UN deals must aim to satisfy need not greed

Whether in the climate talks or SDGs, developed states are chasing survival of the richest, at the expense of the poor, says ActionAid climate lead Harjeet Singh.

With the world in turmoil from multiple crises - social, economic and ecological - we need solidarity and cooperation. But recent global events suggest the acts of rich countries are making inequality worse.

This can be seen across many processes, including the U.N. climate talks, where rich governments deliberately create conditions under which the elite will thrive while the poor struggle to survive. 

As discussed in my previous blog, climate change caused by developed nations is exacerbating global inequality. Instead of taking responsibility for the damage and supporting developing countries to deal with the impacts, the response to climate change has been inconsequential.

At Copenhagen in 2009, developed nations committed to deliver $30 billion to developing nations in new and additional “fast-start finance” from 2010 to 2012. This was supposed to be a step towards mobilising long-term financing of $100 billion per year by 2020 mainly through a new set up, the Green Climate Fund (GCF).

But those pledges are not being delivered with integrity.

For example, 80 percent of the fast-start finance was also reported as Official Development Assistance, and nearly half came in the form of loans, guarantees and insurance, according to a report from the Overseas Development Institute.

And during the last GCF board meeting in July, a non-transparent process resulted in the approval of Deutsche Bank and several other problematic institutions as “accredited entities” to channel resources to developing nations.  The German investment bank is the world’s 10th largest sponsor of coal and has a bad record on human rights monitoring and curbing money laundering.

The renewable energy industry has recently made significant progress in the West but also in nations like China and India. But instead of encouraging the local production efforts of developing nations, in February 2014, the US dragged India to the World Trade Organisation alleging that localisation requirements restrict U.S. exports to Indian markets. This hides the fact that back home in 13 U.S. states, credits are provided for the purchase of power from U.S.-made solar products.

At the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), developing nations’ demand for better access to clean technologies has been continually shut out. Yet they are pressured to adopt green solutions with the aim of creating new markets for Western corporations.

This trend is not limited to dealing with the climate crisis. At the Financing for Development conference in July 2015, developing states’ call for global tax reform to stop tax dodging by multinationals went unheeded. Instead, rich nations won the fight for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a club of 34 wealthy governments, to carry on setting the standards for all. 

It seems as if “social Darwinism” – survival of the fittest (or, for humans, the richest) has been retrofitted onto contemporary society by wealthy nations to further consolidate their power.

And early this month, the United States pushed to weaken language related to equitable benefits from natural resources in the draft Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to protect the vested interests of its corporations, according to civil society observers.

In such ways, the spirit of multilateral institutions treating everyone as equal is being ruined. This has led to undue criticism of these institutions, rather than the powerful members who do not allow them to function in a just and equitable manner.

It seems as if “social Darwinism” – survival of the fittest (or, for humans, the richest) has been retrofitted onto contemporary society by wealthy nations to further consolidate their power.

But maybe it’s good the gloves are coming off so visibly. As my colleague Ben Phillips points out, it means the usual subterfuges are not holding, so the rigging of the mechanism is becoming plainer to those who care to look. 

System change not climate change

Rich nations have systematically brushed aside demands for ‘system change’ and promoted false solutions. All the crises we face today - poverty, patriarchy, discrimination, climate change, armed conflicts - share a common ‘genetic code’ of inequality.

Social movements have long called for a complete overhaul of the economic system so that it values profits over people and the planet.

Pope Francis’ landmark encyclical released in June boosted everyone’s morale. It dwarfs the SDGs with its bold and radical vision, challenging the consumption-driven economic growth propagated by the West and now followed blindly by the ‘emerging economies’.

The Pope didn’t hesitate in speaking out about the systemic nature of multiple crises by criticising the deeply flawed political economy centred on endless GDP growth. “To seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up is to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system,” he said.

Along the same lines, in August the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change called on the people of all nations and leaders to “set in motion a fresh model of well-being, based on an alternative to the current financial model which depletes resources, degrades the environment, and deepens inequality”.

The recent consensus among religious, social, women’s rights movements and trade unions on the causes of inequality, as well as the paradigm shift required to reverse it, has created a new sense of optimism.

The journey to attain equality and justice has faced a long road of resistance. It is people’s power that will bring about change by challenging the rich and powerful and leading a just transformation of our society and economy.

The greatest need of our time is a society that puts dignity and freedom before profit, a new economy that serves the people while respecting the rights of Mother Earth.

We would do well to heed Mahatma Gandhi, who warned a long time ago that “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.”

Harjeet Singh is the global lead on climate change for ActionAid. This article is republished from the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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