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”.

Ten thoughts on the UK Parliament vote on Syria

1. You can totally understand why the British public is where it’s at. Last time they heard about WMD from the JIC, it was the 45 minutes claim. They’ve also drawn pretty much the correct conclusions about the net effect of our interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

2. But it strikes me as crazy for Parliament to have ruled out all military action without having either all the facts or all the options in front of it.

3. For once I agree with Dan Hodges – Ed Miliband comes out of this looking terrible.

4. I also agree that this is a tipping point for British foreign policy. Maybe Suez / Iraq order of magnitude. Coupled with where the Tories are taking us on Europe, our approach seems be not to have alliances with anyone anymore.

5. That said, foreign policy people always obsess about influence for its own sake (being ‘in with the cool kids’), rather than on what we’re trying to achieve with it. Show me a concrete win we’ve secured on an issue that matters (climate, development, human security) that we’ve secured by being in the EU or having a ‘special relationship’ with the US.

6. I take the point that way more people have been killed with conventional weapons in this war than chemical weapons. But chemical weapons are different. Same way that landmines are too. Rory Stewart’s post on his blog this morning was good on this.

7. I can totally understand why many internationalist friends of mine are in a state of despair. I feel it too. We really are watching the last gasp of the idea of the Responsibility to Protect for the foreseeable future.

8. (For which we have Tony Blair to thank. Yeah – that guy who wants to bring democracy to the Middle East while applauding the coup in Egypt as a positive development.)

9. But what’s our theory of influence here? “Something must be done” as a response to humanitarian crises has rarely led to good outcomes – from Somalia in 91 onwards. No-one’s willing to consider boots on the ground (and it’s totally unclear that it would be helpful to peace anyway). I can’t see that missile strikes will achieve much beyond making us feel better, and they’re by no means risk-free either. I’m sceptical of all the people on Twitter saying we have to find a political solution (thanks, Einstein). I honestly don’t know what’s the right thing to do.

10. But ruling out all military action wasn’t it.

Emerging economies’ dangerous game on the post-2015 development agenda

The internal dynamics of the G77 group of developing countries are shifting rapidly on both climate change and the post-2015 international development agenda, as the interests of least developed countries increasingly diverge from those of emerging economies – with pretty far-reaching implications.

Least developed countries (LDCs) are continuing to prioritise adaptation financing in the climate context, but they’re increasingly also focused on the need for higher levels of ambition on the mitigation side of the equation – not just from developed countries, but also from emerging economies, given the proportion of global emissions that they now account for. This has already contributed to a sharp decline in G77 cohesion in the UNFCCC process.

In the development context, meanwhile, different LDCs have different priorities. Most of them continue to regard ODA levels as their key priority – ideally increasing them towards 0.7, and at a minimum stemming the real terms decline seen over the last couple of years. But this is not true of all countries: for governments such as Bangladesh, Zambia, and Malawi, ODA is arguably less important than a successful conclusion to the Doha trade round, together with opportunities in investment, migration, and remittances.  Still, across both development and climate, it is clear that equity remains a key lens through which LDCs view the world.

The key emerging economies, meanwhile – China, Brazil, India, and South Africa – are among the principal demandeurs for a pledge-and-review based approach in the climate context, hence the tensions with LDCs, as well as small island states, over levels of ambition. (Admittedly, some emerging economies – and especially China – are pursuing much more ambitious strategies at national level than their scepticism of global monitoring, reporting, and verification might suggest; but the fact remains that their and others’ voluntary pledges under the Copenhagen Accord imply long term warming of 3.6 – 5.3 degrees Celsius, rather than the globally agreed target of 2 degrees.)

But while it is clear that emerging economies regard global climate policy as a matter of fundamental national interest, it is by no means obvious that the same applies with the post-2015 development agenda. Emerging economies are less reliant than ever on ODA levels, and while many of them are now becoming aid donors in their own right, they show little interest in multilateral coordination of their efforts with those of OECD donors.

This potential lack of emerging economy interest in the post-2015 agenda creates a significant political risk. With emerging economies’ interests increasingly diverging from those of LDCs in the climate context (as well as on several trade issues), they have every reason to try to direct LDCs’ political and moral suasion towards developed countries, and away from themselves.

This in turn gives them a powerful incentive to play up a ‘North versus South’ narrative in the post-2015 context, and to aim for the idea of common but differentiated responsibilities to be as central a concept in development as it already is in climate – something that is now happening rapidly in post-2015 debates in New York, where the tone of discussions is becoming increasingly polarised.

The risk of such an approach, of course, is that it could lead to the post-2015 agenda becoming seriously bogged down amid a mood of mutual recrimination. But it is not clear that this would come at a significant opportunity cost to emerging economies, given that there appears to be little that they want from the agenda. On the other hand, as noted, it might help to ease LDC pressure on them to shift positions on climate or trade. Cynical? Sure – though no more so than the US’s earnest talk about food security while continuing to keep ethanol mandates in place, or EU farm support policy. And smart, too – at least in terms of narrow self-interest.

Seven Scenarios for the Future of Syria

Syria conflict war scenariosAs the war in Syria drags on, it is becoming ever more vicious. Militias kill hundreds of civilians, ethnic cleansing large swaths of the country in the process. Rebel groups fight among themselves for territory and even assassinate each other’s leaders. Prisoners are regularly tortured. Millions have fled their homes in fear. 100,000 are dead. Extremists now hold the upper hand on both sides. In the latest outrage, the Assad regime has apparently used chemical weapons, gassing hundreds to death.

Where will all this misery lead? What does the future of Syria hold?

As I warned in 2011, Syria is a complex mosaic of different ethnic, religious, and ideological groups, a tinderbox that was destined to explode if the fragile peace that the Assad regime enforced was disturbed. Now that the country has imploded, there is no easy way out. Continue reading

What Antoinette Tuff has to teach politics

Amid all the commentary about Antoinette Tuff’s successful talking down of a potential school gunman in Georgia, Gary Younge in the Guardian makes two of the best observations I’ve seen about it. First, this:

Politicians cannot legislate to ensure the existence of people such as Tuff. And even if they could it would be unreasonable to expect such heroism from anyone. They can, nonetheless, learn a great deal from her. For her generosity of spirit, capacity to humanise the potential shooter and ability to identify with him through her own vulnerabilities do tell us a great deal about what is lacking in our politics.

Our politics, particularly in an age of terror, austerity and growing inequality, is predicated on the basis that people are basically venal, selfish, dishonest and untrustworthy. The poor are assumed not to be looking for work but cheating on welfare; foreigners are assumed to be taking something from a culture rather than contributing something to it; public sector workers, like Tuff, are assumed not to be devoted to public service but a drain on our taxes. The disabled are assumed to be well. When we look at others, the default position in much of western political culture is not to see ourselves in them but to see a threat.

So Tuff’s courage stands as the most dramatic illustration of the degree to which we are, and can be, so much more impressive than our politics suggests.

And second…

…religion. For it was in and through her faith that Tuff drew the strength to deal with the situation. That is what religion does for many people. It grounds them. It’s the means by which they make sense of the world around them, their place in it and their relationship to others. For many it is the bedrock of their community and identity.

I’m not religious: I’m a lapsed agnostic. I used to not know and then just stopped caring. But I’m a liberal secularist. I believe religion has no role in the state and nobody, including the state, has the right to dictate to women what they should wear.

However, it has become fashionable, particularly among those who think themselves progressive in Europe, to disparage not just faith but the faithful (with particular disdain reserved for Islam) … Leaving aside for a moment where ridiculing the religious leaves the contributions of Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, Trevor Huddleston, Bruce Kent, Harriet Tubman, Muhammad Ali, Gandhi and Malcolm X: where does it leave Tuff? A sucker or a saviour?

Odd, incidentally, that none of the articles I’ve seen on this have drawn the parallel between Antoinette Tuff and Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, the woman who engaged Woolwich attacker Michael Adebowale.

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