After Brexit: Life in the New Normal

Brexit, climate change, climate justice, current affairs, foreign affairs, Uncategorized

I’m trying to make sense of the UK’s decision to leave the EU. Words have escaped me, as they escaped me so often recently… after the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels,  when I saw the body of that little boy on the beach, or heard of the tragic loss of Jo Cox MP – a shining star in a rising sea of darkness.
The difference between this tragedy and these other tragedies that have periodically pierced our bubble of normality over the past year is that this one is self inflicted. But these tragedies are all connected. The sense of losing control, of encroaching threat, of fear knocking on our doors has been steadily rising. Until yesterday – in the UK at least – the reaction to this growing fear was an outburst, an emotional reaction to what were seen as external events. Give it a few days, the media moved on and normality or sorts returned. But the fear continued to simmer. Yesterday, however, this reaction morphed into an internalisation of the destructive force of that fear. It has become the new normal. It is inescapable now because the repercussions of this self-inflicted wound are so far-reaching.
I spent the first day of a post-Brexit world trying to understand my citizenship options as a non-resident UK citizen living in another EU country. Many others I’m sure will have done the same. I am an EU citizen and I can’t just “un-become” one. My life, my family depends on being part of the EU. It has shaped my life in so many ways. The implications of this sense of ‘un-becoming’ for so many
will only grow over time as the deep community connections, the family bonds created and sustained on the basis of being one EU, trading relationships carved out, are now fundamentally altered. Many funding arrangements now need to be rethought. Such is the depth of our inter-dependence, which has sustained peace and stability for several generations, the challenges of extricating us from what is an essential part of who we are is a mammoth task. It massively time consuming,  expensive and deeply divisive.
What’s more, the whole exercise in many respects is the most extraordinary, dangerous waste of time and distraction from the most urgent challenges we face today. The stark reality is that this decade is the last chance we have to address climate change – a global threat that requires a political mindset based on interdependence and deep collaboration across borders. The EU’s leadership role, whilst far from perfect, in this has been critical, as it has in so many global issues. As a friend put it “Brexit is like shifting teacups around whilst the world is burning”.  The political momentum required to tackle that and other massive global problems has just been dealt a significant blow.
 For however massive this political earthquake is, it also generates a unique moment of opportunity.  In fact, people have suddenly been awoken from a slumber – from a false sense of security about the forward path of progress – and more will awaken in the coming weeks as they realise what they perhaps unwittingly voted for. Young people in particular have sooken up. Whilst Brexit gives the illusion that casual racism, xenophobia and bigotry have become a mainstream view, I don’t believe this true. At least not yet. Many were motivated to vote out not by hatred, but by a false hope that this was a good, honourable and reasonable choice for their country. For others, disengaged and excluded from mainstream politics for years, this was a stand against the status quo. Whilst many will stand by their choice, as reality dawns, many others will be sickened and perhaps ashamed by what this actually means and the deceit it is based on.
That sense of political engagement now needs to be harnessed. But it can’t be harnessed by the same political forces that caused this mess. A new force is now needed – one made up of ordinary people who actively reach out and demonstrate with their actions and their voices, that they want a new politics based on a shared humanity – and everything that goes with that… mutual respect, tolerance, dialogue, kindness, equality, compassion, mercy. Those values are not a given now, but need to be re-affirmed, and above all lived out in public life. It is about changing mindsets rathet than minds. In many respects it is the internationalist vision that Jo Cox MP and many many others live and indeed die for. This force cannot remain silent or invisible. It needs to actively reject and resist the hate, intolerance and division which could now permeate society. We now need many more Jos who speak and act with courage and integrity and face down the complacency, fear and anger which exists inside us all.
Yesterday the angry thunderstorm clouds in the skies all over Europe seemed to reflect perfectly the political storm now engulfing us. More than a faint, haunting echo of the words of David Lloyd George and even Churchill came to mind. How unprepared we are for a divided Europe, a Brexit future. Moving forward, as Lloyd George famously said will take ‘all the wisdom, all the calm, all the judgement of the mariners who are guiding the ship.’ In fact, it will take far more than that. It will take new mariners – and we have a choice over who they are. It may even require a new ship. Only a popular movement which affirms in a million words and deeds that we have ‘more in common’ can save us now from ourselves. Europe has come so far. Going back is unthinkable.

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How deep is your love?

climate change, current affairs, ethics, foreign affairs, pope francis, Uncategorized

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.

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Welcome to the end of poverty – sponsored by Gucci

foreign affairs, international development, international politics, Ireland, multilateralism, pope francis, sustainable development goals

There is something very strange going on. I’m not sure whether it has to do with the blood moon eclipse, the strange rainbows over Manhattan during the Pope’s visit, or something they put in the water, but my head has been scrambled.
I have just returned from the UN General Assembly where, amid much fanfare, the new Sustainable Development Goals were signed-off by 190 Heads of State. The week’s events were a non-stop caffeine fuelled tour-de-force involving side events, receptions, road blocks, concerts and papal masses. It was a veritable who’s who of global society – from nearly being run over by President Xi Jinping, to bumping into Christine Lagarde in a UN lift. Anyone who is anyone in the global elite and/or the global fight against poverty was in New York for this momentous occasion. The Taoiseach and the President were both in town, together with a large representation from civil society and entertainment world. Ed Sheerin was one of the headline acts at the massive launch party in Central Park.
So what’s not to love? Surely this veritable global gathering of the great and the good, endorsing the new Sustainable Development Goals agenda, will save the world? Maybe I should just stop moaning and ‘get behind the goals and tell the world about them’ as Project Everyone has been contracted by the UN to tell us to do. If only we could all declare the new world order – and it shall be done. But when Gucci, the world’s most luxury brand, worth €12.2 billion, is the lead sponsor for a launch party to celebrate the quest to end global poverty, as happened on Saturday night, you must admit – something very strange is happening.
There is much to love about the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Don’t get me wrong. When taken together, most of the goals are motherhood and apple pie. The new agenda could have been a lot less progressive had NGOs like Trócaire not applied significant pressure on the UN and governments. Arguably, the Irish co-facilitation role also played a key role in keeping more progressive elements on the table such as a human rights approach and gender equality. None of that can be taken for granted. These goals are potentially transformative. They represent a kind of re-interpretation of human rights for the modern era within the context of environmental sustainability. To say “no one should be left behind” in fact, is another way of saying “everyone has rights.”
And therein also lies the rub. Whilst the SDGs effectively re-interpret human rights for the modern era, they say virtually nothing about the primary duty of states to deliver human rights for their citizens. Taken in the context of the recent Financing for Development Summit, the SDGs, it seems, will not be delivered by empowering poorer states and citizens to claim their rights through progressive, corrective public policies including taxation and regulation. The sub-text is that they will be realised by a further deepening of the expanding network of transnational corporations, now in active partnership with global NGOs and international agencies. Public Private Partnerships, blending public and private finance initiatives and new forms of privatisation are central to the delivery of this new agenda. New contracts to deliver on these goals were most likely signed in New York over the weekend at one of the many lavish corporate lunches.
The first off-shoot of the SDGs, in fact, are the ‘Global Goals’, massive feel good global campaign funded by major corporations, and backed by many leading NGOs. These are global household names and a taste of things to come. Their mission is to use their brand power tell everyone about the global goals. Of course, in doing so, there is one thing they may wish to avoid at all costs– anything that could remotely challenge their brand power and their bottom line. In fact, to do so would contravene the licensing agreement of the Global Goals campaign. The public SDGs have already been co-opted into private hands.
The problem is, however, that the very economic model of affluence, waste and excess on which many of these brands such as Gucci rely, is actually at the heart of our current ‘socio-environmental crisis’ as Pope Francis calls it. The SDGs avoid asking the difficult questions around corporate tax avoidance, fossil fuel divestment, public finance for development, consumerism culture and so on. They are loaded with assumptions of unending economic growth and now can harness the poverty eradication agenda to fuel growth. If the corporations backing the global goals campaign were serious about their role in eradicating poverty they could start with paying their fair share of tax, doing human rights due diligence, and safeguarding the environment. Governments and NGOs would do well to support them in this quest!
There is a serious risk that many NGOs could be co-opted into this new agenda too, with a chilling effect on really important conversations on what really needs to change to tackle consumerism, inequality and climate change. Or they could become a massive administrative distraction, as Pope Francis has warned. The big funding in the future will lie in supporting the delivery of the SDGs – but most likely only in ways which do not challenge the power of global brands.

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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.

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FFD: Outsourcing multilateralism?

business, climate change, finance, foreign affairs, multilateralism, sustainable development goals

At the start of this 2015 blog, I highlighted three major global events happening in 2015 which offer an exceptional opportunity to change course. The first of these, the Financing for Development Summit in Addis Ababa has finally arrived.
As I sit here in my comfortable hotel bedroom in Addis Ababa, listening to the police sirens outside as dignitaries from 193 countries arrive, I wonder about the week ahead – and what difference, if any, my being here makes. These big global summits are a circus. In fact, as I write, the negotiations may be over already. The EU unilaterally agreed to the final draft text overnight. They have given the other major block of countries, the G77, until 3pm today to accept this agreement. The G77 will have to decide whether this is a battle worth fighting.
The point is that delegates coming to Addis would prefer not to have to do any serious, messy negotiating – this would take away from the media razzmatazz of the non-negotiated announcements. The last thing they want is for the media to get distracted by any disagreements. Patch it up, cover up the cracks – agree something, anything. Let us all get on with the real business of interesting side events, state dinners, receptions, and the all-important branded global initiatives! Let the people back home know we are making a difference.
The fact is that the official outcome document is excruciatingly weak, despite Ban Ki Moon’s valiant attempt to talk it up to 1000 NGOs yesterday. The “Addis Action Agenda” is very short on concrete action, especially on the part of states. There is no new aid money, for example, on the table. The FfD summit is meant to come up with the additional finance – both the actual money and the structural changes required to generate future resources – to deliver on the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. Finance for global goals can come from a range of sources but not all finance is equal. All of us know the difference between a grant and a high interest loan. To achieve the SDGs, especially for the poorest people on the planet, public finance is essential. Only public finance can provide the level of stability and the social contract needed to deliver essential services to the poorest. Without adequate public finance the whole enterprise of human development based on the idea of human rights – where duty bearers can be held to account – is put at serious risk.
What the run up to the negotiations in Addis confirms, yet again, is that a profound shift in global politics taking place right under the noses of our elected governments. This shift is really about a transferal of accountability in global politics away from democratic governance into the hands of powerful financiers and corporations. The only game in town this week is the unrelenting rise of private capital in the provision of the new development agenda, as I recently wrote about here. Public Private Partnerships and blended finance are the only show in town. Such PPPs come at a cost – a cost of democratic accountability, through transferring the responsibility for public services provision away from the state into large, international, unelected profit making entities. The risk burden, moreover, is transferred to the public purse creating the potential for new unsustainable debt crises. The decision on when the cost of an investment in essential, life saving services becomes too high essentially becomes a matter for the board room in New York rather than the cabinet table in Addis Ababa. Who, then, is accountable for ensuring the human rights of those at the receiving end of such essential services? 
Whilst the negotiations on agreeing the new goals (the what) have been relatively straight forward so far, the negotiations on the means to get there (the how) have been dogged with bad feeling from the start. It feels like the world was happy to come up with an ambitious wish list, but is hoping Santa Claus will come to deliver it. The atmosphere here could not be more different to the optimistic spirit experienced in the Vatican last week. That spirit, grounded in a realisation of the existential crisis facing humanity, unfortunately does not seem to have made it to Addis yet. The words of the Encyclical are still ringing in my ears “everything is connected”. The fight against climate change, in fact, is profoundly linked to the capacity for state action, which in turn relies on an ability to generate resources through taxation and limit illicit flows – which in turn, requires democratic governance and upholding of basic human rights of communities over corporations. In other words, people and planet before profits.  
At present, it would appear that the dominance of the private corporate sphere, with its unrelenting logic of profit seeking has the upper hand. That logic has come to set the rules of the game, even within the UN. The UN, as I wrote here, is not coca cola! Santa Claus, in his red Coca cola truck will not deliver the SDGs. Multilateralism itself it seems is now beholden to the markets. Such a form of multilateralism knows no forgiveness, as the unfolding Greek tragedy demonstrates.
The question is how can such influence be curtailed? How can we reclaim the democratic space, especially in a world where 90 states have introduced draconian measures to limit democratic freedoms? In many countries, including the one I am sitting in right now, public protest will now land you in prison or worse. Everything is connected.
As I said following the Vatican conference, and after the Trócaire conference, we need a new global movement – which is able to see the profound interconnections between the different struggles we are facing. At the heart of this, there is a profound need to reclaim the Greek philosophical basis of a good society – and adapt it to the world we live in today, constrained by climate change and other massive challenges. It seems to me that four burgeoning global movements need get out of their silos and come together: the movement for climate justice, the movement for tax justice, the global treaty alliance on business and human rights and the movement for transparency. Together, these peoples’ movements, grounded in a global “culture of care” based on the Encyclical, could make the difference. Without this kind of united struggle, the spectre of global plutocracy looms large.

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