From regional to local and back again

Often the leap from our daily lives to thinking about regionalism is a stretch too far, appearing too abstract to have any real meaning for us. Indeed, the claims made on this blog regarding vulnerability and dependency and regional geopolitics may appear this way to many. This post provides some reflections on a recently published article which helps to take us from these seemingly lofty, abstract discussions and connect them to some of the realties on the ground in the Pacific.

The article published in the journal Sustainability is titled “Sinking Islands, Drowned Logic; Climate Change and Community-Based Adaptation Discourses in Solomon Islands”. The authors of the article summarise the key arguments as follows:

In media, policy and development discourses, Pacific Islanders are often portrayed to be at the frontline of climate change. This paper investigates this discourse, and argues that a narrow focus on the projected impacts of climate change distracts attention and resources from more pressing environmental and development problems that are threatening rural livelihoods in Solomon Islands. 

Little reliable scientific information is available on how climate change impacts on the dynamics, vulnerability, and resilience of coastal lagoon systems in the archipelago. But there is strong evidence that unsustainable fishing methods, such as small mesh gillnets and spearfishing at night, are impacting on coastal fisheries; that corporate logging causes erosion and siltation of coastal ecosystems; and that the clearing of mangroves threatens the food security and livelihoods of rural communities. People are dealing with a range of social issues, and poor access to basic water and sanitation facilities. Public infrastructure, such as rural health clinics, schools, roads, bridges, and wharfs have deteriorated over the past twenty years. Addressing these problems will reduce the vulnerability of coastal communities to long-term impacts of climate change. The reverse is unfortunately not the case. In fact, most climate change and disaster management projects tend to distract from other environment and development problems. 

By emphasizing a new, external, and all-surpassing natural hazard, decision-makers mask their failure to address the root causes of people’s vulnerability, such as poverty, weak governance, corruption, and inequality. This paper is not belittling the long-term impacts of climate change on coastal communities in the Pacific. The point is that projected climate change threats are often highly uncertain and distant, and that the wane asi have to cope with a range of more severe and urgent problems right now. Instead of portraying Pacific Islanders as helpless victims the focus should be on finding practical ways to enable people to cope with rapid social and environmental changes.

The experiences of communities discussed in the article provide a case study that reinforces some of the key arguments made to date on this blog and help connect the regional political economy to the local level. There are three points in particular I wish to emphasise:

  1. The article shows how the practice of exploiting our own vulnerability-dependency embedded at the regional level is mirrored at the local level (dare I say it “trickles down”?). The Solomon Islands received at least USD112million for climate change projects between 2010 and 2016. When a project is about to start, often the local media and/or websites of the donors will report on how much money is available for communities under the project. Of course, the authors tell a familiar story for the region about the large majority of this funding spent on community consultations, mappings and consultant fees. However, the research findings also show that when people become aware of climate project money, they “strategically link their needs and priorities to climate change issues to gain access to development aid” (page 15). The result is that this link between climate change and aid “has fostered aid dependency and clientelism, or what is locally sometimes labelled as a ‘hand-out mentality'” (page 15). According to the authors, this pattern of vulnerability and dependency is problematic for communities (and governments) for two key reasons:
    • International climate funding often takes place at the expense of existing development aid, and in a context of deteriorating public services, state-sponsored resource extraction, political patronage systems, and a history of failed development projects. That is, people are aware that while money pours in for climate change projects, their fundamental development needs continue to go unmet and at times are directly undermined by government approved activities. This leads to questions about the legitimacy of government and development partners; and,
    • A focus on climate change de-politicises environmental and development problems, enabling decision makers to mask their failures to address the root cause of people’s vulnerabilities, such as poverty, weak governance, corruption and inequality. In this way, to paraphrase Marx, climate change has indeed become the new opium of the masses.
  2. There is little indication at present to suggest that the governments of the region will make a shift away from leveraging vulnerability (whether developmental, climate, disaster or ocean related) for greater levels of foreign aid, or indeed if there is any other realistic alternative to such an approach. However, as raised in the previous blog, while we may think such a situation cannot be change, we nonetheless must change it! As the article indicates, regional and national dependency creates local autonomy, thereby undermining community resilience. The solution therefore must be for a radical transformative political project that breaks free of this status quo and empowers Pacific peoples addresses the root causes of poverty, inequality and vulnerability in the region.
  3. What might this transformation look like? While traditional knowledge and practices are important in many ways for community resilience, it is insufficient to claim that the solution is for people to retreat to the village and traditional culture at a distance from the state. Indeed, the daily issues faced by the communities outlined in the article in large part exist because such communities are effectively already at a distance from the state; that is, they are largely ignored by the state. Furthermore, as raised in an earlier post, the available evidence on climate change (particularly the IPCC oceans and cryosurgery report) shows the negative impacts on coastal resources and indigenous knowledge and practices thereby potentially undermining future capacities for resilience. Here it is worth quoting the final sentence of the article: “Instead the focus should be on finding practical ways to enable these people to cope with rapid social and environmental changes” (page 19). Therefore, rather than taking a distance from the state, what is required is a state, or indeed a regional political collective that guarantees the technology, resources and infrastructure for traditional communities, knowledge and practices to flourish! It’s not simply that governments need to leave people alone. Rather, the state needs to guarantee certain things (infrastructure, access to the internet, health services and so on and to do so in somewhat of an anonymous fashion) so that island communities are able to secure their own resilience, and together the shared resilience of Oceania.