Combining humanitarian aid, economic development and environmental improvement may be the only way for the global community to bolster its resilience to 21st-century challenges
By David Biello
Environmental, humanitarian and economic challenges do not exist in isolation, but that is how the world most often deals with them. To take just one example: one of the key challenges facing cities around the globe in the 21st century is flooding. Flooding is determined by environmental factors, from climate change to overcrowding of floodplains with habitation. Flooding is also often a humanitarian disaster when it strikes and can be an aftereffect of big development projects, like hydroelectric dams.
Or take the metals in a cell phone. As Judith Rodin, president of the philanthropic Rockefeller Foundation, noted at her organization's event about "resilient livelihoods" on September 25, tungsten is the "metal that puts the buzz in your cell phone." Mining that tungsten is an economic development opportunity but also too often creates a humanitarian crisis when such economically valuable minerals become a source of conflict—as has been the case in the eastern Congo. At the same time, the mining practices used to extract such metals can be more or less bad for the environment and human health.
The U.N. buzz phrase of the last decade—"sustainable development"—is slowly morphing into a new sustainable buzzword for the development and humanitarian communities: resilience. Resilience means, at its core, an ability to bounce back fromstress in a healthy way, Rodin said. But, as development expert Edward Carr of the University of South Carolina rightly notes, resilience of what, to what? Enabling the poor to be resilient in the face of challenges like climate change may require a fundamental rethinking of the methods used to address both poverty and global warming.
After all, poverty and climate change are inextricably linked: The developed world has progressed, thanks to fossil fuels, and burning them has resulted in the elevated levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere trapping heat, raising global temperatures and spawning weird weather. To resolve the energy poverty of billions will likely require burning more fossil fuels, but preventing catastrophic climate change definitely requires reducing concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gas. "You cannot tackle one without the other," Rodin noted.
Thus far, despite some recent success in reducing poverty thanks to rising living standards in China, the world has mostly failed to truly tackle either. Although drought in the Horn of Africa is predictable and cyclical even under the present climate, famine still stalks the region. "To have drought at the level of 2011 and no deaths in Ethiopia? That was progress," argued Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme at the Rockefeller event. Yet, thousands perished of starvation throughout the region and populations in Somalia, Kenya and elsewhere remain reliant on aid—a decades-long failure that also encompasses civil war and political instability. "How do you eventually graduate from aid?" asks Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen, CEO of Vestergaard Frandsen, a Denmark-based company that makes disease-control products.
Plus, "we are not winning the war on hunger. We are losing it," argued European Union Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva at the Rockefeller event. One of the big reasons that levels of hunger have started to grow again is the impact of climate change—variable weather means variable harvests whereas programs to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of cars have ended up taking away food to make biofuelslike ethanol. The lack of investment in agricultural innovation and the devastating impact of food aid on local farmers hasn't helped either. "Yes, we feed the hungry but we kill the farmers," Georgieva noted. Or, as food security specialist Amadou Diallo of the government of Niger said: "The basis of peace is food security." When people lack food, they turn to rebellion or terrorism.