those excessive bankers’ bonuses and all the outrage that goes with them?  To the extent that this is a retail banking problem, the Vickers reform surely deals with it adequately.  The only way of tacking with it properly is to turn these banks into less profitable, lower risk utility organisations which can’t afford to pay big bonuses.  That is what ring-fencing and higher capital requirements should achieve.

But the bigger problem is investment banking.  This is an international issue, and Vickers is really about damage limitation.  As I have said before, the answer is not directly regulating remuneration, but cutting the profits.  This industry must be made much smaller and less profitable.  The two most important ways are through increased capital requirements and choking off its finance (or “leverage” as they like to call it).  The Basel committee is already making headway on the first.  Retail ring-fencing, if it is done properly, will help a lot with the latter.

Banking reform is a long hard road.  There is a danger that we have “wasted a good crisis”, and the passing of the crisis’s worst peak means that the pressure on politicians to deliver has eased.  But the crisis has not passed, though many financial types waving graphs seem to disagree.  A lot of banks are still in a shaky condition – and so are many governments’ finances, including those of the USA and UK.  There may well be a steady stream of aftershocks to remind our leaders that the journey is not over.  So far the Vickers Commission is playing its part.

The power of Holy Week

As a churchgoer in my distant past Holy Week was the undoubted climax of the year.  Sometimes we would attend services daily the whole week, and almost always from Maundy Thursday.  The move from fast to feast was dramatic.  As with Christmas, the festival may have pagan undertones, linked to Spring and fertility, but unlike Christmas, the Christian content has been able to hold its own.  Even now as an agnostic, Holy Week retains a lot of power; power that other festivals have lost.  Why would that be?

This might be a puzzle.  My attraction to Christianity is based on Jesus’s teaching.  There’s not much of that during Holy Week.  Instead, as this Radio 4’s morning service demonstrated, we get some of the most difficult Christian doctrines to digest.  God sent his only Son to be a living sacrifice, etc.  This doctrine clearly had real power in Graeco-Roman times, and retained it in the Medieval period.  The Universe was a much simpler place then.  It was dominated by a single Earth, with its only sun, with the stars mere spots on the firmament.  It was easy to see that Man was the pinnacle of God’s creation, and that the two would have an important relationship .  God was be a kind of special superman.  Now we are lost in a near infinite Universe, this idea has gone beyond modern imagination.  If god exists, he must be similarly infinite and quite beyond us.  The whole idea of the incarnation and the idea of the sacrifice of God’s only son to save our sins has become a series of stale empty words.  Christians pronounce them as a ritual of identity; at best this formula is an icon – something to be worshipped and contemplated, perhaps, but a man-made creation of little intrinsic worth.  And I haven’t even touched the Eucharist.

So why does Holy Week retain its power?  It helps that it is linked to a clear narrative in the gospels, full of human drama and detail.  So much more gritty and real that the Christmas stories, which seem to have been worked out backwards from biblical prophesies.  But ultimately the drama of struggle, being wronged, hope destroyed and then reborn sums up so much of the Christian message.  An impossible burst of light onto a difficult world.  Most modern religions have a huge focus on the personal lives of their founder, and Christianity is no exception.  Few of these personal stories can be as unpromising as that of Jesus.  The Buddha devoted his whole life to attaining enlightenment; Mohammed attained huge temporal power in his lifetime.  It is impossible not to marvel at how the few days of the Holy week story led to such a dramatic and powerful movement.

So for me Good Friday will be a day of quiet reflection; Holy Saturday will be a normal Saturday; Easter Sunday will be a celebration.  Practising Christians do it better, but I will be shadowing them in my small way.

The intellectual cowardice of Spiked

I really try to like the online magazine Spiked.  They are liberals that challenge the paternalism of the bulk of those who think of themselves as liberal.  They try to make common cause with the attitude ordinary people, outside the ruling and media elites.  But then I read things like this:

Nuclear energy: clean, reliable and powerful.  Physicist Wade Allison expertly demolishes fears about radiation. If only he was equally as sceptical about the fear-fuelled climate-change panic.

It links to a book review by deputy editor Rob LyonsSpiked is trying to resist the scare stories around nuclear power and, separately, climate change.  But its writers seem incapable of engaging in a sensible debate.   They are happy to agree Wade Allison about the threat from radiation, but can’t engage with his arguments about climate change.  Spiked’s writers form a view, cheer anybody that agrees with them, and boo anybody that disagrees.  And this case cheer and boo both at once.  No weighing of the arguments on either side is attempted.

I have a similar issue with their attitude to AV.  Fair enough to challenge the public arguments made by the Yes camp, a lot which are quite shallow, and call for a better standard of debate.  But they don’t bother much with the even weaker (and downright fraudulent) arguments made by the Nos.  And the arguments they offer themselves are just as shallow as the arguments they reject.  Apparently AV will make our politicians even more insipid.  As I have argued elsewhere, because AV makes it easier to field spoiler candidates, there is good reason to think the opposite.  They only have to look at the Australian experience to see.

Spiked simply doesn’t have the courage to take the higher ground when it is offered them.  They won’t engage in real debate because they are too afraid that it will expose their prejudices.  What a shame.

Why vote no to AV?

In my earlier posts on the alternative vote (AV) in advance of the forthcoming referendum, I have focused on the positive case for the reform, and considered some of the practical consequences.  Now it’s time to consider some of the arguments being put forward by people advising us to vote No, in support of first-past-the-post (FPTP).

The leading argument from the No camp, to judge by the reporting on the BBC, is that AV undermines the principle of one person one vote.  Partly this argument is used simply to confuse matters, alongside the idea that AV is complicated.  But the more serious point is that idea that people who vote for candidates who are eliminated get another go, so it seems like they get a bonus.  Meanwhile, as my local Conservative leaflet puts it: “This means that supporters of the major parties, the Conservative Party and the Labour party, will not have their votes counted more than once”.  This is a candy floss argument that disappears if you try to think about it.  AV is in effect a succession of run-off elections, with the loser of each election being eliminated between each round.  The voters of the top two parties are counted in every vote, without their votes needing to be transferred.  Far from being disadvantaged, they are setting the agenda.

But this argument leads to a more subtle one.  Voters of the eliminated candidates  influence the outcome, and these voters are less deserving.  This is endlessly backed up by a quote from Winston Churchill that AV would give power to “the most worthless votes for the most worthless candidates.”  A group of prominent historians were somehow persuaded sign a letter to The Times in support of the No vote, that managed to put this quote alongside the argument that AV undermined “one man, one vote”.  We can summarize this juxtaposition so: “FPTP means one man, one vote as long as you are not worthless.”  Supporters of AV argue that it is precisely the principle of one person, one vote that means that we must count the views of people who initially back less popular candidates.  Even if they support the BNP.  Far too much has been said about the BNP in this debate already; the BNP does not support AV for reasons that I talked about in my last post on AV.

There are rather better No arguments on offer, though you rarely hear them.  Brendan O’Neill of Spiked offers two.  The first is that AV will tend to promote insipid middle of the road candidates.  He doesn’t try to justify this claim very hard, but I think the argument goes like this: when making their choices voters will put less offensive candidates above ones that are more offensive to them.  That means that major parties with a real chance of winning a seat have an interest in selecting inoffensive candidates.  A conservative candidate, for example, will be trying to pick up second preferences from both UKIP and Lib Dems; Labour candidates will be after the Lib Dems too, and the Greens and any fringe left candidates, as well as hoping for some of the UKIP votes; this might be done simply by being less offensive than your main rival.  But it is hard to make the case that this is any more true under AV than FPTP, where the major parties fight hard for these voters’ one and only vote on the basis that only the top two parties count.  Also if a candidate is too insipid voters won’t preference them at all.  There is a more strategic argument too: FPTP suppresses spoiler candidates (i.e. breakaways from the major parties) because by standing these candidates might simply let the real enemy in.  If it is more likely that major party candidates will be challenged by breakaways, as would be the case under AV, won’t politics become more dynamic?  Mr O’Neill spoils his own argument by praising the spikiness of Australian politicians, which he puts down to compulsory voting.  But since Australia uses AV, this shows that at worst AV is not much of problem on this front.  Australian politics is full of challenges by independent candidates, many of them successful; AV helps them. (Incidentally there is an interesting analysis of the impact of AV in  recent Queensland and New South Wales state elections here, important because they use the same system that is being proposed in the UK, rather than the full preferential system used in Australian federal elections.)

But Mr O’Neill also fields a much stronger, if less tangible, argument for FPTP, which comes close to the real reason why most ordinary No voters are going that way.  FPTP is simple, direct and dramatic.  The voter focuses his or her mind on making a single, dramatic choice.  The votes are counted and the election resolved in a very clear process.  This strengthens the bond between the system and the ordinary voter.  AV is by no means a complicated system, but it does reduce the immediacy and drama of the process.  Is this enough to tolerate the problems of FPTP, with the power it gives to unaccountable party machines?  I say no.  And if it was, I would replace FPTP with a system of run-offs, like they use in France and Italy, which have the best of both worlds, but are much more expensive.

Which leaves me with the real reason that major party establishment types want a No vote.  FPTP makes it very hard for rebels in their own ranks to challenge the officially selected candidate, for fear of letting the opposition in.  AV makes it much easier for party rebels.  Candidate selection processes are subject to heavy influence from party hierarchies and give the established order real power over our political system.  Now, ask yourself, is that a good reason why ordinary voters should vote No?  Ed Milliband is very brave to see through this to wish for a more democratic political process, and support the Yes campaign.  He is consistently under-estimated by the politicos that dominate what passes for political debate in Britain.  It will be good for the country if he wins this vote.

Poverty Over campaign: why Christian Aid is not serious about eradicating poverty

I am a regular donor to Christian Aid, with a history of support that goes right back to when I was a boy.  It has outlasted my attachment to the Church itself because the charity does not go in for proselytising, and they are dealing with some pretty gritty and important issues.  So I get their supporters’ magazine.  The latest publicises their Poverty Over campaign (which in the publicity is written as POVERTY).  The aim is to “deal with the root causes of poverty”; the publicity highlights eight issues: climate change, conflict, corruption, disasters, food and agriculture, health, inequality, and tax.  All of these issues are closely related to poverty.  But, like “Make Poverty History” before it, the title suggests that its aim is to end poverty, rather than to merely alleviate it.  And here it has almost nothing to say.  Perhaps because the answer is too uncomfortable for most of the charity’s supporters, and perhaps even its staff, to accept.

There has been rather a lot of progress in eradicating poverty in the last couple of centuries.  According to the map that accompanies the article, in 1821 pretty much the whole world was in poverty (Britain, Ireland and the Netherlands were the exceptions according to this, though the inclusion of Ireland is surely a bit shaky).  Now according to the map alongside it only a minority of countries are in poverty, across the central part of Africa, and a few Asian outliers like Afghanistan and Burma.  That picture seems a bit too bright, but we need to acknowledge the progress made by countries such as South Korea and China in the last 40 or so years.  It is worth asking how such rapid progress has been made.

We usually think of poverty in terms of low consumption – insufficient food, poor shelter, a few clothes and practically nothing else.  It is more helpful to look at the other side of the coin: low production, or low productivity.  Beating poverty is about boosting the productivity of countries that are poor.  It’s not about dumping surplus production from the rich onto poor societies, the only other way it can theoretically be broken

And yet raising production involves wrenching change.  And one change above all: moving people from the countryside to towns.  In poor societies agriculture is ludicrously inefficient, and this drags the whole economy down.  In towns it is much easier to mobilise people into more productive activities in manufacturing and services.  What is more, it is much more efficient to deliver basic services such as education, health services, power and water to people living in towns.  Pretty much every breakout from poverty, from our own in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, to China now, has invovled the emptying of the countryside and the growth of massive cities.  Only when society is much more wealthy, and infrastructure much better, do we see some reversal.  Now where’s that in Christian Aid’s eight issues?

The problem is that we in our comfortable developed societies don’t like the idea of imposing such drastic change on the poor.  The change is painful.  Families are torn apart; initially poverty at both ends (in the country and town) is extreme.  Our attitudes to the country are tinged with a folk memory of a lost rural idyll.  There’s another uncomfortable truth.  Such changes sit uneasily with democracy.  Some of the most successful changes have been carried out by benevolent dictatorships  (consider China, the early days of South Korea, Singapore).  The record of democracies may be better than that of kleptocratic dictatorships, but it is flawed.  India has advanced phenomenally, but, compared to China, it has left huge swathes of the population behind in dire poverty without much hope of escape.  Poverty Over implies turning a blind eye to progressive dictatorships.

So what should we be doing if we truly want to end poverty?  Well the first point is that we can’t impose progress from outside.  Ending poverty is painful, and not an automatic choice; things may have to get worse before they get better; this has to be led by the locals.  We have to back off a bit.  The second point is that most aid should focus on urban poverty.  Rural poverty may be cuddlier and more instinctively appealing (remember the Christmas campaigns about buying people goats?) but it carries the risk of perpetuating poverty rather than ending it.  Rural aid should concentrate on making it easier for people to migrate: so improving literacy and education is an obvious one.  But even then you get more bang for your buck in the towns.  Thirdly we should promote the role of competition and businesses in the developing world, if we can.  Too often local elites leach off local businesses, or create excessive regulation as a source of soft jobs and bribes.  That prevents more productive employment opportunities from being created.   Fourthly, promote constructive multinationals.  Multinationals inject a dose modern productivity and efficiency into countries, and helps raise levels of trade.  They are perhaps the best way of channelling our excess wealth into the developing world.  Of course there are badly behaved multinationals, complicit in corruption and taking more than they give – but when they work well they are a better, more sustainable channel of help than any other.

Urbanisation; helping businesses; supporting the right sort of multinationals.  Apart from a tangential reference in dealing with corruption, none of this gets a look in in Poverty Over.  Not even education does.  Instead of ideas that would really help eradicate poverty, we get a ragbag of politically correct issues that suit the tastes of western do-gooders.  Christian Aid is not beginning to tackle the root causes of poverty.  Perhaps it shouldn’t try.  Good knows that just alleviating its symptoms needs doing.  That’s why I will continue to support them.

Archipelago: desolation observed

Some of you will know that the photo on this blog is from the Isles of Scilly – a view of the Western Rocks from the island of St Agnes, in fact.  Since the 1980s I have had a timeshare cottage on the island of Tresco, and go there every other year.  So when we heard about this film, Archipelago set as a timeshare holiday on Tresco, in the neighbouring, though larger, property to ours, we had to see it.  It’s a beautiful but intensely uncomfortable film.

The film is directed by Joanna Hogg, and is an acute observation of a family holiday with two 20-something siblings, Edward and Cynthia, and their mother Patricia, in November, in the shooting season.  It’s the holiday from hell as Cynthia poisons it with overwhelming negativity, which is not explained.  It’s an understated sort of film.  The camera is static; there’s no music, the dialogue is awkward and feels unscripted, there are many awkward silences, the light seems to be as is.  We watch the holiday fall apart in a sort of slow motion.

The film is utterly faithful to the place.  Ms Hogg takes no liberties with the location in the way that film-makers love to.  The sounds, birds, the helicopter, tractors and even the foghorn, all evoke Tresco.  The holiday proceeds exactly as a week’s timeshare does, right up to the housekeeping team turning up on the last day.  The only jarring note is that the birdsong seems a bit vigorous for November, and we get screaming swifts at one point, long after they would have migrated (and swifts don’t come to Scilly much, anyway).

The programme notes at the BFI refer to the English upper middle class’s inability to communicate.  That’s a bit hasty; the English upper middle class is everybody’s favourite object of derision.  There isn’t much communicating going on, but we don’t know why.  Maybe everything has already been said.  We don’t know why Cynthia is so bitter and fragile, but there must be a reason.  Edward is just as isolated, as nobody will support him, especially with his imminent venture as a volunteer in Africa.  He’s nice to Cynthia’s nasty, but equally uncomprehending of others – as poor Rose the cook finds to her cost.  Patricia is the easiest of the family to like, but is unable to bring her family together, with her absent husband, who was supposed to join them, adding to her frustration.

Film makers  love to play God.  Ms Hogg’s restraint is remarkable.  A beautifully crafted film is the result.