10 thoughts on the future of activism

So here are 10 thoughts on the kind of activism we need at a point of widespread crisis and deep polarisation – a distillation of what I’ve been thinking about over the course of the first half of a six month sabbatical.

1 The best activism works for both inner and outer transformation, because it understands that the crises burning around us are external expressions of our inner worlds

2 The best activism moves beyond the idea of victory, and categorically refuses to become a story of “us versus them”

3 Love has the power to change the world, but love and care for others only becomes possible with love and care for self

4 Change depends on shared stories, but we cannot truly listen to anyone else’s story, much less develop shared ones, unless we are brave enough to truly tell our own

5 Self-help is great – but if it extends no further than individual level then it’s stunted. In a time of culture wars and deep polarisation, what we need now is *collective* self-help and healing

6 Moral evolution is the central story arc of human history, and we are poised right at the cusp of our species’ emergence from adolescence and into adulthood

7 Our civilisation faces an initiatory moment of death and rebirth, and myths about these themes hold deep wisdom for us at this point

8 The universe is intelligent, conscious, and non-random, and at the most basic level for us rather than against us

9 Unbelievably rapid, non-linear change becomes possible when we remember that we create the reality around us through our expectation, attention, and intention

10 Our best days are before us, not behind us

The future of the UN is revealed!

Each year, the Austrian Ministry of Defense publishes a collection of predictions by various experts on upcoming international developments.  This year, I contributed my thoughts on what will happen to/at the United Nations in 2018.  As it is otherwise only available in German, here is an English version (don’t blame me if it’s all wrong):

2018 will be a year of significant tensions at the United Nations.  The Korean situation, the Syrian war and debates over the Iranian nuclear deal are all likely to create friction in the Security Council.  UN peacekeeping forces face risks of serious violence in cases ranging from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to Lebanon.

The Security Council played a leading role in containing the North Korean nuclear crisis in 2017, passing two packages of heavy sanctions against Pyongyang.  China and the US will try to maintain this cooperation.  But if North Korea takes further provocative actions, it may be difficult for the Council to agree on additional serious sanctions.  If Washington edges towards military action on the Korean Peninsula, there could be a serious breakdown in UN diplomacy between China and the US.

The Trump administration is also likely to create divisions in the Security Council if it makes further efforts to undermine the Iranian nuclear deal.  The overall deterioration of the security situation in the Middle East more broadly will be a central issue in UN diplomacy through 2018.  There is a growing possibility of new hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon that would put the long-standing UN peace operation in the area (UNIFIL) at severe risk of casualties.

The UN force on the Golan Heights, which has already been severely constrained by terrorist groups during the Syrian war, could also be caught up in a regional conflict.

The UN may also need to find a new strategy towards Syria itself. Russia and its Syrian and Iranian allies do not want UN peacekeepers or political officers to play a significant role in Syria.  However, Moscow may press European aid donors to support UN civilian reconstruction efforts in the country, arguing that this will limit further refugee flows.

UN agencies could end up effectively working on behalf of the Syrian regime to provide basic services to the population, and possibly facilitate refugee return, although this could leave UN officials at risk of terrorist attacks.

Other UN engagements in the Middle East, such mediation in Yemen, can make little progress while tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia remain high.  UN aid agencies will struggle to find the resources to assist the suffering across the region, especially if there are fresh flare-ups of violence in Lebanon and Iraq to deal with.

In Africa, UN peacekeepers face serious ongoing conflicts in cases including South Sudan and the Central African Republic.  Presidential elections in the DRC, supposed to take place in 2018 after a controversial delay in 2016, could also result in serious violence between supporters and opponents of President Joseph Kabila.   The UN is likely to need military reinforcements in one or more of the cases to contain trouble.

The Trump administration has demanded major cuts to the peacekeeping budget, and will be skeptical of most proposals to expand existing UN forces, or launch new blue helmet operations.  A possible exception is Ukraine: Washington has indicated that it is could support the creation of a UN peacekeeping force in the east of the country to ease tensions with Russia.  While Moscow’s interest in this option is uncertain, it remains possible that the UN will launch a mission in Ukraine in 2018.

In this scenario, European countries (especially those outside NATO, such as Austria and Sweden) could face calls to provide the backbone of a credible UN presence, possibly alongside Russian-speaking troops from states such as Kazakhstan.

Security issues will not be the only source of tension at the UN in 2018.  The US has threatened to withdraw from the Human Rights Council unless the body reduces its criticism of Israel.  While European governments are working hard to persuade the US not to pull out, there is still a good chance that Washington will eventually do so.

A focus of diplomacy in New York will be migration.  UN member states are meant to agree a new compact on improving international migration management in July 2018.  This has the potential to create tensions between European governments and developing countries over how to handle large flows of migrants in cases like Libya.

There will also be negotiations in New York on proposals by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to reform the UN secretariat and development system.  Guterres has secured considerable support from UN members including the US for plans to streamline the organization’s antiquated management structures.  Yet there will be lengthy debates over the budgetary and organizational aspects of these reforms, potentially distracting Guterres and the UN system from broader global problems.

One global theme that Guterres will emphasize throughout 2018 under any circumstances is the need to strengthen the Paris climate change agreement, despite President Trump’s announcement that the US will leave the pact in 2020.

Trump has indicated he is still willing to negotiate over the issue, but real talks on revising the agreement to meet US interests are unlikely in 2018.  Instead, China will play an increasingly prominent role as a leading actor in the fight against climate change.

China is becoming an ambitious player in the UN system overall, acting increasingly assertively to promote its positions on issues including human rights.  Beijing will continue to look for ways to raise its profile at the UN through 2018 – possibly be implementing promises to send thousands of new troops on UN peacekeeping missions – and while most states will welcome this, the US may see it as a challenge.

There is a risk that the Trump administration’s relations with the UN could deteriorate further if current US ambassador in New York, Nikki Haley, stands down.  Haley is a mainstream Republican who has succeeded in moderating President Trump’s strongest anti-UN policies.  She has been tipped as a potential Secretary of State or presidential candidate, and could leave New York in 2018 to pursue higher office in Washington.  President Trump could then nominate a harder line replacement as US ambassador to the UN, reversing Haley’s moderate stance.

Despite the risks of rising tensions at the UN in 2018, however, it is worth noting that the organization continues to play a significant role in managing and containing major potential crises such as that over Korea.  The UN may be an imperfect and fragile institution, but it will be at the center of high stakes diplomacy through 2018.

Action/2015 –the official verdict or why coalitions are totally worth it

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On April 22nd, about 160 countries are expected to officially sign the Paris Climate Agreement which was negotiated last year. It was one of the two international deals agreed by Heads of State in 2015 which made it such a critical year for international development and for millions of activists and citizens around the world. The second was the agreement of the new Sustainable Development Goals-  or the Global Goals –  which provide a new and ambitious framework to tackle poverty, inequality and climate change.

The global coalition – action/2015 – was formed because of those two historic deals.  It brought together civil society around the world – from the big organisations like World Vision to small grassroots groups and networks– to campaign together across sectors and geographies.  As Head of the action/2015 campaign for Save the Children, one of the organisations at the heart of the action, I was one of those campaigners.

With the signing of the climate deal this week and the independent evaluation of the campaign concluded (which you can read here), it feels like a pretty good time to step back and reflect on what worked, what didn’t and what we can learn for the future

When action/ 2015 was first conceived, lots of people were sceptical. And there’s no denying it was ambitious. The idea of bringing together diverse sectors from climate and development across hundreds of countries with different cultures, languages and attitudes to campaigning in just under two years seemed pretty unachievable to many – especially those who had worked in coalitions before! I have to admit when I started on the campaign at the end of 2014 I had similar qualms – could we really pull it off?

But, I’m proud to say the campaign proved the sceptics wrong. The official evaluation highlights in its 7 main conclusions that one of the key impacts of the campaign was that global civil society groups learned to work together. I would caveat that to say that action/2015 helped them to work better together but the sense of solidarity that grew across the campaign was undeniable. it worked because of the campaign’s loose, fluid structure that meant individual organisations or national coalitions could take the content and tactics they liked, adapt them to their own contexts and leave the bits that didn’t work for them.  It was also crucial that this was not a campaign with specific policy asks but was  focused on mobilisation.

“The main reason we got involved is because it is a unique campaign. It links global to local, and it aims at mobilising citizens. This was unique meaning that we usually target policy makers, but this was more about masses, numbers, reaching out to everybody. And that attracted me. It was something different.” , Participating organisation, Africa

The other main point that leaps out is the conclusion that ‘action/2015 made meaningful steps towards Southern ownership of a global campaign’. By the end of the campaign 80% of its members were based in the South.  The campaign’s centre of gravity definitely felt like it was much more in the cities, towns and villages of India or the streets of Costa Rica and Kenya than Northern capitals.

Big NGOs did play a driving role in the campaign, but in a different way than in previous campaigning. I’m proud that Save the Children took much more of a backseat, deploying resources and support to help civil society all over the world campaign.

It certainly wasn’t an easy campaign and we didn’t get everything right. In many ways we were building the car as we were driving and there’s no doubt with more resources and time  we could have achieved more but what the campaign did achieve should not be dismissed. Millions of people mobilised to take action, a new generation of activists inspired, some amazing backers from Malala to One Direction, a strong basis laid to ensure the successful implementation of both deals and a new model of campaigning.

So the big question now is what next?  The evaluation sets out 10 lessons. Some of them might sound obvious like leaving enough time for planning and the importance of proper evaluation but these are often the mistakes made again and again.

Tax injustice, the refugee crisis and global health challenges like Zika – these are all issues that have been hitting the headlines. The new frameworks we have could arguably have helped prevent many of the inequalities that lead to and exacerbate s these and similar crises and they can definitely help reduce their likelihood in the future. But that won’t happen unless people know about the deals and are able to hold their leaders to account. That’s why a sustained and concerted campaign building on the momentum and goodwill generated last year is vital.  We need to campaign less about the frameworks themselves but campaign about them through the real life lens of people’s lives.

Campaigning is about trying new things and being prepared for some things not to work.Yes if we were to do action/2015 again I’d do some things differently but I would keep the same level of ambition and the open, inclusive campaigning model. action/2015 has built a huge appetite for campaigning together all around the world which we must harness. I can’t put it any better than one of the action/2015 campaigners from Africa – “I got more friends and when you have more friends you feel stronger.

9 take aways from COP21

Having attended COP21 as a member of the Ethiopian delegation, I’ve been meaning to write up a post with some take-aways and reflections on the outcome, and will still do so if/when I have a second – but in the meantime, here’s an excellent piece by Christian Hunt, reproduced here with his permission.

My take on the Paris climate agreement is that it’s inadequate. But I think it’s still a really good thing.

Others have been less equivocal, arguing that the Paris agreement is either the best thing since sliced bread, or a disaster and a betrayal of real action on climate change.

So over the past few days I’ve been jotting down some thoughts to help me figure out how I feel about the agreement, and why – mental work in progress, that I’ll share in case it helps you organise your thoughts, or prompts you to email me and tell me I’m wrong.

So here goes:

1) Some preliminary analysis says the agreement, if implemented, would put us on track to 2.7°C by 2100. (Or even lower, with a ratchet mechanism.) I remember when similar analysis said we were on track to between 4 and 6°C, depending on which report you pick. Parking the obvious caveats, isn’t that a good thing?

2) Straight back to those caveats – “if implemented” is a huge one. In fact, it’s kind of the same caveat that existed before the agreement was done – “if we do something about this”. So obviously, the agreement in and of itself doesn’t fix the climate problem. It will require a huge effort from civil society to make the words of the agreement real, in political cost, in infrastructure, in financial decisions. And it will require more moments in the future when ambition is increased again, and again.

3) So let’s not get too hung up on the 1.5/2 degrees targets, and whether they’re realistic, or whether the deal does enough to secure them. My honest answers are: a) We don’t know if they’re realistic – it depends on how you define realistic, there’s a range of opinion, but we know they’re really tough. b) No global agreement will ever do enough to achieve them unless it is supported under the surface by an iceberg of agitation, campaigning and radical shifts in the global economy that still need to be fought for and built, and c) We should just stop obsessing about targets anyway and start arguing for and enabling the end of fossil fuel use as quickly as possible. Oh, and d) The 1.5 target came about because of advocacy by countries that face being literally wiped off the map by climate change, so let’s be a little careful about dismissing it out of hand, or as a way to buy off poor countries, because that strikes me as quite a disempowering and in some ways arrogant thing for those of us in richer countries to argue.

4) So congratulations civil society, we still have a massive job to do. But I would cautiously venture that having every government in the world committed to try and limit warming to 1.5°C is a great lever to move them with – a lever that gives more traction.

5) In fact, let’s quote what I see as the best part of Bill McKibben’s reaction to this – “What, you want to build a pipeline? I thought you were going to go for 1.5 degrees. You want to frack? Are you fracking kidding me? You said you were going for 2 degrees at the absolute worst.” On decarbonisation, if governments are sincere in what they say, let’s help them achieve their goals. If they’re insincere, let’s bust the hypocrisy.

6) Decarbonising our energy system, then our society, then reworking the relationship human society has to resource use and sustainability remain big, hard, daunting problems. Agreement in Paris doesn’t change the calculus of climate change.

7) In reflecting the way the world is arranged, the Paris agreement is an unfair deal for the world’s poor. Equity needs to be a much bigger part of the mainstream climate debate. One positive thing might be the emergence of strong campaigns for climate reparations, led from the global South and with the support of northern allies. (Or whatever the right approach is to opening up that space.)

8) Paris produced a treaty-level agreement, but was a document born of compromise. So while the ‘wrapper’ is binding, different parts of it have different levels of binding-ness. But crucially, important parts of it are actually binding – for example, the verification of what a country’s emissions are, a process to increase ambition over time, a long-term goal for emissions reductions. These are tangible things. So it’s not just nice words, or symbolic. (As an aside, the era of binding multilateral treaties is probably over, a friend pointed out to me the other day, because these days it’s more complicated than just getting the US and the USSR to agree to something. Not that it was ever necessarily simple.)

8) NGO messaging that says this is a “historic deal that will fix all our problems” can be annoying, I agree, because it sounds a lot like “job done”. But we should remember that we (in civil society) are not the target audience for that messaging. Such messaging is directed at the general public (to try and create a narrative shift that can enthuse people and build support for further climate action), or at investors (to increase investment risk, as with the divestment movement). It’s probably also directed at supporters (to make them happy about the impact ‘their’ NGO is having). Luckily, we can just ignore it, although I agree some of the crasser examples need to be called out.

9) In summary, if anyone has a good argument for why we’re in a worse place with a climate agreement produced in Paris than we were before, I’d be really interested to hear it. I accept that I may have drunk the kool-aid… But I don’t think so. Paris is the beginning of a process – a means to an end, not an end in itself. Civil society has played a huge role in getting us to this point, and will have a similarly important role to play in what comes next.

(Christian Hunt is a freelance writer, researcher and consultant, focusing on climate, energy, peace and conflict. He was founding editor of the website Carbon Brief, previously worked for Greenpeace and the Public Interest Research Centre, and is a co-director of the infidelity offsetting company Cheat Neutral. He lives in Minneapolis, USA.)

The coolest thing I’ve been involved in (in a very small way) this year

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Ever since I was very small, I’ve always just been crazy, crazy, crazy about space. I still miss a particular book about space that I had as a kid and which I lost somewhere between then and now. My favourite dressing up stuff when I was little was an astronaut suit; my favourite toy, a tent done up like an Apollo capsule. And I never really grew out of it.

Even today, space films have the capacity to affect me like nothing else. Emma always chuckles at me because while there may be few things in life you can really count on, one of them is the fact that I will *invariably* get slightly teary at the ending of ‘Contact’ (which I must have watched more times than any other movie). Or at the ending of ‘Gravity’. Or for that matter at the Imax film about how shuttle astronauts repaired Hubble. Anything with stars in it, really.

Then, four years ago, there was a point when I was the writer for the UN’s High Level Panel on Global Sustainability. In many ways it was a deeply frustrating experience, and there was one particularly dispiriting morning, when I was in a windowless room in the UN’s North Lawn Building in NYC, listening to one member of the Panel in particular block one thing after another.

And the thing was that I’d just been reading this book called The Overview Effect, which was all about how the view of earth from space changed astronauts’ perspectives for ever, and made them think in terms of a larger, truly global ‘us’.

And all I could think of, as I listened to all these politicians, was: if only you were all in space, this would be such a different conversation. And as I sat there, feeling mutinous, I tuned out of the conversation for a few minutes and scribbled off this blog post. Serendipitously, I got a lovely email just a few hours later from Frank White, the author of the Overview Effect, to say hello – and amid all the disillusionment, his email kept me going through the rest of the meeting.

But that wasn’t the end of the serendipities. Earlier this year, in the spring I think, I was over in NYC for a work trip. It was my first night in town, I was jetlagged to hell, and I was grabbing a quick bite to eat in my hotel’s bar before crashing out. Sitting next to me at the bar was another guy eating on his own, and I just happened to glance in his direction as he opened his wallet – and I saw that he had several of the same business cards in there, all with the NASA logo on them.

So obviously I surmised that they were his cards, and my eyes widened, and I heard myself say, “excuse me, do you work at NASA?!” And it turns out that he was called Matt Pearce, that he did indeed work at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies – and off we went.

I talked about how much I adored Contact; it turned out he’d actually done some work on it. I told him about that Panel meeting four years ago; he got it 100%. And then we got to talking about this year’s big summit moments, and the Sustainable Development Goals and COP21 and all the rest of it, and somewhere along the way we hit upon an idea.

We may not be able to bring summits to space, we figured, but we can at least bring space, and the overview perspective it gives, to summits. What would it be like, we wondered, if a UN summit were to open with a live uplink to the International Space Station – talking to the astronauts as they look down at us, with them explaining to us how irrelevant borders look, and how fragile the earth seems, from all the way up there?

So eventually we wrapped it up for the evening, but not before we’d swapped business cards and I’d promised to put him in touch with friends in the UN Secretary-General’s office, whom he’d then put in touch with people at NASA HQ. And we both did, and later I gathered that a meeting had duly gone ahead, and that was about as much as I heard about it – until now, this week, here in Paris at COP21.

I have to say at this point that in Addis Ababa, where we live, Emma and I often make a point of watching the International Space Station as it goes overhead. (You can sign up for updates about when it’s due to fly over where you live here.) It never fails to send a shiver down my spine when I see it: it’s the third brightest object in the sky, and though it takes a full 6 minutes to cross from one horizon to the other, you really have the sense of it hurtling along; of the fact that this is an object travelling at 17,500 miles an hour.

And I especially love the fact that our two kids Isabel (5) and Kit (2) also totally get how awesome this is. Last time Isabel watched it with me, she dressed up in her snow suit because it’s the closest thing she has to a space suit. And on its very next orbit, one of the crew tweeted a picture of Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains from space. We tweeted him back to say hello. That was really great.

But it pales in comparison with having been one small link in a long and utterly serendipitous chain that resulted in this video being played at the COP21 climate summit. It’s a beautiful film, and I take my hat off to the people involved in making it. I have this big, silly smile on my face as I type this to think that, even if in a very circuitous and tangential way, I’ve been involved in a space mission. All the more so given that that mission is about the issue that I’ve spent the last 20 years or so working on.

The Restorative Economy

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Over the past six months, I’ve been working with my friend and colleague Rich Gower on a report for Tearfund, the Christian development NGO, entitled The Restorative Economy: Completing our Unfinished Millennium Jubilee – and today, the report is finally published. Here’s the summary, and here’s the full report (we also have a comment piece on the Guardian today, which you’ll find here).

The process of writing this report has been especially close to my heart, and has left me at the end feeling that I want to devote much more of my energy to the massive task of movement building and values shifting that lies ahead of us. I’ve been working in and around the multilateral system for nearly a decade, and like many of my friends and colleagues in that world, have frequently felt acute frustration at the postage stamp-sized amount of political space that currently exists for solutions on the scale we need, both internationally and at home in the UK.

This report is an attempt to start thinking about what a new approach to that challenge might look like – across four chapters. The first one sets out a snapshot of where we are: in many ways a golden age for development, but one in which three huge challenges – environmental unsustainability, growing inequality, and the millions and millions of people still left behind as globalisation accelerates apace – remain ours to solve.

In chapter two, Rich and I set out the need for a different theory of influence. Many of us who work in the fight for development, justice, and sustainability have I think been feeling the limits of theories of change that rely primarily on ‘insider lobbying’. We take that here as our starting point for asking what an alternative approach might look like: one that places much more emphasis on how we build new grassroots coalitions, transform values, and tell each other much deeper stories about where we are, how we got here, where we might choose to go next, and who we really are.

Chapter three then explores the potential to discover such deeper stories in theology. All of us witnessed how the biblical idea of jubilee was able to animate a transformative civil society movement fifteen years ago, and proved powerfully resonant far beyond the church groups that formed Jubilee 2000’s core. As someone who worked in the UK government at the point when the 2005 Gleneagles summit concluded its debt relief deal, I still have to pinch myself when I remember that the average low income country’s debt fell from nearly 75% of its GDP in 2000 to just over 25% today – something that happened partly because of politicians, but much more fundamentally because of a coalition of millions of ordinary people, united by a shared story.

In this light, we argue, it’s important to remember that the once-a-generation jubilee festival described in the Old Testament was never about debt relief alone. When you go back to the original texts, as we did at some length in the course of researching this report, you find that they were also about environmental restoration. Ensuring that there was real attentiveness to enabling people living in poverty to meet their basic needs. And ensuring that concentrations of wealth did not build up from one generation to another. All three of these themes are of course fundamental to where we find ourselves today, in 2015. (And as friends working on the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals will already have spotted, they’re central to that agenda too.)

So in a very real sense, the work we began in 2000 – our millennium jubilee – remains a work in progress. If we can complete it, then our kids will enjoy the kind of future that I know I want for my children – Isabel, 5, and Kit, 2. And in chapter 4, Rich and I set out what we think that would look like in practice.

We argue that it starts with the changes that all of us need to make in our own lives. This is partly because of the direct impact that such changes can have, of course, but we think the main issue here is something to do with the quality of intention that movements exemplify. Wherever movements not only demand but live out the change they want to see in the world, there’s a raw power there that can exert the kind of non-linear effect on politics that progressives so urgently want to see.

But ultimately the decision about the future we want has to be made by all of us collectively, as well as each of us individually. So chapter 4 ends with a ten big ideas for far-reaching policy changes of the kind that we think have this transformative power. The ideas cover a very broad waterfront – from reforming the financial system to global climate policy, and from how we use aid internationally to how our tax system works at home.

We don’t by any means think the proposals we set out are the last word on the subject. But if they can play even just a small part in catalysing a serious conversation, among all of us, about the choices we have in what we bequeath to our kids, then I think I speak for all of Tearfund’s fabulous advocacy team, Rich, and I when I say that we’ll be more than happy with the result.