Archive for the Campaigning Category

Two years ago I wrote about a Kumal community that had been denied water for irrigation by a higher-caste community. This higher-caste community had illegally diverted water away from the Kumals’ irrigation channel about 30 years ago, and the community had been without water for all that time. The original post is here.

I wrote an update to that post about a year later describing the efforts the Kumals had taken to mediate, to organise and to advocate for their right to water. That update is here. I came to the hopeful – but less than totally upbeat – conclusion that,

The Kumals hope that this information will be used to determine a fair allocation of water to each community and guide the engineers when they come to rebuild the two channels. Let’s hope that’s how it works. There are several ways that the Kumals could still be denied justice. The land tallies might be inaccurate or misrepresented. The work on the channels might be delayed. Or it might be done without proper regard to the communities’ needs.

But by continuing to speak up the Kumals are paving the way for change. Not only a change in the irrigation infrastructure available in the village. Nor only the nutrition and health benefits that will come when the water is available. Also a change in the Kumals’ own self-understanding and perception of their place in the world.

So, a year later what news can I share? The Kumals have water flowing through their irrigation channel, and are working on restoring and improving the channel itself. I’m a little bit happy.

I hope to visit the community next month, so will post further news then.

Tony Abbott has today announced what he would propose to cut in order to fund disaster relief and reconstruction in Queensland without using a levy. I’ll let others comment on the merits or otherwise of his suggested domestic cuts – a lot of money taken out of schools, a lot of spending “deferred” on water buybacks in the Murray-Darling basin, money withheld from the automotive industry, and so on…

The whole list of what the Coalition would like to axe (and what it costs) is here (pdf).

I’ll only comment on the proposed cuts to Australia’s overseas aid. Tony Abbott admits that cutting Australian aid to Africa was “vigorously discussed” – which I take to mean that he pushed hard to gut the program – but was not added to their list of savings. There’s a bit more detail about how, exactly, the Bishop camp prevailed on this matter here.

So that’s the good news on aid. The bad news is that if he were Prime Minister (and, of course, he’s not but his plans give some indication of what the Coalition’s priorities would be if they did form Government) Abbott would defer – “subject to review” – a 4-year program to build schools and provide training and support for teaching and school management in Indonesia. The annual cost of the program is roughly $110 million. You can find out more about the program at Ausaid’s website.

So, the answer to yesterday’s question about what he would cut is, “The building of schools to provide basic education for poor Indonesian children, and the training of teachers, principals and school management groups to improve the quality of education for those children.”

He offers the expected “charity begins at home” nonsense to justify this. Now, I don’t think that an Opposition leader, an alternative Prime Minister, should be equating disaster relief and reconstruction with “charity”. Surely It’s a fundamental obligation of government. This is not to say that budget cuts might not be necessary to fund the disaster response – but it is not a charitable act by Government to help out its own citizens when disasters strike.

He’s on stronger grounds suggesting that overseas aid as currently construed is more a charitable gesture. There is no way a government can be required to give aid. But here, too, I think we have fundamental human obligations of solidarity and support to help fulfill the legitimate rights, needs and aspirations of all people wherever they happen to live.

Recognising this, Australian Governments of every persuasion have repeatedly committed to giving 0.7% of our national income in aid to support poverty reduction and development in poor countries. (Though the bipartisan commitment is to reach 0.5% of GNI by 2015). It is poor form for the Shadow Cabinet to be even considering delaying the achievement of this bipartisan goal.

And it is just not necessary to cut this program. Australia has a $1 trillion a year economy. Annual government expenditure is around $350 billion. The total reconstruction costs for Queensland from the flooding and cyclone will be upwards of $5 billion. Cutting this program will provide an annual saving (“saving” for the Australian budget, but “loss” for Indonesian children) of only $110 million.


The flood figure of roughly $5 billion of direct costs for the Australian Government comes from early estimates, and is no doubt now on the low side because of the further impact of Cyclone Yasi. However, it gives you an idea of the size of this cost relative to Government expenditure.

So whether the disaster relief and reconstruction is funded by a levy, by deferring the return to budget surpluses (shock! horror!) for a year or two more, or by other budget savings… Australia can afford to fund the cost of disaster response without cutting or deferring any part of its overseas aid program.

Tony Abbott said that this “deferral” of spending on education support for Indonesia is “subject to review”, so now would be a good time to get in touch with your Parliamentary representative and tell them to leave the aid budget alone.

And don’t let the Government off the hook either. Though the PM rejected calls to cut the aid budget in the wake of the flooding, with Cyclone Yasi, further flooding and now fires in WA, the Labor Party, too, will be looking for budget savings to fund the disaster response.

Others weigh in on the proposed aid budget cuts: morally bankrupt, alarming, and (politically) needlessly damaging.

The Opposition are considering cutting Australia’s aid to Africa (among other things) to fund rebuilding costs in the wake of the recent floods and Cyclone Yasi.

It’s worth asking which specific programs will be cut, and how a reduction – even a small one – in Australia’s aid spending squares with the Opposition’s putative commitment to lifting aid to 0.5% of GNI by 2015.

So will we be cutting delivery of food aid to Ethiopia, Kenya, Niger, Sudan or the Democratic Republic of Congo?

Or, possibly, educational support to children orphaned by HIV/AIDS in Malawi, Mozambique or Tanzania?

How about reducing the number of women who can receive free fistula surgery in Ethiopia?

Oh, I know, how about cutting back on improving access to safe drinking water and sanitation? Or agricultural extension and research to improve food security?

So, in the search of a cheap political victory, and a negligible $200 million of savings (the annual size of Australia’s entire aid program in Africa), the Coalition are proposing that one of the wealthiest nations on the planet should be slashing support for some of the world’s poorest people in order to fund entirely affordable domestic disaster relief and reconstruction.

TEAR Australia has laid out the case, and the contact details, for getting in touch with Opposition MPs and telling them not to call for African aid cuts. Go there now, and come back here later.

And I’ll have a quick and dirty look at the (dirty) politics of this.

The Royal Society has just published a collection of papers exploring the likelihood, and likely impacts of the world warming by 4°C above pre-industrial average temperatures by the end of the century.

The papers are available for free browsing and download here.

They are, as you can no doubt imagine, sobering reading. Critical take-home messages are:

1) The continued rise in greenhouse gas emissions and lack of commitment of most governments to make serious and sustained reductions in emissions means that there is very little likelihood of limiting global temperature increase to 2°C above the pre-industrial average. On current trends, our children and grandchildren will be living in a world that is, at best, 3° or 4°C hotter than that (and higher temperatures can’t be ruled out).

Despite high-level statements to the contrary, there is now little to no chance of maintaining the global mean surface temperature at or below 2° C. Moreover, the impacts associated with 2° C have been revised upwards, sufficiently so that 2° C now more appropriately represents the threshold between ‘dangerous’ and ‘extremely dangerous’ climate change.

2) There is an enormous gap between what would seem to be any rational response to the risks involved, and the commitments made by most governments. Simply put, on current policy commitments (and these are merely pledges, not concrete action) we face a 50:50 chance of exceeding a 3.5°C temperature rise before the end of the century.

3) The longer we delay significant and sustained cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, the more likely that higher temperature rises will be unavoidable. Earlier reductions are more effective for limiting likely temperature increases than later and even more drastic cuts.

4) Adapting to a warmer world will not simply be a matter of adjusting to slightly warmer weather – drinking a bit more and staying out of the sun. There will be significant shifts in rainfall patterns, sea level rise, impacts on agricultural viability and sustainability of fresh water supply that will negatively affect and even fundamentally transform or undermine aspects of our societies and economies.

The potential severity of impacts and the behavioural, institutional, societal and economic challenges involved in coping with these impacts argue for renewed efforts to reduce emissions, using all available mechanisms, to minimize the chances of high-end climate change.

It would be great to see these renewed efforts, and all available mechanisms being put to the task, but when the politicians I elect are indifferent or hostile to meaningful action, when my own actions demonstrate my fundamental lack of concern, I wonder what answer I’Il be able to give to my children, to the world’s vulnerable poor, and to the Creator, when I’m asked, “How did you let this happen?”

Byron Smith is writing a 3 part blog series on Ecology and the Gospel. Reviewing the catalogue of contemporary environmental horrors – Climate change. Biodiversity loss and habitat destruction. Resource depletion. Desertification. Overfishing. Ocean acidification… – he asks:

Is concern about such matters a distraction from the gospel or even a dangerous false agenda proposed by pantheist environmentalists?

The whole thing is worth reading, but I particularly liked Byron’s way of articulating part of every generation’s “greatest moral question” as,

whether we will love our neighbour as ourselves, or love ourselves to the harm of our neighbour.

I think that pretty much sums up for me the profound connection between our ecological and inter-personal ethics. Greenhouse gas emissions from our carbon-intensive economies and lifestyles are crowding the shared sky of our global village and warming the Earth, doing measurable harm to our poorest global neighbours.

A few years ago I fronted a DVD – Climate of Change – produced by TEAR Australia, looking at the impacts of climate change on Bangladesh, and also at the extraordinary community development work of HEED Bangladesh that is helping build community capacity and resilience in the face of climate change. And right now in my work with United Mission to Nepal, we are seeing the impacts of climate change in Nepal and working with poor communities to help them adapt.

Indifference, ignorance, and indulgence should not be options for Christians, but – sadly – they seem to be the default options for most of us most of the time. Our lifestyles, our worship, and our political discourse bear very little evidence that we take creation, new creation, and an other-centred ecological ethic seriously.

Or do you have, and are you part of, a story of change and hope?

I’m just back from my second trip to Rukum, in Nepal’s mid-Western hills. (My post on the first visit, “Dancing with Magars”, is here.)


My schedule said:

  • advocacy training with partner NGOs; and
  • time with staff discussing ways to help empower communities and build more accountable and responsive local governance.

But Rukum likes to put me in interesting situations. This time I was invited off the street to observe, “just for a minute”, a cross-party program launching a campaign against caste-based discrimination and untouchability.

Though explicitly prohibited by law and Nepal’s Interim Constitution, the group of people known as dalits (which means “the oppressed”) still face the stigma and exclusion of untouchability on the basis of their status in the Hindu caste system. (Or at least in the prevailing interpretation of the Hindu caste system.) For some it means that they will never be invited into the home of a higher-caste person, or that no higher-caste person will accept a drink from their hand. It can mean exclusion from and under-representation in schooling, administrative positions and the like. It can mean being locked into a traditional caste-based occupation such as tool-making, tailoring, and so on, with few opportunities to develop new skills and techniques to compete against cheap imports. It can mean being bound in a form of peonage, serving one or more families in exchange for food and small items, rather than wages, in an arrangement that can last generations.

So, bad on pretty much every level. Socially, economically, psycho-socially, politically… just bad.

I was interested to observe the event and my Nepali is up to following a large part of what people say as long as there’s not too much unfamiliar vocab and the speaker doesn’t talk too fast. (Though, on reflection, these conditions were unlikely to have been met at a political event.) However, my chances of remaining an observer started diminishing rapidly when the event organiser came over to ask my name, organisation, and country of origin… Then another chair was placed up on the stage among the invited guests and speakers… Then I was asked (in Nepali) if I would say a few words about the issue and about conditions in my country…

Polite refusals having accomplished precisely nothing I sat on stage ransacking my Nepali vocab and grammar to see what I could say about caste-based discrimination. And managed to give a 3 or 4 minute speech that went something like:

I’m sorry to tell you that there is discrimination in my country, Australia. Sometimes the rich look down on the poor. Sometimes white people discriminate against people with dark skin. Sometimes there is even violence. So there is discrimination. But there is no untouchability. Anyone can take water from the hand of another. Anyone can enter the home of another if invited.*

Caste-based discrimination needs to end in Nepal. If people’s rights are not respected, if caste-based discrimination still exists, then Nepal will not develop.

So, seeing this campaign, I am very happy and supportive. I wish you success in your actions against untouchability. I hope that together you can change society.

*These two lines about receiving water and being welcome in another’s home were greeted with applause. And, Australia, you came off pretty well in the speech, mostly because I don’t know the words for racism, xenophobia and mistreatment of asylum-seekers.

This is an update to a previous post about access to water in Dhading District.

Short summary of the previous post:

1) 35 years ago a Kumal community built an irrigation channel. (Kumals are one of Nepal’s ethnic minorities and generally experience worse health, education and economic outcomes than Nepal’s average – and being at the average in Nepal is no great place to be).

2) Five years later a high-caste community built an irrigation channel in a way that diverted all the water away from the Kumal’s channel. This was not legal at the time, but there you go.

3) In the last 2 years the Kumals and a local NGO network have tried many things to get fair and secure access to water for irrigation:

  • They engaged in countless meetings and dialogues to bring about reconciliation and a fair agreement between the two communities. Of course, the community with all the water was happy to talk endlessly with the community with none of the water. So these meetings didn’t achieve very much.
  • They established a users committee to organise the community. This committee was highjacked by the high-caste community who managed to get one of their own members elected to the Kumal’s own committee.
  • They spoke with the media about the situation. But after the brief discomfort brought about by the public attention had faded, the high-caste community went right back to ignoring the water sharing agreement they had come to.

Since then, though, the Kumals have continued to organise and take action. They took their case to the District’s Chief Development Officer and called on him to take action. In response to their lobbying, the CDO sent a team of engineers from the water ministry to visit the site and survey the two channels. Both communities were also asked to give an account of the amount of land in each place.

The Kumals hope that this information will be used to determine a fair allocation of water to each community and guide the engineers when they come to rebuild the two channels. Let’s hope that’s how it works. There are several ways that the Kumals could still be denied justice. The land tallies might be inaccurate or misrepresented. The work on the channels might be delayed. Or it might be done without proper regard to the communities’ needs.

But by continuing to speak up the Kumals are paving the way for change. Not only a change in the irrigation infrastructure available in the village. Nor only the nutrition and health benefits that will come when the water is available. Also a change in the Kumals’ own self-understanding and perception of their place in the world.

The end of the year (and decade) abounds in lists. My list of lists includes:

59 alternative ways to celebrate a buy-nothing-Christmas.

Best hundred books of the decade.

Worst List Ever.

I’ll be writing my own soon for sure.

And if you’re after inspiration and challenge this list of top 10 individual protests is a must-read. Some, like Gandhi and Rosa Parks, you’ll know of and some – like Zackie Achmat and Vedran Smailovic – you may not know of. I hadn’t heard of every protest on the list, and was glad to be enlightened.

The outcome of the Copenhagen climate summit is, as I’ve noted here, deeply disappointing. So, how do we take that disappointment and channel it towards creative, positive change?

I’m thinking that we need to give our leaders and representatives the hardest year they’ve ever had in 2010. We need to be informed and get smart. They need to hear from us every day about playing their part in creating a fair, ambitious and binding deal in Mexico City in 2010. They shouldn’t be able to answer their mail or attend a community meeting without being asked what they personally are doing to build a global agreement. Leaders themselves set the due date for a deal to preserve a safe climate as December 2009. In Copenhagen, they granted themselves a one year’s extension on that assignment and they need to know they don’t have our permission to put it off again. The atmosphere is not much inclined towards granting extensions either. We need action now.

We need to change our personal and local environments too. If we aren’t acting ourselves to reduce our emissions, to live more simply, and to speak out in solidarity with the poor and vulnerable then our representatives are right to take that as a pretty strong signal that we don’t really care. We need to find the next step and take it. And then take the next one. Ditch the car for the bike or the bus. Sign up for green power. Plant a garden. Pray, preach and convert our churches. Speak out at our local council meetings. Attend rallies and climate camps. Get arrested for chaining ourselves to trainloads of coal.

If we lead, leaders follow.

So, it’s over, according to Bill Easterly, writing at his aidwatch blog. The Millennium Development Goals (still 6 years away from their 2015 target date) will not and can not be achieved. The source for his prophecy? The 2009 Millennium Development Goal progress report, which is available here (5mb pdf).

Sure enough, the report makes sobering reading for campaigners who have been calling on governments to “spare no effort” to achieve these 8 anti-poverty goals – as they promised to do. Very few of the goals are on track to be achieved at the global level, though there is progress on several – for example, increasing primary education (88% children of children worldwide enrolled in 2007, up from 83% in 2000), reducing child mortality, and halving the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water (which the world is on track to achieve).

Dishearteningly, the global financial crisis and food price rises already are reversing, or threaten to reverse, progress against the targets of Goal 1, to reduce extreme poverty and hunger.

Now Easterly makes some good points about accountability and the need for a clearly defined theory and strategy for change in policy advocacy and campaigning. All of this needs to be taken seriously. Refreshingly, he also makes his critique in a way that isn’t entirely negative. For example, he writes some nice things (albeit, in “silver lining” mode) about the global plan, and advocacy campaign, for large-scale poverty reduction…

The inspirational enthusiasm and increased efforts surrounding the MDGs probably did contribute to progress on specific efforts and some partial success stories (mainly in health and education), as pointed out in the UN MDG 2009 report. That can give some hope for the future and some solace to the hard-working and deeply committed participants.

But overall, his contention is that we should give up on the MDGs and focus on something else that may bring some good – he describes the (sure, still 6 years away but, to his mind, inevitable) failure of the MDGs as a “tragedy” for all who contributed to campaigns for the achievement, and a greater tragedy for the world’s poor.

I take issue with his analysis. First, there’s the principle of giving up on a project half-way through (doing a Palin?) because it appears likely that not all of the goals will be achieved in full. Clearly, on current progress, many of the goals won’t be achieved in full, though I don’t see that Easterly really makes a strong case that they can’t be. For example, his assertion that “the MDGs’ attainment depended all along on global and national economic growth” (and supporting assertion that this is beyond any government’s control) seems pretty bald. All of the goals were dependent entirely on global and national economic growth? In every region?

Second, his call for focused and strategic advocacy that identifies who is responsible for an injustice, why it is a problem that needs to be addressed, and what they should do about it, is a good one, but I don’t actually see it as a criticism of the Millennium Development Goals themselves. I certainly don’t see it as a criticism of the civil society campaigns that have developed around them.

Campaigns like Make Poverty History in Australia, and scores of other national campaigns around the world, have taken the shared vision and inspiration of the MDGs, they’ve used analysis and information from MDG efforts and they’ve heaved mightly on the strategic lever of a widely-publicised international commitment to seriously tackle global poverty. That is to say, MDG campaigners haven’t, as far as I can tell, remained vague and unfocused about who can deliver change, why they should and what they should do to deliver the change. In each national context, they’ve developed focused advocacy campaigns and asked their governments to act on things that were in their power. They broke the goals down, they got specific, they adapted their policy asks to their national contexts, and they applied pressure to get what they were asking for. These campaigns have, I would say, genuinely influenced discussion and action for pro-poor development at the international level and at the national level – in countries both rich and poor.

Third, there are more positives from the campaign than Easterly makes space to credit in his post. One story that he doesn’t mention is the unprecedented commitment (and investment) to increase aid among the world’s donor nations. Where aid flows from OECD countries had declined in the 1990s, last year they reached their highest ever level of USD 119.8 billion.

And as for debt, sure, there is still plenty of unfinished business to deal with the debt burden of the world’s poorest countries, but by the end of 2008, 35 countries had received USD 102.6 billion (400 kb pdf) of debt relief, and poverty-reducing expenditure was increasing among these countries as a group. I think it’s likely that these  commitments, along with the new levels of public interest in and support for aid and debt cancellation, have been driven to a very large extent by campaigning around the Millennium Development Goals.

Finally, some of his reasonable points about accountability and the likelihood of being able to hold all governments accountable for the achievement (or not) of the MDGs, seem to build on the assumption that it is better for nations to wear their indifference to poverty on their sleeve rather than hypocritically hide it behind an international agreement they have no intention of honouring. It’s a fair point in a way, I guess…

But… what if 189 countries did sign up to an agreement to “spare no effort” to free a billion men, women and children from abject and dehumanising poverty… What if millions of people from across the world joined together in a global campaign to demand that those countries keep their promises…