Q&A With Tosi Mpanu-Mpanu, Face of World's Poor Countries, on Climate Change

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For climate change negotiators, Tosi Mpanu-Mpanu is the new face of the world's poorest countries. In January, Mpanu-Mpanu, a 42-year-old diplomat, was named as chairman of the LDC Group—the acronym stands for least developed countries—an umbrella organization of 48 underdeveloped nations, mostly in central Africa and Southeast Asia. They work together at the intergovernmental negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Some of these nations are among countries that suffer most from the impacts of climate change. And because their economies are among the least developed, they contribute relatively little to the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that cause climate change. They also have limited resources, so it can be difficult for their voices to be heard in a process dominated by rich industrialized countries.

Mpanu-Mpanu was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and educated in his native country, as well as in France and the U.S. He spoke to Bloomberg BNA's Eric J. Lyman on the sidelines of the UN's May 16–26 Bonn Climate Change Conference about the group's priorities, why climate change is such a pressing problems for LDCs and how aid from developed countries can be improved.

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Bloomberg BNA:

What are the some of the areas of emphasis for the LDC group here in Bonn?

Tosi Mpanu-Mpanu:

We have to avoid an agenda fight and adopt rulebook that has fidelity to the mandate we received in Paris [at December's climate summit in the French capital]. That means it should not focus only on mitigation efforts and on transparency issues and rules about compliance. We need a work plan that can spur more ambition from countries.

Bloomberg BNA:

If the talks here focus too much on the procedural issues you mentioned, what are some of the issues you fear could be left behind?

Mpanu-Mpanu:

We need a holistic approach. For example, there's a lot of talk about transparency. But it should not be limited to transparency of action, but also in regard to transparency of finance, of support. It's important to develop the capacity in poor countries like LDCs because without this they will not be able to comply with the rules.

Bloomberg BNA:

Can you give me a concrete example?

Mpanu-Mpanu:

When I talk to representatives from industrialized countries, I sometimes hear something like, “We just spent $10 million in your country.” But the impact of that spending is really only $1 million. Where did the other $9 million go? Well, maybe some of it is what we call “creative accounting,” but a lot of the difference is from unwise spending.

For example, they buy SUVs and computers in their home country and bring them down. The poor country benefits from the use of those things, but the economic impact is in the home country. Or look at consultants. The donor country flies them in, they do their work and they fly them out. The money has been spent, but no capacity has been created. They should instead spend the money to train and hire local people. Otherwise, what is left behind? It is like building a castle on the sand. It's just a matter of time until the work done disappears.

Bloomberg BNA:

How much of the problem can be solved by simply convincing rich countries to be more generous, to write a bigger check and to let the local communities decide how it should be used?

Mpanu-Mpanu:

That would have a very limited impact. Some people suggest this kind of policy and it shows a fundamental lack of familiarity with the problem. If you take a bigger check to a tribal leader and there is no capacity, what will happen? I will tell you. He will marry a second wife because he will be able to afford it. The key is capacity building.

Bloomberg BNA:

How much of the problem comes from well-intentioned policies that lack the context to understand the problems they seek to fix?

Mpanu-Mpanu:

I think a lot of times countries want to make us happy without having us involved. They should come to us, listen and then act together. All countries say they want to help the poorest nations, but there is no follow-through.

In my country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the coastline is only 23 kilometers [15 miles] long and it's impossible to build a house there because it will wash away within a few years. There are more than 70 million Congolese and only 9 percent have access to electricity. The biggest source of emissions is not industry or mining or transport—it's deforestation. But you have a weak state that cannot protect the forests from illegal logging and development.

Because of the changing climate, we are facing diseases we never saw before. More then 50 percent of the people in LDCs work in agriculture and that means their entire livelihood could be wiped away in a single season if the weather is bad. And that forces them to go into negative coping mechanisms: taking kids out of school, selling assets, getting loans and so on.

Did you know that when there's a flood, women die more often than men? The reasons are because they don't know how to climb a tree, or to swim, because those are seen as masculine pursuits.

The problems are complex. It's like a Russian nesting doll; every time you think you solve a problem you look and there's another problem inside.

Bloomberg BNA:

What are some of the things that can be done to rectify these problems?

Mpanu-Mpanu:

Educating women is key. We should raise awareness of the problems. We need early-warning systems for the farmers. We need infrastructure.

Farmers are puzzled by climate change because they know, for example, that the rainy season should start on a certain date and that rarely happens now. It's important to help them understand there's a scientific basis for this. It's not their ancestors trying to curse them. But all these things cost money and they also require know-how.