Why election politics don’t work as well for the environment as they do for international development
Guest post from Matthew Spencer, who crossed over from the environment sector recently to become Oxfam’s Director of Campaigns and Policy
Before the end of the first week of the UK election campaign, to widespread surprise, Theresa May agreed to the development sector’s main demand to maintain our 0.7% overseas aid commitment. In contrast, the following week the government had to be forced to publish its plan to reduce air pollution by a judge so fed up with its delaying tactics that he instructed ministers to ignore election purdah rules. The first decision helps people who live thousands of miles away, the other obstructs action to address something proven to be killing British voters. It should therefore be easier to get political leadership on environmental health than on international development, but the reverse appears to be true. Why?
As someone who has recently started working for Oxfam after thirty years working in the environment community I’ve been trying to understand the differences between the sectors in order to make sense of these political dynamics.
Unsurprisingly they have very different histories and somewhat different organisational models. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth were set up in the late 70’s as campaign-only organisations, and their sector has had many political wins on pollution regulation and nature conservation in the decades since. In contrast, the coalition that helped secure the 0.7% commitment from the Prime Minister is made up almost entirely of organisations whose primary mandate is to deliver long-term development programmes and humanitarian aid; campaigning is a very small part of what they do. The differences make sense. If you
want to tackle the crisis in particulate air pollution you have to influence the policy of departments of the environment, transport, local government and the Treasury. For every environment issue there are a set of ‘producer’ interests who may be causing the problem, but whose needs will often be uppermost in the minds of government, particularly if they generate employment and tax receipts.
The development sector has an agenda every bit as challenging to economic norms as environmental sustainability, but the vested interests are less obvious and much of its interaction with government has been on overseas aid spending, with occasional forays into finance and trade policy, but a primary focus on spending decisions rather than economic policy.
The environment sector may be more focussed on influencing policy, but it would be wrong to conclude that it is more ‘political’. In my experience the development sector has a more profound understanding of the power dynamics that impede its mission, and a greater commitment to tackling root causes like economic and gender inequality.
The tactical campaigning skill of the environment sector is a great strength but it can also hold it back from a deeper and more compassionate view of the world. As one environmental leader told me, ‘the development sector seems to be better at acknowledging environmental causes of poverty, than the other way around’. Many people in the environment community also believe in social justice, but it is almost absent from their work, in part because it complicates a simple campaign proposition.
There is another difference which helps to explain the fate of those two key policies in the General Election. In theory the campaign savvy and the bigger
public membership of the environment sector should result in bigger electoral success. It rarely does. It is easier for the government to agree to spend billions of pounds on poverty alleviation in Sub-Sahara Africa, than regulate diesel pollution in the streets of Britain precisely because it’s further from voters. Think of it as the proximity paradox. The further away the problem, the easier it feels to resolve the ethics. It’s not contested that absolute poverty in the developing world is wrong, so if the Government wants to look generous and outward looking agreeing 0.7% is an effective signal to the public of those virtues. The morality of diesel pollution at home appears much more complicated because the same citizens whose health is affected may also be enthusiastic car drivers or bus users, or be employed by diesel vehicle manufacturers.
And so to the final difference between the two sectors. The development sector, with strong roots in faith communities, and benefiting from the proximity paradox, is profoundly moral in its language. This is a real strength as politics becomes more narrative and values-driven. The environment sector may have started as an emotional reaction to industrial excess but it now has one foot firmly planted in the instrumental language of technological and economic progress. I know from experience that ‘Better for Britain’ framing works well in Whitehall, but it can also make green solutions vulnerable to public scepticism about technocratic politics.
There are many similarities between the sectors – strong public support even in straitened economic times, deeply committed staff and a strong outcome focus. Both are also threatened by the growth of isolationist populism, whether it expresses itself as fear of refugees or fear of climate action. Neither international development nor the environment are ever likely to be high profile General Election issues, but we both enjoy huge public support, and if we learn from each other we will better withstand the political storms ahead. If the environment sector rekindles its deeper values narrative it will be better able to engage a public sceptical about conventional politics. If the development sector can get better at campaigning on the economic norms that are locking in poverty we will be less at risk of being boxed into a narrow conversation about whether we can afford overseas aid.