Challenging Global Institutions, Designing Better Outcomes

Civil Society Spring Meetings, Day 1

I am spending a few days at the World Bank Spring Meetings Civil Society Policy Forum, in Washington, DC. It’s cherry blossom season, and trees are in bloom all over town. Delegates from governments, global policy-making institutions and civil society organizations, are gathering to discuss ways to redirect economic policy, to better achieve the central aim of eliminating poverty and building transparent, empowered societies that provide value at the human scale.

As a representative of Citizens Climate Lobby, I am here to engage in conversations designed to steer global policy toward a critical paradigm shift: to understand fully, and then to admit to the fact, that costs externalized to society through the climate and through other environmental mechanisms, are real, hard costs, and cannot be swept under the rug. Winning conscious agreement on that point is the first step to creating policies that tell the truth about cost and benefit, and that don’t build unnecessary harm into the future of affected human beings.

The story about energy development has long been one of tension between the desire to see more environmentally sustainable practices and the need to empower people by providing power to them, in their local context, in an affordable way. Though we have come a long way, we still hear the complaint from policy planners that in some places, the costs of initial capital are just too high to warrant choosing clean energy over dirty energy. This thinking flows from an intellectual bet on the question of whether a given nation’s economy will be forced to account for externalized costs.

This is why these meetings are so important. Civil society organizations speak for stakeholders. Citizens Climate Lobby is an example: we are citizens telling government we want serious, effective, forward-thinking energy policy, that won’t build harm into our shared future. Among civil society delegates at these meetings, there is a clear understanding that delay on integrating climate costs into cost considerations for development projects is just that… a delay that is not justified by the facts and not conducive to building real value.

Among the people I have spoken with, in just the first few hours of this week’s Civil Society Policy Forum, are many who are working to find ways to build those whole cost considerations into development policy planning at the World Bank and IMF.

In an eloquent (and much applauded) intervention, during the session on Energy Trends, Nezir Sinani, Climate Change Coordinator for the Bank Information Center, explained this precise point: that studies of the proposed billion-dollar coal power project for Kosovo must include climate costs as real costs. Srinivas Krishnaswamy showed the distribution of coal-fired power generation in India, along with the startling detail that where coal plants are most common, the incidence of unelectrified homes is highest.

What is cost-effective for investors and businesses, and for those who manage power grids that don’t serve everyone, is not necessarily a good deal for the people who actually need the new power generation. In many places, wind and solar actually supply power to the grid at comparable costs, and where new connectivity is needed, minigrids and off-grid generation are most effective.

In the morning’s first session, on “megaprojects”—which often include oil and gas development in remote areas, as well as some of the world’s largest dams—César Gamboa, of Derecho Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (DAR), of Perú, said what is most needed is better safeguards and good governance guarantees, to ensure major development projects don’t feed into or exacerbate patterns of corruption, or practices that degrade the local environment and harm local stakeholders.

Lauren Hutchison, an Australian Youth Delegate to the 2014 World Bank and IMF Spring Meetings, is working on research that shows the economic advantage to Australia of developing solar instead of coal. This kind of work is bringing to light real-world costs and benefits that global policy makers have avoided integrating into complex calculations for a long time.

Funding for climate destabilizing activities not only harms the environment and threatens the basic life support systems on which local communities depend; it also erodes the long-term value of the funding global bodies like the World Bank commit to development projects. Where added value at the human scale—electricity, transport, work opportunities—coincides with the long-term degradation of vital ecosystem services, the claim of a net gain of human-scale value is harder to justify.

There is evidence out there, and stakeholders have a right to present that evidence. This is why we are here. In problematic ways, what is evident to human consciousness and what is workable as a policy choice are entangled: the view that “indirect” or “socialized” or “externalized” costs need not be counted is supported by the “evidence” that people don’t seem to “see” the hidden costs. Allowing civil society to inform global policy makers about the reality of those hidden costs can adjust for this counterproductive bias.

We are all learning how to quantify what has never been quantified before. Having those numbers at the ready will make it harder to wriggle out of much-needed priority adjustment by claiming that hidden costs are either not quantifiable or won’t come due in the foreseeable future. Stakeholders can have a vital impact on global policy, by helping to provide real-world information about costs and benefits, so indirect or hidden costs can be seen, and dealt with.

The word from the World Bank team, as articulated by Cyril Müller at a reception for the Civil Society Organizations attending the Spring Meetings is that “challenging us is part of the solution”. The challenge is rooted in asking policy-makers to deal with the facts human beings face when their policies are implemented; so, hundreds of people have come to do this work, to speak for those whose voices have not yet been heard.

If the challenge to consider facts lived at the human scale is met, the result will be a world that works better for everyone. With all the differences of focus and perspective, what everyone here shares is a belief this can be achieved, and that it starts by engaging and sharing information.

World Bank Civil Society Spring 2014 Diary

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