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Climate finance and access to information

by: Red Constantino

I was asked the other week to share insights on climate change financing issues at the Asian Development Bank. It’s not exactly my favorite place — think of the etrikes and light bulb pautang fiasco, and the killer coal plant of Mae Moh. (1) It’s an institution known to periodically undermine country-driven processes and programs. But the people who extended the invitation on behalf of the event’s organizers, particularly the anti-corruption resource center U4 and the international development agency of Germany, GIZ, were persuasive.

The title of the event was Corruption Risks and Anti-Corruption Strategies in Climate Financing. Among the other speakers: Melchor Carandang, the Overall Deputy Ombudsman of the Philippines, and Neten Sangmo, Chairperson of the Anti-Commission of Bhutan. (Interestingly, apart from my work with the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities’ policy team, the event listed this among my qualifications: ‘Constantino is a Noranian’. It’s true: sa usapin ng climate change, walang himala!)

The involvement of the office of the Ombudsman is welcome. Everyone has a role to play in the response to climate change, and certainly the presence of the Ombudsman’s office can help reduce the misuse and abuse of climate change-related funding.

The event’s focus on corruption also felt a bit disconcerting.

Corruption represents the criminal transfer and dissipation of public resources in order to favor private gain. It discourages sound planning and rationale approaches. It encourages thievery and conflicts of interest while creating long-term practices that prove incredibly corrosive to a country’s ability to develop responsive institutions and relevant programs. Measured against the impacts of climate change, the delivery of inappropriate or inadequate public services due to corruption can prove fatal: Flood control infrastructure built through fraud will only increase the vulnerability of under-served communities.

Yet a conversation on climate finance that places corruption at the center of the discussion can also miss out on a few things.

Corruption represents a narrow subset of negative acts and outcomes. It is actually possible to reduce or eliminate corruption in climate change-related funding without increasing the capacity of vulnerable communities to adapt to climate change. From 2009 to 2012, for instance, data from Adaptracker.org shows that over half of the multi-billion peso funding delivered by rich countries for adaptation-related activities in the Philippines was used by the government for rehabilitation and reconstruction initiatives, or, in short, reactive, post-disaster measures. (2)

Perhaps a far greater challenge that needs to be met lies in transparency and the extent to which the public is provided access to information.

When the dialogue between contributor countries or institutions and recipient agencies, offices and organizations regarding climate change is opaque or un-infused with a requisite level of collaboration with communities whose needs are supposedly being served, resources can be dissipated massively even without the presence of corruption.

Worse, when institutions and offices keep to a less than meaningful conversation a contributing country provides resources for a certain purpose that is then tagged with a different aim and ultimately delivered to a receiving locality, which happens to require something else entirely, the result can also produce worse outcomes. Corruption can more easily occur in conditions where funding flows are mismatched with different needs and goals in localities, where some residents are more vulnerable and have less say compared to others who have more power to reduce risks.

We need to provide people with the ability to meaningfully join the public discourse on issues as great and urgent to their wellbeing as climate change.

We need to make the conversation breath, using the depth and breadth of public participation – active citizenship – in national and local affairs to prevent corruption, to secure the integrity of our institutions, and to ultimately increase resilience to climate change in the long run.

Without access to information, impoverished communities cannot hope to escape the climate change Möbius strip – a path that appears to have more than one side but which in reality has only one surface. Whatever direction is taken, up or down, forward or back, there is no way out. The poor are more vulnerable because they are poor. The poor are poor because they have no voice. The poor have no voice because they are poor, and they are more vulnerable because they have no voice. And on and on it goes.

When we provide the poor the means – and the space – to scrutinize how services are planned, how budgets are developed and deployed, and how projects and programs are implemented; when we provide the poor the means through which they can directly help shape plans — by crowd-sourcing resilient urban design, for instance — and take part in monitoring outcomes and improving the delivery of services, we increase the chances of success, because we begin to rely not only on the watchful eyes of law enforcers. We gain the active citizenship as well of engaged communities.

The poor are not and should not be passive recipients of climate finance. They need to be active participants in the drive to promote and elevate resilience – transformative, democratic, adaptive, low carbon resilience – into a national and local goal.

(Psst! Please pass the Freedom of Information bill!)

This opinion piece is re-posted from ABS-CBN News Online.

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