Monthly Archives: October 2012

The inevitability of destructive climate change…

Hurricane Sandy caused immense destruction along its path through the Caribbean and eventually upon impact on the East Coast of the US. It was the second major storm originating in the tropics that hit New York City and its environs in as many years; a very unusual occurrence. First reported estimates of the material damage caused by Sandy in the US amount to some US$20 billion, while tens of human lives have also been lost. Things would have been worse had the national and local authorities not given advance warning, including evacuation orders for certain places, and had they not mobilized significant civil defences, and search and rescue resources. It pays to be developed, and even if the price per unit of damage is high, the relatively low loss of life is highly rewarding by itself.

Something that officials and usually vocal politicians seem to avoid touching, though, is the possible causes of this catastrophic natural phenomenon. One would expect it to be completely out of character for America not to look for the origins of a disaster and rather attribute it passively to a whim of nature. However, despite Sandy, and Irene and earlier Katrina, speaking of climate change, caused by humans or otherwise, seems to be a taboo in free-speech-promoting America, especially during the final stages of a Presidential election campaign. Instead of the real world and its challenges that need to be addressed, what seems to be predominant is a kind of political correctness that serves nobody, in the medium and long-term at least. And it is true, unfortunately, that evoking climate change would probably restart one of America’s cultural wars, with emotional reactions, rather than a matter-of-fact analysis of a natural phenomenon, which is what is needed.

It is not about using this disaster to force the US to go along with whatever is proposed internationally in terms of climate change action, although it would not be bad if it did play a more constructive role in that regard. It is about the US and its people facing up to a real challenge that affects them, and which happens to also affect the rest of the world, as it is of a global nature. What better – even if sad – opportunity to educate people about the need to adapt to and mitigate climate change, to their own benefit first and foremost?

In terms of adaptation, it is obvious that urban and suburban planning, flood barriers, electricity production and distribution, public transportation and other infrastructural adjustments are needed to avoid incurring similarly high costs from such events in the future. As far as mitigation is concerned, the question about reducing greenhouse gas emissions has to be put squarely on the table, as it cannot be wished away through misplaced political correctness.

Even if they do not particularly care about the poorer parts of the world, where the destruction of lives and livelihoods may be higher but is not valued as much in economic terms, developed countries, the US prominently among them, should consider the impact on their own people of doing nothing. Destruction of lives and livelihoods and large financial losses cannot be allowed to continue because of a refusal to call a problem a problem. Avoiding to look into the root causes and work on solutions will not wish away future disasters. If this irresponsible approach continues, then we are all doomed, as the destructive effects of climate change will indeed prove inevitable…

Georgios Kostakos

Ixelles, 31 October 2012

PS: It is encouraging to see that at least the political leadership of New York City and New York State, responding to the realities of super-storm Sandy, have now put climate change clearly on the public agenda. Hopefully it will reach even higher levels, as well as the public at large, for a long-overdue discussion and decisions for action.

GK, 2 November 2012

The UN at 67

(or Happy UN Day, 24 October 2012)

The United Nations is celebrating its 67th birthday on 24 October 2012. A lot can be said about its many achievements, but also its numerous shortcomings. Without going into the historical details, I try in this piece to identify the UN’s strengths and weaknesses, as they relate to today’s world. I conclude by making seven suggestions for improvement, namely:

  1. Less talk and more focus on problem-solving;
  2. More involvement of regional organizations to rationalize the number of negotiating parties;
  3. Organic connection to limited-membership intergovernmental bodies that matter, notably the G20;
  4. Better use of the broad expertise available in the entire UN system;
  5. Bringing together all relevant stakeholders into joint projects focusing on implementation;
  6. “Quantitative easing” at a global scale, to kick start economic activity in developing countries, and fulfill various financing-for-development promises;
  7. Bringing the UN closer to the average individual and making them feel that it is their United Nations.

Those familiar with the UN’s good deeds may want to skip the first long section on strengths and go to the second, more critical part, or go straight to the final section, where I analyze the seven suggestions for improvement.

Strengths

The UN and the system of multilateral agencies that revolve around it[i] have some clear strengths, namely:

+      Near-universal membership of countries, especially in the UN General Assembly, and therefore moral authority and legitimacy in representing “the World”. This is particularly exemplified in the “global village” gathering of national leaders each September in New York, but also on special occasions for global challenges like food security (Rome, 2009), climate change (Copenhagen, 2009) and sustainable development (Rio de Janeiro, 2012).

+      Norm and standard setting in areas related to human rights, including women’s and children’s rights, workers rights, refugee rights, indigenous peoples’ rights, disabled people’s rights, etc., all of which serve as a guide for action, and to judge the actions of, governments around the world.

+      Creation or guarantee of principles that regulate behaviour among states, such as the peaceful resolution of disputes, the “common but differentiated responsibilities” for addressing climate change and other global challenges, the interconnection of the three dimensions of sustainable development (economic, social, environmental), etc.

+      Efforts at conflict prevention and peace-making by the UN Secretary-General and his various special envoys may have varying degrees of success but are often the only ones accepted by all parties in a conflict. And when the peaceful settlement of disputes fails, there is also peacekeeping and peace enforcement, under an increasingly unrepresentative but still legally empowered and potentially effective Security Council.

+      Concrete goals and mechanisms for advancing the wellbeing of humanity, especially its less privileged parts, notably through the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

+      Technical standards for safe operation and cooperation in various areas of human activity, from safe travel by air and sea, to telecommunications, postal services, health, keeping the environment clean, safely operating nuclear plants, recognizing the world’s cultural heritage, etc. through organizations like ICAO, IMO, ITU, UPU, WHO, UNEP, IAEA, UNESCO, etc.

+      Warning systems based on scientific evidence about imminent threats, from diseases and environmental degradation to all-encompassing climate change, food crises and even financial crises, through agencies like WHO, UNEP, IPCC, FAO, UN-DESA, UNCTAD, IMF, World Bank,[ii] etc.

+      Humanitarian assistance, from feeding, vaccinating and schooling poor children through UNICEF, to providing for the victims of drought and hunger through WFP, to taking care of the needs of refugees through UNHCR, etc.

+      Development assistance, including expert knowledge, capacity building and funding, through UNDP, the World Bank, IFAD, GEF, etc.

Weaknesses

Inevitably, the UN also has some quite clear weaknesses, which have to be acknowledged and dealt with:

–      Too much talk and too little action often characterize the UN, not least the General Assembly, where the democratic one-country-one-vote principle looks increasingly irrelevant compared to the powerful influences that shape the real world outside, from state and non-state actors. By the time agreements are reached, often by consensus, among 193 countries, they contain very little that can be actually applied in their convoluted prose.

–      Country representation mainly by diplomats, in the UN General Assembly and even in the more “specialized” Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), makes tackling global challenges with strong technical elements like climate change, food insecurity or unemployment a virtually impossible task. Instead of problem solving, what all too often happens is negotiating of lowest-common-denominator political texts.

–      A ritualistic insistence on debates of the past, between North and South, East and West, and related diplomatic point-scoring, with minimal or no connection to today’s world realities and to solving the actual problems facing humanity.

–      Fragmentation of efforts and lack of coordination between the political centre in New York and the more specialized technical agencies of the UN system that cover from economics and finance to health, education, telecommunications, etc. In addition to bureaucratic infighting, this reflects a lack of coherent guidance by national governments, which are represented in the UN specialized agencies by different line ministries that often take a narrow sectoral approach.

–      No effective connection to limited participation bodies, like the G20, that powerful countries create to deal with key issues outside the egalitarian “’one country one vote” system of the UN General Assembly.

–      Reliance on ad hoc arrangements of questionable accountability and effectiveness for engaging powerful non-state actors, like the globalized private sector and civil society, which can nowadays mobilize a lot more resources than small or medium countries can.

–      For UN Headquarters, too much reliance on and embracing by actors based in New York and the US Northeast, often non-governmental actors, including media, foundations, think tanks and academic institutions, which attempt to monopolize the attention of UN senior staff and diplomats and become “the world” in their eyes, disconnecting them from the realities faced by the actual 7-billion-people-strong worldwide constituency.

Suggestions for improvement

From this author’s experience with the UN, in theory but also very much in practice, the following suggestions if implemented could make a positive difference for the UN and the world:

1. Less talk and more focus on problem-solving, bringing into the discussion experts, from governments and other stakeholders, who actually know in depth the issues and have to deal with them on a daily basis in the real world. Thus each problem-solving debate/conference could be preceded by a mapping of the relevant actors globally, with invitations sent to high-level representatives of such actors to participate. It could all be topped up with an intergovernmental debate to keep official delegates and leaders happy, but once the expert voices have been heard. Timid steps in this direction have been made by the General Assembly, its Main Committees and ECOSOC, but they are completely informal, disconnected from any decision-making and the selection of invited experts is often haphazard. Having permanently stationed at the country missions to the UN, along with the diplomats, experts in the key areas of UN activity, including economic, social and environmental, from the relevant country ministries, would help a lot too.

2. More involvement of regional organizations to rationalize the number of negotiating parties and reach decisions faster and of a more applicable nature. Arrangements in this direction could be introduced without a (very difficult to achieve) amendment of the UN Charter, by agreeing that regional organizations (real ones, like the AU, ASEAN, CARICOM, EU, League of Arab States, Mercosur – not just geographical groupings) and key individual countries would get together to discuss draft resolutions before formal submission to the General Assembly and other intergovernmental bodies, ideally including the Security Council too. How each organization would be represented, by the country that chairs it during that period or through a supranational body as in the case of the European Union, it would be up to the countries covered by the respective organization to decide. This way the one-country-one-vote system would be maintained for final approval, while allowing initial consultations and action planning in smaller groups. Of course, a lot would depend on the degree of integration and effectiveness of the regions, which is far from homogeneous, but would probably have the positive side effect of expediting regional integration.

3. Organic connection to limited-membership intergovernmental bodies that matter, notably the G20. In fact, actual decision-making or at least decision-preparation in the UN context on the basis of regional representation and involving only major countries individually would obviate the need for the establishment of ad hoc bodies outside the UN.  While such bodies may be useful for crisis management, eventually they suffer from the lack of legitimacy or succumb to broader participation rituals and proceduralism over time.  Interesting to note in this respect the current General Assembly President’s stated intention to connect the UN and the G20, or the “G193” and G20. It remains to be seen how he will attempt to do that and how successful he will be where others failed.

4. Better use of the broad expertise available in the entire UN system, bringing together into a coherent whole the now scattered organizations, and providing central leadership, vision and direction. This would mean upgrading and making more substantive the existing system-wide mechanism, the UN System Chief Executives Board for Coordination (CEB), which is chaired by the UN Secretary-General and attended by the executive heads of UN specialized agencies, funds and programmes. The CEB in its current state, with its two meetings per year and with minimal high-level attention in-between, cannot realize its potential and is led adrift by petty competition between agencies for predominance and access to limited resources. Stronger leadership by the UN Secretary-General and his Deputy, coupled with appropriately coordinated guidance by UN member states, who are represented in the assemblies and governing bodies of each UN system entity but are often incoherent themselves, would make the UN system much better value for money for the global taxpayer.

5. Bringing together all relevant stakeholders into joint projects focusing on implementation. International public-private partnerships increasingly promoted by the UN Secretary-General are moving in this broad direction, covering issues of global concern from health to energy and education. However, a lot more needs to be done to ensure accountability, from the selection of the participants to the planning phases, to the actual investment of pledged resources and the achievement of the stated results. Before that happens, such partnerships can be variously seen as social or image-making opportunities for those participating (“bluewashing”), or products of political expediency, or as a way of bypassing UN member state control over substance, process and budgets. It will be interesting to see how the participation of stakeholders other than member states will be organized in the context of the high-level political forum mandated by the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in Rio de Janeiro last June and due to meet for the first time in September 2013. Another project mandated by Rio+20, the development of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), can offer the context for broad mobilization and partnerships, especially as regards sustainable development implementation, in the post-MDG/post-2015 period.

6. “Quantitative easing” at a global scale, to kick start economic activity in developing countries, and fulfill various financing-for-development promises. Developed countries have been adding liquidity to their systems to help themselves out of the financial crisis by basically printing new money through their central banks. Why not have the world’s “central bank”, the IMF, issue or allocate Special Drawing Rights, which have an exchange rate equivalent to all major currencies, to be used for infrastructure projects in developing countries, especially least developed ones, to give their citizens a chance to get access to electricity, mobile telephony, drinking water, the Internet. SDR allocations for such use can be of the magnitude of the annual Official Development Assistance (ODA), which amounted to about US$129 billion from OECD DAC countries in 2010. ODA commitments are now faltering due to developed country problems, but the use of SDRs should not be instead but should supplement them. Such new liquidity would not destabilize the global financial system, as it is much lower than the new money produced by developed countries, and would in any case partly at least return to developed and emerging economies, from where the hardware, software and know-how will have to come from, providing an additional stimulus for their economies. Such SDRs be issued in annual installments for a certain period, say over 5 years to start with, and can be counted as innovative financing also towards the annual US$100 billion by 2020 agreed at the UNFCCC COPs in Copenhagen and Cancun for climate change action.  Finally, some of this money could be used for large scale microfinancing projects enabling developing country smallholders and entrepreneurs, especially women, to start or expand agricultural and other small businesses, which can create a growth dynamic in their respective economies. A suggestion to use SDRs to mobilize climate change financing was put forward in recent years by IMF staff but was not pursued further; it may be time to revisit it. Of course, honest accounting, good governance, strict guarantees against corruption, transparency and accountability should be key parts of any such project.

7. Bringing the UN closer to the average individual and making them feel that it is their United Nations, not an external force, even a good one. Beyond political declarations and even money, it is through a broadly shared global conscience that attitudes can change and actions can be generated at such magnitude that will have a positive impact on human societies and the planet. Promising salvation by a UN as an outside force, or making the UN the scapegoat for the lack of leadership and effectiveness of national governments, as is often the case, will not solve any real problem. The UN needs to work a lot more on its public image, on informing the global public about its real nature and capabilities. This requires a lot of honest and eloquent work out there, by headquarters and country teams and other offices – as well as civil society organizations, academics, religious leaders and others who realize the importance of the UN – for the hearts and minds of people.

So there is a lot that needs to be done, and the UN has to run faster to keep up with developments in the world. But that can wait for one more day, and let this 24 October be dedicated to rejoicing in what the UN has already achieved. Cheers to those who have been in the centre of it all, the UN staff, as well as diplomats and experts from all around the world, who work in New York, Geneva, Bangkok, Santiago, Nairobi, Vienna and so many other offices and missions around the world day in and day out. Congratulations, praise be to you – and sleeves up again as soon as the UN’s birthday party is over!

Georgios Kostakos

Ixelles, 24 October 2012


[i] For the membership of the UN system and the full names of the various organizations see: http://www.un.org/en/aboutun/structure/index.shtml

[ii] The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank Group are also parts of the UN system of agencies, even if they are often mentioned as rivals or alternatives to the UN, especially by finance- and economy-focused critics.

Global Sustainable Development Negotiations and the Role of Europe

Although not as anxiously anticipated as that of Copenhagen 2009,[i] the outcome of Rio 2012[ii] may have equally disappointed many a citizen of the world, who expected more concrete outcomes for implementing sustainable development. The sense of disappointment may be even stronger among EU citizens and policy makers, who had hoped to see coming out of Rio a very strong endorsement of the concept and specifics of the Green Economy, along with the elevation of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to an autonomous organization within the UN system.

This author, however, solemnly believes that reports of Rio’s failure are greatly exaggerated. Indeed, the results may have not been as concrete as one would have liked. But the actual Rio+20 Outcome,[iii] the document approved by consensus among UN member states in Rio, has a lot to offer. Here are a few examples:

  • It clearly places sustainable development at the intersection of the economic, social and environmental spheres, with the highest priority given to poverty eradication. This balances a tendency to overemphasize the environmental dimension, which has made sustainable development implementation efforts rather one-sided since the first Rio conference in 1992.
  • Recognizes the importance and usefulness of setting a limited number of universally-applicable sustainable development goals (SDGs) for focused and coherent action on sustainable development. A 30-member, geographically balanced working group of UN member state representatives is mandated to make proposals on such goals to the UN General Assembly at its next session that starts in September 2013.
  • Establishes a universal intergovernmental high-level political forum to lead on the implementation of sustainable development, replacing the discredited Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD). The format and organizational aspects of the forum are to be decided through negotiations in the UN General Assembly, with a view to holding the first high-level forum in September/October 2013.
  • Recognizes the need to complement gross domestic product (GDP) with broader measures of progress, and requests the UN Statistical Commission, the intergovernmental body that brings together the statistical offices of the world and approves common methodologies and standards, to work on it.
  • Decides to establish an intergovernmental committee of 30 experts to prepare, by 2014, a report with proposals on a sustainable development financing strategy to facilitate the mobilization of resources and their effective use in achieving sustainable development objectives.
  • Invites the UN General Assembly to adopt a resolution at its present session on strengthening and upgrading UNEP, among other things by making the UNEP Governing Council membership universal, increasing UNEP’s financial resources, and enhancing its coordinating role within the UN system on matters pertaining to the environment.

A special note on the Green Economy: There is nothing in the Rio+20 outcome that prohibits putting a Green Economy into practice, within the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and taking into account the special circumstances and priorities of each country. If one accepts these caveats, avoids the temptation to turn the Green Economy into an ideology, and alleviates fears of “green protectionism” or “green conditionalities”, there is plenty of room created by Rio+20 to build on good practices, create tool kits for countries at various levels of development and use the emerging Green Economy arsenal as a means of moving closer to sustainable development.

These are no small achievements by any means. Yes, they could remain mere declarations on paper, or could lead to endless new negotiation processes with no concrete result. But that exactly is the challenge now and the opportunity for glory: to make sure that these Rio decisions are acted upon in a concrete, efficient and balanced way.

As the UN General Assembly gets down to business in New York, with the Rio+20 follow-up/post-2015 development planning high on the agenda, Europe needs to get its act together to play its part as effectively as possible. It has or will soon have its representatives on the intergovernmental working groups mentioned above, and in other relevant bodies like the Post-2015 Panel established by the UN Secretary-General.[iv] Could they be:

a)     Efficiently coordinated, without being fully absorbed by their own internal negotiations (the formulation of policies and the practice of EU external relations, in the UN context at least, leaves a lot to be desired);

b)    Substantive rather than representational, and covering all three dimensions of sustainable development, not only the environment (by coming from and being supported by experts from all relevant EU and member state ministries/DGs/agencies/offices);

c)     Open and inclusive internally (connecting with European professional associations, think tanks, NGOs, etc.) and externally (reaching out to other countries, including developing countries and emerging economies, and international civil society and private sector coalitions)?

d)    More cognizant of and publicly acknowledging the challenges of sustainability as they apply to the EU itself and its member states, from reliance on coal and energy infrastructure dependent on non-renewables for some time to come, economic and governance weaknesses affecting parts of the Union, etc.

If the EU representatives, member states and central EU institutions together, manage to do all this, they will play a leading role, make Europe’s positive mark and contribute to a better state of sustainability for Europe and the world as a whole in the years to come.

                                                                                                    Georgios Kostakos

                                                                                   Ixelles, 22 October 2012


[i] 15th session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Copenhagen, 7-18 December 2009.

[ii] UN Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as “Rio+20”, Rio de Janeiro, 13-22 June 2012 (high-level segment/Summit on 20-22 June 2012).

[iii] See “The Future We Want”, endorsed by the UN General Assembly on 27 July 2012 through resolution 66/288 (document A/RES/66/288 of 11 September 2012).

[iv] The membership and terms of reference of the High-level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda were announced by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on 31 July 2012.

Arm the women, now!

11 October 2012 saw the first observance of the International Day of the Girl. The focus was on ending the practice of child marriage, but several more issues came up. And there were different ways of observing the day. Among them, even if a couple of days in advance, was the Taliban attack on Malala Yousufzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani girl who has been campaigning for the girls’ right to education. Perhaps the Taliban planned it like this, or they did not realize it, but this was a very clear statement on girls’ and women’s rights, and will hopefully backfire on them.

It is amazing that men are allowed to commit such crimes in their zeal and immense self-righteousness. One wonders whether they have mothers, sisters, wives or daughters, and if they do what they think of them. There is no doubt that they have no female friends, nor could they ever if they are unable to accept the equality of the male and female human beings.

How can one end this? Can these people be educated or they are so immersed in their beliefs that they can never consider any alternative? What are those with any influence upon them, from family members to religious and political leaders, doing? And if there is no hope for change, how can they be isolated in their unreal world and rendered unable to harm other people, especially female people?

There is all the talk about the Arab spring, and what is happening in Syria or in Bahrein, etc. Often there are suggestions that those revolting against authoritarian regimes should be given weapons to defend themselves. But nobody has proposed to arm the women, who are suffering under authoritarian rule in several countries, even if they are the slightly larger and usually the more hard-working part of the population. Why not arm the women in the tribal areas of Pakistan, or in parts of the Middle East or Africa, to give them at least a chance to stop the aggression against them? They may not be used to it, it may not be in their nature to take life instead of giving it, but it would definitely be legitimate self-defence…

Giving actual arms to the oppressed female populations around the world may be an extreme measure. But arming them with knowledge, through education, and with other means to care for themselves and their families, like microcredit, can make a big difference for them and those around them. Moreover, there should be no compromise at the normative level on the equality of rights of all human beings. Reservations of any sort, like reportedly those about to be introduced in the new Egyptian constitution, would be a further slide backwards and should not be tolerated by anybody, first of all by those directly affected, the more-than-half of the human population that are women.

                                                                                                    Georgios Kostakos                                                                                

                                                                                                    Ixelles, 11 October 2012