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Rethinking Humanitarianism | Will countries hit by climate change finally get payouts at COP27?

‘You have one side talking about climate reparations and climate justice, and the other side not even considering that as part of their dictionary.’

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For the first time in the COP summits’ nearly 30-year history, a call for climate reparations championed by the world’s most vulnerable nations has made it onto the official agenda. 

It’s formally called loss and damage, and it entails payouts from the developed countries (who have profited the most from burning fossil fuels) to developing countries (who are suffering the worst from the impacts of climate change). 

Will this notion be accepted by rich countries? Or will political realities and developed countries’ fears around liability water down its original vision?

As COP27 unfolds in Egypt, host Heba Aly unpacks the prospects for loss and damage financing, as well as other avenues to improve global governance of climate financing for the most vulnerable – from debt restructuring to climate claims at the International Court of Justice. 

She also discusses the complicated position of a humanitarian sector that is both in solidarity with loss and damage advocates and beholden to the very donors who are stalling progress on the issue.  

Hear from The New Humanitarian’s policy editor, Irwin Loy, and our Latin America editor-at-large Paula Dupraz-Dobias, reporting from COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh.

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TRANSCRIPT | Will countries hit by climate change finally get payouts at COP27?

UN Secretary-General António Guterres:“Excellencies, these U.N climate conference is a reminder that the answer is in our hands, and the clock is ticking. We are in the fight of our lives and we are losing. Greenhouse gas emissions keep growing. Global temperatures keep rising, and our planet is fast approaching tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible. We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator.”

Heba Aly

As we speak, the UN climate conference - COP27 - is being held in the coastal Egyptian town of Sharm el-Sheikh. And there’s one debate in particular that’s caught everyone’s attention.

[Activists chanting]: “We can’t wait anymore! Loss and damage finance now! We can’t wait anymore! Loss and damage finance now!”

Hamira Kobusingye, climate justice activist: And today we are here to demand for loss and damage reparations. Because every time we have a climate-induced incident or a catastrophe, my country ends up borrowing money from IMF and World Bank.

Sameh Shoukry, COP27 President: We all owe a debt of gratitude to activists and civil society organisations who have persistently demanded the space to discuss funding for loss and damage, and thus provided the impetus needed to bring this matter forward.

António Guterres, UN Secretary-General: If there is any doubt about loss and damage, go to Pakistan. There is loss and there is damage. And this COP needs to recognize it and needs to define a clear roadmap to deal with it, and the creation of an institutional framework, including financing in order to address the problems of loss and damage.

[Activists chanting]: “Pay up! Pay up! Pay up for loss and damage! Pay up! Pay up! Pay up for loss and damage!”

Heba Aly

After years of lobbying, and 40 hours of intense negotiations in the lead up to the summit, loss and damage finally made it onto the official agenda.

It may not be worded as such , but it’s essentially a proposal to operationalize reparations paid from developed countries (who have profited the most from burning fossil fuels) to developing countries (who are suffering the worst from the impacts of climate change).

What was once confined to the sidelines and mostly backed by countries in the Global South is now being debated in the most mainstream of fora.

Can it succeed? And if not, what are other avenues to improve global governance of climate action for the most vulnerable?

From Geneva, Switzerland, this is Rethinking Humanitarianism. I’m your host, Heba Aly.

In the nearly 30 years since the UN began hosting these COP summits, climate-linked disasters have grown more severe,more frequent, and more unpredictable.

Most recently, you’ve seen the headlines: unprecedented floods in Pakistan and repeated droughts in the Horn of Africa have affected millions of people.

For many years now, the countries most affected and least responsible for the climate crisis have been calling for financing to help them deal with the effects of climate change.

Today, that rallying cry is known as loss and damage. It is both a descriptor of the ravages of the climate crisis — an acknowledgement that loss and damage of people and habitat is already occurring – as well as a more formal term referring to a set of plans and policies, including a fund, to address those impacts.

So, to help us understand the prospects for financing of loss and damage, and other proposals for more equitable climate financing, we’re joined by two of our own.

Irwin Loy is policy editor at The New Humanitarian. He’s normally based in Geneva, but today he joins us from London. Welcome Irwin.

Irwin Loy

Hi Heba

Heba Aly

And Paula Dupraz-Dobias is an Editor-at-Large for The New Humanitarian and is on the ground at COP 27 in Sharm el-Sheikh. Welcome Paula.

Paula Dupraz-Dobias

Hi. Hello, how are you?

Heba Aly

I'm well, thank you. So Paula, you’ve been in Sharm el-Sheikh for a few days now. Tell us about the mood on the ground there.

Paula Dupraz-Dobias

Yeah, it's been very busy. There's a huge agenda this time around. A lot to sort of follow up on as usual, running around, trying to figure out what's the latest that the negotiators have been discussing, and the sort of issues that they have sorted out. There's a lot of hope that things could be resolved in the next week. But, yeah, speaking to participants in the negotiations, it seems that that may be difficult. One can see that it is an African CP. There's a very, very large contingency here of participants from the continent, which is quite different from the last couple of COPs.

Heba Aly

And before we get into some of the negotiations, you know, you're having big discussions there about complex economic models and debating who's going to pay for what, but what are you hearing from, as you say, many of the African participants about what's at stake in these negotiations?

Paula Dupraz-Dobias

The big issues here are ones of climate justice in the end. I mean, there's loss and damage that's on the agenda for the first time. But also the issue of finance that has been lagging for years since it was first announced. There are also issues regarding agriculture that's quite new as well – the impact of agriculture on climate change, as well as the provision of food that's being impacted

by climate change. Gender has also been a big topic this time around. That's an issue that has been sort of pushed to the sidelines, just as loss and damage has for many years. And there are other issues like how ambitious countries should be in terms of their nationally determined contributions or their pledges. Quite a busy schedule this time round.

Koyam Boulama Falmata: [“Je m’appelle Falmata….”]

Paula Dupraz-Dobias

So I spoke to one of the few people who are actually directly impacted in a big way, if you wish by, by climate change on the ground. It was a woman herder from Niger who had come here as a Goodwill Ambassador thanks to the UNHCR.

Koyam Boulama Falmata: [speaks in Nigerien language]

Because of climate change, she had been displaced from her community. She had lost her crops. She had lost her herds, and was living away from her home. Her family had been broken up pretty much because of climate change, the children had moved away. And she spoke to a group of people at the COP, and it was extremely moving, and I had the opportunity to interview her after that, that intervention. So it was, as I said, one of the few people really impacted by climate change, who I was able to listen to. Of course, you know, getting to the COP is very expensive. There are all sorts of logistics involved in getting to the COPs. So in the end, what you do hear are people speaking for those people that are impacted, and not the people themselves.

Heba Aly

And did you speak to anyone from other parts of the world that are also affected by climate change?

Paula Dupraz-Dobias

There’s always been – and this COP hasn't been any different in that sense – a large contingency of people from Indigenous communities in the Amazon. This is actually a group that has been really quite active in the last couple of years in bringing to the attention to the world of the deforestation that they've been facing as a result [of] the loss of their livelihoods and loss of their cultures in some cases. So, it was quite interesting, today there was a panel that was organised by various Indigenous groups, mostly from the Amazon but also from from Africa, who spoke about the issue of loss of damage, which is perhaps a little bit different to the approach that they had been taking in the past in presenting their the concerns that they have.

Heba Aly

And that emphasis on loss and damage and the need for financing… As I take it, you have also heard from other parts of the world like the Caribbean?

Paula Dupraz-Dobias

Yes, yes, absolutely.

Francine Baron, former foreign minister of Dominica; CEO of the Climate Resilience Execution Agency for Dominica (CREAD): Every year, we go through the hurricane cycle, and we know that we're going to be suffering from… we're going to be affected by storms, are going to be affected by hurricanes…”

The Caribbean, together with the Pacific Islands have been the most vocal over the years in bringing to the attention the issue of the losses and damages from climate change that they have been experiencing. So I did speak to Francine Baron, who is heading an agency that is trying to help communities as well as the private sector and civil society groups in Dominica to access assistance for preparing themselves ahead of disasters as well as in response.

After Hurricane Maria devastated Dominica, it's often said that their entire GDP was wiped out in that single storm.

Francine Baron: “And the reality is that it's difficult for governments, because we're constantly having to keep putting money into building back the roads, building back the bridges, I mean, most of the time, you're still paying a loan for the first bridge, and you now have to find new funds to build another bridge…”

Paula Dupraz-Dobias

Francine Baron spoke about the mounting debt that her country faces in face of repeated hurricanes, and how the government is just unable to fund the response and the recovery from these disasters, because they're already years behind receiving the necessary finance from international institutions.

 

Francine Baron: “What we’re saying is, look, we are being asked to spend monies that we should not be spending to be able to protect ourselves against actions that were taken by others that is impacting the climate, and therefore impacting our lives. And, in some instances, funding is necessary to repair actual loss and damage, and in other instances, funding is necessary to ensure that you do not have that, that impact from an extreme event.”

Heba Aly

So let's move on to the topic of loss and damage. Irwin, I want to bring you into this. Can you just give us a quick overview of what loss and damage really entails?

Irwin Loy

Well, I think loss and damage, you know, it relates directly to the kinds of people that Paula is meeting on the ground at COP. I think, through nearly 30 years of COP summits, the whole discussion around climate finance, I think, many, many countries agree that more wealthy nations need to, need to help more vulnerable nations with funding. But what exactly that funding entails has been part of the question mark. And traditionally, most of the focus, almost all of the focus, has been on so-called mitigation and adaptation, and that's essentially reducing emissions and reducing risks, or learning to live with the risks, or preparing for climate change. And so essentially, loss and damage, it describes everything that happens when all those efforts have failed. And that's something we see at The New Humanitarian in our daily reporting, you know, the worst of the worst happening on a more consistent basis, fueled by climate change. And so loss and damage, as far as, you know, these COP summits are concerned, is really trying to get at additional financing on top of mitigation and adaptation for vulnerable countries, and that's been really controversial for years. It's been a point of contention, and so that's why it's been said so significant that it's even on the agenda at this particular climate summit. In the past, I think wealthier nations have been accused of blocking progress on this, delaying progress. And now, I think, for whatever reason, the mood has shifted a little bit with humanitarian emergencies that are really in the headlines, and just, I think, a more cohesive message from many countries, saying essentially, this is what we want. And so that's why we see it on the agenda this year, but I think there's a long road ahead to figuring out what exactly it will entail, and what exactly it will involve.

Heba Aly

And so how concrete are the proposals so far? What exactly is being proposed, and by whom?

Irwin Loy

Well, I think there are a range of proposals, and there's a range of some concrete, some less so, I think. You know, at a bare minimum, most vulnerable countries and many advocates generally want to see a confirmation that yes, indeed, there will be a funding mechanism, a way to get funding specifically for loss and damage to vulnerable countries. I think that's the bare minimum that people want progress on. In terms of exact ways of doing that, I think that's, you know, in some ways, that's a question for later because that likely won't be decided at this COP, but some countries have proposed specific Disaster Response Fund where loss and damage financing would go. I think others are more concerned about having the funding be seen as too humanitarian, too focused on response, because it's quite similar to existing aid funding, and I think the concern is that they don't want it to overlap. This is both a response to emergencies, but also a way to prevent the worst effects from happening.

 

Heba Aly

Paula, you mentioned earlier that you've attended a lot of these COP summits. I'm curious, when you first started hearing the term of loss and damage.

Paula Dupraz-Dobias

Pretty much from the first time that I attended a COP, which was actually in Lima. That was the COP that preceded the Paris Agreement.

Heba Aly

Back in 2014.

Paula Dupraz-Dobias

Exactly. And the concept was mentioned multiple times in discussions, formal and informal, and press conferences and so forth. And, I guess it was probably the perseverance of, you know, these countries that have been suffering the most, i.e. the Pacific countries talking about how some of their islands were already disappearing. Similar points were being made by the Caribbean countries. But then, throughout the years, various civil society groups would plug this concept of loss and damage and the fact that developed countries were not wanting to address the problem. So yes, it has been a very, very long time. And, of course, over that period, we also had these very striking images, such as the Prime Minister of Tuvalu that had addressed the COP26. in Glasgow from a lectern that was partially submerged in the water in the Pacific.

Heba Aly

And yet now, when it's officially on the agenda, the developed countries are insisting on exploring the issue further and delivering a solution in 2024. I want to read you a tweet from the Loss and Damage Collaboration, that group of researchers, activists, artists, decision makers who are advocating for loss and damage, and they seem very concerned that Western countries are trying to delay and they say, “There's a sense of deja vu in the room, because we've already had so many discussions on loss and damage finance”, and “This is an age-old tactic used by developed countries to delay progress with phrases like, ‘we need to talk more about this.’” Do you get the sense that it's different this time around?

Paula Dupraz-Dobias

I mean, the fact that it's on the agenda is, of course, a change. That's, I guess, the first step for further discussions. But of course, I think, yes, it's going to be rather complicated. I think that, you know, this discussion comes at a time when there are a number of crises, global crises taking place and pressure on humanitarian and development budgets. So, the question of how much the developed countries may be willing to contribute even to these schemes that they are proposing is probably going to be very, very minimal compared to the needs. I mean, there were a number of reports that were published ahead of the COP, including one that said that it would require two or $3 trillion a year in funds towards this loss and damage in order to contribute substantially enough to their concerns.

Heba Aly

So that is the question, right, who's going to pay for this? What are you hearing from the higher polluting countries about their willingness to foot the bill?

Paula Dupraz-Dobias

I think it's a question of language. The developed countries do not want to actually phrase any of this assistance as reparations, which is what the developing countries are basically asking for, have had been asking for for some time. That the text of the agenda is not putting it either in those terms, because that was, of course, the way in which we were able to get to this point of having that loss and damage in the agenda. But, developed countries are now proposing some sort of insurance scheme, instead of a proper reparations type of facility…

Heba Aly

This is the so-called Global Shield that Germany has put forward?

Paula Dupraz-Dobias

Yes, well, that's one of the ideas that's, that's out there. I think that you get a bit of a variation between some of the countries that have been contributing towards a loss and damage fund. The first of the contributors was, of course, Scotland last year at the COP. And they have been working with some philanthropic philanthropic groups to distribute those funds. But, it seems that, from at least what one can read, and of course, Scotland being a part of the UK, would perhaps be a little bit more free in the way that they call the type of assistance that they are contributing to this fund. But, as far as this COP is concerned, we will probably not achieve all that is being requested by the developing countries. Far from it. There's a lot of other issues that have to be sorted out. But of course, this is the most important for many of those most vulnerable countries to climate change.

Heba Aly

Irwin, you've written on our website, tha the countries that would be paying these reparations, as Paula just put it, are scared of the implications of that word. And earlier, you referred to loss and damage as very contentious. What is the fear? Or where is the contention?

Irwin Loy

Well, I think there are two aspects to it. I think the broad fear is that it could, you know, potentially open up a lot of funding. You know, the words ‘liability’, the words ‘compensation’ have long been the problem. Again, that's not on the agenda, even if vulnerable countries tend to use those words and ‘reparations’, in particular, that is not part of the language that's actually being discussed right now. So, it potentially opens up countries to, they see it, as the spiralling costs, and I think there's some pushback from vulnerable countries on that. Also politically, you know, domestically, it's not very realistic for, right now, for [US President] Joe Biden to just say, ‘Hey, we agreed to this thing’. You could say that's an excuse, I suppose, because it's not even on the table. But, I would have difficulty imagining a world as it's currently shaped with Joe Biden saying he's agreed to reparations on this issue or any topic, really. So there's that and domestically, it doesn't really fly in some countries. So I think there's a fear of cost, and the fear of what that actually means for domestic politics, which is obviously a big fact of how international negotiations work.

Heba Aly

And so, even though we are seeing some countries, Paula mentioned Scotland, but also New Zealand, Germany, Denmark, Austria, making pledges to a loss and damage fund, a) the money is nowhere near as much as needed and at scale. It's sounding like it's still not very palatable, especially when framed through the lens of reparations. But there's another proposal that has been brewing that might be more palatable from a political perspective, and that's debt relief. Can you walk us through what those conversations have consisted of?

Irwin Loy

You know, loss and damage, it's, it's fairly clear, I think every country acknowledges that loss and damage is occurring. What they don't agree on is whether that should be tied to a monetary value that is owed to countries for historic emissions. With debt relief, or just looking at debt, it to me feels like a bigger systemic issue. One that speaks to how the global financial system works, one that speaks to colonisation, and one that speaks to, you know, historical imbalances. Yet for all those big words, and, you know, what's usually very problematic for people to talk about in the West, it seems like addressing it is actually quite palatable now. You have the US, which does not want to speak about reparations or or loss and damage, really, for all intents and purposes, promoting debt relief, and saying that's the way forward, potentially unlocking far more than is even on the table in terms of loss and damage. You have many countries just saying the yes, debt relief, debt relief, debt relief and different ways of approaching debt to make the global financial system work for countries that face disasters. And you have the head of the World Bank, accused of being a climate denier as recently as September, talking about “Yes, the World Bank needs to be a bit more… needs reforms too. Needs to change its approach to climate change”. So to me, it's striking how what seems at the outset to be a bigger problem, how do you tackle reforms to the global financial system, being the more palatable option right now than something like loss of damage, which, on the face of it, is a relatively straightforward concept, but it's one that people can't agree on. But they can seem to agree on the fact that the global financial system needs to change.

Heba Aly

And so what would that entail, exactly? Because we're talking about countries that… I was reading a New York Times feature about Barbados saying that it spends 55% of its GDP just to pay back its debts, and about 5% on environmental programs and health care. So the idea is that they would then get debt relief in order to be able to invest that in climate programs at home, is that right?

Irwin Loy

I think it's a whole range of options. What's clear is that low lying, small, climate vulnerable nations, generally speaking, have seen their debt rise, and it's due to a number of factors. But right now, essentially, these smaller nations are… they're seeing themselves pay off loans, rather than invest in their own country and that includes infrastructure that would protect against climate-linked disasters. I think there was one recent statistic from a UN organisation that said external debt amounts to about 62% of GDP in small island states. And that's high even compared to other developing countries. So…

Heba Aly

It’s crazy, it’s staggering!

Irwin Loy

Well, you have this combination, I think, of smaller countries that have less diversified economies, so they perhaps are less able to rebound as quickly. And as we've been talking about, face repeat, overlapping disasters. So you have countries that cannot borrow. They cannot borrow even if they wanted to, so they're turning to higher interest rates in the private sector. I’m saying debt relief, but it's all kinds of issues involved with that. So you know, someone who's been really leading the charge on this conceptually is Mia Mottley, the Prime Minister of Barbados. They've been pushing what they're calling the Bridgetown Agenda, which is, at its core, aiming to unlock disaster finance on more palatable terms, and I think to change the system to adapt it to what vulnerable countries need amid the climate crisis. So you have things like, you know, debt relief would be one broad thing, but it's also unlocking finances. It's also more creative ways of approaching debt – debt for climate swaps, which don't apply for everyone, but it could be an option for some that help. And I think there's also making loans themselves a bit more attune to the realities of the climate crisis, having clauses where if you're hit by a disaster, then you automatically have the option of stopping paying your interest when it reaches that threshold. So you're not paying the interest on this, you know, decades-old loan, instead of helping young people. You know, things like that. So I think, you know, I think there are all kinds of different specifics and very creative options that would be a part of this, but broadly speaking, I think it's, you know, essentially trying to change how the system works to to make it work in favor of countries that need it the most right now.

Heba Aly

Foreign Policy described it as the “Barbadian proposal, turning heads at COP 27”. So I guess it's getting some traction as well. And you talked about the head of the World Bank, acknowledging that change was needed, but, you know, this is always the story on this podcast that the systems don't work for those who don't have power, but the systems are protected by those who do have power. So do you see these proposals as any different in that regard?

Irwin Loy

I see them as different in the sense that, you know, what strikes me about this is that it's the people in power calling for it. And…

Heba Aly

But why? Why are they?

Irwin Loy

I think that people realise that there's a problem here, and you can't necessarily spend your way out of it. I think, politically, it's palatable for, you know, we mentioned the example of the US on loss and damage. I think it's a lot easier to sell something like this at home. It's a little bit, you know, twice removed. It's not the US saying or giving up this funding or attaching it to liability or anything like that. It's a change in how the system works.

Heba Aly

Right, so less responsibility has to be taken in a sense,

Irwin Loy

In, in a sense. But it's also a combination to think of, you know, the climate crisis, the climate emergency has evolved to in the public eye to such a degree that, I think, you know, for all the political reasons why countries say no to loss and damage, I don't think there's anyone attending COP who – even if they push back on loss and damage – don't agree that the equivalent of loss of damages happening. So if this is an option that can help – and it can, in many ways – then I think it seems more palatable to do it right now.

Heba Aly

And interesting that even on the humanitarian side, there’s support for debt relief. For instance, the UN humanitarian chief, Martin Griffiths, calling for debt relief, so that it would remove the need for humanitarian assistance. So that's another new angle to this.

Irwin Loy

Right. I think that's, I think the humanitarian community has been in COVID rut about for a couple of years where you see how you see how the gap is building between the cost of responding to needs and what's actually available. And it's growing bigger every year, and it's gonna get bigger next year, I assume. So this seems like it's actually addressing, in some ways, the root cause of the problem, the idea, you know.. Griffiths went to Egypt, and he had an audience with G20 officials, and he was specifically saying that he's not asking for humanitarian funding – although he still kind of was, but we'll ignore that for the time being. But he was specifically talking about debt relief, and other options to open up, to unlock financing. I do see that as a bit of a trend in the sense of humanitarian groups trying to take on a little bit more advocacy when it comes to the climate crisis. And this is one specific, quote, unquote, solution that they can offer. I don't know if they have the most, you know, just because humanitarians are chiming in doesn't mean like things are going to change. This is separate from the humanitarian community, but it's interesting that that's part of their messaging right now.

Paula Dupraz-Dobias

One of the people who I spoke to also was David Nicholson of Mercy Corps, he's the climate officer. And he was also very clearly sending that message, which we already heard last year in Glasgow when we, I guess, start seeing more of the humanitarian world participating at this COP. But his message was basically, you know, there's only so much that we can do. We just don't have the means to, to respond to these growing these growing crises.

David Nicholson, Mercy Corps chief climate officer: There is no question that the humanitarian sector itself has to evolve in the face of climate change. Shocks are a little more predictable. There could be more preparedness, there can be a little more ability to react to climate shocks. That doesn’t replace loss and damage but the initial humanitarian response could be sharper,it can be more targeted, and it could be quicker, and it needs to relate to the loss and damage mechanism that comes in. But, they’re fundamentally solving different problems, and we cannot rely on the humanitarian system to solve all those other problems.

Paula Dupraz-Dobias

So basically, it's loss and damage that would be needed to fill in those huge, huge gaps. You know, on the question of what the developed countries are doing. I mean, some of them are actually referring to assistance that they are giving to various plans, UN plans on early warning systems, and saying that they're already contributing to loss and damage in that way.

Heba

Irwin, you’ve alluded to this tension in your writing before, this tension between humanitarian groups saying that they’re on the side of vulnerable communities and they support the push for loss and damage funding, but at the same time, the donors that fund them are the very donors that are stalling on loss and damage and using their humanitarian relief and an excuse for why the don’t need to give loss and damage funding.

Irwin Loy

You know, I think, John Kerry spoke on the sidelines, or I think just before COP, and he said something that other ministers from traditional humanitarian donors, some of the biggest traditional humanitarian donors, are frequently saying when it comes to loss and damages is that “Oh, well, we contribute X amount of dollars or euros or what have you to humanitarian funding, and humanitarian funding addresses loss and damage. So when you say we're not doing anything, well, we are”. And so, humanitarian groups are essentially - even though they're they're advocating, they're pushing back on that, they're saying loss and damage must happen, funding for loss and damage must happen – their work also the ones they're like, their work is being used as an excuse to not fund it. It's a tension, it doesn't mean anything right now, but for the short term, I think, you know, international NGOs and UN agencies should at least be conscious of where they are, that they're kind of in the middle .It doesn't have to be a tension. But if they start appearing on press releases claiming that what they do is loss and damage, then…

Heba Aly

They’re playing into their hands.

 

Irwin Loy

Exactly. So for example, you know, you have the Global Shield, which was just announced. Advocates who are pushing for loss and damage funding aren't super impressed. They see it as something that's already been out there,disaster insurance. Insurance can't possibly compensate for the scale of loss and damage. But, you know, Germany is one of the proponents of the Global Shield [and] is positioning it as a protection against the loss of damage. So they're, they're not saying it's loss damage, per se, but they're positioning it within that sphere. You know, that's not something that involves humanitarian groups right now, but you can see how easily it can be co-opted. And so when your major donors are the same ones that are resisting loss and damage funding, which you advocate for, or you claim to be in solidarity with vulnerable communities, then you just have to be aware of that sort of tension, or the potential for tension.

Heba Aly

And this is precisely why we decided to focus this season of the podcast on global governance, even if it is quite removed from, you know, the day-to-day humanitarian response, because increasingly, this is the message that keeps coming back, that there is just no humanitarian response that can deal with the scale of needs today, unless there is some more fundamental change to the way things are managed. And, Paula, I wanted to come back to you because at the start, you expressed some scepticism about whether this new push and the rising trend that Irwin described would actually result in concrete change. And the International Peace Institute just published a piece recently on the global climate governance system saying, you know, these current ad hoc initiatives and practices that are often based on loose ‘coalitions of the willing’ have weak or no accountability mechanisms, and their impact remains technical at best, superficial at worst. Do you think meaningful climate change financing can happen within the framework of COP?

Paula Dupraz-Dobias

Well, where else? The UNFCCC [The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] is, I guess, the only place where people could really discuss these issues amongst 190 plus countries with international organisations and civil society groups that are present to share their thoughts about how to confront this crisis. So, yes, it's an extremely slow process, and as just any other UN process or UN series of conferences, requires the agreement or consensus of so many different interests. Yeah, it always does take a long, long time – probably too long in the case of this existential crisis that we're facing – to be resolved. I don't know. One has to be hopeful, but the question is, where else would you go to have these sorts of discussions at that global level?

Heba Aly

Well, certainly some countries are trying to go elsewhere. Vanuatu is an example of that, taking the debate outside of COP. Irwin, you interviewed a member of a team of diplomats and campaigners that are trying to bring the climate emergency to the International Court of Justice, the UN's top court. Tell us about that effort.

Irwin Loy

So that initiative has its own hashtag. It’s #ICJAO.

Heba Aly

Very important to note.

Irwin

I’ll probably do an item on that, yes. And so that's, that's a bit to push the International Court of Justice to basically weigh in on climate change. The exact question is still up in the air., but it’s in progress. You know, that's been a years-long push. I think it started with university students in the Pacific and moved up to politicians in Vanuatu. It survived a national election in Vanuatu, and a change in government essentially. My interview was with Georges Maniuri, he’s a diplomat from Vanuatu, and he's just one of many who've become a part of this kind of campaign, and it's interesting to hear about the backroom discussions. He is basically lobbying his counterparts in other diplomatic missions, and there are others like him doing the same. And the idea is to basically bring the issue of climate change to the UN's top court so that a decision – however many years away – might influence or be used in other courts around the world, any court around the world, really. It’s just another tool, I think, to try and hold countries to account. This came about as a direct result, I'd say, of the inaction, the lack of action, on loss and damage at these yearly climate summits. I think, now, Vanuatu is wisely not trying to put up a firewall with that link, because they say, you know, this is another thing. This is separate. But I think its origins were just essentially saying countries or parties that had had relatively little power on the global stage, thinking “What can we do to take back some of this power and to assert what power we do have”. So as they're still using international levers, but they're, they're doing it in a way that they hope, will, will get their message across, but ultimately, you know, as George Maniuri has told me, you know, help all countries, whether or not the from the Global North and Global South, [try to stick to their pledges by making it clear what international justice essentially says about climate change. I think it's interesting as a push of how vulnerable communities are using what power they do have to find another way to work around this global inaction. So I think that's quite interesting.

Heba Aly

So interesting to see the different routes that are being tried. We've talked about a number of ways of reforming climate financing from, broadly speaking, loss and damage to reparations to debt relief. Taking the courts as another way forward. Insurance schemes were mentioned. Broader reform of international financial institutions. It sounds like there's a lot of movement, and yet, I'm not sure that if you look at the actual concrete outcomes, there's much to show for all of this yet. So what do you see as having the potential for the most concrete impact moving forward of all these routes to make climate financing work for those who need it the most?

Paula Dupraz-Dobias

I think there's pressure now that's building on the developed countries and what you have seen in the last few days, during the first week of the COP, is that some of these countries [are] trying to distract attention from the fact that they will probably not be contributing to this, you know, any sort of loss and damage fund in any substantial way by boosting their credentials in terms of contributions towards adaptation finance, which is something that the developing countries have been asking to be equal to mitigation. Until now, it's only been a fraction of the finance that they've been providing, very often in the form of loans or to other projects that probably won't have so much of an impact in the lives of those people who are really most impacted on the ground. So yes, I mean, you saw that in the case of the US, you saw that in the case of other countries who are saying, “Oh, yes, but we are, you know, we're contributing so many millions of dollars in adaptation finance”. You know, maybe that pressure may help the demands for greater adaptation finance and maybe greater finance in general. But, as far as loss and damage, I think, you know, it's going to be a very, very long struggle still to achieve those levels of finance that will be required to compensate all those people who are experiencing and who have already lost livelihoods and so forth from climate change.

Heba Aly

Irwin, last word to you. Where do you see the most potential for concrete change moving forward?

Irwin Loy

My concern with these issues is when we're talking about what is increasingly, I think, two very different ways of looking at the same issue. And, you know, I bring it back to, you know, a smaller, smaller issue within the humanitarian world, which is localization – the push to make humanitarian action more locally driven. And I think, you know, a lot of local humanitarians saw it as a matter of what was right, a matter of decolonization to be honest. And those words were not used by, you know, the international humanitarian sector who thought about it as a matter of saving money, of doing the right thing maybe. It was two very different ways of looking at the whole thing. And now, it's six years past the Grand Bargain, where some of the more concrete localization promises were sort of put on paper. And in many ways very little progress, there’s been subtle progress, but substantially, very many of the indicators for localization are just not happening. And so I see the same thing happening with loss and damage on a much different scale, obviously. In an existential scale. But if you have one, if you have one side talking about climate reparations and climate justice, and the other side not even considering that as part of their dictionary, then how do you actually join the two together? So even if they're talking about it on the agenda this year, you know, that's significant, but are they even speaking the same language? To me, that doesn't give me a lot of hope in terms of finding common ground. That being said, this is how these things work. You know, I'm not a climate negotiator. It's natural to have opposing sides and you have to find common ground. I'm just wondering if the two sides are so far apart, not in distance, but conceptually, where you're talking about colonisation, the impacts of colonial empires, versus “is it our fault that there was damage in a country far away from, you know, this Western country?” So it just seems like a completely separate conversation, and I wonder how, how easily that can be bridged? So if I have a solution, which I, you know, I think would be a bit bold to say I have a solution for that, but generally speaking, I would say if you're a leader of a powerful Western nation, and you have no intention of of doing what, you know, is being asked for, then I think delaying and all that is very… I don't know how productive it can be. It just seems like it would be asking for frustration. And I don't know how, in the end, how constructive that will be. And I think what gives me pause is these other efforts to – from Vanuatu, from Barbados – to, you know, tackle specific parts of the problem from different angles. And I think that will only gather pace as the lack of progress becomes more and more clear after each of these summits. So I think we'll see at the end of this week or early next week, because it will probably go over time, what will happen, but you know, no matter what amount of progress there will be, I think there's also going to be a great amount of frustration.

Heba Aly

Well on that hopeful note, I think at least one of the commonalities we're seeing across all the topics that we look at on the podcast is what I hear you saying around, basically, those who don't have power finding other ways to claim it instead of waiting for the system to kind of do the right thing. So it's interesting to see that playing out in so many different, so many different topics, whether it's climate financing, or vaccine equity or, or anything else. Irwin, Paula, thank you very much for spending time with us tonight on this topic. And Paula, good luck for the rest of the conference.

Paula Dupraz-Dobias

Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.

Irwin

Thank you.

Heba Aly

Irwin Loy is policy editor for The New Humanitarian, and Paula Dupraz-Dobias is an Editor-at-Large covering COP 27 for The New Humanitarian from Egypt. You can read Irwin and Paula’s coverage of COP 27 on our website, thenewhumanitarian.org

And, you heard Irwin mention language not being in the dictionary. As it happens, he’s written a whole dictionary, what he calls “a jargon-busting climate glossary” that will help you make sense of all the lingo. Look for it in our show notes on our website thenewhumanitarian.org/podcasts.

As always, if you’ve got thoughts on this episode, write to us or send us a voice note at [email protected].

And before we go today, our podcast producer Melissa Fundira is in the virtual studio to share some listener feedback from past episodes. Hi Melissa.

Melissa Fundira

Hi Heba.

Heba Aly

So what did you find in the mailbox?

Melissa Fundira

So, if you’ll remember, a couple episodes ago, we spoke to Degan Ali about these inherent tensions in decolonising aid. Is decolonising aid an oxymoron?

Heba Aly

Right… The whole debate about “do you try to improve the aid system as it stands or do you have to change the system altogether?”

Melissa Fundira

Exactly. And at the end of that episode we played a clip from a government representative who attended one of our convenings on decolonising aid. And he was essentially pushing back on calls to end humanitarian aid altogether, right, which a lot of folks who believe in decolonising aid think is necessary. But, he was arguing, basically, that the sector is driven by altruism, that it’s really driven by the desire to “do unto others as you’d have done unto yourself” as the saying goes. And one listener did not like that at all.

Heba Aly

Oh really? How so?

Melissa Fundira

So, I want to read part of his email. And he wants to remain anonymous, but he’s happy for me to describe him as “a practitioner working in so-called humanitarian and development aid for the last 35 years”. So, here’s a snippet of what he wrote us. He said:

“If you were either recovering from a sudden onset disaster or struggling to survive decades of structural food insecurity and destitution, would you like a load of strange organisations managed by foreigners who knew nothing about your culture or values or language to turn up and decide what you needed? To have all your intelligence, capacities, compassion, resources, existing mutual aid and potential for further collective self-help ignored - or worse- deconstructed and sidelined? To have your values and ethics not just disregarded but belittled and replaced by foreign quote-unquote "good practice" of imposed and often demeaning compliance demands and upward accountability practices that blatantly imply you are untrustworthy? To realise that you have no control at all over what is happening and that to get what little is on offer you had better just comply with all the humiliating demands and assumptions made by these outsiders? To be forced to line up in queues to receive insufficient, inappropriate and too often unneeded foreign goods - or just enough money to stay alive but not enough to in any way rebuild your life or decrease your extreme vulnerability to future shocks? And all the time to see this strange bunch of outsiders so extraordinarily better off than you that even the cost of their morning bottled water and snacks could keep your family going for a few days - while the cost of their transport, accommodation, breakfasts and evening meals, R&R would keep your whole neighbourhood going for who knows how many months or years? “

Heba Aly

He had a lot to say. Is that all?

Melissa Fundira

Oh, he had a lot more to say, and I want to share just a little but more with you. He goes on to say: on…

“And then imagine if you had been exposed to this for decades ...and seen the erosion of your society's dignity and self-worth and values. And seen the rise in corruption and empowerment of existing power holders prioritising their own self-interest. And, over the years, recognised that slowly and ever so miserably you were becoming the helpless, untrustworthy, passive consumer that you had so resented being treated as when the crisis first hit 10, 20 or 30 years before. Who wants aid delivered like that? To imply that what we - as international humanitarian aid deliverers - are doing what we would like to have done unto us seems inaccurate and misleading. You can include such thoughts in a balanced interview but to allow them to be the final, unchallenged words seems a surprising choice for The New Humanitarian. A shame since the rest of the interview was so good.”

Heba Aly

Wow. Well, listen, thank you that listener, whoever it is, for sharing your thoughts. One of the things we try to do on the podcast is not just to hear about the change that some people – many people – may think is needed, but also what’s getting in the way of that change. And the reality is that for people in government and other positions of power from whom that change is being demanded, they face constraints. And that those constraints might be, as we often hear, legal or logistical or operational, but they might also be constraints in terms of mindset or approach, and I think that's not a view that we hear often enough. And we've seen it in our convenings. It's not the case for all of them, but I think there is a desire, a genuine desire, from what I can see, for people in power to make some change, but – and I say this as someone who runs an organisation, myself. Change is always harder than it looks on the outside. So, my takeaways from that government official’s thoughts were that they are looking at the problem of decolonization through a very different angle, and to their mind, so long as it exists, how can they deliver it better? I think that's how most people who control massive aid budgets are thinking about this today, and, to my mind, it's important to understand where they're coming from, if those who want to make change are ever going to see it happen. So we will definitely strive to have full interviews with them in the future. Thanks for that feedback. But we felt it was important to at least hear their point of view.

Melissa Fundira

I think it's also worth mentioning, you know, one of the final words that this listener had for us, which is, you know, he says the older he gets, the more he realises just how impossible it is for any one person to get it right by themselves. He says there's just too many different perspectives for one person or organisation to take in. And so sharing ideas, like on a podcast, is one step in the right direction.

Heba Aly

Yeah, and I hope that we can share a variety of perspectives, including perspectives that some listeners might disagree with.

Melissa Fundira

That said, we are going to continue looking at some of these bigger questions, bringing in different voices to talk about what could replace aid in upcoming episodes. So stay tuned.

Heba Aly

Thank you, Melissa.

Melissa Fundira

Thank you.

Heba Aly

Today we’ll leave you with some thoughts from Nnimmo Bassey, who is a Nigerian climate activist, a poe, and the director of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation, Nnimmo Bassey…

He, and other activists, have been staging protests in Sharm el-Sheikh to pressure leaders to deliver on loss and damage. He explains to Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman that if they don’t, then COP itself is “lost and damaged.”

This podcast is a production of The New Humanitarian.

This episode was produced and edited by, you just heard her, Melissa Fundira

Original music by Whitney Patterson

I’m your host Heba Aly.

Thank you for listening to Rethinking Humanitarianism.

Nnimmo Bassey: “Well this was a very peculiar kind of protest, because usually we march on the streets of cities, but here we were having a protest march within the confined perimeters of the official COP venue. It was very surreal and we just moved over a short distance, but, still again in a certain sense it showed the resilience of the people because we didn't want to legitimise any kind of controlled march in the city or in the town. So this was very important. And then the demands were mostly just denouncing the COP itself as lost and damaged. The COP is lost and damaged. And we also made very clear that Net Zero is a hopeless idea because it just pushes the burden on the young people to whom the future belongs. And then we asked for, instead of just talking about loss and damage, that what we should be discussing at this time, because of extreme degradation, is the payment of a climate debt which takes care of historical responsibility as well as current responsibility.”

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