Normative Narratives


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Economic Outlook: Reparations, Development Aid / Debt Relief, and Common But Differentiated Responsibilities

Original Article:

In recent international news, a group representing 15 Caribbean nations (CARICOM) is seeking reparations from former colonial rulers for past atrocities, which they argue continue to have negative socioeconomic development impacts to this day:

Spurred by a sense of injustice that has lingered for two centuries, the countries plan to compile an inventory of the lasting damage they believe they suffered and then demand an apology and reparations from the former colonial powers of Britain, France and the Netherlands.

To present their case, they have hired a firm of London lawyers that this year won compensation from Britain for the torture of Kenyans under British colonial rule in the 1950s.

Just as important, the discussions around reparations — in the Caribbean as in Europe — might become an occasion to delve into history, to mourn but also confront the many ways in which the past continues to shape the present.

Laurent DuBouis Op-Ed:

This is more than just creative accounting. When economists debate why some countries are poor and others are rich, they often focus on the cultural, political or economic structures of poor countries. But historians of the Caribbean have long argued that national inequality is a direct result of centuries of economic exploitation.

But a French commission concluded that, while there was a responsibility on France’s part, financial reparation was not the solution. Its report suggested that French aid to Haiti was a kind of “reparation” and urged more of it.

After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, President Nicolas Sarkozy offered an aid and debt-forgiveness package to the country. But the French government never officially apologized, let alone offered compensation.

Despite the rightness of the Caribbean nations’ claim, European governments are likely to respond similarly this time. If Caricom accepts this approach, the call for reparations may ultimately just come to play a strategic role within international negotiations over aid and trade.

What would it mean to truly rid our world of the legacies of slavery? In the Caribbean, it would mean undoing the divisions created by colonialism, through regional economic cooperation and reduced dependence on foreign aid and foreign banks.

It would mean, above all, ending the continuing mistreatment and stereotyping of Haitians, who were the pioneers in the overthrow of slavery and have been paying for it ever since.

In Europe and the United States, it would mean abandoning condescending visions of the Caribbean and building policies on aid, trade and immigration based on an acceptance of common and connected histories.

It would mean, above all, consigning racial discrimination, exploitation and political exclusion to the past. That would be the truest form of reparation.

By framing the issue of reparations as a way to remedy past atrocities (mainly slave trade) as well as a way to move forward cooperatively, CARICOM may indeed be able to achieve its goals. Reparations fit into a broader interpretation of common but differentiated responsibilities, and are consistent with the human rights accountability based approach to development:

The concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities” in reference to the “global commons”, has until this point been used almost exclusively in the environmental and natural resource arena. I would argue that both of these terms have a much wider application. Global commons should refer to any non-excludable good / service, with positive / negative externalities, whose effective management requires global coordination (to overcome cheater and free-riders). This would include, among other things, development outcomes.

By re-framing the concept of “the global commons”, a new global partnership for development can take root through the UN Post-2015 Development Agenda, with the concept of common but differentiated responsibilities at its core. By “common but differentiated” I do not mean that countries should have ideologically different policies–quite the contrary. The “common” aspect refers to creating programs with global policy coherence, aimed at achieving a normative vision of the future. The “differentiated” aspect refers to these programs being financed in a way that takes into account past transgressions, present context, and future goals.

Both articles mention the socioeconomic effects of slavery and slave trade, and corresponding financial component of reparations, an unavoidable element of any reparations argument. More tellingly, both articles also mention the emotional and psychological impacts of slavery that still persist today. What exactly should reparations look like? I believe in order to be effective–to truly “rid the world of the legacy of slavery”–reparations must have two components:

1) Debt Relief / Development Aid: Debt relief already exists, in the form of the Highly Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) Initiative. However, only five of the thirty-five HIPC countries are in Latin America (LA)–apparently Latin American countries are not poor enough to qualify for debt relief. Given the IMF’s role in the “Lost Decade” of development in LA (1980s), which was much more recent and therefore has a more direct impact on current socioeconomic conditions in Latin America than the 18th century slave trade does, it is particularly troubling that the IMF does not believe most Latin American countries should qualify for debt relief–particularly given Latin America’s substantial debt burden.

Debt relief should be extended to Latin American countries. Furthermore, donor countries should make a strong effort to reach the 0.7% of GDP for development aid target. Both initiatives should carry only the precondition of good, transparent, and accountable governance (political preconditions as opposed to economic preconditions, which are restrictive, paternalistic, and often lead to counter-productive development outcomes). This precondition gives developing countries the greatest amount of autonomy in developing their poverty reduction strategy.

2) An Admission of Wrongdoing, and an Apology: It is clear that the scars of slavery have not healed on their own over time. Drastic economic differences between the most and least developed countries play out as various power-asymmetries on a global scale, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Instead of convergence, there is divergence, with devastating impacts such as human suffering, instability, and conflict. In light of both our common past and interdependent future, it is essential to acknowledge past wrongdoings, so the worlds leaders can move forward in a constructive manner.

Case in point is recent news concerning allegations that the N.S.A. spied on foreign leaders. While Germany, France and Spain certainly are not happy with the news, they are willing to hear America out and work with U.S. intelligence agencies–they understand the positive ends of U.S. actions even if they do not agree with the means . Latin American leaders have, in general, reacted in a much more negative way, cancelling diplomatic exercises and moving towards greater isolation. This reaction is reflective of a deep mistrust between L.A. countries and the highly developed Euro-America alliance.

By admitting to past wrongdoings via these two forms of reparations, we can move forward with greater trust and cooperation with our L.A. neighbors. These are countries we share an economic and political ideology with; there is no reason for such distrust and dislike to persist. L.A. countries also have a crucial role to play in the global partnership for development, as an intermediary between the most and least developed countries in the world (“south-south cooperation“).

To overcome the most pressing issues affecting the world in the 21st century, we need trust, coordination and cooperation between nations–especially between allies! We also need a global economic framework that will reverse the damaging trend of economic divergence and lead to more sustainable, peaceful, and inclusive development. Reparations are but one example of the “common but differentiated responsibilities” every country has in achieving this future. That we can have a debate on the merits of reparations in an open and even-handed way is a testament to how far we have come as a global community, but much work still remains to be done.


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Green News: Who Is Cutting and Who is Increasing GHG Emissions? The Answer May Suprise You

I gotta say, it is nice to not be covering the Syrian civil war in this post. Events in Syria have dominated the news lately, but it seems that at least for the immediate future diplomatic exercises have stalled the prospect of outside military intervention.

I would like to take this opportunity to highlight an interesting trend I have noticed lately, involving different countries efforts (or lack thereof) to curb greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The trend is interesting because it involves major players from both extremes (both high emitting nations and sustainability champions) moving forward with policies that would seem to contradict their historical stances on climate change. In recent news, the U.S. and China are moving to curb GHG emissions , while Australia and Canada are moving towards less sustainable energy portfolios.

(For some background, please see interactive maps on: GHG emissions by country per capita, CO2 emissions by country, renewable / fossil fuel energy production and consumption by country)

Australia and Canada have, in recent history, been global champions of sustainable development. Both countries were original ratifying members of the Kyoto Protocol, and have signed the protocol into law (although it appears Canada will not make it’s emissions targets). Australia became one of the first countries to sign a carbon tax into law, and while Canada does not have a federal carbon tax, several Providences have their own regulations in place. Canada and Australia, with their natural beauty, seemed like global poster-children for sustainable development. However, recent developments show these two countries shifting in the other direction.

Economic downturns have pitted environmentalists vs. industry in a zero-sum and short-sighted game, in which advocacy for sustainable development could be political suicide. Of course, in the long run, we need a more sustainable global energy portfolio; but these are problems for future generations who do not have the unemployment problems of today’s world, opponents of carbon taxes argue (I am not considering the climate change skeptic as a legitimate opposition anymore).

Canada has seen rising GHG emissions in recent years, with no future decline in sight–if anything, increased production of oil sands forecasts emissions trending upwards in Canada. Politics have turned against environmentalists in Canada for reasons discussed above; anybody who thinks about environmental sustainability implicitly does not care about jobs / the economy / problems facing Canadians today (sound familiar? this is a common argument for putting off action on reducing emissions around the world).

Australia recently had elections, which were won by conservatives based partially on a promise to abolish the unpopular carbon tax:

The Australian mining industry welcomed Saturday’s election of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his coalition’s pledge to abolish the carbon tax on fugitive greenhouse gas emissions from coal mines and the Minerals Resource Rent Tax on coal and iron ore mining profits.

The coalition of Liberal and National parties campaigned on a platform to repeal the taxes within 100 days of taking the reins of government.

“On the first sitting day of Parliament under a coalition government, I will introduce legislation to repeal the Carbon Tax,” Abbott said on the Liberal party’s website that included policy documentation stating the party would also rescind the MRRT.

For some Australians, the free-rider issue seems to make being environmentally conscious not worth fronting the bill–literally:

The carbon tax is one reason Sydney resident Geoff Hamment, who normally votes for Labor, is supporting the conservatives this time around. Hamment said he’s seen his household electricity bills go “through the roof” since the tax was introduced.

“I don’t like it,” he said. “I think us paying so much is just pointless when you have countries like China churning it out.”

The tax is extremely unpopular, despite the fact that most Australians, but not the wealthy, get government compensation for higher electricity prices.

For all the well-founded China bashing on the environmental front–China has overtaken the U.S. as the global leader in terms of absolute GHG emissions (although the U.S., per capita, still emits more than China; this is arguably a better measure of a countries energy efficiency)–the Chinese government appears to be trending towards more sustainable environmental policies:

BEIJING — The Chinese government announced an ambitious plan on Thursday to curb air pollution across the nation, including setting some limits on burning coal and taking high-polluting vehicles off the roads to ensure a drop in the concentration of particulate matter in cities.

The plan, released by the State Council, China’s cabinet, filled in a broad outline that the government had issued this year. It represents the most concrete response yet by the Communist Party and the government to growing criticism over allowing the country’s air, soil and water to degrade to abysmal levels because of corruption and unchecked economic growth.

The criticism has been especially pronounced in some of China’s largest cities, where anxious residents grapple with choking smog that can persist for days and even weeks. In January, the concentration of fine particulate matter in Beijing reached 40 times the exposure limit recommended by the World Health Organization.

For years China has had an array of strict environmental standards on paper, and its leaders talk constantly about the need to improve the environment. But enforcement has been lax, and the environment has continued to deteriorate at an alarming rate.

“The plan successfully identifies the root cause of air pollution in China: China’s industrial structure,” said Ma Jun, a prominent environmental advocate. “Industrialization determines the structure of energy consumption. If China does not upgrade its coal-dependent industries, coal consumption can never be curbed.” he said. “The key to preventing air pollution is to curb coal burning — China burns half of all the coal consumed in the world.”

In the United States, the world’s number two GHG emitter, the issue of emissions has been divided largely down partisan lines. Liberals, led by President Obama, believe in taxing carbon and subsidizing renewable energies as part of an “all of the above” energy portfolio to meet future demand and cut emissions. Conservatives tend to argue against the need to curb GHG emissions, largely for the same reasons mentioned above with respect to Canada and Australia. However, it seems Obama intends to bypass partisan gridlock by passing executive orders, carried out through the EPA, to curb emissions from fossil fuel power plants:

The Environmental Protection Agency is due to unveil next week the first batch of regulations under President Barack Obama’s new climate action plan – a carbon emissions-rate standard for new fossil fuel power plants.

If standards are as strict as the industry expects, it could be the death knell for new coal plant construction. The recent bankruptcy of Longview, a highly efficient West Virginia coal plant, is an example of the pressures already facing the industry.

The EPA is due to issue an emissions-rate standard for new fossil fuel power plants by September 20. Proposed standards on existing plants will follow in 2014.

Obama asked the EPA to re-propose a rule it introduced last year using a section of the federal Clean Air Act that required all new power plants, including those that use coal, to meet a standard of 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour – the rate of an average gas-fired plant.

Sources that have met with the administration in recent weeks said the agency has likely revised its earlier proposal to provide separate standards for natural gas and coal plants, and also raised the emissions limits for coal plants.

The new rules, like those initially proposed in 2012, are also likely to include a requirement for new coal plants to use a form of carbon capture and storage (CCS), a technology that captures carbon emissions and stores the carbon underground, that is years away from being available on a commercial scale.

Eugene Trisko, a lawyer who represents clients such as the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity in energy and environmental matters, said CCS cannot be deployed if coal plants, such as Longview, are unable to run.

“If you really wanted to advance CCS, you really need to build new coal plants because those are the plants that one day or another would be the laboratories for CCS,” he said.

“Nobody is going to put CCS on plants that are 50 years old,” he added.

But some environmentalists argue that new EPA rules will only add another layer of financial risk around coal plant investment even in coal-reliant states like West Virginia.

Instead of investing in new coal plants, which will only become more costly, states should diversify their energy supply, said Cathy Kunkel, an energy research consultant and fellow at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

The concept behind taxing carbon emissions and subsidizing renewable energies is pretty straightforward. Emissions represent a negative externality, pollution, that is a detriment to society as a whole. A carbon tax or cap-and-trade system creates a cost for this negative externality, discouraging its use and potentially helping to fund R & D in renewables (and therefore encouraging competing cleaner energy sources). Renewable energy has positive externalities (energy with lower levels GHG emissions), subsidies compensate producers for these externalities. Furthermore, renewable energy is still a relatively infant industry, which combined with its inherent positive externalities and increasing global energy demand, make it a prime candidate for government subsidy.

Do not get me wrong, we are still a long way away from the point where China and America can lecture Australia and Canada about their emissions (especially considering that China and America represent large export markets for Australian and Canadian fossil fuels respectively). However, it is interesting to note the role reversal, which I believe at it’s root is a failure of the international community to embrace the concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities”. Previous environmental champions, discouraged by the lack of international commitment to emissions reductions, have created an environment where politicians can win elections by tapping into that frustration. “We have tried, now we are concerned with our own problems.” people in these countries may argue. Australia has taken this stance on step further, with respect to ODA:

The outgoing Labor government said in May that Australia’s long-standing pledge to increase its foreign aid spending to 0.5 percent of gross national income by 2015-16 would be postponed by two years.

The coalition said in a statement last week that it shared Labor’s commitment to reach the 0.5 percent target “over time, but cannot commit to a date given the current state of the federal budget.”

“I have to say, there are higher immediate priorities” than reaching the 0.5 percent target, Abbott told reporters last week. “The best thing we can do for our country and ultimately the best thing we can do for people around the world is to strengthen our economy.”

The plans have been condemned by opponents and aid groups, who dubbed it short-sighted and contrary to the nation’s image of global cooperation, particularly in light of Australia’s recent appointments to presidency of the U.N. Security Council and the G-20 in 2014.

While this stance on international relations is obviously flawed and short-sighted, it is understandable how Canada and Australia got to this point. The U.S. and China, on the other hand, are recognizing they must lead any global initiative to reign in GHG emissions, before the costs rise further and irreparable damage is done.  China has an even more pressing problem, with the deadly smog it’s unchecked emissions has produced. This is the natural ebb and flow of accountability without coordinated global policy. Those who are mostly responsible for GHG emissions, fearing future accountability, want to work together to make those future costs as low and evenly shared as possible. Those who have forgone some economic growth for sustainable development in the past feel they have already done their part, and are beginning to forsake what they see as failed international commitments for domestic goals.
This is a failure of global policy coordination, and one the world cannot afford. The G20 would be a natural place to come up with a global environmental commitment, based on the concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (which is really only fair) as the worlds largest emitters are represented there. Furthermore, as a relatively new group (established in 1999, the first meeting of the G20 Leaders took place in Washington, D.C., on November 14-15, 2008)the G20 doesn’t have the history of failed negotiations that sometimes doom other global climate change efforts. Australia taking over the U.N.S.C. and G20 presidency in 2014 looked liked a “win” for sustainable development a few years back; now I am not so sure that is the case.


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Transparency Report: The Global Partnership for Development, Global Commons, and Common But Differentiated Responsibilities.

A recurring topic here at NN is how globalization has shifted some of the most pressing political economy decisions away from national governments and into the global governance arena, where the rules are largely being drawn up as we go. Never has the world been as globalized as it is today, and we can be certain that tomorrow will only lead to further integration. 

A number of problems inherently arise in issues of global governance. There are innumerable public and private interests at work, none of which want to give up their legal/structural advantage for the greater global good. Politicians must balance the short-run interests of domestic actors with the long run interests of the global community (but only one of those groups is responsible for that politicians future job prospects). This may lead to a “free rider problem”, where a country may decide it will simply reap the benefits of global governance (which tend to be non-excludable), while not contributing anything (and by further complicating an already complex and differentiated international legal/policy/taxation order, undermining global governance initiatives). Differences in national regulations can lead to capital flight to low cost countries, creating another incentive to “cheat” on global commitments.

One way to overcome free-rider problems is to create forums or groups where countries can coordinate their policies and voice grievances with one another (and shine a spotlight on “cheaters” and “free riders”). The G-20 is one such organization. The 3G Global Governance Group is a similar group comprised of 30 more countries. Critics and proponents of such groups often bicker over the merits and limitations of inclusivity versus exclusivity–I am of the mind that if the stated goal is coordination, cooperation, and some element of global policy coherence, then the more the merrier. This does not mean we need a G-193; groups can determine for themselves their level of exclusivity, as long as they can interact together through global mechanisms such as the United Nations.

The concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities” in reference to the “global common”, has until this point been used almost exclusively in the environmental and natural resource arena. I would argue that both of these terms have a much wider application. Global commons should refer to any non-excludable good / service, with positive / negative externalities, whose effective management requires global coordination (to overcome cheater and free-riders). This new definition would include, among other things: environmental regulation, trade openness, financial and tax policies, issues of regional and global security and human rights concerns (and yes these are all interrelated issues, further boosting the argument for global coordination in tackling them).

By re-framing the concept of global commons, a new global partnership for development can take root through the UN Post-2015 Development Agenda, with the concept of common but differentiated responsibilities at its core. This concept itself will make countries more willing to coordinate on global commons issues. By acknowledging that countries are accountable to different degrees for the current state of global affairs, a basis for financing global initiatives that is fair yet acknowledges common goals all countries should be working towards can emerge. By “common but differentiated” I do not mean that countries should have different policies–quite the contrary. The “common” aspect refers to creating programs with global policy coherence, the “differentiated” aspect refers to how those programs will be financed in a way that allows them to fully realize their goals (as opposed to unfulfilled commitments that have dominated global agreements in the past).

Perhaps such commitments would be a more sustainable and effective way for donor countries to channel ODA, freeing up fiscal space for national governments in developing countries to finance their own domestic development programs without the distorting effects that large aid inflows can have.  

The G-20 is currently focusing on the issue of corporate tax evasion. (for a refresher, in a previous blog I explored the costs to society of corporate tax evasion)

“Government officials from the world’s largest and richest economies on Friday for the first time endorsed a blueprint to curb widely used tax avoidance strategies that allow some multinational corporations to pay only a pittance in income taxes.”

“In light of such practices – which are entirely legal, but take advantage of differing tax rules around the world – the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has proposed that all nations adopt 15 new tax principles for corporations. The plan focuses only on corporations and would, if adopted widely, shift some of the global tax burden toward large companies — the ones big and rich enough to devise complex tax-reduction strategies — and away from small businesses and individuals, which tend to spend a much bigger share of their incomes on taxes.

“Shifting profits to low-tax countries and costs to high-tax countries is less an option for small businesses and individuals, who inevitably wind up carrying more of the tax burden as a result. In the United States, for example, taxes on corporate profit contributed 40 percent of all income tax to the United States Treasury 50 years ago. Today, corporations contribute less than 20 percent, with the slack taken up by small companies and those paying individual income tax.”

“In contrast, the owners of a small coffee shop would probably not able to reduce its tax liability by claiming they had paid royalty fees to an overseas company owning the copyright to their cafe’s name.

The reform is intended to address such inequities, the finance ministers said Friday”

“‘It’s a matter of justice and fairness,’ Angel Gurría, the secretary general of the O.E.C.D., said at the presentation of the new plan with the finance ministers of France, Britain, Germany and Russia.”

The list, presented Friday at a meeting of finance ministers of the Group of 20 countries in Moscow, includes ideas to prevent corporations from “treaty shopping” to find countries with the lowest taxes and then find ways to book their profits there, even when much the money is made elsewhere.”

“The details, however, may prove daunting and will be subject to intense lobbying by corporations. In addition, countries have long used tax policies in efforts to lure businesses to locate operations there. The O.E.C.D. plan would not seek to end such competition entirely – any country would be free to charge lower rates than others did — but it would try to keep countries from essentially offering companies ways to avoid paying taxes anywhere, something critics say Ireland did in reaching agreements with Apple.”

“The O.E.C.D. does not expect to complete work on the proposals until the fall of 2015, and after that it would be up to governments and legislatures to implement them by passing new tax laws.”

Government are coming together to address the issue of corporate tax avoidance, which could not be addressed unilaterally. Reform will take a long time and run into intense opposition, but it has to start somewhere, and the G-20 is that somewhere. If the worlds biggest economies agree on rules, smaller countries will follow suit (powerful countries often use economic leverage to secure policy changes). In time, with nowhere left to run, large corporations will have no option but to pay their fare share–to the benefit of all.