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The influence international NGOs wield in Katowice climate change talks

The possibility of a conflict of interest rings larger when think-tanks from developed countries, and which draw funds from developed countries, help small developing country groups

Nitin Sethi  |  Katowice 

katowice, climate talks, climate talk, climate change, poland, environment talks, environment
Protesters take part in a march in Katowice, Poland, where the COP24 UN Climate Change Conference 2018 is being held (Reuters)

What roles do North-based think tanks and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) specialising in play in negotiations? One obvious answer is they engage in advocacy under full public gaze, with public campaigns; interpret science and policy facts to influence the negotiations towards agreements they think are best.

Then, at another level, they engage and lobby with governments to convince them to do what they believe is the best route to fight This includes lobbying with governments in countries the think-tanks are based, and the developing countries. But, a third route they take to influence the outcomes sometimes raises questions and doubts, particularly in the G77+China group, of which all developing countries are members. They become deeply integrated into groups of smaller developing countries, and help them draw their negotiating priorities, positions and strategies.

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To understand the range of influence such think-tanks from the North hold within and over the developing country groups, and their negotiating positions, Business Standard spoke to three legal and science experts, five negotiation experts, more than half a dozen government diplomats in developing country groups, including the least-developed countries (LDCs) and Alliance of Small Island States (Aosis), and three diplomats who have served in these groups at very senior positions. All of them wished to remain anonymous.

Of these, six brought up the name of — a Germany-based think tank — unprompted. Rest did so while giving examples of think-tanks from the global north that influence negotiations through country delegations from LDCs, AOSIS or African nations. Or, by putting their employees on delegations of poor developing countries as negotiators.

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One diplomat provided documentary proof as example trying to explain the relation between the think tank’s employees and the LDC secretariat. The documents showcased, in his view, how deeply is integrated into the secretariat, and how much influence it wields. “I am uncomfortable with such relations. Sometimes, you can say, I am troubled,” is how he characterised it.

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For the record, it is legitimate and legal for all countries and groups to choose whoever they wish to represent them, or help them negotiate. Most countries draw knowledge, capacity and understanding from such think-tanks and experts. Some even have revolving doors between the think tanks and spaces in climate change diplomacy.

But, it is the nature of influence they wield that makes the difference. The possibility of a conflict of interest rings larger when think tanks from developed countries, drawing funds from developed countries, ‘help’ small developing country groups in a detailed manner. Employees of think tanks from the North are often found representing small developing countries as formal negotiators. A scan of the list of registered participants for the also showed up Northern think tank employees carrying ‘party badges’ of small developing countries. Several of them were from

More than support?

About a month-and-a-half before the negotiations kick-started at Katowice, the 47 LDC group met at Addis Ababa in October to strategise and present a united stance. At the end of a three day meeting, the officials agreed on a collective communique on their expectations from the

Except, the communique was not first drafted by either the government officials or the ministers. The first drafts were done by Climate Analytics, show documents reviewed by Business Standard. Set up in 2008, the think tank says its mission is “linking scientific and policy analysis". It says by doing so it “provides state-of-the-art solutions to global and national climate change policy challenges.”

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Backed by an array of funding organisations, and steadily by the government of Germany, its solutions can include drafting the base versions of notes, negotiating stances, briefing papers and specific interventions for the LDCs, show internal documents of the group reviewed by Business Standard.

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The think-tank runs a project, Impact, which it describes as providing “scientific, policy, analytical and strategic support, capacity building and advice for delegations from the small island states (SIDS) and the LDCs in the international climate negotiations.”

But it is in the LDC secretariat, chaired by Ethiopia at present, where Climate Analytics is able to show more impact today than before. Earlier, its focus and heft was as much, if not more, supporting the Aosis backoffice.

Detailed queries were sent to Climate Analytics through its employee, who works as ‘Advisor to the LDC Chair for the multilateral process of the UNFCCC’, and nearly a dozen working government diplomats (coordinators, as they are known) of the LDCs.

None of them responded. Gebru Jember Endalew, the chair of the LDC group, replied to the queries sent to Climate Analytics. He chose not to respond to specific questions, and made a statement, “The idea that the LDC group is somehow being influenced by 'northern' organisations in the context of the climate negotiations is preposterous, and somehow implies the LDC group doesn't have its own policies and opinions….We accept support, capacity building and help from a number of different organisations, irrespective of where they are based, but our views, policies and statements are our own, as stated above.”

A review of the documents shows that while the final approvals on statements and negotiating positions, etc were taken by the government officials in charge of negotiations, they, at times, got the drafts drawn by the think tank at the last moment, or in almost ready state. The tone or the key points had been drafted before hand. Two people described how the interventions made in closed-door rooms were also drafted quickly and provided to diplomats from the LDC group to assist them negotiate. Business Standard did not independently verify these descriptive anecdotes.

“I preferred not to have them so deeply involved in the secretariat. Our positions should be drawn by people from our countries and governments. They should not lead from front at the negotiations for us. It is about being in the driver seat. These are political and economic decisions, not merely scientific ones. One can listen to their advice, but we should be able to draw our own conclusions. This is where it should stop ideally. It also depends on the leader of the group. He or she has to be aggressive,” said one senior government diplomat, who has worked in the group secretariat earlier.

Climate Analytics used to wield a greater influence over the SIDs till a while back, said multiple sources. But, that changed with the change in chairs of the group. “When Maldives became chair this time, I know the Aosis secretariat preferred IPCC scientists to tell us about science rather than them,” said an official from Aosis countries.

Bill Hare, founder of Climate Analytics, was at least once reported taking a stance in public that most developing countries find difficult to stand by and give an easy pass to developed countries on reducing their emissions.

The influence and direction they provide can be subtle at times, and more sharp before or during the negotiations, said another negotiator.

“There are two kind of advisers here. Lawyers and scientists. Their job is to advise; work on a brief given by the political leadership, the governments and the group. At times, this turns on his head, when the lawyers from the think-tanks begin to write the brief,” said one person, who has been involved in developing country negotiations on climate change and other issues.

“One way to see this support or capacity building is as bilateral aid from a developed country to a developing country routed through a think-tank. Very little bilateral aid comes without strings-attached. The degree to which the support is tied up to interests of donor country can depend on institutions these are routed through. Also, how these institutions are driven by their own agendas and that of their funders is important,” said a diplomat, who has dealt particularly with bilateral agreements for a middle-income developing country for three years.

“Yes, we do not have the capacity to engage in these negotiations on our own. We should ideally pick institutions to work with we can trust. Even in institutions driven strongly by their own agenda, you sometimes find an individual expert who is committed to your interests, and not her or his own or their employers’. They come in all hues. You have to remember you are the painter,” said another senior diplomat.

Besides other questions, Climate Analytics was asked if its support under the project includes drafting group positions, interventions, statements and documents for the process on and during the negotiations such as the one at Katowice. It was asked how much funds it has received from different donors and governments to work with the LDC and SIDs/Aosis group. It did not reply.

But its annual reports list out names of donors, which includes Germany consistently. Germany is one of the leading voices of EU, which operates as a single unit at the EU often claims leadership on the mitigation front (reducing emissions), but has issues and positions similar to the US about providing finance and technology, easing IPR regimes and enhancing support to developing countries.

Earlier, it has anchored coalitions of LDCs and AOSIS to push emerging economies such as India and China to focus more on emission reductions and less on support. This has broken unity and lowered common grounds of agreement within the G77+China group.

“The question really is, are these influences driving wedges within the G77+China group? If the group stands united on any issue, it is hard for the developed countries.” said one expert observer. "It is all fair as long as it is done in open and transparently. Capacity building and support are vague terms that allow a gamut of operations. We should be able to understand what roles these think-tanks are playing with greater clarity. The process is inclusive, and requires all kinds to work together. But the process is also highly political and involves high stakes. This is the one multilateral agreement that is about the global economic drivers and the developing countries need to have a better voice and form of representation,” said the senior diplomat from a developing country that is member of two groups.

First Published: Fri, December 14 2018. 00:10 IST