Financing climate action in the Pacific: Why we need to move past solutions based exclusively on views from the top

Effective climate change action needs a lot of money. However, in the Pacific it is not just about delivering dollars. Kirsty Anantharajah gives us three key problems with global climate financing approaches, and offers three possible pathways out.  

In his 1993 essay,Our Sea of Islands, Epeli Hau‘Ofa explores the influence of ‘academics and consultancy experts’ in deciding the present and future of Pacific Island states. This influence, he asserts, has historically drawn Pacific Islands Countries into conditions of disempowerment and dependence, due in part to a tendency of such actors to ‘overlook  or misinterpret grassroots activities because they do not fit with prevailing views about the nature  of society and its development.’   This critique of views ‘from the top’ remains vitally important today as Pacific governments (alongside a host of development partners, consultants and academics) develop responses to the existential threat that climate change presents to the region.  

Financing is a key component of climate change action. For one, the financing need is huge: meeting national emissions reduction targets in the energy sector in Fiji alone, for example, calls for approximately US$ 2.97 billion between 2017–2030.  Financing climate change adaptation and mitigation in Pacific Island Countries requires the participation of a wide range of high-level international public and private stakeholders including international organisations, bilateral aid partners, multilateral financial institutions, institutional investors and commercial banks. Yet, where views from the top have not been grounded in a local context, subsequent responses have yielded mixed results.

Three problems with ‘top-down’ approaches to climate financing 

1.    Some high-level climate financing solutions have been poorly adapted to Pacific Island Countries

A key example of this shortcoming is the experience of PSIDS in accessing finance from the Green Climate Fund, which was set up to support small developing nations in responding to climate change. Nevertheless Pacific Island Countries have experienced incredible difficulty accessing these funds because the accreditation process is too burdensome. As noted by former president of Kiribati, Anote Tong “It’s a paradox…We need [the funds] the most but we don’t have the capacity to get it because we’re not accredited.” A deeper understanding of the Pacific context including, for example, the limits in bureaucratic capacity in some PSIDS to complete the strenuous accreditation arguably might have mitigated some of this exclusion. 

2.    A high-level focus on mobilising finance has overshadowed the more national and local issues of absorbing climate finance and developing projects to invest in

Much of the high level discussion focuses on filling a financing gap, that is, mobilising climate finance. While this is a critical component of climate finance the equally important issues of: a) increasing the ease and capacity of states to spend and report on the finance; and b) the lack of local climate related projects to invest in, are often overlooked. The end goal of actual climate related outcomes rest heavily on these two under-explored national and local challenges.

3.    Top down projects are often not well coordinated

Overlapping of reports and projects in the Pacific is common, partially due the donor community failing to collaborate and coordinate amongst themselves. Such repetition represents a waste of already insufficient climate funds. This dysfunction could potentially be mitigated in part by increased deference to local agencies and regional organisation to set priorities and coordinate responses. 

Photo by  Jon Tyson  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Three ideas on how those of us involved in Pacific Island climate financing do better

  1. Build and design policy advice with the PSIDS context as a starting point, as opposed to applying models developed elsewhere.

  2. Reach out, collaborate and coordinate with others in the field.

  3. Perhaps most importantly, defer to the priorities of local agencies and organisations: as Hau‘Ofa’s essay goes on to celebrate, empowerment has a transformative power in the Pacific. In the context of the region’s battle with the leviathan opponent of climate change, it has never been more important for us to center our intentions around empowerment.