I’ve been going on quite a bit about how we envision the relationship between aid and development – or perhaps more appropriately, how we do not really envision that transition, but assume that it simply happens – quite a bit lately.  But pressing on my mind during my work life is the relationship between climate change and development – how do mitigation and adaptation efforts relate to development?  The answer, of course, is that they relate to development in many different ways.  For example, mitigation efforts include things like land use, which can impact existing agricultural practices, and constrain (or sometimes enable) the options available to the designers of agricultural development projects.  Adaptation efforts emphasize the prevention of negative outcomes, a form of coping, but unless this relationship is explicitly considered they do not necessarily rhyme with development projects that seek to build on existing resources and capacity to improve people’s situations.

(I confess that I am deeply concerned that development is rapidly being subsumed under adaptation in some quarters, which is a real problem as they have two different missions.  To refocus development projects on adaptation is to shift from an effort to improve someone’s situation to an effort to help them hang on to what little they might have.  But this is a post for a different day.)

There is a danger, in this era of enhanced attention and funding toward climate change, of using climate change funds to continue doing the same development work as we were doing before, only under a new label (i.e. calling agricultural development “agricultural adaptation”, then using climate change funds to support that program even though nothing about it has really changed).  It is an annoying habit of people in agencies, who are often cash- and personnel-strapped, to try to use new initiatives to support their existing projects.  There is also a danger, in places where climate change has a greater emphasis than development, that development dollars aimed at particular challenges will be repurposed to the end of addressing climate change, thus negatively impacting the original development goal.  A year ago, Bill Gates wrote warned against just such an outcome in his 2010 Annual Letter as co-chair of the Gates Foundation.  On first read, it is a reasonable argument – and one that I largely agree with.  We live in a world of finite donors, and new dollars to address climate change often have to come from some other pot of money funding another project or issue.  These are difficult choices, and Gates has every right to argue that his pet interest, global health, should not lose funding in favor of climate change related efforts.  However, his argument sets up a needless dichotomy between development/aid (in the form of public health funding) and efforts to address the impacts of climate change:

The final communiqué of the Copenhagen Summit, held last December, talks about mobilizing $10 billion per year in the next three years and $100 billion per year by 2020 for developing countries, which is over three quarters of all foreign aid now given by the richest countries.

I am concerned that some of this money will come from reducing other categories of foreign aid, especially health. If just 1 percent of the $100 billion goal came from vaccine funding, then 700,000 more children could die from preventable diseases. In the long run, not spending on health is a bad deal for the environment because improvements in health, including voluntary family planning, lead people to have smaller families, which in turn reduces the strain on the environment.

Well, sort of.  I could make a pretty brutal counterargument – not spending on health, such as HIV/AIDS leads to a lot of deaths in the productive segment of the population pyramid, leaving a lot of fallow land to recover its nonagricultural ecological functions.  This sort of land use change is actually visible in places like Swaziland, but very hard to quantify because the studies aren’t there yet – nobody wants to be seen as potentially supporting this sort of nightmarish conservation argument.  I certainly don’t – but that is not my point.  My point was that Gates’ argument is pretty thin.

In making a political point, Gates is being a bit selective about the relationship between climate change and health.  What he is completely ignoring is the fact that mitigation efforts might limit the future range of disease vectors for any number of illnesses, thus saving tremendous numbers of lives.  This is especially true for diseases, like malaria, where a vaccine has proven elusive.  Further, he ignores the ways in which coherent, participatory adaptation programs might address health issues (by managing everything from nutrition to sanitation) in an effective manner.  While I am not arguing that mitigation and adaptation efforts could completely address the impacts caused by the loss of $1 billion in vaccination funding, his argument for 700,000 extra deaths* rests upon the assumption that nothing in the climate change portfolio will address the causes of such deaths through other means.  He’s creating an either/or that does not exist.

Again, Gates is making a political point here – which is his right.  But that political point sets up a false dichotomy between aid/development and efforts to address climate change that even Bjorn Lomborg has abandoned at this point.  We can argue in the interest of our agencies and organizations all we want, but the problems we are trying to address are deeply interlinked, and in the end creating these false dichotomies, and claiming that one issue is THE issue that must be addressed, shortchanges the very constituencies we claim to be working with and working for.

*I must admit I loathe this sort of quantification – it is always based on horribly fuzzy math that, at best, is grounded in loose correlations between an action and a health outcome.  I raise this issue and take it apart at length in my book . . .