Friday, March 30, 2012

Passion for the well-being of our people vs corrosion of democracy

I have been following with interest a dear friend of mine's plight in Malawi recently. It seems that his beautiful country, with its beautiful people, are facing some serious challenges. The challenge: the painful process of corrosion of democracy. Sound familiar?

So many of our nations here in Africa have made amazing progress with democracy and good governance. However, all to often we hear of stories of incredible corruption and absolute abuse of power and country funds. And even more often, these stories stem from the highest stage...the presidency. Presidents come into power with the most beautiful and inspiring passion for their people. And somewhere along the way, this passion is replaced with greed, and, dare I say it, insanity. Ring a bell yet? I am sure we all know of one very prominent leader in power right now in a country very close to home who fits this bill. But I won't elaborate on his story; I am sure we have all heard it many times before.

In honour of my dear friend and his country, I will use President Mutharika of Malawi as an example to illustrate my point. What a wonderful man he was. He had to flee Malawi in the 1960s for fear of being persecuted because he spoke against the autocratic rule of then President Banda. When he returned, he, and his pals, formed the United Democratc Front (UDF) and promptly ran for election. Mutharika stood for democratic reform and the protection of human rights. He promised to fight the hard fight of corruption (yip, you read right!). He came into power in 2004, with an exemplary record....working experience with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, and the World Bank. He was re-elected in 2009. And then things started to go pear-shaped.

He has become intolerant of criticism, he has randomly and arbitrarily dismissed government officials and has been implicated in the harassment of civil society activists who oppose his policies. And...surprise...more and more members of his government are being implicated in major corruption scandals! Something more shocking: in 2011 President Mutharika dissolved cabinet! Then, later, appointed a new one, which included his brother and wife...And there is more: despite Malawi's heavy dependence on external support, he has managed to get onto a warpath with development partners, denying the country all sorts of resources.

I ask myself: How does this happen? How does someone come into power with so much heart, and then, while in power, the heart slowly turns into a cold dollar bill. How can you sleep restfully at night knowing that the 1000-count cotton sheets keeping you warm means that there are five children out there who will die of a malnutrition-related disease? I will have to leave it at that and let you ponder...maybe you can come up with a solution to this problem we have faced in too many countries.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The biggest mistake: undervaluation of biodiversity

Sitting in Nairobi airport with four hours to kill after Ethiopian Airlines greedily overbooked the flight I was supposed to be on from Addis Ababa to Johannesburg and subsequently had to divert me via Nairobi, followed by a painful overnighter in Johannesburg before I can finally make my way back home tomorrow morning to Windhoek. Bleh. But anyway – it gives me time for this.

My last five days were spent in Addis Ababa at a workshop organised by the Secretariat of the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity on updating the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plans for the countries of Africa. Can I hear you snoring already? Let me see if I can lose the terrible acronym-filled UN language....basically this was a gathering of African countries and “international experts”  focusing on how to mainstream the importance of biodiversity, and indeed the natural system into our countries’ development. I was sent as “resource person” (whatever that means) on effective communication – which, as we are slowly realising, is integrally important to get messages across to various facets of society, whether it be to policy-makers or the little guy on the street. As I write this I see on CNN a story on turtles in Gabon...mmmm...maybe things aren’t as bleak as I seem to think. 

But yar. It seems that, even though we (unknowingly) depend on biodiversity and environmental services for our daily function, we still, in this day and age, manage to completely undervalue it in our decision-making. Perhaps because we get it for free....and take it for much so that we don’t seem to care if we degrade it. It reminds me of the Millenium Assessment’s results from 2005 (a global survey on the state of our natural system) – a very stark reminder of what we are doing to our Earth...and to ourselves. One of the most humbling statements “Any progress achieved in addressing the goals of poverty and hunger eradication, improved health, and environmental protections is unlikely to be sustained if most of the ecosystem services on which humanity relies continues to be degraded”.  So now we sit at this unnecessarily formal conference venue discussing, in oh-so-typical UN delegate fashion, how to go about mainstreaming biodiversity into our national development plans. Very interesting and passionate people. But we are environmental people. And yet we are trying to find ways to communicate the value of ecosystem services across sectors. 

How much would you be willing to pay for clean air? For a view that takes your breath away? For a mangrove swamp that will save your life when a massive hurricane comes along? How much are you willing to pay to protect a dune system that has evolved over millions of years, in which a complex network of wind and sand dynamics shifts integral nutrients to your agricultural production system?

For centuries we have not put any value on these things. What we have valued however, are things which have no value (gold!?). We undervalue the basic underlying roots for life on Earth. And we are paying for it. Unfortunately not enough of us know about this. And those of us who do struggle to communicate this to the people in power. Well, so there I sat at this conference and pondered my fellow Africans. Somehow, we in Africa, with “our problems”, have managed to maintain most of the valued ecosystem services and biodiversity (although a lot of it lies on the edge). Do we need to keep copying pasting systems deemed as “successful” (and what are these systems looking like now) from the west? Systems that are showing major failures and are destructive...Or shall we look at what has worked well in Africa and how to showcase our amazing stories? We are so much closer still to nature (although this is changing as we aspire to this so-called “American dream” – people moving from their rural areas to urban slums in the vain naive hope that it will bring them this “aspiration”), and if so, can’t we still find our own ways to become successful and wealthy (defined in different ways) than our western counterparts who are now facing the consequences of their destructive actions? I think we can. But we need to start valuing our own systems of success, stop being spoon-fed, and taking charge for our own continent. This starts with our own confidence. And the hope for a new system of success...where the well-being of our people is more important than the monetary wealth of the few people on the top.