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.

Quoted without comment

If anything, I have had to keep empathy at bay. It is such a saturation of suffering that somehow as a journalist you have to harden yourself, otherwise it becomes too painful to do your job. Then on 7 April, a few months after I began researching a book on the subject, my first child was born.

In the weeks after Nathaniel’s birth, there was one image I could not shake from my mind. It was of the mothers who gave birth in the sinking smuggling boats, their stories told by survivors who had witnessed the deliveries and by rescue divers who found the bodies of babies still attached to their mothers by their umbilical cord. I had just experienced a pregnancy and birth, that blooming of hope, the excitement at the onset of labour, the hours of terrible pain then the euphoria of the delivery and wriggling new life in front of you.

Imagine doing all that, but in the darkness of the rotting hull of a fishing vessel, surrounded by so many bodies in the grip fear and panic, inhaling hot air saturated with the smell of human waste and diesel fumes, lost in the middle of the sea and knowing that you were drowning.

Would that rush of pure, indescribable joy when your baby finally leaves your body still be there, even if you knew you and the child you brought into the world were about to die? Did they have a chance to hold their babies, to try and comfort them? Did anyone help comfort them at that moment when they were delivering that doomed life, or was the panic so complete that they were alone?

As I nursed Nathaniel in the small hours of the morning, I could not stop putting myself on those boats, imagining the horror of it over and over and over again. What scares me most about the current debate over the refugee crisis is the utter inability of some people and politicians to acknowledge any shared experience with the people asking for sanctuary on this rich continent.

It is the British politicians speaking of ‘swarms’ and ‘marauders’. This is the language of plague and pestilence, not human lives. At its worst it is the Hungarian and Slovakian leaders speaking about the dilution of Christian values, and refusing refuge to Muslims.

In 1938, American and European leaders met in the French spa town of Evian to debate whether to offer sanctuary to the growing numbers of Jewish refugees. Politician after politician took to the podium and spoke about high unemployment and economic hardship, and nothing was done. The next year, W.H. Auden wrote his Refugee Blues: ‘Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees; They had no politicians and sang at their ease; They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race’. So much time has passed, yet how little we have learnt.

From Charlotte McDonald-Gibson in Granta.

NGO air miles? Whose bright idea was THAT?

Remember a time when people went out and joined hands in the streets to demonstrate their passion about the issues they cared most about? Well, forget all that sentimental crap and get with the 21st century, my friend. These days, it’s all about the NGO airmiles.

NGO air milesThis is an excerpt from the website of the Global Citizen Festival, next weekend’s jamboree in Central Park at which Coldplay, Beyonce, Ed Sheeran, and Pearl Jam will extol the virtues of the Sustainable Development Goals. Wondering how to get hold of a ticket? Answer: you have to go on an “Action Journey” (yes, really). Once you accumulate 65 points from taking actions like the ones above, presto! – you’re entered into the lottery for tickets.

Now, call me old fashioned, but isn’t the point of mobilising people for demonstrations to show politicians clearly that said demonstrators really care about the issue in question? True, that clarity may have got a bit blurred once demonstrations started turning into free U2 gigs like Live8. But that’s nothing to the mixed messages we’re sending politicians once they start to wonder if the people tweeting them about water and sanitation are actually just after free Beyonce tickets.

Worse than that, we’re also sending people the implicit but still unambiguous message that the SDGs aren’t worth caring about in and of themselves; that we understand that of course we’ll need to throw in some freebies in order to get you to give a shit about ending poverty by 2030, or bringing today’s levels of inequality under some kind of control, or ending violence against women and kids. Seriously? Is that really our model of activism?

10 thoughts on Jeremy Corbyn’s win

1.Whatever you think about Jeremy Corbyn, it is kind of astonishing to see a party leader who goes straight from being elected to participating in a march for refugees’ rights. I’ve grown up used to Labour leaders who pitch themselves at Middle England while assuring us Party members sotto voce that they’re one of us really. It feels weird to have a Labour leader pitching himself at me.

2. I do though wonder about ‘polarisation’ and the risk of issues becoming partisan where they weren’t before. Look at climate change. Once there was a consensus on this; now, it’s arguably the single biggest dividing line between left and right, partly because us lefties made it ‘our’ issue (thanks, Naomi). Is the same thing going to happen on more issues if a leader like Jeremy Corbyn champions them? If so, would that be a good or a bad thing?

3.Which leads me to a bigger underlying question: now that Jeremy Corbyn is our leader, do we have a plan for reaching out to the public and taking them with us? Or is this going to be like all our Facebook walls, where we just talk to ourselves?

4. The right clearly takes the latter view and is giddy with excitement. Janan Ganesh in the FT today: “If David Cameron showed up to parliament in his Bullingdon Club tailcoat to announce the sale of Great Ormond Street children’s hospital to a consortium led by ExxonMobil, his Conservatives would still be competitive against Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour at the next election.” It would be nice to defy these expectations.

5.  For the right / New Labour / Blairites, and not a few Brownites, this means they need to (how to put this?) shut the f**k up and acknowledge Corbyn’s overwhelming mandate. They were the first to expect loyalty to the leader when they ran the show. For them to be muttering about ousting Corbyn – as lots of them are privately, and some even publicly – is totally inappropriate.

6. For the left / people who voted for Corbyn, the quid pro quo – one that will be just as hard for them as shutting up will be for the New Labour folk – must be that they have got to let go of this instinct to denounce any questioning of anything Corbyn says / does / has ever done / has ever said as part of a conspiracy to ‘smear’ their guy. Heaven knows Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have never felt shy of living out their view that debate within the Party is healthy…

7. …which is just as well, because we have a lot to debate right now, and it would be nice to be able to do so without being at each other’s throats. Truth is, I feel deeply conflicted about the result. I voted Kendall, Cooper, Burnham because I want Labour to win elections; yet my main feeling about the Blair and Brown eras is one of disappointment. Sure, there were successes – but bloody modest ones, given the scale of the 97 landslide. I want a radical alternative for the 21st century.

8. But I feel uneasy that so much of the Corbyn agenda seems so 20th century: more Socialist Worker than New Economics Foundation. I want us to build new institutions, not just defend the old ones. Above all a lot of it seems deeply statist where I’ve been hoping for something that’s much more about decentralisation and communities. There’s been a lot of good thinking about this in recent years from people like Jon Cruddas and Paul Hilder (see this piece of mine from back in May for links to their stuff). I don’t see much of it represented in Jeremy Corbyn’s platform.

8. On that note, as much as the media try to spin this as New versus Old Labour, there’s actually something much more interesting going on here, as Paul Mason noted a few days ago. Jeremy Corbyn surged to victory by talking about “progressive, left, green, feminist and anti-racist values” – messages that appeal to Party members who are “metropolitan, multi-ethnic, networked and … young”. What none of the leadership candidates really spoke to, on the other hand, was the ‘blue’ Labour agenda of “‘reconnecting’ with the working class base … old Labour voters worried about migration, declining communites etc.”

9. Whereas Tom Watson does align much more with these ‘blue’ Labour values. So for me the question I’m most fascinated by is this: will the ‘red’ and ‘blue’ Labour worldviews and their new standard bearers, Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson, be able to work together? Is there some kind of synthesis out there waiting to be found between these two very different takes on what the left should look like? Or is it just a matter of time before the gloves come off? I hope the former; even then, it may not be enough. But let’s go for it.

10. After all, who the hell knows about anything any more. Everyone was wrong about the general election. Everyone was wrong about Corbyn’s chances of winning the Labour leadership. Maybe they’re all wrong about his chances in the next general election too. (As the Daily Mash put it, “A man who just defied expectations to get elected definitely could not win an election, it has been confirmed”.) For sure if there’s another financial crisis then all bets are off: the Conservatives won’t have Labour to blame this time, and with nothing left in the kitty to bail anyone out it could look a lot nastier than the last one.

Why the SDGs flunk the partnership test

Among the many useful elements of this year’s OECD Development Cooperation Report on partnerships, which is out today, is a handy 10 point checklist for what makes for a successful partnership.

The list comes courtesy of Hildegard Lingnau and Julia Sattelberger, who have co-authored a summary chapter that distils lessons learned from the various contributors’ chapters (among them one by me on public-private partnerships) and from a dozen case studies that explore a range of different partnerships in practice.

And while the list can certainly provide a good basis for gauging partnerships – more rigorous quality control of which would definitely be welcome – the thing that struck me as I read it was that their ten criteria were also not a bad basis for evaluating the larger undertaking that all these partnerships are supposed to contribute to: the Sustainable Development Goals themselves and the emerging Global Partnership that they are intended to help catalyse.

So, partly humorously and partly seriously, I went through the OECD’s partnership checklist and gave the post-2015 story so far marks out of 10 on each of the checklist’s points – an exam grade, if you will, on the state of the SDG agenda. Continue reading

What transformation looks like

Over the years I’ve frequently been a source of amusement to my wife Emma, but rarely more so than when I came home from work at DFID one day a decade or so ago and recounted to her a particularly mortifying interaction I’d had with the IT department. My computer had gone on the fritz during a password update, and in order to resolve it I’d had to tell the tech support guys my old password over the phone – while a senior official was in the room. Imagine my joy as I had to spell out “f-u-c-k-i-n-c-r-e-m-e-n-t-a-l-i-s-m” while my visitor attempted and failed to stifle their mirth.

Although I use slightly more discreet passwords these days, I’ve still never really drunk the Kool-aid on change that happens one step at a time, at a grindingly slow pace, measurable in decades. Which can be a rather frustrating worldview when you work on global climate policy – but, now and again, a deeply satisfying one when you get out and see real development happening in real places at unreal speed.

And it turns out that it looks like this:

SavingsEach row belongs to a woman who’s a member of a Self Help Group in a village near Nazret in Ethiopia. Each column is one of their weekly meetings. And each of those number ‘5’s is five birr that each member saves, week in, week out – about 15 pence.

Not a lot, but you’d be surprised what happens next. Right away, the women can buy their food in bulk at a big discount. More importantly, they can each start borrowing money from the self help group and diversifying their income. At first in tiny ways – by buying sand and concrete to make fuel efficient cook stoves and then selling them on, or by financing setting themselves up as a baker rather than a day labourer.

By the time a group’s been around for a few years – like the group I saw the following day in Adama town – it’s all kicked off. Members of the self help group are saving ten times as much. They’re putting money aside into a social insurance fund in case one of them gets sick or has an accident. And they’re taking out loans at a much bigger scale – to buy cows and sell the milk, or build a house extension and letting out the rooms, or buy a taxi, or (in one case) open a tiny pool hall. They talk in terms of capital adequacy, and rate of return, and business plans. They say their next step is to go into business together to set up a livestock operation. I believe them.

In every single case, these are people who were targeted in the initial outreach because they were the very poorest of the poor – the hardest to reach, the most vulnerable, the ones living on a single meal a day if that. Now they have smartphones, sofas, little houses. Some of their kids are in higher education.

But here’s the thing: they all say that the money’s not the point. They’re evangelical about the saving, don’t get me wrong. But they all say that the thing that’s really changed their lives is the relationships with each other. (“We’re family now.”) The trust they have in their group. The shift in their relationships with their husbands as they’ve stopped being dependent and started being income earners. Above all, the power – to make change happen, rather than have it as something that happens to them. (“We used to be so timid.”)

This is designed in. Each group draws up its own bye-laws; although a facilitator is on hand to help, no one tells them how to run themselves. Everyone takes turns drawing up the agenda, chairing the meetings, summing up the discussion. Groups self-assess their members on confidence and articulacy. They hold themselves to account. They charge themselves penalties if they’re late.

As Self Help Groups mature, they self-organise into clusters, and then those clusters into federations. They set up and nurture more Self Help Groups. They set up kids’ clubs during the holidays. Then they set up kindergartens. Then they set up schools. They arrange skills training for their members. They start sorting out water and sanitation. They plant trees in their neighbourhood to spruce the place up.

So guess how much aid it costs to run each Self Help Group?

A pittance. And according to one cost-benefit analysis the rates of return are £173 for every £1 spent – an almost unbelievably high multiple, among the very highest available for any development project.

To a large extent, these groups are self-financing. True, it costs money to run networks of facilitators in areas where mature clusters aren’t in place yet – but these are met primarily by local church or community groups. When I first heard about Self Help Groups in Ethiopia I thought they were a form of social protection. Having visited them, I realise it’s the opposite. This has nothing to do with welfare.

I’m not a program expert, nor a monitoring and evaluation nerd – but I’ve visited a fair few development projects over the years, especially when I was at DFID, and I’ve never seen anything like this. This isn’t a project, it’s a movement – there are now 25,000 Self Help Groups in Ethiopia, and they’re multiplying like yeast. And it is absolutely, categorically, totally transformative.

All this has happened in large part because of work that Tearfund, a Christian development NGO, has been doing with local churches over the past nearly two decades. And when you talk to Tearfund’s country head, Keith Etherington, you get a strong sense that you’re still only seeing the opening act of this story.

This is some of the most impressive development work I’ve ever seen, and it’s being done on a shoestring – and with more funding, much more can be done to roll this out across the country. If you’re planning on giving money to anything any time soon, I simply cannot imagine a better rate of return than this.

A problem for every solution on climate

It frustrates me so much that UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres was rubbishing the idea of a carbon budget two years ago, even as the IPCC was being more trenchant than ever before about the need for one …and now here she is two years later saying there’s no way Paris will agree a 2 degree deal.

*Obviously* Paris isn’t going to do a 2 degree deal, in this lame incremental paradigm where everyone just talks about what they think they can manage, as opposed to what’s actually necessary. But that’s because no one is leading by putting the question of how we share a safe global emissions budget out between 195 countries squarely on the table.

Surely Christiana Figueres’s job as UNFCCC Executive Secretary is to tell the world what it will take to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations at a safe level? Am I missing something here?

Few things infuriate me more than when people tell me that there’s no way we’ll ever agree on how to share out a global carbon budget because it would inevitably lead to a zero sum game in which everyone ends up fighting – without their having taken the trouble to sit down and actually run the numbers.

Owen Barder, Alice Lepissier and I just spent the last three years building a quant model to answer the question of what it would look like if the world agreed a 2 degree carbon budget, shared it out on the basis of equal per capita shares of the sky, and allowed emissions trading. (Our report is out in a month’s time at the SDG summit, but here’s a 3 page preview if you’re interested.)

You know what we found? That not only is it way cheaper than you’d think for high emitters, but even more strikingly, that low and lower middle income countries receive  $419 billion a year from emissions trading by 2025. Which is more than three times as much as total current aid flows. So we stabilise the climate – and in the process we sort out the finance for development gap that last month’s Addis FFD summit so manifestly failed to do anything about.

Climate change and poverty eradication are just so _solvable_. And yet here we are still running round and round and round in circles telling ourselves it can’t be done – with the effect that emissions are now up 52% since the UN Climate Convention was signed in 1992. We can do a lot better than this.