MATIJA FRANKLIN, TEISI TAMMING, SOPHIA GRAEFF BUHL-NIELSEN: WELL-BEING: RETHINKING THE AIMS OF A SUCCESSFUL POLICY – Aug 9th, 2018
Whatever the form or constitution of government may be, it ought to have no other object than the general happiness. -Thomas Paine, 1833
GDP: The existing approach to measuring government policy success
There is no single policy measure that can comprehensively capture the state of a society at a given point in time. Currently, GDP is mainly being used as a global proxy for national progress. We argue that this is an incomplete proxy, given that GDP is simply a measure for “the total market value of the goods and services produced by a nation’s economy during a given year”. Most notably, Simon Kuznets, the economist responsible for the development of GDP as an indicator of societal progress, contended that such a measure held value only insofar as it could contribute to an understanding of the well-being of the people of a nation. How can we know whether a policy is successful with such limited measures?
Using GDP as the only measure for a nation’s welfare has two noteworthy issues. First, not all market activities can be monetized. Specifically, there are several public goods and services that produce psychological, rather than economic, costs and benefits, and thus are not easily captured by more traditional economic indicators such as GDP. Many externalities may substantially improve or decrease citizens’ quality of life, and are thus important to take account of. To give an example, one famous study measured self-reported life satisfaction of people living in areas with different airport noise. The study found that this externality had a significant effect of life-satisfaction. Another case that is not fully captured by GDP is unemployment. Unemployment can have serious financial implications, but its impact on well-being has been shown to go beyond the loss in income. Unemployment leads to a myriad of negative psychological and sociological effects, including a loss of self-esteem, social status, and confidence. Altogether, it is evident that certain market activities are not quantifiable in terms GDP, and thus it cannot capture the many psychological factors that occur as the outcome of market activities.
Second, GDP provides a limited reflection of an individual’s’ quality of life. This was first noted by Richard Easterlin (1974) who published data that questioned whether GDP growth leads to more well-being. His results revealed that past a certain threshold, there is a minimal correlation between GDP and life satisfaction. Since then, this finding has been replicated multiple times. A famous meta-analysis explored the link between GDP per capita and well-being around the world using results from all available surveys conducted from 1995 to 2007. The meta-analysis integrated findings from 111 independent samples from 54 economically developing countries. The study found that the average economic status-SWB relation was strongest among low-income developing countries (r = .28) compared to high-income developing countries where the relation was weaker (r = .1). These same findings were replicated with a meta-analysis of data from the World Values Survey. The findings were interpreted with need theory. Need theory proposes that assets and income have a larger influence on SWB when they are able to satisfy the most basic physiological needs, such as food, water, sanitation, shelter and clothing. Once these basic needs are met, the additional economic resources have a lesser effect on SWB. Thus, a country’s GDP would not be able to fully measure the effects of income on life-satisfaction and happiness, once people’s basic needs were met.
Therefore, if GDP is complemented with measures that capture a nation’s well-being, policy makers will have a more complete, multi-dimensional and precise reflection of the state of a society. Psychological research on well-being is both empirically and theoretically developed enough to complement economic measures of prosperity for public policy. Thus, we propose that well-being provides valuable information to complement existing economic measures of national progress. Well-being can allow policy makers to better design policies that improve individual’s lives, according to what individuals value.
Subjective well-being: A solution to the measurement problem
Thanks to an increasing amount of reliable data and improvements in measurement techniques, subjective well-being (SWB) can be used as a more direct measure of a society’s well-being, and thus be used to inform policy decisions. As previously discussed, GDP, income and poverty levels are limited in what they can tell us about how people evaluate the quality of their own lives. That is why an increasing amount of evidence shows that SWB can be an effective way of estimating how people respond to changes in policy. Policy-makers have the opportunity to capture the multiple facets of public well-being in order to comprehensively assess and design policy according to what the public values.
Most well-being researches converges at this conclusion – well-being is a multidimensional construct, comprised of both hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Hedonic well-being is the pleasure attainment and pain avoidance aspect of well-being. It reflects person’s life satisfaction and the experience of positive and negative emotions. Eudaimonic well-being is a person’s experience of meaningfulness and self-realisation. It includes aspects of well-being such as the perceived meaning in life, autonomy, competence and self-acceptance.
There are many reasons why policy makers should aim to measure well-being. First and foremost, measuring the average SWB of citizens within a nation is a more direct way of gauging well-being. Since governments and policy makers should serve their citizens, SWB is a desirable policy outcome measure. Furthermore, increased population SWB can have many spillover effects in other important sociological, psychological and behavioural domains. A meta-analysis of numerous studies has shown that happy individuals are more likely to be successful across multiple life domains, namely friendship, income, marriage, health and work performance. This happiness-success link does not only exist because success makes people happy, but also because positive affect causes an increase in success. Happiness is associated with and proceeds many successful outcome, as well as behaviours which promote success.
Thus, measuring SWB is not only a good proxy of people’s life-satisfaction and happiness, but can also increase positive outcomes in other domains such as health and work performance. Well-being is affected by many factors, but also affects many other domains in people’s lives. Thus, by measuring policies in terms of increases or decreases in well-being, one could better tailor policies. These policies would not only be aimed at increasing well-being, but also the many other life domains that come along with it. These other behavioural and psychological domains have not been captured successfully by GDP measures.
Previous utilisation of subjective well-being in policy
Just as the OECD was a principal proponent of the adoption of GDP as an indicator of societal progress, it has been at the forefront of promoting a transition to the use of a measure of well-being to inform policy decisions. Indeed, there has been a rapid rise in commitment to the measurement of well-being from a multitude of institutions: following the 2007 Istanbul World Forum, other supranational organisations including the European Commission, the United Nations, the UN Development Programme and the World Bank pledged recognition to the importance of measuring well-being for the purposes of public policy. Declarations of the importance of collection of such data has in part stemmed from the high calibre research in the field of well-being, demonstrating the possibility of meaningful gauging this concept on a population-level. However, it also came to the fore due to the aforementioned limitations of current indicators, which provoked conferences such as the European Union’s ‘Beyond GDP’ (November 2007), where possible alternative indicators were discussed.
The measurement of well-being has not exclusively been promoted by international groups, but has seen significant progress made by a number of national governments. One particularly notable example in this respect was the decision by the French government in 2008 to convene a special commission involving the participation of Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen to review the indicators of economic and social progress used in France. Amongst the conclusions of this Commission was that the time was suitable to make a transition toward a system of measurement that emphasises individual experience and well-being over economic production. This conclusion received great endorsement by the then President Sarkozy, who oversaw the updating of the French national statistics body in accordance with the final findings of the report, and claimed he would encourage other nations to do similarly. Other nations have carried out parallel initiatives emphasising the need to collect well-being data, including Luxemburg and Hungary. Country-specific assessments allow for autonomy in terms of determining what might be more culturally significant in a particular region, however might be limited in terms of making international comparisons.
Certain individual pioneers of well-being have also been met with success in shaping policy. For example, in the United Kingdom Economist Richard Layard established the Centre for Economic Progress after becoming persuaded by the notion that we should aim to use assessments of well-being as a supreme indicator of societal progress. He campaigned vigorously for the importance of mental health and well-being, and was critical in improving government allocation of resources in this domain: he played a crucial role in implementing the governmental programme Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT). It was in part due to his efforts that in 2010 David Cameron announced that well-being would be integral to government policy and that regular collection of these data would be undertaken. Beyond his work domestically within the United Kingdom, Layard co-founded an international movement known as ‘Action for Happiness’ that actively involves over 90,000 individuals worldwide. In both popular and political domains, the call for a focus on well-being has attracted dedicated adherents.
Measuring subjective well-being
An extensive set of tools has been developed to measure different aspects of well-being, both hedonic and eudaimonic separately, and together. The following is an overview of the various measures which can be used selectively measure certain aspects of well-being.
Some SWB measurements allow people to self-determine what they think is important and desirable in their lives, and allow people to express the quality of their own lives accordingly. Such measures include the satisfaction with life scale which has shown to capture both stable influences on well-being, such as personality, and more dynamic influences that change during the life span. Another scale in this category is the Subjective Happiness Scale which measures dispositional happiness.
Eudaimonic well-being can also be assessed separately through a range of scales. The PERMA profiler measures positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and achievement. The Ryff’s Well-being Scales encompass autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth, positive relations with others, purpose in life and self-acceptance.
Various scales have also been developed to capture both hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. These allow individuals, organizations and governments to decide which aspects of well-being to prioritise, observe how they compare to others, and develop ways to enact change in the desired areas. The Healthways Well-being Index includes life evaluation, emotional health, physical health, healthy behaviours, work environment, and access to basic needs, whilst the organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has combined 11 topics which are considered essential to the quality of life and created the Your Better Life Index. In the Better Life Index, individuals can decide how important each of the topics is for them, allowing to evaluate the areas which need improvement. The Social Progress Index has a unique utility in that it ranks countries according to three equally weighted criteria – basic human needs, well-being and opportunity for social mobility. The greatest advantage of these multidimensional indexes is their descriptive nature. Through employing rich data, policy makers can be better equipped to not only decide what factors they should prioritise, but also to design and assess public policy accordingly.
Before outlining our recommendations, we would like to point towards the WEBMAT interactive tool for advising the best well-being measurements for users’ specific needs. It takes into measure purpose, application and length into account. The tool is available here. This tool is essential for the proper utilisation of our recommendations.
JACK MCGUIRE, MATIJA FRANKLIN, JAKE REYNOLDS, JOHNNY HUGGIL: FUTURE OF BEHAVIOUR CHANGE INTERVENTIONS – July 30th, 2018
People’s behaviours and decisions do not occur in a vacuum. They are influenced by a myriad factors. Choice architecture is an approach that simplifies people’s behaviours and decisions by looking at how changes in a person’s immediate environment affects their behaviours and decisions. A vital aspect of this approach is the fact that choice architects can cause a predictive change in behaviour. This means that, on average, people will be more likely to behave in a certain way, or make a certain decision, in a particular situation. Choice architects can thus promote a desired decision or behaviours with the use of powerful policy tools – nudges. A nudge is an indirect technique aimed at influencing the choices and actions of groups and individuals without limiting or forcing options. Nudges that people encounter every day are alarm clocks, GPSs and labels on food packaging. A classic example of a nudge used in policy is the automatic enrollment of citizens in particular programmes. Specifically, if people are automatically enrolled in retirement plans, their savings tend to increase significantly. Thus, by cleverly utilising the behavioural insight that people tend to stick to a default setting, choice architects have been able to promote a myriad of behaviours that are beneficial to the individual (e.g., enrollment in health care plans) and society (e.g., enrollment in post mortem organ donation programmes).
An underlying principle behind the philosophy of this approach is that it is a liberty-preserving approach that guides people in a particular direction, but also allows them to make their on choices. Thus, nudges differ from mandates, bans and policies that take the form of economic incentives. Nudges can make people’s lives more simpler because they make the decisions people need to make easier. Ultimately, nudges can improve people’s health and wellbeing. This is why people that use this approach identify themselves as libertarian paternalists. Choice architects are aware of the myriad of factors and mechanisms that underlie human behaviour and decision-making, which can often lead to outcomes that can be detrimental for the individual. That is why the aim is to steer people’s behaviour and decisions in a certain direction, while still preserving full freedom of choice.
Even though people may have intuitively used this approach before, nudging as a term has been coined relatively recently, and is still not used by most governing bodies. This policy paper aims to serve as a guiding document for governments and organisations that wish to harness the full power of this approach. It will do so by recommending future research in this field, as well as methods that fully utilise recent technological developments, such as the advent of big data and machine learning.
Measuring Behavioural Spillovers
Behaviours are not standalone – they cause ripples   . This essentially means that undertaking one behaviour (e.g. “I recycling at home” ) can influence how we behave in the future (e.g. “So it’s okay that I use carbon intensive vehicles” ) due to a variety of – relatively unexplored – mechanisms of decision making. In the above example, for instance, it is theorised that individuals who recycle more at home may feel that their ‘good behaviour’ gives them the moral licence  to act badly in other ways   . Indeed, one study reports that Norwegian individuals who own electric cars felt less morally obligated to behave pro-environmentally compared to conventional car owners . These ripples are called ‘spillovers’ and they are imperative to consider in the next steps of empirical Nudge research, in order to design and predict policy interventions that have meaningful impacts; currently, research and understanding are distinctly lacking  .
Importantly, spillover effects can either be positive or negative. Sometimes spillovers promote consistent behaviours (e.g. “I’m exercising, so I may as well also eat healthily”), but equally sometimes spillovers promote behaviours that act against successful change (e.g. “I’m exercising, so I deserve this chocolate dessert”) . For policy, this means that with further empirical insight into spillover mechanisms it may be possible to design Nudge interventions that work to actively harness positive spillovers, and avoid negative ones .
Research into positive spillovers exists, and is of interest to policymakers. For example, there is a wealth of literature documenting interventions in buying green produce  or driving in a fuel-efficient style  can prompt an upkeep of a suite of un-targeted pro-environmental behaviours. To date, however, little research has been undertaken to investigate the psychological mechanisms that support positive spillovers  , giving a limited window of insight into what future policymakers could consider when designing nudges. Some psychological processes have been pinpointed as involved in manufacturing positive spillovers , but the tangibility of data to policy remains limited. For example, cognitive dissonance   can help explain why positive spillovers may occur, as the avoidance of internal discomfort drives us to behave consistently , but policy research investigating how to harness it remains largely fruitless . This represents an important future step for research as such an understanding would be invaluable for designing impactful nudge interventions.
Similarly, research into the mechanisms unpinning negative spillovers from nudges withstands comparable drawbacks : despite some important work, the extent to which data can really inform policymaking is limited. For example, evidence demonstrating that participants who imagine teaching homeless children later donate less to a relevant charity  does well to document the existence negative spillovers, but leaves open questions about the underpinning mechanisms. Dolan & Galizzi  discuss a variety of explanatory mechanisms – spanning moral licencing , ego depletion , and the resting-on-laurels effect , amongst others – but the questions for policy still remain: when is a given nudge likely to prompt a positive spillover, and when will it manifest negatively?
In order for spillover research to be useful for nudge, there needs to be guidance for success . Therefore, further research into the context and correlations of spillovers is needed. For example, some evidence suggests that positive spillovers are more likely than negative spillovers when completing the target behaviour is perceived as more costly   . It is suggested that completing costly and effortful behaviours (i.e. demanding physical exercise) self-signals commitment to a given motivational cause  so people behave consistently and positive spillovers occur (i.e. eat healthily as well). Similarly, positive and negative spillovers are differentially predicted depending on whether a target behaviour has been completed already or not  . In some contexts, positive spillovers of behaviour are more likely when a behaviour is incomplete  , which is explained by incompletion signalling that something is missing and the need for progress . A growing wealth of studies – such as these – have much more tangible recommendations nudge design, and they reflect a necessary step for the future of nudging.
As the spillover field develops further, it is important for policy research to address other existing drawbacks. For example, there is a current overreliance on laboratory studies . Such studies need to be complimented by experimental field studies to begin addressing this problem . Next, there is a methodological under-emphasis on the longevity of spillovers  . A recent study on the longevity of pro-environmental spillovers revealed that positive spillovers fade over time , demonstrating the importance of longitudinal studies in spillovers. Moreover, further research is warranted on cross-domain spillovers   as exploring these unexpected relationships could shed light on the psychological mechanisms underpinning them. The future of nudging rests on its ability to encompass spillovers within intervention design, but necessary empirical stages must be undertaken before this is a plausible feet.
A further consideration future policymakers and organisations should take into account if they want to utilise the full capabilities of nudge theory is investigating in greater depth the importance of individual differences. Research is beginning to elucidate in more detail when and why certain individuals respond more effectively to some nudges and less so to others. The implications of this are important for policymakers because it highlights two critical points: (1) differences among individuals can moderate nudge effectiveness, and (2) this can transpire into unintended negative consequences in cases where nudge interventions or policy instruments have been poorly designed. In the following, we highlight three important areas of individual difference which interact with nudge effectiveness. These are past behaviour, socio-demographic factors, and personality traits.
First, data on a person’s past behaviour can provide policymakers with a valuable tool for refining nudges and increasing the probability that a target behaviour will occur. One key example of this was demonstrated with the use of social norms – a popular nudge tool that utilises the power of social comparison – on energy consumption. The study found that providing a descriptive normative message about the average energy usage of homes in their neighbourhood was much more effective for households which consume a greater-than-average amount of energy, compared with households which consume less-than-average and for this group energy consumption actually increased. However, the unintended negative effects – referred to as a boomerang effect – found in the less-than-average group were successfully reversed when the descriptive normative message was coupled with a smiley face emoticon, indicating the social desirability of their consumption level. Moreover, a similar influence of past behaviour on nudge effectiveness has also been shown in tax payments, where descriptive and injunctive norm messages were less effective on taxpayers who had been late in paying their tax in either of the preceding two tax years, when compared with taxpayers who otherwise pay them on time. These insights present a challenge for policymakers and behavioural scientists to begin developing interventions which are tailor made to sub-groups that exhibit a higher threshold for behavioural change.
Furthermore, individual differences in personality traits can also moderate the effectiveness of framed messages on promoting a desired behaviour. For instance, several studies have highlighted the particular importance of effortful self-control when the framed message contains an injunctive norm. For injunctive norms, people who report higher levels of impulsivity are less likely to exhibit behaviour in the desired direction. These insights have important implications for large-scale nudge interventions which aim to increase socially desirable behaviours. Policymakers should consider targeting people who demonstrate a capacity for high self-control when deploying messages which appeal to what is widely considered good behaviour, as this type of message is possibly wasted on those who do not. The same logic also applies for policymakers that hope to influence a target population which typically exhibits high levels of impulsivity, such as promoting healthy eating behaviour in obese populations where difficulty with impulse control is particularly pronounced. The use of injunctive norms as a behavioural nudge tool in this case is likely to yield a suboptimal outcome.
Socio-demographic data poses a third and final consideration we put forth to policymakers to take into account in the design of future nudge interventions. Although some initial studies have demonstrated the impact of factors such as socioeconomic status (SES) and geographic location on interventions looking to change health-related behaviour (e.g. quitting smoking), research in this domain is underdeveloped and the breadth of influence socio-demographic factors have on various intervention outcomes remains largely unknown. We present socio-demographic factors, therefore, as a fruitful candidate for further academic inquiry which can aid in the optimisation of intervention design in the future. For instance, sociodemographic factors have already been shown to predict household energy consumption, obesity, alcohol consumption, and smoking. Additional studies have also linked these differences with various psychological factors such as stress and self-control. As previously discussed, past behaviour in some cases can significantly impact nudge effectiveness. As the relationship between sociodemographic factors and a myriad of important behaviours is evident, it stands to reason that sociodemographic factors are likely to also impose a substantial influence over nudge effectiveness. By using socioeconomic information as a lens by which subgroups that exhibit key moderating behaviours can be identified, policymakers may better equip themselves in identifying new opportunities for developing more effective nudges.
The effects of tailored interventions on behavioural outcomes are clear. Although in the past drawbacks such as cost, data availability, and technological know-how have inhibited the scalability of this approach, with the emergence of machine learning and artificial intelligence upon us, the capacity for policymakers to deploy interventions that are tailored to the individual-level but produce nationwide impact goes unrestrained.
1) We recommend that governing bodies should provide more funding towards research examining whether or not the effects of nudges wane over time for behaviour that requires continuous effort.
2) We recommend that governing bodies should investigate further the influence of individuals difference on nudge susceptibility and to incorporate these insights to a more tailored approach to designing interventions.
3) We recommend that governments and policymakers should investigate more thoroughly the wanted and unwanted behavioural spillovers incurred by government intervention.
NORA KALINKSKIJ: Conference on ISIS with MIGMO, Russia – November 12th, 2015
The Wilberforce Society hosted a conference with the Russian State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) last Thursday to discuss “The Threat of ISIS – a regional analysis”. The discussion focused on possible collaboration between the UK and Russia on the path to defeating ISIS.
Britain and Russia share an interest in the Middle East primarily because of oil and natural gas resources. In 2009, Syria refused the construction of a gas pipeline that would enable Qatar to directly supply Europe with gas from Turkey. This pipeline would have levied European dependence on Russia for natural gas resources. In 2012 Syria entered in collaboration with Iran and Iraq to build an alternative pipeline, which could, if extended in the future, provide Iran with a means of directly supplying Europe with gas. The construction of this pipeline would mean the increase of Iranian influence in the Middle Eastern region, extending into Europe, which is against British interests. The UK, on the contrary, seeks to contain the spread of the influence of Iran, a strategic Russian ally. Russia in furthermore interested in Syria because of the military strategic position is holds on the Mediterranean coast: Russia has a military base in the port-city of Tartus. Both the UK and Russia are therefore interested in having an influence in the Syrian region.
The UK and Russia are both interested in defeating the Islamic State, which poses a grave terrorist threat not only to both states, but also on a larger, global scale. Russia in particular is sensitive to the escalation of terrorist activity in the Caucasus, as highlighted by MGIMO, whereas the UK is increasingly concerned with preventing terrorist attacks at home, especially after the recent ones in Paris.
Though both Russia and the UK share the aim of defeating ISIS, they support opposite sides of the Syrian civil war, Russia backing the Assad government, the UK supporting the opposition forces. Since, a month and a half ago, Russia has begun an intervention against ISIS and terrorist cells within the opposition groups, after a request for aid from the Syrian government, the UK finds itself in a difficult position. Backing Assad at this point is not foreseeable, as TWS explained to their MGIMO colleagues. The UK would experience too much public pressure against such a move, but, most importantly, this sudden reversal of position would mean a fall in the UK’s global credibility. In accepting Assad’s government the UK would be perceived as making concessions to Russia.
Supporting the opposition forces, even the ones that the UK considers to be “moderate”, would mean a high risk of clashing with Russian forces on the ground, which could have unforeseeable nefarious consequences. Furthermore, it remains difficult to identify the alignment of opposition groups, to differentiate “moderates” from extremists. Therefore, supporting the opposition means risking indirectly supporting terrorist cells.
There is a need of cooperation between the UK and Russia. To this end, TWS proposed supporting the Peshmerga (Kurdish military forces) in Iraq. The Assad government and the Russians do not view the Kurds as enemies. Therefore, it is foreseeable for the UK to collaborate with Russia on intelligence with the Kurds about Kurdish positions and ISIS targets. In that light, the UK would, TWS proposed, be ready to enter into minimal collaboration with the Assad regime, because of the necessities of war, while still not officially recognizing its legitimacy.
Providing military support to the Kurds would not be perceived as an outright challenge to the Assad government backed by the Russians: in supporting the Kurds, the UK would be intervening against ISIS in the region, where it needs a foothold, without directly clashing with Russian forces.
MGIMO questioned why the UK is unwilling to send troops to fight on the ground in Syria. TWS responded that, besides unfavourable public opinion, there is a risk of entanglement in the region as previously occurred with the Iraq of 2003. If British troops engage on the ground in defeating ISIS, their presence is likely, after ISIS’ defeat, to be determinant in preventing the redevelopment of such an organization in the Middle East. In providing military support for the Kurds, the UK will be empowering local groups to deal with terrorist threat. Suggested military aid would take the form of some light weaponry, and mainly technical and intelligence support, which can be relatively efficiently withdrawn.
TWS acknowledged that relationships with Turkey could deteriorate as a result of the proposed policy. TWS stated that defeating ISIS is a priority for the UK, and a priority for Turkey as well. Supplying military aid to the Kurds is an important step towards achieving this goal of defeating the Islamic State. Therefore, support should be given to the Peshmerga now, with the promise of international negotiations between local powers –Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran in particular – with Kurdish representatives, in order to reach a compromise on relative Kurdish autonomy. Global powers such as the UK, Russia and the USA would be present at these talks. Through this diplomatic strategy, TWS seeks to appease the Kurds in the present, to minimize the risk of the UK’s military assistance to be used against Turkey.
The conference between TWS and MGIMO ended on a hopeful note that some collaboration may eventually be achieved between the UK and Russia against ISIS. Since the conference occurred, there have been further talks between British and Russian leaders on military collaboration against IS.
AGUSTIN FERRARI BRAUN: ANOTHER CHANCE – THE REFUGEES’ GIFT TO THE EUROPEAN UNION – September 9th, 2015
This article reflects the views of the author, and not necessarily of The Wilberforce Society, which publishes this article in hopes of spurring a productive discussion on the topic.
Two weeks ago, the newspapers showed Germany’s worst face to the world. The country, still a synonym for Hitler for many, was represented by the violent neo-nazis attacks against refugees’ asylums. Hate, fear and xenophobia seemed to be Germany’s answer to the pleads of thousands of asylum-seekers that saw in that country a promised land far removed from the Middle East. And yet, today the nation’s image has radically changed. The violence is no longer at the center of the public eye (which does not mean that it has vanished) and what we see today is Munich police’s tweet asking citizens to stop bringing goods for the refugees as they had already enough to supply the needs of the people that would arrive that day and the day after.
Please do not bring any more goods for the Moment.The donations at hand will be sufficient for the refugees present and arriving today.
— Polizei München (@PolizeiMuenchen) September 1, 2015
The image that the rest of Europe is showing to the world is way less flattering. If we were optimistic we would say that it is the image of a bunch of blathering Brussels bureaucrats. If we were pessimistic we would assert that is rather one of police brutality and barbwire on the borders. None of them are exactly positive. The picture of Aylan, a three-year-old kid lying lifeless in a Turkish beach was so unbearable, so intolerable that our governments had to do something about the migratory crisis we are living in. And most of them did, creating a mad cacophony of different possible policies. Yet, we lack one single and unique decision about what to do shared by all the members of the European Union, the one trade block in the world that also has a political dimension.
The EU is not going through its easiest moment, the Grexit fear is no longer with us but Cameron’s referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership has a very tall shadow and it is an almost tangible proof of the union between the Old continent’s countries’ fragility. It is in that context that the largest migratory crisis in European soil since World War II takes place. One could think that this is the perfect occasion for the politicians to show that Europe can agree, that solidarity and moral values count more than political distinctions. Nevertheless, what we actually receive is the factual demonstration the incapacity of European governments to understand that union means strength.
David Cameron has announced that the United Kingdom will receive more than 20.000 refugees over five years but his major political play was revealing a targeted drone strike that killed two British soldiers of Daesh in Syrian soil back in August. This operation will hardly help the asylum-seekers, the Syrian population or even the war on terror but it clearly shows that Albion has its own particular policies regarding the Middle-East. Another, different, plan was presented by the French president François Hollande the very same day willing to give accommodation to 24.000 people but also planning bigger deportations of economic migrants. A weird cocktail that seemed consciously prepared to annoy both the Left and the Right. Yet, one of the most unbelievable cases happened in Spain where the cities ruled by the opposition have a different policy plan on asylum that the government. The migrant crisis is far too vast to expect a solution from one single state and the only ones that benefit from all those crossed declarations are the eurosceptic who can point out this mess with a sardonic smile and state the obvious inutility of the EU.
It is precisely the multiplication of eurosceptics that has to force the EU to make a move: one of its major flaws has always been its incapacity to produce a coherent discourse, shared by all its members, when it comes to significant geopolitical affairs. If this historical drawback is not overcome we, the ordinary citizens, are going to have to agree with Farage, Le Pen or Orbán and admit that Brussels is just a retirement home for politicians ending their careers. The migratory crisis we live in is a perfect occasion for the EU to prove the eurosceptics wrong but that means a consensus and common policies all across the continent involving both internal and foreign affairs.
The common domestic policy has to be based on an agreement between all the European leaders establishing how many refugees each country is going to receive and when they have to be received. Moreover, the agreement has to recognise that the people that are waiting just outside our borders, waiting to get into the Shengen Area will eventually pass and hence they have to be accounted for in the pact. This logically leads to the tear down of the walls created with the will of keeping the asylum-seekers out of Europe. In addition to that, the EU must help the different governments, especially the Greek one that is absolutely overwhelmed by a triple crisis (political, economical and migratory), in order to be sure that the different temporary asylums count with, at least, the minimal facilities needed to have satisfactory living conditions. Finally, European functionaries have to be where the refugees arrive in order to coordinate their correct distribution across the continent.
However, the hardest task for the EU is the common foreign policy. As almost every single commentator of this crisis has stressed, welcoming the refugees will not end the terrible situation of the Syrian people. The only way that our leaders seem to consider for ending this circumstance is a military intervention. Yet, before we start launching the rockets, they have to define very well the aims of the mission keeping Europe’s interests in mind. Syria’s strategic location is crucial for the distribution of pipelines in the Middle East, hence there are many economic interests; the European governments must not answer too promptly and without a careful analysis on what is the best for both Syrians and europeans. A quick attack can win some credit for the leaders on a short term basis but it could eventually bring more chaos and destruction to the region which would be terrible for us, the people that rely on them.
We are very well aware of the fact that those policies are going to be very expensive but with that money we could buy two things: firstly, a unique and coordinated answer of the EU to this crisis would save many lives and spare a lot of suffering to the refugees that had to flee their homeland. Secondly it would give the EU some political legitimacy that could help it face the new challenges that are right around the corner. As we said at the beginning of the article, Europe’s global image is nowadays full of barbwired xenophobia. The politicians can change that and, while doing so, start rebuilding the European dream; or they can stick to their individualities, keep on using contradictory policies and show the world that, at the end of the day, the EU is nothing but a trade block with a superiority complex.
MYRTO VLAZAKI: YEAR 2015 REVEALED THAT NOT ALL IMMIGRANTS WERE BORN EQUAL – September 5th, 2015
This article reflects the views of the author, and not necessarily of The Wilberforce Society, which publishes this article in hopes of spurring a productive discussion on the topic.
Historically, the traditionally affluent states of Europe have never been particularly receptive to immigrants; especially to impoverished, unskilled, illiterate, religiously heterogeneous migrant groups. Despite its clearly demonstrated reluctance to offer opportunities to groups deemed “undeserving”, Europe has undeniably made some efforts to save face by devising long, complicated, bureaucratic migration policies that would ultimately allow a small fraction, the crème of this group to enter the European land of promise. It has been long since Europe as a continent and the European Union as a politico-economic construct last faced a migration crisis as intense and persistent as that of the years 2014-15 and September 2nd was the day that distinctively set this migration wave apart in the chronicle of European ethics and politics. September 2nd was the day the photograph of drowned three-year-old Aylan Kurdi made the headlines in all major newspapers and other media around the world. September 2nd was also the day that showed – in the most tragic way possible- that not all immigrants were born equal.
Immigration is so commonly used a term that by means of its high frequency of use alone it has established itself as an unquestionably accurate umbrella term to characterise all kinds of population influx. For example, the subtle adjectival discrimination of “political immigration” from “economic immigration” is qualitatively inadequate to convey the very different stereotypical ideas Western societies have for each of the aforementioned. This notable difference in the reception of these two classes of immigrants may have been the reason why ultimately the term “refugee” was born, a term that: a) etymologically proclaims the cause over the mere state of immigration and b) is morally and socially charged unlike the descriptive nature of the term “immigration”. If the genesis of the term “refugee” were indicative of a profound intention to zoom in and carefully examine the wildly different shades of immigration, it would bear good news for the levels of empathy and altruism in our societies. It is not, though. The term “refugee”, albeit a subset of the term “immigrant”, still remains an umbrella term including people leaving their countries due to political instability, war violence and limited religious and sexual freedom. What is, then, left as the only signified attached to the signifier “immigrant”? Economic immigrants: the only type of immigrants who are not included in the umbrella term “refugees”, a choice not randomly made. The corollary of this almost linguistic discussion is clear in that the only criterion that has hitherto appeared compelling enough to be included in the process of refinement of the concept of immigration has been the economic status of the individual.
“The corollary of this almost linguistic discussion is clear in that the only criterion that has hitherto appeared compelling enough to be included in the process of refinement of the concept of immigration has been the economic status of the individual.”
The linguistic analysis may appear unconvincing to many, but a quick look at some key migration policies in the E.U. as well as their adjustment flexibility will corroborate our conclusion perhaps more convincingly. The example of Germany is characteristic of the trend in most E.U. member-states. The reformed immigration laws of 2005 in Germany as well as the introduction of the European Blue Card in 2012 made no room or provisions for either legalising illegal immigrants or accepting individuals without university-level education. On the contrary, migrating to Germany would require a university-level degree and at least three years of work experience/training unless one held a student visa that would allow him/her to attend a German university and would give him/her a year after completion of studies to seek employment. Examining the legislation relevant to asylum-seekers and refugees, one finds herself in a completely different, far more lenient legal framework with quicker and more clear-cut administrative procedures (<6 months) and more optimism for the outcome. The gist of this discussion remains similar to that of the previous analysis; E.U. countries do make room for refugees (as defined in the previous section) and well-educated, skilled immigrants but stubbornly refuse to engage with the primordially philosophical and subsequently political question: “Why and on what terms are economic immigrants so different from all other immigrants?”
E.U. countries systematically make room for refugees (as defined in the previous section) and well-educated, skilled immigrants but refuse to engage with the primordially philosophical and subsequently political question: “Why and on what terms are economic immigrants so different from all other types of immigrants?”
If the reader eventually concedes to what is, in my opinion, apparent to the naked eye, i.e. to the blatant political and social marginalisation of economic immigrants as opposed to the (limited but still present) tolerance towards all other immigrants, then what remains to be examined is why this is the way it is. Two plausible explanations that also happen to represent different ideological stances towards the status quo can be set forth, one slightly more optimistic than the other. One could argue that it is not economic immigrants who are inherently inferior in their claims or severity of their need, but 20th century historical circumstances which inescapably highlighted and made a case for humanitarian crises tightly associated with war and violence. The photographic sensationalism prevalent in the post-WWII era and the shocking and widespread experience of a large-scale war may have tipped the balance in favor of establishing a narrowly nuanced use of the term “humanitarian victim” in which only persecution and violence were legitimate causes. In this context, the claims of a famished individual who systematically lives in conditions of absolute poverty and has no work rights were superseded by the storm of emotionally moving statements and images of war, thus bequeathing Europe a very narrow prism from which to perceive and judge human need.
“The photographic sensationalism prevalent in the post-WWII era and the shocking and widespread experience of a large-scale war may have tipped the balance in favor of establishing a narrowly nuanced use of the term “humanitarian victim” in which only persecution and violence were legitimate causes.”
The second explanation, which is by no means mutually exclusive with the first, attempts to explain why in times of peace and faced with an overwhelmingly high ratio of economic immigrants-to-refugees in absolute numbers, Europe is still insensitive to the claims of the former. The answer may be that poverty and all the negative externalities associated with it is the pivotal difference that sets economic immigrants apart in the political and collective conscience alike. I dare say that a European may be in principle equally sensitive to the claims and tortuous history of both an economic immigrant and a refugee, albeit treats each of them differently on purely consequentialist grounds, i.e. both the economic immigrant and the refugee have equivalently compelling reasons to want to leave their home country but the former is treated more inhumanely than the latter because of the fear of welcoming an economically less able stereotypically poorly educated and inclined to criminality individual in a prosperous European economy. We set economic immigrants apart because we are afraid of them; for the sake of accuracy, our economic structures are afraid of supporting them because our social, educational and training structures have shown no real intention to give them opportunities for integration.
“We set economic immigrants apart because we are afraid of them; for the sake of accuracy, our economic structures are afraid of supporting them because our social, educational and training structures have shown no real intention to give them opportunities for integration.”
What tragically proved that this separation is real was the death of Aylan Kurdi as opposed to the deaths of anonymous foreigners, the interest of the media and the interview of the father as opposed to the silencing of deaths and their grouping into a single number, the mere diffusion of the knowledge that Aylan had a father who mourned for his loss as opposed to bodies that no relative ever tracks down. 2015 was the year we were all told an undeniable truth: that not all immigrants were born equal in the eyes of political leaders and capitalist European societies.
This article reflects the views of the author, and not necessarily of The Wilberforce Society, which publishes this article in hopes of spurring a productive discussion on the topic.
MYRTO VLAZAKI: AN INSIDER PERSPECTIVE ON THE LATEST FROM GREECE – July 14th, 2015
As a result of the January 2015 elections, a coalition government was formed by the left-wing SY.RIZ.A. and the right-wing AN.EL., the agendas of which converged on the systematic negotiation of the lending conditions with Greece’s creditors. Contrary to what appeared to be the policy of most elected parties since 2009, both SY.RIZ.A. and AN.EL. extended their popularity by being adamant in that they would strike the best deal possible instead of accepting the creditors’ proposals outright. It can be undoubtedly said that after 5 years of deep recession, increasing unemployment, reduction of spending power and psychological erosion, the hurt national pride and the desperate search for hope and social justice were amongst the main determinants of SY.RIZ.A. and AN.EL. popularity.
A REFERENDUM WITH CLOSED BANKS…
To the average person that struggles to abstain from fanaticism it remains unclear whether this government was greeted with suspicion by its European partners and whether it managed to fulfill its mandate or not. The fact remains that the negotiations with Greece’s creditors yielded no result for more than 5 months although there was a number of times that the two sides were allegedly close to a deal. By the end of June and while it appeared that all parties involved were irritated and exhausted by the nature and repetitions of the negotiations, the Greek government decided to call for a referendum asking its people whether to accept or reject what was advertised as the creditors’ “final” proposal. Meanwhile, as a result of massive withdrawals of cash and the decision of the European Central Bank to not inject more money into the Greek banking system, the government decided to impose capital controls with an upper limit of 60 euros/day/account and close the banks.
THE “PARADOX” OF CLOSED BANKS IN A EUROZONE COUNTRY…
The imposition of capital controls and the closure of banks are both unambiguous and strong indicators that the Greek identity is changing. Before the implementation of these desperate measures and despite the high unemployment and media sensationalism, the youth were still convinced that Greece is a developed country at the heart of a European family with whom they share more than just common continental territory. The youth would occasionally complain about their “inability to find a job” and the “need to migrate abroad” but, broadly speaking, they would be optimistic in that this “hard decade” will soon be replaced by the “normal years” they had spent their childhood in. Nobody had ever informed us that our childhood years were the exception and not the rule in the economic history of Greece; nobody had ever warned us that the living standards we had become accustomed to were the result of monetary and fiscal policies that would perhaps be out-of-the-table in the years to come. But, on top of this, nobody had ever presented the European Union and the Eurozone as political, commercial and monetary unions of countries with well-defined, heterogeneous and inflexible policies and interests. On the contrary and rather ironically, half of the course on political science in the Greek educational system is dedicated to the idealized description of the founding principles of the United Europe.
The majority of the Greek people were raised and educated to be pro-Europeans. They believed that the reason for borrowing money from the European institutions and not from the free market far superseded the “lower interest rates”. They believed that Europe cared first and foremost about the developmental horizon of a country’s economy and the viability of its debt and, furthermore, they believed that Europe would prioritise decency over market rules. These were the reasons why many of the approximately 62% of the Greeks voted against the creditors’ suggestion in the referendum held last week. The voted “no” despite the clear warnings that such a result may endanger Greece’s position in the EU and the Eurozone and they did so despite the very rational fear of hyper-inflation and credit isolation in the case of a Grexit. They did so because they felt betrayed by this Europe they were raised to so much love.
WHAT IS NEXT…
Over the next few days, the government continued negotiating with Greece’s creditors in the aim of forging a new deal. The “no” vote was safely interpreted to be a “no” to that particular suggestion and not a “no” to Europe. Although many analysts wondered why this was the case, having been through the Greek educational system I can say with certainty that most Greeks take pride in the contribution of their very distant territorial ancestors to the founding principles of Europe: solidarity, democracy, dialogue, peace. And they would never abandon a Europe following these principles. The news of a deal arrived today, followed by the twitter hashtag “#this is a coup” and the average Greek person just realized that the suggestion he voted “no” to can become truly worse by a Europe that is clearly different from his textbook knowledge. The problem is that while it remains open to debate whether Europe is indeed the Europe presented in Greek textbooks, the Greek youth is dividing between those who say “no” to Europe and those who say “no” to THIS Europe.