The Oxford Martin School Blog
Finding Common Ground on the Plundered Planet
08 Jun 2010 6 comment(s)
Paul Collier, co-director of the Oxford Institute for Global Economic Development (which has recently become a member of the James Martin 21st Century School due to a matched funding grant), aimed to build a bridge between environmentalism and economics in his talk at Oxford's Sheldonian Theatre, sponsored by the James Martin 21st Century School.
Collier's latest book, The Plundered Planet, addresses two forms of ‘plunder' in the developing world - economic, when the few benefit from what's intended for the many, and environmental, when the few take what's intended for the future. For the 60 or so countries that constitute the poorest 20% of the world's population or the ‘bottom billion' (the title of Collier's previous book) their only assets are natural resources and weak governance in these countries has led to both forms of plunder.
In Collier's view, the biggest issue facing the bottom billion is this (mis)management of nature. Many of these regions, such as Africa, represent the last frontier on Earth for resource discovery. For example, in developed countries, approximately $300,000 worth of natural resources have been found below the surface of each square mile, while the figure for Africa is only $60,000. However, this figure is only known resources - it's possible that more than 80% of the region's potential is still untapped.
While these resources could potentially be transformative - bringing the poorest areas of the world from poverty to prosperity - Collier asserted that the challenge is to ensure that the history of plunder does not repeat itself, and this will require new forms of governance. He pointed to the recent BP oil spill as an example of the high price of negligence and the environmental damage that can come from careless extraction of resources.
However, he drew a line separating his views from those he termed ‘environmental romantics', who view that our obligation to the future is to ‘preserve' nature. In his view, our obligation is to preserve the ‘value' of nature. In other words, he proposes that if we use these natural assets - as we inevitably will - that we have the responsibility to convert them into other assets that will have value for the future, thereby avoiding plunder.
To meet these challenges, he asserts that there is no substitute for a critical mass of informed citizens, brought together by information and communication technology. As a conclusion, he encouraged the Oxford audience to go online and go forth, serving as ambassadors for these ideas.
Collier's talk was followed by a lively panel discussion. Three panellists - Charles Badenoch of World Vision International, Jamie Drummond of ONE and Gideon Rachman, Foreign Affairs Editor at the Financial Times - led a spirited debate about the myriad challenges facing the bottom billion and how to address these daunting obstacles.
Charles Badenoch, Vice President, Advocacy & Justice for Children at World Vision International agreed with Collier that not enough attention is paid to governance and as a result much foreign aid is not meeting its objectives. He argued for a two-fold approach. In his view, more money should be spent on education, including higher education, to build a vibrant civil society that will challenge governments. Secondly, he urged that there be more participation from children ages 8-18. "They are open, creative and don't take no for an answer," he said.
Jamie Drummond, Executive Director of ONE, also spoke of the importance of children in the fight against poverty. According to Drummond, 150 million children are stunted both physically and mentally as a result of hunger, and 8 million die annually before the age of 5, many due to preventable diseases. These are issues not only of supply, but of access. For example, in some cultures men eat first, before women and children. He observed that a lot of campaigning is reduced to debates about aid because the real issues - accountability, democracy and transparency - don't have a silver bullet and it's hard to keep the public engaged on these complex challenges.
Gideon Rachman, Chief Foreign Affairs Editor at the Financial Times, pointed out that many of our present-day challenges - the banking crisis, climate change and resource management - are now prefaced by the word ‘global' as in the ‘global financial crisis.' He spoke of the need for global governance, for example the G20, as a way to tackle challenges that cross international boundaries. However, this process has not been without its difficulties. Though the G20 leaders agree on many high-level goals, their agreements break down in implementation due to fear of backlash from their own people.
The discussion continued with spirited debate arising from comments from the audience. One person pointed out that the voice of the environmentalist was omitted from the panel discussion and yet far more engagement with environmental campaigners was needed to fully address and counter some of the arguments of Collier's book. Other audience members and panellists made comments or suggestions on ideas from the general to the specific, such as building coalitions of diverse interests to drive change, making genetically modified foods (GMOs) a public good, looking at how the role of China is changing development in Africa, and finding ways to get governments to take notice of informed citizens. In conclusion, Collier continued to hold up information technology as a way for leaders to appeal directly to civil society to put aside their own self interests and think about these issues in the global context.