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…

Business Development or Solidarity? How to help Palestinian farmers

“Palestinian olive oil was once world renowned,” says Jamil, a livelihoods expert, in the car on the way to the factory. “With 100,000 Palestinian families depending on olive production, export sales could make a significant contribution to broad-based economic development. Some NGOs talk of solidarity but solidarity is not enough to develop a viable economy. We cannot, long-term, sell basic olive oil at premium prices – look at the solidarity market in Europe, now they are in recession it is not holding up. We need people to buy Palestinian olive oil because we produce it well. We need to be good in business.”

We enter the factory and are met by the dynamic company CEO, Ziad. “I was born to sell. My father established this business, I was involved in it as a kid. We worked with multinationals so I learnt how to be a business partner with them. We were creating jobs but we were importing – I want to help my people grow by exporting. I want to be the first Palestinian multinational. Premium pricing requires both a premium product – extra virgin olive oil, not the basic oil – and premium marketing – the right label, the right colour bottle, the right brand. Palestinians used to make the best olive oil in the world. We will again.”

We travel to the meet the farmers. They proudly show their Golden Award certificate. They talk about how higher standards in growing and processing olives have enabled them to make at least 10% more from the same olive trees. The business development approach pays. Literally.

But they also talk of challenges which business development alone cannot overcome.

“Israel controls all the water. We don’t get enough water for our groves. You can easily see when a grove is Palestinian or settler by how green it is. ”

“We get stuck at checkpoints, it takes hours to get anywhere. It pushes our costs up and up. We cannot compete.”

“The Israeli separation wall was built through my olive groves. To get to my land on the other side of the wall, I have to apply each time for permission. To make space for the wall 200 of my trees were uprooted. The trees were over 300 years old.”

“The economics for Palestinians are always constrained by the politics of the situation,” says Mohammed, an NGO worker. “You cannot say we are open for business when we do not control our water supply and our roads. We need people overseas to share what is happening. Olive trees are not just a product.  We grow olive trees because if we leave the land untended it is vulnerable to confiscation. We grow olive trees because they are the symbol of our people.”

“When outsiders help,” says Reyad, a farmer, “it gives me hope that we are not alone, that people care about us. When I say thank you I do not mean only for the help with the olive processing, I mean for caring. I lost my trees, my farmland. But well, what can I expect? So it is …” He does not cry. I must not. I have no words. I hold his hand. We hug.

Did climate change help cause Syria’s civil war?

That’s the argument made by William Polk, a historian who worked on the State Dept’s Policy Planning staff under Kennedy, in a long piece sent to James Fallows at The Atlantic. The whole piece is excellent – a carefully argued weighing of the evidence (which concludes, by the way, that the jury is still very much out on whether the Assad regime was actually responsible for the use of chemical weapons) – but here’s what he has to say about climate change in a section on the conflict’s context:

Syria has been convulsed by civil war since climate change came to Syria with a vengeance. Drought devastated the country from 2006 to 2011.  Rainfall in most of the country fell below eight inches (20 cm) a year, the absolute minimum needed to sustain un-irrigated farming. Desperate for water, farmers began to tap aquifers with tens of thousands of new well.  But, as they did, the water table quickly dropped to a level below which their pumps could lift it.

In some areas, all agriculture ceased.  In others crop failures reached 75%.  And generally as much as 85% of livestock died of thirst or hunger.  Hundreds of thousands of Syria’s farmers gave up, abandoned their farms and fled to the cities and towns in search of almost non-existent jobs and severely short food supplies.  Outside observers including UN experts estimated that between 2 and 3  million of Syria’s 10 million rural inhabitants were reduced to “extreme poverty.”

The domestic Syrian refugees immediately found that they had to compete not only with one another for scarce food, water and jobs, but also with the already existing foreign refugee population.  Syria already was a refuge for quarter of a million Palestinians and about a hundred thousand people who had fled the war and occupation of Iraq.  Formerly prosperous farmers were lucky to get jobs as hawkers or street sweepers.  And in the desperation of the times, hostilities erupted among groups that were competing just to survive.

Of course, academic conflict experts are always sceptical of the notion that a conflict can be attributed to one cause alone. But it’s very hard to argue against the idea that climate change is a very big threat multiplier – see e.g. this paper (pdf) of mine for the World Bank a few years ago, or this terrific report on the Arab Spring and climate change from the Center for American Progress in which Anne-Marie Slaughter, another State Dept Policy Planning veteran, argues that,

Crime-show devotees will be familiar with the idea of a “stressor” — a sudden change in circumstances or environment that interacts with a complicated psychological profile in a way that leads a previously quiescent person to become violent. The stressor is by no means the only cause of the crimes that ensue, but it is an important factor in a complex set of variables that ultimately lead to disaster.

The Arab Spring and Climate Change does not argue that climate change caused the revolutions that have shaken the Arab world over the past two years. But the essays collected in this slim volume make a compelling case that the consequences of climate change are stressors that can ignite a volatile mix of underlying causes that erupt into revolution.

But back to the specific case of Syria – which gets worse. For Polk then describes how the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) made desperate pleas to USAID for humanitarian assistance, warning that Syria was facing a “perfect storm” and “social destruction”, and noting that Syria’s agriculture minister had said publicly that the drought was “beyond our capacity as a country to deal with”.

Instead, USAID’s reaction (set out in a subsequently leaked cable dated November 2008) was to “question whether limited USG resources should be directed toward this appeal at this time”. And, as this FT piece from October 2009 makes clear, the US wasn’t alone in declining to assist: a whole year after FAO’s call for help, UN OCHA was saying that it hadn’t received any money from donors despite seeking $53m in emergency funds.

Meanwhile, the Syrian government – in normal times, a major exporter of wheat – was also making its own catastrophic errors of judgement:

Lured by the high price of wheat on the world market, it sold its reserves. In 2006, according to the US Department of Agriculture, it sold 1,500,000 metric tons or twice as much as in the previous year.  The next year it had little left to export; in 2008 and for the rest of the drought years it had to import enough wheat to keep its citizens alive. So tens of thousands of frightened, angry, hungry and impoverished former farmers flooded constituted a “tinder” that was ready to catch fire.

As a Syrian economist quoted in another FT piece published a year before the first protests observed with eerie prescience, “now we have drought, I hope it will not create political problems”.

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