Excitement shone out of the stream of emails flowing through Rome headquarters late on Thursday. IDLO, it turned out, had just been picked by the UN to lead a new project: ensuring that signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity can meet their commitments.
As the body of international law on sustainable development keeps growing, so does IDLO’s remit. Where it once narrowly targeted justice departments and court systems, the organization is now helping build up legal muscle across government ministries and policy-making.
“Lawyers in trade and natural resource ministries,” IDLO’s Marie-Claire Cordonier Segger explains, “are handed down tons of treaty obligations that their governments have signed up to. Implementing these is a complex, cross-cutting affair. They have little specialist support, and often feel abandoned.”
Ms Cordonier Segger’s job title is Head of Economy and Trade at IDLO; part of her mission is to stimulate the creation of a green economy. If the premise is simple — in most countries, the ‘brown economy’ is hardwired into the legal set-up —, the solutions are not.
Subsidies for fossil fuels are arguably the biggest hurdle on the path to clean growth. Yet removing these subsidies is politically fraught. Done abruptly, it may antagonize those it was most designed to benefit: the poor. January’s fuel protests in Nigeria suggest that football aside, the one rallying point for the nation’s divided polity is the defense of cheap petrol. In Indonesia and elsewhere, similar protests have erupted in recent years.
IDLO concedes that dirty fuel subsidies are too big a beast to tackle overnight. What does work in the shorter term, the organization argues, is to replicate successful local schemes globally, in an ever-expanding quilt of good practise. This means that on the green economy front too, IDLO is now drawing on its expertise to tell Kenya what Mexico has done well, or vice versa. The instances are countless, and often exportable. In parts of Vietnam, carbon credit schemes now reward residents for maintaining mangroves. The policy is seen as crucial if the country is to mitigate the risk of crippling floods.
The Vietnamese model — paying people to preserve the ecosystem, rather than chop down trees — is typical of the global reversal of economic incentives and disincentives advocated by Ms Cordonier Segger. Much of this rebalancing, she says, can be achieved through less heavy-handed taxation — by providing credits for clean energy such as solar power, for example, instead of subjecting it to punitive levies.
An inter-governmental organisation IDLO may be, but the ethos of an NGO occasionally lurks beneath. In conversations with its staff, global issues often give way to site-specific stories, empathetically told. Yolanda Saito’s background lies in human rights law: she stresses that the green economy’s success hangs on embracing local interests and concerns. Both she and Ms Cordonier Segger speak of training indigenous mediators in Guatemala to ensure fair access to resources. They passionately bring up the case of the impoverished Andean community of Ambrosio Lazo, in Ecuador: for its people, something as vital as selling a pig involves an arduous six-day walk. Here, access to fair trade markets and carbon trading rights are nothing short of a lifeline.
Neither Ms Cordonier Segger, nor Ms Saito will deny that the green economy is a recent area of interest for IDLO: it may take time for different projects to gel under an overarching conceptual umbrella. But there is an exploratory fizz to the notion, and the generous reach of brave new ideas.