Tag Archives: Sustainable development

The key to reducing poverty is… fewer armchair experts

Certain sectors seem to attract more armchair experts than others. We all think we know what is needed to fix the Australian Cricket Team’s woes. Sack the selectors and cut down the playing schedule to eliminate burnout. Bring back Warney.

We all think we know what is needed to produce better classrooms for our children. We need to reduce class numbers, get the teachers back to teaching basics, study more of the classics in their original form, not after they have been put through a blender by Baz Luhrman.

Development is no different. I recently took a flight from Singapore to Cambodia, and had a lovely, chatty couple in their 50s sit next to me. They were instantly interested in hearing about my work in disability in Cambodia. After asking the usual questions about what I do, they  told me that they were active donors in Cambodia.

They had a local guy who found good, sustainable projects for them to fund. Of course, good and sustainable are entirely subjective.

“We believe that the key to getting people out of poverty is giving the chance to start their own business,” he said to me earnestly. “You need to let them tap into their inner entrepreneur. We don’t believe in providing welfare, because it makes people lazy. We think that starting small businesses are key for poor people.”

I feel like MLK Jr may disagree.

As such, the couple only gave to projects that supported this ideal. For instance, they bought a tuk-tuk for a driver, so that he could earn a living for himself and his family. They provided funds for a soy bean drink machine, imported from Singapore of course, so that another family could sell drinks in their village.

For the next 20 minutes, I listened without interrupting as they explained their views on what constitutes good development, and how the projects they had funded were creating a sustainable future in Cambodia. At the end of this spiel, they turned to face me front on and ask, “So, in your work in Cambodia, what do you see as the major challenges you face?”

I paused for a moment, and replied: “One of the biggest problems we face is donors from outside Cambodia, who have no experience in development, let alone in Cambodia, dictating what they think constitutes good development, rather than listening to what people in Cambodia actually want. It forces the NGO to change their activities to suit the needs of the donors, and ignore the needs of people.”

(I’ll be the first to admit that this is a somewhat pompous response, but really, I had bitten my tongue for 20 whole minutes!)

In a recent interview, Founder and CEO of Global Poverty Project, Hugh Evans, was asked by MSNBC journalists about what Americans could do that would “translate into action” for people living in extreme poverty. For example, the suit-clad men in MSNBC’s studio wondered, should WE teach THEM “better techniques in terms of harvesting rice and grain”? I think Hugh handled this absurd question very well, though his visceral reaction was pretty obvious.

What food did they serve Hugh in the MSNBC green room?

We have great conversations about development online and offline. Although we need to consciously make effort to escape the bubble of developmentcentrism, we are always exploring how to get development right.

Many of us are working in development, consumed by it, and are constantly reflecting on it. Even these people are constantly searching and debating about how to get development right, without a clear answer. If this is the case, what makes those in the general public so sure that they know the answers?

How many times have you heard the phrase “I think the key to getting people out of poverty is X”? You can replace X with education, small business, focusing on women and girls, used yoga mats.

You would be very hard pressed to find anyone saying something similar about other sectors.

Thank you, Wikipedia.

Yet, similar opinions in relation to poverty abound.

It is pretty common knowledge in the development sector that overheads are in no way a good measure of an organisation’s effectiveness. Yet, as many of as aware from numerous conversations, people in the general public don’t seem to realise this. How many times have you heard the opinion “I give to so and so charity because they use volunteers and most of the money goes to the people who need it?”

Why is there such a gap between conversations within our development bubble, and those outside?

I’m going to put forward one possible reason, though I am very interested to hear what others think in the comments section below.

One reason could be marketing. There is often a huge gap between how NGOs market themselves and how the programs themselves work. As long as NGOs continue to propagate the myth that overheads matter, in a bid to get more donations, the public is going to believe them. This could be why, in terms of overheads, the conversation is lagging far behind.

We’ve spoken before on WhyDev about the race-to-the-bottom tactics that NGOs can use to get funding, and how this can ultimately affect the scope of work that program staff are able to do. This is another example of how negative fundraising tactics can hurt development – by stifling knowledge of good development in the public.

What do you think? Why do many people opine baselessly about the key to ending poverty? Why do conversations around development lag so far behind in the public sphere?

Postscript: A few people have asked, here and elsewhere, how the couple responded to my response. The couple had a glazed look over their eyes, then the food service came, then the man started snoring. End of story.

The roadmap to ending extreme poverty by 2030: a street directory or GPS?


To much fanfare, the roadmap to end extreme poverty by 2030 was released Thursday. The high-level panel (HLP, one letter short of HELP) is co-chaired by David Cameron with the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the Indonesian president, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Liberian president. The forceful and well-oiled verb ‘eradicate’ was used to describe how extreme poverty would be ended. It would be eradicated. It is an interesting choice of verb and one which we never tire of using. Eradicate. The original Latin meaning to ‘uproot’. So, we want to ‘uproot’ poverty and do what with it? How are we going to uproot extreme poverty?

12 goals. 54 targets. 15 years.

‘Sustainability’ is mentioned a lot  (in fact, 25 times). ‘Sustainable’ is mentioned a whooping 186 times. The phrase ‘sustainable development’, 99 times. Ok, so once extreme poverty is uprooted, the seeds that fall back to the ground will not find root. They will not grow again. This time, it’s sustainable.

And yes, this time it is different. I am sure much more qualified and knowledgeable people will comment, troll and discuss this report (indeed, some already have such as Andy Sumner and Alex Cobham here, and Claire Melamed here). And yes, there are plenty of eye-rolling statements and narratives, such as when you read that the panel discussed “the daily reality of life on the margins of survival” (p.15). In London. Or, the new and oft-repeated catchphrase of the report to “leave no one behind”. And, speaking about a “global ethic”, which apparently is financial in philosophy as the panel proceed to list off a cost-benefit analysis of development interventions.

I just want to touch on a few features and then speak more specifically about the education sub-directory in the roadmap.

The X factor

Although the goals are universal, the targets are not all universal. “Almost all targets should be set at the national level or even local level, to account for different starting points and contexts” (p.41). Rather than stating that there should be universal access and completion of pre-primary education, Goal 3(a) states that there should be an “Increase by x% the proportion of children able to access and complete pre-primary education”. According to the panel, they have gone to great lengths not to be prescriptive but to illustrate examples.

Furthermore, indicators will be disaggregated by income, gender, location, age, people living with disabilities and relevant social group. This is landmark. But, it is also a huge ask of the current and future state of data collection, validation, analysing and synthesising capacities of many national governments, both in terms of district, regional and national-level data.


The basic framework for the goals is the old acronym that we all learn: SMART. Specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. They are SMART goals. Or are they? The panel acknowledge the risks of a single agenda, ranging from “unworkably utopian” to “overloaded” to “business as usual”. Despite the acknowledgement, the panel does not satisfactorily address these risks in the report.

Much like the ‘risks and assumptions’ written for a LogFrame, they are just there because they have to be. The panel states that the “best way of managing these risks is to make sure that the post-2015 development agenda includes clear priorities for action that the international community can rally behind” (p.26). This just sounds like business as usual (aka MDGs) and doesn’t actually address the risks identified.

Goal 3

Screen Shot 2013-05-31 at 2.58.02 PM

There are three ideas that standout in the education sub-directory of the roadmap, otherwise known as Goal 3:

  • Pre-primary schooling. After much evidence clearly demonstrating the impact, pre-primary schooling gets a look in. Also known as ‘early childhood education’ or ‘early childhood development (ECD)’, this is a cross-cutting issue of the roadmap and will begin to feature prominently in development initiatives and interventions. However, there is a lot to be learned from the MDGs in regards to ensuring equitable and effective access to schooling. It will be more than a matter of just building pre-primary schools, recruiting teachers and producing textbooks. The inclusion of secondary schooling in this goal was a preordained due to the MDGs focus on primary schooling.
  • Standards. The move towards standards is one already being played out in OECD countries both at the secondary and tertiary levels of education. Here, both B and C look to promote and achieve ‘quality’ by measuring students against standards and outcomes. While it focuses on accountability and measuring students’ performance and learning outcomes, a standards agenda can often come into contest with inclusion-driven agendas.
  • Get a job! In another boost to the life-long learning agenda and concept, D recognises the need for vocational and technical education for ALL, and not just education for children. Also known as vocational and educational training (VET), it has a long, storied and debated history in regards to its role in public education, the national economy and political and educational discourse and agendas. It is often framed around the notion of providing alternative, low-skilled career and workforce pathways to young adults who do not succeed in the traditional education system. Its inclusion here is perhaps in response to rising youth unemployment rates and the lack of alternatives for young people who are unable to ‘succeed’ in the traditional education system.

Within this goal, there are also a number of glaring issues and questions that only academia will probably address, think about and write on. The issues mainly reflect broader and deeper issues of power and Discourse.

  • Who decides what standards and which standards? A few key phrases stand out: “completes primary education able to read, write and count well enough to meet minimum standards”. What constitutes ‘well enough’? Well enough for what, for whom? To do what? Who will decide what the minimum standards are? How will these standards be monitored, appraised and renewed? Will all children be tested against the same standards, regardless of circumstance? Where does creativity, music, art, drama and other non-science subjects fit into the curriculum and standards? How will a standards agenda co-exist with a focus on inclusion?
  • Who decides what skills and which skills? With jobs and skills featuring prominently, it is stated that we need to “Increase the number of young and adult women and men with the skills…needed for work by x%”. What skills are those? Are they the skills needed to work jobs that do not currently exist but will exist in the future economy? Who will decide what skills to address? Are they traditional skills?
  • “regardless of circumstance”. This is a nice, convenient phrase, expressed as a means to addressing (or at least referencing) inequality and inequity. It captures a child in northern Ghana who has a disability, lives with his grandfather in a rural area and is not attending school. It also captures a young girl in northern Vietnam, who was married at the age of 12 and no longer attends school. Or a young refugee from Burma still living in a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border. It is a clumsy phrase and perhaps dismissive of the role circumstance (read: inequality) plays. It is not just a matter of regarding circumstance as regardless. This phrase does not capture inequality and inequity. Remember, it is mostly the political, social, economic and cultural circumstances of children and their families that keep them from accessing, attending and completing schooling. Throw in the broader circumstances at community, national, regional and global levels, and more needs to be said and addressed than just ‘regardless of circumstance’.

There are many things to admire about this report and the roadmap is describes. Its scope. Its ambition. It is just down-right tenacious in the vision it puts forward. At the same time, it raises a lot of questions and does not put to bed many prior concerns with a single, global agenda formed by an elite few. While the panel’s roadmap is not a GPS for ending extreme poverty, it does offer the vision and the conditions for doing so. In effect, it is a street directory, which individuals, communities, organisations and governments can use to find the best path forward towards meeting many of the goals and ending extreme poverty.

Sachs on sustainable development and the ‘SDGs’

Whilst excitement for many is getting to see their favourite Hollywood star in the flesh, you know you’re a development junkie when your equivalent is sitting in a lecture theatre listening to one of the world’s most renowned economists speak on sustainable development.

Though he probably needs no introduction to WhyDev readers, Jeffrey Sachs is special advisor to U.N. Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon, as well as Professor of Sustainable Development and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Most well known for his role in the Millennium Project, he’s now a key player in the post-2015 development agenda, and was in London to promote sustainable development and the ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs).

Screen shot 2013-03-15 at 11.27.51 AM

Sachs emphasised that globalisation has lead to rapid economic growth in developing countries, which has no doubt contributed to successfully meeting three of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and for raised living standards in many parts of the world.

However, this development presents a paradox, as simultaneously, it is also responsible for us fast approaching (if not already exceeding) our planetary boundaries. This collision has the potential to undermine decades of international development efforts and create a raft of new challenges for a sector already struggling to meet it’s strategic objectives.

Sachs believes that the issue of planetary boundaries, the critical limits we must learn to live within, is the most pertinent challenge of our generation. He essentially places much of the blame for our unsustainable habits on the failures of free market economics, which once excluded primary resources from growth models, consistently demonstrates a blind and insensitive attitude towards negative externalities, and has not yet demonstrated that it can deal effectively with issues of global and intergenerational justice.

However, as Sachs pointed out, markets are not alone there: our moral systems, with our evolved psychological biases for those closest to us, and political structures which are designed around short-term gains within sovereign borders, also fail dismally in responding effectively and efficiently to these issues.

So what’s the solution? How can we ensure that our efforts are sustainable? How can we help people understand that environmental protection and development are not mutually exclusive projects? It’s clear that there’s (too) much at stake if these agendas do not converge. As Sachs pointed out “We actually don’t have a choice.”

At Rio+20 last year, governments decided that one of the key steps is to create a set of ‘Sustainable Development Goals’.

Whilst Sachs didn’t go into detail about the SDGs in this public lecture, I’m aware that he’s advocating that these goals be structured around four key pillars:

  • Ending extreme poverty
  • Social inclusion
  • Environmental agenda
  • Governance

Sach’s categories are very similar to those being put forward by a coalition of international development think tanks being led by the International Institute for Environment and Development.

But it’s not clear at this stage whether the SDGs will replace, or sit alongside and complement the MDGs in the post-2015 development agenda. It seems that there’s a number of questions we need to be asking as these goals are developed:

  • What’s missing from the MDGs and the international development policy agenda? For example, resource scarcity, energy access, ecosystem degradation and climate change were all lacunas in the original set of MDGs developed in 2000.
  • Will the goals be global in scope, or confined to developing nations, as the MDGs were?
  • To what extent should reducing inequalities be an explicit goal? This seems like a critical consideration in relation to the development-environment nexus, both in terms of the unequal distribution of the impacts of climate change between developed and developing countries, and also the opportunity for economic growth, which developed countries have already been privileged with.
  • What are the pros and cons of having just one set of integrated goals?
  • Is there scope within the goals to build in the intrinsic value of the environment, and if so, then what weight ought it be given?

I’d be interested to hear WhyDev readers’ views on these questions.

But Sachs’s messages were clear. Unfortunately there’s a ticking clock on this task, and the transformations that need to occur need to occur much quicker. “This isn’t a game… we must take climate predications morally seriously. The ultimate change agent in the world is knowledge, but time is short.”

The full recording of the public lecture can be accessed here.


Goals are good, but do the MDGs need to be simplified?

If the recent US presidential campaign felt more acrimonious and hard-fought than ever before, remember, there’s probably good news for global development. According to the UN, the world has met two critical Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), including halving extreme poverty and doubling access to clean water. Although success is not evenly spread and some of the MDGs will probably not be met, we have considerable reason to celebrate the most significant gains we have seen in our lifetime.

In order to ensure that this progress is equitable and accelerating, our goals for the post-2015 framework must take a different shape. Simplifying the MDGs to just four goals encompassing global well-being, extreme poverty, health and climate change will make the MDGs more memorable and reportable.

Although global well-being may not seem to fit in the context of the MDGs, it makes sense to measure what we’re actually trying to impact by examining the degree to which we’re improving lives. This will require new resources and thought around what is an acceptable measure of well-being, as Bhutan’s interpretation of “Gross National Happiness” illustrates, but these are details that deserve to be debated in the full light of greater research and commentary. Importantly, creating an MDG that aims to raise overall global well-being will not only spur research and aid funding to more accurately assess whether our anti-poverty efforts are achieving this goal, but also receive attention from some who may not otherwise pay attention to global development.

But in this respect, attracting attention to the MDGs, simplifying our broader aims to just four will give us more freedom to make the MDGs a cause to advocate for in and of themselves. Currently, activists advocate for the end of AIDS or the capture of Kony, but few clamour for the achievement of MDG five, if anyone can even name what it actually is (improving maternal health). But by consolidating our aims to a distinct four, MDG progress can be sped along by activists advocating for the end of climate change, for example. Making the MDGs marketable for the purpose of activist involvement isn’t about reaching for inclusion where it doesn’t exist, but finding alternatives to waiting for governments to chip in.

And though I’ve earlier called the MDG gains the most significant of our lifetime, exaggerating successes and drowning in failures is probably an unhelpful trait of development writing. Although it’s wonderful that extreme poverty has been halved since 1990, China’s recent growth has much to do with this, which is largely not a product of humanitarian development dollars. If our post-2015 MDGs are destined to merely measure our overall progress against poverty, then there is nothing wrong with claiming success when we succeed as a result of a factor we didn’t expect. But this isn’t the goal of the MDGs. The MDGs should seek to compel individuals and nations to up their contributions to development. This is only possible if we judge success by the amount we increase our commitments every year—in dollars, contraceptives, bed nets, medicines, and anything that improves lives.

Certainly, this approach will encourage help of all kinds, but it’s crucial that we aren’t misled to believe that charity given regardless of context or need is a victory. The MDGs should not just be a reflection of where we wish to see the world in the near future, but how we should prioritise our spending. For example, the Copenhagen Consensus, an organisation that attempts to gauge which development interventions are the most cost-effective, ranked providing malaria treatment as one of the best ways to save lives and improve health in 2012. Although HIV/AIDS is arguably a more pressing issue than malaria if judged by a simple number of deaths, money spent treating malaria will have a greater impact than treating HIV/AIDS according to their research. Many people are understandably uncomfortable with the premise of determining who lives and dies on the basis of cost-effectiveness, but compassion does not justify ineffective approaches.

While the MDGs may not contain the adrenaline and energy of a costly election, activist engagement may allow us to achieve success where government funding hasn’t. Four MDGs, encompassing most of the interests of the current MDGs, will pull us through every MDG success, every failure and every unsatisfying outcome in between.


Climate Change and migration: what we need to be doing right now

It is scientific fact that human’s emissions of greenhouse gases, together with the destruction of carbon sinks (e.g. forests), are causing changes in our climate. It should therefore should not be a matter of ‘debate’, in the same way that we understand that there is a relationship between smoking and cancer. I find myself perplexed by sections of the general public who still listen to and internalise the views of media and industry personalities who have an ‘opinion’ on Climate Change science, without appropriate qualifications.  I’m extremely concerned by the findings in the latest Lowy Institute Poll which shows a severe decline over the past six years in the number of Australians who think Climate Change is a serious and pressing problem which should be acted on now (down to 36% in 2012 from 68% in 2006 – see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1: Australians views on addressing climate change/global warming: A tracking question that presents Australians with three options for dealing with global warming reveals for the first time that those favouring an intermediate approach to the problem now outnumber Australians favouring the most aggressive form of action. Only a third (36%) of Australians now support the most aggressive form of action, down from two-thirds (68%) back in 2006 who said ‘global warming is a serious and pressing problem. We should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs.’ Source: The Lowy Institute Poll 2012.

The world’s most qualified and experienced climate scientists, like James Hansen, the Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and the most honored climate commentators, such as Bill McKibben, continue to warn us that Climate Change is here, and that it’s worse than expected. Scientific projections have already been exceeded, and we’re hurtling towards a number of irreversible tipping points, with potentially catastrophic consequences for humanity.

The socio-economic impacts of Climate Change are enormous and the implications for human well-being are frightening. However, there’s a stark disconnect between those countries who are causing the problem, and those countries which will be hardest hit. As you can see highlighted in the map below (Figure 2), the countries facing extreme risks under Climate Change scenarios are predominantly poor developing nations in Asia and Africa, whilst those countries facing low risks are predominantly the wealthy developed nations who are largely responsible for anthropogenic Climate Change, through greenhouse gas emissions (Figure 3) and driving the market demands which have lead to forest (carbon sink) loss.

Figure 2: Global Climate Change vulnerability index. Source: Maplecroft 2011


Figure 3: Global Carbon Dioxide Emissions: The following graphs present the total and per capita carbon dioxide emissions for the top 16 countries identified as most vulnerable to climate change in figure 2, the 11 countries identified as least vulnerable to climate change in figure 2, and four important economies and/or emitters (China, Australia, U.K and U.S.A) for comparison. Note that emissions data is only that of carbon dioxide from energy consumption and does not include the emission of carbon dioxide from other sources, or the emissions other greenhouse gases, which have up to 32 000 times more warming potential compared to carbon dioxide. Source: Data generated using data from International Energy Statistics via The Guardian.


Despite James Hansen’s calls earlier this year highlighting Climate Change as a ‘moral issue on par with slavery’, it’s still failed to spark the moral outrage one might expect of it. In an enlightening piece by Markowitz and Sherrif in Nature (but more accessible in article by David Roberts in Grist) the authors explain why it hasn’t, but how it could. Although they point to the abstractness and cognitive complexity of Climate Change as one of the factors, I think that the authors missed a crucial, finer element in their analysis, which is that many of the people who will be hit hardest by Climate Change, still don’t even have a word for ‘Climate Change’ in their languages (such as in Khmer in Cambodia). Maybe the fact that the ‘victims’ do not understand Climate Change, ‘where it’s coming from’ and who’s responsible is key as to why Climate Change has not yet become the moral issue it could.

In these countries, Climate Change will lead to increased frequencies and intensities of drought, flooding, coastal inundation and erosion, storms and other weather-related disasters.  These hazards will have a number of direct and indirect effects on people and communities, including reduced availability of and access to land and natural resources, threatening food and water security, and therefore livelihoods and mortality. Individuals, families and communities will attempt to adapt to changing environmental conditions, but many will be forced to use mobility as a last resort adaptation strategy, leaving their homes in order to survive. This has the potential to trigger conflicts with other communities, as an increasing number of people compete for a decreasing amount of resources. A recent study by UNHCR in the Horn of Africa found that that cross-border movement hardly ever occurs as a direct reaction to climatic stress. However, this is under today’s climate conditions, and we understand future stresses to be of magnitudes never experienced by humans before, which could affect whole countries and regions. However, the report also stated that UNHCR has also observed that environmental considerations are increasingly affecting the movement of refugees and internally displaced persons in the East and Horn of Africa.

The same study found that violent conflicts, and state failure and repression, reduced the capacity of communities exposed to extreme weather events to cope with and adapt to these climate-related hazards, resulting in an increased vulnerability to other more severe political factors, which lead to their forced migration. The interaction between Climate Change and conflict was acknowledged by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in 2007 and awareness of climate change as a threat to issues of peace and national and international security is building. Late last year, the United States Department of Defense released a report on ‘Trends and Implications of Climate Change for National and International Security’.

There is a growing body of empirical evidence on the links between Climate Change and human mobility. Although there are no agreed definitions, academic literature uses terms such as environmental or climate change migration, environmentally induced or forced migration, ecological or environmental refugees, and climate change refugees. The lack of clear definitions relates to two issues:

  1. The difficulty of isolating environmental or climate-related factors from other drivers of migration.
  2. Debate as to whether environmental/climate related migration is forced or voluntary. Many commentators argue that it should be considered along a continuum.

At this point in time, UNHCR has rejected the concept of environmental or climate refugee, stating that the 1951 Refugee Convention protects those escaping from Climate Change-induced events only under specific circumstances which can be interpreted as “persecution” on one of five grounds set out in the Convention. Is it time then, to review this convention? Or develop a new convention to sit alongside it, to ensure that future climate refugees’ human rights are protected and provided for? The inaction of governments on an international scale to address Climate Change could be considered covert global tyranny on already poverty-stricken and vulnerable societies. We have a collective responsibility to protect and aide these people, particularly considering that we are the ones who have caused this issue in the first place.

How many climate refugees there will be in the future is a controversial topic. One of the most cited figures is Oxford University’s Norman Myer’s estimation of 150-200 million extra displaced people due to Climate Change, by 2050.

To understand the magnitude of this figure, the current number of displaced people globally is 42.5 million people – only one-third to one-quarter of Myer’s estimation (Asylum Seeker Resource Centre). This includes:

  • 15.2 million refugees (10.4 million under UNHCR mandate and 4.8 million Palestinians under UNRWA mandate)
  • 895, 285 asylum seekers
  • 26.4 million internally displaced persons

Two of the most important questions regarding future climate refugees are:

  1. Where will they go?
  2. Who will pay?

Perhaps those responsible for creating the problems (ie. Climate Change) that result in the ‘forced’ displacement of people from their homes should either provide relocation for these people within their own countries, and/or finance the costs associated with Climate Change adaptation (including internal relocation) and disaster relief and restoration?

How would the number of refugees required to be accepted, or the amount of funding to be provided, be determined? Perhaps it could be determined via calculations of historical/cumulative greenhouse gas emissions, as this measure indicates the extent of individuals and society’s collective responsibility for Climate Change and the hazards it causes. It is also indicative of the quality of life citizens have been ‘lucky enough’ to have enjoyed for so long, despite it being at the expense of other people’s (future) quality of life. This would be a fair approach, and perhaps one not too unlikely to be advocated for under international law by those affected?

I often wonder whether Climate Change could one day lead to developing countries filing a negligence case (or equivalent) against developed countries? Because developed countries are currently not exercising reasonable care or taking into account the potential harm they are foreseeably causing to other people. Victims would be able to prove:

  1. That greenhouse gas emissions released by human activity caused accelerated global climate change far above and beyond the ‘natural’ background changes;
  2. That governments had known that greenhouse gases caused human-induced global climate change since the mid-late 1800s. The United Nations held its first conference on Climate Change in 1979;
  3. That these governments were aware of the potential impacts of human-induced global Climate Change since at least 1979, with scientific projections becoming more refined over time;
  4. That these governments had consciously chosen not to take appropriate action to avoid or mitigate Climate Change and its impacts, through not ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, for example;
  5. That citizens of these countries had been responsible for emitting ‘X’ amount of greenhouse gases.

Despite calculations of statistics regarding climate refugees being problematic, and international frameworks for climate refugees not yet being in existence, it would be wise for the world to plan on dealing with a sizable increase in the number of refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons and stateless people in the future, with more people affected the more the climate, and consequentially the environment which underpins societies and economies, changes.

With this in mind, it would be in everyone’s best interests to take action on climate change now, to avoid or reduce the future social, economic and ecological costs associated with it, in both developing and developed countries.

It is also essential that governments improve policies and processes in relation to refugees and asylum seekers now, as these systems will undoubtedly be handling much higher numbers of people and therefore be under much more pressure, within coming decades.

I also hope, that the UNHCR and related organisations continue to explore and clarify terminology around this topic, and make progress on putting in place frameworks to ensure appropriate protection and assistance is provided to ‘climate change refugees’ in the future. Doing so may also have the benefit of driving greater efforts on the climate change mitigation and adaptation fronts, which will act to delay and/or reduce the scale of climate-related impacts on communities, and in some cases will help avoid their forced migration.


Celebrating 200 posts: our favourite WhyDev posts of the past year

It seems we at WhyDev have established a tradition of missing our birthday. In May, we hit two years of running the blog, but we completely forgot about it, and honestly it seems a bit awkward to celebrate now. We’re sort of hoping the blog has completely forgotten about the whole thing, and suspect she might be offended if we sheepishly offer a birthday card and some wilted flowers at this point, three months late.

So rather than recognising our second birthday, we’re going to pretend it never happened, and instead celebrate our 200th post here at WhyDev. Two hundred posts is an exciting milestone, all the more when you consider we’ve had over 50 different people from all around the world contribute to this number. We’ve also had over 1000 people comment on our site, and we’re only scratching the surface. Our hopes of fostering collaboration and discussion around aid and development are increasingly being fulfilled.

To celebrate, I asked for the afternoon off but was told I only get time off when I’ve personally written 200 posts. So instead, Brendan, Weh and I picked some of our favourite posts from the last year or so. This was by no means an easy task, as there have been so many good pieces written over the past year.

Thanks to everyone who has contributed to such an array of interesting and thoughtful posts and discussions here at WhyDev, and here’s to the next 200 posts!


Brendan’s three picks:

Is “sustainable development” an oxymoron? by Erin Nash

In the first of a three-part series delivered by Erin for WhyDev, she takes on the concept of “sustainable development” with dexterity and ease. Any talk about sustainable development will involves ethics, politics, philosophy, economics, environment, life, the universe and everything. It is complex, and the answer is not “42.” But, Erin manages to keep it simple and communicate the issues, all while presenting hard-hitting facts and colourful infographics.

Don’t change the message. Change the messenger. by Weh Yeoh

Weh has single-handedly expanded WhyDev’s presence in Cambodia since he moved there earlier this year, and his impact can be seen in the number of business cards handed out. Even more impressive, is this evidence-based post that suggests we need to shift who advocates on human rights and development issues. It is not so much the message that is important, but who is delivering it. Too bad no one told Weh before he delivered this thought-provoking post.

Aid Blogging: A Cautionary Tale in Charts by Aaron Ausland

To lighten the mood, and put blogging and social media in perspective, Aaron Ausland presents nine charts exploring the impact of those like himself. His findings may shock you, but do not be alarmed. It also provides a clear path for those who want to make more of an impact in the blogging and social media space of aid and development.


Weh’s three picks:

The problem of donating to disaster relief efforts (and how NGOs can start to solve it) by Allison Smith

In her seminal piece for WhyDev, and before realising the extent of slings and arrows that joining the team would entail, Allison wrote a cracking piece that caught the eye of many of us, including Brendan and myself. Allison managed to get on the radio and also joined us as our Communications Manager, partially due to this piece! Dreams can come true, it seems. For us.

The archaeology of my professional identity in development by Brendan Rigby

Brendan has written a lot of great posts over the past two and a bit years, ranging from the incredibly practical, to the phenomenally popular, to the extraordinarily pointless. Each and every one of them has been enjoyable and worth the time. But this post was something different. Brendan revealed something inside of himself which most would dare not do. He is Batman.

What makes an effective non-profit? by Akhila Kolisetty

I learn something new every time I read a piece by Akhila, and she is perhaps my favourite young writer out there. She has a uncanny knack of cutting through to the heart of the issue without the BS that often goes with it. So much so that when I read her work, I often think to myself “well yeah – that was obvious.” Except often it’s not, and often I’d never thought about it in that way. This piece is no exception.


Allison’s three picks:

So what if 90% of money donated goes to the program? by Weh Yeoh

If you’ve worked in development for longer than five minutes, you know the incredible pressure to keep overhead costs low. In this post, Weh discusses how this fixation with overhead costs is bad for development, and how individuals and NGOs can work to dispel the myth that low overheads = good development. Critical reading for anyone who works for an NGO or who has ever given to one.

Top Five Aid Myths Busted by Archie Law

Ever had a nice family meal descend into a screaming match when the ethics or effectiveness of aid has been questioned? Spare your vocal cords the pain and print out a copy of Archie’s post to distribute at your next family get-together.

International Volunteerism: who benefits most? by Michaela Brown

I know many people who have done short-term international volunteer trips. I know few who have examined their motives and impact the way Michaela does in this post. The discussion in the comments is also worth your time.


What are your top WhyDev posts? What are your top aid and development blog posts in general?

What are some topics you’d like to see WhyDev tackle in its next 200 posts?


The paradigm shift that needs to be made for sustainable development – who needs to make it?

This past week, I’ve been delayed in writing the next blog in this series as I was distracted making a personal paradigm shift, which required me to open up my mind and think about the world in a completely different way, and to challenge and change the way that I defined my personal success in life. I found this incredibly hard to do, but also liberating and enlightening at the same time. It also made me realise how many of the indicators of success and goals I’d previously made for myself in life were based on (most likely subconsciously) the status quo and what I was ‘told’ I was meant to do in my life…by family, friends, media, politicians, and society at large, without it necessarily coming entirely from ‘within’ me, or being based on anything to do with a rational ‘good’ for the world.

I couldn’t help but draw parallels in this moment in my personal life and development in the week leading up to Rio+20, with the ‘moment’ in the world’s evolution that will be provided by this conference, and the paradigm shift that needs to be made there, in order to change our current trajectory, develop sustainably, and increase human well-being.

So, a global paradigm shift – who needs to make it?

The first thing I realised is because the macro-level (eg. international delegations, governments at all scales, etc.) is made up of collective micro-level components (eg. communities, families, individual people), and because these micro-level components are influenced by the macro-level, this paradigm shift needs to occur simultaneously at all scales, through a combination of top-down and bottom-up action.

Beyond an economic, social or environmental issue, sustainable development is an ethical issue. And an interdependent world requires global ethics. I often reflect on the distressing irony that here, in the Greater Mekong region, peoples’ lives are – and will be – hardest hit by the consequences of environmental degradation and climate change, despite having had limited contributions to creating these problems. The World Bank ranks Vietnam as the second, fourth, and 10th most vulnerable country in the world to sea-level rise, storms and flooding respectively. Cambodia, Laos and Thailand are fourth, sixth and ninth most vulnerable countries to flooding, under climate change. However, with human development indices of 139 and 138, gross national income per capita annually of $1848 and $2242, and carbon emissions of 0.02% and 0.01% of total global carbon dioxide emissions, respectively, citizens of countries like Cambodia and Laos hardly created these issues for themselves.

Human rights, the “inalienable fundamental rights to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being”, are recognised by the majority of countries, and are conceived as universal (applicable everywhere) and non-discriminatory (the same for everyone).

However, the effective enjoyment and implementation of human rights and fundamental freedoms are inseparable from the assumption of duties and responsibilities inherent in those rights. To be the citizen of a community is not to claim rights from it without having any responsibility to it, and conversely, neither is it to be required to assume responsibilities (e.g. by paying taxes) without having rights in return.

Yes, it is your ‘right’ to use electricity sourced from coal-fired power stations, but it is your responsibility to ensure that it does no ‘net’ damage to any other person or life-sustaining form. Yes, it is your ‘right’ to live in a large house and commute an hour and a half into work in your four-wheel drive, alone, but it is your responsibility to ‘offset’ the externalities of these possessions and activities, and if it is not able to be physically ‘offset’, or there’s a net disadvantage to society, then I think we need to think about whether allowing it altogether is ‘right’.

When we will need two Earths to sustain life in 2030, as outlined in my last post, it is clear that indefinite pursuit of current lifestyles and development, together with a trend to limit one’s responsibilities, is incompatible with harmony amongst societies, with preservation of the integrity of the planet, and with safekeeping the interests of future generations.

Rio+20 is the perfect, if not critical, opportunity to redefine the way we think about what it is to live, and what the evolution and progression of humanity we should be striving for involves, what ‘success’ looks like, and to acknowledge that it is illogical, unethical, and selfish to continue along the path we have been. The current path has done wonders for humanity in many ways…but the current trajectory will not (can not) lead to any of us further prospering. We need to personally accept our responsibility to the Earth and others, and we need our leaders, who represent us collectively on macro scales, to accept collective responsibility on our behalf. If I am able to achieve such a huge change in the way I think, feel and act on an individual level, then I believe the world can do this on a global scale too.

I am, as you all are, a tiny portion of the solution and have a big responsibility to do my part (unless your name is Julia Gillard, David Cameron, or Barack Obama, for example…then you may be a bigger part of the solution, and have a bigger responsibility to do your part!).

The thing that makes us human is self-reflective awareness, which gives us the ability to feel emotion, the essence of life – let’s not stumble backwards into the relatively primitive consciousness of the algae we evolved from.

But, even if we are ready to make changes in our lives, we need to be enabled and incentivised to. Tomorrow, I will blog about how this ‘paradigm shift’ may be implemented in a practical sense, through a ‘green economy’.


Is “sustainable development” an oxymoron?

[Ed. note: Leading up to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, we will be featuring a series of three posts on sustainable development. This first one examines whether the term “sustainable development” is a contradiction.]

On June 20, 180 world leaders and 50,000 people from the development and environment sectors will arrive in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to participate in what is expected to be the largest conference in world history – the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, better known as “Rio+20.”

In the lead-up to this conference, I couldn’t help but wonder – is “sustainable development” an oxymoron?

A term coined in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development, “sustainable development” is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It is the simultaneous pursuit of the inter-related goals of ecological integrity, social equity, and economic welfare. It recognizes that all life is underpinned by the goods and services provided by nature, and acknowledges the moral obligation of contemporary society to the well-being of both present and future populations.

This is important as environment degradation prevents poverty reduction. As stated in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, “The degradation of ecosystem services is harming many of the world’s poorest people and is sometimes the principal factor causing poverty.” Their survival is impacted by the poor management of the natural resources they depend upon, with use out-stripping supply, trapping them in endless cycles of poverty. If ecosystems and their services continue to be degraded, it will be impossible to find a path to long-term poverty reduction.

At Rio+20, the goal will be to secure political commitment to global sustainable development…once again. In 1992 Rio de Janeiro also hosted the “Earth Summit,” where sustainable development was first identified as a top priority on the agenda of the United Nations and the international community. It concluded with 172 signatories to a number of important documents including the Rio Declaration for Environment and Development, containing 27 principals intended to guide future sustainable development, and Agenda 21, the comprehensive blueprint of action to be taken by the UN, governments, and major groups in the 21st century. It also resulted in the opening of two legally binding international agreements – the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Framework Convention on Climate Change, which eventually lead to the Kyoto Protocol. The Earth Summit set a precedent and an agenda.

But 20 years later, our environment is getting worse, not better, as highlighted in the table below. Alarmingly, many of these changes have accelerated in the past two decades, despite the abundance of international conventions signed during this time.

Over the same 20-year period, this environmental degradation has coincided with a period of sustained progress across a range of measures of human development. Over the two decades to 2010, world gross domestic product (GDP) rose by 300%, with incomes rising faster than populations, shown by a 222% increase in GDP per capita[i]. Improvements in life expectancy, school enrolment, literacy and income are all reflected within an 18% increase in the world’s average Human Development Index (HDI) since 1990[ii].

While rising inequalities and pockets of entrenched poverty continue to consume development efforts, there is no doubt that average material human wellbeing is better than ever before.

Figure 1 below illustrates humans’ interaction with Earth’s natural capital, and how three causal factors – population, consumption, and resource (in)efficiency – are driving the degradation of the “hand that feeds them”… something my parents taught me to never bite.

Figure 1: Linking biodiversity, ecosystems services and people – the causal factors, drivers, and direct pressures contributing to the degradation of global biodiversity and the ecosystems services provided by it. Source: WWF Living Planet Report 2012.

The latest Living Planet Report estimates that since 1996, the global demand for natural resources has doubled. It now takes 1.5 years to regenerate the renewable resources used in one year by humans. This means that we are eating into our natural capital, instead of living off its interest, and therefore creating ecological debt. Humanity’s demands are greater than our planet’s ability to sustain us. We are asking for more than we have.

Figure 2: Global Ecological Footprint by component, 1961 – 2008. Source: WWF Living Planet Report 2012.

Measuring “Ecological Footprint’” tracks humanity’s demands on the biosphere by comparing humanity’s consumption against Earth’s regenerative capacity (biocapacity). Astoundingly, on average, the footprint of high-income countries is five times greater than that of low-income countries. If everybody on Earth lived like an average Indonesian, only two-thirds of the planet’s biocapacity would be utilised, while if everyone lived like an average person from the U.S.A, not less than four Earths would be required to regener­ate humanity’s annual demand on nature! Modest UN scenarios estimate that by 2030 we will need the equivalent of two Earths to support us if current population and resource consumption trends persist. Obviously, we only have one.

Figure 2 shows the growth of the world’s average Ecological Footprint over time. As you can see, the dominant component of Ecological Footprint is carbon emissions, which accounts for 55% of the footprint.

Figure 3 outlines Ecological Footprint by region, and the growth in population as well as per capita footprint in each region between 1961 and 2008. It also highlights the almost halving of the biocapacity available to each person over the same period. So despite less resources being available to us, we are consuming more.

Figure 3: Ecological Footprint by region, 1961-2008, highlighting the change in average footprint per person and population change. Biocapacity represented by horizontal bar. Source: WWF Living Planet Report 2012.

Is “sustainable development” an oxymoron then? Are we able to increase human wellbeing and quality of life, without using more resources than the Earth can produce for us?

Or is “sustainable development” actually about having more fulfilling development– an opportunity to ask ourselves what true prosperity and fulfillment really is, and to redefine the way we think about what it is to live, and what the evolution and progression of humanity we should be striving for involves?

Science points to the tipping points we are fast approaching. I believe Rio+20 will be a critical moment in history where the fate of everyone, present and future, will be determined, for better or for worse.

But I believe humanity possesses the collective intelligence and resourcefulness needed to solve the problems it faces and move forward sustainably, whilst also alleviating poverty. I will investigate ways in which this can be achieved through the prism of a “green economy” in my next post.

Additionally, as sustainable development is essentially an issue of global ethics, I will also explore the question of responsibility and institutional frameworks for sustainable development on macro- and micro-scales, in a third post in this series.


The author wishes to acknowledge and thank Kate Glazebrook for her words and ideas in relation to the human development aspects of this post.


[i] Data generated through use of World Bank Databank, 2012.

Africans Feeding Africa: using social enterprise for success

Women Deliver recently came out with their annual “Women Deliver 50” list of inspiring ideas and solutions put forward by women and girls. The women and groups celebrated in the list cover a broad range of topics and programs, from midwives in Ethiopia to advocating for women’s voices in Libya.

One that sparked my interest was “Africans feeding Africa” by Backpack Farm, which is a social enterprise that hosts trainings for small-scale farmers in East Africa and sells them green agriculture technologies and supplies– all in a backpack.

I caught the founder, Rachel Zedeck, in the middle of the busy planting season in Kenya, but she managed to spare some time to tell me about their program and some of the challenges in pursuing the social enterprise model.

Tanya Cothran: Where does your funding come from? What drew you to the commercial model as opposed to the donor-funded aid model?

Rachel Zedek: I used my life savings to build the company, which is a registered LTD (limited company) in Kenya. In retrospect I think I was naïve. A hybrid NGO/for-profit model would have been best in the early days to help strengthen our operations with access to more grant funding. Now, more commercial capital is moving into the market but still not as much as you would think. Finance continues to be our biggest challenge to scaling our operations. Just five years ago, no one believed in for-profit for smallholder farmers. Now they have been included in the Davos and G20 agenda so I am hopeful this will help attract new agriculture investors into Kenya and the wider East Africa Community.

TC: Your focus is assisting smallholder farmers. What does this term mean and how about many smallholder farmers are there in Kenya?

Geoffry is a Backpack Farm Agronomist at the Eldoret farm.

RZ: We differentiate between a smallholder who has 2-5 acres of land and earns their primary income from farming versus a “last mile” or subsistence farmer who typically has less than ½ acre of land and lives in a semi-arid region with little or no access to water. It is infeasible for the majority of subsistence farmers to move above the poverty line through horticulture farming.  What’s more exciting is that 80% of the region’s food is produced by women. While we aren’t gender biased, we do work with a lot of women.

There are approximately 27 million smallholder farmers in Kenya (76% of the population work in rural agriculture). I and others estimate that approximately 21 million are truly smallholder with the remaining 6 million being subsistence farmers who are also pastoralist, such as the Maasai, Turkana, Borana, ethnic Somalis, Pokot, and other tribes.  They love cattle and goats and have limited desire to farm.

TC: How much do the backpacks cost? How do they reach your customers?

RZ: Backpack materials cost anywhere from $10 (for refill of products) to more than $2,000 USD for a full acre of inputs. This is 1/7 the cost of other commercial inputs. More than 75% of that cost is for the drip irrigation and water tank. This may seem like a large investment but on its own, irrigation can double or triple crop yields. If I had my choice, I would want every smallholder farmer to have access to a drip irrigation kit. The refill packs for each new planting season include seeds and cutting edge biological & botanical inputs enhancing soil nutrition (fertilizers), and crop protection.

These products are distributed through a network of franchise training and distribution centers. If the customers only want to attend training then they pay 20 KES (less than $0.25 cents) but they aren’t required to buy any inputs.

TC: How are your product and trainings marketed in Africa?

RZ: We are primarily leveraging local agriculture shows and our own farmer field days. Right now, we are shopping for finance, and so not able to invest in big marketing campaigns.  In the future, we plan to use more print and radio ads and our mobile tool to target specific regions with SMS campaigns.

Our website media is primarily used to attract franchise partners, investors and donor partners who want to leverage our technical program.

TC: Do you find that many people already know about some aspects of sustainable agriculture when they come to the trainings?

RZ: Yes, farmers do have a lot of local knowledge as well as bits from other NGO programs or national campaigns. The issue is not the desire to learn but a complete understanding of why they should be committed to implementing the techniques. We offer 47+ classes, covering a range of topics, with the biggest impact in water and soil fertility. In the last 10 years, we have suffered from eight years of drought or late and short rains. Better water management is critical to accomplishing regional food security.

So many NGO programs have popped up over the last 20 years. In fact, it has been a huge stumbling block for us. So many communities are indoctrinated with “free.” This is one reason we charge for our classes. When we launched free training, no one would come. We learned that free has no value.

Now we are asking farmers to invest in their own success through training or new farming technologies like drip irrigation. When you make an investment, you demonstrate the determination to see the return on investment. By giving them access to a demonstration farm, they can see the long term benefits of both the training and technologies. Farming is all about patience. At least with drip irrigation, we can show them a pretty immediate impact in their use of water (which is a cost input) and how well their seeds germinate. The longer-term impact comes from the strength of the plant as well as how much and what quality it produces at harvest.

TC: Is there any help for selling their crops, in addition to growing them?

RZ: Currently, we do not link farmers to a specific market but wholesalers are welcome to attend a farmer field day and meet farmers. In the future, farmers will be able to link to buyers through our mobile training tool, “KUZA Doctor.”

TC: If you received a large donation or investment today, how would you use it? How would you grow/expand/improve?

RZ: Ahhhh…the magic question of money. If we raised the investment we need today, I would do the following:

  1. Hire four new staff including a new Director of Operations
  2. Buy new equipment including two new cars and four computers
  3. Move into a new office with space for a demonstration garden in the middle of Nairobi. It’s amazing how many city dwellers are secret weekend farmers.
  4. Build a minimum of five new franchise farms. Build it and they will come – making it much easier for us to find partners in key agriculture regions like Meru and Nanyuki.
  5. Plan a marketing campaign for the upcoming planting season. If all goes well, the short rains will arrive in October and November.

Visit Backpack Farm’s website to learn more.

Resetting, not offsetting, for post growth futures

By Janet Newbury, Sharon Ede and Joshua Nelson

As members of the Post Growth Institute, we have been having some animated conversations regarding the topic of carbon offsetting (aka ‘carbon neutrality’).

On the one hand, we aim to be as transparent as possible about our successes and shortcomings when it comes to our own consumption patterns.  Some individuals and organizations are using the calculation and offsetting of carbon usage as a way of doing that.

On the other hand, we see offsetting as deeply nested within the growth model.  As such, not only do some of us believe the popularity of offsetting will not bring us closer to post growth realities – there seems to be plenty of evidence so far that it will in fact move us farther from them.

Before getting into the details, how about a few stories?

Image credit: kumaravel

Once upon a time …

  1. … there was a guy who was becoming increasingly conscious of his impact on the world that sustains him.  He began to think more deeply about the things he does that damage the delicate balances required for that world to thrive.  He started riding his bike to work.  He chose to holiday closer to home.  He enjoyed growing and preparing local food.  One day, his friend invited him to go on a back-country adventure in a 4×4.  He thought about it, and asked some very deliberate questions about how much fuel might be consumed on such a trip.  He decided to look into ways to offset it, so that he could enjoy the 4×4 trip, knowing he was simultaneously contributing to a good cause.
  2. … there was a vending company that  supplied schools all across the country with sugar- and chemical-laden beverages that come in single use containers.  This company decided to become ‘carbon neutral’ as an innovative way to market itself.  Brilliant!  From that point forward, all of the delivery trucks could proudly display signs that this was a ‘socially responsible’ company.  Business flourished, and all the kids in all the schools still got their sugary drinks.
  3. … there was a transport company, one of the largest in the land, which wanted to be a good role model for other ‘corporate citizens’.  Along came BP’s Global Choice fuel emissions offsetting scheme, and the opportunity just seemed perfect.  Once the transport company signed up for the challenge, its managing director publicly exclaimed: “The more kilometers we travel, the more we help Australia’s environment.”

What does offsetting actually do?

The most common understanding of the answer to this question goes something like this: By purchasing carbon credits, we are investing in activities (such as the planting of trees or adding of renewable energy instead of carbon-energy) which restore the balance of the ecosystem by facilitating the reintegration of the carbon that has been used in the burning of fossil fuels or by removing carbon-emitting that would have be placed without the offset.  So, for instance, if I take a flight (which burns fossil fuels) I can buy carbon credits (which contribute to the planting of trees) to negate the damage that otherwise would have taken place because of my flight.

However, that’s not actually how it works.

We are, in fact, dealing with two carbon pools: the active carbon pool (which moves among forests, atmosphere, and oceans, and rarely increases or decreases), and the fossil carbon pool (which is locked away in coal, oil, and gas deposits – until extracted, that is).  When fossil fuels are used, carbon is being irreversibly shifted from the fossil to the active carbon pool.

Trees don’t store carbon in the lock-tight manner of the fossil carbon pool: forest fires, timber harvesting, disease, decay, and other processes keep this carbon active. And planting trees is not a benign activity either – not at this rate.  The demand that is now emerging for large-scale tree plantations is being resisted by many who are most effected by the trend.  Indigenous peoples and other communities that rely on forests in areas where these plantations are being developed are facing loss of land, and increased violence and disputes.

Similarly, the ocean, which also acts as carbon sink, can only absorb so much before its ability to keep absorbing increasing amounts of CO2 diminishes. Offset or not, the use of fossil fuels permanently adds otherwise inert carbon into the active pool. To further complicate the issue, the warming-climate fuelled melting of permafrost and release of previously locked up carbon will release yet more significant amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, creating a vicious circle.

Add to this fact the likelihood, as demonstrated in the three stories above, that carbon offsetting may actually increase the consumption of fossil fuels, and it becomes clear that rather than being a solution, offsetting is a potential contributor to climate change as well. Take, for example, the fact that several large airlines are now making claims of carbon neutrality, and promoting themselves on that basis. Our carbon emissions continue to raise with increasing speed, regardless of efforts in offsetting.

It is often the communities that are most reliant on the land which are the first to experience the devastating effects of climate change. If these communities suffer from the loss of land that comes with tree plantations used for offsetting and from the emissions that come with the still increasing levels of consumption of fossil fuels, then that means these communities are doubly impacted (while others profit from it, often none the wiser to the reality).

We must also pay attention to the phenomenon that has become known as Jevon’s Paradox: History has shown us that with each technological advance that improves efficiency, consumptions rates have actually increased, not decreased, over time.  From wood, to coal, to fossil fuels, this has proven to be the case.  So for us to suddenly believe that a technological fix such as carbon offsetting will solve the issue of consumption (carbon or otherwise) once and for all, we may be naively turning a blind eye to a fairly predictable truth about ourselves.  And as the stories above indicate, increased consumption on the basis of offsetting is certainly not out of the realm of possibility.

The familiar language – and practices – of reduction

Of course, we don’t need much imagination to think outside the box of offsetting.  Rather than asking how we can offset what we consume, we can go back to the tried and true practices of reducing our consumption and emissions, and eliminating what we can.

On a systemic level there are some really easy wins if there is the will to pursue them.  For example, what if we no longer permitted or facilitated boomerang trade: the exporting and importing of like goods?

Imagine if this were not longer happening:

  • 5,000 tons of toilet paper exported from the UK to Germany, but then the UK imports over 4,000 tons back again from Germany
  • 22,000 tons of potatoes imported from Egypt to UK and then the UK exports 27,000 tons back to Egypt
  • 4,400 tons of ice cream gets exported from the UK to Italy, and 4,200 tons is then imported back
  • 116 tons of ‘sweet biscuits, waffles and wafers, gingerbread and the like’ goes into the UK, rumbling past 106 tons headed in the opposite direction

And what about altering the food production and distribution processes that contribute to the hideous waste of food that is an accepted feature of globalisation?  Or doing away with the rise in disposable plastic products in the name of efficiency and convenience?

These shifts do not require complicated systems of design and distribution, or new technologies yet to be discovered.  They simply require political will which is at the moment directed elsewhere, because of our collective obsession with growth and the belief that it is worth the damages caused by these and other practices.

On a personal level, we can also make deliberate choices about what carbon usage is responsible, and what we might be better off doing without.  Sounds easy, right?

It’s not.

This means, of course, that we can’t appease our guilt by offsetting on Sunday morning and consuming again for the rest of the week.  It means we will all face charges of hypocrisy while we fumble towards more gentle ways of living.  And it means being gentle with ourselves and each other as well, knowing that we live in the very conditions we are striving to transcend, and we are all going about it imperfectly.

But with that in mind, it means we can start from wherever we are.  We don’t need a mathematical formula in order to participate in this collective transition.  We just need to try, share our mistakes and successes, and support one another along the way.

This is a cross-post from the Post Growth Institute Blog.