Is Operation Christmas Child's shoebox campaign just a propaganda tool for Christianity?

Operation Chrismas Child asks children to "experience God's love through the power of simple shoe box gifts". But they are to charity what Femen are to feminism: superior, islamophobic, and seemingly unresponsive to the needs of those they claim to help.

Much as I’m loathe to conform to working mummy stereotypes I still have days when I’ve stepped straight out of an Allison Pearson novel. I arrive at the school gates, puffed up with pride that I’ve got the kids there at all, when I suddenly notice that everyone else’s child is dressed for World Book Day, or every other mother is carrying a PTA bake sale cake, or the teacher is collecting money for next week’s trip and no, I can’t pay by Visa. Once again, Mummy has messed up. Of course, I blame my entirely imaginary high-powered career and the fact that a woman can’t have it all (the suggestion that Mummy is just disorganised and needs a kick up the arse won’t cut it). Next time, though, it’s going to be different.

For the first time ever I am prepared for the upcoming school event. I know all about Shoebox Day. I’ve already got it scribbled on the calendar, having found the Operation Christmas Child leaflet stuffed into my eldest child’s book bag. In two weeks’ time my sons will be just like their classmates, each arriving at school with a Christmas shoebox to be given to “a poor child in Africa” (I tell my children it won’t necessarily be Africa and that not every child who lives there is poor. “Don’t be silly,” says my six-year-old. After all, he’s watched Comic Relief).

Of course, I must remember not to get so hung up on the day itself that I forget to purchase the gifts to put in said shoebox. These won’t just be any old gifts, either. There may be socks, and possibly a cuddly toy, and perhaps even a mini Connect Four. Most impressive of all, though, is the fact that my children will be giving the gift of Christ’s love (it’s amazing what you can fit in a Start-rite box these days).

At first glance Operation Christmas Child seems simply delightful. Christmas! Children! Toys! Sharing! Even if, like me, you’re flicking through the leaflet thinking “I wish they didn’t do gender segregated toy labels” and “isn’t this all rather patronising?” it feels churlish to criticise. Sure, world poverty won’t be eradicated by you stuffing Lego into a cardboard box, but this is for the children. What kind of smug liberal begrudges children a little Christmas cheer? What kind of privileged arse puts their precious principles ahead of a poor child’s laughter on Christmas day? It seems incredibly self-indulgent to take issue with a charity. However, at the risk of looking like a cross between the Modern Parents and Ebenezer Scrooge, the more I read about Operation Christmas Child, the more I find myself making an exception. 

Since 1995 Operation Christmas Child has been run by the evangelical organisation Samaritan’s Purse. You provide the shoe boxes and toys, and they make the deliveries. Oh, their church partners might just happen to drop in “a little booklet of Bible stories” or even “invite children receiving shoeboxes to join a discipleship course called The Greatest Journey.” The charity’s website boasts of bringing “the hope of Jesus Christ into the lives of over 100 million underprivileged children.” This might not sound too bad until you learn that Samaritan’s Purse is run by Rev Franklin Graham, a man who has called Islam “a very wicked and evil religion”. OCC targets countries with large Muslim populations, with an aim to convert (they also adopt these tactics with Hindu communities). My children think they are sending toys who children who have none; what they’re actually doing is sending faith to children whose own beliefs are deemed not to measure up.    

My eldest child believes in God, although he also believes in Star Wars (he doesn’t, however, believe in the city of Birmingham, but that’s another story). I would find it hard to explain to him what I find wrong with OCC. Initially I thought it was merely the kind of casual, well-intentioned cultural imperialism you find in other western charity efforts such as Band Aid’s "Do they know it’s Christmas?", but it’s worse than that. Operation Chrismas Child are to charity what Femen are to feminism: superior, islamophobic, seemingly unresponsive to the needs of those they claim to help (although deep down, I suspect some members of Femen do care about feminism; I’m less sure anyone leading OCC really gives a toss about toys).

In 2003 the Guardian’s Giles Fraser launched a brilliant attack on OCC, highlighting the narcissism that lies at the heart of this approach to giving:

Schools and churches that are getting their children involved in Operation Christmas Child need to be aware of the agenda their participation is helping to promote. There is, of course, a huge emotional hit in wrapping up a shoebox for a Christmas child. But if we are to teach our children properly about giving, we must wean them off the feel-good factor.

I think he’s absolutely right. And yet ten years on I’m one of the many parents who’s gone ahead and written “Shoebox Day” on the calendar. I am hoping I can think of some clever ruse between now and then. Perhaps I shall mark our box “for the local children’s hospice” (though I’ve checked and it turns out they want money, not trinkets self-indulgently chosen by me and my children in order to give ourselves a warm feeling inside). Alternatively, I can always pretend to be Useless Mummy again. “The Shoebox? Argh! I forgot!” Then I’ll make it up to them by investing in a more ethical gift. See, I can be sneaky and manipulative, too, although not half as manipulative as those who exploit children to spread their prejudice.

 

At first glance Operation Christmas Child seems simply delightful. Look closer, and it's not all it seems. Photo: Getty

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?