Happy new year to you! Its over a month since I last blogged so this one is rather overdue. I ended 2015 on s high, but quite exhausted and ready for a digital detox. I put away my computer for a few weeks and enjoyed a screen free existence for a while. It has taken me till now to gather my thoughts on 2016. But here I am.
I guess my first blog of the year has to be somewhat reflective… and a bit of looking at the year we are now almost 1/12 of the way through. 2015 was a phenomenal year. It was the hottest year on record. It was a year of unprecedented migration into Europe. A year of seemingly never ending conflict and terrorist attacks. It was a year of major global summits. A year of unprecedented people power with mass demos on TTIP and climate change. It was a year of big big promises and grand political gestures – in Addis, in New York and in Paris. World leaders promised to ‘leave no-one behind’ – to end global poverty by 2030; they promised to keep global temperatures below 1.5 degrees C; they promised international partnership with the poorest countries.
These are all significant achievements, and we can’t dismiss them. As I said back in December, the year could have ended very differently with disastrous consequences. Yet the proof of all these promises and agreements will be in what happens next. In reality, getting agreement was actually the easy part. Ensuring that the agreements are followed through and translated into action is the hardest part. The work is only beginning now.
The test of whether rich governments such as our own are really serious about their intentions comes in the next few months as they interpret these agreements and decide what practical measures they are prepared to take to increase the ambition and urgency to translate them into change. Will they, for example, finally agree on a Financial Transaction Tax as a new source of funding which can raise huge resources from the financial sector to fund these essential global issues? Today in Dublin we launched the Irish campaign for a ‘Robin Hood Tax’ – and intend making it an election issue.
Another, perhaps more important, test will be whether governments are prepared to rethink other agreements which now increasingly stand in the way of achieving Sustainable Development Goals, especially climate change. Today I had the chance to address the Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Committee on one such agreement: the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP. Behind closed doors, in secret negotiations with large corporations, the EU and USA have been discussing a new ‘free trade’ zone between the EU and US for the past three years. Their plan is to put in place a unprecedented partnership which may result in some benefits for trade, but is profoundly anti-democratic and will lock in climate change for decades. Through setting up a parallel quasi-judicial system only for investors to sue governments (ISDSs), it would effectively facilitate corporations to hold governments to account based on the impact of their policies on profits – rather than the other way round. If a government decides to change its policies to tackle climate change, and that reduces profits (lets say of the oil industry), they can and will sue. It sounds fanciful, but in 2016 the very same governments that signed the Paris Agreement are engaging in this process. We should all be very concerned. If TTIP passes, the Paris Agreement isn’t worth the paper it is written on – nor are the Sustainable Development Goals.
Despite these challenges, I have hope. I feel that in 2016 there is a new energy building across civil society to counter these negative trends. I’ve never been so busy with requests to speak up and down the country, especially in churches. There is a new courage, collaboration and appetite for direct action. The new Oxfam report which highlights the fact that a mere 62 individuals now own the same as the bottom 3.6 billion makes the inequality so clear, so blatant, so disgusting, that people will react. This isn’t about a little bit of financial inequality… this is about structures that facilitate monopoly and oligarchy of powerful groups (who meet up, dine, fly in corporate jets) who are now managing to re-shape the rules of global finance and trade in their image and design. It won’t be sorted by a little bit of aid, philanthropy or charity – but only by a powerful movement which reclaims public space and discourse and releases it from the logic of the market and consumption. The growing movements for tax justice, fossil fuel divestment, stop TTIP, Refugees Welcome! are all examples of where people energy is converging and growing. We all need to become informed and use our power to bring about change. Each of us has power to express our views – as the buddhist group I met outside Leinster House demonstrated today. I joined their street meditation for climate action. There are growing, irrepressible signs that this is happening. It can’t happen fast enough. Bring on 2016!
I’m sitting in a café on a cold misty Monday morning, on my way into work. For the past few weeks I’ve had writers block – unable to put down on paper the thoughts in my head, whether around climate change or around the state of the world. The Paris terrorist attacks have left me without words. I know these attacks happen all the time, and we in the West don’t pay enough attention to the violence in other parts of the world. There is a profound inequality in our concern, perpetuated by the media. Still, Paris is a city I know well. Paris is where I got engaged, where I have many friends, where I am due to go in two weeks for the COP climate negotiations. Of course it feels like it could have been me, us. I feel wounded.
Moreover, even my coffee this morning seems different. Suddenly a simple everyday act like taking my morning coffee in peace is not something to be completely taken for granted, as my many friends in Brussels are learning. The pernicious fear which terrorism breeds is game changing – it has to be. We can be defiant, for sure, but it shakes the fundamental security on which all European societies rest: that sense of safety that comes from the knowledge that you respect me enough not to seriously harm me and vice versa. Collectively, it means that for the most part, we can go about our daily lives serenely, without looking over our shoulder or carrying weapons. Of course, all those who have been victims of violent crime know what it is like when this is violated. Those who live in insecure cities right across the world know all too well what fear of random acts of violence breeds.
Listening to the Bee Gees in the café this morning has given me a sudden unexpected spurt of inspiration. Their forty year old song rings as true today as ever – How deep is your love? It is perhaps one of the critical questions today for each of us. Perhaps the question today is not only about how deep, but how big our love is. Who and what does our love embrace? We all think of our love for our families, our friends, our nations, perhaps nature – but does our love have to go beyond that?
It is a big question, and one which has really emerged as key in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. Countering hatred with love, violence with peace, intolerance with dialogue – has become a leitmotif in many responses. It may even seem like a cliché. Yet it echoes Martin Luther King’s famous words that “hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” I think it says something important as a response. Faced with the spectre of terrorism, which is consequence of disunity and division, the only long-term response which can counter it are strong communities, where mutual care and even love prevails. The big question today is how we can translate our sense of care, empathy, which we take as a given (if not always lived up to) within families into a renaissance of civic love – that sense of neighbourliness, universal fraternity which knows no borders?
In our bid to speed up our world, it is this sense of empathy, civic love in the community that often suffers most. Ignorance of each other breeds suspicion and division. You cannot be neighbours unless you have time to get to know each other, to build friendship and dialogue. This is a continual process of bridging which requires time, energy and commitment. Only such communities, where there is a strong sense of dialogue, of belonging to one humanity can drive out the profound isolation that breeds such a lack of empathy and distorted ideology. Interestingly the exact same kinds of things are said about the need to build resilient local communities to tackle climate change.
I’m not saying no other measures are necessary. There are immanent, known threats which require urgent measures to protect lives, but in the long-term, it is our capacity to transcend our differences and become communities of respect and love which is the best defence. Justice is required for the victims and perpetrators need to be caught and stopped from committing more atrocities. But as one father movingly said to his young son in the aftermath of the attacks, when asked how they would defend themselves from the bad guys: “our candles and our flowers are our best protection.” Candles and flowers do not offer the protection of a steel cage or razor wire fence, but his words reflected a profound truth: our capacity to empathise protects our common humanity and transcends the most unspeakable evil.
Next weekend, there is a unique opportunity to show we care on a global scale. All over the world, people will march to protect our common home, this planet – and the people who live on it. In marching for climate justice, we will also march for peace and for the people of Paris. If you can, join us.
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.
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 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.