Tag Archives: sustainable development

The world tomorrow: COVID-19 and the new humanitarian

ICRC building on the hill

International Committee for the Red Cross in Geneva

There’s a saying in Gaza (at least among some) that the Palestinians are living under THREE occupations.

The first, of course, is the Israeli military occupation. The United Nations and nearly the entire international community recognize this occupation. It’s been going on for so many decades that at least one scholar prefers to call it colonization, not an occupation. It’s perhaps the best documented occupation in world history.

The second is the internal political occupation.  Palestinians in Gaza are living under Hamas, and Palestinians in the West Bank are living under the Palestinian Authority (PA). “Living under” is the correct terminology in both cases because there haven’t been elections in more than a decade (no concept of “term limits” in the Arab world as far as I can tell) and both Hamas and the PA rule with an iron fist.

I learned about the third type of occupation when I was in Gaza in 2012-2013 and met with local city officials to discuss planning issues in the community. They told me bluntly, “What plans? It’s whatever the NGOs are willing to fund. Their plans get implemented, ours stay on the shelf.” So I call this the NGO occupation. Donors’ good intentions can actually backfire because they disempower the local communities they’re meant to serve. US-AID projects are a good example.

Amid the turmoil and uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic, there are new challenges and opportunities for both nation-states and the private sector attempting to address the serious needs of the most vulnerable. Things are changing rapidly.

ICRC Museum

ICRC Museum Entrance — Geneva

Focusing on humanitarian action, as it has since its beginning in 1863, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) asked the following question in this new COVID-19 world we’re entering:

How then should aid organizations anticipate and prepare for this new reality, still opaque in many ways, and balance it against the expected overwhelming needs? Better yet, rather than adapting and anticipating to this new reality, how can aid organizations lean in and embrace the present crisis as a conduit for radical change, proactively reshaping and repositioning an aid sector that is fit for purpose to protect and address the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalized?

The question is important, the answers that follow may profoundly change the way NGOs address the needs of the most vulnerable.

This 18 minute audio of a blog posted by Raphael Gorgeu provides a good explanation of how the NGO landscape may be changing. The world tomorrow: COVID-19 and the new humanitarian.  Have a listen.

A public health crisis to begin with, the COVID-19 pandemic has quickly metastasized to nearly all fronts of society. Considered one of the biggest crises in modern history, the pandemic’s effects will deeply impact the lives of billions of people, shake the foundations of our solidarity models and redesign parts of the international humanitarian sector. The way aid actors move forward now will shape the future of the humanitarian landscape: pre-existing trends are speeding up as new ones are brought into play, all while the overall balance is placed under scrutiny. In a myriad of ways, many still unforeseeable, the intensity of the present period is accelerating change.

 

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Sustainable, Healthy, Just Cities and Settlements (IMCL conference)

The International Making Cities Livable Conference in Rome spanned 4 days and was chock full of ideas, information and energy. I met people from Canada, the U.S., Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Italy, Turkey, England, Ireland, India, Slovakia …… and even someone from north of the Arctic Circle. Really!

There’s certainly a yearning for this type of information, but I wish there had been 3 or 4 times the attendance.

I summarized Day #1 here.  Here are a few of the key take-away messages for me from the rest of the conference:

A livable city must work well for children. Children don’t have the same opportunities to play, socialize and recreate as I did when growing up in Minnesota in the 1950s. Lamine Mahdjoubi from Bristol, UK pointed out how children have vanished from the public realm, living lives of isolation at home in front of their computers and TV. The children in the Mediterranean countries are particularly suffering from obesity because of this rise in sedentary lifestyles.

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Mayor James Brainard, City of Carmel, Indiana

A strong, healthy town knows how to leverage public-private partnerships. Mayor Brainard of Carmel, Indiana, USA, explained that when he ran for election, he knocked on many doors to ask people in the community what they wanted. When he synthesized all of their comments down, he realized they were all wishing for a livable community. So he’s succeeded in creating the Carmel Arts & Design District where he’s leveraged public-private partnerships to implement many of the design principles we know make livable communities. He shared amazing before-and-after photos, explaining how tax increment financing (TIFs) have succeeded in putting much of the parking underground. He’s a firm believer in the use of round-abouts too, so much so that the local newspaper made a cartoon of him. IMG_4639Carmel has added 187 miles of bike trails in the city, and between 14,000-15,000 people use them every day. Wow!  I was thinking of Chuck Marohn from Strong Towns as I listened to the Mayor.

Old people and the youth are the indicator species for a livable community. If it works for them, it works for everyone. I didn’t know much about the age-friendly movement, but was pleased to hear a panel discussion about it on Wednesday. Phillip Stafford from Bloomington, IN, USA shared some depressing statistics about our aging population in the US, and noted that our market economy has commodified old age. The disastrous planning of the past few decades, along with unbridled capitalism (the market economy), have actually put most of the aging population in homogeneous sprawling suburbs where they’re stuck, isolated and can’t remain independent. However, there’s a glimmer of hope with a recent APA publication on the topic.

Stafford recommends we focus on collaborative consumption where the aging population has many assets to share including: time, talent, and treasure. By treasure, he wasn’t suggesting their pocketbooks, but rather their community gardens, house share, tool share, car share. How do we make these shareable assets known and connected with others?

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Maxim Atayants, St. Petersburg, Russia

An architect from St. Petersburg, Russia discussed how to create a new classical urban fabric by sharing some of the projects he has worked on. In 1984, I visited St. Petersburg (then known as Leningrad), Moscow, Alma Ata and Tashkent and recall the Soviet-era buildings that were such monstrosities. Retrofitting those ugly utilitarian blocks will require new ideas, and new architects, such as Maxim Atayants. What impressed me as much as his design ideas, was his talent as an artist and his obvious passion for his work. I Googled him and found some of his sketches here.

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Stefano Serafini, Italy

“Urban designers and architects are a big problem … creating machine-like cities, computer-like cities, Internet-like cities.” Stefano Serafini, a philosopher and psychologist, challenged us (me?) to think outside of our design silos about our communities. I found this interdiscplinary presentation was one of the strengths of the conference, but I’ll have to read some of his ideas here to try to grasp what biourbanism is all about. Honestly, alot of it was over my head.

I was very pleased that he referenced the work of my friend from Albuquerque, architect and planner Besim Hakim.

Besim’s book — Mediterranean Urbanism “brings together historic urban/building rules and codes for the geographic areas including Greece, Italy, and Spain. The author achieved his ambitious goal of finding pertinent rules and codes that were followed in previous societies for the processes that formed the built environment of their towns and cities, including building activities at the neighborhood level and the decision-making process that took place between proximate neighbors.”

Human health and the built environment — go hand in hand. I thought about the environmental engineers I’ve met in Gaza. Mariano Bizzarri from Rome shared alot of statistics showing the links between the built environment and health. It was all a bit overwhelming for me to absorb, but I hope to learn more about this topic if his paper is posted on the conference website. The bottomline is that we easily understand the relationship between the natural environment and human health & disease. There’s a direct corrollary between smog and air pollution and breathing problems. However, now there is more research being published about the impacts of the built environment and human health.

IMG_4685The most alarming fact shared at the conference came from Michael Mehaffy, Executive Director of Sustasis Foundation.  “At the current pace of development, we will build more urban fabric in the next 50 years than we have built in all of history.” OMG!  

Clearly, we’re doing a lousy job of building livable communities now. At this pace, do we have time to unlearn the bad lessons, repair the damage, and move forward on a better path? The Habitat III conference will be in Quito, Ecuador in October this year. “Habitat III” is shorthand for a major global summit, formally known as the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development. I’m going to learn more about that and see if there’s an opportunity to participate.

Mehaffy talked about the need to change our models of global development, change the tools we use in this process, and also change the rules. What we’re building today is functionally segregated and resource inefficienct — the “crack cocaine” of economic development is the origin of sprawl. He mentioned the work of Christopher Alexander and The City is Not a Tree. I didn’t really understand it until I found this pdf.

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A selfie with my team working on the last day of the conference to distill some principles of sustainable, healthy, just cities and communities.

Many of the points Mehaffy made (rather, all of his points) resonated with me from my education and experience as a city planner, a land use lawyer, and an observer of urban life and politics. I’ve been talking for years about the professional silos and group think that pervades the planning and urban design professions. Mehaffy was speaking rapidly, and every point he made deserved some thoughtful elaboration. He ended by saying there’s no need for cynicism and despair that only serve the powerful. “We” need to take the power.

Yes! I want to be on his team.

(Caveat: There were other presenters who contributed dynamite presentations. My head is still swimming. I hope the conference organizers will share everyone’s papers and powerpoint presentations.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Gaza in the Doughnut

Government leaders, a number of international NGOs, activists of all different stripes, and many more have been scratching their heads to figure out how to help Palestine and the Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Some focus on the politics vis-à-vis Israel, others focus on the economics (jobs, imports, exports), while others are trying to address the social challenges (such as food and shelter). Many of my friends focus on the deteriorating environmental conditions.

The typical response or solution I hear most often from Western politicians and the mainstream media is — “Address the security needs of Israel first and, miraculously, the remaining challenges will be solved.”

With all due respect, they have it backwards. Completely backwards.

No one will live in peace and security until everyone has the basic social foundation for life. No one will have a truly sustainable future until we live within our planetary boundaries.

Israelis may think they can avoid the consequences by building a large “security wall” but that is very short-sighted and they’re only condemning themselves to a future of growing insecurity and instability.

Kate Raworth’s doughnut captures my point. Or, more honestly, my thinking was directly influenced by her doughnut of social and planetary boundaries.

Watch her TedTalk and let me know if you agree. I’d like to hear some feedback.

 

 

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On Poverty and Climate Change

(This article was written by Gerard O’Connell, special correspondent in Rome, and originally published in America 4-29-15, and then reprinted in the Saint Ignatius Catholic church bulletin on May 17, 2015.)

“We are the first generation that can end poverty and the last generation that can avoid the worst impacts of climate change.” UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, told this to a conference of 60 scientists and academicians, political leaders (including the Presidents of Italy and Ecuador), business experts and representatives of the world’s major religions, at a summit in the Vatican on April 28.

Pope Francis gives his thumb up as he leaves at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter's square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

Pope Francis gives his thumb up as he leaves at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

He addressed the high-powered gathering after “a fruitful and wide-ranging conversation” with Pope Francis, during which the pontiff confirmed that his encyclical on protecting the environment is finished and being translated, and expected to be published in June.

“I am very much looking forward to the upcoming encyclical,” the UN chief said; “it will convey to the world that protecting our environment is an urgent moral imperative and a sacred duty for all people of faith and people of conscience.”

Indeed, he noted, “eradicating extreme poverty, ending social exclusion of the weak and marginalized, and protecting the environment are values that are fully consistent with the teachings of the great religions.” Listening to him were representatives from the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, the World Council of Churches, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, all of whom expressed full support of the call for action.

The Korean-born UN leader commended Pope Francis, and the faith and scientific leaders present, “for raising awareness of the urgent need to promote sustainable development and address climate change.” He identified climate change as “the defining issue of our time” and emphasized that on this subject ”there is no divide whatsoever between religion and science.” He believes the leaders of the world’s major religions now have a key role to play in the quest to get the community of nations to truly embrace sustainable development and reach a global agreement to address climate change.

Cardinal Peter Turkson

Cardinal Peter Turkson

“2015 will be a defining year” in this regard, Cardinal Peter Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, told the conference. In a wide-ranging talk he recalled “the great achievements of the last two centuries,” marked by remarkable scientific, technological and economic progress that has led to “significant numbers enjoying lifespans, livelihoods and lifestyles unimaginable for our ancestors”; a progress “that has lifted hundreds of millions out of extreme poverty” and transformed transport and communications.

This progress, however, has come with “unacceptable costs” and “starkly rising disparities,” the cardinal stated. It has left “vast numbers of people excluded and discarded, their dignity trampled upon,” in what the Pope has branded as “the throwaway culture.” As a result of this, “at least three billion of the seven billion inhabitants of the planet are mired in poverty, a third of them in extreme poverty, while privileged global elite of about one billion people control the bulk of the wealth and consumes the bulk of the resources.” He recalled how “the world produces more than enough food to feed its 7.3 billion inhabitants, but over 800 million (over 11%) go hungry,” while each year “one third of all food produced for human consumption in the world is lost or wasted.”

“We have treated the natural world with the same indifference, abusive treatment and throwaway approach,” the cardinal stated. Thus today, “the ever-accelerating burning of fossil fuels that powers our economic engine is disrupting the earth’s delicate ecological balance on almost-unfathomable scale.”

“In our recklessness – he said – we are traversing some of the planet’s most fundamental natural boundaries. And the lesson from the Garden of Eden still rings true today – pride, hubris, self-centeredness are always perilous, indeed destructive. The very technology that has brought great reward is now poised to bring great ruin.” He mentioned the disasters that have happened already in the Philippines and elsewhere.

The Vatican cardinal concurred with the UN Secretary-General and the renowned scientists present including Nobel Laureates such as Paul Crutzen, as well as representatives of the major world religions, and leading authorities in the field like Jeffrey Sachs, that climate-related disasters are a reality both for poor countries on the margins of the modern economy and for those at its heart.”

Speakers concurred that all the evidence leads to one conclusion: “We must fundamentally change our ways” (Ban Ki-Moon); “We clearly need a fundamental change of course, to protect the earth and its people” (Turkson). Participants later gave voice to this in a joint statement at the end of the day-long conference, which was held in the Vatican at the headquarters of the Pontifical Academy of Science, whose president, Archbishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, chaired the meeting.

Both the UN chief and the cardinal explained that crucial agreements to ensure a safer future for the whole of humanity and greater social justice are within reach at the high-level international conferences that will be held in 2015, if there is the political will. In July, the third International Conference on Finance for Development will be held in Addis Ababa. In September, the UN Special Summit on Sustainable Development (and the goals to achieve this) will be held in New York, at which Pope Francis will give the opening address. Finally, government leaders will gather in Paris from 30 November to December 11 to forge a meaningful agreement on climate change.

An essential goal for a meaningful agreement on climate change requires states to sign onto an accord to prevent global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius. But Ban Ki-Moon warned that this is imperative because “we are currently on course for a rise of 4-5 degrees Celsius, and this would alter life on earth as we know it.” To keep within the 2 degrees limit means moving to a low-carbon pathway and investing in clean energy that can power truly sustainable development.

Jeffrey Sachs

The technology exists to effect such a change, at a relatively low cost in global terms. Professor Jeffrey Sachs told the conference. “To stay below the 2 degrees Celsius limit we have to decarbonize the world’s energy system. It requires us to move to a very low-carbon electricity through the use of solar, geo-thermal and hydro-powers. This requires putting a price on carbon to create proper economic incentives so that utilities move to a clean system and away from fossil fuels.”

He explained later in interviews that “this means leaving ‘stranded assets’ such as oil, gas, coal, underground” but here, he noted, “the largest oil-producing countries and the major oil-companies are the ones that are most resistant to the changes that are needed to make the world safer.”

Asked about the minority who deny the scientific evidence that climate change is due to man and are against such a move to decarbonize the world’s energy system, Sachs said they ignore the fact that climatology is an established science for over a hundred years, and that the scientific evidence “is overwhelming.”

Professor Sachs said these people persist in a libertarian ideology that wants to operate freely without government interferences, whatever the cost. He said misinformation about climate change is disseminated by a smaller group that has a lot of political power in the USA right now: the very rich, the power of the oil and coal industries, and they pay politicians. Such misinformation is spread by the media linked to the fossil fuels – oil, gas and coal – industries, such as that of the Koch brothers. That same propaganda is also very strong in Robert Murdoch’s media. Nevertheless, Sachs believes that about two-thirds of Americans understand the issue properly; they know that it’s dry in California and there are big storms, and they know things are changing.

He’s calmly optimistic that agreement on climate change can be reached in Paris. The signs are good as many leaders in the oil industry are taking personal responsibility and reflecting on the risks to the world, and saying we need to do something. But he’s waiting to see if, for example, Exxon-Mobil in the United States will come on board and take a moral stance too.

He noted with joy that shareholders around the world are saying we will not invest in irresponsible practices; they are calling for shareholder resolutions and divestment protests. Many universities and foundations have now divested and the Sovereign Wealth Fund of Norway, which is the world’s largest wealth fund at almost a trillion dollars, is going to scrutinize its investments through a moral framework.

Sachs said the call from scientists and religious leaders is very important in helping people understand the urgent need for change, and he believes that Pope Francis’ encyclical will have a big impact in supporting the dynamic for change at “this historical moment.”

einsteinthemeasureofintelligence

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Nation Building for Palestine – A Way Forward

Sustainable development was the topic of the keynote address at the conference in the Islamic University of Gaza today.  I was eager to hear the presentation by the Vice Chancellor of the University of Sultan Zainal Abidin in Malaysia (Yahaya Ibrahim) but I was not hopeful that I would understand much of it because my Arabic comprehension is so poor.

Yahaya Ibrahim, Vice Chancellor of the University of Sultan Zainal Abidin

(r.) Yahaya Ibrahim, Vice Chancellor of the University of Sultan Zainal Abidin in Malaysia

To my great surprise, the keynote was in English!   Al-hamdulillah!

The Vice Chancellor’s education and research is in urban planning.   Al-hamdulillah!  As a city planner myself, I was immediately drawn to his speech.

He talked about the impact of war, citing Japan as an example, and how society after war usually experiences prolonged trauma.

“The wound . . . can hinder the implementation of development.  It also acts as a barrier to post war development as it relates to social, economic, technical, political, and security issues.”

But look at the success Japan enjoys today! he added.

Auditorium at the Islamic University of Gaza

Auditorium at the Islamic University of Gaza

He talked about the Western models of development and cautioned the audience to be skeptical about the conventional meaning of “development”.

“With the western development approach, even though it uses the term ‘sustainable development’, has led to economic, ecological, social and political crises in their own countries. Just look at the U.S. and the European Union where financial crises, widening social gaps, environmental destruction and social ills are becoming increasingly uncontrollable.”

The way forward, he says, begins with understanding that people are the most important assets, and education should be the main priority.

He went into great detail about capacity building which I thought was very interesting.  (More about that in a future blog post.)

And then he turned to the Islamic Development Model which he said should be consistent with “Al-Shirathal-Mustaqim” or the “straight path.”

“This development model should be halal, rational, moderate and not excessive, free from abuses such as corruption, nepotism and the like.

. . .

In short, this concept of development supports positive values such as ubudiyyah, cooperation, hard work, living together in harmony and so on.  While negative values such as cronyism, corruption, personal interests, worldly gain, ignoring the peace and stability of the ecosystem and other must be rejected completely.”

This may make sense to my Muslim friends, but I want to learn more about it.  This keynote address provided an important clue to me about what sustainability means in Gaza . . . and the key for my future exploration here.  Al-hamdulillah!

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