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.

Playing with fire in the Ukraine

Back in 1989, William Lind was one of the team that first coined the term ‘fourth generation warfare’ – referring to low-intensity conflicts involving highly decentralised insurgency tactics, non-state combatants, and strong emphasis on propaganda and psychological warfare.

(In case you’re wondering, first generation warfare was about line and column tactics, as in the Thirty Years War; second generation was more mobile and involved indirect fire but still tended towards pitched battle, as in World War One; third generation was all about manoeuvre warfare that aimed to bypass the enemy’s troops and attack from behind, as well as targeting civil populations, as with blitzkrieg tactics in World War Two.)

Now, Lind observes, it looks as though Russia’s long-disparaged military has learned a few tricks from the 4GW playbook and is using them to considerable effect in Ukraine. Among them: cyberwarfare, strong emphasis on the information campaign, skilful use of special operations troops to grab the initiative (“if an operation fails, Russian prestige is not on the line, because it can deny ownership; if it succeeds, Russia can give the credit to the locals, strengthening the legitimacy of the elements it supports”).

Crucially, Russia’s tactics in Ukraine are also based on “a supportive ethnically Russian population … by leveraging loyalty to ‘Mother Russia’ among ethnically Russian citizens of Ukraine, Russia has been able to maintain a light footprint, reducing the diplomatic and economic price of her actions.”

But, Lind continues, this last tactic is very much a double-edged sword for Russia – and here’s his crucial point (emphasis added at the end):

The Russian Federation includes many peoples who are ethnically non-Russian. Others can use them as the Kremlin has used ethnic Russians.

Here we begin to see a lesson from 4GW which Russia has not yet learned: once the disintegration of a state is set in motion, it is very difficult to halt or reverse. Russian actions are destroying an already fragile state in Ukraine. The Kremlin appears to believe it can spur or reign in state disintegration in eastern Ukraine, pushing it far enough to prevent Ukraine from joining the West but halting before the east becomes anarchic. That may be optimistic.

While the West assumes events in eastern Ukraine are driven by Moscow, just as Moscow says events in Kiev are driven by the West, there is increasing evidence that, green men or no, local Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine are not taking orders from anyone. Local struggles for power and loot are becoming more influential than any outside actors. A “Brinton thesis” cascade of small coups, leading ever toward the greatest extreme, may already be underway. If so, chaos will spread, deepen, and defy all efforts at control, regardless of who is behind them. Moscow needs to remember that it can no more order the tide to retreat than can Washington.

For states, playing with 4GW is playing with fire. Some tactics and techniques may be drawn from it and used effectively by states. But states need to remember that those tactics and techniques work best in a weakening state and also contribute to a state’s dissolution. The emergence of new stateless regions is in no state’s interest. However clever its tactics, if Russia finds itself facing prolonged stateless disorder in eastern Ukraine, it will have failed strategically. A higher level of war trumps a lower. 

Goodbye to all that

Yesterday’s findings from two scientific teams that a large section of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has now started to collapse (almost certainly unstoppably, implying 10 feet or more of long term sea level rise), is relevant to pretty much everyone around the world. But for us Brits in particular, the prospect of the disappearance of so much of Antarctica has a particular resonance, coming as it does just a couple of years after the centenary of the deaths of Robert Falcon Scott and his companions in the race to the South Pole.

Scott’s last expedition didn’t cross the West Antarctic Ice Sheet on their way to the Pole; instead, they landed just to the east of the WAIS, at the edge of the Ross Sea, and made their way to the Pole over the Ross Ice Shelf.

They built their HQ, seen above, on Ross Island, at a place called Cape Evans – named, as it happens, for my great granddad, Teddy Evans, who was second in command of the expedition. (He was also one of the few who survived; he caught scurvy on the way to the Pole, and was hauled back by his companions William Lashley and Tom Crean - thanks to whom I’m here to write this blog post.) He’s just to Scott’s right in the photo above, taken at Cape Evans on Scott’s birthday in 1911.

But now the Ross Ice Shelf is melting too - not as fast as the WAIS, admittedly, but melting from underneath all the same, rather than just calving icebergs the way it always used to. Same story with Antarctica’s other giant cold-cavity ice shelves, Filchner and Ronne.

There’s a certain sad irony here in that the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust recently completed a successful appeal to preserve Scott’s hut at Cape Evans – a place that, as David Attenborough noted when he went there, is

“a time warp without parallel – you walk into Scott’s hut and you are transported to the year 1912 in a way that is quite impossible anywhere else in the world. Everything is there.”

But while the hut will stay the same, the continent that my great granddad and his fellow expeditioners would have looked out at whenever they stepped outside is disappearing. Not too many generations from now, only the bedrock will be left – and even that, rapidly disappearing under the waves.

See this companion post, also published today, for a short guide to other climate ‘tipping points’ – and a few links to what you can do to help prevent us from sleepwalking over any more of them.

Climate tipping points – a quick guide

Yesterday’s news that we now appear to be on course for the unstoppable and irreversible loss of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) – the largest ice body in the world (for now, anyway) – means that we’re now probably past two key climate tipping points, the other being the loss of summer Arctic sea ice. So this is probably a good time to post a quick overview of all of the main climate tipping points: if you’re not familiar with this list, you should be…

Below is a quick guide, adapted from a chapter by Exeter University’s Tim Lenton in his and Tim O’Riordan’s book on the same subject. The book was published last year; as you can see, scientific consensus at the time was that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet “appears to be further from a tipping point than its Greenland counterpart”. So much for that estimate.

  • Arctic sea ice loss underwent a new record summer loss of area in 2012, breaking the previous record of 2007, and now covers only half the area of the late 1970s when satellites first began monitoring it. Current projections suggest we’re looking at complete loss of Arctic summer sea ice within decades. Already, the changing ice cover is changing air circulation patterns, and leading to cold winter extremes in Europe and North America.
  • The Greenland ice sheet may be nearing a tipping point beyond which it is committed to shrink; here too, the summer of 2012 saw record melting. Ice loss would probably take place over centuries, so this form of change wouldn’t be abrupt – but it might well be irreversible, and could ultimately lead to 7 metres of sea level rise, including up to half a metre this century.
  • The West Antarctic ice sheet appears to be further from a tipping point than its Greenland counterpart, but has the potential for more rapid change, and hence bigger impacts in the near term. If warming exceeds 4º Celsius, the current best guess is that the West Antarctic ice sheet is ‘more likely than not’ to collapse, causing sea level rise of 1 metre per century and 3-4 metres in total.
  • The Yedoma permafrost in Siberia contains massive amounts of carbon – potentially up to 500 billion tonnes of it, about the same as has been emitted by human activity since the start of the industrial revolution. If decomposition inside the permafrost starts to generate enough heat, all of the permafrost could tip into irreversible, self-sustaining collapse, generating a “runaway positive feedback” with emissions of 2-3 billion tonnes of carbon a year, or about a third of current fossil fuel emissions. The current best guess is that this would not happen before regional warming of 9º Celsius, but that could be closer than we think: in 2007, for instance, Arctic surface temperatures jumped 3º Celsius.
  • Ocean methane hydrates are thought to store up to 2,000 billion tonnes of carbon under the seabed. As the deep ocean warms, this frozen reservoir of methane could conceivably melt, causing an abrupt, massive release of the gas – which is four times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. This is probably at the least likely end of the spectrum, but the impacts if it happened would be extreme.
  • The Himalayan glaciers could lose much of their mass over the coming century, with the change becoming self-amplifying as exposure of bare ground increases the amount of sunlight energy absorbed at the Earth’s surface rather than reflected back into space. Scientists are so far unsure as to whether a large-scale tipping point could apply to this trend.
  • The Amazon rainforest experienced severe droughts in both 2005 and 2010 – in both cases, turning the forest into a source of carbon rather than a sink for absorbing it. If, as is currently happening, the dry season continues to lengthen, and droughts get more frequent and severe, then the rainforest could reach a tipping point, with up to 80% of trees dying off. Widespread dieback is expected at increases of over 4º Celsius, and could be committed to at much lower temperature increases – long before we notice it happening.
  • Western Canada’s boreal forest is currently suffering from an invasion of mountain pine beetle, leading to widespread dieback which has already turned the forest from a source to a sink. More widespread die-off could happen in future at global average warming of more than 3º Celsius, further amplifying global warming.
  • Tropical coral reefs are already experiencing bleaching as oceans warm up, and may be nearing a ‘point of no return’. Further risks come from the increasing acidification of the oceans, which could see up to 70% of corals in corrosive water by the end of this century.
  • The Atlantic thermohaline circulation (THC) – in effect, a massive oceanic conveyer belt that drives the Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic Drift, and which helps keep northern Europe much warmer than it would otherwise be – could shut down altogether if enough freshwater dilutes the ocean’s salinity; current best guesses are that this could happen at global average warming of over 4º Celsius. A weakening THC could also drive an additional quarter metre of sea level rise along the north-eastern seaboard of the United States.
  • The Sahel and West African Monsoon has experienced rapid changes in the past, including a catastrophic drought that lasted from the late 1960s through to the 1980s, and could be disrupted anew by changes to the THC. The Indian Summer Monsoon, meanwhile, is already being disrupted and rice harvests damaged, in particular by the cloud of brown haze that now sits semi-permanently over the Indian sub-continent.

Of course, the really big question in each case is exactly where the tipping points lie, and what level of temperature increase might push us over the threshold. Some research suggests that warning of 1º Celsius over the average temperature of the 1980s and 1990s would be dangerous; other recent work suggests that 4º could be where the danger zone begins.

But again, note that the best guess just one year ago was that it would take 4º of warming to cause the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to collapse; in the event, current warming of 0.7º above pre-industrial levels seems to have been enough to push us over the edge. It’s a salutary reminder of how little we know about climate tipping points – and hence just how risky and high stakes a situation we’re in.

And in all scenarios, the key point is that these kinds of temperature increases are exactly where our current trajectory is headed: current policies have us on track for 3.6-5.3 degrees Celsius of warming, according to the IEA. In the worst case scenario, Tim Lenton observes, we could slide into

“…’domino dynamics’, in which tipping one element of the Earth system significantly increases the probability of tipping another, and so on … on several occasions in the past, the planet was radically reorganized without there being any sign of a particularly large forcing perturbation.”

Wondering what you can do in the face of such relentlessly gloomy news? Get hold of any policymaker you can and ask them whether they support a binding global carbon budget, and fair – i.e. equal per capita – shares of it for all the world’s people. Ask whichever NGO you support whether they’re calling for the same thing at the Paris summit next year. And don’t take any shit from anyone about how technology and voluntary action are going to do the business without anyone having to take any tough decisions.

(See also this companion post, also published here today, for a slightly different take on the loss of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.)

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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