28 March 2011

Worth the paper it was printed on?

Author's Note: the following may not be appropriate reading for flag-waving conservatives, or even flag-waving liberals for that matter, especially those currently taking medication for high blood pressure.  This commentary is almost certainly not in the avowed interests of set-minded neoconservative imperialists or, quite the opposite, Americans who disavow interest in or knowledge of foreign policy.  Americans who believe without question every news item they read and hear about our government and its intentions in the world should stop right here and read something else.  If you don't want to bother having to dig into the roots of your own and the larger American ethos, and taking the chance that you might be offended at what you find, go read instead my friend John Sauer's well-written and far more civil take on the events of this past World Water Day in Washington, DC.  He does cover the same points I make here...in another way.  If you choose to read past the line immediately below, I'm not trying to be overdramatic, I just want you to remember: you've been warned.

It was a little while after last year's World Water Day that I posted an article on the Indus River Basin in which I called out US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for some confusion surrounding her statements around that time on US policy regarding foreign aid, water issues, the India–Pakistan dispute over Indus River waters, and some generally obvious contradictions in statements issued from Foggy Bottom over the span of a couple months.  As I quoted then, on 22 March 2010 Secretary Clinton delivered her remarks on the purposes of American foreign aid in the water sector:
''Access to reliable supplies of clean water is a matter of human security. It’s also a matter of national security. And that’s why President Obama and I recognize that water issues are integral to the success of many of our major foreign policy initiatives... 
In the United States, water represents one of the great diplomatic and development opportunities of our time. It’s not every day you find an issue where effective diplomacy and development will allow you to save millions of lives, feed the hungry, empower women, advance our national security interests, protect the environment, and demonstrate to billions of people that the United States cares... 
Water is actually a test case for preventive diplomacy. Historically, many long-term global challenges – including water – have been left to fester for years until they grew so serious that they could no longer be ignored. If we can rally the world to address the water issue now, we can take early corrective action, and get ahead of the challenges that await us. And in doing so, we can establish a positive precedent for early action to address other serious issues of global concern.''
I wrote at that time that the statement seemed earnest, especially as Congress seemed to be working on an update and expansion to the original Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act of 2005 that had just expired.  However, I didn't take into account the glacial pace (pre-global-warming, when they moved slower) at which Congress was moving then, and the mid-term election that was coming up in which entitlement-friendly but science-hostile Republicans ultimately took control of both House and Senate.  What was the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act of 2010 (S.624) died in transition to the House, after being passed by unanimous consent in the Senate several weeks before the elections.  With the end of the 111th Congress, all outstanding bills were wiped clean from the slate, and it was left to the new Congress to take up old issues.

By the end of the winter, a great deal of upheaval arrived in the halls of American science when the new Congress was sworn in and began to hold budget hearings for both the continuing resolution, on which our federal government is (barely) operating now, and the FY2012 federal budget.  In the midst of the fight over science funding, such as that for our most fundamental Earth science activities including the very mission of the USGS and even NOAA's weather forecasting capabilities, Senator Durbin of Illinois has re-introduced the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act of 2011 (S.641).  Its purpose, as in previous incarnations, remains:
"to provide 100,000,000 people with first-time access to safe drinking water and sanitation on a sustainable basis within six years by improving the capacity of the United States Government to fully implement the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act of 2005."
A hundred million people with new access to sustainable drinking water and sanitation facilities!  It would be just plain amazing to behold, one country making a commitment that huge and then doing whatever it takes to follow through on it.  And don't get me wrong, I fully believe that the USG has the capacity and know-how to do exactly that.  For that matter, I believe that the number could be half-a-billion or more, and that the USG could mobilize the necessary workforce between now and the end of the Millennium Development Goals (only four years to go!) to do more than even that commitment helping developing nations meet Goal 7C.  What I doubt, however, is the commitment and continuity of leadership within the USG to appropriate and manage the funds and workforce as consistently and efficiently as needed to do the job.  And I'm not suggesting that one branch or another is at fault here - the problems are in both the Congress and the Executive Departments and Agencies. 

A Congressional Budget Office estimate (available in html and pdf) prepared for the 2010 version of the bill noted that full implementation through the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which is now entirely under the direction of the Department of State, would cost $8B, which was broken down to an approximate cost per person of only $28 using the total US population estimate at the time.  I think that the CBO was underestimating the labor costs involved, especially as much of USAID's work is apparently outsourced now.  I wouldn't expect the overall cost to rise by much in the 2011 version of the bill and the revised CBO estimate that is still to be issued, but what trips me up is one line in the CBO analysis of the 2010 bill: "Section 5 would require the Secretary of State and the Administrator of USAID to designate staff in Washington, DC, to coordinate global water policy and to develop and oversee water strategies for each high-priority country."

Wait, hold up, stop right there: there's a global water policy?  When did that come about?  Did the US leadership decide (unilaterally, of course) to develop and administer this policy without consulting Congress, our overseas friends in NATO and the UN and various other "coalitions," or even the very countries (and their citizens, of course) on whom this policy is inflicted applied?  When did the US declare this war on thirst?  Oh, I see, we haven't done any of those things.  The US is just trying to bring the world a drink of water, as befits the standing and responsibility of a lone superpower in a chaotic world.  Right?

Now, I do agree that the US has a responsibility here.  It is, however, an elitist and illiberal and ultimately racist sense of responsibility.  It's this idea in the American mindset, possibly started with the (true) sense of having won World War II and then strengthened by a (false) sense of having won the Cold War, that America is "it," the pinnacle of human civilization.  It's this idea, my conceptual model of the American pathos:
"If we don't help these people, if we don't do for them what we think they need, if we don't define poverty and show them that they are the illustration, if we don't given them the brutal means to subsist at that level of development...then they'll never rise up to our own level of civil society, want our advice on government, ask us to bring democracy to their people, adopt the dollar as their de facto currency, become worthy and useful allies, develop adequate trade markets, incur a trade deficit with us, etc."
Those are my own words, trying to wrap my brain around this idea for the first time in my life, and not a quote from someone else.  I don't like the idea, for so many reasons, including its decadence.  But I will also tell you and anyone else that I personally don't feel that way.  You might not believe me; I am an American, after all.  That does not, however, make me necessarily elitist or illiberal or racist, but you'll just need to take my word for it...almost four years of words thus far, on this blog alone, and then there are the friends I have, the places I've traveled, the things I want to do with life...  You're smart enough to make your own judgment on my sincerity.

In the meantime, you may also recognize this:  the world can and will change, but not while the insincere and illiberal leaders currently running the so-called rich countries around the world (including the US) remain comfortable in their seats of power.  They will keep two-fifths or more of the world at a level of poverty and subsistence, just so that they can remain firmly planted in the richest percentile of the global population.  After all, no one person can be called rich and powerful if there isn't another, maybe even a whole country, poor and destitute, to complete the comparison.  How do we change that?  That's easy: make them uncomfortable.  Ask questions, demand answers, challenge assumptions, push at the status quo ante until it bends or breaks under the pressure of its own contradictions.  The leaders who get uncomfortable will either adapt or leave; the ones who answer the questions, who own their accountability, who admit to the contradictions, who present their choices transparently, who give thoughtful consideration to the vocal minority...they are the leaders we can learn to trust.  They are the leaders who understand that what America has, as a world leader, is instead a responsibility to protect the lives and livelihoods of people, everywhere, to the best of our ability.  Not just the US "homeland," not just Americans wherever they go in the world, but people, plain and simple.  There is no requirement of an oath, allegiance, citizenship, pax Americana...  There need be no genocide or famine or starvation, if those who are able would simply stand up and take onto ready shoulders their responsibility to protect those who are in need.  Atrocities would not go unpunished, with various national and international courts in place.  It may be an expensive, heart-wrenching, gut-tightening job to do, and it may require the resources of every rich country in the world, but it won't be thankless. 

There are many ways to take on such a responsibility: labor, funding, troops, materials, debt forgiveness, tariff reduction, information, etc.  One of the ways the US has tried to channel funding to the developing world is through official lending institutions.  The World Bank was founded by several countries, principally the US and UK, before World War II even ended in order to facilitate reconstruction funding.  Its primary purpose is to provide loans to developing countries for capital programs, such as infrastructure development, with the overall goal of reducing poverty.  As I pointed out in that previous post, "it is the US that nominates the President of the World Bank and holds a plurality of the votes, with the ability to block any opposing super-majority."  The subject came up then because the World Bank is the standing arbitrator for the Indus Waters Treaty, and rather than step in as yet another arbitrator in the most recent dispute, Secretary Clinton rightly (though by a round-about path) deferred to existing procedures.  In doing so, however, she made statements to a Pakistani delegation on which the Times of India quoted Secretary Clinton directly:
''We're well aware that there is a 50-year-old agreement between Pakistan and India concerning water... Where there is an agreement...with mediation techniques, arbitration built in, it would seem sensible to look to what already exists to try to resolve any of the bilateral problems between India and Pakistan... Let's see what we do to protect our aquifers. Let's see what we do to be more efficient in the use of our water. Let's see what we do to capture more rainwater; how do we actually use less of it to produce more crops? We think we have some ideas with our experts that we want to sit down and talk with your experts about and see where that goes''
At the time, I agreed wholeheartedly that "an exchange of technical knowledge will help build capacity in Pakistan, and might even teach us a thing or two about resource management in our own country..." However, I also pointed out that "setbacks in ethnic and territorial issues can quickly and easily unravel any technical and technological progress in water management and food security. The U.S. needs to form and stick to a clearer message in our approach to Pakistan's issues and helping them with their priorities, not just our own."

As the Wikipedia entry notes about the World Bank, "all of its decisions must be guided by a commitment to promote foreign investment [and] international trade and facilitate capital investment."  The World Bank has taken a lot of criticism in recent years, however, for the manner in which market reform policies (i.e. capitalism) are introduced in targeted developing countries.  For our purposes here, the Bank has taken specific criticism for its advocacy on behalf of international corporations that privatize resources, including water, in the developing economy.  Often, this privatization comes at the expense of the natural environment and indigenous peoples, as in the case of so many large dams recently built in Africa, South America and South Asia.  There has been great pressure on the Bank to develop what is known as a softer approach to development assistance.  Although this kind of approach should have been part of the Bank's strategies since the beginning of its activity, better late than never, right?  But then, teaching the people in developing countries to emerge from poverty on their own might have defeated the rich countries' efforts at keeping so much of the world dependent on their help...

Let us skip to March 2011.  On this past World Water Day in Washington, DC, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed a Memorandum of Understanding with World Bank President Robert Zoellick.  Press releases from both the US Department of State and the World Bank accompanied the announcement, Secretary Clinton wore her customary bright blue WWD dress suit, both leaders offered statements on the occasion, and both recognized the commitments of their respective organizations to the agreement.  Secretary Clinton's remarks at the ceremony called
"to all of you who are here because you know that this is such a critical issue that cuts across every single part of development that one can imagine, I thank you for helping to raise the visibility of water as one of the most important issues. Why? Because the water crisis is a health crisis, it’s a farming crisis, it’s an economic crisis, it’s a climate crisis, and increasingly, it is a political crisis. And therefore, we must have an equally comprehensive response.
"Now our experts in the United States Government are working on water issues at nearly two dozen agencies – of course, from State and USAID, but also the Millennium Challenge Corporation, NASA, NOAA, EPA, Treasury, and so much else. And many of our agencies are already working with the World Bank Group, but we want to enhance that collaboration, and that will be created by the memorandum of understanding that we sign today."
But what, really, did they agree to do?  A Department of State fact sheet on the MOU gives some elements of the agreement, but the language is noncommittal.  Several "potential activities" are listed, including "knowledge sharing, joint analytical work and harmonization of information."  A few "benefits to the US Government and the World Bank" and "benefits to the global community" are also listed, including one of particular note: "U.S. agencies can learn from global best practices and bring shared knowledge back to benefit U.S. communities." [Author's Note: could it be that someone in the right place read my comments from long ago and retained some of the message that I put forward?  I'd find that humbly difficult to believe, but one never knows...The MOU itself is a quick read as well, and offers at least some concise background on the agreement.  But in the end, what the USG and the World Bank really agreed to do was have more meetings:
"4(c) There is to be an annual 'High Level Review' of the progress made by both Participants under this Memorandum. The High Level Review is to be conducted by the United States Department of State, the United States Department of the Treasury, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the World Bank. At the first High Level Review, the first Program of Work jointly developed by the Senior Representatives is to be assessed and planned activities confirmed. Thereafter, the Program of Work is to be reevaluated annually at the High Level Review and altered as needed by the Participants. The Participants intend to hold the first annual High Level Review within one year of the signing of this Memorandum."
There is no Program of Work yet.  The senior representatives from each participating party have not been named, to the best of my knowledge.  There were two items in Secretary Clinton's remarks that piqued my interest, however:
"One year ago, I reaffirmed the United States’s [sic] commitment to water security, to ensuring that people have the water they need, when and where they need it, in a sustainable manner, while reducing the risk and impact of extreme water events like droughts and floods. So water security for us is a matter of economic security, human security, and national security, because we see potential for increasing unrest, conflicts, and instability over water. That is why I asked the National Intelligence Council to prepare an intelligence estimate on the national security implications of water security up to the year 2040."
You may note there that "climate change" was not mentioned outright, though the related "risk and impact of extreme water events" is noted explicitly.  I've already lamented the recent obfuscation of "climate change" in the present US Administration's rhetoric, so I won't belabor that again here, except to point out that the President's removal of the term from his own vocabulary has obviously worked its way into the statements of his Cabinet advisers as well now.  Second, that NIE is a process that I will likely bug a few friends about over the next few years (about as long as it takes to get one of those done) but, being a product of the US Intelligence Community, it's an inherently secretive process and there likely isn't much substance that will be permitted to see the light of day in the meantime.  Right from the beginning, this agreement is not simply bound in bureaucracy, but is the definition of bureaucracy itself.  It is a scourge upon the intended work, a bulwark against progress, set before those of us with interests in the water and sanitation sectors.  In the light of recent Congressional opposition to spending on domestic and international initiatives in science and education, and participation in international fora such as the IPCC, one part of the MOU is particularly foreboding:
"4(e) Each Participant is to be responsible for its own costs in implementing the Program of Work, unless otherwise mutually determined therein."
On the other hand, the MOU is also explicitly limited:
"This Memorandum is not legally binding and does not constitute an agreement or commitment by either Participant to enter into or provide support for any specific activity or project. Nothing in this Memorandum should be construed as creating a joint venture, an agency relationship, or a legal partnership between the Participants...This Memorandum is not intended to commit either Participant to the potential or actual commitment of funds." [emphasis preserved from the original]
For a moment there, it almost seemed like the USG actually did something for World Water Day, didn't it?  Alas, no.  The truth is stark and empty: the developing countries of the world are still in need, the MDGs that American leadership helped set are coming up fast, the US Congress would prefer to retreat from the outside world and the problems at hand, and the Executive arm of the USG is still just planning more meetings.

We supporters of MDG 7C, of the people who want help developing the basics of subsistence (let alone sustainability), and of our living planet without its own voice, have few choices remaining.  We can join the effort represented by such an Understanding, permit the bureaucratic machine to grind painfully down over the years our passion for the work, allow it to drain away from us our dreams of progress as those who are able, and simply give up the lives of those in need to this strange modern need for global leadership in government institutions.

Alternatively, we can join a non-governmental organization that is committed to alleviating poverty, saving the environment, and bringing water and sanitation and proper governance of common resources to the developing countries of the world.  That's a good choice, though not always as effective as an individual sometimes hopes.  Unless you lead your own NGO with your own interests and good funding support, chances are that your ambitions will be subsumed to the greater agenda of the organization.  That's not necessarily bad, mind you; there are thousands of NGOs that just need the people to carry out missions for which their funding is already in hand, and so very many of them want to do something good for the world.  Save a patch of forest, inoculate a child, help dig a community well, pass out mosquito nets, educate the people...they're all good, and some of them you can really only do effectively in a large group with a system of provision that the best NGOs provide.

The third way is different, however.  It's not anarchic or antisocial, but neither does it conform to the institutional government approach, or even necessarily to the involvement of grass-roots NGOs.  Career scientists who are held in high regard know well this way: collaboration.  But it must be a true, no-boundaries, no-limitations, no-secrets, all-inclusive collaborative process.  There is a subtle but important difference between "cooperation" and "collaboration," and the MOU does not acknowledge this difference, but the participants and the public will see it right away.  It must not be limited to representatives from three USG representatives and the World Bank, but instead invite those experts from both within and outside of the other agencies that are party to the "sharing knowledge" called for in the MOU.  The process needs USG status employees, contract employees, academics, subject-matter experts, interdisciplinary specialists, citizens with specialized knowledge, etc.  Maybe that's part of the plan, but the documents and remarks don't say, and it will remain a closed process unless the leaders and participants themselves open it up to the world to see what they intend to do, and where, and how.  This is one critical area, knowledge transfer to and from the developing countries of the world on such an important subject as water and sanitation, in which transparency of operation could indeed be the best and most effective policy.  There is so very much potential to be realized here, and my own hope is that it doesn't remain as potential, but is instead transformed to real advancements in global information sharing on the issues of water and its uses.  The MOU signed on World Water Day may barely be worth the paper it was printed on, but only time and effort will tell us that for certain.  Can we hope that the Participants to that agreement will keep the process open, participatory, transparent, and progressive?

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