Have NGOs gone soft on the Government?

“Non-Governmental Organisation” is a foolproof reminder to us of the one thing we are not: the Government. “Remember, we don’t work for them.” We must ward off the temptations of “access” just as Frodo must resist the temptations of the ring. If you work for an NGO and you never hear that the Government is angry with you, you should be angry with yourself.

So Richard Darlington’s challenge in a  recent well-argued piece in the New Statesman, asking whether NGOs have gone soft on the Government, is a vital one, and needs to be asked during every Government.

Well, have we? No.

Where we’ve been disappointed by government action, we have been very very frank. In response to the Welfare Uprating Bill, for example, that will effectively cut benefits for low-income families in the UK, we called the changes “Dickensian, cold-hearted and wrong-headed”.  We’ve demanded a clamp down on tax havens, and the cancellation of millionaires’ tax cuts. When the Government launched a legal action to prevent a Robin Hood Tax on financial transactions, we accused them of “rank hypocrisy”.  We can do tough.

We can also do happy. The recent 0.7% aid victory was a real one. It will help 16 million kids get to school. It makes Britain the first G8 country to meet the international promise on aid, and resonated around the world, with, for example, Canadian MPs asking questions demanding their government follow suit. It is a tribute, to people in this government, in the previous government, but most of all to the British public, that this has been achieved. We don’t do champagne at Oxfam, but we did celebrate with a home made “0.7” cake and a big thank you to all our supporters. And we did say well done.

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I’m no fan of politicians, but I have seen for myself that the decisions politicians make can for people in poverty mean the difference between life and death.  And that sometimes they make the right ones. When they do, we say so.

At the G8 this year the UK government, as hosts, can ensure leaders tackle seriously the key root causes of poverty, including land grabbing and tax dodging.  If they deliver real results ,we’ll give praise where praise is due. If they let the world down, we will let the world know.

That warm feeling is us holding their feet to the fire.

Why do some countries have so few NGOs?

Homegrown nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) play crucial roles providing social services to the poor, holding governments accountable, aggregating the political power of the disenfranchised, and helping to shape public policies. Their importance to development is well known.

But what explains the reason why some developing countries possess so few independent organizations while others have a multitude?

Take Pakistan for instance. Whereas in Bangladesh, the former East Pakistan, NGOs have played such a prominent role that they have supplanted the state in some crucial areas, in Pakistan they are far less influential. Despite having 180 million people, the latter has relatively few important NGOs, think tanks, and independent monitoring organizations (IMOs), as pointed out by former ambassador to Pakistan William B. Milam in his book Bangladesh and Pakistan. Despite a generally positive government attitude (at least towards domestic organizations) and much growth in recent years, the number of important institutions pales in contrast to Bangladesh’s total. Continue reading

Public opinion and climate change

One  of the many strands of discussion at a Ditchley Foundation conference on climate change last week was the vexed question of how public opinion shapes the political space open to leaders on climate. There were many furrowed brows on this, not least given that the polling numbers on climate change are all heading the wrong way, all over the world – perhaps unsurprisingly, given the combination of the recession and media coverage of ‘climategate’.

My own take on this is that when we think about public opinion in the climate context, we’re a bit too fast to look at it through the lens of NGOs and the media – both of which had, I think, a terrible summit at Copenhagen.

Take NGOs first. For the most part, they concentrated on highly technical issues, as they have throughout the past decade – acting, in other words, like negotiators despite not having any bargaining chips. When they tried to look up a bit, and set an overall agenda, it was so vague as to be meaningless (“ambitious, fair, binding” – more on that here). Finally, as the summit fell apart, they retreated to their habitual comfort zone of arguing that it was all the fault of the US and EU, who had been unforgivably horrid to poor old China. (See Mark Lynas for a blistering critique of that view.)

Then, of course, there’s the feral nature of the 24/7 news media, which cheerfully overlooks its own agenda-setting role even as it peddles its sensationalised stories of stitch-ups, scandals and show-downs.

The Guardian’s John Vidal deserves singling out for an especially dishonourable mention here. Just two days in to Copenhagen, he ran a breathless piece saying that Copenhagen was “in disarray” following the leak of a draft agreement that “would hand more power to rich nations”. Never mind that the content of his piece was highly questionable (as we pointed out on GD at the time). The effect was to poison the atmosphere just as the summit began – leading the Indian environment minister to say in April this year that the summit had been “destroyed from the start” by the Guardian leak. Nice one, John!

So given that it would appear to be unwise to expect either NGOs or the media to help shape public opinion more constructively, what’s left? One suggestion at the conference was a bigger role for faith leaders – who are indeed getting steadily more active on climate.  

But my hunch is that it’s social networking technologies that are the key opinion formers to watch.

We’ve seen how breathtakingly fast they are at aggregating information – as during the Mumbai attacks, for instance, where Twitter was consistently 60-90 minutes ahead of the news media.  We’ve seen how they aggregate opinion as well as information – which can of course be as much of a curse as a blessing.  And we’ve seen how they can organise action – not just protest, but also more proactive policy solutions.

But what we haven’t seen, yet, is how all these elements could combine in the face of stronger climate impacts  – not just an extreme weather event, but an impact that could really trigger awareness of the potential for irreversible shifts. Strikes me that social networking technologies would be a highly unpredictable and interesting wild card in such circumstances – and potentially rather more useful than either NGOs or the media.

The best news on climate change for months. Maybe.

And now for the good news on climate change. 

First, an excerpt from the New York Times yesterday.  We join Bono, a contributing columnist at the Times, as he’s setting out a list of 10 ideas that might make the next 10 years “more interesting, healthy or civil” – ideas which “have little in common with one another except that I am seized by each, and moved by its potential to change our world.” Here’s number 3:

In the recent climate talks in Copenhagen, it was no surprise that developing countries objected to taking their feet off the pedal of their own carbon-paced growth; after all, they played little part in building the congested eight-lane highway of a problem that the world faces now.

One smart suggestion I’ve heard, sort of a riff on cap-and-trade, is that each person has an equal right to pollute and that there might somehow be a way to monetize this. By this accounting, your average Ethiopian can sell her underpolluting ways (people in Ethiopia emit about 0.1 ton of carbon a year) to the average American (about 20 tons a year) and use the proceeds to deal with the effects of climate change (like drought), educate her kids and send them to university. (Trust in capitalism — we’ll find a way.) As a mild green, I like the idea, though it’s controversial in militant, khaki-green quarters. And yes, real economists would prefer to tax carbon at the source, but so far the political will is not there. If it were me, I’d close the deal before the rising nations want it backdated.

Bono just endorsed contraction and convergence – a big deal, for three reasons. Continue reading

Why are environmental NGOs pushing for a later peak emissions year than the IPCC?

As we’ve been arguing here since March, the year that policymakers select as the deadline for global emissions must peak is the key short-term variable to watch at Copenhagen. So what is the deadline, assuming we want to limit global average warming to 2 degrees C?

Well, David and I would like to see policymakers agree that emissions should peak right now, given that emissions have fallen so much as a result of the credit crunch. The development NGOs who are most active on climate change – Oxfam, Christian Aid and Tearfund, as well as Avaaz – are a little more cautious than that, arguing that emissions should peak by 2015; but they’re still basically on the same page as the IPCC, which said in its last Assessment Report (pdf – see table at the foot of page 15) that to limit global average warming between 2.0 and 2.4 degrees Celsius, global emissions must peak between 2000 and 2015.  Chair of the IPCC Rajendra Pachauri has also said that 2015 is the deadline.

Astonishingly, though, the main federation of environmental NGOs – the Climate Action Network – says that any time up to 2017 is fine. WWF International agree. TckTckTck used to say 2017 too (as I noted when they published their policy position); they’ve subsequently revised their target to 2015, but still have documents on their website using the old date. (Nothing like a consistent message, eh?)

Be very clear: this isn’t just hair-splitting. Once the peak date for emissions slides beyond 2015 and towards 2020, according to the IPCC, we’re heading for a world that’s not 2.0-2.4 degrees C warmer, but 2.4-2.8 degrees C. That is what the environmental NGOs are arguing for. Shortly before they spend a fortnight calling everyone else at the Copenhagen summit “fossil of the day“. It’s breathtaking.

So, if you can’t make it to the summit but still want a way to take action and make your voice heard ahead of Copenhagen, how about this. First thing on Monday, get in touch with any environmental NGOs you support.  Ask them their position on the global peak emissions date. And if it’s any later than 2015, then cancel your subscription.

I’m not kidding. Policymakers aren’t the only ones at Copenhagen who need to be held to account. If the green NGOs can’t get their figures right on something this fundamental, this basic (even as the development NGOs manage it just fine) then they need to – what’s that phrase from the Bali summit? – “leave it to the rest of us; please, get out of the way“.

Telling India the hard facts on climate – a lone voice

On climate, campaigners are unbelievably craven when it comes to the big emerging economies. China, in particular, gets treated with kid gloves. Within NGO circles, it is now more or less obligatory to kowtow to Beijing’s domestic track record on clean energy. Which is all very well – but I see absolutely no signs of Chinese leadership internationally (although its track record in the G20 shows how quickly it can pull out its finger when hard economic issues are at stake).

Weakness on China is especially egregious now that the country is above average global per capita emissions. Campaigners should be demanding that China ties itself to a date when its emissions will peak and then to commits to deep cuts by mid-century. (Armed with such a commitment, of course, China itself could then begin to turn the heat up on America – rather than allowing the US congress to bleat about US competitiveness.)

A failure to ask hard questions of China is bad for lower income countries. Not only will they suffer worst as the climate changes, they are going to wake up in ten years’ time to find that most of the global carbon budget for 2 degrees has been spent. Their interests are being sacrificed on the altar of G77 solidarity, with the global NGO community helping sharpen the knife.

The problem is similar, if less extreme, for the world’s other rising powers. Their per capita emissions may be lower than China’s and NGOs less terrified of offending them. But still, a country like India has 17% of the world’s population – which gives it quite a stake in our collective future. It is also massively vulnerable to a changing climate (especially as a lack of water disrupts food production).

Malini Mehra

But yet India is notoriously rubbish at international climate talks. So all the more credit to Malini Mehra, from the Center for Social Markets, for her persistent (and unusual) attempts to shine a light on India’s failings.

“In recent months, India has sought to challenge its image overseas, and in growing quarters at home, as recalcitrant and obstructionist on climate change,” she writes in her latest critique.

“[But] in a showdown this week with the old guard, the reformist environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, had to tone down his climate advice to India’s Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh. Political correctness won, but the loser was India’s climate security.”

Here’s the rest of her analysis: Continue reading

Tcktcktck? Tsk tsk tsk

Back in February, I figured that the pre-G20 “Jobs, Justice, Climate” NGO campaign was probably the “pointless NGO campaign of the year”, naively arguing that,

Yes, it’s only February, but it seems pretty unlikely that anything will top this for sheer pointlessness and banality.

Alas, would that it were so.  With 121 days to go until December’s critical UN climate summit, it’s clear that Jobs, Justice, Climate was merely a prototype, a limbering up for the road to Copenhagen.

And so to “tcktcktck.org“, who profess themselves to be building “the world’s biggest mandate for change”. They’re determined to “show our leaders people are ready for bold climate action, now”. So you might suppose that with that end in mind, they’d have some kind of idea of what constitutes sufficiently “bold climate action, now”.  But you’d be wrong.  Here’s their full policy platform, in glorious technicolour:

“An ambitious, fair and binding climate change agreement.”

That’s it. I tweeted tcktcktck HQ to ask if there was any more than this, and the reply I got said “Bear with us” – this from a campaign whose entire brand is built on the “there’s not a second to lose” vibe.

Not that this lack of specificity has stopped tcktcktck from fanning out in pursuit of its fabulously vague objectives – oh no. Thus for example their “adopt a negotiator” platform:

…as we really want all of our countries to agree to a safe and fair Climate Change treaty in December, we decided to do something about it. That’s why we thought we would Adopt a Negotiator, and follow them through the many meetings, conference and events that they will take part in from now to December…

I asked an actual negotiator whether they had been adopted.  The reply: “Oh yes, them! They seem very nice, but I’m not sure what they actually want.”

Sigh. Welcome to NGO campaigning in 2009 – where it doesn’t matter whether you have anything to say, as long as you’re getting the donations, attention, members and airtime.

Update (28 August) – TckTckTck have just emailed to say:

Thanks for your blog post looking at TckTckTck. We’d been waiting for our site to officially launch so that we could point you and your readers to a resource that specifically addresses your questions. The site launched earlier this week, and we’ve put this page together for that purpose:

http://tcktcktck.org/about/the-deal-we-need