Aid and our Changing Environment

4 July 2013

Roger Williamson

On 4 June 2013 I attended an interesting effort on the part of UNU-WIDER to communicate research results to development policy makers and practitioners. Top academics and researchers from around the world (see event site here) took to the stage, followed by the Swedish and Danish development ministers, in an effort to bridge the knowledge gap between the various groups that are involved in development thinking and practice.

Throughout the day the presenters explored a plethora of topics including, aid as climate finance and the current trends, land use and global public goods in general, and the global climate finance architecture. Videos from the day are available here.

A draft position paper is already available. Difficult though the challenges are, that paper concludes that climate change is unlikely to preclude realistic prospects for growth prior to 2040. Emphasis should be given to agricultural research, regional (i.e. cross-border) river management, and the vulnerability of infrastructure to extreme events.

The position paper concludes that key institutions such as REDD+ (forests), the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), the Global Environment Facility (GEF), and the Green Climate Fund (GCF—elaborated through discussions at COP15 Copenhagen 2009, COP16 Cancun 2010, and COP17 Durban 2011) are based on reasonable analysis, but impaired by the lack of financing and demand for what they offer. Currently the GCF is ’essentially a hollow shell’ due to lack of finance—although there are some signs that the institution is now getting underway. Other key international institutions related to agriculture are in need of reform to achieve greater impact. A critical independent report on the work of the Food and Agriculture Organization is cited in the position paper (see here). 

Some of the themes emerging throughout the day were:

Director of UNU-WIDER, Finn Tarp, position paper.
  • The need to remove the most obvious perverse incentives, in particular fossil fuel subsidies.

  • Rather than using subsidies, the international community and governments should concentrate on ensuring that there is a well-functioning carbon market and reliable national policy frameworks.

  • A pragmatic approach that rather than imagining that a wholesale reform of instruments would be achieved—making existing instruments work better would be the way forward.

  • So far it is OECD and middle-income countries which have benefited primarily from green private investment.

  • Action is needed to reduce investment risk for green finance.

Sometimes it’s great to get the long view

The conference was important in setting current challenges in the long-run context. Thomas Hertel’s model took us through pre-settlement land undisturbed by human impact, to frontier development, subsistence farming, intensifying, to intensive land use. If you take it on further, of course, the typology presented in different ways is also the history of human migration and urbanization.

The implications of this for Africa were expertly elaborated by Ephraim Nkonya, a Tanzanian specialist from the International Food Policy Institute. With climate change, marginal land can easily be tipped over into being unproductive land. Population growth and demand for food is scheduled to increase dramatically in the coming decades. The greatest potential availability of land to be brought under cultivation is in Africa (hence the current land grabs from external countries and companies) and in Latin and Central America. The gap between current yields per hectare and maximum potential yields is highest in sub-Saharan Africa. However, what Africa and the world do not need is for Africa to decimate its remaining forests to bring more and more land into farming. Everything points to the need for intensification of production on land already in use and a focus on increasing yield.

From research to policy?

The realism apparent extended to the appearance of the Swedish and Danish development ministers who stressed that development aid has a specific role in assisting the world’s poor in their responses to climate change, but aid budgets cannot be expected to pay the bill for climate change mitigation. They were ’multi-tasking’ on that day—we heard the applause from the next-door hall in the SIDA headquarters as they spoke at a launch meeting for the UN High-Level Panel on Post-2015 Development.

I asked them if they were satisfied with the outcome of the High-Level Panel’s discussion on international development post-2015. Both expressed satisfaction—Gunnilla Carlsson (Sweden) that the emphasis on the eradication of extreme poverty has been maintained, and Christian Friis Bach (Denmark) that the good start made in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) has been consolidated into a broader agenda: extreme poverty, sustainable development, jobs and inclusive growth, peace and effective, accountable institutions, as well as the need for global partnership on development. It remains to be seen whether the efforts to achieve the MDGs will result in renewed commitment to this extensive agenda, or whether the member states of the United Nations will feel they have just finished a marathon and have no appetite for a new, more challenging set of objectives.

IMG_4604.JPGFriis Bach joked that now as a minister, he could actually put the research into practice—as a researcher he had earlier co-written a report for the ReCom project.

Carlsson also argued convincingly that the aid budget should not be pressurized to sort out all the problems of climate change. It should primarily help the poorest to find ways of living in response to the results of climate change, rather than picking up the bill for all that needs to be done on mitigation.

More about ReCom at

Information of the report of the UN High Level Panel is available here.

Roger Williamson is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, UK.

WIDERAngle newsletter
June-July 2013
ISSN 1238-9544