Using anthropology to improve climate finance and monitoring

A few bullet points, as requested by @nadia. I am not at all sure they are a good fit for the upcoming event, but here they are.

  • Let’s take a step back from what Climate Gains intends to do directly, and reflect on the context in which it operates. This is an exceptionally diverse and multiscale; it spans from UN bureaucracies in Geneva, through investment bankers in NYC, all the way to schoolteachers in Uganda. Each component has its own mode of operations, rules and expectations; and a lot of these are implicit, they are encoded in culture. Now, cultures are mysterious things, and we have a whole discipline, cultural anthropology, devoted to studying them. I would like to reflect on the role of cultural variables in Climate Gain’s mission, and how anthropologists could help navigate them, and ultimately achieve that mission.
  • Anthropologists are scholars trained in perceiving cultures, and subjecting them to analysis. You might have heard the old joke about fish wondering “what is this ‘water’ everyone is talking about”? A fish anthropologist would point out that water is a key component of fish life; fish don’t need to talk about it, because their culture is such that it orients their expectations and behavior in such a way that water is always present. Fish culture might, for example, see the surface of the sea as taboo. Anthropologists have a superpower: they can look things that most people take for granted, and problematize them. Tim quoted the late David Graeber, who was himself an anthropologist. Graeber studied the history of money and debt, and this investigation started at a party. People were discussing the 2008 Greek debt crisis, and somone said “It’s a terrible situation, but debts must be paid!”. And Graeber made this classical antropological move of stepping back, and thinking “Debts must be paid? Why? Where does this belief come from?”. This thought, then, bloomed into a lot of incredibly important insights on money, debt and economic policy.
  • There are two ways that anthropologists can help Climate Gains. The first is building an interface between distributed oversight in the field and compliance-as-bureaucracy in the glass-and-steel tower offices of the donors. Tim has already decried compliance as box-ticking. As a former civil servant, he knows it well, and is very dissatisfied with it. And in the field, of course, oversight is done through social ties, with reputational capital as collateral and a shared cultural code to enable transparency. Vanessa knows that she can trust the schoolteachers she works with, and has no trouble telling hardworking activists who will secure the success of the stoves initiatives from wannabes. She does not need a lot of form filling with that, Climate Gains’ videos contain enough information for her to know things are going well, or not. So, if everybody hates compliance as box-ticking, why do we do it? Are there alternatives? If there are, why have they not been put in place already? The anthropologists that have looked into development, like James Ferguson, have pointed out that development projects, while they often fail to achieve their stated goals, meet unstated ones; and that these goals tend to be multiple, because development requires multiple parties. Ferguson himself studied a project in Lesotho, which appeared to tackle a non-existent problem through a reform that failed. But in fact, the project did serve well (1) the Lesotho government, that asserted a firmer control over a remote highland province, and (2) the development professionals involved in it.
  • This example also tells us about the second way that anthropologists can contribute to the success of climate finance to reduce carbon emissions: surfacing coalitions of agents that could achieve it. This is the equivalent of Stefan Dercon’s “élite bargain”, but extended to the non-élites. See, development has a long story of the local people resisting to the proposed reforms. This is because reforms in development tend to be technocratic: they are produced from within the culture of the global experts of development, and they make sense in that culture. If you are a Chicago-trained, IMF-employed development economist, privatizing water utilities makes sense. If you are an Ecuadorian farmer, you are likely to have a different story. And that story never gets heard, because even public participation channels (consultations, workshop etc.) tend to be designed from within the same technocratic culture that generated the reform’s project in the first place. So, “development” tends to incorporate cohercion and violence.
  • Since 2021, the calls for taking a step back from usual ways of doing things (like reducing emissions) and, more importantly, of knowing things (like: how do we know a project is working well?), have become much louder. The most striking example of this, for me, is the IPCC AR6 report, which insists on “local and indigenous knowledge”, “multiple ways to know”, “participatory decisions” and “just transitions”. There is a new awareness that the consent of the élites is not enough to get enough.
  • I would be interested in seeing an experiment, with an emission reduction programme designed, managed and monitored with the involvement of economic anthropologists, which would explicitly factor cultural differences in.

I would not use the word experiment in this setting, rather exploration…

So in my reading you are focusing on the “goal definition” part of the game - in the Uganda case, we just skipped that, respectively picked up a >10 year old, long standing desire expressed by all kinds of stakeholders from Government to local, with very clear and direct benefits and a minimalist intervention. There is very little to be discussed there, as literally nothing changes except the amount of wood they need to cook. Things are much easier when the primary goal is “reduce emissions” and not “development” which is an ill defined term and needs a lot of negotiation and goal-finding. However, in the Ug case, the solar panel and lights that we provide additional to the stove are a developmental contribution with no associated direct emission reductions - it brings more light without more emissions, not less emissions.

I do agree that this is not the most interesting aspect of Climate Gains, though. The idea of supporting all kinds of climate action from a mixed bag of “whatever is needed” support in terms of expertise and resources, with a video-first communications paradigm is where the shift potential lies.

So there is this two-pronged strategy:

  1. Grow VashGreenSchools quantitatively to show that this approach can funnel 10s of millions of USD.
  2. Seed other projects - can upgrades to the current school intervention (e.g. adding a solar water pre-heater to cut firewood need even more), or green schools outside of Uganda or other project types.

I believe you are more interested in part 2 then?

Re: The coercion and violence part: One of the soft and not-so-much-in-the-center-of-attention changes that Climate Gains brings is that there is no legal and thus potentially violent relations behind it.
If an activists takes the money and runs, all we can do is to put a mark on their reputation history and stop all future transactions. This condition makes it a bit tricky, but it is entirely viable way to do business like that, as proofed e.g. in online drug markets that operate under unenforceable contracts (and even more anonymity, as we have faces on camera, so people can’t just create a new account and expect not to be recognized). One of the key criteria for me is that “if it doesn’t work for undocumented individuals, it doesn’t work”.
Re: Privatization etc. Climate Gains can only work on visible interventions. Therefore purely symbolic interventions (as in “who owns what”, how are things managed) are NOT viable. Video is very materialist in that way.

Going forward, I could see a role for anthropologists mostly in a comprehensive forestry project. Typically, land-use requires a lot more nuanced and culturally sensitive intervention than energy efficiency.

I understand Uganda as (1) an example of the kind of stuff Climate Gains could do and (2) a low hanging fruit. If you imagine rolling out the same thing in, say, Ecuador, with no Vanessa, you still need to build an interface between distributed oversight and compliance-as-box-ticking, but this time there are all kinds of “unknown unknowns” failure modes. For example, One Laptop Per Child was crippled by beneficiaries agreeing to everything, but then quickly selling the laptops on a secondary market. Anthro is better then dev econ at this stuff (and definitely better than engineering).

Absolutely. It should be easy to think this way for finance people; just factor dishonesty in with other risks, “X% of my loans will be uncollectable, but my loans portfolio is still profitable”.

I think you might benefit from working with anthro in Geneva, in the same way that Graeber studies managers as if they were an Amazonian tribe in Bullshit Jobs: “these people believe you need a retain of unproductive flunkies to support your status”. I used to work for the Italian govt, and that culture is really rationalist-formalist, plus it has found expression in actual law about the personal liability of civil servants with respect to squandered money. Selling your videos as compliance to those guys is going to be hard, because, under the current set of regs, if an activist takes the money and run, the head of the service is supposed to answer with her personal assets, unless she dotted all her is and crossed all her ts. Even this idea that different administrative cultures, though all Weberian more or less, are differently receptive to your idea, can be useful!

Anyway. These are my thoughts after our call. Do not feel obliged to include them anywhere! The point is to make your life easier, not harder.

1 Like

I’m just looking for lines that we could perform in a staged question and answer format :slight_smile: Pretty sure we got enough brainstorm to extract a statement from this!

I guess your question should use a Graeber Lens, right? Something along Bullshit jobs, change on the ground, utopia of rules thing, and how I would respond to that critique of our approach?

(I know, this feels dishonest, but we can just declare that it was staged afterwards and its fine). @alberto

Yes, exactly. Anthropology is good at explaining, but not at changing. Bullshit Jobs like Utopia, does not contain policy impliations. So, a question could be: have you thought about box ticking as a cultural phenomenon, which, as such, could be hard to challenge? And even more so in the jurisdictions where this culture has become encoded in law or other forms of regulation, for example mandating certain forms of bureaucratic control over others. This is often written in supposedly technical (but in truth heavily political) documents, like grant agreements. They are several levels below The Law, but can still coherce you into what you spend your grant in and how and when you do the reporting.

1 Like

I literally co-authored the two-levels-below law regulatory documents requiring all the boxtickery (and part of the reason of me leaving the ministry was how little leeway I had in changing it). The so called “Vollzugsmitteilung”.

Legally, there are only two requirement to carbon projects: They can’t be viable without the carbon money and they have to contribute to local sustainable development.

Then there is a bylaw that says who has to send what documents where and some more specifications.

And a Vollzugsmitteilung that should be an app instead.

I really like that question! Got to think a bit more about it and also the answer… Probably want to admit that the User Experience for European Boxtickers is the hard part, while we are very optimistic and already have something to show when it comes to solving for the local activists… and then offer some perspectives on how this could be bridged, i.e. the App provides integrated MRV & Finance for Programmatic Approaches => That would imply the boxes and forms are still there, just that the users never need to look at them.

“Full train attachment”?

Vollzug => Execution - so more like “executive note” :wink: You can find an italien Version here:

I think these words are important. These documents are like leaks, where cultural dark matter seeps into whatever the law is trying to do. In Italian:

  • Decreto attuativo is fairly high level. Parliament has voted a law, and it now asks someone else in the executive branch, typically a ministry, to write a cohercive document that says how the law is going to do what it said it would. Of course, the person drafting might be relatively junior.

  • Allegato tecnico (seems close to Vollzugmitteilung?) is a purely technical government, for example, in research, the Annotated Model of the Grant Agreement.

The law might say “we fund carbon emission reduction projects in Uganda for 150 million”. The decreto attuativo goes on to say “the environmental protection agency is tasked with approving the applications”. The allegato tecnico contains a template for the application, and here is where it is decided what information is needed for the application to go through.

1 Like

It goes “Gesetz” → “Verordnung” → “Vollzugsmitteilung” in Geman-speaking Switzerland and works exactly like that. Verordnung is written in the agency, but still subject to veto by parliament and has law-like character (can be used in court), while Vollzugsmitteilung has only “Empfehlenden Character” and serves to make the decision logic by the agency tasked in the Verordnung more nachvollziehbar.

Basically, my crisis goes back to the fact that at the “Vollzugslevel” there was incredible resistance to change of a system thought up in the early 2000s, fulfilling a Clinton-Administration introduced paragraph of the Kyoto Protocol (Clean Development Mechanism). The Project cycle, types of documents, logic of numbers and tests and boxes has been developed back then, and not been touched much since (despite the introduction of “Programmes”, which are a really important modality to enable functional markets), despite giagantonormous amounts of criticism and an even larger unexplored design space of how things could be done in the fully programmable symbolic overlay.

@OmaMorkie and @nadia, this is just to confirm that you expect a “staged question” along the lines of the above from me tomorrow. Would this be in the breakout? And should I follow Nadia in whichever breakout room she happens to be?


I guess that question would be for me, during breakout session one.

@Alberto in one room asking the question to open discussion, and @OmaMorkie in another discussing the same thing.

1 Like

OK, I guess you guys will tell me which is which. :slight_smile:

1 Like