This Remembrance Day, it’s time for a new English pacifism

This Remembrance Day, it’s time for a new English pacifism
Copyright Daisy Harrison-Broninski 2020

The Civil Society Review editor, Bertie Harrison-Broninski, takes us through the moral dilemmas of poppy-wearing.

In Britain, it is commonplace to wear a red poppy in November as an act of war ‘remembrance’. Some, however, object to the Poppy Appeal and The British Legion, believing their messaging to be overly jingoistic. Many believe these organisations implicitly support war as righteous, rather than treating it as avoidable tragedy. Some choose to wear a white rather than red poppy, to symbolise an internationalist form of remembrance that is committed to peace.

People have asked me why I wear a white poppy: the truth is that I’ve found that a little harder to answer this year, despite the above.

It’s been a year in which I, like many others, have been deeply inspired by the protests around the world for democracy, human rights, self-determination, the environment, and the abolition of prejudicial institutions and systems.

I’ve witnessed how the language of pacifism becomes easily weaponised by reactionaries to suppress such movements; critics of Black Lives Matter and the Hong Kong protests, for example, have used the rhetoric of nonviolence to whitewash their opposition to activists’ demands. Despite studies demonstrating the American BLM protests were largely nonviolent, Republicans have continued to use this line to denounce them.

There are colonial overtones to this. Historically, Christian and Quaker missionaries in British colonies often verbally condemned British violence against indigenous peoples, while still viewing their own religion as a means to ‘pacify’ supposedly aggressive native populations. In doing so, they continued to benefit from and exploit British violence while harming cultures and people that were foreign to them. The intersecting histories of Christianity and imperialism have normalised the idea of pacifism as hypocritical, condescending, a means of keeping people in line, while stigmatising it as a principled opposition to militarism.

The history of the white poppy in England is mired in similar discussions. The British No More War Movement, which first proposed a white poppy for peace, collapsed in the 1930s after it refused to support leftists in the Spanish Civil War against the Fascist General Franco. After communists and anarchists left the movement, what was left of it merged into The Peace Pledge Union, who produce white poppies today.

The Peace Pledge Union has historic ties to Anglicanism, and has remained fairly Anglocentric despite its stated disdain for treating veterans or war victims of one country as different to another. The absolutist pacifism shown towards the fascists in Spain in the ‘30s continued as the PPU attracted further criticism for supporting appeasement towards Hitler.

This stuff is complicated: the PPU did admirable work supporting refugees and conscientious objectors during these wars. Their criticism of British bombing in Germany speaks to a clear moral truth: German civilians, including children, did not deserve to be slaughtered from above, caught in the cross-fire of a conflict between higher powers.

Yet George Orwell raised an interesting point in his famous denunciation of the PPU and other pacifist movements in 1941:

Since pacifists have more freedom of action in countries where traces of democracy survive, pacifism can act more effectively against democracy than for it. Objectively, the pacifist is pro-Nazi.

‘Adelphi’, October 1941

We cannot hold everyone to the same standards: context matters. It would be totally inappropriate for an English protestant to judge Jews in Nazi Germany for enacting violence against their oppressors. Though perhaps less extreme, Orwell’s statement rings true for critics of Black Lives Matter who denounce the protests on the basis of occasional violence. You cannot maintain a moral high ground through lofty rhetoric of nonviolence (especially if you are white), you are simply siding with white supremacy.

So what does this mean for conscientious Brits today, who want to partake in remembrance while dodging these moral hurdles? This question has dashed through my mind when people have asked about my white poppy wearing this month.

For those who believe that Britain grossly under-remembers our own history of state violence, warmongering and colonialism, not wearing a poppy at all feels like a cop-out. Wearing poppies incites conversations about our history and our political behaviours, conversations that the cultural left is rightly pushing for the public to engage in more often.

Too often however, the red poppy seems to support the censorship of these conversations: a seeming statement of support for the actions of our government. This becomes problematic in a contemporary as well as historical context too: Britain is still heavily implicated in global arms dealing, and supportive of nuclear proliferation.

The solution must be a cultural rebranding of anti-war thinking away from Anglo-Christian pacifist idealism, and towards a commitment to justice. The central notion must be that people fighting for their own lives or human rights are opposing violence, and that people with more privilege are not in a position to play moral judge and jury. To condemn people fighting persecution is to engage in that persecution: we must understand that just like colonial missionaries, supposed pacifism can be an act of violence, culturally and materially. We have to stop equating state militarism with protest or even revolution: they are clearly very different.

I don’t know whether it would be possible to rebrand the white poppy so that people associate it with these views, even if the Peace Pledge Union wanted to. Perhaps English radicals need yet another colour of poppy. Until then however, I will tell people that I wear a white poppy not just as an act of protest: but also as an act of solidarity with protest, all around the world.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski is the general editor of The Civil Society Review, and a trustee for Oxford Omnia. He also edits Freezine, and is studying for an MA in Investigative Journalism at City, University of London. Follow him on twitter here.


Philanthropy is no get-out clause for immorality

Philanthropy is no get-out clause for immorality
Illustration by Daisy Harrison-Broninski, 2020

The current zeitgeist over statues in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests should serve as a warning to contemporary ‘philanthropists’, says Jake Smaje.

At the time of writing (the 8th June, 2020), the first sentence of the infamous Edward Colston’s Wikipedia page reads, “Edward Colston was an English merchant, slave trader, Tory member of Parliament, and philanthropist”. This combination of slave trader and philanthropist seems like a strange oxymoron that has become a polarising factor in the debates about his legacy after his statue was dropped into the Bristol quay during recent Black Lives Matter protests. The ability to be both an important part of a system of oppression and remembered for your benevolence leads to questions concerning the role of philanthropy within society, and the potential motivations behind it. 

Where charity aims to alleviate a problem, philanthropy is an action that seeks to address the causes of the problem. It has a long history, but for most invokes benevolent and powerful business leaders – in the modern day, people such as Warren Buffet, George Soros and Bill Gates. All three are arguably now as famous for their philanthropy as their business ventures. However, their business is not without controversy and has human costs, costs which are often not addressed by their philanthropy. Infamously, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation attempts to maximize return on its endowment, an approach which does not address the ethical considerations of investments. This leads to glaring inconsistencies, such as the Foundation having a $2.2 million investment in a company that profits from running private prisons in the US, some of which hold migrants. The source of wealth is inextricably linked to the cause it is spent on. Despite some inconsistencies in the sources of his foundations funds I don’t doubt that Bill Gates wants to change the world. I may disagree with the philosophy and methods of his, Soros or Buffet’s philanthropy, but I believe in their intentions to have an impact. 

There is, however, another type of philanthropist…

There is, however, another type of philanthropist, the type who consciously uses philanthropy to offset the immoral source of their wealth. A contemporary example is the Sackler family, whose company Purdue Pharma has been sued for their role in promoting opioid treatments that have led to the opioid epidemic in the United States. The family’s company continued to aggressively market opioids, such as Oxycontine, after admitting in court that they had misrepresented its addictive qualities. However, their name is still memorialised in institutions throughout the world, such as the Sackler library at the University of Oxford. While many institutions, such as The National Portrait Gallery and The Tate galleries, will not accept donations from the family, others will allow them to whitewash their name through association to famous and prestigious institutions. Academic libraries seem to be a fashionable choice for dubious philanthropy, another example being The University of Leeds naming their recently completed library the Laidlaw Library after the tax exile and donor Irvine Laidlaw. This association of one’s name with an institution is a way of creating a legacy, intertwining your name with its prestigious history.

Another way to ‘philanthropise’ your brand is to attach your name to a particular event. Jeff Bezos donated $100,000,000 to US food banks in response to the COVID-19 crisis, a seemingly eye wateringly large amount of money. It becomes a tiny sum when you consider that his estimated net worth increased by $32 billion between January and May of this year as a direct result of COVID-19 increasing the value of Amazon. He profited from COVID-19 and people’s isolation while getting reputational credit for a donation that, while huge, is small against the scale of the misery and fear that has recently spread across the globe. This is to say nothing of Amazon’s tax avoidance, lack of workplace safety, union busting and unfair trading practises against small businesses. Does $100,000,000 coming from the CEO of a corporation which has benefitted from a global crisis to the tune of $32,000,000,000 really allow them to purchase the term philanthropist? 

More than a just hobby of the wealthy, philanthropy becomes a branding exercise curated by PR executives. 

If you are part of the world’s ultra-wealthy class, philanthropy becomes an important tool in maintaining your personal brand. If you pay for a prestigious building at a top university, associate your name with the relief of an ongoing crisis or create an organisation which combines your name with some words that signify your virtue, such as The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, then you can become a philanthropist lauded for your generosity with little investigation into how and why you became so powerful and wealthy in the first place. More than a just hobby of the wealthy, philanthropy becomes a branding exercise curated by PR executives. 

It seems that what is missing is a step that addresses motivation, that signifies an actual desire to change the world. If the Sackler family wanted to improve the livelihoods of people across the world they could withdraw OxyContin or recommend new guidance on its prescription, Laidlaw could pay his taxes and Jeff Bezos could change the business practises of Amazon. Instead, they memorialize their philanthropy in high profile spaces, while continuing damaging business practises elsewhere in their empires. Soros, Buffet and Gates should not be absolved of criticism, but their philanthropy is of an altogether different nature, and is often invested in social and technological innovations designed to address the root causes of problems. Alleged ‘philanthropy’ such as the Sacklers’, Laidlaw’s, or, historically, Colston’s, is instead just an act of PR set across a backdrop of immoral profiteering. 

The current tearing-down of statues should serve as a warning to contemporary ‘philanthropists’

Philanthropy should not absolve immoral legacies from criticism. This encourages insubstantial acts of philanthropy as an exercise in branding. The current tearing-down of statues should serve as a warning to contemporary ‘philanthropists’ hoping to capitalise on this. The plaque on Colston’s statue commemorated his philanthropy reading, ‘’Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city AD 1895’’. For critics who feign worry about historical erasure as statues fall, I suggest a plaque should be placed above where Coulston rested at the bottom of the Bristol quay that reads ‘’Sunk here by the citizens of Bristol was one of Bristol’s wiliest sons, whose attempt at virtue failed to hide his atrocities AD 2020’’. This may just be the antidote needed to the dubious philanthropists of the future, and the present.

Jake Smaje works in data governance for a large INGO in the WASH sector and is the trustee of United Social Ventures, a livelihood charity in Uganda, having previously worked in a range of roles in the charity sector in Rwanda, Kenya and Bangladesh. Since completing his BA in History at the University of Leeds in 2016 with a specialism in African History, he’s held a continued interest in the political economy of the Global South.


Evaluating Universal Basic Income

Evaluating Universal Basic Income

By Sara Dube

The concept of universal basic income has policymakers and influencers around the world hotly divided. Those in favour frequently have a clear argument centred on the claim that there is less need for traditional nine-to-five jobs due to the impact of automation on society, opening up time for people to pursue creative or entrepreneurial interests while being paid a certain amount of money by the government to cover their basic needs. Not only does the scheme reduce poverty by providing a minimum level of income to everyone, it also has the potential to increase levels of happiness and well-being in society as there is more time and flexibility to explore one’s genuine interests, potentially increasing economic productivity.

Those against the implementation of a basic income often deliver a polar opposite argument painting the idea as overly idealistic and impractical. They respond to the claim of poverty alleviation by emphasising the negative effect on taxpayers and on the government: not only does it place an immense burden on these stakeholders to pay for the basic income, it also draws money away from projects that are specifically targeted to increase the welfare of citizens, such as medical care, education or health insurance. There is no guarantee that everyone granted a basic income would spend it on such services, creating the potential for a downward spiral into lower productivity and poorer health if the money is used on substances such as alcohol or drugs. The claim that people will explore their entrepreneurship, and thus contribute to increased economic productivity, is dismissed as too unrealistic: again, not everyone may choose to invest their newfound free time in productive pursuits and many may choose to stop contributing to the economy and the rest of society altogether, devaluing community life for the promotion of more individualistic projects.

While the issue may seem like a relatively black-and-white one, it is crucial to consider the nuances that surround it – such as, for instance, the specific impact on women of the implementation of a universal basic income. A universal basic income would offer women who stay at home to raise children a minimum level of economic security, freeing them from dependence on their partners to earn a living wage and granting them economic security and independence. Instead of being perceived as ‘free money,’ a feminist point of view regards basic income in the context of it being paid to stay-at-home women as a reward for the unpaid work they do at home that, in the long run, contributes to society and to the economy by ensuring the upbringing of their children and the running of a household. It creates the perception of this work and this care for others as something with value and as something that deserves pay, as opposed to a wage-less, and thus value-less, job in a society that places so much importance on money. The implementation of a basic income would particularly benefit the situation of women stuck in unhealthy relationships where they are dependent on their partners to pay for their basic needs, thus removing a huge barrier that, in many cases, prevents women from leaving abusive relationships.

On the other hand, there are those that argue that a basic income would in fact act to the detriment of a woman’s position in society, encouraging more women to stay at home and widening the gender pay gap as women with lower qualifications would have less incentive to acquire the increased training and skills to find work on the job market. A particularly unique and in-depth perspective considers the impact specifically on migrant women, who are predicted to seemingly suffer the most under the implementation of a universal basic income scheme, as they will have less of an incentive than ever to find work, lowering the rate of their language acquisition, social mobility, and thus integration into the host society.

These perspectives indicate that a crucial factor in determining the success of a basic income scheme is the manner in which the society in which it is implemented will respond to the policy: in a society that has already achieved a high level of gender equality, the scheme would empower women in allowing them to use the money to more efficiently balance household with professional work. In a more patriarchal society, it could lead to further stifling of a woman’s potential in encouraging her more than ever to stay at home, as there might be less of an incentive to find work.

The best way to determine how a society will respond to the implementation of such a system is, quite simply, to conduct a trial, as was done in Finland. This project, in which 2,000 randomly selected unemployed Finns received 560 euros per month for a year, was ended after two years in order to explore alternative welfare schemes , despite reports of greater flexibility and less bureaucracy. Critics commented that the trial was far too narrow and took place over too short a time period.

This is not to say that a universal basic income would not work in any country – some see this policy as a tool for development, to be implemented in developing nations as opposed to developed ones such as Finland.  If it were to be provided in developing countries, it would have the potential to cover the basic needs of their citizens, leading to better nutrition and health with the population, if the income is used wisely. Eventually the beneficiaries of the program may rise above poverty to contribute to the program instead of being on the receiving end of it. This vision is, admittedly, an idealistic one that depends heavily on global cooperation in providing developing countries with the resources to be able to implement such a policy and in raising awareness amongst the general population on how to most effectively utilise the basic income.

Universal basic income is an idea that certainly has the potential to change the world, but its implementation is extremely nuanced and depends on several socioeconomic factors that must be taken into account before pronouncing a final judgement on its value.


Sara is an undergraduate reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at the University of Oxford. She is very interested in human rights and plans to pursue a career of law.


The importance of the PISA global competencies test

The importance of the PISA global competencies test

By Sara Dube

Recently, I read Sean Coughlan’s article about how schools in the UK and the USA will not be incorporating the new Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) global competencies test run by the OECD into their curriculum. I would disagree with this decision. The PISA global competencies test, as described by Coughlan, is “designed to assess respect for other cultures, challenge extremism and help identify fake news.” If the aim of education is truly to equip children with the skills to take on the ‘real world,’ then the qualities mentioned in the description of the PISA test could not be more relevant in today’s increasingly globalized, ‘post-truth’ world experiencing an alarming rise in extreme nationalism across several countries.

As a greater number of areas in the job market – such as law, marketing, manufacturing, and many others – must adapt to an international atmosphere, the values of cultural understanding and tolerance are ones that are now more essential than ever in the workplace. The PISA global competencies test, measuring “how well young people [are] prepared to work alongside people from different cultures and with different beliefs,” would therefore emphasize the significance of such skills to students from an early age, which I would argue is as important as teaching them the basics of mathematics and language. Most schools place a lot of value on subjects such as English and foreign languages. For example, as a graduate of the IB Diploma Programme, it was compulsory for me to take both an English as well as a foreign language course. It seems to me that it should be no less obvious that educators should ensure students are competent in understanding and appreciating the values of other cultures. For what good will learning a foreign language do if you cannot communicate with the people of its country due to an inability to overcome cultural differences?

My arguments for the importance of this cultural awareness are not just hypothetical. Fast-food chains such as McDonalds and Subway quickly realized that to operate and to flourish in the Indian market, where so many people are vegetarian or do not eat beef due to cultural and religious beliefs, they must open all-vegetarian branches – which they did in many cities across India. This shows how it is essential to recognize and to respect differences in cultures across the world – while globalization has made many things common to people across countries, it also serves to highlight certain cross-cultural differences that must be respected in order to achieve a more peaceful world order. The particular example of the fast-food chains demonstrates how appreciating these differences is useful in succeeding in business.

Mr. Coughlan goes on to recount how Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s education director, emphasized that there has to be a greater awareness of “values” as social media tends to isolate people within their “echo chambers” – since the pages and websites they follow on networks such as Facebook or Twitter serve only to reinforce their own views, with little to no exposure to contradictory perspectives that are so crucial in experiencing the world in all its colours, so to speak. After all, the challenges to one’s views that can be found in studying other cultures can only be of benefit: either one is able to rationally respond to the challenges and one’s own perspectives are developed and strengthened, or one may find the challenge valid and therefore grow to experience the world from a new point of view. Even better, one may realize that cross-cultural values can coexist within a respectful environment. Much of what is taught in current education systems deals with objectivity – such as the rules of mathematics or the grammar of a foreign language. These are facts that do not change depending on what one’s cultural or religious background is. It therefore becomes very easy for students’ personal, subjective viewpoints to go unchallenged as they associate with people and frequent social media propagating the same views as their own, outside of school. Tests dealing with international differences are therefore very important in understanding cultural values of different societies and recognizing that just because one is surrounded by people of the same views and ideals does not mean that these opinions are objectively the right ones for everyone in the world to hold.  

Besides increasing appreciation of others’ values, heightened cultural awareness will also be beneficial for students as it will demonstrate not only the differences in societies across the world but also their similarities. It can, at its best, teach students to understand intercultural differences as well as to realize that despite these differences, we all share a common “human dignity” that, above all, must always be respected. This is something that some forget when they look at a person and the first thing they see is their race, colour, or religion, unable to move past these differences to see the underlying common humanity.  

I cannot emphasize how important I think it is for students across the world to take the PISA global competencies test and to increase their cultural awareness. As Mr. Schleicher pointed out, the most successful education systems tend to be those that are the most “open and diverse,” such as that of Canada. As someone who has lived in Mumbai, Warsaw, Dubai and Oxford I can attest to the immense value of recognition of, respect for, and exposure to the wealth of diversity in our world – both for personal development as well as for social cohesion and harmony. I certainly hope that schools in the UK and the US will recognize the importance of tests such as this one and incorporate them into their education systems. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry stressed, “He who is different from me does not impoverish me – he enriches me. Our unity is constituted in something higher than ourselves – in Man…For no man seeks to hear his own echo, or to find his reflection in the glass.” We must learn from our differences and take refuge in our common humanity to find our strength and to progress as a truly global society.

Sara is an undergraduate reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at the University of Oxford. She is very interested in human rights and plans to pursue a career of law.



Works Cited

Coughlan, S. (2018, January 24). England and US will not take Pisa tests in tolerance. BBC. Retrieved January 25, 2018.


The Lady of None

The Lady of None

By Shahana Nair Joshi

Aung San Suu Kyi— a leader whose name once evoked emotions of hope, inspiration and resilience and who was once a symbol of democracy and championed the need for an equitable power dynamic in the world— now lives under harsh criticism for maintaining a jarring silence over the alleged genocide that is rampantly taking place in her country. Criticism against her has been pouring in from all corners of the world, including from her fellow Nobel laureates. Most recently she was stripped of her “Freedom of Oxford’ title granted to her by the Oxford Council and the ‘Freedom of Dublin City’ award bestowed upon her by the Dublin City Council. While these reactions may seem obvious in the face of what seems like a leader’s apathy in the face of a humanitarian crisis, it is important to also understand the context within which the role Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto head of state, is defined.


The Trouble with Humanitarian Aid

Humanitarian agencies are an important international response mechanism to conflicts worldwide. The broad purpose of aid organisations is to relieve the suffering of victims, a worthy goal that may in theory sound simple enough but in practice can prove extremely complicated. Many conflicts are driven by years, perhaps decades, of tensions, and understanding the nuances of each situation is key in enabling an effective response. Similarly, disaster zones can give rise to complicated dynamics within the affected community and between locals and aid workers arriving from outside. As a result, humanitarian efforts need to be well-organised and carefully targeted towards the specific crisis, but with a multiplicity of actors this can be difficult to achieve.


Beyond GDP

By Matteo Roscio

“Gross Domestic Product measures everything, except that which makes life worthwhile”; this was the concluding sentence of Robert Kennedy’s speech at the University of Kansas on March 18th, 1968, a statement embodying debates regarding the dominant use of this index to measure and direct wealth and development globally.


Should Aung San Suu Kyi be stripped of her Nobel Peace Prize?

Aung San Suu Kyi is known across the world as a devoted pro-democracy fighter and a beacon of perseverant light against autocracy. However, in recent months, global leaders and media have become particularly concerned about her response towards the persecution of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority. The UN has called the situation akin to ethnic cleansing, a claim which has been refuted by Aung San Suu Kyi. Baffled by her silence and refusal to condemn the crimes against the Rohingya, numerous people, including many of her fellow Nobel laureates, have appealed for her to speak for the Rohingya and stand up against the violence targeted towards them.  There have even been calls to remove her Nobel Peace Prize, awarded for her decades-long stance against military dictatorship in Myanmar.