Thursday, April 30, 2015

Easing the Mediterranean refugee crisis

I've just written to New Zealand's Minister of Immigration in support of a proposal I've come across to ease the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean.

To be honest, what I'd really like him to do (and what I've written to him about in the past) is to actually allow people to seek asylum in New Zealand.  Currently NZ Immigration puts considerable effort into making sure asylum seekers never reach our shores.  We actively prevent these people from exercising a legal right, presumably in the fear that, if they come, we may find them legitimate refugees and have to let them stay.

However, I don't think I'm going to get any traction on that, but maybe traction on this proposal is possible: after all, it doesn't just come from me - it comes from the UN's special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants!

My letter is below.  Maybe you would like to send something similar?

Dear Hon. Mr. Woodhouse,
I am horrified by the recent deaths in the Mediterranean of people trying to cross into Europe.  I am writing to you in support of the proposal by François Crépeau for these people to be resettled by the UN in an organised manner so that they no longer have to take such risks to reach sanctuary.

He proposes that the rich nations of the world take in a quota of Syrian refugees each year for the next five years.  Based on the number he is proposing Australia to take, I estimate New Zealand's annual quota would be around 1000 per year.  This would be in addition to the refugees we admit under our current quota.

I understand that this would involve more than doubling our current refugee intake.  However, the situation in Syria is extreme, so extreme measures are called for.  In addition, as François Crépeau points out, such measures are not without precedent.  In 1979-1980 New Zealand took in around 1500 Vietnamese refugees under a similar UN scheme.

I strongly urge you to support this proposal on behalf of New Zealand.

Moreover, I encourage you to offer New Zealand's expertise to assist with the second part of his proposal.  This concerns African migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean to take up low-skilled jobs in Europe.  His proposal to assist them seems similar to the highly successful Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme in New Zealand.  I feel you could offer valuable advice in establishing a similar scheme in Europe.

Thank you for your consideration of these matters.

Friday, April 17, 2015

DIY Yuba "Go-Getter" pannier

For Christmas 2014 I decided to do something I'd been dreaming of for ages: make Martin a pannier for his cargo bike.  Several panniers for the Yuba Mundo are commercially available: the Baguette, the Go-Getter and slings.  I decided to model my pannier on the Go-Getter: it has more capacity than the Baguette and better suited the materials I had available than did a sling.  I finished it in February and now it gets a work-out every week fetching our groceries from the market :-)


Here's how it was done :-)  Regular blog readers might not be that interested in what follows - it's long and detailed!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

White chocolate alternatives

Since we stopped eating non-fair trade cocoa products we haven't been able to buy white chocolate: no one sells it fair trade in New Zealand :-(  This has led to the discovery that I rather like white chocolate, so I've recently been on a mission to make my own.

So far I've yet to even source fair trade cocoa butter (Piko Wholefoods in Christchurch sell it but they don't ship to the North Island), so I've been working with coconut butter and fractionated coconut oil instead.  Over the course of many yummy experiments I've finally come up with two recipes that give passable imitations of white chocolate :-)

Coconut butter 'white chocolate'

Coconut butter is what you get when you grind dessiccated coconut to a liquid (just like how you grind peanuts to make peanut butter).  It's solid at room temperature here in Auckland (except possibly in mid-summer), but returns to liquidy form if you leave it in the hot water cupboard for a few hours.  If you want to liquify it quickly you could try the microwave, but be careful - it burns really really easily!

Ingredients

60g dessiccated coconut OR coconut butter
1/4 cup (60g) white sugar, ground to a powder }
2T water                                                          } can use 2T honey instead
1 1/2 tsp vanilla essence
60g full-fat milk powder


Method:

1. Grind coconut until it's really liquidy.  If using pre-prepared coconut butter, place in hot water cupboard for a couple of hours to liquify.
2. Add sugar, one tablespoon water and vanilla and mix well.
3. Work in milk powder till it forms a thick paste, adding up to 3 tsp more water if necessary.
5. Press into a silicone loaf tin and put in the fridge to firm up, then cut into squares.


This tastes distinctly of coconut but is still a good substitute for white chocolate.  I expect to use this in things like peppermint bark or as white chocolate chips in baking.


Coconut oil 'white chocolate'

Fractionated coconut oil (also called deodorised coconut oil) is coconut oil with all the coconut scent/flavour taken out of it.  I've long used it as a conditioner for my hair but now I'm eating it, too :-)

Ingredients:

60g fractionated coconut oil
15g butter
1/4 cup (60g) white sugar, ground to powder (I suspect icing sugar would also work OK)
1 tsp vanilla essence
45g full-fat milk powder (skim would probably also be fine)

Method:


1. Melt the coconut oil and butter in the microwave.
2. Add sugar and vanilla and mix well.
3. Work in milk powder till it forms a thick paste.
4. Press into a silicone loaf tin and put in the fridge to firm up, then cut into squares.


This has no coconut taste and is strongly reminiscent of white chocolate.  It's a lot more expensive than the other version as fractionated coconut oil is pretty pricey: I'll only be making this when I actually want to eat pieces of white chocolate.


PS This project was inspired by the Household Covenant, mentioned earlier.  My commitment for the 'work and leisure' section was to do one or two fun things every week :-)

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Alternate banking

Over Lent, Martin and I have been doing a study series called the Household Covenant.  It looks at seven areas of daily life (work and leisure, consumption, giving etc.) and considers what the Bible has to say.  You are then asked to make a commitment to change one thing in each area over the next 12 months.

Last week's topic was 'savings and investment'.  In considering our commitment, we looked at what types of savings and investments we currently have.  These are:
  1. money for day-to-day use (currently with the ASB)
  2. medium-term savings for emergencies and replacement of larger assets (these were with Prometheus, a non-bank deposit taker that invested in environmental and social projects, but are currently with the ASB and the receivers as Prometheus has recently gone into receivership)
  3. Kiwisaver (currently with SuperLife Ethica and Grosvenor Growth SRI)

From early next year we also expect to start to accumulate retirement savings.

We are comfortable with the ethics of our Kiwisaver funds, having examined this in some detail last year.  We don't think it matters too much where we put our money for day-to-day use: the sums are too small to be very important.  So our commitment from the study was to find somewhere to put our medium-term savings where they would at least do no harm, and hopefully do some good.

To do this, we looked at what alternatives to regular banks (including the New Zealand-owned banks*) are available.  I've listed out what I've found below, so that you can make use of the work I've done if you'd like.

* You can do things that aren't pro-social in New Zealand just as well as in Australia, so just being NZ-owned isn't good enough :-)

Building societies

These are organisations that are owned by their members, and the money in them is only loaned to members, not to businesses.  They offer all the normal banking services, so if we put our medium-term money with them we'd be looking at savings accounts and term deposits.

The core business of building societies is mortgages: I'm not really interested in funding the housing market (although I acknowledge people need somewhere to live), so we probably won't be going with one of these.  If you are interested in doing so, however, the dominant building society in New Zealand appears to be SBS.

Co-operative banks, mutual societies and credit unions

The differences between these are beyond me!  They are all owned by their members and loan money exclusively to them.  Often they have a regional focus.  They do all the normal banking services (although not all offer mortgages), and seem to be a little less secure and a lot more friendly than a regular bank.

In general I'm not hugely interested in these - they seem like a good 'do no harm' option, but not necessarily an option that does a lot of good.  The one that stood out to me was Westforce: they focus on West and South Auckland and Whangarei, so may be worth investing in as a way to provide liquidity into relatively poor areas or New Zealand.

Other credit unions and co-operatives are listed below.  I think this is a comprehensive list of all such organisations that have open membership:

Community banks

Community banks have ownership vested in a community trust so their profits go to community projects.  The only one in New Zealand appears to be TSB, which distributes funds in Taranaki.

Other non-bank deposit takers

Non-bank deposit takers seems to encompass a wide range of institutions.  A full list of them is available here.  Three were of interest to me:
  1. NZ Bible Society.  They offer term deposits.  The profits they make on this money is used to fund their work of translating, publishing and distributing Bibles.
  2. Baptist Savings.  They offer term deposits and on-call funds.  They use this money to provide loans to Baptist and Presbyterian churches.  I'm slightly leery of this as I suspect that most loans are used to fund buildings and I'm a bit sceptical of the need for buildings.
  3. Quaker Investement Ethical Fund (QIET).  They offer 6-month term deposits, after which funds are available on-call.  They loan this money to "ethical" businesses (they've long supported TradeAid), to small environmental projects and to people suffering financial hardship.  They offer a range of interest rates so you can choose a below-market one if you want - this enables them to make below-market-rate loans.

Other options

A few other banks stood out to me.

Firstly, RabobankDirect.  They invest exclusively in New Zealand agrigulcuture. I think NZ doing agriculture well is important for the world (as we're land and water rich and the world needs lots of food), but I'd like to know more about quite what they invest in: if it's mostly dairy conversions then I'm not interested.

Also, two of India's 'big four' banks have a presence here: Bank of India and Bank of Baroda.  As these banks are state-owned, their profits go to the Indian government.  Could investing with them be a way of helping development in India?

Final comment

In the process of doing this, I learned that three of the ethical Kiwisaver Funds I looked at earlier (SuperLife Ethica, Craigs Investment Partners SRI Fund and Amanah) can also be invested in outside of the Kiwisaver scheme.  We will consider these next year when we decide where to put our retirement savings, along with seeing what else might be available.