Category Archives: Humanism

Effective Altruism overview and thoughts

This is an essay I originally wrote earlier this year for “OpenDemocracy, Transformation” but was not published.

The expanding circle

I grew up in an area of northeast London marred by economic underdevelopment, drugs and crime. I never really understood the problems that existed around me while I was growing up. When I was old enough to be out late, I would often see a middle aged man that sat by the night time revellers outside an old Irish pub, asking for change and searching for cigarette butts. At first I would try and avoid him, as would most other passer-bys. But that all changed one cold and wet night while walking back from a friend’s house.

It was late – 2am I think – and all the shops were all closed apart from a drive through McDonalds a five minute walk up the road. I saw him curled up by a wall, soaked to the bone and huddled under a sleeping bag.  I turned back around and headed to the store, bought a cup of tea and took it back to him. He shook my hand and thanked me, while a warm look of gratitude stretched across his face. A conversation soon began that ebbed and flowed like any good conversation ought to. He told me his name is TJ, and that he’d been homeless since he was 16. That night TJ and I became friends.

So you may be wondering, why am I telling you this story? Perhaps the cynical reader may consider this to be a form of egotism. But my experience with TJ is important in that it sparked an interest in charitable giving. While a cup of tea is by no means a life changing gesture, from this initial act grew a desire to form a long lasting change in the world around me. Fast forward to today and I am now actively involved in a number of charitable organisations. Yet I found that as my interest in giving grew, so did my scepticism of how effective charity was in instigating meaningful change. I started to ask myself difficult moral questions, such as, why are we obliged to help? Who deserves our assistance? And most importantly, how can we instigate the most effective change?

The Effective Alturist movement

To begin to answer some of these questions, we must first turn to the work of the Australian bioethicist Peter Singer. The Drowning Child analogy plunges us into a simple thought experiment – if a child is drowning in a shallow pond, and we can save their lives with little harm to ourselves, are we morally obliged to do so?

From this very simple analogy came the subsequent conclusion that we are obliged to help everyone within our power, including those in distant lands unbeknownst to us, when there is little comparable harm to ourselves. This is based on the premise that all lives hold equal importance. To achieve the most effective outcome, we must then consider all causes and actions, and act in the way that brings about the greatest positive impact. In a sense, the act of giving becomes an investment in utility – an attempt to maximise the collective happiness of society, and reduce suffering of all as best we can.

Since these ideas first took shape, a great deal of effort has gone into turning this vision into a tangible reality. After the release of his 2009 book, The Life You Can Save, Singer and one of his Princeton University students founded a non-profit with the same name. The organisation informs the public of the facts underlying the third sector, and promotes community participation in activities it argues reduce poverty and economic inequality. The Life You Can Save also encourages people to publicly pledge a percentage of their income to highly effective aid organizations. Singer suggests this to be around 1 per cent of a person’s income. As of writing, over 17,000 people have pledged publicly.

Giving What We Can is a similar organisation inspired by the work of Singer. Founded by moral philosopher Toby Ord in 2009. So far the organisation has over 600 members, $300 million pledged, and seven chapter across the UK. Ord himself has capped his income at £20,000, and donates everything he earns above this to the most cost-effective causes.

As it stands, evidence suggests that only three per cent of donors give based on the relative performance of charities. This is a concerning statistic when we consider some of these organisations can be hundreds of times more effective at alleviating poverty than others. For instance, it costs thousands of dollars to train guide dogs in the developed world, while treating onchocerciasis, a major cause of blindness in the developing countries, costs just a few dollars per person.

If the average citizen from a developed nation was to donate 10 per cent of their income to the most effective causes, 7000 children could be cured of deadly parasitic infections a year, and the lives of countless others could be greatly improved.

So while viral appeals such as the ALS Ice Bucket challenge, or Cancer Research’s #NoMakeUpSelfie, have both been very good and generating popular support, the question remains, are these really the causes we ought to be donating to? While giving to these charities will undoubtedly improve the lives of many, we could theoretically generate more good by investing in combating malaria, which kills over half a million children every year, or tuberculosis, which is among the top three causes of death for women aged 15 to 44, according to the WHO

Both these organisations, along with many others, are attempting to transform the way in which we look at philanthropy. Proponents of Effective Altruism advocate the use of evidence and reason in working out the most effective ways to improve the world. They suggest we do this by making more informed decisions by using a non-profit charity evaluator such as GiveWell, or Giving What We Can’s research on the effectiveness of charities.

What makes a cause effective?

But this poses the question – does this mean we shouldn’t donate to any of these comparably less-effective causes at all? While this is not directly the case laid out by the EA movement, it seems that this would be the logical conclusion of their arguments.

So who defines what is a worthy cause to give to? Ultimately such judgements are based on the research these organisations conduct. But even so, in practice, responding to an emotive cause makes it difficult to take a wholly impartial view, and certainly there are many nuanced factors that affect our decision of why to give and to who.

Critics argue that the ideas outlined by Singer and his followers are objective views from detached scholars, which seemingly fail to take into account this context surrounding acts of charity. Effective Altruists argue we should give because we reason it to be an effective cause. But it is not the effectiveness of a charity that motivates people to give, as the evidence shows, but instead, biological mechanisms such as a feeling of love, a sense of injustice, empathy, guilt, or other social pressures (such as giving for prestige in some philanthropist circles).

Critics have dubbed this push for impartiality as “elitist”, and that the movement gives a particular emphasis on a small number of global health and nutrition charities. If we were therefore to adopt this viewpoint, there would be little apparent reason to invest in emergency relief, domestic causes, or the arts.

For instance, the thousands of pounds I was given by media charities could have been used to save lives in a developing country. The collective benefit to humanity would therefore far outweigh my need to acquire a profession. However, there is a less obvious benefit here, in that I can now use the skills I have learnt to bring about a tangible change in the long term, perhaps through activism and volunteerism. Similarly, the money I spent on buying my homeless friend a cup of tea could arguably have a far greater effect if given directly to a starving child in Ethiopia. Yet it was this action that sparked an interest in charity, which will continue to lead to further giving in the future.

The result therefore is that the consequences of acts of charity are often hard to quantify, and ultimately in an attempt to produce the most effective change, we may stifle social progress instead.

A deep rooted problem

Singer argues we must look beyond the evolutionary qualities that restrict our circle of compassion to those we share common bonds, and take an egalitarian, impartial approach to giving. As he puts it in his 2004 book, One World:

In a society like America, we should bring up our children to know that others are in much greater need, and to be aware of the possibility of helping them, if unnecessary spending is reduced. Our children should also learn to think critically about the forces that lead to high levels of consumption, and to be aware of the environmental costs of this way of living.”

Yet even in a developed nation like America, there are high levels of inequality that frustrate this process of transformation. Namely, it could be argued that to truly absolve the world of extreme poverty, we must first address the underlying mechanisms that cause this unequal distribution of resources in the first place. Partly this means having a more equitable society, something Singer himself argues for. It is easier to foster this kind of collectivist sentiment for instance, when our society by and large is well educated enough to think abstractly about such issues, or similarly, have the financial security necessary to devote to tackling global poverty. But to reach this goal, we need to invest our time and energy into transforming our own societies first, before any effective action could be achieved on a global scale.

So herein lies the problem – critics have lambasted the EA movement for trying to work within an inherently flawed system. For instance, David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times, criticized effective altruists who adopt an “earning to give” strategy. This means individuals are encouraged to work in finance and other high-paying, arguably unethical industries, if that money can be used to serve the poor. This Robin Hood-esque approach may seem to many of us to be a morally grey area, but the consequentialist would argue that the ends justify the means.

Conclusion

While it is easy to be critical of seemingly less-effective forms of charity, it is my view that we must take this sentiment of giving and nurture it using the doctrines of empiricism and impartiality. But we must refrain from condemning those who choose to give to less effective causes, the consequences of which can be hard to quantify. For example, while my act of kindness to my homeless friend may not create any significant lasting change directly, recognising this feeling of love and empathy for you fellow human being is the first step towards making an effective change, just as it has been in my own life.

In other words, to become an Effective Altruist, you must become an altruist first. Love is a biological mechanism that applies to those we share our immediate lives with, but we must strive to expand this feeling and break it free of its biological moorings, by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures. We must also seek to address the underlying issues that cause poverty in both the developing and developed world – the social and economic forces that lead to intergenerational poverty, and the tragic consequences it entails.

East London educational charity launches documentary series on CLR James

An East London citizens TV channel and educational charity, kicked off their documentary series on renowned intellectual CLR James with a debate on the ‘Western Cannon’, after winning a heritage lottery grant to fund the project.

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Every Cook Can Govern: The life and works of CLR James

Last Saturday, Worldbytes, a charity and citizens TV channel based in Hackney, London, embarked on a two year long journey documenting the life and intellectual legacy of renowned black activist, CLR James.

At the Long Room of The Kia Oval Cricket Ground, South London, an expert panel discussed the works of CLR James, and debated whether a revised “Western Cannon” was needed for a new generation of thinkers.

The event began with a representative from The National Heritage Lottery Fund congratulating the charity for winning a £70,000 grant to produce the multimedia project.

The project, dubbed “Every Cook Can Govern: Documenting the life, impact & works of CLR James”, will include a documentary series and an on-line knowledge portal, produced largely by volunteers.

Despite disagreeing on precisely what should be included in a revised cannon, there was no shortage of kind words for CLR James. The panelists all agreed on the significance of his writing and activism.

Education system is “a dull instrument of policy”

Claire Fox, director and founder of the British think tank, the Institute of Ideas, expressed concern that the current education system is a “dull instrument of policy”.

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She said: “There is an injunction between people who want to know and the way they are taught.

“The cannon of great literature has universal experience. It allows us to break out the particulars of our experience,” she added.

Kenan Malik on The Black Jacobins

While Kenan Malik, a writer, lecturer and broadcaster, was pressed by audience members to speak about “The Black Jacobins”, CLR’s most iconic and endearing piece of literature.

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He said: “[CLR James] is perhaps the greatest poet of the anti-colonial movement. There are few figures who can match.

“He was an icon of black liberation. Undoubtedly, The Black Jacobins was his masterpiece.”

James wanted to “change the world”

Fellow panel member Selma James, an author, activist, and partner of CLR for 30 years, believed that he wanted to make the world a better place.

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She said: “James used [The Black Jacobins] as a weapon in the struggle for African independence.

“He had a passion for learning. He brought with him a profound understanding of humanism when he came to England, and offered a radically new vision of the world.”

Beyond a Boundary: More than just a game

Alan Hudson, Director of Programmes in Leadership & Public Policy at Oxford University, focused on CLR’s famous memoir on cricket, “Beyond a Boundary”, first published in 1963.

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He said: “The book is not about cricket, but how the game can express so much more… the cultivating of this powerful cultural embodiment is much more than the game itself.

“[CLR James] was able to unite everybody in a way that nobody else can. He had a powerful sensibility to the working class.”

Volunteer for WorldBytes

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The charity plan to host a “Read-a-thon” in February next year, where volunteers will take part in a sponsored live streamed reading of CLR’s work, to help raise extra funds for the project.

Volunteers can also take part in producing the documentary and on-line portal, learning on the job media skills, such as filming, editing, promotion and research.

Head on over to the WorldBytes website to find out how you can get involved.

*Pictures courtesy of WorldBytes

Peace or War?

 

Two very strange tweets I saw today. Of course separately, they’re perfectly normal. The UNDP posted an article about Indonesia, a country that was rife with sectarian violence not to long ago.

The Maluku conflict began in early 1999 and lasted three years, finally ended in February 2002, when a settlement was signed between warring parties (Malino II Accord).

According to the piece,

The fishermen in Halmahera Island’s Kao Bay are amongst thousands of people in eastern Indonesia who have benefited from a peace and conflict prevention project supported by the Government of Indonesia and UNDP.

Yes, all very good work, and I commend those persons involved in these efforts, which are reportedly the “Governments of the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida).”

It irks me however, to see developed nations, one’s that are part of the UNDP doing things like selling weapons to known authoritarian regimes. Read the following tweet:

So it seems, on the one hand we promote peace through organisations such as the UNDP, but on the other, we facilitate violence in other regions by selling weapons to known dictatorships.

In fact, Britain has supplied £12bn of arms to some of the world’s most brutal dictatorships, with half of its imports going to Israel alone. While I concede the latter is not an authoritarian regime, Israel’s occupations of the West Bank and Gaza have been received by widespread criticism and condemnation by the International community.

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There are a great deal many more examples I could find of this strange conception of morality we have in the developed world. We give aid and steal oil. We promote human rights then torture prisoners. We argue for fair trade but then subsidize domestic agriculture. We commend those who speak the truth, but then actively silence and imprison whistleblowers.

Am I missing something here? You can’t arm the world on the one hand, and then claim to be the bastions of peace on the other. At some point we must collectively decide what it is that is important – peace or war?

WorldBytes: The Home of Citizen TV

Please take a look at these films I am very proud to have taken part in for WorldBytes as a Volunteer

The Wide Angle: Eco films & Emotionalism

Movie chat has rarely captured what’s at stake so effectively as this bar room banter. In a discussion on three well known apocalyptic eco-films, An Inconvenient truth, The Day after Tomorrow and Age of Stupid, a trio of guest experts take us beyond the usual finger pointing at doom-mongers. A palette of emotions: fear; loss and regret, are used to shortcut politics and convince us to change our behaviour or be seen as morally circumspect. Worse still, we learn, these films portray us as unable to deal with problems altogether. This is environmental determinism summed up; what matters to ecologists is what the climate or science will make us do, not what we decide we want to do about our future. Our options to think big, take control and develop what we need to manage climate change should we want to, are closed down. Given their hysterical claims of looming catastrophe, planetary extinction and ice ages it’s revealing that all we are advised to do is change a light bulb. Treating us like children consigned to the ‘naughty step’, as a scourge on the planet and ultimately ‘stupid’, these films are profoundly anti-human. While these films resemble ‘the rant you’d get from an eco-warrior in a pub’ we’re told, they nonetheless represent ‘the full download of prevailing perceptions’. These films are worth discussing because they represent a political culture that needs to be challenged if we are serious about reclaiming the idea of destiny as something we should control.

 

Alternative lectures: What is Humanism? (Part 1)

Professor of Sociology Frank Furedi answers the question ‘What is Humanism?’ in this short lecture filmed in the WORLDbytes studio. Whilst humanist ideas have been around for a long time, he observes, they have never been more weakly affirmed than at present. In ancient as well as renaissance times thinkers struggled with questions around what forces determine our destiny and began to formulate ideas that human beings themselves, rather than God or nature had a responsibility for making the world. Humanism, we learn, begins to flourish in renaissance Italy and finds more mature expression in the 17th and 18th centuries. Modern determinisms such as 19th century economic determinism or today’s eco-determinism, biological determinism or psychological determinism are all really evasions or excuses that diminish our own sense of taking responsibility for what happens. A Humanist outlook should equip us with an orientation towards reason, problem-solving and a healthy scepticism towards determinisms (or the fates) in the present day. Professor Furedi doesn’t overcomplicate the issue or use mystifying jargon in this refreshing and enlightening lecture.

The Enlightenment and Universalism

I am sure many of us have heard or read about the European Enlightenment.

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The Age of Enlightenment was a profound cultural movement of the 17th and 18th centuries. The first inklings of this revolution in thought were shown by early French philosophers around 1670. It was the well mannered Salons which were at  ‘the very heart of the philosophic community’ of France at the time. In these places of dialectical discourse a new school of thought emerged, namely, it was from these academic salons formed by the aristocratic ‘schools of civilité’ that the European Enlightenment was born.

The Church fought these first revolutionary movements until they ultimately suffered a fatal blow during the French Revolution of July 1789. It was during this uprising of the French working class and left leaning intellectuals that the French Republic was formed, thanks largely in part to the aristocracies own centuries of excess and indulgence.

It was only befitting that the Enlightenment should take shape during this time, as the individual became aware of their own power and ability to shape the world. The Enlightenment was considered to be the “spiritual enrichment of Mankind by means of his own inner values and resources”. Apart from the French academic salons, the groundwork for the European Enlightenment was also laid by renowned British intellectuals and philosophers such as David Hume and Francis Bacon, who popularised inductive methodologies for scientific inquiry.  The Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza is also argued to be an important figure in the Age of Enlightenment. These along with many other proponents of empiricism and rationalism helped lay the seeds of the modern scientific method and democracy as we have come to know it.

Whilst the Enlightenment first began in Europe, it later spread to the American colonies through the writings of Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers, although sadly its principles did not initially extend to slaves. Yet this period of history is still so very important for it has shaped much of the political and moral foundations of the modern world.  Rather befittingly the political and moral issues over which eighteenth century thinkers debated remain so often the issues over which we continue to differ today.

As the Enlightenment spread to Britain and throughout Europe, the Scholasticism of the medieval universities that were so prevalent from the 11th century to up until then, was questioned by this new breed of thinker. Philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and Hume refuted the divine dogma of these established schools that so closely guarded knowledge. For centuries the majority of European society had been resigned to impotent ignorance. Whilst these two thinkers took different and radical approaches to human nature and the individuals place in society, it was ultimately Hume and other ‘moral sense’ philosophers who restored this notion of humans as social beings, freeing the concept from its theological moorings. These sentimentalists began a radical conception of Enlightenment principles compared to Hobbes,  arguing that it is ‘sentiment’ that invokes an innate understanding of our common humanity, and of our instinctive desire to feel empathy with fellow human beings.

No quality of human nature is more remarkable…than that propensity we have to sympathise with others, and to receive by communication their inclinations and sentiments however different from, or even contrary to, our own.

From the Enlightenment then was this sense of Universalism born. All sentient life has universality in experience – this very idea could only flourish with this notion of sympathy, which allowed philosophers to give humankind an identity independent of God. These new Universalist’s would be attracted to the logic of universally applicable principles, rather than any belief or dogma ordained by supposed divine mandate. Human unity, solidarity, and the perceived need for a sustainable and socially conscious global order, were among the tendencies of this new non-religious Universalist thought. It provided a means of

…Recognising all peoples as of equal worth, and of embracing some kind of common good, without endowing them with immortal souls.

This period in history is very important for it has lead to a huge upheaval in the manner in which we treat another and how we come to learn about and understand the world. No longer are we shackled by blind dogma, no longer a slave to the power of religious and political institutions as we once were. The Age of Reason gave birth to human rights, modern democracy and the scientific method. Many argue that the roots of this enlightenment lay in Eastern thought, and hence the importance of this period is thereby diminished. I do not disagree with this fact, for Far Eastern philosophers dealt with the questions of ethics, morality and justice far before their western counterparts. Even the rise of classic Greek philosophy is in part due to the inspiring influences of its neighbours across the Mediterranean Sea. Still I maintain this is rather besides the point however, for all new thoughts are formed by a synthesis of old. Hence, we must not concern ourselves with the originality of such ideas.

Once we realise that we are the presiding force behind all laws of society, that we give all of societies conventions their governing power, and not a divine entity, then it is important for us to be concerned by how fair and just these regulating rules are. This notion which came from the European Enlightenment, means we must now also consider how we might continue to shape these laws for the betterment of all persons.

 

My Open Letter archive launched!

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So those few of you who regularly follow my blog posts might of noticed a lack of activity these last few days. That’s because I’ve been hard at work on the MyOpenLetter project.

Recently I launched the archive section, and while it’s rather lacking with only two entries atm, I’m optimistic it’ll be filled up in no time with interesting posts. For now though, check out my letter or Anonymous Girlfriends story of overcoming odds

I’ve also posted my letter below, so please read and tell me your thoughts. Also I hope this inspires you to get thinking about what you might right about. You can email submissions to submit@myopenletter.info. Hope to read your letter soon!

Dear Reader,

I look in the mirror, and I see a face. It is a face I could describe to you in quite exquisite detail. From its dark brown eyes and faintly tanned skin, to its slightly crooked nose, its cherub cheeks and accompanying mischievous smile. This face has one very prominent dimple only on the right side, and has thick red lips surrounded by a dishevelled beard. Indeed, this is a face I have grown quite accustomed to. But whilst I could continue to go on describing this face in great intricacy and detail, I couldn’t tell you if it would be considered a beautiful one or not. I could not tell you what others thought about my face, for I am quite certain, some may dislike its roundness and plumpness, whilst some may feel otherwise. But I like this face, because this face mine, and this face is mine alone.

So I have no problems in admitting that sometimes I find myself wondering what other people think about me. I’m sure you have probably felt like this at one time or another dear reader. Who you are I am not sure, and perhaps my message has reached you after a thousand years, hidden like a Dead Sea scroll through a vast expanse of time. Dear reader whom is unbeknownst to me, I ask you this question, irrespective of whom you are when you are living, are these really important things to think about? For they are, when we look upon them objectively, only differences of mere millimetres. These are but slight disparities in the angles of bone and variations in skin tone. These are nothing but cosmetic, superficial vanities that seem to be so important to so many of us in this world today, myself included.

I put it to you dear reader that we as human beings ought to value something more substantial. For us to understand what I mean by this, you must understand what it means to be a human being first.

Throughout the eons, ever since the first tentative words were spoken by man, the very first inkling of thought expressed by our distant ancestors, we have always struggled to find absolute truth in this rather puzzling world. And ever since we became aware of our own mortality, many subsequent philosophical questions have been raised about our existence. Why are we here? How did we come to be? What is our inevitable fate? How should we treat one other? All profound questions that to date we have still not managed to answer with any degree of certainty.

But despite any criticisms I have of human beings, I am a firm believer in the capacity of us to be quite marvellous creatures. From the incredible lasting legacies of the great thinkers past, I cannot deny that we have come a remarkably long way since those inklings of consciousness were first exhibited by human beings. From those hesitant scrapings upon once bare lifeless stone, the seeds of destiny were firmly sown, and a great tree of knowledge has flourished in its wake. The full force of causality took hold, and here we find ourselves today in this moment of time, wondering what lies in wait for humanity in the centuries to come.

Once many moons ago, before I had eyes to see and a mind to think, I was a collection of particles wandering aimlessly through a vast expanse of emptiness. This potent soup of subatomic particles slowly took shape, and through the heavy hand of microscopic forces, you and I ware formed in the furnaces of time and space. We owe our existence to an incessant churning of masses, started by a miraculous mix spontaneity and improbability. And here we are now, living on the frontier humanity, forging a path that has not yet been walked by any living being before us. Yes, we have come a remarkably long way indeed, despite having still a great distance to travel. We have learnt some incredible things already about the nature of the universe and our place within it. Objectively speaking, this is quite an astonishing achievement for a mere primate, first emerging from the dishevelled canopies of prehistory countless millennia ago. The ascent of man has been a arduous and improbable journey.

One of the profoundest things we have come to learn in recent decades, something that has never been known before, is that the reality in which we reside is governed by chaos. Even in this new age of empiricism, there is no such thing as certainty. Life is fickle for the very laws that form the basis of nature, the cosmos, and everything in between are firmly rooted in anarchy. How do we find order in a naturally disordered universe?

Human rights were first formally brought into law internationally only in 1948. While at first this may seem a like an irrelevant detail, it is in actuality quite an incredible milestone in human history. We creatures who live in this world of uncertainty, have begun to formulate certain universal laws of our own, particular moral beliefs that apply to all human beings. And whilst 1948 may seem a long time ago, half a century is but a mere grain of sand in a great desert of time. Yes, we have come a remarkably long way it seems, but it is my belief that we now rest at a pivotal point in the story of humanity and the cosmos itself. A prestigious and self appointed promotion, if you will, to the narrator of its tale, the story of its existence and inevitable demise. With the gift of consciousness, comes the burden of being the bearer of your own destiny. The future is in our own hands.

With this realisation, my message to you is simply this – think. I know it is probably unwise of me to worry about how my face looks to others, because at the end of the day, it is just a face. But I also know that I should take an interest in Human Rights, because we need to bring order to the natural chaos of nature. In the long run, the latter benefits us all and also our descendants. The shape of my face however, brings very little long lasting joy and happiness to collective society. I had to think to realise that. We all have this rather wonderful set of abilities unique to human beings. We can look forward in time and plan ahead. We can ponder upon life and our place within the cosmos. But most importantly, we can also empathise with other human beings, and feel pain through their suffering. We can feel joy through the happiness of others.These are the qualities that I maintain, have gotten us here today, and are important to the future of humanity.

So I claimed that we are the bearers of our own destiny, and so my final question to you is this – what do we want for the destiny of humanity? It is a question I cannot answer alone, simply because, I am just one human being. I do not speak for the whole of humanity, but I am entitled to my say as everyone else is. So think with me, friends one and all, regardless of your race, irrespective of the colour of your skin or the nature of your beliefs, let’s think and try to answer all these profound questions together. Let’s try to understand the universe and our place within it, and let’s try to make this world just a little bit better for when that inevitable time comes for us to leave it.

Peace and Love,

From
Suhail H. Patel

My Open Letter

So I have an idea…I want to send a letter…a letter to humanity.

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One evening many moons ago,  I was casually patrolling the internet  when I happened to chance upon a particular article that caught my eye. The story was about a time capsule opened after a 100 years. I have always been fascinated with time capsules. Little morsels of history flung far into the future, with the intention of revealing present life to future little earthlings.

Jean-Marc Phillipe was also rather taken by the idea. He was the creator and leader of the KEO project until he passed away in 2008. A group of scientists acquired a soon to be defunct Satellite, and now plan to hurl it far into the earth’s atmosphere for 50,000 years, harbouring messages from people of today for our distant decedents.

But as I wrote my entry, I thought by and large the message I had for future humanity, was very much applicable to people today.

So why wait? Why not send a message to humanity right now?

And that is exactly what I intend to do, and hope to provide a platform from which others might also leave their message to humanity. What’s great about this compared to the KEO project, is that anyone can read your open letter, and take some value from it, whether that be the day it’s posted, or many years after your demise. And with the prevalence of blogging I thought it would be a fun little experiment, to see what people had to say to the human race.

Now with a little technical wizardry and whole lot of trial and error, I’ve set up a blog from which to do just that. You might of also noticed the link I put up on the menu bar of my personal new blog.

Send a message to humanity, for the people of today, tomorrow and far into the future.

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I invite you to write a (roughly) 800 word piece as your one message to the world. You can write about whatever you want, you can say whatever you feel. You could just write about yourself, an interesting story that you feel has moral value, or a humanitarian topic that interests you, and you think others ought to know about. You might just want to make people smile, and you are welcome to do so. The idea is that this is your chance to leave your one message. So feel free to make it as dramatic, as poignant and as heartfelt as possible.

Saying that however, there are some rules to what you can post. Although I despise rules, I think this blog should be about spreading what’s best about humanity, and how we can progress as a collective society. I’m a humanist, and I believe that everyone is capable of profound insight. So there will be no room for bigotry or defamation. This is not a platform for spreading hatred or ignorance. It’s not a place to share your religious convictions. There are plenty of places you can do that on the internet, but this won’t be one of them.

I am also asking people to donate £1 or more when they send a letter. To get the ball rolling however, I’m going to waive the fee and pay if myself for everyone who decides to send me a story. I’m unemployed at the moment however, but I suspect it’ll take a while for this to catch on. When I do start taking donations, all the proceeds will go to charity decided via GiveWell (100% of it).

So give me your thoughts on life and humanity, and share them with the world. If you feel uncomfortable you are free to submit anonymously. It doesn’t matter how old you are, how educated you are, nor how eloquent you are. I will also help with editing submitted letters, and hope this will give me a chance to hone my editing/proofreading skills.

It is my belief that everyone is this world has something to teach you. I hope through this platform we can begin to collate the best lessons we’ve all learned in our own little lives. I hope to bring significance to every life lived. I hope to inspire others to bring out the best in themselves and in others.

So without any further introduction, welcome to my new project,  My Letter to Humanity!

note: The website is still under construction, so don’t try and submit a letter through the forms provided, as I haven’t got them working just yet. Hence I would prefer it if you could email me with your entry at suhailp@gmail.com. I hope to read your messages soon! = ) !!

 

Growing up in poverty

Note to reader: This was my submission to the Guardian International Development Competition. As I did not make the shortlist I thought I’d post it here. 

Nelson Mandela once proclaimed that “Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings.” Last year World Bank President Robert Zoellick announced that the target to halve global poverty had been achieved. Yet critics argue that serious issues with surveys used to support this claim undermine its credibility. To understand how we can better engage the poor youth of today, I spoke to three people who grew up in poverty, to see how it has affected their lives in adulthood.

We begin with a woman named Trisha from the US. Almost a quarter of all children in the industrialised nation grow up in low income families. She tells me she was considered “white trash” growing up on the outskirts of Lubbock, a medium sized city in the state of Texas. While both her parents were well educated, her father began to suffer from poor mental health at the age of four, leaving the burden of child rearing on her mother. This put enormous strain on her, and she would sometime­­s work two or more jobs at minimum wage.

They survived on mostly handouts – “We went to soup kitchens and churches for free meals, and got government food, and some food stamps.” She explains that “anytime anything unexpected happened…there was never any wiggle room, and my mother wrote hot checks to cover them.”

Trisha, now thirty, still lives in a trailer with her husband and two children. “Our car is broken down, and we rarely have extra money for anything.” She confides that at a point, she felt as if her parents “gave up… and just tried to keep things from getting worse…My mother is 65 and working part time as a cafeteria lady, with no retirement to speak of. I don’t want that for me, and I don’t want that for my family. I feel like I’m a little too old to change things…[but] I keep trying to think of ways out of this rut.”

In comparison to Trisha, Hernan is a young man who grew up in Argentina. The countries official poverty rate almost doubled to 47% during the 1989 currency crisis, and continues to fluctuate during the country’s volatile economic cycles. His father was a waiter and drug addict, his mother a housewife. Both had failed to complete high school, which Hernan says motivated him to study and become a scientist.

“The first time I dreamt of becoming a scientist I was 8 or less. I read relativity theory… Not understanding more than a few words, but [that] was enough…Einstein is my all time super hero. I decided to copy, by all means his rebellious [spirit].”

While the poverty rate fell to 16% by 1994, the consequent Tequila crisis left Hernan’s father unemployed. During this time, he “was forced to work in the streets, selling toy cars at the age of thirteen for money.” Despite all the odds however, the young Argentinean persevered, attaining several degrees and a string of well paying jobs. He now works as a computer scientist for Microsoft.

When asked what he found most difficult about growing up poor, he said “Everything cost you more. If you got money, talent doesn’t matter. I made my way through college because I’m somehow gifted at math. So, I always earned financial aids. Some of my friends, with talent for… music, literature or even politics, didn’t get any kind of luck.”

The last person I spoke to is a young man named Aman who now also works with computers. He was born in Bahrain, but moved to the Indian state Kerala at the age of thirteen. The World Bank estimates that around one-third of the total Indian population fall below the international poverty line, while almost two-thirds live on less than $2 a day. Soon after his arrival in Kerala, Aman’s parents divorced, and he ended up living with his amputee father.

“With a single disabled parent and no means of income, my brother and I worked through all of school and college. We rode auto rickshaws, we did door-to-door salesmanship for curry powders, we worked at telephone booths, sold lottery tickets, and for a while I even sold liquor in the black market.” He says he felt ashamed by his poverty, and would go to great lengths to hide the fact he was poor from his peers.

Growing up in a low income family clearly has a dramatic effect on a person later in life, both economically and psychologically. While Hernan and Aman were ultimately able to escape the poverty trap, their struggles were exacerbated by growing up in low income families. Trisha has not been so fortunate, and I can’t help but wonder what she might of achieved if her and her family had been provided with more substantial government aid. If in a nation like the US income inequalities did not exist, every family would earn around $200,000 a year. While in 2012 Gross World Product per capita was approximately $12,400, it is estimated that 1.3bn people globally still live on less than $1 a day.

From speaking to Trisha, Herman and Aman, it is apparent the most important factor to a child’s success is investment in their education. Without support for poor households, children are often forced into work at an early age. Research is clear – poverty is the single greatest threat to child’s well-being. Currently there is a lack of effective policy dealing with the issue, even in developed countries, were income disparities continue to grow. Yet there is promising progress. For instance, a new pilot study at Panthbadodiya in India has shown that supplementing a family’s income at regular intervals can dramatically improve a child’s education, and the family’s general wellbeing. Academic performance improved in 68% of the families, and the time they spent at school almost tripled.

Collectively we can still improve the prospects of those children born into such unfortunate circumstances. As Hernan so eloquently puts it – “Impossible? It’s just a word.”

By Suhail H. Patel

The Syrian Conflict – the case against military intervention.

Damascus_by_night

Just another day in Damascus…

 
The situation in Syria…of course many of us claim to know, or have heard some of the many different views about the conflict.

Reporter Paul Danahar puts in like this, that “If you are not confused by what is going on there, then you do not understand it.”

From what I have read and heard, the Syrian Civil war started out as predominately an uprising against poverty, like most violent political revolution.

It started as a movement against dictatorship, oppression, and is often attributed to the Arab Spring  that saw the instatement of the Muslim Brotherhood in nations like Egypt, Libya and Bahrain.

But increasingly it seems the real reasons to why this revolution was started are being lost to the interests of outside influences.

Increasingly it has become a proxy war between UN member states, which can’t seem to agree on what to do about the situation.

And so the real reasons have been lost in the two years of fighting, the bickering between spectating nations, and Syria itself is slowly eroding away while the conflict continues.

The loosely grouped band of rebels, who are at best united against Assad, are all vying for potential control of the country, with some imposing Islamic law on the cities that have been captured.

It has become increasingly a sectarian conflict whose influence will eventually spill beyond the country’s borders.

Does this mean we ought to intervene?

In this modern world we have established a set of unalienable rights that it is often proclaimed we are all entitled to.

I find this interesting because, things like human rights, rules of engagement, international trade laws – all these systems have been created by human beings, for human beings, and the only authority they have comes from human beings and our willingness to adhere to these prevailing systems devised.

Part of what is so important to democracy, and what makes this system work is a right to sovereignty. And just as we apply this concept to the individual, so too must we apply this to a collective nation – and give them the freedom to govern themselves.

While we have a history of colonial rule and paternalism in this nation and the west at large, the UK is no longer an imperialist empire – or at least we claim to no longer be – and Syria is its own nation with its own government and ruling bodies.

However, Syria is not a democracy, and its ruling body is inherently a dictatorship. Does this does this mean we have a right to intervene? Ultimately we would want the same rights for Syrians, as we have for ourselves in this nation. Yet I am almost certain that most of us in the UK would not take to kindly to Syria intervening in our affairs, given similar circumstances.

It is not for us to impose democracy on a foreign nation, just as we cannot impose our own concepts of fairness, of justice on other people. The IMF and worldbank have frequently tried to apply concepts of free markets on developing nations, which caused widespread corruption and increasing inequality.

In this country we claim to believe in democracy, sovereignty; we are entitled to our freedom of speech. And so I put it to you dear reader, that we can persuade, we can coerce through nonviolent means, yet ultimately it is for the people of Syria to be the bearer’s of their own destiny, and it is up to the Syrians to devise their own code of law from which to govern their country.

Assad will fall regardless of western intervention, no dictatorship lasts forever, in fact no empire has been able to stand the test of time. All nations have inevitably been resigned to the same catastrophic fate. This is precisely because we are human, and fallible in this regard. Our knowledge is incomplete, our ability to analyse the long term affects of our actions is poor at best.

We simply can’t see into the future, hence no matter how much we might try to fathom the consequences of intervention, we are always likely to be wrong in our assumptions.

Even if we were to intervene militarily, would we really know what’s good for the people of Syria? Would we really know which faction is best to support, what would constitute the best outcome for the Syrians?

Yes, we can help the people of Syria, but that does not necessarily entail military intervention.

Some politicians, including Obama argue that it if the Syrian government is found to be using chemical weapons the West must militarily intervene further.

I think it is a ridiculous notion that chemical weapons are more deadly than other weapons used in warfare.

The fact remains, chemical weapons such as sarin gas are far less deadly than more typical means of warfare used by modern armies.

A British army bomb disposal expert in a 2007 Register piece said “Far from possessing any special deadliness, chemical warheads are less potent than ordinary conventional-explosive ones.

“If your aim is to kill and injure as many people as possible, you’d be a fool to use chemicals. And yet chemicals are rated as WMD, while ordinary explosives aren’t.”

I think we must be very weary of the chemical warfare argument for intervention, because it is remarkably similar to the WMD argument used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In regards to chemical warfare – while weapons such as Sarin Gas are banned internationally, and rightly so of course, we must ultimately aspire to live in a world where weapons in their entirety are deemed obsolete.

What makes a weapon powerful? What kills a person? Is it the bomb, the bullet, the rifle, or the person pulling the trigger?

If we were all categorically opposed to war, if we all chose not to fight, then all weapons would lose their ability to oppress, kill and destroy. If we chose the path of peace over war, if we simply did not capitulate to fear or paranoia, all these weapons would lose their power to kill and destroy.

We don’t need to intervene with our guns blazing. There is no omen on us to solve the Syrian conflict, a conflict we have helped exacerbate by choosing sides. What we must do is stop arming the world, what we ought to do is stop producing weapons to destroy and harm one another. If we took these steps – the most powerful nations in the world that is – if we were to set a precedent for peace – real peace mind you, then perhaps other nations might follow suit.

I find it utterly ridiculous and hypocritical for Obama to set a red line at chemical weapons, when his administration has laid waste to so many nations. The drone wars in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, the war in Afghanistan and Iraq all bear testament to how destructive his administration has been.

I accept that it is obviously quite difficult to watch what is happening in Syria and it may make us think “something must be done.”

But does this mean we are morally obliged to intervene?

Yet again this is a case of western paternalism and propaganda at work  While nations such as Saudi and Qatar have their own selfish sectarian reasons for intervening, it seems western powers are more concerned with their own safety, their own influence and perception in the international community, then the well being of the Syrian population.

Yet the case against intervention is very clear – whether it be economic or military, directly or through proxy, history has shown our meddling in the affairs of other nations has been largely detrimental to actually causing real tangible change.

For instance, the Iraq war and the infamous “War on Terror” is widely considered a failure, having caused a staggering amount of “collateral damage”, corruption, sectarian violence and anarchy. There is still a great deal of political unrest in the region, despite over a decade of “liberation”.

It was never the US’s job to liberate the people of Iraq.

This shows us that in reality, despite the plethora of conspiracy theories pertaining the US master plan in the region, around the world in fact; in actuality there is seemingly no clear direction to US foreign policy, and this also applies to intervention in Syria.

On the one hand we fight Al-Qaeda, and on the other we supply them with aid, we supply them with training and weaponry. It seems that these groups have their uses to the US military when they are unable to directly intervene.

The fact remains that the US has been helping the very extremists factions they are fighting in Iraq and elsewhere.

A week ago the US state department announced in an annual report that they were continuing to defeat Al-Qaeda and that the organization became less influential.

It seems the US is trying to foster this alliance of convenience.

Because our governments have their own political agendas in mind when deciding what course of action to take, we can’t rely on them to necessarily do the right thing.

Syria is in an important nation, an important ally to western enemies such as Iran, Hezbollah and more loosely Russia. It makes sense that the US would want to oust Assad, to weaken those who pose a threat to it’s unparalleled international influence.

In a meeting between EU member states, an embargo on arms for Syrian rebels was lifted. Britain and France are in favour of supplying weapons to their favoured rebel groups.

In terms of how this might affect the Syrian conflict, I think providing arms to selected groups would not necessarily overthrow the Assad regime.

While I understand and appreciate the desire to want to bring democracy and peace to the nation, so far arming rebels has done little but cause more difficulties for the people of Syria.

The long length of this uprising compared to the other Arab Spring revolutions can be directly attributed by external forces, funding of both sides from different invested groups.

The fact remains, it is an absurd notion thinking that creating more weapons, financing more destruction can bring peace. In fact it is quite the contrary, our meddling in affairs has exacerbated the situation in Syria. It has lain waste to the nation over the course of these last two years.

Bringing more arms into Syria will lead to further bloodshed, it will only bring more hardship for the people of Syria. We need to reach out to Assad and his allies, we need to reach out to all the rebel factions also. What we really need to do is put our ego’s aside, forget about our fears and insecurities and realise we don’t have the solution to this conflict.

Because the last two years have shown that to be honest, nobody does. And you can’t expect to extinguish this flame by lacing it with petrol and hoping for the best.

We can’t arm the rebels with sophisticated military technology and hope things will turn out okay, that democracy and peace will come to Syria. Because that simply hasn’t worked in the past, and only required further intervention to fix the problems we created.

The UN security council is comprised of 5 member states, that account for 77% of the worlds arms trade. Imagine for a second, if production of all these weapons were to suddenly cease.

Imagine if instead of sending more bombs to help destroy Assads forces, we built more hospitals to help the civilians harmed.
Imagine if instead of arming the rebels and taking sides, we provided unconditional asylum to people wishing to flee Syria.
Imagine if we sent carpenters, builders, teachers and doctors, instead of soldiers and other proponents of warfare.

This is the kind of intervention we need to be using. This is the kind of revolution be need to instigate in Syria, and the world in its entirety.

If both the US, Russia and other members of the UN security council collectively agreed to refuse to arm any side of the conflict, to refuse to take any side, at some point the fighting would have to come to an end.

Or we can continue to provide the Syrians with the means to kill one another, to destroy their own homes, till at some point they’d be reduced to carrying out warfare with sticks and stones, the dusty remnants of the once great city of Damascus.

Is that what we really want?

We need to arm people with not weapons, but knowledge, with empathy, with the power to change their own circumstances without the use of force, through democracy and peaceful protest.  We need to help the Syrian people stand united, and we must stand with them all, not one side or the other. Most importantly however, we must not help them kill one another, because this isn’t bringing an end to the fighting. It’s ruining lives, its destroying families and entire generations of Syrians have fallen victim to the destruction of this civil war.

The time for intervention is now – but we don’t need bullets nor bombs, what we need is peace and love. If there are two things we can be certain of; weapons murder, and politics kills. Only we can bring peace, collectively that is, if we stand united we can instigate the kind of categorical change we need to help the people of Syria out of the bloody conflict.

-By Suhail Patel

 

 

 

The murder of Lee Rigby


Left- Lee Rigby Right- Baha Mousa

Last week, as I’m sure you are all aware, British Army soldier and a Drummer of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, was killed by two attackers near the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich, south-east London.

The assailants were two British men of Nigerian descent, raised as Christians and converts to Islam.

I am a British born Asian man raised as a Muslim, so found the reaction to this story to be very harrowing indeed.

Of course, murder by its very nature is morally wrong in my opinion. The reasons for so are numerous and very easily formulated.

We ought not to kill another person, for doing so can be argued to cause more harm than good. Murder is wrong because we should not do to others as we would not like done to ourselves. We should not kill because we have no right to take a life. And so I could continue with the many philosophical arguments against taking a life.

So the outcry, the public unrest over the murder of the innocent man I can understand, and I can accept what these two men did was wrong and worthy of our condemnation.

Yet it seems absurd to me then, that the taking of Mr. Rigby’s life should result in more violence, more destruction and hatred against the Muslim population of Britain.

Surely we should use this opportunity to rise above the ill reasoned hate and blind dogma followed by the two “terrorists”?

I use this term lightly, for I maintain that the two suspects in this case are not politically motivated killers, but two disillusioned youths taken in by a dangerous way of thinking.

The same kind of thinking that has lead to the violent outburst against British Muslims, the attacks on their places of worship, and the religion they follow.

We must look at the facts when discussing such issue’s. We must also maintain a level of impartiality when analysing them.

So what do the facts tell us?

Statistics show that only 6% of all terrorist attacks from 1980 to 2005 have actually been perpetuated by Muslims.

I think this is a rather sobering statistic. Have the hate comments been justified in this regard? Is all this contempt for Muslims reasonable?

I read a frightening statistic the other day – 64% of people in the UK would want the death penalty reinstated for terrorists.

Is this really an appropriate response to the lone killing of two renegade killers? The attacking of Mosques, the use of social media to spread venomous hate and corrupting ignorance, surely this is not what free speech is all about?

The Woolich killer was created precisely by this kind of backward thinking – that one group of persons should be treated differently to others.

Ultimately it is this very kind of irrational reasoning that instigates atrocities such as genocide.

A recent YouGov poll suggested that the number of those who believe such clashes are inevitable is increasing – up by a staggering 9% from last year.

There has also been a small increase in the proportion of people who believe British Muslims pose a serious threat to democracy, up to 34% on Thursday and Friday from 30% in November 2012.

These beliefs are entirely unjustified, and all the more reason for those of us who have disposal of the facts, to speak up and be heard.

I read about the Association of British Muslims yesterday taking part a march in East London, in a show of solidarity with the family of murdered solider Lee Rigby. While I accept the intentions are wholly good, there is no omen on the Muslim population of Britain to apologise for Rigby’s death, nor is there any need for them to feel guilt over the murder.

Yes, we all mourn, we all shed tears for a life lost, taken so abruptly and unjustly in its prime.

Yet every day, every moment that we spend debating this issue, we spend trying to defend or defame the assailants, Rigsby, Muslims, the EDL – we fail to concern ourselves about the truly important issue’s humanity faces.

We’re fighting each other when we need to be working with one another to end global hunger, to absolve severe poverty and take humanity into a sustainable future.

Whilst people argue on social media over the death of one man, one soldier killed in the South East of London, well over 10,000 people today died of dysentery, an easily preventable illness.

On the same day Rigby died, several dozens were killed in our supposed war on terror.

Both sides are guilty of crimes, both ends of the spectrum are susceptible to the same narrow mindedness and short-sightedness.

The brutal murder of Rigby could very easily be compared to actions of the western military – such as the horrific torture of Baha Moussa, beaten to death by British soldiers; the savagery of the attack on Fallujah, were 800 civilians were killed, and the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, were the rights of native Palestinians are abused daily. 

Why are the EDL not concerned with this kind of murder, this kind of oppression? Why are the the majority of the British public not concerned with these killings?

In a previous post, I asked a profound question, and I will ask it again – What’s really important here? What lives matter more to us, and why?

Death knows no hierarchy, and I stand by this claim.

RIP to Lee Rigby, the soldier, the drummer, the brother and son, I hope the two assailants feel the full weight of justice. But once again, I hope to  extend my condolences to the forgotten, the lowly and downtrodden. The thousands that die daily silently and unknown, those who are murdered so cold heartedly through the pretence of war.

It’s sad to know that a majority of us in this country turn a blind eye to these daily injustices. The story I was fortunate to report on last week, about the homeless men having their sleeping bags stolen, was lost amongst the relentless onslaught of updates on the Woolich killing. Our most neglected, those of us most suffering and without a voice, their story was ultimately lost thanks to the uproar caused by this incident. It seems the noisy and ill informed are for more proficient at spewing their repugnant hate and unbridled rage then I was at bringing the plight of our homeless to the masses.

And it saddens me, it saddens me that organisations like EDL will march over the Woolich killing, but not world hunger. Why don’t these people tweet about Malaria, why don’t they speak up about solving our energy crisis, our food shortages, the rampant inequality that exists in this world? Why don’t we all use our voice and our efforts to create actual meaningful change in this world?  Because if we didn’t have poverty, if we didn’t have oppressive regimes and the destruction of war, the Woolich killings would of never happened. There would be no civic unrest in Syria, in austerity struck Greece and Spain, the racism and hatred, the rising death count born off increasing poverty and inequality – this I can guarantee you.

I want to see the same passion and enthusiasm people have for this issue taken to things that really matter. When it comes down to it, Rigby’s death has been a used as a political tool, as a device to spread hatred and ignorance both ways.

For the powers that be, a population that is busy fighting against one another, a society that is divided is far easier to control, far easier to keep in the dark to the real grave injustices being perpetuated in this world.

Open your eyes to beyond Lee Rigby and the two men who murdered him. Because we’re never going to create any meaningful change in this world hating, berating, and ultimately killing one another. The only meaningful progress we can achieve must come from love for your fellow man and woman, the spreading of peace and the pervading of equality for all living beings on this planet.