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Rome-ing the Environment

Are environmental projects in China being restricted by grant stipulations in Western countries?

May 22, 2006

Are environmental projects in China being restricted by grant stipulations in Western countries?

All roads lead to Rome, as they say. To me, that seemed a rather unlikely path, considering that I work for a Chinese environmental grassroots organization based in Beijing. And yet, here I was, in Italy's capital for the kickoff meeting of a project under our institute's Energy and Climate Change program.

We are launching this project with European partners (and funding) to develop carbon-trading guidelines and training for Chinese industries. The aim is to mitigate global warming under the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanisms.

So there we were, my two colleagues and I, walking through the streets of Rome, chatting away in Chinese, snapping pictures as we went.

Much like Imperial China, the Roman Empire was known for its strongly centralized government and for massive public works, such as roads and aqueducts, which helped maintain its power and efficiency.

At its height, the Roman Empire spread from Great Britain to present-day Iran and included all the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.
Today, Rome appears to be one large patchwork museum — ancient ruins of a great municipality side-by-side with chic metal office buildings and bustling car-filled streets. The Pantheon right next to a MacDonald's — and Caesar's tomb next to a subway station.

We were a small group gathered for the project kick off — three of us from the Global Environmental Institute and a half dozen Clean Development Mechanism experts from France, Portugal and Italy.

We shook hands eagerly, optimistic about the good we were going to do for China, and confident that we had the funding and the know-how to make it happen. Just as all roads lead to Rome, we thought to ourselves, so too do carbon emissions reductions anywhere in the world lead to healthier economies and ecosystems for everyone.

But this coveted "rising tide" philosophy of resource allocation quickly ran into troubled waters. Upon closer inspection of the project budget, we discovered that — although the majority of project activities were the responsibility of the implementing organization (that is, us, in China) — the majority of the funding was allocated to the European experts.

That unwelcome finding actually left us short of the necessary budget to implement the project in the manner intended. There was some noise about European salaries being higher, about the cost of living being lower in China, but in the end, everyone agreed it wasn't fair. Under the grant stipulations, however, we weren't able to do anything about it.

How did such a gross oversight occur?, we asked ourselves. Some of us blamed the grant itself, for requiring us, little Chinese GEI, to have expensive European "expert" partners.

Others blamed GEI for signing the grant application despite the budget problems. Still others blamed the Europeans for highjacking the original budget outline.

As the main bilingual person at the meetings, I found myself caught in a storm of harsh judgments and rising frustration, dancing between two worlds — the Chinese and the European, East and West, worlds apart.

I had never felt so torn, torn apart by my current life in China and the European blood running through my veins, my ingrained European cultural roots.

The Chinese and the Romans had had empires that rose and fell, changing the world forever. Thousands of years of pride written on their faces, each solid, strong in their place in the world.

In the end, we simply agreed to move ahead, to work with what we had and make the best of the project as is. For when in Rome, you must do as the Romans do (especially if they are giving you money to do so).

And ultimately, the project is still backed with generous funding, a solid work-plan, and experienced people on both the European and Chinese sides who care deeply about the problem of global warming.

Having worked in China for eight months now, I have seen again and again how this allocation of resources from rich to poor through tightly managed grants affects the ability of people living in poor countries to actually do what we need to do to help ourselves.

Much of my job consists of rewording and reworking our project proposals in ways that will fit the development aid goals of the rich countries. And I often feel like throwing up my hands in frustration, turning to no one in particular and asking, "When we are not in Rome, why should we do as the Romans do?!"

Why must we first prove that our proposal addresses the UK's environmental objectives — before we can help Chinese government leaders learn about sustainable development?

Why must we first promise Kyoto Protocol methods — before we can make China's cement industry more efficient?

The Chinese and Roman empires have both fallen, but imperial instincts and practices can take the form of more than brute force and tax collection. Most wars have been either about trade or religion.

Come to think of it, religious wars tend to be about the imposition of a certain cosmology. That is, “We see the world this way — and if you want to stay in this world you'd better see it that way too.”

Today, as long as the developed world has the funding, the developing world will continue to be required to do as those fund donors stipulate, even when working on their own soil — and even when it means that most of the actual project funds are not brought to bear at the front lines.

But, you say, is it not a good thing that these projects be screened and held up to international standards? Yes, I believe it is. But if the Chinese are to be asked to fulfill the goals of their funders, then aid programs and international experts should also be required to look long and hard at their goals.

In the great push for "development," perhaps we can take a moment to step back and ask ourselves: Is it really in the interest of everyone for all roads to lead to Rome?