Commentary

When Climate Leaders Protect Dirty Investments

GENEVA – Solutions to the climate crisis are often associated with big conferences, and the next two weeks will no doubt bring many “answers.” Some 20,000 delegates have now descended on Bonn, Germany, for the latest round of United Nations climate change talks.


The talks in Bonn should focus on the implementation of the Paris climate agreement. And the path forward is clear. The only way to keep the rise in global temperatures within the limit set in Paris – “well below 2°C” higher than pre-industrial levels – is to shift capital away from fossil fuels and toward zero-carbon projects. To do that, we must change how global energy investments are governed.

At the moment, the very governments leading the fight against climate change continue to support and protect investment in fossil-fuel exploration, extraction, and transportation. Rather than investing in efficient housing, zero-carbon mobility, renewable energy, and better land-use systems, these governments say one thing but still do another.

According to the most recent World Energy Investment report from the International Energy Agency, global expenditure in the oil and gas sector totaled $649 billion in 2016. That was more than double the $297 billion invested in renewable electricity generation, even though achieving the Paris agreement’s target implies leaving at least three quarters of known fossil-fuel reserves in the ground. As these numbers suggest, institutional inertia and entrenched industry interests continue to stand in the way of shifting investment into sustainable energy.

Much of the problem can be traced to bilateral investment treaties and investment rules embedded within broader trade pacts, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Energy Charter Treaty, and the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). Because these treaties were designed to shield foreign investors from expropriation, they include investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanisms that allow investors to seek compensation from governments, via international arbitration tribunals, if policy changes affect their business.

This has handcuffed governments seeking to limit fossil-fuel extraction. Compensation from ISDS cases can be staggering. In 2012, an American investor filed a lawsuit against the Quebec government’s decision to deny a permit for hydraulic fracturing under the Saint Lawrence River. Arguing that the denial was “arbitrary, capricious, and illegal” under NAFTA, the Delaware-based energy firm sought $250 million in damages.

In January 2016, the TransCanada energy company used NAFTA to sue the United States, claiming $15 billion in losses after President Barack Obama denied a permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline. (The company suspended its suit after President Donald Trump approved the project in January 2017).

And in July 2017, Quebec agreed to pay nearly $50 million in compensation to companies after canceling oil and gas exploration contracts on Anticosti Island in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. These and other payments are in addition to the hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies that continue to flow to the fossil-fuel industry.

Big payouts do more than drain public coffers; the mere threat of them discourages governments from pursuing more ambitious climate policies, owing to fear that carbon-dependent industries could challenge them in international tribunals.

Fortunately, this state of affairs is not set in stone. Many governments now see reform of the investment regime not just as a possibility, but as a necessity. Last month, the UN Conference on Trade and Development convened a high-level meeting in Geneva, with the goal of developing options for comprehensive reform of the investment regime, including the renegotiation or termination of some 3,000 outdated treaties.

Governments should start by overhauling or exiting the Energy Charter Treaty, the world’s only energy-specific investment pact. The ECT’s investment protections and lack of climate provisions are no longer appropriate. Since its inception, the ECT has served as the basis for more than 100 claims by energy firms against host countries, with some challenging national environmental policies, such as the nuclear phase-out in Germany. Russia and Italy have already withdrawn from the ECT; other countries should do the same or commit to renegotiating it.

Moreover, countries should put climate concerns at the center of their trade and investment negotiations, such as by carving out fossil-fuel projects from investment clauses. That is essentially what France recently proposed, when ecology minister Nicolas Hulot announced his country’s intention to enact a “climate veto” to CETA. Hulot said France would ratify the treaty only if it contained assurances that its climate commitments could not be challenged before arbitration tribunals. Fossil-fuel projects could also be exempted from investment protection in new environmental treaties, such as the Global Pact for the Environment presented by French President Emmanuel Macron to the UN General Assembly in September.

Rebalancing the global investment regime is only the first step toward a zero-carbon economy. To shift capital from fossil-fuel heavy initiatives to green energy projects, countries will need new legal and policy frameworks at the regional, national, and international levels. These agreements should promote and facilitate zero-carbon investments. Big meetings like the one getting underway this week and the Paris Climate Summit next month can kick-start these conversations.

Nathalie Bernasconi-Osterwalder is director of the Economic Law and Policy Program at the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). Jörg Haas is Department Head: International Politics at the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

By Nathalie Bernasconi-Osterwalder and Jörg Haas

Freeing Africa’s Internet

WASHINGTON, DC – Much to the dismay of the government in Addis Ababa, “Zone 9” has become a household name in Ethiopia. Since 2012, this small group of journalists-turned-online activists has used social media to campaign for political freedoms and civil liberties in their country. The group’s success – measured, for example, by the flood of likes and comments on its Facebook page – has come in spite of government efforts to silence the writers, including the arrest of six members in 2014 on trumped-up terrorism charges.


Ethiopia’s government is not alone in seeking to consolidate political power by restricting what citizens say online. Across Africa, governments are enacting legislation to restrict Internet access and outlaw criticism of elected officials. Digital campaigners face myriad censorship tactics, including “Border Gateway Protocol” attacks, “HTTP throttling,” and “deep packet inspections.”

The irony, of course, is that censorship rarely quiets the disaffected. Rather than quelling dissent, government intervention only inspires more people to take their grievances to WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms, where Africans are increasingly challenging corrupt governments, exposing rigged elections, and demanding to be heard.

At the moment, however, few of Africa’s leaders are listening. Leaders in nine of the 18 African countries that held elections in 2016 placed some level of restriction on the Internet to limit dissent. Four days prior to Uganda’s presidential vote in February, President Yoweri Museveni cut access to mobile payment services and social media sites. In August and September, Gabon’s president, Ali Bongo, seeking to project an atmosphere of calm to the international community, shut down Internet access overnight. Then in December, officials in Democratic Republic of the Congo ordered an Internet shutdown the day before President Joseph Kabila was scheduled to leave office, thereby quashing online dissent when he refused to step down.

Internet blackouts like these violate people’s human rights and undermine democratic processes. Last year, the United Nations Human Rights Council approved a resolution affirming that, “rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression.”

Most African governments try to justify Internet embargoes by arguing that the restrictions are necessary to ensure public safety and security. Museveni, for example, claimed that blocking Internet access was the only way to protect visiting heads of state during his swearing-in ceremony. But he presented no evidence linking social media accessibility and security in Uganda, or anywhere else. According to Access Now, an international advocacy group for digital rights, people typically feel less secure without the Internet, because they cannot access information or connect with friends and family in times of uncertainty.

With several key African elections coming up, Internet shutdowns are again on the horizon. In Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe, who is 93, is expected to run for his eighth term in mid-2018, a government-led crackdown appears inevitable. For decades, Mugabe has relied on intimidation and violence to stifle political dissent. It is not surprising, then, that he has already begun taking a hostile approach to online activism. Last year, his government shut down the Internet in the middle of political protests, and vowed to arrest anyone caught generating or sharing “abusive or subversive material on social media.”

But citizens are not helpless. While governments issue orders to cut off Internet access, only telecommunications companies have the ability to hit the “kill switch.” That is why Africa’s bloggers and online activists must work more closely with investors and shareholders of communications firms to convince them to stand up for democracy and human rights by resisting illiberal government directives.

Moreover, civil-society groups, the African Union, and the UN should do more to condemn national legislation that aims to normalize restrictive Internet policies. Just as it launched a model law on access to information in 2013, the African Union should provide new guidance to states on how to safeguard the right to assemble and express views online.

Finally, new continent-wide measures are needed to ensure that Africans’ online rights are recognized and respected by their governments. Although the UN Human Rights Council’s resolution to protect online freedoms is not binding, it offers a starting point for ensuring that governments allow citizens to use the Internet as a tool for maximizing political participation.

Such interventions are needed now more than ever. The Kenyan, Zimbabwean, and Ethiopian legislatures are currently considering laws that would permit significantly greater government control over Internet access. Last year, Tanzania adopted legislation that has already been used to charge individuals with crimes who have criticized President John Magufuli on social media.

Whether governments bar citizens from gathering in public, signing petitions, or accessing the Internet and posting on social media makes no difference. All such measures are designed to strip citizens of their rights. The battle for freedom, as Zone 9 has shown, is no less real when the public square is the digital domain.

Kizito Byenkya is a senior program specialist at the Open Society Human Rights Initiative. Alex Humphrey is a policy associate at the Open Society Foundations.

By Kizito Byenkya and Alex Humphrey

Climate Leadership Means Ending Fossil-Fuel Production

VANCOUVER/BERLIN – The end of the fossil-fuel era is on the horizon. With renewables like solar and wind consistently outperforming expectations, growth in electric vehicles far exceeding projections, and governments worldwide acknowledging the urgency of tackling climate change, the writing is on the wall.


And yet somehow, the question central to it all is not being seriously addressed: what is the plan for weaning ourselves off oil, coal, and gas?

That question is becoming increasingly urgent, because governments around the world, from Argentina to India to Norway, are supporting plans to continue producing fossil fuels and explore for more. These governments claim that new fossil-fuel projects are consistent with their commitments under the Paris climate agreement, despite the fact that burning even the fossil fuels in already-existing reserves would push global temperatures higher than 2°C above pre-industrial levels – and thus far beyond the threshold established in that accord. It is a startling display of cognitive dissonance.

The reality is that limiting fossil-fuel production today is essential to avoid continued entrenchment of energy infrastructure and political dynamics that will make shifting away from fossil fuels later more difficult and expensive. Important questions about equity will arise: Who gets to sell the last barrel of oil? Who pays for the transition to renewables? And who compensates affected communities and workers? But, ultimately, these questions must be addressed, within a broader context of climate justice.

Climate change has been called the moral challenge of our age. This year alone, the world has faced unprecedented floods, hurricanes, wildfires, and droughts on virtually every continent. Yet the real storm is yet to come. If we are to avoid its most devastating impacts, phasing out coal – climate killer number one – will not be enough. A safe climate future requires ending the age of Big Oil.

The good news is that social change is not a gradual, linear process. Rather, it often happens in waves, characterized by “tipping point” moments brought on by the confluence of technological progress, financial incentives, political leadership, policy change, and, most important, social mobilization. We seem to be closing in on just such a moment.

For starters, technology is advancing faster than anyone thought possible. Twenty years ago, when we started working on climate issues, we sent faxes, made phone calls from landlines, and developed photos taken on 35mm film in darkrooms. Another 20 years from now, we will be living in a world that is powered by the sun, the waves, and the wind.

Moreover, popular opposition to fossil-fuel development is mounting, generating political pressure and financial and legal risks. Ordinary people everywhere have been working hard to halt projects inconsistent with a climate-safe future, whether by protesting against the Dakota Access Pipeline in the United States or the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline System in Canada; by joining the blockade by “kayactivists” of drilling rigs in the Arctic; or by using local referenda to stop oil and mining projects in Colombia.

Recently, over 450 organizations from more than 70 countries signed the Lofoten Declaration, which explicitly calls for the managed decline of the fossil-fuel sector. The declaration demands leadership from those who can afford it, a just transition for those affected, and support for countries that face the most significant challenges.

Wealthy countries should lead the way. Norway, for example, is not just one of the world’s richest countries; it is also the seventh-largest exporter of carbon dioxide emissions, and it continues to permit exploration and development of new oil and gas fields. Proposed and prospective new projects could increase the amount of emissions Norway enables by 150%.

If Norway is to fulfill its proclaimed role as a leader in international climate discussions, its government must work actively to reduce production, while supporting affected workers and communities during the transition. Canada, another wealthy country that considers itself a climate leader yet continues to pursue new oil and gas projects, should do the same.

Some countries are already moving in the right direction. French President Emmanuel Macron has introduced a bill to phase out all oil and gas exploration and production in France and its overseas territories by 2040; the Scottish government has banned fracking altogether; and Costa Rica now produces the vast majority of its electricity without oil. But the real work is yet to come, with countries not only canceling plans for new fossil-fuel infrastructure, but also winding down existing systems.

A fossil-free economy can happen by design or by default. If we build it purposefully, we can address issues of equity and human rights, ensuring that the transition is fair and smooth, and that new energy infrastructure is ecologically sound and democratically controlled. If we allow it simply to happen on its own, many jurisdictions will be stuck with pipelines to nowhere, half-built mega-mines, and stranded assets that weaken the economy and contribute to political polarization and social unrest. There is only one sensible option.

Citizens around the world are championing a vision of a better future – a future in which communities, not corporations, manage their natural resources and ecosystems as commons, and people consume less, create less toxic plastic waste, and enjoy a generally healthier environment. It is up to our political leaders to deliver that vision. They should be working actively to engineer a just and smart shift to a future free of fossil fuels, not making that future harder and more expensive to achieve.

Tzeporah Berman, former Co-Director of Greenpeace International’s Climate Program and co-founder of ForestEthics, is a strategic adviser to a number of First Nations, environmental organizations, and philanthropic foundations and an adjunct professor at York University. She is the author of This Crazy Time: Living Our Environmental Challenge. Lili Fuhr heads the Ecology and Sustainable Development Department at the Heinrich Böll Foundation.
By Tzeporah Berman and Lili Fuhr

The US Plutocracy’s War on Sustainable Development

NEW YORK – The US plutocracy has declared war on sustainable development. Billionaires such as Charles and David Koch (oil and gas), Robert Mercer (finance), and Sheldon Adelson (casinos) play their politics for personal financial gain. They fund Republican politicians who promise to cut their taxes, deregulate their industries, and ignore the warnings of environmental science, especially climate science.


When it comes to progress toward achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the US placed 42nd out of 157 countries in a recent ranking of the SDG Index that I help to lead, far below almost all other high-income countries. Danish author Bjørn Lomborg was puzzled. How could such a rich country score so low? “America-bashing is popular and easy,” he surmised.

Yet this is not about America-bashing. The SDG Index is built on internationally comparable data relevant to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 157 countries. The real point is this: sustainable development is about social inclusion and environmental sustainability, not just wealth. The US ranks far behind other high-income countries because America's plutocracy has for many years turned its back on social justice and environmental sustainability.

The US is indeed a rich country, but Lord Acton’s famous aphorism applies to nations as well as to individuals: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The US plutocracy has wielded so much power for so long that it acts with impunity vis-à-vis the weak and the natural environment.

Four powerful lobbies have long held sway: Big Oil, private health care, the military-industrial complex, and Wall Street. These special interests feel especially empowered now by Donald Trump’s administration, which is filled with corporate lobbyists, not to mention several right-wing billionaires in the cabinet.

While the Sustainable Development Goals call for mitigating climate change through decarbonization (SDG 7, SDG 13), US fossil-fuel companies are strenuously resisting. Under the sway of Big Oil and Big Coal, Trump announced his intention to withdraw the US from the Paris climate agreement.

America’s annual energy-related per capita CO2 emissions, at 16.4 tons, are the highest in the world for a large economy. The comparable figure for Germany, for example, is 9.2 tons. The US Environmental Protection Agency, now in the hands of lobbyists from the fossil-fuel sector, dismantles environmental regulations every week (though many of these actions are being challenged in court).

The SDGs also call for reduced income inequality (SDG 10). America’s income inequality has soared in the past 30 years, with the Gini coefficient at 41.1, the second highest among high-income economies, just behind Israel (at 42.8). Republican proposals for tax cuts would increase inequality further. The US rate of relative poverty (households at less than half of median income), at 17.5%, is also the second highest in the OECD (again just behind Israel).

Likewise, while the SDGs target decent jobs for all (SDG 8), American workers are nearly the only ones in the OECD that lack guaranteed paid sick leave, family leave, and vacation days. The result is that more and more Americans work in miserable conditions without job protections. Around nine million American workers are stuck below the poverty line.

The US also suffers from an epidemic of malnutrition at the hands of the powerful US fast-food industry, which has essentially poisoned the public with diets loaded with saturated fats, sugar, and unhealthy processing and chemical additives. The result is an obesity rate of 33.7%, the highest by far in the OECD, with enormous adverse consequences for non-communicable diseases. America’s “healthy life expectancy” (morbidity-free years) is only 69.1 years, compared to 74.9 years in Japan and 73.1 years in Switzerland.

While the Sustainable Development Goals emphasize peace (SDG 16), America’s military-industrial complex pursues open-ended wars (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, to name some of America’s current engagements) and large-scale arms sales. On his recent visit to Saudi Arabia, Trump signed a deal to sell over $100 billion in weapons to the country, boasting that it would mean “jobs, jobs, jobs” in America’s defense sector.

America’s plutocracy contributes to homegrown violence as well. The US homicide rate, 3.9 per 100,000, is the highest of any OECD country, and several times higher than in Europe (Germany’s rate is 0.9 per 100,000). Month after month, there are mass shootings in the US, such as the massacre in Las Vegas. Yet the political power of the gun lobby, which opposes limits even on assault weapons, has blocked the adoption of measures that would boost public safety.

Another kind of violence is mass incarceration. With 716 inmates per 100,000 people, America has the world’s highest incarceration rate, roughly ten times that of Norway (71 per 100,000). Remarkably, America has partly privatized its prisons, creating an industry with an overriding interest in maximizing the number of prisoners. Former President Barack Obama issued a directive to phase out private federal prisons, but the Trump administration reversed it.

Lomborg also wonders why the US gets a low score on global “Partnership for the Goals,” even though the US gave around $33.6 billion in official development assistance (ODA) in 2016. The answer is easy: relative to gross national income of almost $19 trillion, ODA spending by the US amounted to just 0.18% of GNI – roughly a quarter of the global target of 0.7% of GDP.

America’s low ranking in the SDG Index is not America-bashing. Rather, it is a sad and troubling reflection of the wealth and power of lobbies relative to ordinary citizens in US politics. I recently helped to launch an effort to refocus state-level US politics around sustainable development, through a set of America’s Goals that candidates for state legislatures are beginning to adopt. I am confident that a post-Trump America will recommit itself to the values of the common good, both within America and as a global partner for sustainable development.

Jeffrey D. Sachs, Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, is Director of Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

By Jeffrey D. Sachs

The Curious Case of the Missing Defaults


CAMBRIDGE – Booms and busts in international capital flows and commodity prices, as well as the vagaries of international interest rates, have long been associated with economic crises, especially – but not exclusively – in emerging markets. The “type” of crisis varies by time and place. Sometimes the “sudden stop” in capital inflows sparks a currency crash, sometimes a banking crisis, and quite often a sovereign default. Twin and triple crises are not uncommon.


The impact of these global forces on open economies, and how to manage them, has been a recurring topic of discussion among international policymakers for decades. With the prospect of the US Federal Reserve raising interest rates in the near and medium term, it is perhaps not surprising that the International Monetary Fund’s 18th Annual Research Conference, to be held on November 2-3, is devoted to the study and discussion of the global financial cycle and how it affects cross-border capital flows.

Rising international interest rates have usually been bad news for countries where the government and/or the private sector rely on external borrowing. But for many emerging markets, external conditions began to worsen around 2012, when China’s growth slowed, commodity prices plummeted, and capital flows dried up – developments that sparked a spate of currency crashes spanning nearly every region.

In my recent work with Vincent Reinhart and Christoph Trebesch, I show that over the past two centuries, this “double bust” (in commodities and capital flows) has led to a spike in sovereign defaults, usually with a lag of 1-3 years. Yet, since the peak in commodity prices and global capital flows around 2011, the incidence of sovereign defaults worldwide has risen only modestly.

If the model fitted to almost 200 years of data is used to predict the share of countries in default, the predictions are consistently higher than what has materialized to date. This is the case of the missing defaults.

A caveat, as our study highlights, is that there is a potential mismeasurement of the “true” incidence of default, which we cannot begin to quantify at this time – namely, defaults or accumulated arrears on Chinese loans. China’s lending to many emerging markets, most notably commodity producers, rose significantly during the last boom. While most of this lending is from official Chinese sources, much of it is not reflected in the World Bank data, and unknown amounts may well be in default or protracted arrears.

This state of affairs describes the situation in a number of African commodity producers and Venezuela. While Venezuela’s government-run oil company continues to service its external bonds (which is why no default appears in the books of the credit rating agencies), debts owed to China are understood to be in arrears.

Measurement issues aside, there are two types of explanation for the missing defaults. The first is that emerging market economies are more resilient this time around. This view, which suggests a structural shift, was emphasized in early October during one of the most upbeat IMF/World Bank annual meetings in recent memory, and the message was echoed in The Economist’s special report “Freedom from financial fear.”

Recent studies suggest that less procyclical fiscal and monetary policies and stronger macroprudential measures during the inflow phase or boom may have left countries on a more solid footing to cope with sudden capital-flow reversals. In the past, it was all too common for policymakers to convince themselves that a boom in commodity prices and associated surge in government revenues was permanent. Government expenditures would then ratchet up during the boom, only to be slashed as revenues sank along with commodity prices. Aside from waning procyclicality, macroprudential policies and capital controls appear to help restrain the intensity of aggregate credit booms and asset bubbles, with policies in place during the boom enhancing economic resilience during the bust.

The second type of explanation focuses on external factors. The largest global surges in sovereign defaults have usually followed a capital-flow reversal that overlaps with a spike in international interest rates. The worst outcomes (Category 5 hurricanes of debt) involved a triple blow to a class of capital importers (the commodity producers).

Today, global liquidity conditions have not tightened as markedly or as rapidly as in the bust phase of previous cycles. Exceptionally low and stable interest rates have acted to dampen debt-servicing difficulties among the debtor countries and may also help explain the missing defaults.

In sum, while there is evidence to suggest that the macroeconomic management of capital inflow surges has been improving over time in emerging markets as a whole, one has to recall that prior to the 2007-2009 global financial crisis, a widely accepted view was that the advanced economies had tamed the business cycle. This was the short-lived era of the so-called Great Moderation.

Perhaps the change is structural. But a more cautious interpretation of the missing defaults is that the protracted nature of the downturn in international conditions has yet to take its cumulative toll, or that lingering weaknesses will only become evident once the major central banks move further along in renormalizing their policy stances.

Carmen Reinhart is Professor of the International Financial System at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

By Carmen Reinhart

Publicizing the Plight of Journalists

AMSTERDAM – Every five days, on average, somewhere in the world, a journalist is murdered for being a journalist. Nine out of ten times, no one is prosecuted, creating an atmosphere of impunity that extends beyond death threats or violence. Imprisonment of journalists is at an all-time high, and members of the press routinely suffer harassment and intimidation while on assignment. Today, journalism is one of the most dangerous professions anywhere.


One way to address this state of affairs is by talking about it. Three recent examples highlight the risks journalists take to report the news, and underscore why publicizing their plight is the only way to bring about change.

Consider Maria Ressa, CEO of Rappler.com, an online news network based in the Philippines. Since founding Rappler in 2012, Ressa’s website has become an invaluable source of information about the extrajudicial killings linked to President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs.” For her enterprising reporting, Ressa has received more than 80 death threats in the last month alone. Many of these warnings have come from anonymous bloggers, with IP addresses traceable to the president’s associates.

Then there is the case of William Ntege, a journalist who reported on recent protests against Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s decision to run in the next presidential election, despite constitutional prohibitions preventing him from doing so. Ntege was severely beaten by police for his coverage, and held in jail for more than ten days.

Finally, there is the erosion of press freedoms in Myanmar. A new clause written into the country’s media law allows citizens to file a lawsuit if they have a complaint with an article or news item, even if the reporting does not directly mention them. This legal provision – in sharp contrast to international norms – has led to 61 cases filed against journalists since February 2016, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy came to power.

Infringements of press freedom like these have become common tactics for autocratic regimes, from Turkey to Russia and beyond. But it is not only despots and strongmen who have declared war on the press. In Colombia and Mexico, hundreds of journalists have been placed under armed guard to protect them from criminal syndicates. Yet this hasn’t stopped journalists across Latin America from leaving the profession in droves. A favorite strategy of Mexican drug gangs seeking to stay out of the headlines is to threaten investigative journalists’ children. No wonder the media’s ranks are shrinking.

Part of the reason most consumers of news do not know these stories is that organizations like mine have long worked to ensure that journalists never become the story. Press freedom groups have typically operated under the assumption that the best way to protect fact-based, investigative journalism is to shield the storyteller from violence. And, like most journalists, we have opted to do our jobs quietly, rather than burdening readers and viewers with how dangerous the profession has become. But it is time to change our approach, and make a point of highlighting the hazards.

For example, Ntege was released only after considerable effort by a team of lawyers retained by Reporters Respond, the Free Press Unlimited emergency fund for journalist safety. Since the fund’s inception in 2011, it has helped dozens of journalists around the world, including, most recently, a group of reporters fleeing mob violence in Burundi. And a huge number of organizations aid journalists in distress in the Middle East, in Eastern Europe, and elsewhere. These stories behind the news must be told.

Of course, telling these tales is just the beginning. Press freedom advocates must also deliver journalists a stronger, more coordinated framework for their protection and safety. To that end, my organization is engaging with other global entities to strengthen the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. We have also begun holding regular meetings with other media freedom groups to devise a path forward. And, we have started working to ensure that media protections are backed up by legislation and enforcement. Journalists will need brave prosecutors and judges to hold attackers accountable if impunity is to end.

But the most important changes must come from within the media industry itself. Because journalists’ safety directly affects news organizations’ employees, freelancers, and audiences, these organizations should report on the topic. With attacks on the press increasing, the old approach – prideful silence – no longer makes sense. If the journalists use their platforms to inform the world of the dangers they and their colleagues face, the world will have to listen.

Violence against journalists has historically been an issue that has remained behind the headlines. On November 2, as the world recognizes the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, let’s commit to making these stories front-page news.

Leon Willems is Director of Free Press Unlimited.

By Leon Willems

Planning Better Cities

NAIROBI AND DUBAI – Cities, the American-Canadian author Jane Jacobs once observed, are engines for national prosperity and economic growth. But in their current form, modern cities are also catalysts of inequality and environmental degradation. Today, the share of city dwellers in poverty is growing; 33% live in slums; and 75% of global carbon dioxide emissions originate in metropolitan areas. Statistics like these should give us pause: Are cities really the best way to organize human life?


They can be, but only with significant adjustments to how they are planned, built, and managed. For city-led growth to empower a sustainable, prosperous future, governments and developers must reintroduce a user-centered approach to urbanization.

Today, most cities fail to include key stakeholders in the planning process, leading to exclusionary development. Consider the ubiquitous housing project on the edge of town, a characteristic of many poorly planned cities. Built in the middle of nowhere, these multi-unit eyesores are often cut off from public transportation and other services, compounding residents’ isolation from the urban core.

But design flaws like these, which have both economic and social implications, are just the beginning. Even more worrying to urban planning professionals like us is that in many places, the entire planning process – the way we think about cities, how they are used, and by whom – is flawed.

Even the world’s best-intentioned planning departments do not always put the public first. Part of this reflects uncertainty about who “owns” a city. Residents might call a city “theirs,” but government leaders often act in ways that suggest otherwise. For example, a government seeking to attract investment might equate economic interests with residents’ needs, and thus lower environmental standards or tax burdens for businesses. Such decisions might, however, lead to deurbanization, with people leaving cities as they become less livable.

The gap between economic viability and environmental responsibility can be especially wide. Consider the production of traditional, gasoline-powered cars. Although this type of industry might power some cities’ growth today, the public’s growing concern about CO2 emissions from these vehicles is spurring changes in consumer demand. Businesses that can capitalize on such shifts will be better positioned for long-term growth.

Unfortunately, for-profit entities typically fail to see future generations as tomorrow’s customers. Their short-term vision not only hurts their bottom line; it also affects cities, by trading immediate gain for quality of life.

So, what can be done to ensure that urban planning is conducted with the interests of cities’ actual users – particularly their residents – in mind?

Most cities lack a democratic planning process, and in many large metropolitan areas, inequality is sewn into the social fabric. So institutionalizing participatory planning must be the starting point. Programs that safeguard local democracy by encouraging transparency and accountability are critical. Residents who are equipped with the knowledge and means to express their views on issues affecting their communities make better neighbors. And planning discussions that take their views into account produce better design. Because leaders everywhere, under any type of political system, are judged by the livability of the places they oversee, an inclusive planning process should be every city’s goal.

With participatory planning as a starting point, governments and residents can move toward building cities that are more strategically linked to their surrounding regions and areas beyond. This type of growth is not only about transportation links, but also about coordinating policies and actions across sectors, including housing, social services, and banking. In this way, regional roles and responsibilities become more clearly defined, with finite resources allocated strategically, equitably, and according to a common agenda.

Too often, cities manage resources in bureaucratic silos, which can increase competition among precisely those who must work in concert if the urban areas they regulate are to invest wisely and implement policies effectively. Local autonomy can be achieved only through strong regional cooperation and coordination.

Urban sprawl is a good example of why a regional approach to planning is critical. Limiting sprawl requires a coordinated territorial strategy, so that cities can address common concerns, like the transportation of goods, clustering of housing and services, and management and placement of industrial corridors. Inter-municipal cooperation can also achieve economies of scale by discouraging unnecessary competition.

Many urban areas are being designed as “cities for the rich,” rather than population centers for all. This is gradually encouraging social segregation and threatening the security and safety of residents. Planning buzzwords like “smart cities” and “sustainable urban development” mean little if the theories behind them benefit only a few.

As Jacobs predicted, the “city” will remain the world’s engine of economic growth and prosperity for many decades to come. But if that engine is to run most efficiently, the mechanism powering it – the urban planning process itself – will need a tune-up.

Christine Auclair is project leader of the World Urban Campaign at the United Nation Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). Mahmoud Al Burai is CEO of the Dubai Real Estate Institute, an arm of the Dubai government.

By Christine Auclair and Mahmoud Al Burai

Dealing with Damaging Institutional Inertia

LONDON – Deeply rooted, credible, accountable, and effective institutions have long been deemed crucial for a society’s lasting wellbeing and prosperity. They shield countries from frequent and unsettling volatility, be it economic, political, or social, and they reduce the risk of costly shocks. But, nowadays, key political and economic institutions are being pressured by unusual fluidity in their operating environments and the effects of a cumulative loss of trust on the part of their constituencies.


The implications vary, with a much higher probability of adaptation, including through a relatively orderly process of creative destruction and re-creation, for private entities compared to public ones. The latter require an intensification of reform efforts, lest they constitute another obstacle to the global economy’s ability to deliver high and inclusive growth on a lasting basis.

Like a well-designed, well-functioning road network, strong institutions empower economies by ensuring a stable operating environment, smoother transmission mechanisms, less costly and less risky economic interactions, a credible set of property rights, and respect for the rule of law. They act not only as enablers of a wide range of win-win relationships, but also as trusted gatekeepers. Accordingly, for decades such institutions were widely viewed as the main feature differentiating advanced economies from developing countries that are still subject to a much larger array of damaging cyclical and structural shocks.

In recent years, however, this characterization has been challenged, as the standing of private and public institutions with significant systemic influence has declined.

For an expanding set of private firms, the main source of pressure has been technological, particularly those advances underpinned by the increasingly powerful mix of artificial intelligence, big data, and mobility. The challenge has proven particularly severe, if not fatal, for those facing intense competition from entrants able to combine disruptive content and big platforms – the most notable examples being Amazon, Facebook, Google, Netflix, and Uber. As illustrated by the increased regulatory interest they are now attracting, as well as the increased media attention devoted to various controversies (such as those relating to “fake news” and internal corporate cultures), these companies must adapt and remain agile as they gain greater systemic influence and notice.

The adjustment process is even trickier for public institutions, especially given their wide-ranging roles as gatekeepers, enablers, and regulators. Often embodying the properties of “natural monopolies,” they are not only shielded from disruption but can also repress and delay beneficial innovations. Internal inertia, incomplete information, risk aversion, and conscious and unconscious biases combine to impede recognition of the urgency and importance of adaptation. Even more benign shortcomings – such as slowness in modernizing laws to catch up to changing realities – detract from economic wellbeing.

The visible and persistent failure of education systems to adopt exciting technological breakthroughs is a well-known example of this inertia. Less obvious is the lag among economic institutions in updating policy approaches, including through faster incorporation of important insights and tools from behavioral science, AI, neuroscience, and other disciplines. Then there are the persistent slippages in skill acquisition programs.

As a result, there has been a notable erosion of trust in the effectiveness of public institutions. And the damage to their credibility risks further undermining their effectiveness and perpetuating a vicious circle set in motion by their failure to generate high and inclusive growth.

Our understanding of how public institutions should adapt and reform is still evolving. As such, a complete solution is yet to emerge. But a few imperatives are already clear.

• Limit harm, including by resisting the natural inclination to promulgate increasingly ineffective, albeit established approaches, entities, and mindsets.

• Be much more open to the lessons that can be learned from external disruptors, and be willing to revisit the underpinnings of processes and entire business models.

• Enhance public-private interactions, not just for direct content, but also as a way to broaden the scope for greater cross-fertilization of best practices.

• Improve methods of public communications, lest continued information failures, aging channels, and the cumulative erosion of trust compound operational shortcomings.

Up to now, too many inherently influential institutions have lagged in identifying and implementing reforms. This has amplified the disappointment, alienation, and marginalization felt by segments of the population vis-à-vis governments that do not hear or respond to a deeply entrenched fear of economic insecurity. It is a phenomenon that has been many years in the making, that cannot be eliminated overnight, and that increasingly fuels social and political disruptions.

Institutions matter, especially in a period of economic, political, and social fluidity. The longer it takes to restore confidence in key public and, to a lesser extent, private institutions, the greater the impediments to our wellbeing and that of our children.

Mohamed A. El-Erian, Chief Economic Adviser at Allianz, was Chairman of US President Barack Obama’s Global Development Council and is the author of The Only Game in Town: Central Banks, Instability, and Avoiding the Next Collapse.

By Mohamed A. El-Erian

The Transformative Power of Africa’s Youth

TORONTO – A few years ago, during a conversation with young people from some of Senegal’s poorest communities, a pair of social entrepreneurs told me about projects they were working on to help their peers succeed. One young man said he planned to put more computers into primary schools; another had set up a network to connect rural job seekers in the urban tumult of Dakar, Senegal’s capital.


After they finished sharing their plans, I congratulated them, and said that their parents must be very proud. But instead of accepting the compliment, they demurred. “My parents are against what I’m doing,” they said, almost in unison, before explaining that young people face family pressure to get a government job or use their English skills to work as a tour guide – not to become a risk-taking entrepreneur.

For ambitious young Africans, there are many obstacles to success. The journey to a job – whether formal or informal, entrepreneurial or traditional – is often a solitary one. Many young people lack access to skills training or even a favorable social environment to try something new. As I was reminded that day in Senegal, helping young people find gainful employment is the most important thing that the international community can do to help Africa develop.

Africa is home to the world’s largest population of young people. In about 25 years, those young people will be part of the biggest workforce in the world, with more than 1.1 billion people of working age. By some forecasts, 11 million people will enter Africa’s labor market each year for the next decade, most of whom will be first-time job seekers.

If African countries boost job growth and equip young people with employable skills, this youth bulge can deliver rapid, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth to the continent. In turn, millions would have the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty.

But Africa cannot achieve this future alone. At the Mastercard Foundation, we believe that, if Africa is to reach its potential, gaps in two keys areas must be closed.

The first area is access to financial products and services. According to the World Bank, some two billion people around the world currently lack such access. In Sub-Saharan Africa, just 34% of adults have a bank account, making it difficult for people to put money aside for unplanned events, like a bad harvest, or to save for school. This must change, with Africans gaining not only better access to banking systems, but also improved financial literacy.

The second key challenge that must be addressed is exclusion from secondary and higher education. While progress has been made in some regions, only about one-third of Africa’s young people graduate from high school. Girls are particularly disadvantaged; according to UNESCO, in Sub-Saharan Africa, an estimated nine million girls under the age of 11 have never been to school, compared to six million boys.

To address these issues, the Mastercard Foundation has established partnerships with local organizations to design education and financial-literacy programs aimed at helping young people find and keep jobs. By building a better-trained workforce, the Foundation’s programs are helping to empower the next generation of Africa’s community members and leaders, so that they can help their families, communities, and countries achieve a brighter and more prosperous future.

Already, a new generation of educated and ethical entrepreneurs, like those I met in Senegal, is emerging across Africa, demonstrating a profound commitment to building a stronger Africa. For example, when I ask young people participating in our Scholars Program what they plan to do with their new skills, they almost always reply that after getting a job, they plan to help somebody else, by returning to their secondary schools to serve as mentors to younger students.

Some of our program’s graduates have even established community projects in their villages to address HIV/AIDS or to build shelters for orphans and young children. Every one of these bright young Africans – examples of what the Mastercard Foundation calls “transformative leadership” in action – has the potential to drive change in their own countries and communities.

Those of us working in the field of international development can help level the playing field even more, by giving young Africans from all backgrounds an opportunity to lead in transformative ways. If we succeed, Africa’s dreamers of today will be the catalysts of positive change tomorrow. Reeta Roy is President and CEO of the Mastercard Foundation.

By Reeta Roy

A Chinese Model for Foreign Aid

SINGAPORE – Last month, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation released a status report tracking progress on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The data, which were meant to highlight efforts to eradicate extreme poverty and reduce premature deaths, was also intended to cajole. Countries can, and must, do more to address the global development challenges that the planet collectively faces, the report concluded.


No country was singled out in the Gates report for its potential to restore the “world’s commitment to development.” Rather, “leaders everywhere” bear responsibility for ensuring that the SDGs are met by 2030. But we believe there is one country that can do more than others to build the world envisaged by the SDGs: China.

Two years into the SDG program, international development is at a crossroads. The United States, long the torchbearer of foreign aid, is retreating; so is Europe (albeit to a lesser extent). But China, with its newly articulated global ambitions, has an opportunity to reinvigorate the conception and delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015, the SDGs outline a vision for global development that targets poverty, education, public health, inequality, sustainability, and climate action over the next 15 years. It presents a broad vision for development, whereby issues once viewed as country-specific are treated as challenges for the entire world to tackle collectively. By contrast, the Millennium Development Goals, which ended in 2015, were more narrowly focused, and primarily targeted at issues affecting poor countries.

But the Gates’ study suggests that some of the SDG targets are already in jeopardy. For example, the health goal (SDG 3), which includes a target for eliminating preventable deaths among newborns and children, is unlikely to be achieved in the allotted timeframe. At the current pace, mortality reduction in South Asia and Africa will not be realized until mid-century.

Clearly, more investment is needed globally in the types of interventions that have proven effective locally. Ethiopia’s Health Extension Worker program and Malawi’s Health Surveillance Assistant program have been proven to reduce child mortality. Aid dollars should be earmarked to help programs like these expand to other regions.

Instead, the opposite is happening. The growing isolationism associated with the populist backlash around the world is having severe consequences for foreign assistance. According to the OECD, bilateral aid to the world’s least-developed countries fell by nearly 4% in 2016. This is an alarming drop for these countries, given that official development assistance (ODA) accounts for more than two thirds of the aid they receive.

The US, which remains the world’s largest donor for nutrition programs and for maternal and child health initiatives, is leading the funding retreat. President Donald Trump’s 2017 budget proposal includes a staggering 45% cut to funding by the US Agency for International Development for water and sanitation projects, a 26% cut to global health funding, and the elimination of funds for family planning. While it is not clear whether Congress will support Trump’s budget request, which would amount to billions of dollars in lost aid, even a minor reduction in US aid spending would hurt many of the world’s poorest.

The US is not alone in its foreign aid retrenchment. The European Union’s 2018 draft budget proposes a €90 million ($106 million) cut to development spending, while Austria, Germany, and Italy have all diverted development assistance budgets towards migration crises viewed as imminent national security threats. These are troubling trends, because private philanthropy cannot replace aid withdrawn by governments.

The world needs a new champion for international development, and China should assume the role. With weakening ODA commitments from traditional donors, China has a chance to lead in human development, poverty alleviation, and public health spending.

It is true that China’s aid model differs from the West’s. Europe and the US have historically focused on funding health care and education initiatives, while encouraging civil-society growth and participation. China, on the other hand, grants aid on a bilateral basis, and has typically targeted its funding toward infrastructure projects. But Chinese leaders have also recently shown interest in aid to strengthen civil society and improve livelihoods.

Although Chinese ODA is still a fraction of what OECD countries spend, China has signaled its interest in becoming a development leader, especially in the health sector. At the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Summit in New York, China pledged $2 billion to help implement the SDG agenda, and China’s flagship “Belt and Road Initiative” includes health cooperation as part of its proposed strategy. In 2014, China also committed $47 million to help contain the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. While that was significantly lower than the US pledge of $1.8 billion, China was among the fastest to deliver on its commitment.

China’s geopolitical and economic influence is growing, and so, too, must its role in promoting international peace and development. Skepticism about China’s development intentions will no doubt emerge, given China’s political and ideological differences with the West. But the skepticism could yield positive results, especially if it prompts Western powers to reevaluate their foreign aid retreat.

Even if it does not, China has the tools to become a leader in international development. And, having lifted some 470 million of its own citizens out of extreme poverty between 1990 and 2005, it also has the experience. But, more than anything, China now has the political opportunity. As the US and Europe turn inward, ensuring the SDGs’ success will increasingly depend on encouraging – and becoming accustomed to – Chinese leadership.

Asit K. Biswas is a visiting professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Kris Hartley is a lecturer in public policy at the University of Melbourne and a non-resident fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

By Asit K. Biswas and Kris Hartley

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