Monday, March 29, 2010

Will the UK increase Overseas Development Assistance?

There's a bill in parliament to increase ODA. The next government will determine the bill's success. But DfID faces more challenges than convincing the UK government to keep to their old unfulfilled promises.

In the UK, election season is swinging into high gear, and many government projects are wondering if they are going to survive - whomever wins the election. Overseas Development Assistance (ODA), generally carried out through the Department for International Development (DFID) is no exception. This week, the International Development Select Committee, which oversees DFID in Parliament, recommended that whomever wins the election should increase international development assistance to 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) to support development efforts in 2013 and each following year.

Back in 2004, the UK government agreed to make the now-famous 0.7% of GNI. This year, they will commit 0.57% of the budget. The government has never made 0.7%. Indeed, the government took 11 years to increase their budget .17%. We're not talking about big percentiles - but increasing the aid budget, regardless of the commitments and the rhetoric, seems to be difficult regardless of who is prime minister. So there is a bill on the table to increase ODA to 0.7% - in other words, to keep their promises. But the bill has a pretty large loop hole: it allows the government to renege on their comittment for 'economic, fiscal or external circumstances'. Given the current climate, that's pretty much the same thing as saying that they don't really have to do anything. It would mean that once again, the UK government is making a promise it won't actually live up to - hardly the first time in the field of sustainable development. The Select Committee discouraged this - not too surprising, given that it is the Overseas Development Committee - they are likely to push their 'select' concern.

Of course, even if the bill passes - and even if, by some small miracle, it is done well, and Parliament makes the right decision and takes out that loophole big enough for any government to waltz right through it without even being singed on the edges of their fancy coats, larger questions loom. Does DfID have the capacity to work effectively in increasingly insecure and challenging environments, from Afghanistan to Somalia? How are they going to work with complex emerging actors such as China, or work with internal actors such as the State department, who is increasingly getting involved with 'development issues'? And in times of economic struggle, how are they going to get that much-sought-after 'value for money'? And of great importance, how are they going to work on sustainable development - promoting it and re-imagining it in the context of constrained resources, climate change, the need for low-carbon growth, and the renewed power of actors such as the World Bank who don't exactly have a clean environmental record (though they are making some strides in improving it)?

It's a challenging time for DfID. It's hard to know if their prospects are better with a labor or conservative government - either party might cut, not increase, ODA. Personally, I feel efficiency for sustainable development - which we are still learning how to do, and thus will make many mistakes in learning how to do it well - is one of the greatest challenges, and one of the greatest opportunities. To do it well, DfID can't work alone. Of course, they never have. But maybe one of the solutions to their problems is one of the ones they haven't yet learned to use - the British public. Can social media contribute to DfID's work towards sustainable development? DfID's Canadian counterpart, CIDA, has made efforts to have greater Canadian public engagement in their work and have found it quite challenging. Not too surprising - as corporations and others who try to make use of public engagement have found, its rarely an easy or quick process. But I suspect that greater engagement, not less, is key for DfID, both at home and abroad.

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Monday, March 22, 2010

From Control to Engagement - Not an easy transition, but an important one

There is a general agreement: to engage with the public for sustainable development in a socially-networked world, companies need to actually engage. I know, I know, that is just oh-so-brilliant. But again and again, companies try to control their messaging and their communications. I've met a lot of ex-corporate communication managers who left because it was, well, boring. These days, both internal and external communications need to move up the spectrum of public engagement - towards engagement (and not just 'talking down' to the public'. I've no doubt that it will, eventually, happen.

There are ways to 'help' organisations become more engaged - the same ways one goes about any organisational change. Register what isn't working and why it isn't working. Create a vision for what the company works. Put in place structural management processes, and the necessary evaluations and assessments to measure the halting journey towards better business. That will help lead to sustainable development.

Certainly social media can be about transforming the business model. Reuters Market Lite in India is a fascinating example of this. They've devised a new sector: the micro information sector, connecting farmers in India with the market - especially national and global food prices through the use of mobile phones. This has tremendous impact - including return on investment for customers that can increase as much as 1000 times. This innovation-centered, customer-orientated, sustainable business model has gotten huge attention from international media; especially for and from emerging markets. Over two years, they have 200,000 customers, and are keeping as close to their customer base as possible. At the moment, it is mostly a one-way communication and they are thinking about how to go down that route.

Photo credit: Aesthetics of Joy

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Monday, March 15, 2010

Where's the Crisis? Ask the Young Women

There's been a lot of talk of the financial crisis. Recently, there has been talk of it lessening - even being over. For those looking at international development, East Asia and other countries have been held up better than anyone - including them - predicted. Despite comforting noises from the financial services, development organisations of all stripes are warning the global public that poor and vulnerable people the world over have just begun to feel the effects of the financial crisis. And around the world, it is the women who are feeling it most.

Why the women? Because women - especially poor women - are more likely to take care of things when things fall apart. Social networks, especially the family, takes up the challenges of supporting one another. Older women play a significant role in keeping the women together. They care for the elderly and the children. They are more likely to a be in the informal sector, which has been strongly effected by the crisis. Many already work several 'jobs', and when you are poor and working in the informal sector and work dries up, where are you going to go? Many must turn to prostitution to feed their families. As for the 'young' part - at least in many countries, especially in south east asia, young people have been hit harder than older people.

Oxfam recently asked women what they wanted. They wanted school children to have free books, low interest loans for poor people, social security for children which would reduce medical bills, and, when factories got shut down, workers would get some compensation so they were not suddenly left with nothing. These all come under the loose but vital category of social protection.

The age has come for social protection in all countries. But despite the evidence for this, it is questionable if the political will is there.

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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Greenwashing on the high seas: WHY?

Wally, a “brokerage and charter service of sail and power boats in futuristic design” has partnered with Hermes, a design company famous for its luxury products, to create the WHY – Wally Hermes Yacht – which debuted last month at the Abu Dhabi Yachts Show and has been touted for its green features.

Really? A Green Yacht?

Okay, let’s start with the specs. The WHY is 58 m long and 38 m wide, with 3,400 square meters [roughly 36,600 square feet] of “guest surface area” spread over its three levels. [One for living space, outdoor deck, spa, dining room, music room and cinema; one for guest suites, lounge area, and library; and the third reserved as the owner’s private space.] Designed to accommodate 12 guests and 20 crew members, it affords roughly 280 square meters [or 3,014 square feet] per guest. Just for comparison, according to the National Association of Home Builders, the average size for a one-family home in the United States is 2,330 square feet [216 square meters]. And we Americans are not known for living in tight spaces. The WHY also offers three different sky-lit patios, a 25 m swimming pool with “thermoregulated” water, and a helipad -- for transportation convenience.

It’s “green” features include the following: “ultra-low consumption” LED lighting and air-conditioning systems, wind turbines and 900 square meters of thermophotovoltaic panels -- which reportedly power the boat’s auxiliary systems -- and an aerodynamic hull designed to decrease energy needs by cutting wind resistance. There is also a computerized energy management system that regulates the use of the vessel’s renewable energy and supplementary diesel fuel.

The green stats listed on the WHY website include the annual fuel savings [160,000 litres or 200 tons. A 200 TON savings?!] and the “lost thermal energy recovered” [1,500 kWh/day], but make no mention of the total diesel fuel costs, the energy consumed in the production of 900 square meters of pvs, the total carbon costs of the project, or an explanation of how anyone could possibly need [or justify the purchase of] a 3,400 square meter yacht.

Luca Bassani Antivari, President and CEO of Wally, writes: “This revolutionary concept of the moving island is developed with the latest and most advanced sustainable technologies … the architecture of the whole project fits perfectly in the environment – there are no excesses, nothing is superfluous, the impact on the sea is minimum.”

I didn’t make that up; he really claims that “there are no excesses” and “nothing is superfluous.”

WHY is a beautiful piece of engineering; its sleak, steamlined design is gorgeous, its luxury features are breath taking, and it certainly looks like an amazing place to spend a vacation…or, well, the rest of your life. But, I’m sorry, I just can’t take the green claims seriously. How can we lend the sustainability label to something that is so obviously nothing but excess, that is so clearly a superfluous use of resources.

I’m not saying WHY isn’t beautiful; I’m not saying its morally wrong; I’m not even faulting Sheik Whoever at the Abu Dhabi Yachts Show for buying one. All I’m saying is that it isn’t green; Antivari shouldn’t say that it is and we shouldn’t believe him even if he does.

If we’re going to talk about WHY at all, we should recognize it for what it is – an innovating achievement of yacht design and a fantastic display of opulence – instead devaluing the meaning of “green” by using it so inappropriately.

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Sustainable Languages

What does it mean for a language to be endangered, and how do languages relate to sustainable development?

Can you read this?

Obviously if you’re reading this you are a speaker of English, native or otherwise.

Do you speak another language?

If you’re an American there’s a 75% chance that English is the only language that you speak well enough to converse in.

If you’re in the minority 25%, chances are that second language is Spanish.

What about Alyawarre, or Pipil, Itza' or Baldemu, Liv or Karaim?

Chances are you don’t speak these languages, because these languages are on the list of endangered languages.

What’s an endangered language? It’s a language that’s at risk of falling out of use, generally because it has few surviving speakers. If it loses all of its native speakers, it becomes an extinct language.

Why does this matter?

Because embedded within language are ways of seeing and of understanding. Learn a new language; gain a new soul says a Czech proverb. Language is a huge part of culture, and identity, and examples abound that when people are ripped from their culture, and they lose that identity their societies cannot thrive, even if they are not ripped from their land or other ways of being. You cannot have sustainable development if you destroy a people in the process.

As the National Geographic Society's Enduring Voices Project notes:

Every 14 days a language dies. By 2100, more than half of the more than 7,000 languages spoken on Earth--many of them not yet recorded--may disappear, taking with them a wealth of knowledge about history, culture, the natural environment, and the human brain.

In the push towards global connectedness we are leaving beautifully necessary aspects of humanity behind.

For a very long time this loss has only been the concern of linguists and anthropologists, which is why Rosetta Stone, the popular language software, foray into the field of endangered languages is worth noticing. The Rosetta Stone Endangered Language Program creates language learning software for endangered languages, allowing indigenous nations to hold onto (or in some cases) regain a linguistic tradition and culture that had been all but lost. The communities hold onto the final product and are free to distribute them as they see fit.

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