Sunday, 19 August 2007

A letter from SciAm

On an entirely different topic, an open letter from the Sept 2007 Scientific American issue, with good points and some great quotes.

Rational Atheism

An open letter to Messrs. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens
By Michael Shermer

Since the turn of the millennium, a new militancy has arisen among religious skeptics in response to three threats to science and freedom: (1) attacks against evolution education and stem cell research; (2) breaks in the barrier separating church and state leading to political preferences for some faiths over others; and (3) fundamentalist terrorism here and abroad. Among many metrics available to track this skeptical movement is the ascension of four books to the august heights of the New York Times best-seller list—Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation (Knopf, 2006), Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (Viking, 2006), Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great (Hachette Book Group, 2007) and Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006)—that together, in Dawkins’s always poignant prose, “raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one. You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral and intellectually fulfilled.” Amen, brother.

Whenever religious beliefs conflict with scientific facts or violate principles of political liberty, we must respond with appropriate aplomb. Nevertheless, we should be cautious about irrational exuberance. I suggest that we raise our consciousness one tier higher for the following reasons.

1. Anti-something movements by themselves will fail. Atheists cannot simply define themselves by what they do not believe. As Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises warned his anti-Communist colleagues in the 1950s: “An anti-something movement displays a purely negative attitude. It has no chance whatever to succeed. Its passionate diatribes virtually advertise the program they attack. People must fight for something that they want to achieve, not simply reject an evil, however bad it may be.”

2. Positive assertions are necessary. Champion science and reason, as Charles Darwin suggested: “It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds which follow[s] from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science.”

3. Rational is as rational does. If it is our goal to raise people’s consciousness to the wonders of science and the power of reason, then we must apply science and reason to our own actions. It is irrational to take a hostile or condescending attitude toward religion because by doing so we virtually guarantee that religious people will respond in kind. As Carl Sagan cautioned in “The Burden of Skepticism,” a 1987 lecture, “You can get into a habit of thought in which you enjoy making fun of all those other people who don’t see things as clearly as you do. We have to guard carefully against it.”

4. The golden rule is symmetrical. In the words of the greatest conscious­ness raiser of the 20th century, Mart­in Luther King, Jr., in his epic “I Have a Dream” speech: “In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrong­ful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.” If atheists do not want theists to prejudge them in a negative light, then they must not do unto theists the same.

5. Promote freedom of belief and disbelief. A higher moral principle that encompasses both science and religion is the freedom to think, believe and act as we choose, so long as our thoughts, beliefs and actions do not infringe on the equal freedom of others. As long as religion does not threaten science and freedom, we should be respectful and tolerant because our freedom to disbelieve is inextricably bound to the freedom of others to believe.

As King, in addition, noted: “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”

Rational atheism values the truths of science and the power of reason, but the principle of freedom stands above both science and religion.

Michael Shermer is publisher of Skeptic (

Saturday, 18 August 2007


Interesting things happening in the area of food-aid. Many NGOs, and recipient countries, are dissatisfied with some of the consequences of the way emergency food-aid is granted by many donor nations.

The basic summary is that very often (disregarding catastrophic and widespread famine or massive population displacements) shipping food from overseas actually has serious adverse consequences for the recipient.

This is particularly where food shortages in recipient countries are localised in only certain areas, and where on an aggregate basis there is sufficient food available, but market prices are rising due to localised shortages.

In these situations, granting cash relief to local populations is very often proving to be a much more effective mechanism than shipping food from overseas. This is because the
food donated is often that produced by Western (or, using the semantics of development, 'Northern') farmers benefiting from both significant trade barriers protecting their own domestic markets, and lavish subsidies which often result in excess production in the North (the CAP anyone?).

This food is effectively dumped by donors in the recipient countries, flooding their markets, distorting the price mechanism, and significantly adversely affecting local producers.

Local producers are therefore hit by a double-whammy, and there is often no incentive mechanism created for them to improve their own production techniques (e.g., through yield enhancement or investment etc).

The costing of such food-aid is also significantly raised by the shipping costs of transporting this food from the North. Such shipping of course typically being done by contracts granted to shippers from the donor countries...and the cost of such shipping also often being more than the value of the food-stuffs being transported! And then of course the time needed to actually ship the food means that it arrives much later (the US GAO itself estimates a 4.5 month timelag!)

"So what" is one instinctive response to this, since the local consumers are apparently spared
having to 'indulge' the profit-maximisation motives of their local producers. However, note that effectively they are instead indulging the similar motives the Northern producers! And the Northern shippers are not complaining either...

The acid test should be what is the most cost-effective (since this is ultimately paid for by the Northern taxpayers like you and me) and sustainable way of addressing the underlying problem of food-shortages (usually due to poor harvests rather than catastrophic nationwide famine).

And many NGOs and recipient countries are finding that giving cash to the people affected is actually a much more cost-effective and successful solution. The same $ (or £ or €) of Northern taxpayers' funds goes much further (and therefore buys more food) when it is not lining the pockets of Northern farmers or shippers.

Good old Keynes also comes into this, since the effect of people receiving cash which they spend within their domestic economy is to create a shorter-term consumption multiplier effect, as well as a longer-term investment multiplier.

There are also significant social multipliers that are being discovered. The recipients of this cash don't spend it just on food. They make independent consumption decisions, and actually have been found to spend some in capital goods for their own farms (like equipment or seedstock for next year), school fees for their children and so on. This also helps counteract one of the more longer-term debilitating factors of food shortages which is the diversion of people's assets and economic activity into areas which do not yield longer-term benefits for them - examples of this would be selling or liquidating assets like livestock to raise food or funds to buy food, working as cash-labour (often leading to population movements or family separations), stopping schooling and so on.

Quite a few agencies - including, of course, Concern Worldwide which has been trialling this in Malawi - are finding that such cash transfers are actually much more effective. Recipient countries like Eritrea are also making the point.

Lastly, this can also be linked to more subtle institutional improvements in areas such as financial access for the poor, womens' rights and so on. For example, early trials in some areas found that male recipients had a greater tendency to waste this cash (on alcohol and girlfriends!) than female recipients. So by distributing such cash to women, this improves the contextual environment for women, improves their position and makes them more vocal in general (and therefore for other matters as well).

In addition, rather than just handing cash out, by linking this to mobile-technology and smart-cards (with fingerprint details embedded) it starts creating an environment, infrastructure and awareness for other services that can work through similar channels, such as of course banking (and particularly saving) for the poor. If this sounds far-fetched, then look at this excerpt.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Severe Acute Malnutrition & CTC

I'm finding that I'm not getting as much time as I'd like to post (even though my course hasn't started yet!), so I'll keep this brief.

Severe Acute Malnutrition kills 1,000,000 children every year (source: WHO). That works out to 1 child every 30 seconds - 10 kids in the 5 minutes it takes to drink one cup of coffee - 60 kids in the half an hour on the tube in to work in the morning, and another 60 on the journey home. I briefly touched upon the Community-based Therapeutic Care (CTC) approach jointly spearheaded by Concern and Valid in an earlier post.

For those who might be interested, this press release and Joint Statement from the UN system (WHO, WFP, UNICEF et al) from June 2007 touches upon CTC, and effectively endorses it as their preferred approach for dealing with severe malnutrition and recommends member governments to adopt it within their public health systems.

As an aside, Concern Worldwide is also now on YouTube so that it is easier to see (as well as read about) some of their work. The first upload is a 10 minute feature on Chad and the spillover from Darfur.

When I have more time, I'll try and post something on an incisive - and very illuminating - book by a Cambridge economist.

Monday, 13 August 2007

Nature's Fury

Just a quick note to say that there is a book-launch of "Nature's Fury" on Wed 29 Aug from 6-9pm at the Bargehouse on Oxo Tower Wharf, Bargehouse Street, South Bank.

This is a photo & narrative piece prepared by Shahidul Alam for Concern Worldwide. The book focuses on the devastating earthquake that hit Pakistan in October 2005. This 7.6 richter scale quake officially left c. 75,000 people dead, 2.8 million people displaced and without shelter, and destroyed >1 million livelihoods (source: World Bank).

Alam travelled to the region after the quake and again in August 2006 to capture the initial effects, as well as the efforts people are making to rebuild their lives. Alam is a very talented photographer, has won several awards and has been a repeat jurist for the World Press Photo awards. He is also very active in transparency and communication work for otherwise neglected constituencies, and was one of the founders of Drik & Pathshala in Bangladesh - two leading independent photo agency and educational institutes over there. (Btw, check out this short retrospective in his blog on Muhammed Yunus and Grameen).

Concern Worldwide's communication and outreach work sets a very high standard indeed - they commissioned "Positive Lives", which won the Photojournalism prize at the Amnesty International Media Awards in 2006.

So, if any of you have time, then I would definitely recommend going to take a look. These photographs have drawn a strong reaction wherever they have been exhibited. If you can't make it, then click here for some samples (and the follow-through link for the August 2006 photos).

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Why Concern?

As some of you may know, I've recently become a new trustee of Concern Worldwide UK. So, what's so special about Concern - what do they do?

Concern started out with a shipload of emergency aid sent from Ireland in 1968 (when it was nowhere near the Celtic Tiger it's become) to what was then known as Biafra. It is now an international, humanitarian, non-denominational NGO active in 30 countries across the world.

It's focus is on reducing suffering and working towards an ultimate goal of eliminating extreme poverty in the world's poorest countries. (Cynics or sceptics may view this is as an "unrealistic" objective but that's the mission, and all we can do is aim towards it and start walking a step at a time - see the title of this blog! And if I may revert to my own cynicism, I think it's a better and more meaningful mission statement than any corporate one I ever came across in my banking days!).

I've followed their work for many years, and have been very impressed by their dedication, tenacity and most importantly their strong focus on results. This has led them to work very closely with others (whether they are other agencies, or indigenous partners in the field), and has resulted in the development of innovative and highly effective programmes with a very high marginal return. Such a field-based approach, in my opinion, also means that they stay close to the frontline of what is actually needed, what will work, and how that can be improved.

Working with partners also means that wasteful duplication is minimised or avoided, and working with indigenous partners means that solutions are built around the people who need them (not imposed by well-meaning outsiders) and that significant spin-off capacity building benefits also arise.

I'm fairly certain I'll be posting more about Concern in the future, so for this posting, I think I'll give just one example - Community-based Therapeutic Care ("CTC").

Initially devised by an organisation called Valid International, Concern and Valid have been collaboratively pushing this forward since 2001. You can find much more details on, but I'll summarise my own key takeaways here (they may well seem over-simplified for any expert readers, but they are not the intended audience for this).

Basically, traditional nutrition interventions in areas afflicted by drought and malnourishment have involved setting-up Therapeutic Feeding Centres, where severely malnourished people come for treatment.

This is obviously necessary for people who have reached such an unfortunately critical stage. But what if somehow nutritional supplements could be delivered to people before they reach this stage?

That's what CTC does. By using Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food ("RUTF") which is delivered through already established local facilities and community channels, CTC gets a very high nutritional package to people in the field through 'Outpatient' style sites.

RUTF is itself a complex carbohydrate based product, so high in slow-release nutritional value (for those of you who are marathon-runners, you'll click with this!) - which needs no refrigeration or water. This means it can be kept for longer time periods in the actual environment found in the field (no reliance on clean water or electricity).

By being delivered in the field, it also reduces the considerably disruptive process of people having to physically get to TFCs (often when they are physically compromised, and very typically over arduous terrain in acutely challenging conditions) - which also means taking them away from their homes and livelihoods.

This means that people who are moderately or severely malnourished but do not (yet) have any medical complications get nutritional aid in a more effective manner, and that the TFCs are then able to focus more on the people with medical complications who have to be treated on such an "in-patient" basis.

CTC has been recognised by organisations including the World Health Organisation, and UK's DFID as an innovative and effective treatment technique, with a significantly better effectiveness rate than traditional legacy methods. CTC is now being implemented in a number of countries and regions (including Malawi, Darfur, Southern Sudan, Ethiopia, Niger, Kenya, Bangladesh among others).

I'm sure this is a slightly over-simplified description for field-professionals (eg, it doesn't even touch upon second-stage developments such as interplay with HIV/AIDS strategies and collaboration with local domestic health authorities and infrastructures etc), but I find it helpful as a summary from my perspective as a layman. If you want more details, feel free to ask, or check out their website.

Saturday, 11 August 2007


If you're reading this, then thanks for clicking through. At my late age, I'm actually going to attempt to use some new-fangled (for me) technology, and instead of sending "bcc" emails, I'll post this blog. That way, those who are interested can read this, and those who aren't don't get unwanted messages!

I'll add the health warning that I have no idea how often this will get updated, or if it will be of any use - but, hey, nothing ventured nothing gained. I'll try and avoid navel-gazing, and keep it to facts that I discover in my new path which I think might interest, amuse, appal or intrigue people who know me from old paths. And of course, as an overarching disclaimer, and unless otherwise stated, any views that I express are done in a personal capacity only and do not necessarily reflect any institution or organisation.

Lastly, and as always, please don't be shy about feedback, criticism or mockery!