Inequality and the dangerous radicals

As is well-known, critiquing the market can lead to dangerous radicalism, and I’ve recently come across some particularly troubling examples of such radicals.

One proposes that the state should impose on employers an increase in the income of its lowest paid staff. He claims: “It is a serious national evil that any class of subjects should receive less than a living wage.” Without such interference, he claims, “where you have no organisation, no parity of bargaining, the good employer is undercut by the bad, and the bad by the worst — this is not progress, but progressive degeneration.”

Another takes aim the banks, claiming “banking institutions are more dangerous than standing armies. Already they have set up a monied aristocracy that has set the government at defiance. The issuing power of the banks should be taken away from them and restored to the people to whom it belongs.”

And it’s not just banks and sweatshops they are attacking, with rich-bashing reaching its heights with this attack: “The disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and powerful, or to despise, or at least to neglect, the poor, is the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”

It may be a relief that these three are old history now – indeed you may have recognised them as, respectively, Winston Churchill, Thomas Jefferson and Adam Smith.

But it’s not all in the distant past. In my own lifetime I find an American President claiming “Trickle-down economics is voodoo economics” and a Pope claiming:

“There are many human needs which find no place on the market. Vast multitudes are still living in conditions of great poverty. There is a risk that a radical capitalistic ideology could spread which refuses even to consider these problems, and which blindly entrusts their solution to the free development of market forces.”

You’ll recognise from their quotes that the dangerously radical President and Pope cited above are, of course, George H W Bush and John Paul II. (I mean, who else could you have been thinking of?)

And now to the present moment, where such radical critiques of the primacy of the market are growing even louder.

“The current level of income inequality,” claims one, “is dampening economic growth, and the last generation’s inequality will extend into the next generation, with diminished social mobility. Rebalancing —along with spending in the areas of education, health care, and infrastructure —could help bring under control an income gap that, at its current level, threatens the stability of an economy still struggling to recover.”

That was – you’ve guessed it, Wall Street ratings agency S&P.

And this rabble rouser goes even further: “Inequality is destabilizing, inequality is responsible for our divisions, and the divisions could get wider,” says Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein.

Strange that such ideas have been endorsed by such apparently establishment thinkers. It’s almost as if the ideas being expressed were perfectly mainstream and sensible! The only question left to ask is what should we do with such dangerous radicals as those cited above? One suggestion, just a suggestion, might be that we heed their warnings.

Data revolution, meet deforestation

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


  • 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!

Ending poverty through climate action in the Post-2015 development agenda

The post-2015 development agenda offers an extraordinary opportunity to tackle the world’s two most pressing challenges—poverty and climate change. A recent report from the Center for American Progress outlines a practical strategy for policymakers to ensure the new framework tackles both.

While it is sometimes tempting to despair that countries around the world are incapable of crafting multilateral solutions that are equal to the world’s most pressing challenges, there are tremendous opportunities for international agreements to bring about real change and accelerate progress.

In 2015, a pair of international summits – one to agree on a set of sustainable development goals, the other a new climate agreement – present a tremendous opportunity. These efforts can and should complement one another.

Where countries failed to fully integrating environmental concerns into the Millennium Development Goals, they have an unprecedented opportunity now to ensure that the new goals complement and mutually enforce global development and climate solutions.

In a new report from the Center for American Progress, a couple of colleagues and I outline specific, measurable targets to be incorporated into future development goals. These targets focus on specific actions that fight poverty and reduce the catastrophic effects of climate change, and support sustainable agriculture and food security, economic growth and infrastructure, sustainable energy, ecosystems, and healthy lives.

If adopted as part of the post-2015 development agenda, these targets would help drive investments and sensible actions by local and national governments, multilateral development banks, international organizations, and the private sector to end poverty and build a more resilient and sustainable future for generations to come.

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.

Implementing the Post-2015 Development Agenda in the United States

In a new report from the Center for American Progress, we explore the implications of implementing the post-2015 development agenda in the United States.

Given the massive changes in the world since 2000, when the Millennium Development Goals were adopted the United Nations headquarters, it should come as no surprise that the post-2015 development agenda is shaping up to be quite different from the MDGs. One of the most profound shifts is that the post-2015 will be a universal agenda.

To echo the High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda (HLP), a universal agenda is based upon true global partnership, a joint endeavor to end poverty and promote sustainable development. Universality signals a transition away from the North-South dynamic that has defined development policy for decades.Though the specifics are still unclear – in particular how best to accommodate varying national circumstances and contexts – the basic idea is that every country would have work to do, both at home and as members of the global community, in order to achieve the post-2015 development agenda.

While an incredible amount of energy is focused on the what of the post-2015 development agenda, relatively less attention has been paid to the all-important question of how it will be implemented.

In this new report, John Norris, Casey Dunning, and I explore what implementing the post-2015 development agenda might look like from the perspective of the United States. The result of our analysis is a report, Universality In Focus. We use the illustrative set of goals and targets set out by the HLP as our starting point, identifying the achievability, measurability, and merit of each target, and as appropriate, the potential level of ambition for the U.S. in meeting such targets.

Rather than a definitive analysis of a very broad and complicated set of issues, it is our hope that this report is the start of a more specific and focused conversation on implementation and the practical implications of universality in the post-2015 development agenda. We would hope that others undertake similar analysis in different countries, to further inform the ongoing conversations among diplomats in New York.

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OECD DAC Chair Erik Solheim replies on ODA to least developed countries

A couple of days ago, I argued in a post here that while it was welcome that aid flows had reached a new all-time high in 2013, it was bad news that aid was continuing to fall to Least Developed Countries (LDCs). These are, after all, the economies that need aid most, given that – unlike middle income countries –  they remain highly dependent on aid (9.7% of their GDP compared to 0.3% of middle income countries’), and much less able to finance their development from other sources like foreign direct investment, remittances, or domestic resources like savings or tax revenue.

With the debate about post-2015 development objectives increasingly focused less on the goals themselves than on the resources that will enable their delivery – “means of implementation”, in UN-speak – I wrapped up the post by repeating a call I’d made in a report last year on a post-2015 Global Partnership for Development, echoing a recommendation made by the UN High-level Panel on the Post-2015 Agenda (itself based on a long-standing UN target):

With the post-2015 agenda now about to move into the home straight, this is the year when donors need to set out a clear timetable for making good on their long-standing promise to give at least 0.15% of their gross national income (GNI) to least developed countries – and ideally go beyond it to 0.20%. And the OECD DAC’s High Level Meeting this December is the right moment to do it.

On which note, I also sent a tweet to the Chair of the OECD DAC, Norway’s Erik Solheim, to put the idea to him: here’s what he came back with.

This is a fair point. If we unpack Solheim’s example of the United States, they only give 0.19% of GNI to aid in total, and 0.07% of GNI to LDCs (here’s the data). So for them to spend 0.15% of GNI on LDCs, as I’m proposing, would be a drastic shift, involving spending more than three quarters of their total aid budget on LDCs.

But Solheim also had another idea:

This is a pretty interesting idea. To stick with our example of the US, this approach would clearly be much less scary in that it would involve much less upheaval in aid allocations. But at the same time, given that the OECD as a whole spent 0.30% of its GNI on aid in 2013, the net result of what Solheim’s proposing would be that LDCs would receive… 0.15% of OECD GNI, the same proportion that I was calling for to start with.

And here’s the really key point: given that the OECD’s analysis of 2013 aid spending suggested that “aid levels could increase again in 2014 and stabilise thereafter”, the implication is that if donors were to commit to spending half their aid on LDCs, then the percentage of GNI could quickly rise to more than 0.15%.

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