White Noise

I'm sorry, were you saying something?

Development work lurches from hot issue to hot issue. Each dominates discourse and practice for a while before gradually fading out. While development agencies are in the grip of one of these hot issues, every document, every policy must somehow be made to relate to them, no matter how inappropriate or unnecessary it is. That’s why you get documents about road building in rural areas which pay lip service to the principles of Good Governance in the introduction and conclusion, though the actual body of the report rightly focuses on the actual practice for planning, funding and building new roads.

In the addled minds of those who write these documents, they are making the issue real by talking about them constantly. They think it shows people that they are taking it seriously, ensuring that ‘every decision involves consideration of the [insert issue here] impact’. Of course, nothing of the sort is true. Rather, by constantly invoking Governance as an issue of concern, even in documents or policies that can have no hope of influencing it, we reduce it to white noise. We constantly hear the word, and even if it once referred to something real and important, we tune it out because it’s been reduced to meaninglessness. And eventually a backlash starts: people complain that all these years of obsession with Governance are achieving nothing, and we’ll move on to the next issue. Never mind that the constant invoking of Governance masks the fact that very little is actually being done to improve it. The incessant white noise makes it feel like it is our sole focus and when the little actual work doesn’t match up to the noise we make about it, it is jettisoned.

This week, I saw the first signs that climate change is going down this path. I was asked to assess a draft PRSP and the comments made in response to it by the local donors, and I was amazed by the prominence climate change was given in the comments. This is the PRSP of a very poor and quite small place. The document has a few problems which the donors have pointed out (and a few that have escaped censure), but reading through it, it never occurred to me that a central issue was that it didn’t plan enough for mitigation of climate change or adaptation to climate change.

I know that climate change is a real threat to the prospects of many developing countries. It’s also something that many developing countries can help combat. But let’s be clear: for it to be tackled properly, it must be tackled at the global level. Individual poor countries, which contribute a miniscule amount to climate change compared to large industrialized countries, are not going to lead the fight. Even if they successfully minimize their contribution to climate change, this will be a drop in the ocean compared to what the big industrial powers can achieve. If they do make sacrifices for this end, and see others ignore the problem or continue to institute half-measures not only will they have a limited effect on climate change, they’ll also suffer in terms of material development. They stand to lose on two dimensions. No, if they are to contribute to the reduction of harmful practices to the environment it must be part of a global strategy to do so.

What’s more, climate change mitigation will also not be a central concern of these countries. This might be short-sighted, but the situation is clear. In many places in the world, the basic services that any society needs are not functioning effectively. The productive capacity of the economy is severely limited: agriculture is low-productivity because lands are not irrigated and land holdings are too small to mechanise, and industry is not competitive or developed enough to provide stable employment to the many unemployed. Yes, the spectre of climate change may make agriculture more difficult, but by far the biggest constraint to their ability to grow crops and produce products is the structure of their agricultural sector and the ability of entrepreneurs to accumulate capital and start large-scale production. These are rightly the focus of their work.

Trying to give climate change an artificially large space in the strategic vision of a country like this is going to fail for two reasons: firstly, no-one who lives, works or governs in these countries will believe it should really be their focus, and so they won’t devote their time and resources to whatever they’ve put their signatures down to. Secondly, the more donors or pressure groups push for it, the more the Government and other players will placate them by issuing more statements and drafting more meaningless paragraphs that ‘recognise the central importance’ of these issues, while at the same time quietly making sure the priority funding and effort goes in other directions. And then, in fifteen years’ time, we’ll look back at all these papers and declare the failure of the climate change agenda, the failure of these policies – because for all the rhetoric they never changed anything.

Climate change is a central concern of international organisations for a good reason. It’s one of the biggest threats to the planet, and we simply cannot just sit around and watch it happen. But this means we cannot fall into the trap of using words as a substitute for action. Getting reference to climate change into a document is not a win. Getting a policy implemented that makes a real difference to it is. And this must happen at the global level first; it requires unity of action. We might have the sway to get poor countries to write about it more, but that should be no salve on a collective conscience that knows those who have the biggest influence remain unmoved.

One thought on “White Noise

  1. Sam Gardner

    July 20, 2010 at 4:58pm

    1. Some research (I don’t remember details) has shown that seeing a poster against corruption influences actors to “do the right thing”. Would it be possible that the same happens to some degree with the mainstreaming for gender or climate change?

    2. If there is a serious problem to address, then please don’t mainstream but start specific interventions to address your problem. We obtained only results when we started specific projects against sexual violence, abandoning “gender mainstreaming” as paradigm, (perhaps the main result is that the problem is now at least acknowledged).

    3. I admit that 1 and 2 contradict. Isn’t development interesting?

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