Mary Robinson: Joining the dots and changing the game?

On Friday night, Mary Robinson (president of the Mary Robinson Foundation and once president of Ireland) gave the John Donne lecture in Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre, an ornate and highly decorative building. The first three rows of the theatre had been reserved for well-dressed guests, Oxford dons and even the occasional lord. Needless to say, I felt a little out of place. So, before they all went off for their dinner and drinks reception, Mary Robinson had been given the opportunity to give us all something to chew on. I wasn’t sure what to expect. The title of the lecture, ‘What if this present were the world’s last night?’ (taken from Donne’s Holy Sonnet No.13) was more than a little bit foreboding. I was expecting a polemical talk and to probably leave feeling slightly downbeat. Instead, Mary Robinson, in a soft Irish accent and dressed in a smart yellow jacket, took the issue of climate change and showed with a calm authority that it exists in the real world, and for that reason, can be tackled in a meaningful and decisive way.

Mary’s own particular emphasis, and that of her foundation, is upon the concept of climate justice. It is interesting to note that she intends to keep her foundation small and maintain a “catalytic” role, ‘promoting the merits of the climate justice approach’. We often feel the need for big ideas or big organisations to deal with big issues but the Mary Robinson Foundation– Climate Justice (MRFCJ) takes a different approach. Mary’s own demeanour seemed to reflect this approach, to speak with quiet authority to those groups that require support or invite/require influence. The three areas the foundation prioritises are food, energy and gender and this selection seemed significant. Mary is a strong advocate of the UNFCCC (the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) and sees it as crucial to tackling climate change at a global level. However, it occurred to me that selecting food, energy and gender as priorities for the foundation is a shrewd choice because they can be tackled as issues of human rights that inherently address issues of climate. If the foundation’s priorities were limited only to questions of climate (or appeared to be) then the forums where the foundation can exert influence and bring about change may be greatly reduced. Also, by joining the dots between development and climate in this way, tackling climate change can be positively rather than negatively perceived, directed towards empowerment and justice rather than a last-stich attempt to save the planet.

Mary highlighted the need for finding innovative ways of joining these dots. Currently, 1.3 billion people have no access to electricity and therefore no light in their home other than from kerosene (which is highly toxic) or candles/lamps etc. She explained how many developing countries now have social protection systems in place or in development which target the most vulnerable in society. Mary believes that these systems have the potential to foster low-carbon communities by providing affordable, off-grid renewable energy – an opportunity which is yet to be fully explored. Rather than leave it there though, she joins the dots further, seeing the possibility of tapping into ‘climate finance in its various guises’ to support these systems and promote further local development. Mary outlined a specific example of how the social safety-net in Ethiopia (which responds to around 7.5 million people) seeks to bring people out of situations of deep poverty but that the incentives in that system are often a few chickens, a goat or a money-transfer arrangement but not the provision of energy (the benefits of which are arguably more far-reaching, reminiscent of the “give a man a fish/give him a fishing rod” proverb). Consequently, the MRFCJ are convening a meeting in New York at the end of March to find synergies between social protection and green energy, and by scaling up one, intend to enhance the other.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, she began her lecture with the widely recited observation that climate change exacerbates the gap between rich and poor, the developed north and developing south. In joining the dots of social protection and green energy though, she had begun to demonstrate how this socio-economic impact of climate change can be reflected back on itself. However, similar projects to those she hopes to foster do already exist in South Africa and elsewhere in some form, but it is her attention to detail that we can learn from. When she gave the first figure about access to energy, she also highlighted that 2.7 million people cook using coal, wood or dung, the fumes of which are extremely damaging to health: ‘I am told that more women die from fumes of this indoor cooking than from malaria.’ Through hosting a specific and focussed forum in New York, questions of food, energy and gender can be approached holistically so that this dimension pertaining to gender and health is also tackled through new synergies between green energy and social protection schemes. However, Mary’s was not a wooly argument about interconnectedness or a “bigger picture” but a focussed and targeted plan for fostering connections between development and environment so that they are mutually sustaining. (For a more overarching discussion of these themes, I recommend Oxfam researcher Kate Raworth’s paper, ‘Can we live inside the doughnut?’)

In the area of gender, her holistic approach was perhaps most apparent. Like before, the issues and methods weren’t new and the ideas although innovative, weren’t necessarily radical. Instead, it was her bold, innovative thinking about how to join the dots that was noteworthy. It is perhaps this kind of thinking that forms the necessary glue for making disparate yet innovative schemes and organisations work efficiently and effectively together. Through a project to support women’s leadership on climate justice, Mary explained how they have established a Troika + group of female ministers and leaders (which is also supported by several male leaders I was pleased to hear!) This Troika + forms part of a Women’s Leadership on Climate Justice Network with grassroots organisations, in order that the thinking on policy relating to gender arises from an open channel between leaders and those affected. I would normally be sceptical of something that sounds quite so bureaucratic (Troika + does sound overly formal!) but the MRFCJ have constructed this network in a context of cultural sensitivity and open, two-way channels of communication. As Mary put it, we are aware that women’s leadership operates ‘at different levels and in different ways’. It is perhaps in a setting such as this, that allows for a high degree of openness, where the subtleties of the issues at hand can be acknowledged. In such a setting, there is perhaps the opportunity to think more radically and respond to the insights that would not be gained elsewhere. Mary reflected upon an event hosted by the MRFCJ at the UN Commission on the Standards of Women. They had hosted a 2-hour meeting where grassroots leaders could address the Troika + group about access to energy:

‘A sense that I took from that meeting was that this bottom-up and top-down women’s leadership can really change the narrative on climate change, because women are instinctively intergenerational and usually practical in being able to change behaviour…’

I was particularly struck by this comment because it challenged my own thinking. The idea of engaging with climate change as an intergenerational issue is current but it is primarily framed within discussions of this generation and the next or the role of youth in sustainable development. There are currently several exciting campaigns looking to create an ombudsperson for future generations and this engages with one of the key problems with current leaders and policy-makers: their resistance to thinking in the long-term. However, by treating this notion of ‘the intergenerational’ as intimately related to human instinct and practical necessity it  can be seen as a concept that arises from and then challenges our current situation, thereby retaining a radical edge. A more abstract notion of ‘the intergenerational’ though is perhaps susceptible to manipulation and “greenwashing” narratives that deal in wooly ideas of a “brighter future”.

For Mary Robinson, these initiatives on food, climate and gender all feed into the overarching goal of an international legally binding deal on climate change. Although there are many different perspectives on the COP17 in Durban, she acknowledged the start of new allegiances between poorer countries and the EU as a reason for optimism. You could think that there is a problem in one small foundation having its fingers in many pies, and also pies on different shelves and in different places. Mary was all too aware of her own carbon footprint that comes as a consequence of joining the dots on a global stage. I would disagree though: the implicit philosophy of climate justice underlying Mary Robinson’s lecture was potentially more provocative than the examples she gave and it could be argued that how the MRFCJ carry out their work is as insightful as the work itself because it promotes a more progressive kind of behaviour. By engaging with many different aspects of the climate change debate consistently, there is the greatest potential for the principles of climate justice to take hold. In her lecture, Mary Robinson demonstrated a particular kind of holistic approach that requires innovative and creative thinking to be advanced. Perhaps almost too neatly she returned to John Donne’s writing to conclude her lecture: ‘any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.’ She acknowledged though that it would be a cliche to suggest we should think about “the big picture” as Donne might once have done. However, in a brief lecture Mary Robinson had subtly differentiated between how we might perceive the big picture and how, through the principles of climate justice, we might participate in constructing a bigger picture. And maybe that is a bit radical…


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