Alex Evans

About Alex Evans

Alex Evans is a Senior Fellow at the Center on International Cooperation (CIC) at New York University, where he works on international development, foreign policy, and resource scarcity. He is currently working primarily on the post-2015 development agenda and future global climate policy, and also writing a book on psychology, myth and sustainability. He is based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Full biog here.

The change we need in 10 words: A larger us. A longer future. A different good life.

Yesterday saw the launch of action/2015, the new global campaign on poverty, inequality, and climate change that will rally more than a thousand campaigning organisations around four crucial summit moments on these issues that will take place over the year ahead.

It’s the right campaign at the right time, because now more than ever, power is so distributed that only mass mobilisation and values change will be able to bring about the transformation needed – something I realised vividly during the profoundly disillusioning experience that was acting as the author of the UN High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability in 2011 (more on that sorry tale in the first couple of pages of this talk of mine from 2013).

But just what kind of values change is it that we need? I’ve written before, over at Eden 2.0, about the importance of stories for mobilising change – so what is it that those stories need to be about?

In our forthcoming report for Tearfund – working title The Unfinished Jubilee: Towards a Restorative EconomyRich Gower and I argue that three themes are especially important. You can sum them up in just ten words: A larger us. A longer future. A different good life.

1. A larger us

First up, we need to think less of “people like us” and more of “people – like us”. The whole sweep of human history is a story of expanding the size of the ‘we’ with which we empathise – from itinerant bands of hunter-gatherers to chiefdoms, from city states to kingdoms, and on to modern nation states and the staggeringly diverse communities of affinity and ethnicity in today’s globalised world. This expansion of empathy was perfectly captured by Martin Luther King in his 1963 ‘letter from Birmingham City jail’:

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. What affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

Above all, we need to get back to thinking in terms of the common good – and to do so at planetary scale, because in a world of global interdependence and planetary boundaries, only a 7 billion ‘us’ will do.

2. A longer future

Second, we need to face up to the fact that we’ve fallen out of the habit of thinking about the long term. Instead, our political leaders rarely have the luxury of thinking beyond the next election; our business leaders, the next financial quarter; our journalists, the next 24 hour news cycle. Scientist and author Danny Hillis observed in 1994 that:

When I was a child, people used to talk about what would happen by the year 2000. Now, thirty years later, they still talk about what will happen by 2000. The future has been shrinking by one year per year for my entire life.

In particular, there has been a catastrophic implosion of the implicit covenant between past, current, and future generations. Today’s young generation in developed countries face a far more uncertain future than their parents, with unaffordable housing, costly higher education and student debt, and the end of ‘jobs for life’. And globally, the next generation faces a future of steadily increasing climate change and resource scarcity – unless decisive action is taken now to prevent that from happening.

3. A different good life

Third, recent years have seen a wealth of research challenging the idea that material consumption levels have much to do with happiness, at least beyond a certain point. Surveys that measure people’s subjective wellbeing routinely find that the correlation between life satisfaction and income starts to break beyond a certain level of GDP per capita.  Robert Kennedy recognised this nearly 50 years ago, when he observed that,

Yet the Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

So our stories need to focus on a broader idea of human flourishing, encompassing not only material security but also goals further up the ‘hierarchy of needs’ – such as friendship, family, a sense of connection, confidence, achievement, and the respect of others.

For more on the Tearfund project mentioned above, this presentation and this blog post, both from a couple of months ago, give an overview of some of the ideas we’re looking at.

On Andrew Lansley as the UK’s candidate for UN Emergency Relief Coordinator

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A pretty good summary, one imagines, of how the UN Secretary-General’s team reacted when David Cameron let them know that former Health Secretary Andrew Lansley was to be the UK’s nominee for UN Emergency Relief Coordinator and Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, a post traditionally held by the UK.

Let’s take a moment to have a look at Andrew Lansley’s CV, from his own website:

MP for South Cambridgeshire, May 1997 –
Leader of the House of Commons, Lord Privy Seal, 2012 – 2014
Member, House of Commons Commission, 2012 – 2014
Member, Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, 2012– 2014
Member, Public Accounts Commission, 2012 – 2014
Secretary of State for Health, 2010 – 2012
Shadow Secretary State for Health, 2003 – 2010
Vice-President of the Local Government Association, 1996 –
Member, Trade and Industry Select Committee, 2001 – 2004
Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Policy Review, 1999 – 2001
Shadow Cnacellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 1999 – 2001
Vice Chairman of the Party responsible for Policy Renewal, 1998 – 1999
Member, Health Select Committee, 1997 – 1998
Director of the Conservative Research Department, 1990-1995
Deputy Director-General of the British Chambers of Commerce, 1987-1990
Principal Private Secretary to the Rt. Hon Norman Tebbit MP, 1984-1987

Now, since I’m clearly missing something here, perhaps someone would be kind enough to explain to me what would lead David Cameron to conclude that someone with this CV would be qualified to run the UN’s humanitarian relief and emergency response system at a time when it’s coping with ebola and coordinating no fewer than four L3 emergencies (Iraq, Syria, CAR, and South Sudan) – which is more than ever before?

Put aside the fact that the appointment should obviously be merit-based; put aside the point that if the UK is determined to hang on to the post, then a better option might be, oh, I don’t know, call me crazy here, the former UK foreign secretary who now runs a major global humanitarian relief agency.

Put aside the truly incredible political Christmas present that David Cameron is giving to Labour, by taking an until-now pretty respectable record on global poverty and essentially setting fire to it before a group of startled bystanders, shortly before a general election.

And put aside the fact that the UK will make itself look ridiculous to every other member state of the United Nations by appointing to the post a person who manifestly has no qualifications for the job other than the fact that David Cameron owes him a favour.

Instead, just pause for a second to remind ourselves who this job, and the system it runs, is actually about: all the kids in refugee camps or schools made out of tents or makeshift hospitals. They deserve better than this kind of political patronage over such a crucial post.

The morning after the US-China climate announcement (updated)

Never have I seen such a wave of social media euphoria as the one that swept through my Twitter and Facebook feeds this time yesterday, as news broke about the US-China deal on climate change. But now that it’s the morning after, a few quick reflections.

China’s 2030 peak emissions date may be a big deal politically, but it won’t help the climate much. Since 2000, China’s carbon emissions from energy consumption have risen from 3 billion tonnes to around 9 billion tonnes today. They’ve tripled in ten years. China’s per capita emissions are now bigger than the EU’s (though still a long way off those of the US). So forgive me for not cracking open champagne at the news that China may be willing to taper off this unbelievable rate of emissions growth in another sixteen years. I admit that the 20% renewables target is a big deal – right now China’s at about 7% – but even this still leaves plenty of space for emissions to rise as energy demand and coal capacity continue to grow.

On the US side, too, all the hype about a 26-28% cut below 2005 levels by 2025 strikes me as overdone. Obama had already committed to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. He made that announcement five years ago, at Copenhagen. So 26-28% by 2025 does no more than more or less extrapolate that forward another five years (in fact, as Maarten Hajer at PBL points out, yesterday’s commitment is actually a little less ambitious than the forward curve implied by the 2009 promise) – there’s no actual ratcheting up of ambition.

The policies and measures unveiled in yesterday’s US-China announcement are awfully thin. There’s a “renewed commitment” to technology cooperation, with no funding numbers attached. Some stuff about a demonstration project on carbon capture and sequestration, which people have been talking about for over a decade now – it’s starting to sound like nuclear fusion. More cooperation on reducing HFC emissions, which do have massive global warming potential, but are incredibly easy for China to reduce – cynics like me think that China was actively inflating them so as to score Clean Development Mechanism permits, and is only now talking about a phase out because demand for CDM permits has collapsed along with EUETS prices. There’s a “climate smart low carbon cities initiative” which is basically a plan to convene a summit. And that’s pretty much it.

It’s kind of amazing how European progressives coo about anything China does on climate, but give Europe and the UK zero credit for the vastly more impressive lead they’ve taken on climate change. There was a particular classic of the genre yesterday in an extraordinary blog post on LabourList by Sunny Hundal that called the targets of the US (which work out at 16% below 1990 by 2025) and China (emissions can rise for another 16 years) “historic” while slating the EU (40% below 1990 by 2030) as – get this – “weak and lazy”.

Even more breathtakingly, the post was entitled “It’s time Labour joined the world in fighting climate change”, without at any point mentioning the small matter that Labour passed legislation – so far retained by the Conservatives – that (a) commits the UK to an 80% emissions reduction by 2050, (b) frames this in terms of a legally binding carbon budget, and (c) mandates an independent Climate Change Committee – of scientists, mark you, not politicians – to monitor progress and advise on whether the carbon budget needs to be tightened. (“Where is Britain? Nowhere”, the post concludes.) Would that the world followed Britain’s lead by setting a global carbon budget, and creating an independent monitoring body.

On which note – regular readers will have seen this coming several paragraphs ago – this is still, as it always has been, about the need for a global carbon budget, which (as usual) no-one is talking about. Instead, the UNFCCC process lumbers on, with its usual focus on something called “momentum” (whatever that is) as opposed to actual results. Not one person I know in the UN process expects Paris to agree a global plan for limiting warming to 2 degrees. Not one.

I was talking last night to a veteran climate negotiator from a developed country government, who observed that the climate priesthood has, for years, been having far too nice a time meeting up every six months for drinks and per diems. No one wants the party to end. There is no sense of urgency. No real deadline. She’s absolutely, 100% right. I started going to UN climate summits when I was a student. Next summer I’m 40. And the conversations in Warsaw last winter had basically not moved on since the first one I went to in the Hague a decade a half ago.

The only way this will ever end, she continued, is if policymakers give them six months to work out a solution, and make clear at the outset that at the end of this period, they can all piss off home. For good.  She’s right about that too. This is what they should agree, on a full global basis. I’m really not sure what else there is to say.

Updated: news is just emerging that there are some flickers of discussion of a carbon budget in the UN process. This has the potential to be a much bigger deal than the US-China announcement – more on this later.

How about this as a headline outcome from the Addis FFD summit?

Here’s a conundrum if you like riddles: how on earth is next summer’s Finance For Development summit in Addis Ababa supposed to take account of the vexed issue of reform of international financial institutions?

On one hand, the issue is almost impossible for the summit to ignore. IFI reform is a key ‘systemic issue’ in financing for development, and one that figures prominently in the Monterrey Consensus that emerged from the first FFD summit over a decade ago.

On the other hand, though, what exactly can governments say about the issue? An IMF reform package has already been agreed, after all – the problem is that it’s logjammed in the US Congress, and the results of the midterm elections have done nothing whatsoever to change that.

But what if, at Addis next July, European governments made a formal declaration that the next Managing Director of the IMF should be from a developing country – preferably, but not necessarily, matched by a declaration from the US that the next President of the World Bank should also be from the South? (Christine Lagarde’s five year term ends in July 2016; if Jim Kim also does a five year term, as Robert Zoellick did, then he would be due for replacement in July 2017.)

This declaration wouldn’t cost the EU (or US) any expenditure. It wouldn’t require approval by their legislatures. But it would send a real statement of seriousness about IFI reform by overturning the conventions of a European to run the Fund and an American to run the Bank.

Moreover, it would also be an outcome from the summit that would lead the front page of the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal the following day – something that wouldn’t happen if the key summit outcome is (say) better targeting of ODA, or a new investment facility of some sort.

The key likely objection to the idea is that it would be at odds with the idea of merit-based appointments. I take that objection seriously, and especially agree that it would be essential to avoid the posts of IMF MD and World Bank President becoming subject to regions ‘taking turns’, as they already do on the post of UN Secretary-General.

But on the other hand, the EU and US already had positions saying they supported merit-based appointments before the last appointments to these jobs, and then promptly put forward Lagarde and Jim Kim – which didn’t exactly make them look open to breaking with tradition.

The political bottom line here is that IFI reform is one of the few issues within the post-2015 ‘means of implementation’ agenda that the BRICs actually care about. And the BRICs are already showing their frustration at the glacial pace of change with the creation of their new BRICs Bank.

If governments have nothing to say on IFI reform at Addis, then there’s a real risk that it’ll look like they’re simply giving up on the reform agenda. But by sending a strong message about continued commitment to change in spite of the awkward squad on Capitol Hill, the EU and US could take a big step towards changing the difficult political mood on post-2015.

The NGO campaign I’ve wanted to work on for the last 15 years (updated)

Tearfund has always been one of my favourite civil society organisations – above all because they have such a great track record of being a ‘pathfinder’ for other NGOs. They had climate change as a top campaigning priority long before most other development NGOs had really started to engage with it, for example. And now I think they’re about to do it again – with some deeply exciting work they’re doing on their future advocacy and campaigning strategy (which I’m involved in as a consultant).

Tearfund’s starting point in this work is a pretty radical one for a development NGO: a recognition of the basic paradox that the more the world succeeds on development, the more it fails on sustainability.

It’s a point we see most vividly in the fact that those countries deemed to have finished this process we call ‘development’ – developed countries – are also those with the highest per capita environmental impact. But you can see it as well in the fact that those countries that have seen most poverty reduction in recent decades are also the ones where emissions have risen fastest; China’s per capita emissions are now higher than those of the EU, for instance.

One purpose of their ‘Horizon’ project, then, is to start imagining what it would look like for us to move to an economy that was both just and sustainable – at all levels, from global policy right down to what it would mean for individual families. (You can read a background think piece that sets out some of our early thinking and ideas here – n.b. it really is just a think piece, and not in any way a statement of Tearfund policy.)

At the same time, the project also has a second purpose: exploring the new kinds of influence and change that will be needed to unlock change on this scale. Tearfund have recognised very candidly in their internal thinking that traditional ‘insider’ lobbying strategies will have limited power here. (Having spent the past ten years trying to support change in the multilateral system, I’ve reached a similar conclusion myself.)

Instead, alternative approaches will be needed – ones that propagate different norms, built new kinds of movement, create new coalitions for change, and use environmental, social, and economic shocks to fuller effect.

To help get this process underway, we ran a couple of fascinating conversations in London last week with various leading thinkers from government, think tanks, other NGOs, and business. Oxfam’s Duncan Green, who participated in one of the events, has written up a blog post with some reflections here. I distilled some of my own take-aways in a talk I gave at Tearfund after we’d run the two conversations, which you can read here.

Update: Green Economy Coalition’s Emily Benson, who took part in the other event from Duncan Green, has blogged her reflections on the conversation here.