Manoeuvring in the ‘spaghetti bowl’ of climate funds

You have probably heard about the ‘spaghetti bowl’ phrase, description of a situation that is so entangled, that when seen from above, it looks like a bowl full of cooked spaghetti. But what does it have to do with climate finance? Or does it.

You have probably heard about the ‘spaghetti bowl’ phrase, description of a situation that is so entangled, that when seen from above, it looks like a bowl full of cooked spaghetti. But what does it have to do with climate finance? Or does it.

First, in the literal sense, if you have tried to eat spaghetti using a spoon, without a fork, you will know how tough it is to pick it from the plate. You dip in the spoon, pick up few strands, but before getting the spoon to your mouth, the spaghetti slides off back into the bowl. It is the same thing that happens while eating Okra, a delicacy slippery sauce enjoyed by many people in Western Africa.

But there is another way to look at the spaghetti bowl. It is very difficult picking one strand of spaghetti from a bowl. It will tend to come along with others, and hard to sort out. It essentially becomes like filling a complex puzzle or sorting out a crossword, with a lot of maze.

When Professor Jagdish Bhagwati, an economist at Columbia University, first used the term `spaghetti bowl’ in 1995, his focus was on the challenges countries face managing international trade in an environment with a  proliferation of so many regional trading blocs and Free Trade Agreements. His view was that this multiplicity creates a conflict of loyalties and that it is difficult for counties to play to the rules in all the FTAs they held membership without contradiction.

By introducing discriminatory treatment into the trading system, notes Bhagwati, the movement toward preferential trade agreements sacrifices economic efficiency.

Instead of having one common multilateral system, we now have a bewildering array of complex and overlapping bilateral and regional agreements, each with conflicting and contradictory provisions regarding trade in goods and services.

Mr. Bhagwati, says these agreements create a tangled mess of restrictions and regulations, ultimately disrupting rather than promoting free trade. For climate change, the intertwined spaghetti example was a point of discussion when representatives from Commonwealth countries most prone to climate change met at Wiston House in Sussex, UK from 23 to 25 January 2011, to discuss ways of better accessing the cash—Climate Finance, as the money is called in environmentalists jargon-- that was promised by donors to help them deal with the effects of changing weather conditions.

The participants were drawn from ministries of finance, planning, natural resources and economic development—from Africa, Pacific, Caribbean and Asia, as well as donor and regional agencies with interest in environment and climate change.

At the UN Climate Change meetings in Copenhagen in 2009, and in Cancun in 2010, the international community agreed to mobilise billions of dollars to give to the most vulnerable countries, such as small island states, low lying coastal regions and some African countries so they can prevent their homes, coasts, and livelihoods from disappearing and destruction due to floods, and rising sea level, what is commonly known as mitigation; and to adopt, where the situation has already gotten worse.

The point was that in the past, funds that have been promised by the international community to assist developing countries to deal with other challenges have been too complex, spread in so many organisations and mired in so much bureaucracy and controversy that accessing and using them has often been equated to the proverbial spaghetti in a bowl.

A presenter from UN Development Programme showed a perfect example of what a spaghetti bowl of funding by the international community looks like. He showed a slide of the multitude of different funds available to poor countries to deal with malaria: and it looked, you guessed right, like intertwined, interconnected and entangled spaghetti in a bowl. But that would not be a problem in itself.

The problem is that each of these funds has a different set of rules, regulations, terms and conditions which countries have to fulfil before they are granted access.

The rules apply to the process for application, accountability, monitoring and evaluation. And that the limited number officials in ministries in these poor countries spend huge amounts of their time and energy filling complex forms—and putting together plans, what in the technical language are called, National Adaptation Plans of Action, or NAPAs-- instead of getting down to work.

So, the point was that they hoped that climate finance money would not go down the route of spaghetti bowls. That they would be easy mechanisms to access them, with less complexities. Already, there were indications that the bowl syndrome might come up.

And Commonwealth deputy Secretary-General, Ransford Smith couldn’t  have put it better: Speaking at the opening of the meeting, he said: “  “Although there is some $2 billion of climate finance available to developing countries, only around $400 million has been disbursed according to a study by the Overseas Development Institute. We see this low level of disbursement and absorption as indicative of a potential capacity challenge to the recipient countries.”

At the Sussex meeting, the blockages that currently prevent climate finance from flowing quickly and effectively to the Commonwealth’s poorest and most vulnerable members were explored, with a view to overcoming them.

“Mechanisms are needed to attract climate financing to the neediest countries in an effective manner. This means paying great attention to the many lessons learned from the decades of experience with development. Specifically, developing countries must be in the driving seat, using these funds for national priorities and complex and fragmented sources of financing must be avoided so that countries with limited institutional resources can still access them easily,” Mr Smith added.

Some of the people that attended the Sussex meeting complained that when they make funding requests to donor agencies, they are turned away without even the courtesy of providing feedback on what is wrong.

But here was the irony: representatives of funding agencies in the room complained that they had millions of unspent cash. Clearly, there is a problem. A problem of ensuring the meeting of the minds--of creating understanding between those who have the money and those looking for the cash.

However, there was a point that needed to be emphasised. That money meant for climate finance must be used in a prudent manner, accounted for fully to ensure that the value accruing from it goes to the main objects and subjects at the frontline of climate change.

This is how the concluding statement from the meeting put it: They recognised that climate finance spending should be incorporated in national budgets and be subject to the full rigours of national accountability and effective public expenditure management.”  The hope was that by doing all the above, the spaghetti bowl situation would be avoided.

Julius Mucunguzi is an assistant spokesperson for Africa at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London.


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