From basket case to test case
In 2015, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina received the United Nations Champion of the Earth award for her “outstanding leadership on the front-line of climate change.”
While Bangladesh is well-known for the natural calamities that regularly leave millions of people homeless and displaced, far fewer know that it is also one of the most proactive countries in the fields of disaster risk reduction (DRR) and climate adaptation, as well as a leading voice among the poorest countries in climate negotiations.
Being at the same time very vulnerable and very adaptable appears to be paradoxical, but if Bangladesh — despite its limited state capacities — is a model for the rest of us to follow on adaptation and DRR, it is precisely because it is one of the most disaster-prone countries.
Derided by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as a “basket case” after independence in 1971, Bangladesh has since proven itself to be, on the contrary, a “test case” — a fertile ground for innovation and experimentation in the field of climate adaptation.
First mover advantage
The concept of “weak power” describes the capacity of a weak actor to transform its vulnerability into a comparative advantage. In climate negotiations, “weak power” is exercised through different resources, strategies, and forms of leadership to negotiate with stronger parties and still get something.
Bangladesh’s weak power comes from its proactive steps to develop forward-looking policy initiatives and to make climate change a national priority issue.
In paving the way for an ambitious national climate change adaptation policy, Bangladesh has become a model to follow for other vulnerable countries. It has thus gained a “first-mover advantage” in the international climate change arena, in the form of greater international visibility and authority.
Bangladesh’s government was the first, with Mauritania, to submit its National Adaptation Program of Action (NAPA) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2005.
Held up as an example of best practice, it suggests a comprehensive approach to adaptation that is aligned with the country’s DRR and development policies.
More significantly, Bangladesh is also praised for its progressive Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan, which was released in 2009, making it the first least developed country (LDC) to frame such a coordinated action plan. Bangladesh was also the first LDC to establish a national climate fund to finance climate action with its own resources.
The Bangladesh test case shows us that we should not confine such countries to the role of innocent victim, but instead learn from them
As one of the countries that is most vulnerable to climate change but that contributes the least to greenhouse gas emissions, Bangladesh is often viewed as an innocent victim.
This “moral leadership” gives Bangladesh weak power; the most vulnerable countries can use it to put pressure on industrialised countries to consider their special needs and vulnerabilities and to legitimise their claims for finance and technology transfers.
Bangladesh has played an essential role in putting contentious issues, such as climate migration and loss and damage, on the agenda at each of the UNFCCC Conference of Parties, by recounting its exposure to natural hazards, demographic density, prominent level of poverty, and limited institutional capacity.
A southern hub
As Saleemul Huq, a leading adaptation specialist and member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), says: “One of the peculiar features of adaptation as a science is that the rich have no advantage. If anything, the poor have a comparative advantage because we are sitting with the problem, we are having to face it.”
Indeed, Bangladesh has garnered renewed attention from international donors and experts in the face of climate change.
Placed under the spotlight, the country has drawn foreign scientists to analyse the already observable impacts of global warming and to develop pilot research projects and new methodologies.
Its vulnerability is thus an asset for Bangladesh’s leadership in scientific studies of climate adaptation. By far, Bangladesh has contributed the most to the IPCC reports of any developing country
Even more remarkably, Bangladesh has developed its own “southern expertise” thanks to a small group of national scientists who have been working since the 1990s on environmental issues.
By promoting a bottom-up and participatory approach to adaptation, as well as a “learning by doing” process, these experts contribute deeply to the country’s scientific recognition. They are also very influential in the decision-making process, helping the government to design its climate change policy and diplomatic position within UNFCCC.
Weak alone, strong together
A key component of “weak power” is the ability to share resources to exercise influence in climate negotiations. Developing countries suffer a kind of disenfranchisement in global arenas; they are constrained in their capacity to participate in decision-making processes and influence policy outcomes, due to tiny delegations, lack of expertise, and, in some cases, linguistic problems, as well as the absence of clear positions or mandates.
Thus, building coalitions is a key strategy for low-power parties, which can organise themselves to join forces and defend a common position. Like all other developing countries, Bangladesh is a member of the G77+China group, the main negotiating block within the UNFCCC.
However, because the specific concerns of LDCs were not adequately reflected in the wider G77+China group, which is dominated by China and India’s interests, Bangladesh has played a significant role in creating other organised political groupings, such as the LDC Group and the Climate Vulnerable Forum.
Making use of external sources of power — such as logistical and scientific support from NGOs and experts, as well as their collective moral power — these groups shaped the climate negotiations to a remarkable degree, much more than the initial power distribution indicated.
The LDC group successfully put the issue of loss and damage on the agenda, despite the reluctance of developed countries. A successful campaign led by the Climate Vulnerable Forum and the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) prior to and during COP21 led to the recognition of the safe threshold of 1.5C in the Paris Agreement.
The notion of “weak power” brings a new framework for understanding strategies and resources available for the most vulnerable and poorest countries to influence climate negotiations. Of course, this power remains “weak” — it does not reverse the asymmetrical nature of multilateral negotiations — but it allows us to understand how weaker parties can obtain some benefits from stronger parties, and several factors can reduce its scope, including political instability, lack of political commitment and leadership, and poor governance.
But this concept still helps us revisit the role of these countries, which are too often marginalised and neglected in the international realm.
Although poorest countries often lack sufficient power to effectively influence negotiation outcomes — largely resulting from the bargaining between stronger parties — they can still influence the negotiations process and help set the agenda.
The Bangladesh test case shows us that we should not confine such countries to the role of innocent victim, but instead learn from them how to develop appropriate adaptation measures, mitigate disaster risks, and to use all the powers we have — however weak — to address the challenge of climate change.
Alice Baillat is a research fellow at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS) in Paris, France. This article first appeared on newsecuritybeat.org.