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.

But tell us what you really think

Disproving my belief that official think tank feeds rarely say much of interest, here’s a special moment on Twitter earlier today from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (or some hapless intern therein):

…swiftly followed by another tweet offering “sincerest apologies to @Amnesty & our followers” and the news that “we’re reviewing internal policies for social media”. Really?

h/t Andrew Exum

Why the multilateral system is stumbling on conflict prevention

Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, South Sudan – not to mention Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Gaza, or Somalia. None of them is exactly a poster child for the multilateral system’s capacity to address or prevent conflict. Richard Gowan has a great piece in World Politics Review this week (£) that offers a typically pithy (and pitiless) account of why the multilateral security system seems to be stumbling so badly:

It suffers structural weaknesses at three levels. The major powers at the apex of the system are in disarray, as the U.S. tries to limit its global commitments and China and Russia assert themselves. Middle-sized powers that want to undercut the system are exploiting these top-tier tensions: While Moscow and Washington have sparred over Syria at the U.N., for example, Saudi Arabia and Iran have fought a proxy war on the ground.

At the bottom of the global ladder, a mix of predatory governments, rebel movements and terrorists have taken advantage of the troubles higher up. As I noted at the start of this year, embattled and autocratic leaders from Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to South Sudan’s Salva Kiir have concluded that they can have more to gain from using force against their foes than submitting to international mediation. In the Middle East and North Africa, groups such as the Islamic State are profiting from the resulting conflicts.

Richard’s last point, on the opportunism of those at the bottom of the global ladder, certainly chimes with an experience I had a few months ago: sitting in the lobby of the hotel in Addis Ababa where the South Sudan peace negotiations have been taking place, I overheard two negotiators sitting at the next table chuckling gleefully at how the international community’s focus on Ukraine had taken the pressure right off them to reach a deal with their opponents.

All the same, as Richard concludes, it still matters that:

…a mix of international officials and observers, soldiers and governments remain willing to stand up for the vulnerable and do what they can to uphold that system. Perhaps the system hasn’t completely flopped in recent crises. A fairer if less pithy assessment might be that the system is indeed failing, but it still does enough good to be worth fighting for.

 

Data revolution, meet deforestation

You will need: Some satellites. Google Maps. Trees. People. Some money.

Method:

  • Grab satellite data on forest cover.
  • Make it super hi-resolution - all the way down to 30 square metres.
  • Overlay it onto Google Maps.
  • Update it every ten (ten!) days.
  • Mash it up with boundaries of national parks and logging concessions, so that illegal logging shows up immediately.
  • Enable automatic area alerts.
  • Proactively offer funding for access to legal redress to local groups via the Access Initiative.
  • Stir well.

Your Global Forest Watch is now ready. Nice going, World Resources Institute.

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No SDGs for you, North Korea! (updated)

Gird your loins: the zero draft of the UN Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals is out! While most post-2015ers will have raced ahead to see what Goals are included, they’ll have overlooked a small but significant detail in the preamble. As you’d expect in a document of this nature, the usual genuflections to countries in special circumstances are naturally observed:

We recognize that each country faces specific challenges to achieve sustainable development, and we underscore the special challenges facing the most vulnerable countries and, in particular, African countries, least developed countries, landlocked developing countries and small island developing States …

But there are also a couple of additions to the usual list, lest anyone feel left out:

…as well as the specific challenges facing the middle-income countries. Countries in situations of conflict also need special attention.

Now, you might think that this diverse array of country categories must cover just about every developing country on Earth. But you’d be wrong. For as the proper development nerds among you will immediately have realised, there is a small number of developing countries that are neither least developed (according to the UNCTAD definition), nor middle income (according to the World Bank list) - Kenya, DPRK, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, to be specific.

In practice, Kenya, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe are covered elsewhere on the list, given that African countries warrant a special mention of their own. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan? Both landlocked - so they’re included too. Which means that, uniquely among the diverse array of the world’s developing countries, only North Korea fails to warrant inclusion in a category for special attention under the SDGs. Oops. Someone call Dennis Rodman!

Update: Peter Chowla writes in to point out that all is not lost for DPRK’s SDG coverage, as it is “most definitely a country in a conflict situation”: for one thing it never signed a formal peace treaty with the US after the Korean War, and for another thing it declared war on South Korea last year. So there we are: panic over!

What’s wrong with development agencies

Here’s John Kay, writing about the corporate cultures of Oxford University and the Co-operative Bank in the UK – but his description also applies 100% to more than a few development agencies (especially, perhaps, some of those in the UN system)…

Multiple layers of authority overlap both horizontally (different people and committees engage with the same issue) and vertically (many decisions are liable to review by some other body). The lack of focus in decision making results in an absence of executive authority; while professional management is subject to random amateur interference. In consequence, able people are not easily attracted to management roles; and so the amateurs view the professionals with often justified and frequently reciprocated contempt.

With no defined power structure, the vacuum is filled by people who turn non-executive roles into a near full-time occupation. Many are well intentioned though some are obsessed with a single issue: fair trade, say, or diversity or equality. Others promote a sectional interest, which may simply be their own. Petty politicians enjoy the feeling of being at the centre and jostle for power; the power they seek is not the ability to get things done but the negative power that comes from “no decision without me”. Secrecy about matters of no significance bolsters their sense of self-importance.

When non-executives enjoy power without responsibility, the corollary is that executives suffer responsibility without power. The organisation cannot pursue a consistent or coherent strategy, and may find it difficult to take any decisions at all.

The chaotic process is vigorously defended by claims of democratic legitimacy, and by reference to the traditions and distinctive values of the organisation. But the democracy is a sham, and the values and traditions – admirable if different in the Co-op and Oxford – encourage a tendency to self-congratulation immune to deficiencies in current performance. The proud history also leads people mistakenly to blame organisational incapacity to adapt on current individuals rather than inherited systems and structures.

Playing with fire in the Ukraine

Back in 1989, William Lind was one of the team that first coined the term ‘fourth generation warfare’ – referring to low-intensity conflicts involving highly decentralised insurgency tactics, non-state combatants, and strong emphasis on propaganda and psychological warfare.

(In case you’re wondering, first generation warfare was about line and column tactics, as in the Thirty Years War; second generation was more mobile and involved indirect fire but still tended towards pitched battle, as in World War One; third generation was all about manoeuvre warfare that aimed to bypass the enemy’s troops and attack from behind, as well as targeting civil populations, as with blitzkrieg tactics in World War Two.)

Now, Lind observes, it looks as though Russia’s long-disparaged military has learned a few tricks from the 4GW playbook and is using them to considerable effect in Ukraine. Among them: cyberwarfare, strong emphasis on the information campaign, skilful use of special operations troops to grab the initiative (“if an operation fails, Russian prestige is not on the line, because it can deny ownership; if it succeeds, Russia can give the credit to the locals, strengthening the legitimacy of the elements it supports”).

Crucially, Russia’s tactics in Ukraine are also based on “a supportive ethnically Russian population … by leveraging loyalty to ‘Mother Russia’ among ethnically Russian citizens of Ukraine, Russia has been able to maintain a light footprint, reducing the diplomatic and economic price of her actions.”

But, Lind continues, this last tactic is very much a double-edged sword for Russia – and here’s his crucial point (emphasis added at the end):

The Russian Federation includes many peoples who are ethnically non-Russian. Others can use them as the Kremlin has used ethnic Russians.

Here we begin to see a lesson from 4GW which Russia has not yet learned: once the disintegration of a state is set in motion, it is very difficult to halt or reverse. Russian actions are destroying an already fragile state in Ukraine. The Kremlin appears to believe it can spur or reign in state disintegration in eastern Ukraine, pushing it far enough to prevent Ukraine from joining the West but halting before the east becomes anarchic. That may be optimistic.

While the West assumes events in eastern Ukraine are driven by Moscow, just as Moscow says events in Kiev are driven by the West, there is increasing evidence that, green men or no, local Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine are not taking orders from anyone. Local struggles for power and loot are becoming more influential than any outside actors. A “Brinton thesis” cascade of small coups, leading ever toward the greatest extreme, may already be underway. If so, chaos will spread, deepen, and defy all efforts at control, regardless of who is behind them. Moscow needs to remember that it can no more order the tide to retreat than can Washington.

For states, playing with 4GW is playing with fire. Some tactics and techniques may be drawn from it and used effectively by states. But states need to remember that those tactics and techniques work best in a weakening state and also contribute to a state’s dissolution. The emergence of new stateless regions is in no state’s interest. However clever its tactics, if Russia finds itself facing prolonged stateless disorder in eastern Ukraine, it will have failed strategically. A higher level of war trumps a lower. 

Goodbye to all that

Yesterday’s findings from two scientific teams that a large section of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has now started to collapse (almost certainly unstoppably, implying 10 feet or more of long term sea level rise), is relevant to pretty much everyone around the world. But for us Brits in particular, the prospect of the disappearance of so much of Antarctica has a particular resonance, coming as it does just a couple of years after the centenary of the deaths of Robert Falcon Scott and his companions in the race to the South Pole.

Scott’s last expedition didn’t cross the West Antarctic Ice Sheet on their way to the Pole; instead, they landed just to the east of the WAIS, at the edge of the Ross Sea, and made their way to the Pole over the Ross Ice Shelf.

They built their HQ, seen above, on Ross Island, at a place called Cape Evans – named, as it happens, for my great granddad, Teddy Evans, who was second in command of the expedition. (He was also one of the few who survived; he caught scurvy on the way to the Pole, and was hauled back by his companions William Lashley and Tom Crean - thanks to whom I’m here to write this blog post.) He’s just to Scott’s right in the photo above, taken at Cape Evans on Scott’s birthday in 1911.

But now the Ross Ice Shelf is melting too - not as fast as the WAIS, admittedly, but melting from underneath all the same, rather than just calving icebergs the way it always used to. Same story with Antarctica’s other giant cold-cavity ice shelves, Filchner and Ronne.

There’s a certain sad irony here in that the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust recently completed a successful appeal to preserve Scott’s hut at Cape Evans – a place that, as David Attenborough noted when he went there, is

“a time warp without parallel – you walk into Scott’s hut and you are transported to the year 1912 in a way that is quite impossible anywhere else in the world. Everything is there.”

But while the hut will stay the same, the continent that my great granddad and his fellow expeditioners would have looked out at whenever they stepped outside is disappearing. Not too many generations from now, only the bedrock will be left – and even that, rapidly disappearing under the waves.

See this companion post, also published today, for a short guide to other climate ‘tipping points’ – and a few links to what you can do to help prevent us from sleepwalking over any more of them.