Wikipedia: Another answer to the tragedy of the commons

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The tragedy of the commons is an oft-cited theoretical example by those who advocate government intervention. It postulates that, without regulation and intervention, public goods that everyone has an interest in using will actually not be provided (or at least not efficiently or to an optimal quantity) if contributions are voluntary. The logic is that everyone’s dominant course of action is to essentially just refrain from contributing because, if one contributes and others don’t, then the public good is not provided and their payoff is worse than if they don’t contribute and the public good is not provided. Additionally, if they don’t contribute and the public good is provided, the individual’s payoff is higher than if they do contribute and the public good is provided. In this sense, a society full of rational, self-interested individuals (as this scenario represents it) could actually lead to a harmful or sub-optimal outcome for society in the long run. However, Wikipedia is a prominent, empirical illustration of how the tragedy of the commons does not always hold since the website runs purely on private donations. Periodically, the site’s owners ask for donations to maintain it and keep it running ad-free. They claim that if everyone who read their plea paid £3, then fundraising would be over within an hour – nice in principle but not everyone pays up in practice. Some, inevitably, end up contributing more than others and many don’t contribute monetarily at all.

The following chart lists the percentage of donators corresponding to each reason for donating to Wikipedia, according to Wikipedia.

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Conversely, here are the reasons cited for not donating:

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Of course, one might argue that the knowledge found on Wikipedia is unreliable. However, a study published in Nature found that Wikipedia “is about as accurate on science as the Encyclopaedia Britannica”. Of course, Encyclopaedia Britannica attempted to refute the study. Access to a vast store of monitored, reviewed information via Wikipedia is an incredible asset to humanity and this asset is made possible entirely through voluntary contributions (whether this be in terms of time spent editing or money contributed) rather than through the coercive dictates that people are so often subject to.

Furthermore, it’s interesting to note that if you were to, hypothetically, replace “donating to Wikipedia” with “tax” in the second bar chart, you might find a lot of people agreeing with the affordability, with unwillingness to pay tax based on principle or their belief that it would not be used properly. Similarly, people may want to contribute time to society rather than pay money to preserve it.

In our rapidly changing world, voluntary contributions to fund public goods may become feasible sooner rather than later.

What is this objection to private charity?

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One of the more difficult things to fathom about a certain strain of thinking is the antipathy to private charity:

In fact, you may be astonished to learn the extent of children’s rights to which we, as a nation, are signatory. Under article 26 of the UN convention on the rights of the child, children have a “right to benefit from social security”. According to article 27, they have “a right to a standard of living adequate to their physical, social and mental development”.

There is scope for argument within those terms but, by any measure, an adequate standard of living includes the right not to be hungry. So the fact that more than 300,000 children are using food banks – supplied, bear in mind, not by a state agency but by a charity, Trussell Trust – puts the UK squarely outside its UNCRC obligations.

By what appalling misfortune has that hunger been allowed to fester and left to non-state agencies to deal with?

A detailed answer to that would come from the Trussell Trust itself. Which points out that 83% of food banks have reported that benefit sanctions have led to more people being referred for emergency food. Private charity is here compensating for the incompetence or malevolence of that state and its agencies.

A more general answer would be that what is this insistence that rights, whatever they are, must be supplied by the state? The right to a family life does not mean that David Cameron has to find me a comely wife does it? The right to free speech does not mean that Ed Miliboy must purchase me a newspaper. In fact, we don't care in the slightest who provides whatever it is that enables a right to be enjoyed: only that that right can indeed be enjoyed. And so it should be with food.

It's simply astonishing that people are regarding food banks as some bad idea. They are instead a glorious example of the way in which us humans are sociable, societal, beings who really will go out of our way to help our fellow. What the heck is wrong with Burke's little platoons anyway, why this insistence that what people will happily do unprompted must be replaced by bureaucrats?

Today's prize for economic illiteracy goes to Aditya Chakrabortty

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This is painful, even for The Guardian, even for the history graduate that writes their economic leaders:

This is what the Centre for Research in Socio-Cultural Change terms “social licensing” in its latest book, The End of the Experiment. The academics’ suggestions have been followed by one council in north London, Enfield. Officers and researchers sat down and worked out how much money its 300,000 residents sent the way of big businesses: 11 Tesco stores, for instance, provided the PLC with around £8m of its annual profit. And what did the area get back? Not very much, but the highlight included a community toilet scheme and some charitable giving from the supermarket’s corporate social responsibility department.

And so the council has started asking big businesses, such as utility firms, what they had done for Enfield recently. They’ve begun hassling banks to lend more to local businesses, the likes of British Gas to give more of their local work to local contractors with local staff – or run the risk of being named and shamed in the local press. It may sound small, but imagine if the same approach were taken by Holyrood or Cardiff – or by Westminster.

What?

To take that example of Tesco, so what did Enfield get back in return for that £8 million of profit? Given supermarket profit margins it got a couple of hundred million pounds worth of groceries. Something that's rather more important that piddling around with the community lavvies you might think.

This idea that the value to us of what an organisation does is in what it does not produce is simply insane. The value to us of a producing organisation is in what it produces. The value of Google to us is that we get to Google, the value of Starbucks to us is bad coffee and the value of Tesco in Enfield is that people have somewhere to buy their loo roll and something to eat. And it's absolutely no use trying to insist that a supermarket isn't providing value: if it wasn't the good people of Enfield wouldn't be spending £200 million a year there, would they?

Try to think about this rationally for a moment. The NHS provides absolutely nothing towards local loos for local people, pays not a bean in taxation and yet most would agree that it does provide something of value. Perhaps not as much value as the same amount spent in another manner would but we do indeed value the fact that it occasionally manages to treat patients. The value to us of the NHS is in what the NHS produces: medical treatment. The value of Tesco to Enfield is in what Tesco produces. Why is this so difficult for people to understand?

Prof. John Alfred Blyth Hibbs OBE

John Hibbs was born in Birmingham but spent his childhood in Brightlingsea, the Essex trading and sea-faring town from where came both sides of his family, Hibbs and Blyth. His father died just ten days after John’s birth, so John was brought up by his mother, supported by two aunts and his grandmother. He was educated first locally, followed by Colchester Royal Grammar School, and then boarded at Haileybury College, Hertfordshire.

By the time he was 18, John was a committed pacifist, following his father, a Congregationalist minister, and satisfied the war-time Tribunal for registration as a Conscientious Objector. He spent the time he would otherwise have been on National Service working in agriculture and in hospitals. It was in such capacity at Essex County Hospital, Colchester that he met a nurse, Paddy, who was much later to become his second wife

After some further periods of hospital working, including at the Radcliffe in Oxford, he took a BCom(Social Studies) degree of Birmingham University at Woodbrooke, one of the Quaker Selly Oak Colleges. The turning point in his career was securing a second-year placement with the bus and coach company, Premier Travel in Cambridge. That placement supported John’s BCom dissertation “The place of the motor bus in the rural economy”, and led to a job in 1950 as Personal Assistant to the Managing Director. John learned a great deal about how to run buses from his boss, but by 1952 the company was in trouble, and John was one of the staff who had to go. By this time he had married Constance, whom he had met at the Radcliffe.

He was fortunate to gain the position of Rees Jeffreys Research Student at the London School of Economics.  His MSc research project examined the economics of the road transport licensing system, and became the foundation of much of his later career.

After two years as a transport consultant and technical journalist, together with a fellow Omnibus Society colleague, Bert Davidson, he acquired Corona Coaches in Acton, three miles from Sudbury. Within a few years, Bert died, and not soon after things got difficult. Rural car travel was increasing rapidly, leading to less need for public buses; the licensing framework stifled innovation; credit for fuel became hard to come by. So, with great sadness, John sold the business. After a period as a transport consultant and technical journalist again, he was appointed Traffic Survey Officer at British Railways Eastern Region HQ at Liverpool Street in 1961.

Surviving various re-organisations at BR, and as a member of the British Transport Costing Service, John undertook a wide range of projects involving computerised traffic analysis, costing, market research, demand forecasting, and the market for specific passenger train services. Frustrated at intransigent attitudes, and having acquired a unique set of experiences across road and rail, John took up the challenge of creating the first UK undergraduate course in Transport Studies at what was then City of London College (later, City of London Polytechnic, now London Metropolitan University). Having previously taught with the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) and been self-employed as a consultant/researcher, this was a smooth transition for him. By the time he left in 1973, he had been promoted to Principal Lecturer, and established a national reputation.

Following his divorce, John moved to Birmingham to be nearer Paddy, and took a post at Birmingham Polytechnic, which proved to be a great career move. In due course he became Director of Transport Studies, and subsequently Professor of Transport Management. He developed new courses (such as a Postgraduate Diploma in Transport Management); taught widely; set up and managed programmes such as an MSc Transport & Distribution Management, researched, undertook consultancies, published extensively, and successfully supervised postgraduate students to MBA, MSc, MPhil, and PhD degrees. In parallel with this, he gained his own PhD in 1983 with a thesis: “A comparative study of the licensing and control of public road passenger transport in selected overseas countries”. The title of Professor of Transport Management was conferred in 1986.

John became a significant national figure. As an academic, he was in great demand at conferences, through invited contributions, as an external examiner and validator. He also was exceptionally active in a range of professional bodies. By way of illustration: he joined the Chartered Institute of Transport (as it then was) in 1951 and remained in continuous membership, holding several offices, including Editor of the ‘Proceedings’; he was a member of the Omnibus Society from 1947, and was Vice-President  from 2006 – sadly he passed away without knowing of his election as President  this year. John founded the Organisation of Teachers of Transport Studies (later, the Transport Teachers Association), and also the Roads and Road Transport History Conference/Association. He also played roles in the Institute of Transport Administration, the Passenger Vehicle Operators’ Association, the Transport Studies Society, and the Adam Smith Institute.

John Hibbs was an eloquent speaker and wrote with precision and flair. He was a prolific writer of papers and authored several books. He was particularly renowned for combining clear intellectual analysis with practical experience of the industry; challenging conventional thought; presenting argument with passion and conviction.

John thus had a strong influence, arguably more than anyone in the UK, on establishing Transport Studies as a credible and important academic subject and as a highly professional area, economically and socially. He effectively created the subject of transport economics, and encouraged a whole new cadre of transport specialists. For his outstanding services to transport education, John was appointed OBE in 1987.

It was little wonder that John’s expertise was sought by policy makers on the national stage. As a long-time Liberal, he was transport advisor to the Party (as well as being active at the constituency level). Moreover, his views were influential in formulating the 1980 Transport Act, which was the first move to reinstate the market. Through discussions with the then Secretary of State for Transport, Nicholas Ridley, the 1985 Transport Act and its White Paper precursor owe much to John’s arguments; the bus industry was reformed, bringing in a commercial structure, removing the road service licence system and weakening monopoly. There were some aspects of the Act of which John did not approve. In particular, he regretted that the Act did not actually achieve his desire for full deregulation, which was the popular (and political) description; he regarded it as about ‘regulatory reform and reorganisation.’ Later, John advised John Major and his government on railway privatisation. In the event, privatisation proceeded in a manner contrary to John’s advice (and that of many others): wheel was separated from rail, leading to what John regarded as ‘the mess we have today.’

John continued an active professional life way after his formal retirement, and was frequently called upon as a media commentator. He was still teaching postgraduate students at Aston University into his 80s! He regularly wrote and presented extensively about road and rail policy matters, especially privatisation and deregulation. He continuously challenged the establishment – the road and rail transport industry and government regulators – with careful and critical analysis and research. Not everyone found his arguments to their liking or conviction; but John’s standing and powerful exposition, his integrity and mastery of the economics and practice, and the respect with which he was held, made for compelling listening and attention.

John Albert Blyth Hibbs passed away on 7 November 2014. He is survived by children Mike, Alison and Robin from his first marriage to Constance, and five step-children Krysia, Cyrrhian, David, Enistine and Tim from his second marriage to Paddy.

 

Prof. John Hibbs: an influential life

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We are sad to learn of the death of Prof John Hibbs in his 89th year. Dr Hibbs was a celebrated transport economist who chose to publish many of his scholarly studies with the Adam Smith Institute. He was hugely influential in the denationalization and deregulation of the UK's bus industry. He wrote Bus Deregulation: the Next Step (1982), The Debate on Bus Regulation (1985), Deregulated Decade (1997, with Matthew Bradley), Tomorrow's Way (1992, with Gabriel Roth) and Trouble with the Authorities (1998).

Dr Hibbs was an active supporter of the ASI, as a member of our Scholars' Board and as a frequent presence at our lunches and lectures. He was full of courtesy and charm, and always found time to talk to our young members. A full obituary can be found here.

The innocence principle

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Like freedom of speech, the presumption of innocence before proof of guilt is something that almost everyone agrees is important in principle, but are occasionally reluctant to apply in practice. In recent weeks we have witnessed some examples of this reluctance that, to me, seem chilling. Eric Garner was an obese African-American who was killed by police officers holding him in a chokehold while they arrested him for illegally selling individual cigarettes in New York City. His last words are here.

Virtually everyone who has seen the video agrees that they acted with an extreme amount of force against a man who was not fighting back although he was resisting arrest (passively – that is, in a way that would not harm the officers).

A Grand Jury found that the police officers who killed Eric Garner did not act unlawfully. I defer to the Grand Jury on this, but assuming they are correct this suggests that the scope for lawful killing by police officers is extremely broad. As law professor Glenn Reynolds (and others) has noted, killings by police are treated much more sympathetically by juries than killings by civilians.

Michael Brown was an African-American teenager who was shot and killed by a police officer during an arrest after he (seemingly) robbed a convenience store in Ferguson, Missouri. There is still some disagreement about what happened here. The initial reports suggested that the officer executed Brown as he fled or begged for his life, but the subsequent Grand Jury investigation seems quite conclusive that Brown assaulted the police officer. The Grand Jury’s conclusions prompted looting by people in Ferguson.

If Brown’s shooting was unjust, the Garner lesson applies. But if the narrative found by the Grand Jury is correct then the protests, lootings and slandering of the police officer involved are wrong. In that case, it is the media’s presumption of guilt on the part of the police officer involved (even after the Grand Jury verdict) that has led to significant destruction and violence. People suspended the innocence principle to advance a political point, and the results have been bleak.

Jackie is a student at the University of Virginia by a Rolling Stone article which alleged that she had been gang-raped by a group of fraternity men. Last week Rolling Stone retracted the story after a number of facts given by Jackie in her story proved to be false.

The aftermath of the Rolling Stone story has been extremely disturbing, with very prominent people proudly dispensing with the innocence principle. The Washington Post ran a piece titled “No matter what Jackie said, we should automatically believe rape claims” (this was later changed to “generally” believe them). The Guardian’s Jessica Valenti wrote that “I choose to believe Jackie. I lose nothing by doing so, even if I’m later proven wrong”, and that “the current frenzy to prove Jackie’s story false – whether because the horror of a violent gang rape is too much to face or because disbelief is the misogynist status quo – will do incredible damage to all rape victims.” [my emphasis]

Has Valenti considered that someone else may lose something if we chooses to believe an accusation that is untrue? Or that we may have other reasons than misogyny or incredulity to want to know if a criminal accusation is false?

Sexual assault is very common, but this does not mean that false accusations do not occur. An estimated 1.5% to 7.5% of accusations may be false. Staggeringly, a 2012 study that used DNA testing of old physical evidence and exonerated between 8% and 15% of convicted rapists.

I know why Valenti is eager to believe Jackie: because not believing a genuine story is horrendous for the victim and makes other rape victims less likely to come forward, and hence makes rape an easier crime to commit. But the inverse is also true: believing a false story is horrendous for the wrongly-accused and makes other false accusations more likely. (The Rolling Stone story did not name individuals, but guilt-by-implication can still be enormously harmful.)

In all of these cases, people who would normally say that the presumption of innocence before proof of guilt is a good thing have assumed the opposite. The rule might work in general, they may say, but this case is an exception. Police need to be able to subdue people resisting arrest. The death of an 18-year old must be unjust. Rape is too serious an allegation to question.

Like the principle of free speech, the innocence principle only produces good results if we apply it rigidly and in cases where doing so may feel deeply unsettling.

The innocence principle matters because people who seem guilty may in fact be innocent. This is why mechanisms like jury trials exist – like the ‘thick’ version of free speech that I argued for recently, they are a mechanism for sorting the truth from lies.

Hayek speculated that liberal institutions like these evolved over time, because the societies that lacked them eventually fell behind the ones that upheld them. Politically and culturally, we may be witnessing an erosion of these institutions now. That would be a catastrophe. But it is not too late to change course.

An uncomfortable truth about state funding

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George Monbiot has decided to treat us to his manifesto for a better country. There's evidence, of course there is, of his deep and abiding confusion over how to deal with corporate power: freer markets. He is being both anti-market and corporate power. Something that is really most odd as it is that competition in markets that tempers corporate power. As even a most cursory glance at an economic model will show. It's right there on the first couple of pages of any textbook: that (admittedly mythical, but real economies do tend towards the state) free market is defined as one in which no producer, no corporate, has market power. However, the point to really take issue with is the following:

A sound political funding system would be based on membership fees. Each party would be able to charge the same fixed fee for annual membership (perhaps £30 or £50). It would receive matching funding from the state as a multiple of its membership receipts. No other sources of income would be permitted.

No, just no. For when it's the State deciding who can have the money to be in politics then only those with State approved policies will be in politics. This is the way that the Communists of central Europe controlled those societies. Only state funding was allowed and if you didn't toe the communist party line you didn't get any funding. And it's not just such totalitarian states either. Vlaams Block suffered much the same fate. They were found to have been advocating policies that the establishment did not like and were then cut off from that state funding. The only form of funding allowed to Belgian political parties.

Yes, we are aware that that was all over accusations of racism, no we are not racists nor do we support Vlaams Block. However, if your definitions of freedom and political liberty do not include freedom and political liberty for those you disagree with, however vehemently, then they're not really notions of freedom and political liberty, are they?

State funding would mean that only those political ideas that are approved of by said state will receive funding. And insisting that no other funding is allowed will ensure that unapproved ideas cannot be heard. This applies to the racists, communists, Fascists, free marketeers, socialists, capitalists and the Monster Raving Loonies because that's just what political liberty means. Any and everyone can associate freely, band together to use their voices, assets and votes, as they wish.

Oil prices, Iranian economic sanctions and the Strait of Hormuz

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Just as Russia is feeling the pinch from the drop in oil prices (both leading up to and after OPEC’s decision not to cut production further), Iran is feeling the pinch too (being one of the main countries that desired a cut in production but was rebuffed by Saudi Arabia). It is hardly surprising that Russia sees incentive to engage in increasingly aggressive geopolitical posturing when oil-revenue makes up a substantial part of its income. However, things have been eerily quiet in the Persian Gulf. Iran, being arguably probably in a far worse position, does not have the Russian luxury of nuclear power status or an extremely advanced, formidable Navy that can match the US. However, the Iranian government still has incentive to increase oil prices and it is strategically positioned next to the infamous Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s most important oil chokepoints.

Iran threatened to shut off the Strait of Hormuz in 2011 in response to US-led economic sanctions but this did little to unnerve markets since there was confidence in the US’s ability to swiftly resolve such an eventuality. Going into 2015, oil prices are forecasted to remain low and often forecast to go even lower. Simply raising tensions around the Strait whilst not actually shutting it off (this could be accomplished by perspicuous naval manoeuvring, aggressive press statements etc.) could quickly escalate into something more if responses are miscalculated and intentions misjudged. Such tensions are really not needed in this fragile macroeconomic and shaky geopolitical climate.

Easing up on at least some of the economic sanctions on Iran (even if they are only token concessions) will enable the Iranian government to at least appear to be in a stronger negotiating position (despite suffering from a very real deterioration in bargaining power from falling oil prices) and it may, thereby, delay or even help prevent possible future aggression. It would also help ensure that cash-strapped citizens across the world enjoy the benefits of cheaper oil for longer whilst decreasing the punishment of Iranian citizens (most of whom have little to no say when it comes to their government’s nuclear program).

Free trade with Iran is unlikely for the foreseeable future but even some token easing of trade restrictions could help preserve our increasingly shaky, threatened (relative) world peace.

Minimum wage debate: probably not over

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The debate among economists over whether (higher) minimum wages cause (more) unemployment seems to go on forever. Most published results (and an even greater fraction of methodologically sound published results) find that minimum wages reduce employment. But this doesn't settle the result, and smart, eminent economists like Arindrajit Dube publish papers arguing that with different methodologies and/or correcting for appropriate trends, you cannot find a link. Though this seems to go against our basic model of the microeconomy, economists argue that employers of the low-skilled are monopsonists—single buyers, the converse of monopolies, single sellers—and may even want more labour when its price rises. Those who do believe that minimum wages put people out of work, when faced with results finding they don't, suggest that maybe this just a temporary effect; in the long run workers will be replaced with automation a la modern checkouts, or fewer higher-skilled people once they've had time to search. Or alternatively, less will be spent on working conditions or other benefits.

Given this morass of disagreement, a new paper from Jeffrey Clemens and Michael Wither is unlikely to change any minds, but it's still an interesting result. They use nifty controls to establish that binding minimum wages cause unemployment, lower wages from work, and worse work progression for the low-skilled. This dearth of work experience, the authors say, makes them less likely to join the lower middle class. What's more, because their sample is very broad and spread out across the entire US, they believe their results are uniquely good for extrapolating to the country as a whole.

We estimate the minimum wage's effects on low-skilled workers' employment and income trajectories. Our approach exploits two dimensions of the data we analyze. First, we compare workers in states that were bound by recent increases in the federal minimum wage to workers in states that were not. Second, we use 12 months of baseline data to divide low-skilled workers into a "target" group, whose baseline wage rates were directly affected, and a "within-state control" group with slightly higher baseline wage rates. Over three subsequent years, we find that binding minimum wage increases had significant, negative effects on the employment and income growth of targeted workers. Lost income reflects contributions from employment declines, increased probabilities of working without pay (i.e., an "internship" effect), and lost wage growth associated with reductions in experience accumulation.

Methodologically, we show that our approach identifies targeted workers more precisely than the demographic and industrial proxies used regularly in the literature. Additionally, because we identify targeted workers on a population-wide basis, our approach is relatively well suited for extrapolating to estimates of the minimum wage's effects on aggregate employment. Over the late 2000s, the average effective minimum wage rose by 30 percent across the United States. We estimate that these minimum wage increases reduced the national employment-to-population ratio by 0.7 percentage point.

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Food banks are stepping in where governments have created a mess

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Mention the growth of food banks, with nearly a million users this year, and you conjure up a Dickensian image of a country on the breadline, chronically unable to feed its children, and a heartless government that is cutting benefits and quite willing to let them starve. The reality is very different. First, food banks are a great achievement of private charity. They flourish in the world's wealthiest countries – like the US, UK, Canada, and New Zealand – precisely because people in rich countries can afford to be charitable.

Second, around 60% of those using food banks in the UK are once-only users. In around 30% of cases, that is because of a hiccup in their social benefits – a sanction imposed because they haven't turned up to an interview, perhaps, or a delay in benefits starting after someone loses their job. This is not chronic 'food poverty' – it is people facing temporary crises, much of it due to the welfare bureaucracy.

Third, the rise in food banks started long before the government started reforming benefits. Nearly all food banks in the UK are run by a single Christian charity, the Trussell Trust. As it gets more experienced and slicker, more care workers have been referring people to them, and more people know about them. So the numbers of users have risen.

Fourth, remember that the UK spends nearly £100bn a year on welfare, around one-seventh of all government spending. Working age welfare costs each family in Britain about £3,000 a year. And since the best form of welfare is actually a paying job, it is good news that unemployment has fallen so quickly in the UK.

Some Church leaders want the government to get involved in the food bank movement. That is a grave mistake. Government money will come with delays and with strings. It will discourage private giving – why should individuals contribute if the government is doing it? And government interventions are most of the problem in the first place. World food prices have risen 25% since 2007, due in part to biuofuel subsidies that have taken land out of food production, and the EU Common Agriculture Policy, which adds 13% to Britain's household food bills. And family budgets are further squeezed by the 11% surcharge on electricity bills, destined for uneconomic wind turbines.

No, government would do better to get out of the way of private charity. It is only in the last few years that food banks could even advertise their existence. The benefits bureaucracy is notorious – which is why Iain Duncan Smith's efforts to simplify the system are so important. And we need more realistic food regulation so that shops have a better option than simply throwing out food that is unsold, and so that consumers do not think food is unusable just because it is past its sell-by date.

Once again, private charity is stepping in where governments – of all colours – have created a mess. All strength to them.