Sunday, May 17, 2009

Global aid contributes to global pollution

We the peoples…A stronger UN for a better world.”

These are the first words you see when you click on the UN official webpage. I’ve stolen the words but replaced them with a green font. I’m sure if you look at other major organizations’ mission statement, it bears similar sentiment of wanting to make the world a better place.

This article is about how global aid operations, in all its good intention have unconsciously or perhaps consciously neglected the environmental impact caused by excessive carbon emission from vehicles and generators, imperishable pollutants such as plastic bottles as well as chopping down of trees to accommodate its paper-based administration.

The UN is being singled out here for the mere reason that by far, it has the biggest peacekeeping/peace building and humanitarian operations in the world. Nevertheless, wherever there is a UN presence, there are hundreds more smaller aid organizations working alongside, including other inter-governmental agencies and UN agencies. Hence,the burden of responsibility is not limited to the UN only.

Currently, the UN is operating in Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Haiti, Timor Leste, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Cyprus, Georgia, Kosova, Lebanon, and many more. In each mission, depending on the mandate and  resources poured into it, thousands of four-wheel drive and trucks are being deployed to assist the logistic aspect of the operation. On top of that, thousands of military and civilian staff are being recruited to execute  its mandates. With such sizable workforce, one can assume the amount of waste  being accumulated each day.

Now, in developing countries like those in Africa where cars are rare,  UN vehicles are probably the biggest contributors to environmental pollution. In addition to that, generators are often used to compensate for the often inadequate and erratic electricity supplies. Since clean drinking water poses a huge problem in most of these developing countries, all staff resorts to gallons of bottled water which are often disposed off without any thought on the environmental impact it produces. During these missions, hundreds of thousands (if not more) of A-4 paper are being used to print out often thick and lengthy documents which are read only by a handful of people.

Climate change is fast gaining global attention and yet aid organizations focussing on sustainable development are slowly addressing this issue. We have now begun to understand and recognize that climate change is one of the biggest causes of natural disaster, which in turn,  propagates the cycle of poverty. Tsunamis, earthquakes and hurricanes may have killed hundreds of thousands of people in the past few years, recurring flash flood and drought are the permanent nemesis of generations of people who rely on agriculture as their main source of livelihood.

And so, what are these organizations doing? They are developing more policies, resolutions and action plans to tackle food insecurity, population displacement, loss of assets and disaster management. All at the same time, unknowingly contributing to the cause of it. All these action plans are simply addressing the impact but not its cause.

I think that these aid organizations have failed to recognize and address one of the biggest catastrophes facing humanity today. It’s all well and fine when each wants to improve peace, human rights, democracy, rule of law, economic empowerment, mortality, health, education, etc. but what about our planet earth? Degradation of our planet is slowly becoming one of the main causes of human suffering and perhaps one day, a threat to the mere existence of humankind.

I think that if any of these organizations really want to make this world a better place, it should start to make concerted and committed effort in protecting our environment, especially of those that they claim to help. There are some measures that can be taken such as below and as idealistic as the idea sounds, one cannot deny the urgency that calls for such necessity.

1) Start from within. Each organization needs to set an exemplary role to others and this can be done by establishing internal policies and guidelines pertaining to environmental preservation. For instance, organizations like the UN which maintains huge presence in post-conflict countries should create an environmental unit to focus on what I would consider as one of the biggest challenges in the 21st century.

2) Practise what it preaches instead of just paying lip service. Aid organizations should consider turning green by implementing environmental friendly practices. Just as the many gender positions that have being created to promote and protect gender equality, environmental protection officers must be recognized as essential staff to help reinforce and promote these policies.

Some policies recommended are:

  • Start minimizing energy and paper consumption. Procurement of greener cars in future operation, using energy saving bulbs, installing solar panels in countries with sufficient and often excessive heat from the sun to run electrical operated appliances. Encourage staff to use recycled paper and print what’s only necessary on both sides of the paper. Such exercise is not difficult particularly when big organizations such as the UN often benefits from tax-exemption and competitive rate as a result of massive procurement needs.
  • Implement “green taxes”. Most aid workers, specifically the UN, do not pay income tax and as such, a small portion of their salaries can be used to subsidize some of the operational cost incurred by environmental policies.
  • Recycle imperishable waste. In UN compounds that house hundreds of staff, some sort of recycling mechanism should be adopted to reduce the amount of pollutants.

3) Start moving from a reactionary mentality to one of prevention and preparedness. I often feel that human beings are good at responding to threat but not at prevention and perhaps this is where all the problems come from. By spending excessive amount of resources to supply aid  after a disaster hits does not solve the problem. It becomes a greater problem when the organization’s presence contribute to exacerbating the process of polluting the environment.

4) Make environment protection as part of its agenda. When drafting and allocating operational budget, consideration must be given towards the implementation of environmental policies. The only way to realize such policies is to pursue it as vigorously as it would of other agenda and this includes financial commitment.

5) Promote as well as protect. Organizations that have access to the community often have the advantage and ability to reach out to the mass. Instead of just going to a village to distribute aid, it should also disseminate information on environmental protection. Besides this, huge humanitarian operations often attract attention from the media and this serves as a great tool towards global awareness.

Just as more and more organizations are adopting zero-tolerance policy against sexual exploitation, environmental protection must be included gradually as one of its top agenda. Organizations such as the UN has a huge potential to pave and leave a greener path on our planet. By subscribing to environmental friendly products and practices, it will change the course of how commercial products are being made and marketed. After all, we’re talking about millions of dollars being spent on the procurement of logistic equipment and if any company want a piece of the pie, they might start to think twice about creating more environmentally friendly products.

Last but not least, the UN has the ability to become our planet’s advocate through all its minions across the globe. Just as those first three words you see on its webpage, “we the peoples…” and so they should start from the “We” before it starts to think about making this world better. 

I received this email today from an unknown source and I think it aptly concludes this article.

“We should expand national and local capacities for disaster response preparedness, and complement this with up-scaling disaster risk reduction. This should be our contribution to climate change adaptation. In relation to climate change mitigation, we should promote social mobilization towards “greener lifestyles”, and community programmes to protect environmental assets as part of sustainable development initiatives. We should advocate on behalf of vulnerable people who are most affected by climate change”

p/s: The recommendations above are not only applicable to big organizations, but should also be strongly considered by any organization that claims to serve the people, regardless of its capacity and size.

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