Why diplomats enjoy the UN General Assembly (hint: it’s not the post-2015 development agenda)

Thank you, New York Post, for finally bursting the UN General Assembly bubble:

Midtown jiggle joint Flashdancers has seen a lot of action thanks to the United Nations General Assembly.

“The place has been so packed with diplomats, they’ve had to turn away people at the door,” says a source.

But when we asked for the names of diplos dining out — and perhaps getting private lap dances on their countries’ cash — we were ­refused.

The source added, “None of the diplomats have been super wild, they’re all enjoying themselves but remaining very low-key.”

Ban Ki-moon: Zen master of twitter (updated)

UPDATE: see end of this post for an important and intriguing correction.

Yesterday, Australian historian and UN-watcher Michael Fullilove took a pot-shot at Ban Ki-moon’s twittering style…

Now it’s very easy for an independent thinker like Michael to mock an official like Ban about writing dull tweets. It’s hard for the Secretary-General to be informal or snappy online, because he always risks offending people. But I think that Michael is also missing something deeper and more fundamental here. A close reading of Ban’s tweets suggests that he isn’t just trying to tell us who he is meeting or where he is. He also sees Twitter as an art form, offering moments of minimalist surrealism that verge on the poetic. Here are some examples that, to me, represent the high-points of Ban’s art-form:

 

 

 

 

Truly, this man is a Zen master of the twittered word.

UPDATE: 2 well-placed sources have pointed out that the “@secgen” account is entirely unofficial.  Despite having nearly 250,000 followers, it is in fact the work of someone (reportedly in the UK) who simply tweets Ban’s official schedule hour-by-hour.  Which must be quite dull.  So, I am pleased to (1) say sorry to the SG; and (2) pose the question that will now surely shake global diplomacy: who is the (un)real Ban Ki-moon?   [Technically, the answer is that the best accounts to follow are @UN_Spokesperson and @UN.]

The UN’s struggle for moral authority

I have a 3,000 word essay in Aeon, the online magazine of ideas, on the United Nations and morality. Here’s the opening…

‘We will integrate human rights into the life cycle of all staff.’ This phrase, with its strange mix of bureaucratic and moral ambitions, might sound like a piece of Orwellian doublespeak. In fact it is a sincere statement from a policy paper circulated among senior United Nations staff this summer on the need to renew the organisation’s ‘vision’ in the face of massive human rights violations. UN officials have been despondent over their failure to halt the Syrian war and the organisation’s performance in persistent trouble-spots such as Darfur, so the soul-searching is timely. But will it make any difference?

You can find the answer to that question, and the full article, here.

Iran’s biggest headache

A coda to my post a couple of weeks back on the role of climate change and resource scarcity as conflict threat multipliers in Syria, via Tom Friedman in the NY Times:

“Our main problem that threatens us, that is more dangerous than Israel, America or political fighting, is the issue of living in Iran. Is that the Iranian plateau is becoming uninhabitable. … Groundwater has decreased and a negative water balance is widespread, and no one is thinking about this.

“I am deeply worried about the future generations. … If this situation is not reformed, in 30 years Iran will be a ghost town. Even if there is precipitation in the desert, there will be no yield, because the area for groundwater will be dried and water will remain at ground level and evaporate.

“All the bodies of natural water in Iran are drying up: Lake Urumieh, Bakhtegan, Tashak, Parishan and others … deserts in Iran are spreading, and I am warning you that South Alborz and East Zagros will be uninhabitable and people will have to migrate. But where? Easily I can say that of the 75 million people in Iran, 45 million will have uncertain circumstances. … If we start this very day to address this, it will take 12 to 15 years to balance.”

- Iran’s former agriculture minister Issa Kalantari (now an adviser to Hassan Rouhani), writing in the Iranian Ghanoon newspaper.

Labour’s next election attack lines on the Conservatives’ development record

This piece is published this morning on the Guardian development blog (under the rather fabulous headline Will international development be the undoing of David Cameron?”we can but dream…)

International development may not be among the top five most salient issues at the next UK general election. Yet, for two reasons, it remains in its way a key battleground issue.

First, it’s the last remnant of the signature issues pushed by David Cameron in a bid to “detoxify” the Tory brand. All the others have fallen from grace – “hug a hoodie“, the “big society“, the “greenest government ever” – to the extent that Danny Kruger, the author of the hug a hoodie speech, said last month:

I’d like to know where David Cameron’s compassionate Conservatism has gone … my overall feeling is that there is a loss of drive and energy that David Cameron personally had before the last election.

Development matters for Cameron not only because it provides him with one of his last remaining claims to the political centre, but also because of opposition from his own backbenchers – the reason other detox issues fell by the wayside.

With Cameron’s authority over his party already problematic – and likely to become more so between now and 2015 as his restive MPs contemplate the idea of a second coalition – development represents a key test issue that he cannot afford to lose.

For Labour, on the other hand, development matters because of its unique power to energise a bloc of highly committed, activist-minded voters who are natural Labour supporters.

While Iraq was clearly catastrophic for Labour’s capacity to appeal to this group of voters, 10 years have now passed. This time around, the big question is whether Labour’s offer on development is different enough to motivate them not just to vote, but to put their formidable capacities to organise and mobilise others behind the party’s campaign.

Needless to say, the Conservatives will hope their commitment to spend 0.7% of national income on aid will be enough to neutralise that threat – and to give credit where it’s due, they have delivered on their pre-election rhetoric.

Labour will continue to do what it can to attack this claim – by pointing to the Tories’ failure to keep their promise to legislate for the 0.7% target, for example – but it seems clear that they will have to look elsewhere for its key “dividing lines” on development. So what are their options?

First, inequality. As a Save the Children report published this week underlines, tackling income inequality in developing countries will be essential if the world is to achieve zero poverty by 2030.

This fits easily with the One Nation narrative that Ed Miliband has developed for Labour, but presents much more of a political headache for Cameron (indeed, the relatively weak language on inequality in the recent UN high-level panel on the post-2015 development agenda, which Cameron co-chaired, was largely at British insistence).

Climate will be a second key attack issue for Labour, given that the coalition’s record since 2010 includes the abolition of solar power subsidies, embarrassingly low take-up of the government’s green deal on energy efficiency, and a 3.5% rise in UK emissions in 2012. None of this puts the UK in a strong position to lead internationally in 2014, when political heavy lifting will be needed ahead of the crucial December 2015 summit in Paris.

Third, a financial transactions tax. While some development experts remain unconvinced of the case for a Robin Hood tax, campaigners adore the idea. But while Ed Balls publicly supports the case for such a tax at international level, the Conservatives remain opposed to imposing such a constraint on the City.

This in turn fits in with Labour’s fourth potential dividing line: a broader message of policy coherence. Before the 2010 election, the Department for International Development was an active player in cross-Whitehall debates on areas such as trade, migration, intellectual property, tax havens, climate, and environment.

Since then, though, it has been firmly pushed back into aid administration rather than a broader agenda of development diplomacy. We’re therefore likely to hear a lot from Labour arguing that, unlike the Tories, it believes aid spending is just one piece of a much larger jigsaw puzzle.

Finally, Labour will attack Cameron’s own record of international leadership. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown both exerted huge amounts of energy and political capital on the UK-hosted meetings of the G8 in 2005 and G20 in 2009 – in both cases, putting development concerns very much front and centre.

Cameron, on the other hand, seems a less enthusiastic global advocate for development. His G8 tax agenda appeared half-hearted and under-prepared, while his co-chairmanship of the UN post-2015 high-evel panel was noted by many for his reluctance to attend meetings and clumsy media diplomacy.

How he is perceived on development going in to the 2015 election will depend largely on how much international leadership he is prepared to show over the next 18 months. Given how crucial this period will be for both climate change and the post-2015 development agenda, the importance of this test goes far beyond party politics.

• Alex Evans was special adviser to Hilary Benn at the UK Department for International Development from 2003 to 2006, and blogs at www.globaldashboard.org

Total energy decarbonisation by 2030 AND flat fuel bills? Seriously?

Blimey – Ed Miliband certainly likes to make it hard for himself.

Amid all the coverage this morning of his Labour conference speech yesterday, one small detail seems to have been overlooked: his commitment to total decarbonisation of the energy sector by 2030.

Labour had already committed to including a decarbonisation target in its 2015 manifesto, back in June this year after a cross-party amendment to the Energy Bill in favour of such a measure was defeated by the government – but hadn’t specified the level of the target. This is what Ed Miliband provided yesterday, when he said that

Labour will have a world leading commitment in government to take all of the carbon out of our energy by 2030.

This is a hugely ambitious commitment, and green campaigners will be purring. But you have to wonder – how exactly will this be squared this with the other new policy commitment on energy that he announced yesterday: “the next Labour government will freeze gas and electricity prices until the start of 2017″? Because if we really want to achieve a 100% decarbonisation target in just a decade and a half, it will cost more.

It may be that Labour’s simply ignoring the economics of this because the politics are so good. Jonathan Freedland observes this morning that focus group approval of price controls on gas and electricity is “off the charts”, according to a senior Labour figure. The FT’s political team, meanwhile, notes that however much the Conservatives, Lib Dems, and energy companies howl about the risk of lights going out,

Mr Miliband will relish the backlash, which he hopes will highlight his claim to be willing to side with ordinary families against big business and to tilt the economic playing field back in their favour.

“The companies won’t like it because it will cost them money,” Mr Miliband said. “But they have been overcharging people for too long because the market doesn’t work. We need to press the reset button.”

I assume that Labour knows what it’s doing here, not only because Ed Miliband knows the DECC brief back to front but also because Bryony Worthington is a shadow DECC minister and knows more about the energy sector than most of the energy companies themselves do. But I’d feel better seeing some detailed unpacking of the underlying assumptions…

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