After Addis: four steps to turn a 'failure' into success

current affairs, environment, ethics, finance, foreign affairs, integral ecology, international development, international politics, multilateralism, pope francis, spirituality

It has been a historic, ground breaking week in Addis Ababa. That is for sure. For those who believe in a debt-driven world where global private finance transfers risk to the public purse, and calls it development, it has been a huge success. The launch of the Redesigning Development Finance Initiative by Canada this morning is testament to this. The international community has finally thrown off the shackles of the messy, awkward business of substantive, detailed multilateral negotiations and cut to the chase. A new world order governed largely by public private blended finance, where issues of human rights and environmental sustainability are tangential (despite the rhetoric) is now here. As Helen Clarke, UNDP Administrator said at an OECD event on Tuesday, people are ‘voting with their feet’. Even the modalities of FFD negotiations testify to this shift. As veteran Chilean Negotiator Torres said at a CIDSE side event yesterday: ‘this was the strangest negotiation in my life’. The evangelism of this new approach is intoxicating, as the Canadian launch this morning, attended by five ministers, heads of state, heads of agencies, CEOs of multinationals demonstrated. The holy grail of development finance has been found. 
There should be a lot of head scratching and soul searching going on within the global CSO movement. What has been achieved by the 1000 strong CSO presence here? Did CSOs influence anything of substance in the process? Or has the horse bolted and left us all standing at the stable door? I am certainly asking myself these searching questions, having come to Addis hopeful that it would live up to the ambition of this momentous year. Maybe the fact you are reading this blog is my main contribution.  Thank you. How could so much effort result in so much disappointment? There is a very strange, confusing paradox playing out. CSO issues, such as tax cooperation certainly were centre stage in all the official discussions and negotiations, and the logic was compelling, as I wrote here. But ultimately, the forces at work simply circumvented and subverted the official processes. The real action happened behind closed doors and in the surrounding hotels. The rest was ultimately form, not substance. Sure, there are some good things in the outcome document which issue based NGOs will be delighted with – some small wins, but very little of substance in relation to systemic drivers of poverty.
The big issue now for CSOs who believe in global justice is one of political strategy. Given that we can pretty much accept that the brave new world of an international finance dominated development cooperation future has arrived, we need to regroup. This future is one which we in Trócaire predicted back in our Leading Edge futures project back in 2010, as have others in their own power analyses.
Here are my thoughts on what needs to happen now.
First, we need to accept we have lost this battle, if not the war. Accepting defeat is hard, but ‘the truth will set you free’ – let’s not try and claim success in changing this or that comma, sentence, word in the text to justify our existence. CSO presence here has been critical in terms of accountability, but we need to accept the scale of the challenge is perhaps even bigger than we thought. The tax debate is testament to this. 
Second, we need to step back and take stock of our influencing strategies and where we draw our power from. At our recent climate justice conference in June, Bill McKibben, in his speech, made a very good point that those in control today wield massive monopolistic economic power. This isn’t about the market really, but monopoly. We don’t have that and we can never match it. What we have is another currency – that of people, movement building. We need to understand deeply where we draw our power from, and what the blockages are in terms of harnessing it. We need to shift from “networking” to “movement building”.
Third, we need to join the dots. This is where I think Pope Francis in Laudato Sí, is so helpful. He helps us to look outside our silos and urgently get back to basics – to a different perspective founded on the idea of ‘integral ecology’. The crisis we are facing now is a ‘socio-environmental’ one which requires dialogue and collaboration. We need a common analysis which actively joins the dots in the many struggles faced by those who believe in a future based on shared humanity and environmental justice, and are resisting a shift to the kind of future we have seen in Addis this week. This is where I think the work of the likes of Naomi Klein, as someone who has done the thinking on the dots, needs to come in. Tax justice and climate justice are inextricably linked – we need to make those linkages explicit.
Fourth, we need to grow the alternatives and make them visible and viable. Just imagine if the FFD summit side events this week had been flooded with the hundreds, thousands of truly participatory, co-operative based, agro-ecological, social solidarity based initiatives that exist?  We need to build engagement strategies with the many enlightened business leaders out there too, such as the ones I met recently in Nairobi, so as to engage a broad coalition.
Doing all this requires a new clarity of vision and purpose, especially within the INGO sector. As Ben Phillips wrote after his trip to the Vatican, we need to take courage from what Pope Francis has said. We need to get our courage back – recognising that this will make us unpopular, sometimes with those who bankroll our organisations. In the face of Addis, we need to once again, go back to our roots in speaking truth to power.

TAX: A dirty three letter word?

current affairs, ethics, finance, foreign policy, international politics

For many ‘tax’ is a dirty three letter word. It is something to be endured under duress. We all know what it means to get that crested letter from the revenue. The Financing for Development Conference in Addis this week has revolved around tax. The loud call by the G77 for the establishment of a global tax body where all can have an equal say in global tax rules has been the pivotal issue in the negotiations, which are coming to a head as I write. Despite the many new initiatives launched during the FFD summit, this single issue has become critical – and emblematic of the deeper struggle going on within global politics, as I wrote here. Don’t be fooled by the gloss and spin!
The reason for this is quite straight forward. It comes down to a growing realisation that there are only a limited number of available sources to finance development in poor countries – and not all of them are equal.
Let’s take the main financial flows very briefly in turn. First there is overseas aid. Whilst aid remains an important source of finance, especially for the poorest countries, it has some serious down sides. The biggest weakness of aid is that it leaves countries vulnerable to the whim of international actors, who themselves are responding to their own political constituencies. This constituency, in recent years, by and large, in the OECD, has tended to question the value of aid as a legitimate public expenditure. Aid also comes with many strings, not all of which match the desires of national governments around their peoples’ futures. Irish Aid, thankfully, bucks the trend in being untied, grant-based and poverty focused. It sets a ‘gold standard’ I personally am proud of, but still, it is vulnerable to the same downsides.
The second major private flow is foreign direct investment. For sure, this is an important source of finance and it has been the focus of many discussions this week, but again it comes at a cost as a main source of finance. Large external investors are prepared to exert significant on national governments to restructure their economies in their favour as a condition of investment. Importantly, one such condition is pressure to reduce taxes.
The third flow is international trade. Again, it is an important source of foreign currency but history has shown that countries which are heavily dependent on this for development are vulnerable to currency fluctuations, making it a very risky source of core budget finance. A similar argument could be made for remittances from overseas. Again, nice to have – but hardly a sustainable way to finance a country!
Other flows such as raising public debt are becoming increasingly important. The structural adjustment programmes from the 80s onwards, and the recent Greek crisis, however, are testament to how unsustainable debt – whether public or private/public blends– can result in the most serious crises, including state collapse and conflict. That is why the proposals at the FFD conference around ‘blended finance’ and PPPs, which effectively increase public debt levels are so disturbing. In the absence of sovereign debt work out mechanisms or adequate safeguards, there could be many more Greece crises in the future. Bankrupt countries which are bailed out and then run by private finance institutions and technicians, who then literally ‘buy up’ countries are a very possible future.
The overwhelming impact of all of these external sources is to narrow the space that national governments have to implement policies on behalf of their people. With each of the above, countries are beholden to masters beyond their control. Inevitably, the pressure this brings to bear corrupts. It results in a crisis of accountability.
So the attention of many northern governments has turned to forms of domestic resource mobilisation, i.e. resources countries can raise ‘in house’. Unable to provide adequate ODA, they point to Southern government to raise their own resources. Tax is the essential, sine non qua – the unavoidable missing element in the discussion which is now taking centre stage.
Tax has a number of qualities other sources don’t have. It is an obligation, backed by law; it is predictable and long-term; by definition, it is a contribution to the financing of the public good which goes beyond the benefit received in return. As a source of revenue it is raised locally and largely spent locally, it is not bound by the same external conditionalities. Progressive tax has the added benefit of increasing social cohesion through institutionalised solidarity.
What the wealthy countries didn’t foresee on this week was the powerful counter argument to their call for greater domestic resource mobilisation. This was epitomised in a report by former South African PM Thabo Mbeki: African countries have lost the same about in illicit flows as they have received in aid in the last 50 years. Multinationals based in rich countries, who set the tax rules, are by and large responsible for this through tax avoidance schemes such as transfer mis-pricing. Annually, Africa looses $50 billion dollars to illicit flows. In an era of globalisation, if you want to raise domestic resources, you need to stop the bleeding from illicit flows. To do that, all countries need an equal say in setting the rules of global taxation.
Who, how and what is taxed says something deep about the communal values in a given society and how those are aligned to political power. Unfortunately in our world today, there is a profound mis-alignment between our societal values and the forces which determine taxation globally. The large corporations, and their powerful leaders who set the rules, are largely unaccountable. They are able to make the rules to their own advantage in the cracks between inadequate national and international laws. Reversing this through a global tax body which reflects better the shared values of justice and human rights is the key message from Addis, and now a top priority. Tax for me is no longer a dirty word – but a symbol of commitment to a just world.

The Disruptive Power of a 'Dangerous Book'

breast feeding, climate change, climate justice, current affairs, ecology, environment, ethics, integral ecology, pope francis, spirituality

The past few days at the Vatican have been full of quite surreal moments. First I found myself introducing Naomi Klein, as I chaired (possibly) the first ever all female panel at a high level Vatican Conference. Later the same day, I was sitting on a bus beside Mary Robinson our way to an open air mass in an ancient pine forest. We were Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Mulsims, athiests, feminists, liberals, conservatives, and everything in between. As the sun set over the beautiful pine trees, and the red full moon rose in the sky, the whole thing had strange dream like quality about it. I pondered how on earth I came to be there, in that moment, giving praise to God, Allah, Yaweh, Mother Earth with such an unlikely group of people. Something very strange was happening.
The occasion was the Conference “People and Planet First – the imperative to change course”, which focused on Pope Francis Encyclical Laudato Sí. I certainly wasn’t alone in sensing a surrealness at the event. What I think what we experienced was due to the disruptive power of Pope Francis’ encyclical.  Someone described the Encyclical as “the most dangerous book”. Others, such as Ben Phillips, in his blog on  NGO Courage made the point that we have been “out radicaled” by the Pope. He has said the unsayable, disrupting well positioned lines of defence and throwing them into disarray.
This isn’t just Pope Francis mania either. The group in the Vatican were the an unlikely Papal fan club. For many who associate themselves with this, there is a cost to pay for aligning with the Pope. But the encyclical has the power to bring very divergent views together for the greater good. It disrupts because it speaks the Gospel truth, with all its raw beauty and its pain, in an uncompromising and compelling way. The Pope takes a different perspective – like opening google earth and panning right out as far as you go into space. He brings us right back to the sense of wonder of existence, calling us back to a sense of awe at life on this fragile planet. It stops you in your tracks. It resonates something deep in our hearts and moves us to care. Essentially, in changing the viewpoint to one of integral ecology, Pope Francis offers us a new vocabulary to express in concrete terms the world we want to see. He has given permission to everyone to say what has to be said.
Listening to the many wonderful women speakers in the Conference, I was struck by the intensely maternal, and sisterly perspective Laudato Sí encapsulates. Mary Robinson correctly pointed out the lack of a specific focus on the role of women in the encyclical, but for me the maternal, sisterly dimension is profound and essential. The whole Encyclical in fact revolves around this opening sentence: “Our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.” Miss that, and you miss the point. In fact, the image that best sums up the new viewpoint that Pope Francis is proposing, is the image of mother feeding her newborn child. It is the image that best embodies the most fundamental, natural, intimate relationship of mutual love and dependency. It is the icon par excellance of the culture of care that is now needed. It is an idea I stumbled on several months ago, as I wrote here, but is one that seems increasingly relevant.
This image of mother and child, the first tender bond of inter-generational care is the measure of the love we now need to save us from ourselves, and the perils of a climate changed future for our children. This poem of Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner from the Marshall Islands to her baby speaks volumes of the mother-child tragedy unfolding before us. The Prime Minister of Tuvalu reminded us that thousands of children are already faced with an uncertain future as climate refugees. Rather than getting lost in useless arguing, above all we need to draw our children and grandchildren close to us and make them a solemn promise to do everything in our power to change course. For me, in fact, my main motivation in the struggle against climate change and injustice , which makes me do what I’d normally not consider doing, is simply to be able to answer the questions of my children when they grow up: “you mean you knew – so what did you do?”
Mary Robinson spoke beautifully at the Conference of this deeply maternal perspective. In her speech she focused on the encyclical theme of earth as our common home. She made the connection to motherhood and the need to see the earth as a home – and us as all as one family. For mothers all over the world, the concern with the running of the home is second nature. This gives women a better sense of limits, as they are the ones who usually focus on tending for the family, ensuring there is enough to go round. Extending that simple idea of being one family to the world scale can help us find new ways to care for our shared home. The word ‘economy’ in fact, comes from the greek word for home – oikonomia ‘household management’, based on oikos ‘house’ + nemein ‘manage’. Through re-imagining the economy from that image of the home, from maternal care, sisterhood, and Ubuntu we can start to build a truly transformative vision.
Perhaps the encyclical’s most profound message is that the earth is our mother, with whom we need a loving relationship to survive and thrive. As Naomi Klein pointed out, we are simply realising we are not the masters of creation. The truth is we utterly depend on mother earth – in reality we are as helpless in the face of nature, as a newborn child feeding from its mother’s breast. We urgently need to feel that again. When that loving relationship with the mother is broken, the impact on the child is devastating, and often irreparable. Repairing that loving relationship once more is essential. That is a dangerous message to those who wield unscrupulous power.
 

"Credibility Costs" – Coherence and Ireland's New Foreign Policy

agriculture, climate change, current affairs, foreign policy

Last week in Dublin, leading academics, policy makers and NGOs gathered at Iveagh House at an event hosted by the Royal Irish Academy to examine how Ireland’s new foreign policy ‘Global Island’ can be translated into practice.
There is a lot good about the new policy. On first glance, many NGOs will be very happy. The themes of inequality, poverty and climate change figure prominently. The values expressed in the first half of the policy are ones which any human rights advocate would welcome, particularly against an international context where human rights are increasingly under attack. Ireland remains committed to core values of fairness, justice, security and sustainability. It commits to standing up for human rights, civil society space and promoting greater gender equality. The country’s enduring commitment to multilateralism, particularly to the UN is re-stated, as is its’ intention to stand for the UN Security Council for 2021-22. Reference is made to the Government’s commitment to the UN target of giving 0.7% of GNI in overseas aid, but unfortunately no timeframe for achieving this forty year old target is included.
On closer reading, however, the striking thing about this new policy is the disconnect between the sections on ‘our values’ and ‘our prosperity’. The sections might well have been written by different people. Whilst the re-statement of values is essential – as it states how we want to be seen in the world – there is a chasm with the main thrust of the document, which relates to economic growth, investment, trade and exports. There is an assumption that these areas somehow stand outside the values framework elaborated previously. The entire focus of the second part of the policy is focused on how invigorated economic diplomacy, including through marketing our national day, can generate prosperity for Ireland.
Within this entire section, there is a complete absence of any reference to values and to the need for policy coherence if we are to address that fact that much of our prosperity is still built on the backs of the poor – and the planet. The section, for example, talks about more integrated and skilled economic diplomacy – but has no mention of human rights and the importance of not compromising principles outlined in the ‘our values’ section in the quest for greater trade and investment.
Three flagship policy areas come into sharp relief in that respect: how Ireland’s corporation tax regime squares with our fairness values; how our expansionist agriculturalist policies around beef and dairy square with our sustainability values; how our trade missions square with our long-standing commitment to engage on human rights issues. Given the increasing influence of transnational finance over international governance structures, the chapter on the removal of barriers to trade, and the absence of values to govern this is extremely concerning. The reference to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership in the policy is very worrying indeed. It is pitched as simply a positive thing, with no reference to serious concerns from civil society, in particular regarding the inclusion of an ISDS mechanism, and implications for human rights and climate change mitigation.
The conclusion one has to draw is that there is perhaps an implicit acceptance of the view expressed by Minister Richard Bruton in his Irish Times article (23rd January 2014) in which he stated that ‘trade missions are not the place to raise human rights’ and that we do human rights in certain multilateral fora such as the UN Human Rights Council. Bilateral trade missions, even with unsavoury regimes, are not the place to argue about human rights. Irish jobs trump every other concern and value.
Values underpinning policy are critical – and the values at the core of this policy are the right ones. However, the litmus test of values, as was said at the President’s ethics initiative, is how they are integrated across policy and applied in the tough choices between policies. Credibility and coherence costs – but there can also be many co-benefits. There need to be clear accountability mechanisms to assess that process of translation. The commitments made on policy coherence for development laid out in the ‘One World, One Future’ development policy in 2013, which would increase transparency and accountability on such issues, have still not been acted on. The OECD highlighted this gap in its review of Irish Aid last year. There are two glimmers of hope in in terms of coherence commitments in the policy. The first is a cross-departmental committee on human rights. This committee has already met once – how the agenda of the committee is shaped and acted on remains to be seen. The second is a consultation around a National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights. Hopefully these initiatives will deliver.

In Gratitude to our President

current affairs, ethics, international politics, religion

“International ethics is a difficult business – in fact most world leaders take an interest in it once they have left office.” This was one of the opening gambits of an insightful, visionary speech which Michael D Higgins, the Irish President, gave at a seminar I attended on Saturday. It was the culminating event of his year long ‘Ethics Initiative’ which has involved people up and down the country of Ireland in an examination of the values we want to shape our society. The event was attended by around 130 leaders of different sorts from across Irish institutions, including NGOs, all faiths, academics and business leaders. All of them have been involved in the Ethics Initiative in some way in the course of the past year. It was one of the most inspiring, hope-filled days I have attended in a long time. And to think that there, right in the middle of it, sitting at a round table as ‘one of us’, was the President of Ireland. It is remarkable. I can’t think of any other country where it would happen.
The Office of the President in Ireland gets a lot of stick. I get the feeling sometimes that people do not really see the value in a constitutional President. People are quick to point to the weaknesses, the lack of power, the fact that the President has to spend most of his time cutting ribbons and hosting garden parties. What people often fail to see is the creative power that this kind of President can have in terms of the well-being of the nation – on issues that are much deeper than day to day political cut and thrust. Issues that speak to our common sense of being a nation, our common humanity like ethics. Like previous outstanding presidents before him who have championed human rights, Michael D is also making his mark. His way is perhaps a ‘slow burner’ – but through his ethics initiative, his intellect, his capacity to communicate complex messages and his convening power is making waves. I am sure it will generate a rich harvest.
One thing I really admire about President Higgins, which was evident again yesterday, is the dogged way in which he sticks to his core message (which happens to be an analysis I share whole heartedly!) In his speech he talks about the way in which mainstream economics is based on flawed assumptions about human beings. He spoke of the way in which the wide spread acceptance of this flawed conception of economic theory has resulted in many problems we see today. The ‘invisible hand’ may be questioned nowadays, but in fact we are increasingly seeing what Michael Taillard calls an ‘invisible fist’. I can certainly see evidence of this in the way that transnational finance and commerce is penetrating into every sphere of policy and life here in Ireland. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP, which has been in the news this week, is just one example.
Yesterday’s seminar was very enlightening and I just wish we had more time to get to know all the people who were there. It feels like we just started the conversation. Issues discussed ranged from the instrumentalisation of our esteemed seats of learning, the role of taxation in cementing solidarity, the need for inter-religious dialogue on ethics, to the need to rediscover our ‘moral imagination’. It was so interesting to hear from all the groups who have taken the President’s initiative seriously and started their own conversations about ethics at a local level – like University College Cork’s ‘communities renewed‘ project and the ‘peoples’ conversations‘ hosted by Dochas and the Wheel.
Of course the big question is where to take these conversations? How do we turn them from a nice day out into change? Inevitably, the discussion gravitated towards the political system. On the one hand, the absence of opportunities for genuine participation in decision-making… and on the other hand, an electorate who can seem (in focus groups at least) to be only interested in their own self-interest. The issue of the need for more visionary political leadership came through very strongly. Should politicians pander to the PR focus group mentality or demonstrate leadership? Focus groups are deeply flawed. If I’m honest, I would probably focus on very local issues myself – things that matter to me and my family – but that does not mean that the bigger society, and indeed the world doesn’t matter to me! We need bold, visionary leadership to marry both. As Michael D said at one point during yesterday’s conversation “You don’t actually have to be engaged in a good act to enjoy a good society. There is something wonderful about also being an onlooker, and gazing in wonder at goodness in society. There is a value in that.” Valuing social bonds is central to that. As journalist Olivia O’Leary said in her conclusions: “Goodness, softness, forgiveness, mercy are words we have forgotten in Europe.” Lets hope conversations like these can start to bring them back.
So thank you, President Higgins! Thank you for convening the ethics conversation with such grace and dogged persistence. Thank you the opportunity to part-take in such an inspiring day. As you said, it is just a ‘punctuation mark’ – and it is over to us to multiply the ‘ethics initiatives’ across the country.