Environment and conflict in Sudan

I’ve moved to the Sudan… and I’m sitting under a fan in Khartoum writing this… I’ve now been here a couple of weeks and am no longer totally lost. I’ve a new job as the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Representative for Sudan. We hail from UNEP’s Post-Conflict and Disaster Management Branch, which addresses the links between environment (or more specifically, ‘natural resources’) and conflict.

The Sudan programme has had a fantastic start through a two-year project to create a Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment for Sudan, which was published this year and is one of the best surveys of the challenges of a developing country environment you will find anywhere – a tribute to the energy and drive of Andrew Morton, who led the effort. The assessment develops some 85 recommendations, and our job here is to make as much of that happen as we can. Continue reading “Environment and conflict in Sudan”

Atrocity exhibition

There is something stunning in the brilliance of Google Earth [download] – a streaming map of the world in the form of satellite photography with the mean to zoom from planet to street level in scale. ‘Layers’ are overlaid on the map images showing an ever expanding range of surface features: national boundaries, roads, video stores, government offices, monuments – with 3D buildings, flights through the Grand Canyon etc. Each year the images increase in resolution and the coverage of higher resolution photography increases.

But potentially interesting political uses are also emerging: take the pictured map of conflict in Darfur… Continue reading “Atrocity exhibition”

Diamonds – curse or charm?

Saw Blood Diamond – an action-movie-with-a-message, though laced with clichés (mercenary with a heart of gold, pouting female journalist as searcher after truth, silly shoot-outs etc). But also brutal depiction of what the very dirty end of the diamond business looks like – militarised slave-labour , child soldiers, violent abuse like amputations and, of course, an illegal trade funding arms and militias fuelling conflict that reaches up to the comfortable cities of London, Antwerp, Jo’burg and New York. The film had a good airing for the excellent Global Witness and Amnesty diamond campaigns, and their joint venture Blood Diamond Action.

Despite the horrors of the film, conflict diamonds are one aspect of Africa’s habitual miseries where things are getting better and there may even be cause for optimism… Continue reading “Diamonds – curse or charm?”

Free trade with Kyrgyzstan

My favourite Xmas present this year is a beautiful shyrdak (actual one pictured) from Kyrgyzistan. A shyrdak is a felt rug originally designed for a yurt. It has a base layer of felt onto the top of which is sewn a second felt layer containing the patterning. No felt is wasted because the artisans produce a duplicate rug with the design in opposite colours (more on construction). Apparently, the design is rich in symbolism and I will report back once it has been decoded. A friend, Tim Moock, is importing these using fair trade principles – a three way split of profits between him (the importer), his partner (the exporter) and the artisans that produce them. Prices are already rising as his shyrdaks are to be featured at the Rebecca Hossack Gallery early next year and designer interest is gathering pace. Some quite poor people are about to become relatively rich and globalisation appears to be serving everyone involved, especially me, rather well…

Second oldest profession in the world – arms dealing

I fear it was a terrible move to axe the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) investigation into the Al Yamamah (“the dove”) arms deal between UK and Saudi Arabia.

All parties have been stressing (implausibly) that the decision was not economic – supposedly 50,000 arms-related jobs at stake. For example, see SFO’s terse statement.  It’s obviously a mess and much worse is surely to come: Continue reading “Second oldest profession in the world – arms dealing”

Global public goods – the Achilles heal of globalisation

Attended a stimulating session today on “Global Public Goods” (FAQ) run by the ubiquitous penseurs of globalisation, E3G. The idea is that there are important global things [goods, services, networks, resilience, risk reduction] that are under-provided, for example: reduction in disease transmission, financial system resilience, stability of the the climate, control of criminal networks, difusion of innovation, energy security and possibly values and norms like human rights. We underprovide mainly because of collective action failures – between nations (and between generations). Public goods theory stresses the non-rival and non-excludable characteristics of public goods, and these are useful characteristics to identify as they often foreshadow collective action failure. Well, they are useful only as long as the definitions are not applied too pedantically.

The chart shows one academic’s attempt to compare the costs of acting to address these challenges with the cost of inaction in a few of the areas classed as global public goods… Even if wrong by miles, it still raises the question are we, and by how much, underproviding these things? We could spend more on these things and be substantially better off but we don’t for a variety of reasons, including but not exclusively: Continue reading “Global public goods – the Achilles heal of globalisation”

Copenhagen consensus – wrong question leads to wrong answer on climate change

In theory, it would be good to prioritise resources for global do-gooding by asking what is the best use of an additional $50 billion,and weighing costs and benefits of different approaches. The Copenhagen Consensus Center, headed by Bjørn Lomborg author of the Skeptical Environmentalist and bête noire of the greens, attempts to address this sort of question. In doing so, they’ve created a list of 40 possible global interventions and asked workshop participants drawn mostly from UN represenatives (China, India, Pakistan, Tanzania, Thailand, the United States, Vietnam and Zambia) to rank them. The ranking they came up with places climate change at the bottom and tackling communicable diseases at the top. There are several flaws in this superficially attractive approach. These are: Continue reading “Copenhagen consensus – wrong question leads to wrong answer on climate change”

What’s the opposite of "human rights with common sense"

What is the opposite of ‘common sense’? ‘Stupid’ could be right. Or ‘arbitrary’. But one opposite might also be ‘principled’… meaning that you stick to deeply-held principles, even if they give you discomfort in specific cases. Conservative leader David Cameron called for “human rights with common sense” as he promised to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a Bill of Rights (BBC or original speech). He can probably have a Bill of Rights (which the Human Rights Act already is) or the appearance of common sense – but not both.

The whole problem with common sense is that it implies a very elastic view of what is right… Continue reading “What’s the opposite of "human rights with common sense"”

Is Millennium Development Goal no.1 rubbish?

As a call to arms, you can’t beat the first target in the first of the Millennium Development Goals … “Between 1990 and 2015, reduce by half the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day“. There were about 1.2 billion people living on $1 per day or less in 2001 (about 1 in 5 people). The trouble with this goal is that it encourages efforts to focus on the second poorest 600 million people in world, in the hope that they can be dragged over the MDG line because they are nearest to it. [Similar things happen with any target for clearing a threshold: eg. in education, getting 5 good GCSEs… teacher’s incentive is not to waste time on some kid that can’t read]. As the chart shows most of the MDG progress to date is from rapidly growing China and the Far East… in sub-Saharan Africa, it’s actually heading the wrong way. Continue reading “Is Millennium Development Goal no.1 rubbish?”

The biggest possible question – growth in the 21st Century

A session with Her Majesty’s Treasury yesterday reminded me that one of the most startling things is just how big the world economy has become. It has increased by about 8 times since 1950 – now about $55 trillion. Growing on average at about 3.74% per year, meaning it doubles in size about every 19 years

You might recall the Hindu legend of Ambalappuzha in which Krishna arrived in the court of the king and challenged him to a game of chess. The prize would be an amount of rice calculated using the chess board – one grain on the first square, two on the second, four on the third, eight on the fourth and so on. The king accepted, lost the game and then found there wasn’t enough rice in the world to match the bet. Benevolent Krishna let the king off with a promise that he’d serve free rice pudding to passing pilgrims forever.

It might not be so easy with the world economy… Continue reading “The biggest possible question – growth in the 21st Century”