Taking the Leap: who will jump first?

climate change, climate justice, ecology, international politics, multilateralism, Uncategorized

The heat is on now at the climate negotiations here in Paris. It has been an interesting two days. I arrived yesterday and was surprised to find everyone in good spirits.  After nearly two weeks of negotiations the mood was calm, almost buoyant. These negotiations can be depressing affairs but the French have done well to keep everyone in good spirits. Compared to other places, the working conditions (including comfy sofa beds!) are great.
The mood changed somewhat last night, however, when we received the draft agreement text. Even to the veteran COP goers like Professor John Sweeney,  the bewildering array of square brackets and options to agree was confusing.  It was hard to tell where things were at. “You need to be a lawyer to understand this” John told me. Things which we had imagined were put to bed by now – like whether we should aim for a ‘1.5 degree C’ or ‘2 degree C’ rise in global temperatures, whether the level of ambition should be towards a ‘net’ carbon free world or an actual ‘carbon free world’ and by when – all seem to be within square brackets. A square bracket means they are part of the final bargaining.
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A coalition of leading NGOS – the so called C8 (which includes Trócaire via CIDSE) concluded that the current draft is inadequate and lacks the ambition we need. Key safeguards to protect the most vulnerable countries and ensure the access of small farmers to livelihoods are all weak or undecided. The mechanisms for financing the key measures are unclear. Negotiations went on long into the night as governments tried to carve a deal. Every process has their villains, and everyone is pointing the finger at Saudi Arabia and Argentina for blocking or delaying progress.
Such concerns are predictable, but what is more concerning is the role the EU is playing in the negotiations and whether it is prepared to use some or indeed any of its political capital to help the poorest countries. The EU has traditionally been a vocal champion of human rights and food security – both of which protect the poorest – but has been eerily quiet on these issues. It has bigger interests to protect. If they don’t back them, it is doubtful they will be in the final agreement.
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The reality is, however, that nobody really knows what is happening and the final outcome hangs in the balance. It is a strange place to hang out with so much at stake. I met Professor van Ypersele,  vice – chair of the IPCC, one the world’s most eminent climate scientists in the corridor. He is a veteran of these processes. He told me that all the conditions are still here for agreement.  The science is accepted.  The spirit of collaboration in the negotiations is strong. Virtually nobody wants to leave without a deal. The question is who will jump first. Taking the necessary leap means everyone letting go of old positions. Everyone has to lose something. That letting go is costly, and the politics of transition are now staring governments in the face. How it happens, and at what speed, is the big question.
What is crystal clear to all is that what seem like the technical details are now decisions about real people and indeed entire nations, not to mention the world. There are entire nations here who will disappear if the level of ambition in the agreement is not high enough. Given the wild weather across the world in the past year, few are in denial that nature is rebelling. The momentum towards a final deal is strong and expectations are high. History will surely be on the side of those who take the first leap. Crunch time has finally arrived.

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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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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.

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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.

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