Bernd Nilles (CIDSE): “North and South are no longer divided, but unified in facing the same problems”

Brussels – CIDSE’s Secretary General Bernd Nilles talks to Vita International and Afronline about the most pressing global challenges facing us today. “Agenda 2030 and the SDGs are de facto a kind of systemic change to our economic model and behaviours. North and South are now no longer divided, but unified in facing the same problems,” he says. “We need courageous governments and people who push their governments to take bold decisions and people that take their lives into their own hands and make changes now.”

 What message does Brexit send to civil society about the values you want to promote and spread amongst European citizens?

Today, I see depression and frustration amongst UK NGOs that need to reorient themselves and their political targets in the future. For these NGOs, who are major players in the international community, the EU was a very important target. Now, they are having a major discussion on what exactly this means for them in the future.

CIDSE is an international alliance, so we will continue all our efforts on climate, food security and other topics in a highly coordinated way with our UK partners, as well as continuing our collaboration outside the EU.

I think the situation and fallout are mostly being felt within the United Kingdom. Many colleagues in the NGO sector there expended a great deal of energy in monitoring and influencing European policies. For example, our member organisation CAFOD in England and our other UK and Irish partners were heavily involved at the Brussels level on climate and food security, business and human rights.

For us, as international and European NGOs, we will first wait to see the details of Brexit. What will Brexit look like? Which of the rules that had been established under the UK’s membership of the EU will be maintained and which will be abandoned? I think there is still some sense in waiting for a bit. At the same time, it’s true that environmental NGOs and climate action networks are coming together in conferences to study the potential implications and possibly influence the details of Brexit: on the decisions the UK and the EU might make in these upcoming “divorce negotiations”.

A final point in relation to Brexit: for the CIDSE, it was only possible because the Brexit vote in the UK reflects the feeling that in many EU Member countries, ordinary people do not really see what benefits the EU brings them personally with respect to their private lives, social conditions, jobs and ability to live a decent life. I think that inequality and social conflict are on the increase in Europe. In the UK, there is severe poverty: according to UN studies, there are even people suffering from lack of food in some parts of the country.

Social injustice is something we are experiencing more and more in Europe, and fewer and fewer people believe that companies, businesses and economic growth solve their problems.

In addition, as Pope Francis said in his speech to the European parliament a year and a half ago, he told European politicians that he was worried that the EU was putting profit above people and that Europe was losing its soul because it was no longer working according to its core values of solidarity, peace and social justice.

So what is Brexit telling us?

It is telling us to bring justice and people back into EU politics, so that ordinary people also approve of what Europe is doing, will vote in favour of the EU and will not be so readily against it.

What can we do to achieve a shared global perspective? What has been going on in Africa, Asia and Latin America and what are the needs there that we have to face?

Agenda 2030 and the SDGs are de facto a kind of systemic change. What they help us to understand better is that we are all developing countries: North and South.

In the run up to the agreement of Agenda 2030, we understood that the problems we are facing in both the North and the South are in fact, in some areas, very similar. For example, injustice is growing worldwide, as is inequality.

We can also see that certain development models and the EU development models are promoting economic and development projects that are not sustainable. There has been a major period of industrialisation and economic growth. In key developing countries, such as Brazil, this is based on the exploitation of natural resources, which is a real single-strategy approach. In Africa, many economies are also based on extractive industries and exploitation.

In the North, our economic system is no longer functioning because we have created a major climate crisis. North and South are now no longer divided, but unified in facing the same problems.

Do you think the EU leadership is ready to deal with these challenges?

Neither the leadership in Brussels nor most EU Members States are capable of organising a major change, or of changing the system.

Even implementing the SDGs is a major challenge for most Northern governments, which requires a major economic transition. That is why many governments go back into a more defensive position and say “but it’s about development cooperation.”

The Millennium Development Goals were about improving development cooperation. Agenda 2030 and the SDGs do not solely relate to development cooperation, but this takes time for governments.

Here in Brussels I cannot see beyond DevCo and the development directorate, and I cannot see a big push for greater transition towards a sustainable economic model.

What do you see then? Business as usual?

It just hasn’t changed compared to the past. The development ministries, including those at the national level, do not have the mandate to change domestic policies within Europe or within countries.

When I look at Germany for example, many stakeholders invite other stakeholders to conferences to try to create a dialogue within Germany and a greater understanding of what is required from Agenda 2030. I think this is done successfully, but they have no leverage. They can only invite stakeholders to discussions, try to build bridges and act as a liaison, without the ability to make any decisions on domestic affairs.

So who makes the key decisions? The Ministries of Finance?

Yes. Here they have a credibility problem, because Agenda 2030 was agreed globally and so should count for everybody. However, the problem is that the Southern countries do not see the Northern industrialised countries delivering: for example, by massively reducing CO2 emissions, by increasing equality within our countries, by increasing efficiency or by achieving greater gender equality.

Will Europe as a whole be able to be credible and accountable on Agenda 2030? Or will we try to escape the problems by externalising, and by following the old models? Do we drastically reduce CO2 emissions and decarbonise in the near future, or do we stay on the path of offsetting our emissions by planting trees in Africa, Latin America and Asia in order to compensate for our emissions and maintain our current carbon-based model for as long as possible? These are the major questions.

Are we running out of time?

We have waited too long, so now only radical options remain. The frustrating part of my job is that I have the latest scientific data on my desk every day.

The evidence you mean?

Yes, the evidence. The CIDSE has partner organisations worldwide. This means that we have the local evidence of what climate change is causing on the ground, what rising sea levels has already burdened people with, how many are dying and the fact that sea water is seeping into farmers’ fields. There are so many communities that we are helping to migrate and find new homes through our partnerships.

And then there is the other evidence, the scientific evidence on our desks that global warming is increasing significantly and CO2 levels are still rising. We went to Paris, where governments were negotiating when to decarbonise, ultimately deciding on between 2050 and 2100. As NGOs, we were pushing for 2050, but only 6 months after Paris, we have scientific evidence indicating that in order to have a 66% likelihood of meeting the objective of staying below 2 degrees, we would have to decarbonise by 2035. That may as well be tomorrow.

Try to imagine the economic system of Europe meeting that objective: how fast that objective needs to be achieved. That means that as of tomorrow, we have to end our acceptance of cars that use fossil fuels. What does that mean for our aviation sector? What does it mean for our coal industry? Why is it still possible to exploit oil, if we cannot burn it and still be taking climate policy seriously? These are the facts.

How can we find the right balance between the need to change the whole system and not destroy jobs?

I still believe in our human capacity to react to disruptive situations. Human beings have always been able, right from the local level, to cope with disasters. For example, with the typhoon in the Philippines, which scientists have stated was the result of climate change, you see how innovative and strong people are when coping with change.

In Africa, Latin America and poor communities in Europe, you see how people cope with major disruptions to their personal lives. Imagine if we were to stop car traffic and flying tomorrow… people would adapt. It sounds strange, but they would.

People would probably use information technology to hold meetings, we would have an innovation boost in communication technologies. We would invent the craziest things to stay in touch with each other and companies would immediately adjust to different ways of working.

Over time we get used to certain things, they feel new for a while and then become very normal. For example, mobile phones are only two decades old, but already they are the norm. Human beings are very smart and would find a way to adapt.

So I am optimistic that change is possible, but I am less optimistic that change that is fair, just, and takes everyone into account in the transition process is possible. This is probably a truth that we need to appreciate more deeply: that this waiting and waiting will lead to some harsher changes. You can laugh about it, but an example that I have learnt about is that Austria and the Netherlands are discussing, at the national level, not allowing fossil fuel cars to enter the market by 2020. That is in only four years’ time: nobody would have believed that 10 years ago.

So major changes are possible: we need courageous governments and people who push their governments to take bold decisions, and people that take their personal lives into their hands and make changes now. The biggest mistake that people can make in their private lives is to wait for a political solution that comes one day and saves all of us. This won’t happen: people-driven change plus pressure on the political side, not just hoping that something will solve our problems on its own, is a way forward.

Funds spent on hosting or processing refugees in donor countries accounted for 9.1% of ODA in 2015, up from 4.8% in 2014. Is EU Aid at risk?

This is a very common issue, that whenever there is a new problem in the world, be it climate change or migration, governments misuse development funds. Development funds were committed to helping the poorest countries in the world and fragile states. But now, we have a migration crisis and we see many countries, such as the Netherlands, earmarking money for helping the refugees at home.

To be clear, we need major societal efforts in all European countries to help refugees, to invest in integration and to allow people to learn the language. This is so that the migrants can become part of our societies. It costs money to have open and tolerant societies: it’s a major investment.

It is not fair to take money away from the poorest countries in the world who need it, and to use precisely that money that had been dedicated to migrants who fled from the CAR to neighbouring countries because of war and climate change. We can’t take the money we need for these migrants inside Africa to now finance the challenges of migration in Europe. It is not fair. There are sufficient financial means to support migrants in Europe from sources other than development aid.

For many of our member organisations, migration is a top issue. They support people working in refugee camps and we also document many domestic refugee situations, like in Colombia where there are millions of domestic refugees because of the civil war, and also of course migration in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

As a network, we are in this typical tricky situation where we have to make choices. Acting as the alliance as a whole, we might address the migration issue more indirectly by focusing on a few root causes of migration. This is because in the future, the CIDSE will also be a player that looks into how we can fight climate change, where is climate change a cause of migration and what alternative development approaches are there?

Looking at agricultural approaches, we look at how this can help allow people to stay in their home regions, feed their families and create greater resilience against climate change. If you only follow simple industrial agricultural approaches, as a farmer, you become very vulnerable to the external factors of climate change.

Hopefully the CIDSE’s work will have a positive impact such that people can live a decent life in their home regions in the future. We will also not hesitate if our members want us to speak out on injustice in Europe, if migrants in Europe are being dealt with unfairly, but we won’t make it a priority.

By Joshua Massarenti (Afronline.org)

Translated by Kimberley Evans and edited by ISO Translation.