Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Human Rights Watch

Philanthropy – the Last Refuge of the Scoundrel?

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday October 8 2014.

I am not sure who originally came up with the phrase “Philanthropy – the last refuge of the scoundrel”. I first encountered it in an article published in October 2012 by the novelist Howard Jacobson on the subject of Jimmy Savile. Savile used his reputation as a philanthropist to sexually abuse children. I recently encountered a use of the phrase in a book by James O’Toole: Creating the Good Life: Applying Aristotle’s Wisdom to Find Meaning and Happiness, published in 2005. James O’Toole is the Daniels Distinguished Professor of Business Ethics at the University of Denver. O’Toole shows how a range of people embarked on quests that led them closer to achieving a good life based on awareness and values rather than riches and fame.

Aristotle: “To give away money is an easy matter and in any man’s power. But to decide to whom to give it, and how large and when, and for what purpose and how, is neither in every man’s power nor an easy matter.”

 

I recently became embroiled in an argument on Facebook about Otara and Odels. Someone who thought he was supporting my point of view wrote that Otara should be spending her philanthropic funds on people rather than dogs. Compassion is not a zero-sum commodity. Anyone who loves animals is likely to have empathy for people. People who are cruel to animals – GW Bush, Jeffrey Dahmer, Fred West, Prabhakaran- are likely to be cruel to people. A friend of mine who is engaged in practical hands-on animal welfare was sceptical when Otara embarked upon Embark, predicting that it was a publicity stunt. I chided her for her cynicism but there has been criticism of how Embark operated. We will see how it goes now that Otara has more time to personally supervise it.

 

Noisy Philanthropy

 

I do have issues with celebrity philanthropy. The late Paul Newman raised $150m for various good causes. He explained a dilemma: “One thing that bothers me is what I call ‘noisy philanthropy’. Philanthropy ought to be anonymous but in order for it to be effective, you have to be noisy. Because when a shopper walks up to the shelf and says, ‘shall I take this one or that one?’ you’ve got to let her know that the money goes to a good purpose. So there goes all your anonymity and the whole thing you really cherish”.

 

Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics

When I was working with my cynical friend on an animal welfare campaign, her daughter had the brilliant idea of approaching ethical philosopher Peter Singer for support. Peter Singer has a motto: “make a difference”. He certainly made a difference to the way I live my life. Way back in the 1970s, I read articles by Singer in the New York Review of Books that made me see things in a radical new light. His subsequent books Practical Ethics and Animal Liberation reinforced the message of the articles. Singer argued that the boundary between human and “animal” is arbitrary. He popularized the term “speciesism”, to describe the practice of privileging humans over other animals. I was rather disappointed when Singer asked me to remove his name from my mailing list. He was not interested in giving painless direct help for the welfare of animals by simply lending his name.

Outsourcing Compassion

In “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”, Singer argued that it is morally indefensible that some people enjoy surplus abundance while others starve. When one is already living comfortably, a further purchase to increase comfort will not have the same moral weight as saving another person’s life. Singer claims to donate 25% of his salary to Oxfam and UNICEF. He acknowledges that there are problems with ensuring that charitable donations are effectively spent.

In Joseph O’Neill’s latest novel, The Dog, the main character, X, is concerned about the working conditions of construction workers in Dubai. He deals with his concern by paying 37% of his gross salary to Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch. This sounds like a big sacrifice but it is a comfortable way for X to delegate his conscience. O’Neill makes blatant the bad faith of Singer’s thinking. Singer’s method of giving means that it does not matter whether the money does anything to relieve suffering or poverty but it certainly boosts the giver.

 

Bono – Mrs. Jellyby in a Ten-Gallon hat

Novelist Paul Theroux has noted the similarity between the secular saint known as Bono and the philanthropic Mrs. Jellyby in Dickens’s Bleak House. Mrs. Jellyby tries to save starving Africans by financing coffee growing, making pianoforte legs for export and bullying people to give her money for those purposes. Theroux wrote in the New York Times on December 15 2005: “There are probably more annoying things than being hectored about African development by a wealthy Irish rock star in a cowboy hat, but I can’t think of one at the moment.”

Bono says at U2 concerts, “We don’t want your money, just your voice.” Bono wants you to give the government your money in taxes and spend it for him. Bono’s ONE organisation wants Western governments to spend tax dollars on development and aid programmes. Many voices, those of William Easterly and Dambisa Moyo the most eloquent among them, have argued that aid does more harm than good to the countries receiving it.

Theroux taught in Malawi as a volunteer Peace Corps teacher 45 years ago and knows the country well. Despite large amounts of financial aid, Malawi “has declined from a country with promise to a failed state.” “I would not send private money to a charity, or foreign aid to a government, unless every dollar was accounted for – and this never happens.”

In 2008, Bono’s ONE Campaign raised $14,993,873 in public donations — of which only $184,732 (or just over one percent) was distributed to charities. More than $8 million went to salaries for executives and employees at ONE.

In 2008, New Internationalist readers chose Bono as their Artful Dodger of the year. For many years, Bono’s home country of Ireland had not taxed the income of “artists”. Then the Government decided to set a cap of $200,000 a year – a fortune for most artists, but not for U2. Ireland is still a corporate tax haven and Bono would have done well enough had he decided to stay home. The Netherlands offered a more attractive deal, because of its link with offshore tax-havens in the Antilles. It seems that Bono wants ordinary people to pay through their taxes for his causes but does not want to pay tax himself.

Geldof

 

I was one of those caught up in the mass hysteria generated by Live Aid in 1985. I responded to Bob Geldof’s exhortations to pay up to save the starving Ethiopians. Live Aid turned Geldof from a has-been pop performer into a global charity superstar. Not everybody was impressed. World Music champion Andy Kershaw wrote of the Wembley concert: “It became clear that this was another parade of the same old rock aristocracy in a concert for Africa, organised by someone who, while advertising his concern for, and sympathy with, the continent didn’t see fit to celebrate or dignify the place by including on the Live Aid bill a single African performer.”

Alex de Waal estimates that the relief effort may have cut the death toll by between a quarter and a half. However, critics say that NGOs were complicit in the Ethiopian government’s “resettlement” of 600,000 people from the north while enforcing the “villagisation” of three million others. Donor governments and mainstream relief NGOs turned a blind eye while government officials raided refugee camps. This was a totalitarian scheme masquerading as a humanitarian effort. The conservative estimate of those dying en route is 50,000. MSF’s (Médecins Sans Frontières) estimate is double that. Asked about allegations that 100,000 had died in the transfers, Geldof said, “in the context [of such a famine], these numbers don’t shock me.”

Ethiopia remains one of Africa’s poorest countries. Whilst making a fortune for charity Geldof has also shown an aptitude for making himself rich. One of his companies, Ten Alps Communications is Britain’s fastest growing media, entertainment and marketing company. The company deals with some unsavoury allies, creating “branded environments” for BP, Glaxo Smithkline and Microsoft, and even the British Foreign Office. When Geldof tried to relive Live Aid with Live8, Nestlé, BAE Systems and Rio Tinto sponsored some of the concerts. Nestlé has been accused of benefiting from the HIV/Aids epidemic in Africa by selling more milk substitute products; Rio Tinto, the world’s largest mining corporation, has been condemned for human rights and environmental abuses; BAE Systems, according to Mike Lewis of the UK’s Campaign against Arms Trade, is “fuelling conflicts across Africa”.

Many people involved in the Make Poverty History (MPH) campaign were not happy with Geldof. He chose to hold Live 8, without consulting the MPH organisers, on the same day in 2005 as the main MPH demonstration in Edinburgh, stealing most of the media coverage. Geldof praised Tony Blair and GW Bush for saving millions of African lives and promoted the Washington Consensus of free trade, foreign direct investment and privatisation.

 

 As with Live Aid in 1985, Geldof was criticised for not including any African musicians. At the final press conference that concluded the G8 summit in Gleneagles, the South African activist Kumi Naidoo acted as spokesperson for Make Poverty History gave the coalition’s verdict that: “The world has roared, but the G8 has responded with a whisper.” Geldof turned on Naidoo in front of the assembled media, attacking his statement as “a disgrace”. African civil society representatives went on television afterwards to make public statements dissociating themselves from Geldof’s remarks.
Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie was a practical philanthropist. He knew how to make money and he knew how to use it effectively. Carnegie established charitable organisations that are still active nearly a century after his death and he set the template for other philanthropists through his well-written thoughts on the theory and practice of charity. Carnegie urged the wealthy to provide for themselves and their dependents and then make it their “duty” to use the rest of their funds for their communities. He warned successful men who failed to help others that “the man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.” Modern day rich givers like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have expressed a Carnegie-like wish to divest themselves of their wealth.

 

This echoes The Buddha’s aphorism about the wealthy man who enjoys his riches without sharing, digging his own grave. Those of us who are not wealthy would be advised to give directly to those in need rather than outsourcing to huge corporations or overweening rock stars. Make a difference to the poor not to the rich.

 

Privatisation of Punishment for Profit

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on June 30 2014.

I have written before about the American prison system. Those articles were prompted by the irony of American politicians and NGOs criticising Sri Lanka for keeping 350,000 displaced people in camps in 2009. There are more than 2.3 million people in US prisons, more than any other nation on earth, a half million more than China, which has a population five times greater than the US. America has 751 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 in population. African-Americans account for 12% of the US population, but 40% of the US prison population. In 2005, 8.1% of all black males aged25 to 29 were in prison.

Does the Punishment Fit the Crime?

Americans are locked up for crimes that would not warrant incarceration elsewhere. One is shocked to read in Dickens or Hugo about people being executed or transported to Australia for stealing a loaf of bread. Bill Clinton’s “three strikes” law means that a lengthy sentence can be imposed for stealing a slice of pizza. The law made it necessary to build 20 new federal prisons. One prisoner received three 25-year sentences for stealing a car and two bicycles.

More than 200,000 youths are tried as adults in the US every year, and on any given day, 8,500 kids under 18 are confined in adult prisons. Only 34% of those in juvenile detention are there for violent crimes; many are confined for running away from abuse at home. 12.1% of young people questioned in a survey said that they had been sexually abused at their current juvenile detention facility during the preceding year. Rates of HIV/AIDS are several times higher inside US prisons than outside, just as they are much higher among black Americans than white. As rape is a common in US jails, incarceration for trivial offences can amount to an unadjudicated death sentence.

The Prison-Industrial Complex

The US prison system is a multimillion-dollar industry with its own trade exhibitions, conventions and websites. At least 37 states have legalised the contracting of prison labour by private corporations, including Microsoft and IBM, to operate inside state prisons. The number of prisoners in private prisons tripled between 1987 and 2007. By 2007, there were 264 such prison facilities, housing almost 99,000 adult prisoners. Prison bonds provide a lucrative return for capitalist investors such as Merrill-Lynch, American Express and Allstate. Prisoners are traded from one state to another for profit.

The highest-paying private prison company is CCA (Correctional Corporation of America). CCA’s prisoners receive 50 cents per hour for “highly skilled positions”. For any infraction, CCA inmates get 30 days added to their sentence, which means more profits for CCA. Between 1982 and 1994 the prison population of the USA rose 2.7-fold and most of the newly convicted were fit young people, mainly unemployed. Was this coincidence or was the increase in the prison population deliberately engineered to provide a large but very cheap work-force to meet the needs of labour-intensive industries?

There was certainly one example of a judge who was a major shareholder in a private prison who had no compunction about sentencing young men to work in his prison to increase his profits.

Reducing Prison Population

However, things may be changing. In the past few years, politicians from both major parties have begun to turn against mass incarceration. Attorney General Eric Holder has routinely condemned the “inadvisable and unsustainable” policies that have made America’s prison population by far the largest in the world. Even Republican presidential contenders are having a rethink. In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie has denounced a “failed war on drugs that believes incarceration is the cure of every ill.” In Texas, Governor Rick Perry has redirected two billion dollars from the prison economy toward alternatives like drug treatment. Incarceration rates have slowly declined since 2010; conventional private prisons may no longer be a growth industry.

Offender-Funded Justice

There are still ways to turn a profit. Sarah Stillman, (who once vividly described the plight of Sri Lankan migrant workers in the Middle East) in an excellent article in the New Yorker, recounts the tale of a woman who was arrested and jailed for a string of traffic tickets that she was unable to pay.

(http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/06/23/get-out-of-jail-inc).

A judge sentenced the woman to two years of probation with Judicial Correction Services, a for-profit company. She would owe JCS the sum of two hundred dollars a month, with forty of it going toward a “supervision” fee. She paid whatever she could, but when she lost her job, she often could not pay. Her total court costs and fines soared from hundreds of dollars incurred by the initial tickets to $4,713, including more than a thousand dollars in private-probation fees.

Federal law in the eighteen-thirties abolished debtors’ prisons. However, people across America are routinely jailed for fees and fines that they are too poor to pay, fines and probation that are supposed to be an alternative to prison.

Many courts allow probation officers to decide whether an offender possesses the financial means to pay their fines and probation fees. When that probation officer is the employee of a private company, this creates a direct conflict of interest. A probation company’s revenues are entirely derived from the fees probationers pay them. Companies’ financial interests are often best served by using the threat of imprisonment to squeeze probationers and their families as hard as possible.

 

Profitable Alternatives to Prison

Private-prison corporations themselves have seen the opportunity for profit in alternatives to prison. The industry aims to shift the financial burden of probation directly onto probationers. Often, this means charging petty offenders for a government service that was once provided free. These probationers are not just paying a court-ordered fine; they are typically paying an ever-growing share of the court’s administrative expenses, as well as a separate fee to the for-profit company that supervises their probation and enforces a payment schedule.

Correctional Healthcare Companies claims that it deals with the “full spectrum” of offenders’ lives: “pre-custody, in custody, and post-custody.” The GEO Group runs private prisons all over the world (including the UK). There have been many deaths in their premises. They are now expanding into “community re-entry services”, treatment programmes and electronic-monitoring. In 2010, Judicial Correction Services made the magazine Inc.’s list of “the fastest growing private companies in America,” for the third year in a row. JCS’s fees included $240 for a course in something called “Moral Reconation Therapy.” CCA bought a California-based enterprise called Correctional Alternatives.

Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch recently published a harrowing survey. The report was based largely on more than 75 interviews conducted with people in the states of Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi during the second half of 2013. It describes patterns of abuse and financial hardship inflicted by the “offender-funded” model of privatised probation that prevails in well over 1,000 courts across the US. It shows how some company probation officers behave like abusive debt collectors.

 

http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/us0214_ForUpload_0.pdf

Blood from a Stone

 

The courts issue thousands of arrest warrants for offenders who fail to make adequate payments towards fines and probation company fees even though the original offence carried no real threat of jail time. In Georgia, Thomas Barrett pleaded guilty to stealing a can of beer and was fined US$200. He was jailed for failing to pay over a thousand dollars in fees to his probation company, even though his entire income—money he earned by selling his own blood plasma—was less than what he was being charged in monthly probation fees.

 

Legal Challenges

Legal challenges to “offender-funded justice” are mounting, amid concerns about abuse, corruption, conflicts of interest and the use of state penalties to collect private profits. In a wide range of cases, “offender-funded justice” may not result in justice at all.

The business of many private probation companies is built largely on the willingness of courts to discriminate against poor offenders who can only afford to pay their fines in instalments. It is a blatant conflict of interest when the companies making a profit are allowed to determine how much an offender can afford to pay. Financial incentives colour their judgement.

In Alabama, people know the town of Harpersville as a speed trap, a stretch of country highway where the speed limit changes six times in roughly as many miles. Traffic fines were the biggest business in the town of 1,600. In 2005, the court’s revenue was nearly three times the amount that the town received from a sales tax.

In July 2012, Judge Hub Harrington of Shelby County, Alabama halted Judicial Correction Services’ aggressive pursuit of fines owed the Harpersville Municipal Court. He stated:”From a fair reading of the defendant’s testimony, one might ascertain that more apt description of the Harpersville Municipal Court is that of a judicially sanctioned extortion racket.”

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