Fellow blogger Scarlett Lion recently asked me what I thought about the relationship between the environment and development agencies. That is, how do NGOs that are trying to assist in development potentially affect the environment? What follows is a synopsis of our conversation over the issue.
My feeling is no, they probably do not have a serious environmental impact. In fact, they may be operating at very high environmental efficiency compared to people living in America and Europe.
The programs that NGOs support can have an impact, such as whether the programs are environmentally (and economically) sustainable. For instance, supporting charcoal makers, which used to be a part of development aid in northern Uganda, in fact supports deforestation. I have been looking into using solar cookers in the north instead. In addition to decreasing deforestation, they have a couple of other very good uses: they decrease time spent looking for firewood and they decrease pollution in homes from using charcoal and firewood. They are though expensive, and so NGOs haven't invested in them. In the long run they are great, but the initial cost is high.
Its important to remember though that while the economic growth (and all of the things that help create that growth) developing countries have been experiencing has a serious impact on greenhouse gases, its nothing like the effect developed countries have on GHG. China, India and all of Africa are way behind on producing GHG per capita compared to the US and Europe. I never like to speak about how development affects GHG without making it very clear that the west is much, much worse. We are the ones that need to change, and we should not be complaining about others until we have ourselves under control.
Then there seems to be a debate about the use of SUVs by NGOs, especially in Kenya. While I am no fan of some UN actions, I have a lot of problems with this critique.
First, why should we hold UN people to different standards than others? Why not complain about Kenyan MPs that drive around in SUVs?
Second, the numbers don't add up. SUVs in the US are far more prevalent, which makes them the real offenders. One car does not do much, it is the aggregate impact of millions of cars that really matter.
Third, are cars really a big problem in Kenya? I bet there's more pollution from planes and power plants. Why are people not complaining that NGO workers, and every other Kenyan for that matter, wants power to light their homes at night?
Fourth, if an SUV is what they need, then whats the problem? An SUV in an American suburb is disturbing, but if the Nairobi streets are as bad as I hear, or if the workers ever leave the city for the harsh roads of the countryside, SUVs make sense for transportation needs and wear on the vehicles.
Finally, to return to an issue I keep thinking about, I bet the environmental impact of NGO bottled water, flights into a country and general transportation around town is still nothing compared to the effect of diets. I don't know the numbers exactly, but my feeling is that the difference between an aid worker living in the US and eating a heavy meat diet from feedlots versus an aid worker in Africa driving around in an SUV and eating less meat that was all farm raised (without deforestation) is zero. Given the incredible impact of our diets, perhaps being in Africa (including the flight over) is even better for the planet.