Europe and Obama: no miracles ahead

ECFR has just published a brief multi-authored paper looking at what President Obama’s re-election means for Europe (I was one of the contributors).  The paper highlights that there are still many areas – from the Middle East to climate change – on which the US and Europeans differ.  But is a new transatlantic bargain possible?

How should Europe respond to Obama’s re-election? Two basic strategic choices are on offer. The first – and the most tempting – is to imagine that Europe and the US can work together on a common project for the future of the international system at a period of deep change in global politics. According to this vision, Obama and the EU can unite to reinvent the post-1945 liberal order for a multipolar world, fulfilling an agenda that many in the US and EU foresaw in 2008. The president may have strayed from this agenda, the argument goes, but now he is no longer constrained by the need to win a second term and can make up for lost time.

The strategic alternative is to assume that Obama’s highly pragmatic approach to international affairs will not fundamentally change in his second term. On this reading of the president, his tepid commitment to global governance and willingness to use tactics like drone strikes have not been aberrations. Instead, they represent his considered view of the best strategy available to the US at this time. If European leaders want to fit in with this realistic American worldview, they should focus on developing their own power and their outreach, leverage and alliance-building capacities with emerging democratic powers, and in particular managing crises in their own backyard, rather than trying to woo Washington. In fact, the US would welcome a tougher Europe of this kind.

Read the full analysis here.


Pithy summary of the problems faced by UK 16-30 year olds in an email sent round by the excellent Intergenerational Foundation:

Frustrated / voiceless / no future / sky-high rents / student debt / injustice / fear for future / unemployed / unpaid internships / living at home / climate change / no prospects / no jobs / jilted / sustainable pensions / tuition fee hike / disenfranchised / boomerang generation

They’re running a film competition, btw.

Politicians quick to take advantage of Ghana’s oil windfall

Oil barrel coffin, Ghana (photo courtesy Flickr user What KT Did)


In The Ringtone and the Drum, my recently published book on West Africa, I described how diamonds have proved a curse rather than a blessing to Sierra Leone:

Once the resource curse falls on a country, like a deadly virus it spreads rapidly, crippling its host’s every organ, paralysing its every function. First to suffer are farming and manufacturing. The profits from diamonds (or oil or gold) far outweigh those achievable through agriculture or industry, and it makes economic sense to allow mineral extraction to become the dominant productive activity. Often it becomes the sole productive activity. Diamonds give a country’s leaders more wealth than they ever dreamed of, so they no longer need to worry about other parts of the economy. Minerals become the only way to make a living; everything else is left to rot. As other, more labour-intensive sectors collapse, the majority of the population has no work (the decline of Sierra Leonean agriculture was swift: twenty years after discovering its precious stones, the country had gone from exporting rice to importing it). A chasm opens up, between the rich few with access to mineral wealth, and the poor masses who are shut out.

The masses have no outlet for their frustrations, no way of redressing the balance. While they are growing rich on diamond exports the leaders of a resource-cursed country do not need to agonise over what their subjects think of them. Governments in countries lacking in valuable minerals depend on taxes to keep them in business; without them, ministers would not be paid and the machinery of government could not function. For taxes to be paid, the state must count on at least some degree of support from its citizens, and is to some degree answerable to them – if it ignores their needs entirely, citizens will use non-payment of tax as a bargaining chip. But in diamond-rich economies, governments need nothing from their people; profits from the gems are more than sufficient to keep the leaders in luxury, and their subjects, lacking any leverage over them, have no way of agitating peacefully for a fair share of the pie.

Sierra Leone’s near-neighbour Ghana, the world’s newest oil producer and one of its fastest growing economies, has so far avoided damage to non-oil sectors, but last week brought a worrying sign that politicians are keen to get their hands on oil revenues. By itself, and even though inflation in the country is running at just 9%, members of parliament awarding themselves a 140% pay rise may not be cause for tremendous alarm – Ghanaian MPs’ monthly salary of $3,800 is still much lower than that of their Kenyan counterparts, for example, who trouser a cool $10,000 a month.

But it is difficult to understand why such a pay rise should be backdated to 2009. Such a ruse means that in January next year, lawmakers will receive a windfall of $109,025 (the $2,225 pay rise multiplied by 49 months). Ordinary Ghanaians who are struggling to make ends meet are unlikely to be aware of the full extent of the politicians’ good fortune, but if they did have time to do the calculation they would receive a nasty shock: it would take a Ghanaian on the minimum wage 121 years to earn what MPs have just gifted themselves.

Obama’s failure on climate

In the Guardian, George Monbiot is incandescent about the failure of Obama and Romney to speak out about climate change.

The two candidates remain struck dumb. Speech fails them, action is abominable, they will not even raise their hands in self-defence. The world’s most pressing crisis, now breaking down the doors of the world’s most powerful nation, cannot be discussed.

Although Monbiot briefly refers to a lack of action, most of his article is dedicated to what the candidates have or haven’t said during the course of an interminable election campaign. Real world data, by contrast, does not get a look in.

As far back as the first Bush administration, successive presidents have been promising that they would restrain America’s carbon emissions, but have failed to deliver. Instead, emissions rose sharply during their term in office. Under Obama, they have finally hit a peak, are falling, and are expected to continue to do so.

By 2020, according to a projection published last month by Resources for the Future, US emissions will be 16% below a 2005 benchmark, in line with the Obama’s administration’s pledge under the Copenhagen Accord. (See Michael Levi for a useful discussion of the RFF study.)

As this graph shows, tighter regulation of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act  is playing the greatest role, with new standards kicking in in 2011. This is followed by ‘secular trends’ (higher energy prices) and action at sub-national level, mostly in California.

There are many problems with US policy at the moment. For example, the extent to which the US exports the coal it no longer needs will have a huge bearing on the net climate impact of its increased use of gas for electricity generation, for example.

However, its emissions trajectory is shifting, and this is likely to continue, and could accelerate, if Obama wins a second term today. It will also be fascinating to see how an American president deals with climate internationally if, for the first time, he walks into a negotiation with a story to tell of progress at home.

Thoughts from the post-2015 High-Level panel meeting in London

Just in case anyone missed it (but how…), last week was the second meeting of the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on the Post-2015 agenda.  This is the group of 26 people who have been tasked with writing the first draft of what will, in time, become the successor agreement to the MDGs.  It was the second time the panel had met, but the first substantive meeting – the first being a few hours in New York on the margins of the UN General Assembly in September.  The meeting was in three parts – a first day focused on discussion of a few issues selected by the UK government, with invited experts; a second day was just the panel, looking at issues relating to household and indvidual level poverty; and a third ‘outreach’ day, where the panel met with representatives from the private sector, NGOs and youth groups.  I was there for Friday, and picked up news from people who were there on the other days.  In no particular order, my impressions were:

  • The arrival of the ‘the youth’.  The inclusion of a dedicated outreach session for youth groups meant that there were lots of dynamic and excited young people around all day on the Friday, and they made their presence felt.  It’s not clear yet if they’ll have a distinct policy agenda, but it was great to expand the outreach beyond the NGOs and the usual companies.
  • The need for clarity from ‘civil society’.  The Friday session with NGOs produced not just one Christmas tree but a whole forest of proposals and ‘you musts’ from the assembled organisations.  Of course, faced with the actual panel in front of them, organisations had to push their agreed lines.  But it was something of a wasted opportunity to present the panel with a few key messages that they might actually remember and be able to act on.  Perhaps in Monrovia?
  • The need for the private sector debate to move on (or stop).  The session on the private sector was interesting, but becoming rather familiar – a long list of good initiatives and examples of how the private sector can play a positive role in development (with some discussion on how they should also pay their taxes, which was good to see). What we’re having is just a general private sector and development conversation, not one about post-2015.  If this conversation is going to go anywhere, it has to start addressing more specific issues of what all this means for an actual agreement.  Or else it will probably just fade away as people lose interest.
  • It’s (still) about process.  The internal debates about how the Panel should be resourced and by who seem to have died down (for now). But the process issues continue to dominate, in the public parts of the agenda at least, and have shifted to questions of participation by outsiders in the panel’s work – how can people particularly ‘the most excluded’ (a phrase I heard again and again) be heard by the panel?  On which, the IDS/Beyond 2015 team presented the ‘Participate‘ project as part of Friday’s agenda, which aims to use participatory research methods to bring the views and voices of the most excluded communities into the panel’s discussions.

My key message? Prioritise, prioritise, prioritise.  This applies to civil society, as above, and also to the panel.  They are getting there slowly – one concrete output from the meeting seems to have been the agreement that the focus of the panel will be on ‘ending poverty in our time’.  But there’s a long way to go, and no shortage of advice – which can get rather wearing.  One of the most sensible comments I heard was from Abijit Banerjee, the Indian economist who sits on the panel and who, after sitting through an hour of ‘you musts’ from NGOs and others explained that in fact they would all probably be disappointed as the panel can’t possibly promise that all the issues would be in – they have to be told what’s most important.

On which – quick plug – Paul Ladd from UNDP and I presented the ‘MyWorld’ project to the panel.  This is all about prioritisation – it’s a global survey, which will run until at least 2014, asking people which options they think most important from a range of choices representing the different perspectives and ideas for a post-2015 agreement.  It’s being developed by a group that includes UNDP, ODI, the UN Millennium Campaign, , the ONE campaign and the World Wide Web Foundation.  We’ll be reporting on the results at future meetings of the panel, so they get an ongoing picture of the emerging priorities.  Launch soon, watch this space.

Update: seconds after I posted this, Jonathan Tench from Unilever tweeted that I was being a bit unfair on the private sector parts of the discussion – citing 15 recommendations made during the event relating to business and post-2015, and the fact that this is just the first in a series of conversations which will continue at the next two meetings of the HLP.  So I’m looking forward to the moving on bit, and to it not stopping!

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