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.

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.

Labour and the vision thing

Some of my best friends are spads. But it may be that they are just not suited to leadership. Spads are great at schmoozing and PR. Some may even be good at policy. But it’s rare that at any time in their career they will need to have vision. Because that’s their bosses’ job. So it’s understandable that a Labour party that has for years been run by a cabal of ex-spads — a ‘spadocracy’ perhaps — had no vision.

So said Diane Abbott MP in yesterday’s Guardian. (‘Spads’ are special advisers, if you’re wondering: political advisers to Ministers.)

To be fair, she doesn’t acknowledge that there are some big exceptions to her rule (Geoff Mulgan and Matthew Taylor come to mind, for instance). Or that some people who she does admire — like Jon Cruddas, one of the most visionary minds in Labour politics — may not have been spads, but have even so worked for most of their careers in and around the Party.

But these are the exceptions, I concede — and I write this as a former special adviser myself, to Hilary Benn and before him Valerie Amos at the Department for International Development.

Being a spad (or a Labour policy officer, or a researcher for an MP) is, after all, first and foremost about the art of the possible. Tony Blair’s former speechwriter Peter Hyman captured this nicely in a five part typology of different kinds of special adviser in his book 1 out of 10: policy wonks; spin doctors; fixers; ‘comfort blankets’; and — rarest of all — political strategists.

Special advisers who are visionaries can also discover that they fit awkwardly into government, or find themselves at the receiving end of a powerful immune response from a system predisposed to write them off as dreamers or regard them as trouble makers: look at Dominic Cummings. (It’s a similar story with civil servants: only very rarely does a visionary like John Ashton make it to the highest levels, and even then generally only in an unusual role like John’s as the Foreign Office’s climate envoy.)

All of which leads in turn to a larger question that we too often overlook: how and where progressive politics incubates and nurtures visionary thinking. Continue reading

Posted in UK

5 flashing warning lights on the dashboard of the global humanitarian system

In case you hadn’t noticed, these are extraordinary times for the global emergency relief system, which has never looked more overstretched. 5 facts lifted from a new paper by my CIC colleagues Sarah Hearn and Alison Burt:

1. 76 million people now depend on the humanitarian system. A decade ago, the figure was 26 million.

2. The number of forced displaced people has more than doubled over the MDG era –  from 20 million in 1999 to more than 51 million at the end of last year.

3. The cost of global emergency assistance is now $18 billion – a more than threefold increase from the $5 billion it cost in 2000.

4. Internally displaced people now outnumber international refugees by a factor of 2 to 1 (24 million IDPs versus 12 million refugees – in 2000 it was 6 million IDPs and 12 million refugees).

5. The average displacement of a refugee now lasts for 17 years.

When we talk about ways of assisting the hardest to reach of the people living in poverty around the world, it’s often not governments or development actors but the humanitarian system that are delivering the basic services. So if the world is serious about the SDG aim of leaving no one behind, then this is where we have to start.

Back in 2005, UN emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland led a massive push to upgrade the humanitarian system. With next year’s World Humanitarian Summit coming up, it’s high time that the UN embarked on a similarly ambitious effort again.

Bill, Melinda, and the SDGs

About a week ago, the Humanosphere blog caused something of a stir in development circles with a piece on the UN’s draft Sustainable Development Goals entitled “Gates Foundation rallies the troops to attack UN development goals“. Its headline message:

The Gates Foundation really dislikes what the international community intends to do over the next 15 years to reduce poverty and inequality.

The post went on to claim that “the SDGs were not just debated and critiqued at [the Foundation’s annual Global Partners Forum in Seattle, which took place last week]; they were downright ridiculed, repeatedly”.

A week later, Humanosphere ran a follow-up by the same author, which included quotes from an interview with Mark Suzman, Gates’s president of global policy, advocacy, and country programs. According to this piece,

While Suzman acknowledged that there were plenty of critical – and yes, even snarky – comments made at the Gates Forum about the SDGs, he said it would be incorrect to interpret this as lack of support for what the UN agenda is aimed at accomplishing in general.

Fair enough – I’ve known Mark Suzman a long time, have huge respect for him as a development policy expert, and know him to completely straight-up about what he thinks and where he’s coming from. And I also understand how participants at the Global Partners Forum were feeling if (as Humanosphere paraphrases Mark),

The concern at the Gates confab appeared to be that the SDGs were looking more like vague or aspirational goals, such as MDG8, and moving away from the successful strategy of focusing on simpler, easily identified and tracked goals.

But the kerfuffle over the Gates Foundation’s stance on the SDGs still raises a couple of interesting questions worth considering. Continue reading

How to make the Addis Financing For Development summit a success


A couple of weeks ago, preparations for July’s Financing For Development summit in Addis Ababa passed the 100 days to go mark. Unfortunately, the summit is at this point not on track to meet the high expectations for it. It faces a mutually reinforcing set of problems, including:

  • Confusion about the summit’s intended outcomes – with too many issues on the table, and a serious lack of clarity about what success would look like on each;
  • A lack of agenda setters – so far only the co-facilitators (Norway and Guyana) are really leading the process, but their room for manoeuvre is constrained by the need for them to remain neutral honest brokers; and
  • Insufficient political will – the result of the summit not yet being on heads’ or finance ministers’ radars, as well as it not being a top 2015 priority for civil society.

So what would it take to turn things around and make Addis a success? One of the essentials is a clearer political narrative – one that explains what the summit is for, what’s new this time around (as compared to Monterrey in 2002 or Doha in 2007), what it could achieve, and why high level policymakers, and above all finance ministers, should make the effort to attend. This short note (pdf), produced with colleagues at the NYU Center on International Cooperation, is an attempt to start thinking this through over just a couple of pages – any feedback and suggestions for improvement gratefully received.

More broadly, we also need a harder-edged political strategy. This paper (pdf) – which was circulated earlier this month, and so doesn’t reflect last week’s FFD talks in New York or the IMF / World Bank Spring Meetings – sets out a few ideas. Again, feedback warmly welcome.

(And on the overall SDGs agenda, David Steven and I also just published the latest in our series of What Happens Now? papers taking stock of where the process stands and where it might go next – you can download that here.)