Who's the Basket Case, Oxfam?

There’s an advert for Oxfam running on UK TV at the moment that caught our attention. It is most odd.

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The little old lady and her friends seem to be vomiting at injustice, thereby making the world a better place. In a way, this almost represents the depths to which Oxfam have sunk in this campaign. It is as if they were marketing a product that would solve injustice in the same way that certain products soothe the effects of excess stomach acid after overindulgence. In other words it seems as though they want you to engage with the concept of injustice as though it is something which affects you personally. It makes you vomit. Hand over your cash, and we’ll get rid of it for you.

Here is another Oxfam film, where they appear to have persuaded passers-by to confess their carbon-sins. Again, a remedy for overindulgence.

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As we have reported before, Oxfam presents itself as an agency through which problems in the world can be defeated, yet often they take a curiously anti-development line. A recent Oxfam report recommended that developing countries promote ‘traditional lifestyles’ as a means to combating climate change. In recent years, and in the light of the climate crisis, Oxfam has redefined ‘poverty’ and ‘injustice’ in environmental terms.

For example, Oxfam have their own campaign to stop the new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth, the site of this years Climate Camp. 

Coal or renewable? The old way, or the new. We head right back to dirty energy with E.ON’s Kingsnorth. We destroy our chances of avoiding a climate catastrophe and let climate change push poor people deeper into poverty. Or we innovate and start a clean energy revolution. Now is the time to choose.

You’d have thought, wouldn’t you, that a development agency would be in favour of power stations, both here, and in the developing world. But it seems they are more interested in ‘traditional lifestyles’.

Another Oxfam video shows what kind of lifestyle this is, in the context of climate change. After telling us that every year a third of Bangladesh’s land is flooded, and that ‘climate change is making the situation worse’, we hear Sahena’s story.

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On you tube, the film’s blurb tells us that

The annual monsoon rains in Bangladesh are getting heavier and more unpredictable — last year’s floods were the worst in decades, affecting nine million people…

We were wondering how true is was that climate conditions in Bangladesh were getting worse, and less predictable. Here in the UK, the weather has never been ‘predictable’. Why should it have ever been any more predictable in Bangladesh?

The data relating to the extent of flooding in Bangladesh is very sparse. In fact, we spent nearly two days searching for it. If you know of such data, we’d be grateful if you could direct us to it. There also didn’t seem to be much long term data relating to the effect of floods on mortality, nor of damage done in terms of cash value. 

There have been some tragic events in Bangladesh, which is, after all, the region most prone to flooding than any other. But there doesn’t seem to be any basis for the claim that floods are getting heavier because of climate change, nor that conditions are less predictable. It appears that the dictum ‘climate change will be worse for the poor’ has been used without regard for facts. It looks as though Oxfam have done little more than to look for people who are particularly vulnerable to climate (climate which, as it happens, has always been hostile and highly variable) to make their claim. It must be true that if ‘climate change will be worse for the poor’, and ‘climate change is happening’ then the poorest people in the poorest region must make the best case for Oxfam’s climate campaign. The image of the poor farmer, struggling to help her community defend itself against the conditions it suffers as a consequence of Western profligacy is second to none.

But just how bad are things getting because of climate change, in Bangladesh? There must be some data which shows just how terrible the conditions that we are inflicting upon them have become. It should be easy to show just how bad life for farmers already experiencing climate change has become.

Except it isn’t.

[All data: United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, except GDP ($US per capita, constant prices): IMF]

This graph shows various trends in Bangladesh, relative to their levels in 1961, (and 1980, in the case of GDP). The amount of arable land has indeed slightly diminished (8% between 1961 and 2007), yet rice production and yield has increased substantially. Meanwhile, the population has increased nearly three-fold.

So, yes, clearly there is an extent to which climate conditions have affected life in Bangladesh. But we cannot say, as Oxfam has, that climate change has pushed people further into poverty. We might be able to attribute an 8% of the loss of agricultural land to flooding. And it may even be because of climate change. But this does not seem to have made life worse for Bangladeshi rice farmers (who account for 75% of agricultural production), who have meanwhile been able to realise a three-fold increase in production from a 30% increase in land area.

We can think of two ways to explain this. Firstly, the increase in population itself. In spite of claims that ‘overpopulation’ risks tipping the world into catastrophe, many hands make lighter work of big projects, such as farming, and recovery from disaster, even in Bangladesh – one of the most densely populated countries. Secondly, contrary to Oxfam’s desire to see poor people locked into traditional ways of life, industrial methods of production increase crop yields.

The worst possible strategy for Bangladeshi farmers would be to return to ‘traditional lifestyles’, and reduce their population. Oxfam’s campaign would likely cause far more problems than it can attribute to climate, let alone climate change. 

This graph is by no means the whole picture. We’re not statisticians, so we may have made fundamental errors interpreting and presenting the data. What we were interested in was the claims endlessly repeated by the likes of Oxfam that things are getting worse, and worse, and worse in the developing world because of climate change, because of us. Nor are we saying things are rosy in Bangladesh, and that we should not be concerned about it, and the problems it faces.

But there is a difference between being concerned about a place and milking a developing region for the kind of capital Oxfam wants to extract from it. It’s shallow campaigns reduce the understanding of development problems to a kind of us-and-them, victims-and-perpetrators morality tale, where we inflict acts of violence on the Bangladeshi poor through the ‘environment’. While there is a good argument that the West has in many respects, failed poorer regions, often in its own interests, it is not the case that this issue can be understood in such black and white terms. It also forgets that Banglashis have made their own progress, but wants you to forget about it, so that it can capitalise on the images of victimhood that it creates, in order to elevate itself as their saviour, with your cash. It wants you to think that Bangladesh is a basket-case, and that you are responsible for it, and for sorting it out.

Oxfam have resorted to environmental language because they simply cannot conceive of development in any other terms. It is their intellectual vacuity which takes them here. Understanding development –real development – is impossible for Oxfam, because it doesn’t give them a role. It celebrates ‘traditional lifestyles’ because lifestyles in industrial society lead to the kind of politics that leaves Oxfam voiceless. It needs victims. And it needs culprits. Without them, it is cashless.

It is Oxfam which is the poverty stricken basket case.

23 thoughts on “Who's the Basket Case, Oxfam?”

  1. Re the vomiting, it’s interesting and strange that Oxfam seem to portray this as a reaction to injustice. If I think about something I consider unjust or unfair, I don’t feel like vomiting, I feel angry! Connecting it to the sin/confession theme, this reminds me of bulimia and its cycle of binging and purging, which is linked to anxiety and shame; also, like anorexia, it can be a pathological attempt to counter a feeling of being powerless. Which might describe some of the more extreme “eco-worriers” in current society. Maybe they, and the producers of this video, might benefit from some counselling?

    (It also just occurred to me that if they had portrayed a teenager rather than an older woman, the bulimia connection could have been even more apparent.)

    I know the connection between AGW/environmentalism and religion has been made many times, but it’s still worth thinking through the ramifications. In the UK church attendance is down, but a few generations ago there would have been many more churchgoers, and go back yet more generations and the belief in sin and Hell would have been relatively widespread. This sounds unscientific, but it’s almost as if there’s a pool of religious “energy” that has not had much of an outlet in recent times but is now finding a release, of sorts. These days, not many people consciously fear hellfire and the Devil’s works, but if we substitute for these a picture of an overheating Earth (Hell) and the oil industry (the Devil’s works) we have a readymade resurgent “feel-bad factor” with attendant phenomena of fear, guilt, shame, anxiety and low self-confidence. Stoked, of course, by Oxfam and its cohorts.

    Re Bangladesh, here’s a link to what some Bangladeshi experts are saying (as opposed to certain bloody patronising Westerners):
    http://www.gisdevelopment.net/news/viewn.asp?id=GIS:N_urxyjlzhkv
    This ends with a positive and upbeat quote from Mahfuzur Rahman, who is in charge of the Bangladesh Water Development Board’s Coastal Study and Survey Department: “If we build more dams using superior technology, we may be able to reclaim 4,000 to 5,000 square kilometres in the near future.”

    Now that (with a nod to James May) is what I’d call a Big Idea.

  2. So “climate change” will hit the poor most.

    And we’re already past the tipping point.

    Yet the Obamunists want to create more poor through their “share the wealth” programs.

    Things that make you say “Hmmmm.”

  3. Congratulations on another outstanding piece of sneering cynicism. If you’ve persuaded just one person to cancel their monthly subscription to Oxfam, you’ll no doubt feel very proud of yourselves.

    I’m only surprised that you haven’t worked out a way of accusing Oxfam of misanthropy – but no doubt this was an oversight on your part that will soon be corrected, on Spiked if not on this blog.

    Oxfam has done a vast amount to relieve human misery and assist development among the world’s poorest people, often at significant risk to the lives of its many volunteers and paid staff worldwide (very large numbers of whom are local to the areas in which they work). What exactly is the problem with using money raised in richer countries to enable people to benefit from such basic necessities as clean water or affordable health care?

    You are constantly suggesting that humanity will be well able to adapt to any climate change in future (at the same time as trying to cast doubt on the strong scientific evidence that such change is already happening very fast indeed). Well, Oxfam is already doing a great deal to help such adaptation by people whose livelihoods are being severely hit by extreme climate conditions. At the same time, it is campaigning to try to slow the greenhouse emissions that are causing global warming.

    I have met many Oxfam staff both in this country and in other parts of the world, and their approach could not be further from the patronising attitude that you seek to smear them with.

    Come to think of it, what could be more patronising – or ignorant of the daily realities of life in many parts of the world – than your own ‘Ferraris for all’ stance? What that boils down to is nothing more than Marie Antoinette’s notoriously air-headed dictum: ‘Let them eat cake.’

  4. Talisker rants ‘What exactly is the problem with using money raised in richer countries to enable people to benefit from such basic necessities as clean water or affordable health care?’

    Where exactly do we criticise Oxfam for ‘raising money in richer countries’ ‘to enable people to benefit from such basic necessities as clean water or affordable health care?’

    We don’t.

    We criticise Oxfam for wrapping its campaigns for ‘justice’ and ‘against poverty’ in environmental terms. We suggest that it has to do this because it doesn’t really have a good idea about what development actually is – and its fondness for ‘traditional lifestyles’ and so on make it look anti-development. We showed that Oxfam’s presentation of Bangladshi poor was inaccurate, and had no foundation. We suggested that the environmentalism Oxfam has embraced will be worse for the people it aims to help than anything the climate can throw at them. And we suggested that Oxfam have unjustly and undemocratically positioned themselves above people in the developing world, for their own benefit.

    No doubt within their project, there are plenty of well-meaning people. But ‘well meaning’ is not the same thing as ‘legitimate’.

    We’ve met many of them too, in Oxfam, and in other development agencies. Many, if not all of them, share many of our concerns.

    Talisker’s rant continues…

    You are constantly suggesting that humanity will be well able to adapt to any climate change in future (at the same time as trying to cast doubt on the strong scientific evidence that such change is already happening very fast indeed).

    As we show, there is no evidence that ‘such change is already happening very fast indeed’. On the contrary, Bangladeshi’s have increased the yield of their crops three-fold against a small loss of land, which is most probably not attributable to climate change as much as urbanisation. As Alex’s link explains, there is strong scientific evidence that Bangladesh’s land area has increased, opening up possibilities for greater development. Development which would be predicated on industrialisation – which Oxfam appears to be against.

    “nothing more than Marie Antoinette’s notoriously air-headed dictum: ‘Let them eat cake.’“

    There could be no better example of Talisker’s continuing failure to understand the crap that he or she writes.

    Antoinette’s ‘dictum’ (‘dictum’?) like Oxfam’s ‘dictum’ in favour of ‘traditional lifestyles’ expresses an interest in the continuation of socio-economic conditions, not their transformation.

    If Oxfam were simply and only engaged in campaigns to ‘help’ people – whatever that means – it might be harder to criticise them. But it’s not. It’s campaigns are highly political, and they have achieved a great deal of influence over the development agenda, often against the interests of the ‘victims’ they claim to be helping. That undemocratic influence needs to be challenged, same as any other.

  5. God, how depressing. I used to work in the outskirts of the ad business, and I think I can see what’s happened. Oxfam, however worthy its aims and past actions, has become a big commercial organisation and so feels it must have an advertising budget and a marketing strategy to match.

    It’s typical of organisations which have lost their way, developed a popular product line and don’t know what to do next, to turn to the marketing men for guidance. Selling Oxfam is a godsend to an ad agency – an organisation with no product to sell and a goldplated image – I bet the agency did it for free so they could bask in the reflected glow of the good works of all those decent volunteers and aid workers, and maybe pick up a few awards for compassionate creativity.

    Hence a campaign so obscure, only another adman could understand it. I particularly liked hated the igloo confessionals. The message seems to be; turn off your computer, or the ice will melt and eskimoes will be forced to live in proper houses. Or was it: sort your rubbish, and help save Bangla Desh from flooding? Whose idea was it to turn decent human emotions of compassion and generosity into a bad Monty Python sketch? Shame on Oxfam, if it was them, but I suspect that, like the political parties, they’ve lost the plot and turned to the creative lost boys of advertising’s Neverneverland for inspiration.

  6. Editors, you say that Oxfam “forgets that Banglashis [sic] have made their own progress, but wants you to forget about it, so that it can capitalise on the images of victimhood that it creates, in order to elevate itself as their saviour, with your cash”.

    I’d invite anyone inclined to believe this to take a look at Oxfam’s website (http://www.oxfam.org.uk/ ) and judge for themselves. In fact, for many years the organisation has emphasised the way that it works in partnership with local people and organisations, rather than as some kind of Lady Bountiful dispensing largesse from a great height. Of course it still plays a vital role in disaster relief, but its website is full of case studies emphasising the resourcefulness of people in poor communities, and the way in which seed capital and other forms of support from Oxfam have helped them achieve real improvements in their lives.

    You also allege that a “recent Oxfam report recommended that developing countries promote ‘traditional lifestyles’”, and later that Oxfam is motivated by a “desire to see poor people locked into traditional ways of life”. I’m not surprised that you don’t link to or even name this report, but perhaps you mean ‘Survival of the fittest: Pastoralism and climate change in East Africa’? This is the one that seems to be referred to in your earlier attack on Oxfam (though there too it’s not mentioned by name). Interested readers can download the report at http://www.oxfam.org.uk/resources/policy/climate_change/bp116_pastoralism_climate.html. They will find in it not a single use of the phrase “traditional lifestyles”, which you brandish as supposedly a quotation from the report, let alone a recommendation that these should be “promoted” or that poor people should be “locked into” such lifestyles. It’s a report looking at environmental pressures on a specific group, and how adaptation to these pressures might take place. Here’s a (genuine) quote that pretty well summarises its message:

    “Whether increasing climate change will see a worsening of their current situation or whether pastoralists will be able to adapt and even take advantage of the opportunities it may bring will depend on how these environmental and developmental challenges are tackled by both national governments and international donors, and the extent to which pastoralists themselves are involved in the process.

    “Pastoralist communities need more investment in good basic services such as health care and education, flood-proof transport and communication links, financial and technical support services, livestock-marketing opportunities, drought and flood mitigation and preparedness systems, access to climate information, and effective conflict-mitigation mechanisms. Both women’s and men’s needs and interests must be taken into account. Civil society and local communities need support to build strong and representative pastoral organisations. Governments need to strengthen the accountability and responsiveness of their institutions to pastoralist needs.”

    Is that what you mean by “poor people being locked into traditional ways of life”? Perhaps you would prefer to see such people forced into the rapidly proliferating slums around cities such as Nairobi, where at least they would constitute something more closely resembling an urban proletariat of the sort on which your own Marxian model of social progress appears to be predicated?

    Marx was famously contemptuous of “rural idiocy”, as were Lenin and Trotsky. In the grand march of progress, what does the fate of a few million kulaks (let alone pastoralists) matter, after all?

  7. Talisker’s second ignorant rant takes a new approach. But yet again, he or she doesn’t understand either the criticism, nor even the meaning of what he has written himself. And again Talisker ignores any of the criticisms made in the post above. Let us indulge his heroic defence of Oxfam’s honour, nonetheless.

    Talisker says,

    Is that what you mean by “poor people being locked into traditional ways of life”? Perhaps you would prefer to see such people forced into the rapidly proliferating slums around cities such as Nairobi, where at least they would constitute something more closely resembling an urban proletariat of the sort on which your own Marxian model of social progress appears to be predicated?

    Talisker can only see two possibilities for poor people – either in pastoralist communities, or in slums. He makes the dilemma one between rural poverty and urban poverty. He chooses the picturesque one.

    On a more academic point, and for Talisker’s benefit, Oxfam’s model is to create a rural proletariat, but one deprived of the means to express political power, other than that which is granted to it as a gift from ‘both national governments and international donors’, which determines ‘the extent to which pastoralists themselves are involved in the process’. In other words, Oxfam wishes to sustain the conditions that pastoralists have found themselves on the receiving end of, and to position themselves as the intermediaries between these groups, without having to take any responsibility for their failure. Such are the benefits of being the unaccountable, and undemocratic representatives of the voiceless.

    Furthermore, as far as we can tell, Marx did not conceive of a urban and rural proletariat with distinct interests as Talisker suggests. The ‘ninth plank’ of Marx’s Communist Manifesto calls for the ‘gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equitable distribution of population over the country’. Talisker’s unstoppable desire to ‘expose’ some secret agenda behind Climate Resistance to organise a Marxist revolution, doesn’t seem to extend to a desire to read what either we, or Marx have actually written. (What we haven’t actually written is so much more exciting to his imagination.) Similarly, the ‘rural idiocy’ quote of which Talisker ignorantly speaks, does not refer to rural lifestyle itself, but the deeply conservative ideas and beliefs which emerge from the romantic conception of rural idyll and nature cults. This is something we do agree with Marx about, as do many observers from across the political spectrum. For example, Anna Bramwell’s interesting account of the volkish and ‘blood and soil’ ideas preceding, and within National Socialism.

    “We recognize that separating humanity from nature, from the whole of life, leads to humankind’s own destruction and to the death of nations. Only through a re-integration of humanity into the whole of nature can our people be made stronger. That is the fundamental point of the biological tasks of our age. Humankind alone is no longer the focus of thought, but rather life as a whole… This striving toward connectedness with the totality of life, with nature itself, a nature into which we are born, this is the deepest meaning and the true essence of National Socialist thought.” – Ernst Lehmann, Biologischer Wille. Wege und Ziele biologischer Arbeit im neuen Reich, München

    You know, Talisker, it’s much easier for us to demonstrate continuity between the nonsense you post here and Nazism, than it is for you to tie us to to a Marxist conspiracy. Unless you can post some rather more interesting criticisms of our posts here – which you are welcome and encouraged to do – that is exactly what we are going to do. Reductio ad Hitlerum is as legitimate as Reductio ad Stalinum, after all. Gottit?

    Now, Bangladesh, Talisker… The good intentions of any of Oxfam’s staff notwithstanding, have they provided a watertight argument that climate change is pushing the Bangladeshi poor ‘further into poverty’?

  8. Ranting, Editors? Name-calling? I’ll leave it to others to decide which of us might more accurately be described as resorting to such tactics. However, I should point out that the fit of pique provoked by my exposure of your dodgy use of sources seems to have discombobulated not only your manners and your judgement, but also the alignment of text in your comment box, rendering some of it illegible.

  9. Talisker clearly indicates that he cannot answer the question about the reliability of Oxfam’s treatment of Bangladesh, in spite of his claims to have ‘exposed’ our ‘dodgy use of sources’.

    Obviously, then, matters of fact aren’t important to him. Nonetheless, it is warming to learn that although he was worried about ‘another outstanding piece of sneering cynicism’, he’s now more worried about name-calling, manners, and bad-judgement.

    That ought to be an end to things, then.

  10. Oxfam’s concern about the impact of global warming on the population of Bangladesh is based not only on its own extensive experience of working with communities vulnerable to climate-related events, but also on the most authoritative study into the environmental and economic impacts of global warming – the Group II report of the Fourth Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As the UNEP summary of the report’s relevance to food and water supplies in Asia indicates, there is every reason for concern (see http://www.unep.org/Documents.Multilingual/Default.asp?ArticleID=5551&DocumentID=504&l=en). Who would you suggest Oxfam look to for guidance in this area, I wonder? Martin Durkin, perhaps?

    Oxfam itself is not, of course, a scientific organisation, and cannot be expected to give scientific responses to the release of data such as your initial posting referred to. In any case, as far as I am aware, they have never claimed that rice production in Bangladesh is currently falling as a result of land loss, so your remarks on this issue seem pretty much irrelevant.

    Incidentally, I’m no expert in this field, but I would think it likely that low-lying land formed by alluvial deposits in the delta regions do not offer great opportunities for cultivation, as they will be highly vulnerable to flooding by salt water, especially in the context of rising sea levels. A recent report on One World South Asia indicates that sea levels are indeed rising in various heavily populated coastal regions of the country, as well as discussing the effects of increasing salinity on the livelihoods of coastal farmers. See http://southasia.oneworld.net/todaysheadlines/climate-change-stalks-coastal-bangladesh). Likewise, a recent article in Der Spiegel (http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,480847,00.html) details the problems caused by rising salinisation levels, and draws attention to a particularly damaging effect of alluvial sedimentation – the dying off of mangrove forests.

    Rice production has indeed increased in Bangladesh over the past couple of decades, though as far as I can gather this is nothing to do with alluvial sedimentation but is mainly the result of improved rice strains, as developed by organisations such as the International Rice Research Institute, with which Oxfam has worked on various projects, and better cultivation techniques, which Oxfam and other NGOs have played a large part in promoting across rural Bangladesh. See, for example the reports at http://ciifad.cornell.edu/sri/countries/bangladesh/index.html. The IRRI, by the way, is in doubt that rice production in Asia is at severe risk from the impacts of climate change.

    But my response to your initial posting was not concerned with any of this. It was a reply to your vicious and unfounded attempt to portray Oxfam as an organisation motivated by a desire to trap people in rural poverty. As I have demonstrated, this could not be further from the truth. (By the way, can you point me to any source backing up your frankly ludicrous claim that “Oxfam’s model is to create a rural proletariat”?)

    As it happens, I’m not hugely taken by the organisation’s current advertising campaign (judging from comments by YouTube viewers it seems to have more appeal to a younger audience, which is probably who it’s aimed at). But I do have enormous admiration for Oxfam’s staff and volunteers, who are working with poor communities – in cities as well as in rural areas – in effective and practical ways to help them achieve higher incomes, better healthcare and educational opportunities. A while ago I set up a monthly direct debit by way of a contribution to this work, and I consider it money very well spent.

    You, Editors, seem to have nothing better to offer than sneers, smears and thoroughly bankrupt Marxian ideology.

  11. And, for anyone interested, here is the full paragraph of the Communist Manifesto from which the “rural idiocy” quote is taken.

    “The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life. Just as it has made the country dependent on the towns, so it has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilised ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West.”

    Are you really claiming that this “does not refer to rural lifestyle itself, but the deeply conservative ideas and beliefs which emerge from the romantic conception of rural idyll and nature cults”?

    I’d say that this is another clear example of a claim that, when checked against the source, simply does not stand up.

  12. “I’ll leave it to others to decide which of us might more accurately be described as resorting to such tactics.”

    OK. I decide that it’s… Talisker! There, does that help?

    For what it’s worth, I’ve heard much the same thing as said here from a number of other sources, several of them personally involved in developing countries, and highly critical of Western aid organisations.

    By pretty much every measure, life is getting better, less precarious, and more prosperous for the poor of the world. Much of it from the replacement of traditional ways of life with the fruits of technology and industrialisation. And yet there is no doubt that you rarely hear the good news spoken openly, but instead you hear only of disaster, danger, worsening conditions and a bleak future. And the claim that industrialisation is the problem. The supposed threat of climate change is only the latest in a long line of such stories, and just as unrelated to reality. The idea that it is already detectable in weather events on such a small scale and short time frame is sheer nonsense.

    I can’t speak for motives, although maintaining their jobs and influence would certainly be able to explain why they so distort the truth. And economically, ‘aid’ cannot drive true development – and is far more likely to distort local markets to their detriment. The thinking behind ‘aid’, like welfare, is clearly based on the idea of the redistribution of wealth, which is a consequence of Marx’s zero-sum fallacy.

    That a lot of contributors and even volunteers to charities have fallen for the fallacy is understandable; it is a common sentiment rarely refuted in the mainstream media. But multi-national organisations like Oxfam have the money to buy the economic expertise to know that it has been long discredited. They must know by now, and to carry on, knowing, there must be some other motive behind it. Whether that is greed, or political ideology, or some sort of protective self-delusion to pretend to themselves they haven’t done the damage they’ve done, I cannot say.

    I don’t know if the editors’ theories here are true, but I find them more credible than this nonsense claim of climate change making the Bangladeshis’ problems detectably worse, or the idea that the charities don’t know it.

  13. Talisker claims that Oxfam’s concern owes itself to IPCC WGII and the UNEP report.

    The IPCC WGII is not ‘scientific’, but assesses ‘Impacts, Adaptation & Vulnerability’. As we reported last year, it is made up chiefly from social scientists. And as we have pointed out many times, in order to assess the ‘vulnerability’ of society to the environment, you need to make assumptions about what level of development any future society is capable of. These are ‘political’ assumptions. That is to say they are ideological. There are agendas a work, they have interests. It is not ‘science’.

    Similarly, the UNEP is committed to ‘sustainable development’, which precludes the level of industrialisation that the West and emerging economies have enjoyed. Necessarily, then, the UNEP, and the IPCC legitimise the political assumptions they make by precluding any political alternative, be that capitalist, or Marxist, or, more importantly, what people in the developing world decide and negotiate for themselves.

    Talisker hides a very hollow argument behind the authority of these institutions. He says that Oxfam’s concern is based on their own research and ‘the most authoritative study into the environmental and economic impacts of global warming’. It works for him, but for anyone sceptical of these institutions, Talisker’s argument is entirely circular.

    He goes on to say that our ‘remarks on [Bangladeshi production] seem pretty much irrelevant’. Let us remind him that Oxfam’s claim is that climate change is happening, and is being experienced by poor people in Bangladesh, and is pushing people in Bangladesh ‘further into poverty’. Our remarks are attempts to find evidence for this. And we were quite candid about not knowing how much certainty to place in what we had found. But there seemed to be no other way of testing Oxfam’s claims empirically. Agriculture is the most fundamental interface of society and the environment. The majority of Bangladeshi society is rural, and engaged in agriculture. Therefore, if climate change is happening, and making life worse for Bangladeshis, you’d expect to see that reflected in the statistics we have presented above. If Talisker wants to establish a better way of substantiating Oxfam’s claims – without appealing to authority – we would really like to see what they are.

    Talisker goes on (and on, and on and on).

    ‘I’m no expert in this field’

    On this point, we agree with him 100%.

    He continues, ‘Rice production has indeed increased in Bangladesh over the past couple of decades’

    It has risen since 1961.

    ‘though as far as I can gather this is nothing to do with alluvial sedimentation ‘

    But nobody had claimed that it was. We suggested it was because of mechanisation and increased population. Talisker claims that it is ‘mainly the result of improved rice strains’, thanks to Oxfam and the IRRI. But there is no evidence for this. And the site he links to seems to indicate that the system was not rolled out prior to increases in production seen since ‘global warming’ started ‘making life worse’ for the Bangladeshi poor.

    Talisker is making things up. He goes on…

    ‘It was a reply to your vicious and unfounded attempt to portray Oxfam as an organisation motivated by a desire to trap people in rural poverty.’

    Whether they desire to or not is immaterial. It is what will happen. We don’t imagine that they are stupid, so they must be doing it wilfully.

    He goes on…

    ‘You, Editors, seem to have nothing better to offer than sneers, smears and thoroughly bankrupt Marxian ideology. ‘

    This is simply bullshit. Talisker is upset that we know (and like) people at Spiked-Online and the Institute of Ideas, and we occasionally write for them. He therefore cannot make a distinction between an attempt to empirically test the claim that ‘life is worse for Bangladeshis because of climate change’, and a commitment to Marxism. Not that Talisker even understands Marx particularly well. (Un)fortunately for Talisker, one of us is a political science student.

    Talkisker then quotes Marx and asks us, Are you really claiming that this “does not refer to rural lifestyle itself, but the deeply conservative ideas and beliefs which emerge from the romantic conception of rural idyll and nature cults”?

    Yes, we are Talisker. Although you occasionally write eloquently, you don’t seem to be able to read quite so well. Marx’s use of the term ‘the idiocy of rural life’ corresponds to the alienation of the rural poor (read the next paragraph in the CM you quoted from), after the bourgeoisie’s centralisation of political activity in Cities. It is not a statement equivalent to ‘living in the countryside makes you thick’, nor that ‘living in the city makes you smart’. Marx recognises that capitalism saw off feudalism, and concentrated the working class people in cities, thus making them creating a political working class. The rural population, however, were alienated isolated by this process. Marx’s remedy is to integrate the rural and the urban. We don’t think that it’s such a big deal in the 21st Century. After all, there are cars, and communications.

    Finally, Talisker says, ‘I’d say that this is another clear example of a claim that, when checked against the source, simply does not stand up. ‘

    You read the ‘source’ far too literally, and isolated from its context, and forgetting that it was written and translated from German over a century and a half ago. What does the german word for ‘idiocy’ mean in 1948 1848, for example? You also aim to prove far too much from it. I.E. You’re not actually interested in what Marx says, you’re more interested in trying to ‘expose’ our secret agenda. It’s fairly evident that your own ideology seems to prevent you from engaging with the discussion rationally.

    Can we assume that Talisker believes rural lifestyles to be more progressive and ‘enlightened’ than urban ones? Does he think we have a special ‘bond’ with nature, that can only be expressed by rural life, perhaps? Maybe he thinks that urban life and industrialisation destroy some kind of authentic human experience? Maybe he thinks it would be a right old laugh living in a pastorial society. Maybe he should think about what it means to say that conditions he simply wouldn’t accept are what others should be grateful for.

  14. A political science student? Awesome!

    I’m reminded of a joke current in the old Soviet Union:

    Q: ‘Is communism a science?’
    A: ‘No. If it were a science, it would have been tested on dogs first.’

    Exegesis of sacred texts is probably best left to true believers, but the room for doubt over Marx’s meaning in the paragraph I quoted is minimal. It was taken from the 1888 edition, translated by Samuel Moore with the assistance of Friedrich Engels – who is of course credited as co-author and who had excellent English. Engels would have been fully aware of the English meaning of ‘idiocy’ and well able to correct any misleading translation if he had so wished.

    Seems to me that you’re at the bottom of what Marx might have called ‘eine Falle für Heffalumpen’.* It might be time to stop digging.

    *Usually translated as ‘Heffalump trap’, though some scholars have argued that the phrase is in fact a play on the concept of the ‘Heffalumpenproletariat’.

  15. “Seems to me that you’re at the bottom of what Marx might have called ‘eine Falle für Heffalumpen’.* It might be time to stop digging.”
    ——————–

    IDIOCY OF RURAL LIFE. This oft-quoted A.ET. [authorized English translation] expression is a mistranslation. The German word Idiotismus did not, and does not, mean “idiocy” (Idiotie); it usually means idiom, like its French cognate idiotisme. But here [in paragraph 28 of The Communist Manifesto] it means neither. In the nineteenth century, German still retained the original Greek meaning of forms based on the word idiotes: a private person, withdrawn from public (communal) concerns, apolitical in the original sense of isolation from the larger community. In the Manifesto, it was being used by a scholar who had recently written his doctoral dissertation on Greek philosophy and liked to read Aeschylus in the original. (For a more detailed account of the philological background and evidence, see [Hal Draper], KMTR [Karl Marxs Theory of Revolution, New York, Monthly Review Press, 1978] 2:344f.) What the rural population had to be saved from, then, was the privatized apartness of a life-style isolated from the larger society: the classic stasis of peasant life. To inject the English idiocy into this thought is to muddle everything. The original Greek meaning (which in the 19th century was still alive in German alongside the idiom meaning) had been lost in English centuries ago. Moore [the translator of the authorized English translation] was probably not aware of this problem; Engels had probably known it forty years before. He was certainly familiar with the thought behind it: in his Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), he had written about the rural weavers as a class “which had remained sunk in apathetic indifference to the universal interests of mankind.” (MECW [Marx and Engels, Collected Works] 4:309.) In 1873 he made exactly the Manifesto’s point without using the word “idiocy”: the abolition of the town-country antithesis “will be able to deliver the rural population from the isolation and stupor in which it has vegetated almost unchanged for thousands of years” (Housing Question, Pt. III, Chapter 3).
    ————–

    Google is a wonderful thing.

  16. So why did he Engels not correct the supposed mistranslation in the edition of the Manifesto he supervised in 1888?

    To my mind, ‘stupor’ and ‘apathetic indifference to the universal interests of mankind’ also sound pretty contemptuous. And Engels reveals a remarkable ignorance of history in his observation that the rural population “has vegetated almost unchanged for thousands of years.”

    But then perhaps he was more of a political scientist than a historian.

  17. “So why did he Engels not correct the supposed mistranslation in the edition of the Manifesto he supervised in 1888?”

    Perhaps he gave more credit to readers of the CM in 2008 than they deserved.

    Perhaps he didn’t imagine that a conversation about Oxfam’s treatment of the poor Bangladesh would hang on the interpretation of the word ‘idiocy’ 160 years later.

    “To my mind, ‘stupor’ and ‘apathetic indifference to the universal interests of mankind’ also sound pretty contemptuous.”

    But that’s because you’re only looking at isolated tracts outside of the context of the work, in order to tie us to a Marxist conspiracy.

    ‘Stupor’ and ‘apathetic indifference’ are, according to Marx’s theory of history, products of the relations of production that the rural poor were subjects of. Political isolation, not ‘rural lifestyle’ is what causes ‘rural idiocy’.

  18. I have no problem with Oxfam funding things like clean water and sanitation in emergencies, or the WWF protecting endangered species, as I would like to live in a world where people are able to drink clean water and where there are still elephants and giant pandas in the wild – who wouldn’t?

    What I object to (apart from the pathological doom-saying) is the half-baked “environmental justice” meme these organisations have bought into. Using an example from Oxfam’s puking-granny video, they make the connection between “another Asian flood” (from the creepy-crawly newspaper headlines) and the horrible “injustice” monster. And the following is from Oxfam’s website: “Unlucky? Try unfair. Because rich countries produce most of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Yet, it’s the poorest countries that will be hit hardest. More frequent and unpredictable droughts, floods, hunger and disease – this is the future for people living in poverty.”

    Let’s see if I understand the reasoning, accepting – purely for argument’s sake – the manmade-CO2/warming/catastrophe line of thought.

    1) Wealthy Western countries emit large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere. Leading to:
    2) A rising of average global temperatures. Leading to:
    3) More frequent storms and rising sea levels (plus more drought, disease, etc.) Leading to:
    4) Poverty and suffering in areas affected by the above, e.g. South Asia.

    Even if you consider CO2 emissions an issue (which I actually don’t), what would happen if the UK, let’s say, became completely “carbon neutral”? The answer: it would have very little impact on total greenhouse gas emissions in the world (our CO2 contribution appears to be just under 2%, and dwindling.) In 2007 China emitted 24% of the total, and India emitted 8%. So shouldn’t Oxfam be lobbying Asian nations instead, to be more “humankind” to, um, themselves? That would be logical, but are they doing this?

    Another point. Later this century we will probably start to develop sources of abundant energy that may, incidentally, be “carbon neutral” (nuclear fusion, zero-point energy, etc.) Right now, however, most of our wealth comes from commerce and industry that largely depend on energy sources such as oil, coal and gas. It seems to me that if we foolishly crash-dive into carbon neutrality, we will become, in a word, poor. Our ability to make things and do things will be sharply curtailed.

    So, where will Oxfam, WWF and other charities and NGOs get their funding? Until now they have had money that comes from our donations, i.e. surplus cash from relatively wealthy economies. If the goose is dead, where will the golden eggs come from? Won’t these organisations suddenly become, er, what’s the word, unsustainable? I’m wondering if they have really thought this through.

  19. Alex – “So, where will Oxfam, WWF and other charities and NGOs get their funding?”

    Well, if we are all poor, then we will all fall under the influence of the NGOs who have positioned themselves as intermediaries in the political process throughout the developing world. Just as politicians defer to ‘science’ to clothe themselves in truth, so too do they seek to have their ethical credentials rubber stamped by NGOs.

    NGOs are assuming greater influence over the political process. Whatever their aims, this influence is illegitimate. Their funding will come from Governments. For example, the ‘Green ten’ (less Greenpeace) are the recipients of EU funding, for which they are expected… get this… to lobby the EU for environmental legislation.

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