The real world. No place for wishful thinking. Part 5. Reparations (by any other name)? Money is just the start.

In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines. – Proverbs 18:17

When I posted Part 4 a week ago, I breathed a sigh of relief. I figured this string had run its course, and I was entitled to (and should) start another thread. But then two things happened to make me change my mind. For one John Plodinec’s comment on Part 4 rolled in, and I want to call it to your attention. His perspective is always thoughtful, and usually divergent from mine – therefore doubly welcome. Readers are treated to another view, and then are better positioned to sort out their own thinking on the subject of the day. This has been well-known for some time; for example, the idea is captured by the Biblical proverb cited above, which dates back something like 2500 years.

(As you can see from John’s comment, he found even less to like about my post than usual. I possibly erred by thinking it would be clear from a read of the post as well as the opening quote – emphasizing fixing the problem rather than assigning blame, no matter how justified – that I wasn’t so much endorsing societal emphasis on reparations as I was advocating focus on the root problem. I coulda/shoulda been more clear😊.)

Secondly, it happened that on the same day another colleague reminded me – rather more gently, but in a way equally compelling – that nations and peoples suffering losses and damage from climate change generally need more than money; they need sustained presence and support alongside.

So, taking a deep breath – John, please don’t misinterpret this as doubling down – here goes.

For the well-off world to pony up the money to help poorer countries remediate loss and damage from climate change is only just the beginning. That support, to accomplish its desired ends, needs follow-through. This might take any or all of several forms. To start, donor nations should invest more assets – people, time, etc. – in listening, in seeking more understanding from the nations and peoples suffering loss and damage about the events and circumstances the latter see as leading to calamity, and how they seek to prevent recurrence. That might be followed or accompanied by on-the-ground collaboration. This can take several forms; America’s Peace Corps provides one relatively successful (though imperfect) model. One useful feature of that initiative is that even the most expert, trained individuals initially find themselves isolated and therefore forced to seek first to understand, rather than be understood.

This segues into a last example, which many people might have put first: the follow-through might include advice. (One prominent example is U.S. agriculture trade development and assistance since the Eisenhower administration.) U.S. international assistance has a checkered history, featuring both successes and failures.  

The bottom line is that loss-and-damage funding makes all this needed relationship building, which is the ultimate goal, more likely to happen. The reasoning here actually as a name: the Ben Franklin effect: a psychological phenomenon in which people like someone more after doing a favour for them. An explanation for this is cognitive dissonance. People reason that they help others because they like them, even if they do not, because their minds struggle to maintain logical consistency between their actions and perceptions.

The Benjamin Franklin effect, in other words, is the result of one’s concept of self coming under attack. Every person develops a persona, and that persona persists because inconsistencies in one’s personal narrative get rewritten, redacted, and misinterpreted.

(To quote Franklin: “He that has once done you a Kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”)

In sum, the most important part of loss and damages payments is not the dollars themselves, but their role in opening the door to the myriad trusting, collaborative relationships that the world needs if we are to cope with climate change.

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2 Responses to The real world. No place for wishful thinking. Part 5. Reparations (by any other name)? Money is just the start.

  1. Bill:

    Maybe not doubling down, but I spotted your not-so-sly attempt to sneak in money payments (again). I won’t go into that (again) except to reiterate that it won’t be the well-off in the well-off countries who will pay.

    But let’s look at this in another way – in terms of all forms of capital.

    First, governance capital, in this case, how do we prioritize potential investments. As William White has pointed out, we are moving from an Age of Plenty to an Age of Scarcity. The tide of globalization is receding; the number of skilled workers isn’t keeping up with the demand; more and more industry is moving from efficiency to resilience; the supply of energy and – especially – metals is highly constrained; the low-hanging fruits of digital connectivity have been eaten. All this at a time when the cost of financial capital (i.e., interest) has increased to high levels. Not to mention our nation’s unsustainable personal, corporate and public debt.

    In an Age of Scarcity, we have to make choices, we – and our representatives – have to prioritize. You point to the dearth of spending on our own infrastructure – where does that rank on our national list of priorities? In particular, we will need massive amounts of financial capital to upgrade our grid so that we can have the reliable power for electrified everything. Reliable estimates are that we’re spending about $10K per person per year on health care. We are supplying arms in support of freedom in the Ukraine and of the only democracy (and our best friend) in the Mid-east. We appear to be woefully unprepared – both in munitions and manpower – to counter an increasingly aggressive China in Taiwan. Our higher education system – once the envy of the world – clearly needs reforming to provide the human capital we’re lacking. The bills for reinventing our immigration and border systems are in the mix as well. Where do all of these rank vs your desire for us to “help” the developing world? And even if it’s high on your list, how much political capital will politicians be willing to risk knowing that “climate change” ranks somewhere in the teens in importance to voters? So significant expenditure of financial capital is probably a pipedream.

    Second, human capital, both “ours” and “theirs.” It is becoming increasingly apparent that the US does not have enough technically skilled human capital to meet its own needs. Not enough journeyman plumbers or electricians all the way to professional engineers. And in the developing world, the situation is even worse. Deployment of advanced technologies in some of them is almost impossible simply because of the lack of skilled personnel to operate and maintain those technologies. I am all in favor of taking some of the multi-billions we spend on the UN (for example, but there are lots of targets in our foreign aid budgets) and having exchanges so that developing countries can increase their human capital. This can be a win-win – they build up a core group of the technically skilled by working here, our technically skilled get more experience – and become more adept at coping with scarcity – by working overseas.

    We have to keep in mind cultural capital, though. I’ve seen too many attempts by well-intentioned First-Worlders fail because they did not fit the local culture. As an example, a team developed a novel technique – elegantly simple – to provide drinking water to remote villages. The technique was simple enough so that even the unskilled villagers could have easily used it. And yet it failed because the “old ways” were too engrained in their culture.

    Bill, I would like to see the developing world develop as much as you do. But I think I’m more like a Fox compared to you as a Hedgehog (think Antilochus). We can’t achieve this through trying to guilt our own people, or by using resources we don’t have, or most of all by forgetting that we achieved our marvelous lifestyle by following a path. A path shaped by our history, our culture, our geography and the adversities we faced. Their paths – the developing countries and communities – start from different places. It’s not even clear how much their paths may intersect with ours. We can point out pitfalls; we can provide advice and counsel; we can and should provide any and all forms of capital (on mutually beneficial terms) to help them along their paths.

    But we must – above all – be aware that it is THEIR path. There’s a marvelous little essay by Brenda Phillips: “First Eat the Gumbo.” It details how the Eastern Mennonites approached aiding the people of the Gulf Coast after Katrina. They first sat down with the people and just listened. Only after actively listening to what the people wanted and needed did they offer how they could help them. In my terms, they offered how they might help them walk down their own path. Compared to other groups, the Mennonites’ success was phenomenal. So I suggest that we, too, first eat the gumbo with these less developed countries. We try to discern their paths, recognizing that those paths won’t all be the same. We then and only then should consider what we have to offer each of these, and how by helping them to advance along their path we can advance along our own.

    • William Hooke says:

      John, thank you for this extended, and thoughtful perspective. I’d maybe offer a single friendly amendment. You’re not a big fan of guilt; I’m not a big fan of guilt either — but I do think that those of us who have been advantaged by virtue of birth and history should shoulder our share of responsibility going forward — for addressing big chunks of all the problems you mention. Happened today to read an article by Fareed Zhakaria in Foreign Affairs; he says what I’d like to say, and far more eloquently. Again, thanks so much for this input.

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