Act Globally, Think Locally

I realize the title of this post is an inversion of the usual credo, “think globally, act locally”. But the new variant is a reasonably accurate representation of my thinking in recent weeks (living in rural India leaves you with a LOT of time to think…perhaps too much at times).  As one of my favorite development economist/bloggers recently wrote, “if you work in international politics or development and do not have an intellectual and existential crisis every year, then something is wrong.” No existential crises for now, just a lot of ruminating on global issues with community level impacts and what role development professionals play…

I have been following the news about the recently concluded climate negotiations at COP 17 in Durban, which as usual were fraught with accusations flying in all directions about who is causing the breakdown of a potential agreement. Many commentators see the resulting Durban Platform as lacking the ambition and clarity to make meaningful progress on the necessary greenhouse gas emission reductions. From a scientific perspective, we seem no closer to the aggressive targets needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change; however I still am not in the camp of those who have abandoned all hope in the international process, looking instead to smaller actors to take up the charge. Global scale coordination still gives the strongest signals to markets and policy makers and mobilizes resources that are needed to support action at all levels, whether local, regional, national, or international.

Because of my years spent in the financial sector, I often encounter skepticism about my background and whether it has any relevance to development and environment work. But to ignore the fact that broader markets and financial mechanisms, imperfect though they are, can have a tremendous influence on conditions at the local level is myopic and counterproductive. Having a better understanding of how national and international financial, legal and policy regimes function has always proved illuminating to me in analyzing the complex outcomes, good or bad, that result.

A village elder in Thettu gives us a history lesson

All of that said, there is a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience being generated at local levels, which unfortunately tends to stay at the local level. As large-scale climate finance mechanisms take shape, such as the Green Climate Fund discussed in Durban, I look around me at the adaptation needs in the Rishi Valley within the agricultural sector. In what form will such assistance take shape, and how can it be assured that it is channeled to those who need it most? How do we avoid yet another form of well-intentioned yet locally inappropriate aid? I had the privilege of attending COP 15 in Copenhagen, and at nearly every session I attended on adaptation, there were representatives in the audience pressing the panelists on how local knowledge would be integrated into adaptation planning, and rightly so.

In reflecting on the work I’ve done on the ground over the past several years, in Kenya, Indonesia, and now India, I have a keen appreciation for the fact that my work would have been challenging, nay, impossible without the help of local colleagues. No amount of language lessons and immersion on my part could match the lifetime of experience that they have amassed, making them highly attuned to the subtlest cultural nuances. So in pondering more generally how I see my role in this field long-term, due to both my training in international policy and the vagaries of visa regulations in many countries, it is likely that any future international assignments will come via a larger US or international organization. However, the field exposure with local organizations that I’ve had has profoundly shaped my thinking. Furthermore, I can say with certainty that my experience in the Rishi Valley will leave an indelible mark on how I approach environment-development issues at any scale. Maybe I’ll never be the “local expert”, but at least I’ll know to pay attention to those who are.


(PHOTO: Local perspective – entrance to the village of Murtinayanapalle, looking out over the Rishi Valley)


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