10 Tips for a Bold & Ambitious Post-2015 Development Agenda

Climate negotiations in Warsaw made faltering steps towards a possible 2015 agreement. Trade talks in Bali were salvaged at the last minute. As global negotiations on trade, climate and development reach a crescendo between now and 2015, success or failure to reach agreement will be seen as signals of the future of multilateralism itself.

These talks remain fraught with complexity and technical and political disagreements that have considerable potential to derail agreement. As former chief of staff for the Secretariat of the High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, I know first hand how difficult it will be for these groups to arrive at consensus on the world’s most contentious issues- and how besieged they will feel by the demands of governments and stakeholders from around the world.

A number of lessons we learned from the Panel could improve the prospects for consensus and the ability to put forward recommendations that effectively address the challenges the world will face in the coming decades.

In this new commentary for New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, I outline 10 critical actions. Continue reading

Saudi Arabia’s national shame

A couple of weeks back I posted about Saudia Arabia’s mass deportation of Ethiopian migrant labourers. Now, with 7,000 migrants returning on flights back to Addis Ababa every night, their stories are starting to emerge in earnest. Humanitarian experts based here who are supporting them and the government are aghast at what they’re hearing.

It seems to be becoming clear that rape of female domestic workers in Saudi Arabia is not just frequent, but endemic. 95% of women coming back are either pregnant or lactating, according to the EU humanitarian organisation, ECHO. Some women who had children in Saudi Arabia have reportedly not been allowed to take them back to Ethiopia.

Many women are also reporting being raped multiple times by Saudi Arabian security and prison staff after being detained prior to deportation. Others held in the temporary detention camps (the FT says there are 64 of them) report that they were forced to purchase their food and water at inflated prices.

2,500 returnees and counting – about 2.5% of those returned so far – have been referred to hospital here, with high rates of both psychological trauma and sexual and gender based violence.

The Saudi authorities are reportedly confiscating many people’s money and valuables before they’re allowed to board the plane – and even their shoes, so that returnees arrive back here in the middle of the night, in temperatures as low as 5 degrees C, in bare feet. Many families are being split up and put on separate flights, including in some cases kids separated from their parents.

The Saudis (30th richest country in the world on GNP per capita) aren’t even deigning to pay for the cost of the charter flights bringing the migrants home – instead leaving it to Ethiopia (175th richest country in the world) and humanitarian agencies to pick up the tab.

The CCC puts its thumb on the scale

Today the UK is debating whether or not to alter a legally enforceable carbon budget for 2023-2027 (Carbon Brief has an excellent explanation of the issues at stake). This will be the fourth budget and is designed to keep the country on track to reducing emissions by 80% by 2050 from a 1990 baseline.

Implementation in the UK may often still be disappointing, but no developed country has been so willing to create a legal framework that provides clear ‘signals from the future’ to investors about where they should put their money.

It’s a path that more countries will need to follow if the world is to have any hope of delivering the promise to stabilize the climate which was first made over twenty years’ ago.

The UK also has an independent statutory body – the Committee on Climate Change – that exists to advise ministers on the 2050 target and the budgets needed to get there. Think of a monetary policy committee – but with advisory powers rather than the ability to act on its own to set interest rates.

The Committee today published a report on whether the 2023-2027 budget should be revised and concluded that it shouldn’t. The budget is feasible and cost effective, it concludes. If anything, it would be cheaper for the UK to make bigger cuts in the short term, rather than waiting until neater to 2050.

So far so good.

But I want to quibble with one aspect of the Committee’s report. Actually it’s more than a quibble. I was enraged by the complacency with which it discussed whether other countries were matching the UK’s commitment.

The Committee’s report blithely asserts that progress towards a global climate deal is “broadly as expected” (really?) and that other countries are taking ‘comparable’ steps to reducing emissions, including the world’s largest emitters: China, the United States, and the European Union. Continue reading

The bicycle theory of social change

Something odd is happening on the streets of London. Cyclists are obeying the law in droves. On my daily cycle from home to work, it’s rare now to see anyone jumping a red light, or cycling the wrong way up a one way street, or cutting across a busy pavement.  Not unheard of, of course (so please don’t bother telling me about the exceptions), but rare.

The laws haven’t changed, but the behaviour has. So being a little bored with cycling the same route every day for 3 years, I started wondering why this might be. Two possible reasons. It might just be volume. When there are more people on bikes, they all seem to become more law-abiding. One cyclist on their own at a relatively empty junction will often still jump a red light. But once there are three or four, the power of peer pressure seems to keep those feet off the pedals and encourage almost everyone to stay put until the lights change.

Secondly, I wonder if people are starting to see the laws a bit differently. As cyclist deaths received more publicity, it seemed to me that riding got better. I don’t think it’s just because people are scared – any cyclist knows that crossing a busy junction during the pedestrian wave is much safer than waiting until the lights change and all the cars and lorries are thundering off as well. Instead, I wonder if it’s because cyclists feel that there’s more in it for them to obey the law. They want to be protected from bad and illegal and careless drivers – well, they have to do their bit too. And there seems more point in obeying a law that has something in it for you, rather than one that’s just an irritating inconvenience.

So that’s my theory of social change as demonstrated by London cyclists. Peer pressure and a bit of a tweak to the social contract underpinning a legal system can actually make people obey the law. Any lessons there for tax evaders?

Has lead poisoning driven Pakistan’s epidemic of violence? (updated)

Lead permanently damages young brains

The impact of lead poisoning is devastating, especially just before and after birth:

The nervous system of the fetus and infant is especially susceptible to lead, which can cross the placenta and penetrate the blood-brain barrier. Lead interferes with neuronal migration, cell proliferation and synapse formation during critical periods of early vulnerability. The consequences are loss of intelligence and disruption of behaviour. Because the brain has little capacity for repair, these effects are permanent and untreatable. The most recent research indicates that lead can damage the infant brain even at blood levels as low as 5 m/dl.

Exposure to lead leaves children less able to learn in school and makes them more likely to display aggressive, anti-social and hyperactive behaviour. Do read Kevin Drum’s excellent account of the evidence showing that even low levels of lead poisoning can lead to lower IQs and more violent behaviour.

Lead poisoning may have caused a global surge in violence

In the late 20th century, lead in petrol caused a significant increase in lead poisoning. And as people drove more (and spent more time idling in traffic), levels of violent crime went up, before falling a few decades after unleaded petrol was introduced.

In a 2000 paper (PDF) [Rick Nevin] concluded that if you add a lag time of 23 years, lead emissions from automobiles explain 90 percent of the variation in violent crime in America…

Nevin collected lead data and crime data for Australia and found a close match. Ditto for Canada. And Great Britain and Finland and France and Italy and New Zealand and West Germany. Every time, the two curves fit each other astonishingly well. When I spoke to Nevin about this, I asked him if he had ever found a country that didn’t fit the theory. “No,” he replied. “Not one.”

The worst impact is on cities – and especially on slums

Traffic is worst in cities and people live close to roads. The biggest and most congested roads cut through the poorest parts of these cities. Bad housing lets in more pollution, while children spend more time playing in the streets. Other sources of lead – from paint, pipes etc. – also tend to be worse here.

Violence saw the steepest increase and the steepest decline in cities. Last year, New York celebrated a full day without a murder, assault or any other incident of violent crime.  In 1990, 2245 people were murdered. In 2012, that had fallen to 419. Crime in the UK is now more than 50% below its peak in 1995, with London’s murder rate at a 42 year low.

Lead poisoning could be a significant factor driving Pakistan’s epidemic of violence

In 2002, a study of 430 children in Karachi (from Sadar in the city centre, two suburbs, a rural community, and Baba Island) found that 80% had blood concentrations over 10 mg/dl (twice the level now thought to be ‘safe’) and average levels of 15.6 mg/dl.

The children with the worst lead poisoning lived near busy traffic intersections, had poorly educated parents, lived in houses that opened into prevailing wind, and were more likely to eat food from street vendors. They were also more likely to use traditional remedies or makeup (e.g. surma), with very high concentrations of lead, or to live in houses that use lead paint.

If research linking lead to surging violence holds up, then lead poisoning could explain part of the epidemic of violence Pakistan is currently experiencing, especially in Karachi and other big cities.

Violence in Pakistan might fall rapidly after 2020

The United States started to phase out leaded petrol in the mid-1970s, a process that was substantially complete ten years later.

Pakistan acted later. There were four petrol-producing refineries in Pakistan at the turn of the century. They reduced lead content between 1997 and 2000 and phased it out between 2000 and 2002.

Given that car use and city centre congestion was increasingly rapidly at the time (and continues to do so), children with the highest levels of lead poisoning will be reaching adulthood throughout this decade.

After 2020, however, young adults will have suffered much lower levels of antenatal and infant lead poisoning. Levels of violence could then fall dramatically if they follow the pattern seen in the United States and other developed countries.

We don’t know enough about the impact of lead on Pakistan or other fragile states

There was some research into the impact of lead poisoning around the time Pakistan began to remove leaded petrol from sale, but little ongoing work to understand the impact of lead’s legacy on educational achievement or violent behaviour (that I know of, at least).

I suspect this pattern is repeated for other low and middle income countries, where 99% of the children affected by lead poisoning are believed to live.

Does lead poisoning explain some of the very high levels of violence seen in Karachi and other Pakistani cities? And, if so, how great is the impact likely to be? When do levels of lead exposure suggest ‘peak violence’ is likely to be hit? And what are the policy implications?

The same question could be asked for other fragile and conflict-affected states, each of which will have experienced different levels of pollution in the years where leaded petrol was widely used and will have seen reduced use of leaded fuels start at differing dates.

Update: While the impact of lead on young brains is established, the links between lead poisoning and levels of violence are less well understood. Again, I recommend Kevin Drum’s review, but Scott Firestone and Paul Illing have written useful overviews of the evidence.

Illing points out how few studies we have to rely on and concludes that “this shows how little we know about the neurobehavioural effects of many chemicals and how difficult it is to investigate them.”

I find it staggering that we’re groping in the dark given that this could be one of the worst ever environmental catastrophes – and one that is still unfolding in the fastest growing cities in the world.

The WTO Bali package’s thin offerings on development

So thank goodness that the WTO managed to agree something in Bali. Yet another multilateral failure, after Copenhagen, Rio, and so on would have been beyond disastrous, especially as we line up for final approach towards the two big 2015 deadlines on successors for the Millennium Development Goals and climate action beyond 2020.

But blimey, it was a pretty thin outcome. While almost all the media coverage focused on trade facilitation (the bit that global companies wanted) and food security (the bit that India was holding out about), the part of the so-called “small package” agreed in Bali that arguably mattered most was the third basket of issues: those on development.

One of the elements of that basket was duty-free / quota-free market access for least developed countries. Right now, about 80% of LDC exports enjoy DFQF access. Back at the 2005 WTO Ministerial in Hong Kong, developed countries promised to up that level to 97%. Bali would have been a perfect moment for developed countries to set out a concrete timetable for making good on that nearly decade-old promise. So did they? Nope. Instead, developed countries “shall seek to improve” DFQF coverage. Well, great.

Or what about cotton, where West African LDC producers have long faced an iniquitously unfair trade regime that protects cotton growers in the US and elsewhere? You almost couldn’t make it up: “we regret that we are yet to deliver” on promises made at Hong Kong in 2005, “but agree on the importance of pursuing progress” and “agree to hold a dedicated discussion” on it every couple of years.

This is lame. Let’s hope that the timing of the next WTO Ministerial – probably in 2015 – implies a more pro-development outcome.

Page 11 of 492« First...101112...203040...Last »