The world-changing power of serendipity

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7 December 2008

Lobbying — the pre- and post-negotiation discussions where much of the real action at global conventions happens — is a key activity for NGOs at the talks. It really can turn that world on its axis, as long as the lobbyist has an intimate knowledge of huddle politics.

A five-minute chat with one of IIED’s key climate researchers unpeeled a few layers from the process. There’s a dangerously fortuitous side to it, he said: the worry is whether you can get to the person you need to before they disappear into the session where they present their main point. The process is fraught with hazard and sometimes ruled by serendipity — the sheer luck of right time, right place.

Another factor in these interstices between the ‘real’ talks is a kind of herd instinct. Masses of people suddenly rush towards a side event or a talk en masse and for mysterious, possibly spurious, reasons. It can prove a hurdle for those concerned with staying on message.

And all the time, opportunities to influence are squeezed. You may find yourself embedded in key huddles on Monday, aware that by Tuesday the whole process will culminate in written text — after which, all discussion will be defined by that. Like cooling magma pouring through an ever-narrower ravine, the flow picks up solid stuff that becomes a debatable, editable but largely set document.

The key for NGOs is to try to get people from a vast array of potentially conflicting groups to use the same language. In multilingual UN agencies, this is a must. In the broader world of NGOs, agencies and governments, other kinds of phrases become the word du jour. The Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism, for instance, spawned ‘measurable, reportable, verifiable’ (now called MRV, as the sustainable development world adores an acronym) as a way of assessing its projects. The gist of the MRV is that if you can’t measure and justify a project, it’s out.

MRV is a concept of fund providers. As it happens, there's a pushback from those eligible to get adaptation funding. Their catchphrase of the moment is ‘new and additional’ — referring to funding above and beyond your average overseas development aid. This is a major fracture point because Annex I (industrialised) parties to the climate change convention don’t want to accede to it. This reluctance is a reflection of certain financial realities, but is essentially down to the ‘polluter pays’ aspect of the concept.

It's a singular kind of wordplay. But in the sluggish and periodically Kafkaesque world of international talking shops, this kind of narrative drive can keep the story unfolding towards what might be, given the needed serendipity, happy endings.


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