Building effective coalitions for action in international development

The halving of extreme poverty and child mortality are just two examples of the enormous development progress seen over the past decades. For the first time in human history we have the knowledge, tools, and resources to get the job done. It is just a matter of mobilizing the political will and making it happen.

The goal of completely eradicating poverty and hunger by 2030 and a new set of sustainable development goals will be agreed at the United Nations in New York later this month. The latest OECD Development Cooperation Report explores how coalitions for action can deliver sustainable energy for all, more trade, better education, less deforestation, green agriculture, and global vaccine access. Such coalitions add to what states or the traditional global system can do.

As Norway’s minister for environment and development, I was involved in setting up a global rainforests coalition that became the United Nations collaborative initiative on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) aimed at reducing deforestation. Drawing on my own experiences and the key recommendations in the report, it’s possible to identify a number of key factors for building effective coalitions for action:

Have strong leadership. All great development success stories have happened because someone had a goal and pulled people together to get it done. Brazil has reduced deforestation by 80 percent because President Lula decided this was a good thing to do and strong ministers like Marina Silva and Isabella Teixeira were able to get the job done. I was present when Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told his government and the entire Jakarta business community that he had promised his grandchild he would be the Indonesian president who would put a stop to deforestation. National leaders were initially the main driving force behind the global efforts to stop deforestation. But corporate leaders are now some of the strongest voices for zero deforestation. Global companies like Unilever, Nestlé, McDonalds, and enormous agricultural companies like Wilmar, April, Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, have now committed to eliminating deforestation from their entire supply chain by 2020. Over the past year and a half, the share of global trade in palm oil covered by corporate zero deforestation commitments has grown from 5 percent to around 90 percent. Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund have been driving forces naming and shaming—and now naming and praising—the companies. Everything is possible when someone has a goal and leads coalitions for action!

Be country led and country specific. National governments are in the best position to know what their countries need. Business and NGOs are crucial, but governments must lead. The drivers of deforestation vary from one country to another. In the greater Amazon, clearing forest to make room for cattle ranching and soy production are among the main causes. In Malaysia and Indonesia, deforestation is mainly driven by palm oil production and logging, much of it illegal. A successful path must take into account the different circumstances and design effective incentives. Guyana, for example, has lots of rainforests, but a very low deforestation rate. Under the U.N. REDD structure, Guyana still receives payments for not cutting down forests, and to help keep it that way.

Apply the right type of action for the challenge. Actions must have legitimacy on the global level and be effective on the local level. The REDD project to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation began taking form as part of the U.N. climate negotiations. Reduced deforestation is the cheapest and fastest way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Conservation of forest is a central element of any future climate agreement. But responsible forest management will now be a sustainable development goal. Global legitimacy is important, but that does not mean we have to wait for everyone to agree. Brazil and Indonesia decided to go ahead, and Norway and others provided funding while some nations still hesitated. The willingness of some countries to just go ahead and do it is why the fight against deforestation is moving much faster than other aspects of the international climate negotiations.

Maintain a clear focus on results. We must measure success to know what we should be doing more of. And we must measure failures to avoid repeating mistakes. Satellites and Google maps now make it possible to monitor a single tree and measure deforestation in real time. Forest countries only qualify for REDD results-based payments when they can verify reduced deforestation. Indonesia has established a system for monitoring and targeting forest fires, and is also making efforts to combat illegal logging and corruption of the forestry sector. Police, military, and government officials are among those arrested and prosecuted for illegal deforestation.

The OECD Development Cooperation Report shows how partnerships and coalitions for action can contribute to ending poverty and improve the environment of our beautiful planet. It offers many inspiring success stories and identifies success factors for partnership. UN REDD is just one. There are others that may be even more impressive in health, education, and many other sectors. But the most important lesson is about leadership. Leadership is the rarest natural resource on the planet, but it is also the most powerful. Everything is possible with leadership.

Erik Solheim will come to Brookings on September 9 to launch the 2015 Development Cooperation Report. Register to attend the event here.