"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
On occasions I’m guilty of spreading a message that everything is a mess - the human race is heading to hell in a handcart. It’s a position that's fed by myopic observation of all that’s going wrong. Heaping weight is a 24-hour news feed, with its looping coverage of death, disaster, war and mayhem.
Digesting all that suffering can overwhelm even the most robust individual. Thus, it’s refreshing to hear the words of Steven Pinker, the Harvard scientist. Pinker is one of the public intellectuals helping us to think about the future.
In his new book, Enlightenment Now, Pinker asserts that despite what the news tells us, by every measure humans are better off than ever. Our well-being and safety are higher than at any previous point in history. And he has plenty of data to support this argument.
Sifting through it all, certain facts jump out at you. Life expectancy is increasing across all countries and cultures. Even in Africa, which lags the developed regions, average life-expectancy has risen from 40 in 1960 to 70 years. Research indicates that by 2045, the world average life-expectancy will be around 75 years. In 1960, it was 45 years. That’s a stunning improvement.
Better medical care, plus the sharing of facts on hygiene pushed up childbirth survival rates. Add to that the decline in extreme poverty, while undernourishment is also dropping. All of which creates a healthier population, with less premature death.
Never underestimate the impact of global programmes to prevent common infectious diseases. With illnesses contained or eradicated, societies free-up human capital for development. This is a self-perpetuating process. One consequence is that literacy rates have exploded; 36% could read and write in 1950. Today that figure is climbing towards 90%. With that progress comes a multitude of benefits as knowledge spreads.
One comfort is the education of women, who can then take control of their reproductive cycle. Removed from being broodmares, girls stabilise societies by bringing population growth under control. Look at Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore. Birth rates continue to fall despite incentives and initiatives from well-meaning governments.
Today, we are about 7 billion people. The experts reckon the human population will peak at about 9 to 10 billion in 2050. Then it will likely go into decline. Statistician Jorgen Randers argues it may happen sooner. His projections take into account the downward impact of urbanisation on fertility. Randers predicts a peak in the population in the early 2040s at about 8.1 billion people. Then a rapid decline, as ladies stop having children. It's happening already in many modern countries.
It's probable that we can feed 9 billion people with our modern system of agriculture. Then, as the population levels out, the pressure to produce food and use resources reduce. In turn, this provides relief for the environment. We know that as people prosper, they place more emphasis on ‘quality of life’ issues. That has a notable impact on policy.
Scientists identified this phenomenon some time ago in the 1950s. The Kuznets Curve, named after Simon Kuznets, addresses the idea. It indicates that market forces first increase and then decrease economic inequality. In environmental terms, Kuznets’s ideas point towards deterioration in pollution. Then we reach a tipping point. After that as per capita income increases, the pollution gets less.
China displays this effect. As the country modernised, the people accepted smog as a consequence of industrialisation. Now they clamour for the clean-up, with the government responding to these demands. Polluting industries are closed, with new technology deployed to mitigate any environmental impact. In short, a middle-class is emerging, that wants clean air and water.
The world is also a much less violent place. In broad-terms crime is down. Murder rates have fallen for decades and continue on a downward trend. Domestic violence and child abuse are declining in the West. At the same time, since the 1960s, deaths in war have plunged by a factor of 20. Further, the conflicts that do take place are less deadly.
In the 1950s, the average number of war deaths was around 86,000 annually. Today that figure is about 5,000. Better trauma care is a factor, but also the lack of prolonged ‘slog it out’ engagements.
The big question, though, is what does science have to say about how we structure our societies. What is the optimal model, if any? Is there a system that provides a significant opportunity for humans to flourish? Pinker has something to say on this, although his assertions come with some caveats. There are many studies of these issues. The control groups are well-known; East and West Germany, North and South Korea, and Chile and Venezuela.
The evidence points towards market economies giving opportunities for the majority to prosper. But, regulation of these markets is crucial, to create a level playing field. Then you add a social safety net. This will catch those that fall by the wayside, care for them and then - hopefully- return them to a productive life.
As societies become affluent, it’s the norm that more money gets diverted to social spending. This includes caring for the young and old folks. Likewise, the people expand their thoughts in time and space, to contemplate long-term issues. Hence, the drive to tackle pollution.
Pinker also concludes that top-down authoritarian regimes produce poor long-term outcomes. I guess most of us recognize that. The lack of checks and balances, with power focused in a small clique, produces disparity. This can take the form of economic and social injustice. Such regimes collapse, although when and how remains hard to predict. For example, no one saw the collapse of the Soviet Union coming nor its rapidity. Making such predictions is fraught with uncertainty.
The thinkers amongst us (no, I’m not claiming that title) appear optimistic. If we can survive the next few decades, the long-term prospects look good.
And so, while all our data indicates improved human well-being, we can’t be complacent. We still keep the ability to wipe ourselves out. Nuclear weapons present the most significant controllable threat. Climate change will also have an impact, yet we can likely ride that out. A pandemic could wipe out a good number of us. Despite that, it's unlikely to bring about the extinction of the species.
Nuclear weapons wouldn’t kill us all in the first blinding blast. No, the demise would creep-in as a nuclear winter blocked the sun, cutting off our food supplies. Depending on how long the dust lingered in the atmosphere, we’d struggle to cling on.
Having said that, it’s encouraging that we have some control. Get the nukes out the equation, and our chances as a species look about even.
Depending on who is speaking, there are polar opposite views on Brexit, and not much between. On one side are the ardent Brexiteers. For them, this is the last chance for Great Britain to save itself from cultural suicide. Take back control of the borders and the legal system, to be free of silly EU rules. Reassert national sovereignty is the mantra.
In their realm, the people have spoken in a wave a popularism against the European project. Rejecting a narrative that peace will only come with a trans-national agenda, a blow lands on the complacent political elites.
It’s worth remembering that the European project was, in part, fueled by a repudiation of the nation-state concept. After two world wars kicked off in Europe, an idea germinated. Remove state control, then operate across trans-national borders to avoid future conflicts.
The Brexiteers see a bright future, in the sunlit uplands - Churchillian voice please - with free trade to the world. They see a Great Britain find a role it lost with the demise of Empire, at the centre of innovation and commerce. Banished is the old agenda of managing decline, which permeated policy since 1946.
Some people go so far to suggest a new Anglo-sphere of countries upholding Western values. They cite the election of Trump; another one in the eye for the established order. The rise of nationalism in Europe supports their view. Even the once mighty Angela Merkel looks compromised. She’s paid for opening Germanys borders to a million refugees with mayhem and unrest to the streets. German womenfolk suffered as gangs of young male asylum seekers behaved appallingly.
Under Teresa May’s lacklustre leadership, the ruling Conservatives stumble through the negotiations. The EU is at times petulant, at times pleading and then stern. Like a scorned ex-wife, they want revenge for daring to walk away
On the other side, the Remainers hold that Brexit is an apocalyptic event. They feed economic scare stories as their standard rant. Everyone will be worse off after Brexit - it is, and can only be a disaster. For them, Britain cannot exist outside the EU.
Those opposing Brexit seek to demonise the other side. Here’s Labour stalwart Owen Jones in full flow.
“It is a rallying cry for a noxious alliance of anti-immigrant demagogues and regulation-stripping free marketeers. The bigotry, xenophobia and racism stirred up by the official leave campaigns injected an ugliness into British politics which never dissipated, and left hate crimes surging."
Of course, Jones is part of the metropolitan elite that despises the Anglo-Saxon working class. He hates the lifeblood of the old Labour Party. Jones and his mates exist in the London bubble, and he dare not venture north to face the former Labour heartland. For that reason, he fails to understand why folks 'up north' voted out. Playing the ‘racism card’ with ease, he ignores his inherent prejudices. The disconnect new Labour has with its roots is stark.
Meanwhile, the Labour position on Brexit is far from clear. Party leader Corbyn is playing a game of deliberate befuddlement. If Labour committed to overturning Brexit, they’d haemorrhage as many as three million voters who backed leave. That would lose them seats.
Corbyn, it appears, prefers the posturing of permanent opposition, rather than the messy business of government. Then he can remain ideological, uncompromised, pure, disdainful and sit above the fray. H knows that being in government means having to make tough choices and real decisions.
At the same time, voices exist for a second referendum. That’s illogical because you could go on infinitum until you it got the right result - whatever that might be? It’s true that some who voted out didn’t grasp all the consequences. Then, you’ve got to consider the fact that the young proposed to remain, while the older folks wanted out. That has opened up another schism. That’s democracy at work; messy and imprecise.
Let's consider some stuff we do know. Great Britain hasn't always been in the EU, and others exist well enough outside its remit. It occurs to me that the only reason the UK will be economically worse off is that the EU is protectionist.
Yes, arguably, the EU has protected people from illiberal governments in the past. But why should we look to the EU for this? It’s hardly a great argument that you need protection from our government. If that’s a concern, sort out the national government.
I’d also ask who gains from the status quo. Certain institutions benefit and the types who populate them. Neil Kinnock, Peter Mandelson and others have made significant sums from the European project. Tony Blair is another one who wanted to get in on the game, although thwarted. These people have been able to mobilise others to argue for the status quo. Which, of course, first benefits them.
The vote to leave can’t be wished away as if it never happened. Brexit needs to occur so that the British public experience the consequences of their decision. Otherwise, this debate will go on and on. Fear of change is inherent, especially when no one, least of all Teresa May, has a clear vision for the future.
It’s probably too late, but worth re-stating. The great error of the EU was to bypass the wishes of the population. It structured itself around politicians-cum-bureaucrats, rather than rooting itself in democratic institutions and making sure that it had consent.
The media is in an uproar. Oxfam, the leading charity, has covered up sexual exploitation by its aid workers. The allegations include refugees employed for sex, with donations allegedly funding the fun. The story broke around incidents in Haiti. Since then its moved on to cover claims of abuse of young girls working in UK charity shops. In a matter of days, the Oxfam brand has suffered irreparable damage. Executives are resigning, government funding threatened as donations fade.
Hollywood types, who virtue signal as charity ambassadors, have run for the hills. They’ve done the calculation. It does not sit well with their ‘brand’ having an association with sex parties. What did they think was happening in Hollywood? Millie Diver, having basked in the limelight of Oxfam’s work, took three days to decide she was gone. A tacit admission she was only using Oxfam for publicity. Some friend in need.
Is anyone surprised by these allegations? None of this came as a shock, given the things I saw dealing with international charities and refugee agencies. They operated as any corporation. Each had a culture that placed their clients, the refugees, well down the pecking order. They were inflexible, partisan organisations.
My first exposure was in the early 1980s, to the work of United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Later, came ‘Doctors without Borders’ and others, including Oxfam. All fronted up in Hong Kong, apparently to help us deal with our burgeoning Vietnamese refugee crisis. With hundreds of desperate refugees arriving each week, we had a mess on our hands. Diverted from my regular duties, I found myself in unknown territory. I was to receive, feed, house and secure the refugees.
The first Vietnamese arrived in 1975, after the fall of South Vietnam. By the 1980s, about 100,000 were in camps pending screening and resettlement overseas. Tiny Hong Kong accommodated over a quarter of a million Vietnamese refugees between 1975 and 2000. That’s a staggering achievement when the local population was only five million.
Former government official Clinton Leeks, was in charge of policy for much of that period.
"We always knew in reputational terms we had little choice but to try to treat the people coming humanely and try to find a solution for them," he recalled.
Thus, the government didn’t turn them back to sea. Instead, it mobilised all its available resources to help. Then, it appealed for international assistance. That was to prove a double-edged sword. Many charities came with strings attached.
My own experience involved a little known Vietnamese Refugee camp called Erskine. Located in rural Sai Kung, this former military barracks is now the site of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
It’s 1990, with Vietnamese shuffled around camps to defuse trouble. I'm assigned to take over the site, prepare it to receive the refugees and act as liaison with staff from the UNHCR. The run-down camp has filth everywhere and no proper perimeter fence. A sloping site didn’t help, with trees and dense vegetation encroaching on all sides.
My staff set about cleaning things up, working with casual labour hired for the job. We identified a command post and office space in the few serviceable huts. Then the UNHCR staff arrived. They would not move-in until the offices were ready, with air-conditioning. They declined to share an office with the police. For impartiality, they’d need separate secure accommodation. At that stage, my officers had no changing facilities nor canteen. We’re eating rice boxes in the open.
‘Doctors without Borders' were next up. Appointed to look after the medical needs of the refugees, they demanded another separate building. Moreover, police officers must stand guard while they treat patients. They declined an opportunity to enter the camp to inspect the bathrooms and washing facilities. I was beginning to get a sense these people were not the help we needed. Their comfort was more important than getting the job done.
With the accommodation only partially ready, we started receiving Vietnamese families. No single men, but a few young unaccompanied females. This arrangement made management of the facility relatively easy. Without the young men, the potential for trouble lessened. We soon had a kitchen up and running, with volunteers and Vietnamese working together. It was far from ideal, but they had roofs over their heads, bunk-beds and three meals a day.
The aid agencies had opted not to move in citing the fact the offices were unacceptable. Meanwhile, their publicity machine was in overdrive telling the world what a marvelous job the UNHCR was doing in Hong Kong. After a month, I relinquished command of the camp to proceed on leave. By then ‘Doctors without Borders’ were making weekday visits. For the weekend, we conveyed sick refugees to the hospital because the noble charity workers didn’t cover us.
Some months later, a disturbance at Erskine had police using batons to break up a fight. UNHRC staff made public statements critical of the police action. Then, without a sense of irony, demanded a report to assess if the camp was safe for them to operate.
Meanwhile, senior UNHRC officials flew business class to Hong Kong to berate us on the conditions in the camps. The British government, then responsible for Hong Kong, took a hands-off attitude. For example, the British Forces did little to help deal with the Vietnamese Refugees.
Relations were never cordial between the refugee charities and us. Conflicting priorities and different agendas drove a wedge between us. The police felt they couldn’t trust the charity groups to be fair when violence arose. They didn’t understand our swift response to signs of potential trouble.
The UNHRC promised the Hong Kong Government that it would cover the bill for housing the Vietnamese. To this day the UN owes Hong Kong HKD 1.61 billion. Payment is now unlikely.
The charities I dealt with had highly-paid bosses, fancy offices, large staffs and dominant media teams. They had no qualms about attacking us, while operating under our protection. Thus, it's no surprise that the recent revelations have come to light. Charities are businesses, which if left unchecked will exploit people; both the donors and those they're supposed to help. Consider that the first world has sent more than US$1 trillion to Africa over the past 50 years. Extreme poverty still blights the continent, but the charity business is doing well.
That tells you everything.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.