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Why the Climate Talks in Bonn Ended in Failure

At the beginning of the climate conference in Bonn, Germany, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres called on delegates to do what was “politically possible” and make “incremental” progress. By most accounts, the Bonn talks fell short of even these modest goals. Rifts between poor countries and rich nations that were papered over in Copenhagen reopened leaving delegates with more to debate at the final climate conference in Tianjin, China before the year-end Cancun summit and less common ground from which to begin discussions.

Contentious topics grew more heated and previously settled issues were reconsidered. China continued to claim that international monitoring of its emissions would interfere with its sovereignty. Developing countries sought to make the emissions targets they’d agreed to in Copenhagen voluntary, while insisting that rich countries’ reductions remain mandatory. Some poor nations also sought to increase the amounts of money pledged for climate change mitigation from the long-term goal of $100 billion a year by 2020 and short-term goal of $10 billion a year by 2012. (Although US deputy special climate envoy Jonathan Pershing said they were seeking “staggering sums out of line with reality,” the pledged figures now seem less substantial when compared with China’s plan to spend some $70 billion a year for a decade on renewable energy investments and the costs of rebuilding after climate-related disasters in Pakistan and Russia.)

Each dispute added contentious pages to the climate text under discussion, which must now be whittled back down in the Tianjin talks in October. This “tit for tat” diplomacy, as the European Union’s co-lead negotiator Artur Runge-Metzger described it, caused the working draft to double in size from 17 to 34 pages.

The only thing all negotiators seemed to agree upon was that their efforts in Bonn had been unsuccessful. “These negotiations have if anything gone backwards,” said the EU’s climate action commissioner Connie Hedegaard. “All parties seem to be having a difficult time coming to convergence and the text is larger than it has to be,” America’s Pershing told the press. He claimed that during the talks some countries had been “walking back from progress made in Copenhagen.” Dessima Williams of Grenada, who served as the spokeswoman for the 43-nation Association of Small Island States, concurred: “There seems to be some backsliding. This is very lamentable and very unhealthy.”

The Guardian’s John Vidal tried to find the thinnest sliver lining in the very dark clouds over Bonn. Referring to the controversial Danish text, which would have sidelined the UN and abandoned the Kyoto Protocol, and the nonbinding Copenhagen Accords that President Obama helped cobble together at the last minute of the previous climate summit, Vidal suggests that perhaps “what we are seeing is the welcome, overdue correction to last year’s kamikaze global diplomacy which fatally destabilised the global talks and ended in the Copenhagen fiasco. This analysis would say the negotiations are back on track, the majority of world countries are involved as opposed to just a few, and, with a fair wind and a raised level of ambition by everyone, it could lead to a much more balanced agreement.”

But neither he–nor I–are much swayed by this rose tinted view: “More likely is that the level of ambition for Cancun will be reduced further with no more than a package of agreements negotiated and all the tough stuff put back until next year. Or 2013. Or 2014,” Vidals concludes. That, he says, would be “the nightmare scenario”–an outcome that the squabbling in Bonn has made all the more likely.

While Figures and UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon both attempted to put a brave face on the Bonn talks, they could not succeed in securing more emission reduction pledges. Worse, many existing commitments were thrown into question. The most recent report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that developed nations must make 25-40 percent reductions below the 1990 benchmark by 2020 to stave off the worst effects of climate change. The now-weakened pledges made after Copenhagen were estimated to only amount to a cut of 12 to 19 percent, well short of the safe reduction range. Any climate meeting that does not bring the political promises closer to the scientifically requisite reductions can only be viewed as a failure.

UPDATE: A reader writes in:

Corbin- welcome to my world : ). I’m impressed at the few people who can glue the pieces together from afar. One thing- “Developing countries sought to make the emissions targets they’d agreed to in Copenhagen voluntary, while insisting that rich countries’ reductions remain mandatory.” I’d be careful here. A lot of the press from Bonn read perhaps too much like a press release from the US State Department. A more balanced approach would include looking at bullying in Copenhagen and who all really had a say in the Accord/what these countries really had or had not agreed to in the first place. “You’re backing away from your commitments!” may make tactical sense to the US team as a message, but I don’t think it’s necessarily an accurate assessment of how things are playing out. Vidal is right- we shouldn’t forget the “agreement” in Copenhagen was never really agreement, no matter how much a few countries want to package it that way to distract attention from their own shortcomings.

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Kagame’s Election

Rwandans re-elected Paul Kagame, who has been president since 2000, to lead their country for another seven-year term. In many ways, this election is about Kagame and his ruling party, the Rwanda Patriotic Front. A fascinating and complicated personality, Kagame has been hailed both as a “visionary leader” and an “iron-fisted strong man,” though the latter perspective has only recently emerged in earnest. Laura Seay, a political scientist at Morehouse College, offers the view that, like most politicians, Paul Kagame is neither angel nor demon; just a skillfull political tactician trying to stay in power. I’d argue, though, that he is a little bit of both, and yesterday’s landslide election epitomizes the Rwandan president’s complexity.


Kagame, the angel: donor darling and African icon

Over the last decade, and in large part thanks to Kagame’s personal efforts, Rwanda has achieved significant political, economic and social development gains. In 2008, the Rwandan parliament became the first to be composed of a majority of women. Poverty and literacy rates, life expectancy and school enrollment have all improved over the last decade. Thanks to his international stature, Kagame has attracted foreign investment, which has helped Rwanda achieve sustained economic growth.

In 2009, Fast Company featured an article highlighting Rwanda’s – and more specifically, Kagame’s – unprecedented approach to development: “build a global network of powerful friends to lure private investment — and market the brand of Rwanda.” This model has proved successful for the country, which in addition to drawing significant levels of foreign investment, has also been receiving large volumes of official development aid and been a prime recipient of international NGO support. These tangible results and a visible commitment to improving his country are the foundation of Kagame’s status as an African icon in the eyes of Rwandans and the international community.


Kagame, the demon: authoritarian tendencies

For all the undeniable good he’s brought to his country, Kagame has nevertheless failed to foster an environment for a healthy democracy to take root. Between suspicious assassinations of political opponents, arrests of top military officials, and the silencing of private media, Kagame has effectively disabled any substantial political opposition. In April 2010, a Human Rights Watch representative was denied a visa to enter Rwanda, again raising concerns that the government is putting a lid on free speech in the country. Human Rights Watch offers a chronology of violations of the right to freedom of expression, association, and assembly in Rwanda which clearly shows that in spite of the advances on the development front, much remains to be done for civil rights in Rwanda.

Kagame has also taken a controversial stance on Chinese investments in Africa, arguing that these investments are more likely to help African countries reach self-sufficiency than foreign aid will. The debate is ongoing as to the long-term effects of an increased Chinese economic presence on the continent. What’s interesting to note about Kagame’s strong endorsement of Chinese investments, however, is the strong sub-text about breaking free from Western standards and the obligations that come with accepting foreign aid in terms of governance and democracy. 

The atmosphere of repression, the silencing of dissent and the general lack of viable political opponents has meant that yesterday’s election results were completely unsurprising; so much so that Kagame supporters were already planning to celebrate before the vote even took place. For local and international media, the story was hardly newsworthy: Kagame’s victory came as no surprise to analysts, observers and voters alike. 


For Rwandans, though, their country’s dramatic turnaround is something that is to be credited to Kagame. Under his leadership, Rwanda has achieved undeniable social and economic progress, and Kagame has presided over an era of desperately needed stability and security. According to preliminary results, nearly 93% of voters cast their ballot for him. This incredibly high number was reached not only through a combination of repression, clever public relations, control of the media, and silencing of opposition, but also because Kagame is seen has having delivered peace and development to his people. For a country that has suffered so much in recent history, it’s understandable that voters would want to ensure that the climate of stability endures.

According to Rwanda’s constitution, this is supposed to be Kagame’s last term as president. It will be interesting to see how he prepares his exit from executive leadership – if at all – in the coming years.

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Q and A with UN Official on Pakistan Floods

I speak with Stephanie Bunker of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs about the catastrophic flooding in Pakistan. 

Interview with UN Official on Pakistan floods by UN Dispatch

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US Media Silent on Pakistan Flooding

A country that is at the center of US foreign policy is experiencing a calamity the likes of which it has never seen. So why in the world is there nary a mention of the Pakistan floods on the homepages of both the New York Times and Washington Post?  There is nothing above the fold on the homepage, no mention below the fold and not even a link in the lower headline boxes:













This is really astonishing to me.  In terms of sheer number of people affected,  the Pakistan floods exceed the number of people affected by the Indian Ocean Tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir Earthquake and the Haiti earthquake combined.  13 million people are in need of some sort of assistance because of this flooding. Millions are left homeless, many thousands require basic food assistance. Pakistan’s cotton and rice industry is wiped out.  The democratically elected civilian government is under fire for failing to adequately respond to the crisis, and it would appear that the Pakistani military and even insurgent groups are filling the gap.  

Meanwhile, the areas that are hardest hit are also those where the fight against the Taliban and a Qaeda is most intense.  And it would appear that flood aid is already being considered a legitimate target in that battle.  The Pakistani Taliban have warned the government against receiving foreign aid, saying that the Taliban itself will provide aid.  And lest you think this is just bravado, remember that this same group dispatched a suicide bomber to the World Food Program’s headquarters in Islamabad last year.  

Just how dire is this crisis in humanitarian terms? Here is what humanitarian agencies on the ground are saying:


UNHCR has been working in coordination with the government, UN agencies and charities on the ground to respond to the crisis and meet the needs for food, shelter, medicine and water. Although we have the benefit of a presence in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces dating back more than 32 years, meeting the demands of this crisis is a massive challenge. In Balochistan Province, for example, our stockpiles are nearly exhausted. Trucks despatched from Peshawar, Karachi and and Lahore carrying additional tents and other items have been delayed in some instances for more than a week by flooded roads. In parts of the Swat Valley of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (KPK), in Pakistan’s mountainous north, reaching affected areas remains difficult due to landslides or bridges having been cut. In these areas thousands of people in need of aid are currently still inaccessible.


Almost 14 million people are now affected by the floods in Pakistan according to latest figures, and that number is likely to increase with water now surging south into Sindh Province. The UN now describes the floods as the world’s “worst” current disaster but compared with other recent crises the speed of the response to Pakistan’s flooding has been sluggish. As of 9 August 2010, according to the UN’s financial tracking system, less than $45m has been committed, plus $91m pledged, which breaks down to $3.20 committed per flood affected person.

This pales in comparison with the amounts committed to other crises. Within the first 10 days of the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, which left some 3.5m people homeless, the international community had committed $247m and pledged $45m. This works out to $70 committed per person, 10 days into the crisis.

In the first 10 days after Cyclone Nargis, which affected 2.4m when it struck off the coast of Myanmar, almost $110m was committed (and $109m pledged) in the first 10 days. This works out at $46 committed per person.

Likewise some $742m was committed to Haiti 10 days after the quake and $920 million pledged. Some 1.5m were directly affected by the quake, which works out at $495 per person, in funds committed, in the first 10 days.


We’re particularly concerned about the needs of 600,000 people in the north of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province,” said WFP Pakistan Director Wolfgang Herbinger. “These people can only be reached by helicopter and for three days over the weekend — because of the bad weather — our helicopters were not able to fly.

Chart of Historical Natural Disaster Events in Pakistan

Pakistan Floods-Historical Natural Disaster Events

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African NBA Stars Use Height to Hang Bed Nets in Senegal

Friend of Dispatch Adrianna Logalbo of  Nothing but Nets send along this dispatch from Senegal:

Last Friday the Nothing But Nets campaign did something we have never done before. We took 20 NBA and WNBA players, coaches, and Legends, to kick off a distribution of 20,000 life-saving bed nets in the town of Rufisque, Senegal – a small town outside the capital, Dakar.

As you drive into Rufisque, it’s easy to see why malaria is such a rampant killer – the town is densely populated and the aging, dilapidated infrastructure leaves pools of standing water during the rainy season we are currently in the midst of – the perfect breeding ground for the malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

When we arrived in Rufisque, the town had gathered with the local officials to welcome the NBA players and talk about the importance of sleeping under bed nets each and every night. Rufisque has a goal for 2010: no severe cases of malaria and no deaths. This bed net distribution will go a long way to making this possible.

To make the distribution manageable, we split into groups and took five different routes along main streets through the town. I headed out with NBA Legend Dikembe Mutombo, Nothing But Nets Champion DeSagana Diop (Charlotte Bobcats), Danilo Gallinari (New York Knicks) and Ronny Turiaf (New York Knicks)

These guys were meant to help hang nets! They had no problem reaching high across a room to put a nail in the wall and string up the four corners of the nets. As a native of Senegal, DeSagana needed no help from the translators we had arranged through the Peace Corps – he jumped right in to speak with the families, ask for the coupons they had received the day before to redeem the nets, and rip open bags to take out life-saving nets, handing them to mothers to help protect their families from malaria.

Each time we walked to another house, Ronny got into a game of street soccer with the kids. He turned to me at one point and said what he really appreciated about the Nothing But Nets campaign was that he knows where each $10 is going – and we were able to see those $10 contributions at work in Rufisque firsthand.

Over the course of two weeks, the 20,000 nets (200 bales) were delivered by boat from Vestergaard-Frandsen in Ghana, put on a truck in the port in Dakar, and unloaded at the health clinic in Rufisque. Meanwhile, 20 community health workers were mobilized to go door to door, educating families on the nets and taking a census to see the number of bed nets needed to cover each sleeping space.

And finally, with the professional basketball players’ help yesterday, we were able to distribute the nets to each home and help hang them. It was an amazing day – successful only through partnership between NBA Cares, Nothing But Nets, USAID, Peace Corp, the Ministry of Health and the National Malaria Control Programme.

Malaria accounts for about a quarter of all deaths recorded in hospitals in Senegal.  Bed nets can dramatically reduce that toll.  Send a net, save a life. 

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Wyclef and Bill Clinton Visit as Haiti Teeters on the Edge

My third visit to Haiti since the tragedy of the January 12 earthquake coincided with the visits of two much more noteworthy individuals, Bill Clinton and Wyclef Jean. President Clinton was visiting in his dual, but separate, roles as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Haiti and Co-chair of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC). The Ex-Fugee and renowned entertainer was there to submit his paperwork and announce his candidacy for the Presidency of Haiti. While both of these visitors garnered press attention and created an even greater than normal mess of traffic in Port-au-Prince, neither seemed to cause much of a stir among the Haitian population, or the UN, NGO, and Haitian civil service staffers with whom I was in the country to meet. These groups were all too busy surviving, working, and striving to meet the day-to-day needs of the millions of people in need of services in Haiti, including the approximately 1.5 million living in temporary camps.

For me, and many others who spend time in Haiti I expect, the daily, or hourly, swings from hope to despair create a kind of emotional whiplash. Walking with a police patrol through the isolated Camp Corail, which is about a 25 minute drive –if traffic cooperates – from Port-au-Prince, I was both encouraged and wary. The camp is well-organized with tents in neatly arranged and well-spaced rows. Food and water supplies seemed adequate. Children approached to talk, laugh and kick soccer balls with the multi-national group of Haitian and UN police and Peruvian peacekeepers that guard and patrol the camp, keeping the roughly 6,000 inhabitants safe. The smiles of everyone in the camp provided a sense that while life is difficult, there is a way forward.

But, the questions nag. What would a hurricane, or even a strong storm, do to these neatly ordered tents? Where can these people get work out here, so far from any community or marketplace? Will the new transitional wood frame structures being built, at a hoped-for pace of 5 per day, become permanent? I posed these questions to the committed individuals in the Haitian government, the UN, and NGO communities, and after hearing their realistic but creative and positive ideas, the pendulum swung back to hope.

The camps are just one example of the seemingly countless challenges facing Haiti. As has been said and written numerous times since the earthquake, Haiti was facing daunting development issues before the disaster on January 12 – it is the poorest country in the western hemisphere – and it now faces even more dire circumstances. But, with the tragedy now almost seven months behind and life, however trying, returned to the streets and markets of Port-au-Prince, many Haitians will admit that this may be their best opportunity to make a break from the past and create a better future.

Haitians know that the world’s attention on their small country will not last, particularly if things don’t seem to be going right. However, if the IHRC can convince the people of Haiti, international governments, and NGOs that it is a serious and well-organized decision-making body, then resources will continue to flow into the country. Then, if the committed team I met with at Haiti’s Inter-ministerial Committee for Territorial Management can find a way to integrate their plans with those of the IHRC, then the idea of the much-discussed decentralization of Haiti might become a reality. And so on and so on – success can breed success in Haiti, but there are some key milestones ahead, two of which involve Clinton and Wyclef.

On August 17, President Clinton and his co-chair, Haitian Prime Minister Bellerive, will preside over a critical meeting of the IHRC. The IHRC is expected to lay out its recovery priorities and begin to select projects for funding that best fulfill those priorities. This process must be well-considered and transparent in order to instill confidence in this mixed Haitian and international structure, but tough decisions will have to be made. Not everyone will be happy with each choice that the IHRC makes, but for the sake of the Haitian people, the show must get on the road, and that long road to recovery needs to start with a strong first step.

Wyclef Jean’s potentially big day is November 28, the date for which the national election is scheduled to take place. While there is a reasonable chance that he could be barred from contending the election due to residency requirements, there is also a possibility he could win if allowed to participate. I’ll not go into the merits of the entertainer’s candidacy, as Charles Blow did that well in his August 6 New York Times op-ed. I hope, however, that the voters in Haiti will recognize the importance of good, strong, experienced leadership for the coming years. I don’t have enough familiarity with the announced candidates to say who that should be, but with the amount of potential aid and investment in Haiti, the new government must be competent and transparent.

As I sat in the American Airlines departure area discussing the hope vs. despair roller coaster with a colleague, I looked around at the crowd of Haitians, Haitian diaspora, UN staffers, NGO workers, US military personnel, and faith-based organizations (you can distinguish all of these groups by their “uniforms”, whether military fatigues or matching t-shirts), and thought that if Haiti can keep the attention and confidence of these people for the next several years, and it will be years, that hope is warranted and will win the day. The world is rooting and working for Haiti, but we all have to stay in the game together, and for the long haul, for its people to have a chance at a better future.

Image: IFRC

Robert Skinner is the associate director of the UN Foundation’s New York office. The opions expressed are his own.

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