Ukraine: the struggle for democracy


You might have been following news coverage of the events in Ukraine in the past weeks.  As this is being written, our family and friends are in Kyiv on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), where the protest is taking place.

The protest is not against Russia or in favour of the European Union. It is about self respect, dignity and freedom.

It is part of a movement which has been going on for the past 20 years or so in Ukraine: it is the birth of democracy and it is a long process, an evolution. No one can do it for us, but people around the world can help Ukraine and other countries going through this process by watching closely and morally supporting them. It will take time, but it is probably the most sensible way forward.

The current protest is a peaceful one and its main message is about the unity of people, despite the attempts of the government to “divide and rule”. It is a great victory for democracy that such phenomena exist, that ideas of freedom and dignity can unite people and take them to the streets in a massive, long-term peaceful protest despite the cold weather and violent crackdowns. We are very proud of our people.

Nevertheless, Ukrainian President Yanukovych denies the existence of this social discontent and the fact that it is a grassroots movement, blaming the unrest on ‘foreign meddling’ and the opposition.

It seems that the whole world now recognises that there is a huge chasm between the current Ukrainian President’s words and deeds. Several massive brutal police crackdowns on the peaceful protesters, the last one during the visit of the EU’s Catherine Ashton, have shocked the world.

Here are just a couple of other examples that may have been missed by the western media:

The everyday life of Maidan is based on the efforts of volunteers and paid for by donations from ordinary people, for instance, a poor retired couple from the city of Ivano-Frankivsk donated most of their savings (10,000 hryvna = about £ 800). And this is not unusual. Others donate tea, food and firewood.

At the same time there is a lot of propaganda that people on Maidan are funded by others  (the opposition, the USA, you name it). Simple math shows this is impossible. However, Goebbels once said about propaganda that “lies must be blatant”.

Yanukovych’s party organised a demonstration last weekend in support of his policies. It is clear to us that people were pressured, brainwashed and paid to go. The amount of money used (60 million UAH, from the taxpayer’s pocket) is about the annual budget of all the kindergartens in Ukraine.

Oleksandr Yanukovych, the son of the current President, has just become one of the richest men in Ukraine and in the world, according to Forbes Ukraine. And only in the last three years…

On December 17th, President Putin confirmed that Russia had offered Ukraine a US$15bn loan and a reduction in gas prices (from US$400 per 1,000 cu metres to US$268.5 per 1,000 cu metres). In the short term, the loan will help to stabilise the Ukrainian economy, effectively sponsoring the current regime which had been on the verge of default. In the long term, however, it further increases the interdependence between Ukraine and Russia and reduces any incentives for deep-reaching reforms in the energy sector and beyond.

We want to thank all nations that are following and supporting our peaceful protest. It means a lot to Ukraine. The attention of the world now and in the near future during the next presidential elections of 2015 is crucial.

We urge you not to stop or relax your attention and to pay attention to further events in Ukraine, even if you were not doing so before. Being in the spotlight is always good for transparency and fairness and the rule of law. We are sure that there would have been significantly more blood if the world had ignored the situation.

*Oksana Trushkevych [2001 – formerly Oksana Ruzak]  did a PhD in Engineering at the University of Cambridge and is currently a Research Fellow at the University of Warwick. Svitlana Kobzar [2005] did a PhD in International Politics. Picture credit: Mstyslav Chernov and Wiki Commons.


Dangerous loopholes in climate change framework


On November 23rd, the 19th Conference of the Parties (COP 19) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) concluded in Warsaw, Poland. The overarching goal of the meeting was to work towards developing a new international treaty by 2015 to curb rising global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – a goal that was only somewhat kept on track. Despite this mixed success, perhaps the most significant outcome of the conference was agreement over several key technical details surrounding the concept of reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in the developing world (REDD+). The evolution of REDD+ at the Warsaw conference from a concept into a formally recognised mechanism has key implications for a post-Kyoto climate agreement, still roughly on target to be agreed upon and adopted in late 2015 and go into effect in 2020.

A brief history of REDD+

The concept of reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation is critical to any climate change mitigation strategy, as climate change is caused both by increased anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and changes in land cover from the conversion and degradation of forests. Deforestation and forest degradation are responsible for 15-18% of GHG emissions -more than the emissions created by the global transportation sector. Effective mitigation strategies to limit the magnitude and rate of climate change are dependent on stabilising and reducing global GHG emissions, as well as maintaining and increasing the capacity of carbon sinks such as forests, which capture and store carbon dioxide. Without keeping most of what remains of the world’s tropical forests intact, there is no hope of stabilising the climate at a 2°C average temperature increase by the end of the century, which is thought to be the maximum average temperature increase that should be allowed in order to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

REDD+ has evolved conceptually over time and has taken on several names. The concepts of land use, land-use change, and forestry (LULUCF) were first mentioned in UN negotiations in several articles of the Kyoto Protocol, adopted at the 1997 climate negotiations in Kyoto, Japan (COP 3). Article 3 of the Protocol, for example, discusses the need to “further elaborate policies and measures to protect and enhance sinks and reservoirs of GHGs”. LULUCF was again mentioned in 2001 in Marrakech (COP 7), where several principles in the Marrakech Accords underscored the need for sound science and methodologies, and the importance of conserving biodiversity in any LULUCF activities designed to remove GHGs from the atmosphere.

REDD by name was originally proposed at COP 11 in Montreal in 2005, when Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica proposed the idea of issuing carbon credits for REDD in developing countries. In doing so, they defined REDD as a payments for ecosystem services scheme, built specifically on the notion that the developed world would pay developing countries for the delivery of carbon capture and storage from their tropical forests. These payments for carbon credits would “offset” emissions in the developed world. In 2007 at COP 13 in Bali, the Bali Road Map was adopted, and REDD was transformed into REDD+ by considering “the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries”. At the COP 16 in Cancun 2010, the Cancun Agreements officially launched the idea of a REDD+ mechanism. REDD+ was further developed and discussed in COP 17 in Durban and COP 18 in Doha, though the most significant outcomes and agreements for REDD+ came several weeks ago in COP 19 in Warsaw.

The Warsaw Framework for REDD+

One of the most significant outcomes from the Warsaw conference was the “Warsaw Framework for REDD+”. This framework resulted from seven key decisions regarding REDD+, including rules for creating performance-based financing mechanisms; monitoring, reporting, and verifying forest-related emissions; and ensuring safeguards. This framework allows REDD+ to become a functioning, formal mechanism recognised by the UNFCCC. While getting agreement on these issues is a significant step forward, the resulting decisions still leave plenty of room for questioning the effectiveness of REDD+ in a future climate agreement. This is because sustainable financing for REDD+ has not yet been secured and because the framework contains loopholes, which may not necessarily positively impact natural forests and biodiversity.

First, for REDD+ to work as a payments for environmental services strategy, financing for the mechanism needs to be both adequate and predictable. The first decision of the Warsaw Framework for REDD+ recognises this need, as well as the need for payments to be granted based on results, contingent on the effective delivery of carbon capture and storage from forests. While this text is well written, it is also theoretical. Adequate and predictable funding for REDD+ has not yet been secured, though the text stipulates that funding may come from a wide variety of sources.

Second, the decisions leave the potential for REDD+ to not necessarily positively impact natural forests and their biodiversity, because the framework allows governments of countries to define the word “forests” for themselves. In the third decision of the framework, on “Modalities for National Forest Monitoring Systems”, the text says that it will “enable the assessment of different types of forest in the country, including natural forest, as defined by the Party.” This is a dangerous loophole, one that could result in government’s defining forests as anything from historically intact rainforest (the normative case), to palm oil plantations, banana plantations or other monocrops such as fast growing industrial tree plantations, which may deliver some carbon storage benefit, but negate biodiversity conservation co-benefits that the concept of REDD was originally meant to deliver. This dangerous flexibility is a threat to both REDD+ and the effectiveness of a future climate agreement.

REDD+ in the Post-Kyoto Climate Agreement

The Warsaw Framework for REDD+ means that REDD+ is now a viable payments for ecosystem service strategy that is recognised by the UNFCCC and will likely be included as an offset mechanism in the post-Kyoto climate agreement. While REDD+ has the potential to deliver important social, environmental and biodiversity conservation benefits to the world by keeping tropical forests intact, the way in which it is implemented will determine how effective it is. The idea at the heart of REDD+ – to keep the world’s remaining tropical forests intact by compensating land users for the opportunity cost of converting the land to other uses – is a noble one. However, the devil is, as always, in the details. Without adequate funding, and without strict rules for applying REDD+ financing to intact, natural forests, the prospect of REDD+ delivering true climate change mitigation benefits may be muted. While the Warsaw Framework for REDD+ moves the concept significantly forward in UN negotiations, its stipulations should be much more stringent to ensure that its true goals, and the end goal of the UNFCCC to prevent dangerous anthropogenic climate change, are met.

*Libby Blanchard [2012] is a PhD candidate in Geography at the University of Cambridge. Follow her on Twitter: @blanchardlibby. Picture credit: pupunkkop and

Mandela moments


In 1996, Nelson Mandela made his first official visit to the United Kingdom as head of state. South Africa House was a-buzz with planning for this great occasion and all the members of the royal family communicated their desire to be involved.  Phil Collins and other celebrities were performing a special concert at the Royal Albert Hall in his honour.  Through a confluence of circumstances I was able to meet the first democratically elected president of my country at the residence of the South African high commissioner in Kensington.  The event was held to allow South Africans living in the United Kingdom to meet their new leader.

The first thing that struck me about Nelson Mandela when he emerged into the room was his height.  At six feet or more he towered over the high commissioner, erect and statuesque, even after years of labour in the lime quarry at Robben Island, and with a distinctive shock of white hair.  He was clad in one of the African shirts that would become his signature style.  Immediately I understood why he was viewed as such a great threat by the apartheid state.  The regal presence of this African leader was enough to challenge the child-like stereotypes of African people in which paternalist white rule, segregation and eventually apartheid were rooted.  His message was simple and conciliatory: South Africa needs you, come back home.  Even though I was a young girl, he addressed me as ‘mama’, an Nguni term of respect, in our brief chat.

The negotiation process between Mandela and De Klerk was stormy by the latter’s own admission and in the memoires of others who were part of the process, but they were determined to find common ground.  Agreement among enemies is strenuous and requires true commitment on both sides.  In the spirit of reconciliation Mandela visited the widow of the architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd.  This example filtered through the population as ordinary South Africans broke segregationist taboos and reached out to one another in parking lots and supermarkets through small acts of kindness and friendliness.  Afrikaner rugby fans tried to bond with black shop assistants over the Africa Cup of Nations soccer tournament and everyone, especially Mandela, supported the Springboks during the rugby world cup.  Their efforts were fruitful and in that magical time South Africa won both cups.  People began seeing fellow citizens of different races through their similarities rather than their differences.  The world was inspired and Mandela became a peace icon whose name recognition spread to remote villages across the world.

If there is one lesson we can learn from this great man it should be selflessness.  In selflessness he abandoned his royal status and legal career to become the most infamous opponent of apartheid.  He was imprisoned for 27 years for his beliefs and militant activities, but began negotiating with his captors from his cell.  He was selfless in forgiving his enemies, embracing the rainbow nation vision, supporting amnesty and making many other compromises for the sake of peace and a better future for all South Africans.  His final acts of selflessness were stepping down after one term as president so that South Africa could chart its future independently of his iconic status and admitting to the world that his son had died of AIDS in an effort to break yet another South African taboo.

Lessons for democracy

While it is unfair to compare other leaders in the region to such a unique individual as Mandela, it is regrettable that few have followed his example of grooming younger leaders to take over and stepping down.  The intense rivalry between Mandela’ successor Thabo Mbeki and current president Jacob Zuma undermined the credibility of the African National Congress (ANC).  Both former president Banda of Zambia and president Zuma of South Africa reneged on their promises to serve for one term only.  My research on the 2011 Zambian election found that succession contests degenerate into divisive power struggles which ultimately weaken dominant parties and spawn new parties.  Similarly, during the run-up to the 2014 national election in South Africa the ANC was split three ways over succession, among those who favoured Zuma for a second term, supporters of the deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe and former minister of human settlements Tokyo Sexwale.  The ANC has also experienced ruptures resulting in the emergence of new political parties emanating from the dismissal of Mbeki and former ANC Youth League president Julius Malema.

Although such succession-related fissures appear to increase political competition by breeding new parties, elections in the region are still zero-sum games in which the use of patronage, the politics of division and other tactics which weaken the democratic culture become prominent.  Voters are thus drawn to parties through a multitude of ties and it is unclear whether they will vote based on historic loyalties, party performance in office, short-term benefits like food parcels or more longer-term considerations such as policies.  My doctoral research aims to investigate the relationship between voters and political parties to understand how the different linkages influence voting choices as well as how linkages may change over time and under what conditions.

Many countries in Africa still face the challenge of building effective multi-party systems where opposition parties stand a fair and credible chance of winning.  Perhaps Mandela’s legacy of selflessness can inspire a new generation of African leaders who are more motivated by progress than power.

*Zenobia Ismail [2013] is a South African student doing a PhD in Politics and International Studies. Between 2008 and 2011 she was involved in multi-country research on democracy and governance in sub-Saharan Africa. Her interest is in the democratisation process in Africa, particularly with regard to the efficacy and integrity of elections in dominant party states.

Measuring the real impact of development initiatives


Sometimes major international governance schemes begin simply: with a glass of beer, and questions of how to measure the making of it. Dolo, a slightly-alcoholic beverage, is made primarily in Burkina Faso by boiling sorghum malt and water. The boiling is the problem. The primary source of fuel across the country is firewood and in many areas more than half of the available supply goes into making dolo. To make more energy available for other uses, there are two obvious choices. Get more firewood or use less.

Unsurprisingly, the latter has become the mantra of a number of development actors. The largest is the United Nation’s Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, launched in 2010. By 2020, the initiative aims to bring energy-efficient stoves to 100 million of the 2.7bn households that rely on firewood or charcoal for cooking. The solution seems simple; give people efficient stoves and they will use less firewood, thereby reducing the depletion of natural resources. In addition, the stoves mitigate the risks associated with cooking on open fires, which cause about four million deaths annually, making it a more potent killer than malaria or tuberculosis.

Last summer, I was sent to Burkina Faso to find out whether energy-efficient stoves delivered on their promise. I assisted a research institute in their evaluation of the initiative Foyers Ameliorés de Burkina Faso (FAFASO).  FAFASO is part of the EnDev programme, financed by a multitude of international stakeholders and executed by the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) in over 20 countries. FAFASO works with dolotières, masons, potters, and whitesmiths regarding the construction and dissemination of energy-efficient stoves in the country.  As such, the project provides a platform for exchange to the people who have expertise and a stake in the production of dolo and encourages them to work together to develop and implement the new stoves.

My purpose in Burkina Faso was to answer one question: Are the dolotières who use the energy-efficient stoves using less firewood? What I found was an answer to that question – they use about 25 per cent less – and another, much larger question: What is the project’s impact?

Lost narratives

While in Burkina, I spoke to over 200 dolotières. Looking at my notes after I left, I reread the stories they had told me about their businesses, lives, plans, hopes and much more: Florence, who became involved in her local dolotières association when she purchased the stove, or Marie who could not find a mason to repair the stove for her or Sandrine who complained that customers doubted the quality of the dolo she brewed on the new stoves. I wondered why their narratives did not seem to have a place in the impact evaluation.

Since one size rarely fits all and individual stories can overpower the common experience, evaluators often prefer to let numbers tell the story. But when evaluating a project that is based on information and experience sharing such as FAFASO, traditional impact evaluations may only be able to take us so far. FAFASO’s impact may reach beyond the reduction of biomass usage, as the stories of Florence, Marie and Sandrine suggest. In offering channels for communication between groups, the project may have a profound effect on dolotières’ emancipation, local supply chains or customer behaviour, to name just a few areas.

I therefore think it may be time to reconsider the gap between the impact that development initiatives can have and the impact that evaluations measure. One way to start may be by letting people targeted by development initiatives speak just as loudly as numbers and statistics.

*Marlen de la Chaux (2013) is currently pursuing a PhD in Management Studies. The picture does not depict an energy-efficient stove.

After Typhoon Haiyan: can we build safer homes?


Over the past decade, the headlines have been full of stories of the Indian Ocean and Japanese Tsunamis, the earthquake in Haiti and Hurricane Katrina, with death tolls ranging from 1,800 in New Orleans to 200,000 in Indonesia. The magnitude of lost life is hard to comprehend. For most of the world’s population, these tragedies – and others – are easy to forget when they are so far removed and life continues as normal. But what happens when tragedy hits close to home?

Typhoon Haiyan created major headlines last month when it became the world’s strongest tropical storm at landfall with sustained winds at 195 mph. The death toll is now well above 5,000 and it is thus considered the deadliest typhoon in Philippine history. But the international media soon move on to other subjects.

Studying comfortably at Cambridge University, I find myself constantly reflecting on what role we can play as intellectuals and practitioners to support our fellow humankind and protect them from future tragedies. It is generally accepted that there is no such thing as a “natural disaster”. Rather, humans are vulnerable to natural “hazards” because of the way we construct our environments. As we live in a collective society, many believe it is the responsibility of our institutions to provide the basic framework that ensures we have our needs met and the ability to provide for ourselves. Literacy, nutrition, peaceful governance, employment, protection from the elements; these are all tools through which we create the conditions for stability and opportunity and ensure that society does not fall victim to the wild forces of nature. If thousands of people are becoming victims of such hazards, with millions more displaced each year in the Philippines alone, it is clear that current policies, economies, social systems and technologies are failing to serve those who live on nature’s frontline. Yet what can we do when these institutions fail?

Designing for the future

I spent the past year living and loving life in the Philippines, precisely to understand how I, as an engineer, could design the best buildings for the vulnerable and neglected in our societies. The Philippines is regarded by the UN as the third most susceptible nation to natural disasters, after Vanuatu and Tonga, two small Pacific island nations. A rather exhaustive list of earthquakes, typhoons, flash floods, volcanoes and tsunamis coupled with extreme population growth, urban density and poverty turn a perfect storm of hazards into disasters.

While the issue is undeniably complex, there is an important role the engineer can play so people can live in peace and safety rather than experience such extreme suffering. We can invent tools that are appropriate to the physical and economic environment in areas of particular vulnerability, tools that are accessible and provide options so people can protect themselves when greater institutions fail.

Engineering tools have overlooked a vast market where there is a glaring humanitarian need. The central Visayan islands of the Philippines are particularly vulnerable, with people living in inadequate infrastructure along shores and rivers that suit their seafaring lifestyle and idyllic island culture. Most people in the provinces build their homes out of local bamboo and while bamboo is naturally effective in seismic zones, many seek concrete houses as they don’t suffer from rapid decay and insect infestation. However, as we learned from the Bohol earthquake three weeks before Typhoon Haiyan, these houses are usually built without proper seismic reinforcement and regulatory adherence. High-tech solutions for reinforced concrete and steel are often too expensive or just not available for these environments. Similarly, as I found, effective industrial tools to preserve bamboo and build in defense against typhoons just do not exist there.

Agent of change

Living in the provincial Philippines, much like anywhere else on Earth, people want to laugh, love, eat and live a meaningful life. We have a responsibility as designers and planners to give people the freedom to pursue the pleasures of life in a way that is sensitive to their surroundings. Engineering can be a way to encourage behaviour that suits different environments, as harsh or uplifting as they may be, so we must be careful to build in ways that work with those environments and that save lives when disaster strikes.

Hopefully, it won’t take a disaster so close to home to encourage engineers, or anyone for that matter, to take action to change the way we perceive and thus build and live within our environments. This may be challenging, given our overwhelmingly busy lives and rushed, often unjust societies. But when you realise how easy it is to lose everything and everyone you love, when you watch from thousands of miles away as disaster unfolds in your home country, you reevaluate why we do what we do; whether it be for money, fame, honour, beauty or emotional freedom, for ourselves, our family, our community, our country, or for all the creatures of the world. Where do we draw the boundaries that divide us? What do we choose? What kind of world do we want to live in as we grow closer together in a world economy and global society? The challenge is to be an agent of change. If we are empowered in this way, we can empower others as well.

I choose to protect life by using my specialism of engineering to provide the tools that empower people to build safe homes for themselves and I hope that this may bring us freedom from undue suffering.

*Daniel Jimenez [2013] is doing an MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development. Photo:  Coastal homes along the path of Typhoon Haiyan prior to landfall, Basey, Samar,  August 2013.