1989 Interview with Chris Patten: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Shaping Environmental Policy: Conversation with Christopher Patten, Sec. of State for the Environment, Great Britain; 8/10/89 by Harry Kreisler

Photo by Nanou Matteson

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Joining the British Cabinet

Your most recent job was as Secretary for Overseas Development. Explain what was involved in that role.

Our Foreign Office is divided into two wings: the diplomatic wing and the aid wing. I was the minister responsible to our Foreign Secretary for the overseas development aid wing. I had a small, semi-independent department employing 1400 to 1500 people, including a very good scientific unit. We had a budget of about 1.5 billion pounds. We're the fifth or sixth largest aid donor in the world, and we covered both the multilateral contributions made by Britain for aid purposes, contributions to the Bretton Woods Institutions, the Regional Development Banks, the European Community, the UN agencies; and we also covered the 60 percent of our program which goes on bilateral assistance to sub-Saharan Africa, Southern Asia, the Caribbean, plus smaller programs elsewhere. So it was a fascinating job. My Canadian colleague, Maggie Cathy Carlson, who has been the president of the Canadian Development Agency for some time, used to say that on a bad day, she thought she had the best job in Canada, on a good day, she thought she had the best job in the world. And that was very much my own feeling too. It was a marvelously interesting job, though it could be a pretty harrowing one as well.

And it was a small department, relative to the one you've now taken over?

Yes, it was. It was pretty small, small enough for one to become very familiar with at least the senior and middle-ranking officials in the department. And small enough to produce a real sense of team spirit, I think. It's a very effective department, it recruits very well in the public sector. A lot of graduates put it down as their first choice when they come to join the Civil Service. And I think we've established a reputation over the years as having one of the highest quality aid programs run by anybody.

In the closing months of your role as the holder of that portfolio, you negotiated an agreement with Brazil which has received a lot of favorable press from the Times and from The Economist. Tell us what that negotiation was about and why it was so pivotal for the role you've now undertaken, or related to the projects you now have to deal with.

I'd like to answer that question by taking a step backward for a moment. I'd always been extremely concerned about the relationship between aid and development and environmental imperatives. And we had been trying to ensure, for some time before, from the time I'd become minister about three years ago, that our own aid program was environmentally friendly. Now there are two particular things you have to do in order to ensure that that happens. The first is to build a sense of environmental consciousness into all that you do. Typically, we've applied cost-benefit analyses, and so on, to aid projects and haven't built into the system, from the word "go," awareness of environmental impact. So there was first of all that managerial job to accomplish.

Secondly, we obviously wanted to ensure that our individual projects helped conserve, and preserve, and improve the environment. And that meant getting involved far more in areas like tropical forestry, to take one example. And it's an area where we have a particularly substantial amount of expertise in the United Kingdom because of the breadth of our colonial past. The Oxford Forestry Institute used to be called the Imperial Forestry Institute until a few years ago. That's now been painted over above the door. So that was the background.

We had started to look for individual areas where we needed to do more as an aid donor without overlooking the fact that in most developing countries it's poverty itself which is the most toxic element in the environment, rather than, as is the case in the North, an unthinking affluence and industrialization. Industrialization has an impact in the South of the globe as well, but poverty is the main problem. I feel very strongly that whatever we do, we shouldn't think -- a point made very strongly by the Brundtland Report -- that we can help developing countries by abandoning economic growth. What we want is economic growth which is sustainable. I believe that in order to bring developing countries along with us in the richer part of the world, it's not adequate or appropriate to hector them or lecture them or bully them. We have to have a relationship which is based on equality of respect, and we have to bring developing countries along with us. Now that brings us to the particular case of Brazil.

A lot of concern has been expressed about the destruction of the Amazonian rain forest, and that concern is wholly understandable. About 60 percent of the total of tropical rain forest left in the world is in the Amazon. The Amazon itself is an almost unique hydrological resource. It obviously has a tremendous impact on the local climate. There is the whole question of genetic diversity with, as you know, many of the plants in the Amazon being used for medicinal purposes. They say that for a whole range of reasons, including carbon fixation which, given the amount of CO2 we push into the atmosphere in the developed world, we're particularly concerned about. A whole range of reasons why one needed to find ways in which one could assist Brazil to manage its forest sustainably. We began discussions with Brazil about how we could provide technical cooperation and assistance to them in the Amazon. They said they had other environmental priorities as well, for example, the provision of cleaner water in some of their urban areas. So we had groups of their experts coming to Britain. I went to Brazil in the wake of a visit by some of our experts, and we found a menu of projects to help them with: sustainable forestry management, providing an inventory for the genetic resources of the Amazon, work on the relationship between forest and climate, and work as well on some of the urban problems of Saõ Paulo, as well as general training. I don't think that that agreement that we've signed with Brazil is going to "save the Amazon." I think though that it's a useful step in the right direction, and provides a model for the way in which developed and developing countries are going to have to cooperate on the basis, I repeat, of equality of respect, rather than us in the developed world thinking that it's either right or helpful for us to try to lean on developing countries.

Do you think that a middle-rank power like your country is better positioned to achieve such a result than, say, a superpower or a multilateral set of negotiations?

I don't necessarily think so. I think whether one's a superpower or a smaller power like us, you're unlikely to be able to carry conviction and earn support in a poorer country. Especially if you lecture them in a way which will occasionally seem to them to be tiresome, a threat to their sovereignty, and, dare I say, hypocritical. The Brazilians were much concerned about two or three things which had happened recently. They were concerned by the expression, including by some leading European politicians, to the effect that the Amazon should be internationalized. They thought that that was a direct attack on their sovereignty. They were concerned that they'd had lectures, for example, from very well-meaning American politicians about the survival of indigenous peoples and indigenous tribes. And they took the view, on balance, that if they were to get lectures on the survival of tribes from anyone, maybe American politicians weren't first in the queue. They also noticed what's happening to some of the rain forest which is still in the United States -- in Alaska, were there's a good deal of encouragement, in their view, of commercial logging. So they took with a pinch of salt strong words from Americans on that subject too. I don't mean to isolate the United States in that sense.

I think we are all guilty, occasionally, of grandstanding on environmental issues -- grandstanding in a way which may gain us lots of brownie points with the domestic audience but makes it more difficult for us to set up the sort of arrangements and the cooperation with poorer countries which are essential if we're to tackle global environmental problems successfully. I think -- it's a point which I've argued frequently, and I think when I first argued it, people thought I was rather eccentric to do so -- that the environment is going to dominate the international agenda in the same sort of way that disarmament has for the last 30 or 40 years. But it's going to be more difficult to deal with environmental issues because so many more countries are involved. One's going to be constantly trying to mobilize consent across quite a broad front. Look at what's going to happen when we start tackling questions of energy efficiency with large poorer countries like India and China. It's going to be very difficult, very delicate work.

And the problem there is that, in a way, we're asking them to forego the route that we have taken to industrialization without offering the kind of aid or support that might make that possible. Is that the crux of the problem, that it's almost an effort on our part, they may perceive, to deny them the status that they could acquire through their own industrialization?

That's certainly how a lot of them see it. I think that there are two problems. First of all, many of them definitely see the developed world saying to them, "Okay, we've enjoyed economic growth this way, but we're terribly sorry, you can't. We'd like to defend your inalienable right to be poor." Secondly, and I think it's also of some relevance, they're very concerned about what they see as our contribution to environmental problems. Undoubtedly, at the moment, the major cause of CO2 emission is what happens in developed countries. So they're inclined to say, "You sort out your problems and then when we're doing anything as badly as you are, we'll try to sort out ours too." That's not a remotely adequate response for them to make, but it's understandable that they should occasionally see things in that way.

Next page: Placing Envrionment on the Agenda

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