The Mint: Good morning, Yoke Ling and thank you very much for giving The Mint Magazine some of your time.
Chee Yoke Ling: Likewise, Henry. I’m very excited to have this discussion with you today.
The Mint: Brilliant. Well I thought I might start just by asking you to give an overview of what the Third World Network, TWN does.
Chee Yoke Ling: Third World Network is based in Malaysia. It was started by Malaysian activists, thinkers, back in the mid eighties, one of whom is Martin Khor and the other one is S.M. Mohamed Idris. And these two persons came from working at the community and national policy level in Malaysia, but realised very much in the late seventies even, that when we want to change policy and move developing countries towards a sustainable path of development, that it’s not enough to just work at the local level. There are many forces at the international level. Globalisation was really on the rise in the eighties and felt that we needed an organisation from the south that would look at issues from a global perspective, but really at how it impacts on us at the local level. So that’s really the background for why Third World Network was set up, to really engage at the international level.
The Mint: So you support governments a lot to be more effective. Is that right?
Chee Yoke Ling: In terms of the content of what we do, like I said, sustainability, ecological sustainability, human rights, a fair and just international system on the economic front, trade, investment, finance, debt, issues like this. So our scope of issues is rather wide because of the interconnectivity of all these different themes. Then what we do is we do a lot of research. We monitor what’s happening globally and of course within the countries in the south, we have a lot of partners. So we produce a lot of analysis and publications and briefings and we target our policy makers at the national level. We also work with negotiators from developing countries at the UN or the WT. The welfare organisation, for example. And we also take the same information in a different form, dual public outreach work, with not just civil society groups, but also academics, researchers, the media. So we really have a very broad outreach in terms of, we’re now wanting these issues to be discussed and to get more people involved.
The Mint: And what would you say are the big challenges that policymakers, governments in the Global South face, when engaging with the international policy process?
Chee Yoke Ling: I would say this came from also the personal experiences of myself and my mentors and the founders of the whole network, that most of us and many of our partners across the developing world, we started off really working at the national level. We wanted policy change, we wanted the laws to be better, we wanted them to be implemented. But when we went into the UN and I would say, the first big impact that was made upon us in the developing countries, as civil society groups of why we need to engage, and were also with our governments, was really, if you remember the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil, which was the big conference on Environment and Development, there was a maybe two to three year preparatory process started in 1989 until 1992.
Chee Yoke Ling: And there we went and we saw that many of our negotiators from developing countries didn’t have enough research support. They were working really with less capacity than we had realised. And that was a turning point I think for us in the network that we need to actually have to build the capacity also of our government representatives and policy makers to do a better job at the international level.
The Mint: So that was research. What you also mentioned, that you work with negotiators. Do you also look at… Because there’s a whole complex processes and there must be tactics and strategy and all these sort of elements.
Chee Yoke Ling: Well I think first of all, the international system in the UN or the World Trade Organisation or IMF or World Bank, these are institutions that Global Policy is being met. The state is the legal entity. So it took a while and of course there was a concept of observers, who are from non-governmental sectors, even in the United Nations, way before. But the rules were very, very rigid. And to qualify, to be actually accredited, for example, to the United Nations processes, you have to be registered, you have to have how many members to show the international nature. So it meant that many, many, even North-South networks, which is the real formation we’ve had since the eighties, won’t qualify, and for developing countries, civil society groups, we were mostly national and so they wouldn’t qualify.
Chee Yoke Ling: So what really shifted was when the United Nations had that big conference on environment and development that landed up with the 1992 Summit. There the rules of procedure was opened up and there was a conscious effort with all the governments in the UN, agreeing that we will open up to increase the civil society, indigenous peoples communities to open up the doors and to have a system of accreditation. I think that really made a difference. So we then had to learn the rules. It’s not just attending a meeting. If you want to really make an impact, you have to learn how the UN works. What is this document and that document, Why is it called an L document and when is it a text and what is a bracket?
The Mint: Non-paper as well.
Chee Yoke Ling: Non-paper or zero draught. So you yourself, Henry, you were a negotiator and I’m sure you would have the same challenges as us in terms of getting in there and knowing. And there’s no systematic way of teaching people that. Not in those days in the eighties or even the nineties. And also, even if I had a manual that tells me what a non-paper is or what a bracket means and things like that, or the different groups that would meet and the different levels of formality, informality and what is legally adopted and why Shell is more important than me, things like that, in an obligation text. So you could actually give some kind of a guide, but in the end, the only effective learning is to be working on the job, to follow somebody, to learn the ropes, to listen and to listen and to listen and to be in the room and to talk to the negotiators.
Chee Yoke Ling: So I think that really was the explosion in the nineties to the two thousands. And for many groups in the south, we are so absorbed in our work at the local level, national level. And it’s not cheap to be participating in this process so it’s a challenge of finance, in terms of resources, getting the right people to learn, to do the international work. And also that means taking that same person away from national and local work to put more time into international work.
Chee Yoke Ling: And so these are choices and dynamics because we in Third World Network believe very strongly, our reason for getting involved in the international level is because if the wrong policies or wrong treaties are in place, it is going to impact so much on our people, on the environment and on our choice of what we can and cannot do in the future as a country. So we want to engage to not have bad things coming in or the good results from the negotiations, how do we make sure they get implemented at the national level? So to do all that requires a lot of dedication of resources. And I don’t mean just finance, but human resources. So those are choices which are very difficult to make for many groups, which are quite small, to do international work.
The Mint: Over the time since the nineties when TWN got going, do you think the Global South has become more effective at getting its voice heard or are the waves, is it about the political economy changing?
Chee Yoke Ling: Well, it’s all those factors. Of course for the South, in terms of the organising of the members of the United Nations, we have the group of 77, which is China. That’s the grouping that when they come together on common positions, they can make an impact. You’ve seen it yourself, because then you have more than 130 countries. I say, this is what we want, this is our analysis. So the starting point is a broader collective and they do represent the majority of the world’s population. Now we can argue, “Do they really represent your people in your country?” But this is where our engagement in civil society comes in because all of us, whether it’s in Australia, in Canada, or in Malaysia or wherever, we ultimately also want to hold ourselves accountable and our government representatives accountable to us. So that’s an ongoing process.
Chee Yoke Ling: But we in TWN have worked with many, many countries in terms of negotiators. We find that when we can work together, trust each other… But that has changed over the years too because of course in the end, different countries have different priorities. The EU has 27 member states, the G-77 there’s more than 120. Some are small, some are big. And building trust is so important, trust between us and our policy makers and negotiators so that what we do as our research outcomes can be, they will look at it. They don’t have to agree with us, but they can say, “Huh, that’s a perspective. That’s an option we didn’t think about.” At the same time, we also have to have trust South-South. And what I see from the personal perspective over these years, I think the North-South trust is almost zero.
Chee Yoke Ling: And I think what we find… As well society, we are calling out the hypocrisy, “Why would President Biden go to Glasgow to the climate meeting and talk about how we have done so much in the United States and you are not doing enough in India or China or what have you.” At the same time, on the way there, he was negotiating deals for fossil fuels because… So now we see because of the Ukraine war, Europe and Canada, everyone is actually talking about, “Winter is coming.” So the actions feels more and more and more. Things are not really changing. At the same time we land in this climate conference of the parties and you have the North being very self righteous. So the word hypocrisy is something that is coming out a lot.
The Mint: Again and again. So we are heading to COP 27, and one of the issues that seem to be more in the media this year than last year, is loss and damage. So the claims for compensation from the North, and obviously a particular incident with the floods in Pakistan and their climate minister has been very vocal. How do you see that playing out this year in COP 27?
Chee Yoke Ling: Well, I think first of all, if you recall the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, what we call the UNFCCC, when it was constructed and adopted in 1992, it really had two big pillars, mitigation and adaptation. One is to reduce emissions on global warming gases and the other one is to adapt. And most of it is been adaptation because the whole climate change is already in play. So what was very significant was that realising, as things paid out in the last 30 years, there is permanent loss and damage, there’s no more adaptation.
Chee Yoke Ling: And so that third pillar is actually legally part of the Paris Agreement that was negotiated and adopted under the UNFCCC. So the UNFCCC is a mother treaty, and underneath you now have the Paris Agreement, you had the Kyoto Protocol, which we don’t talk about anymore, unfortunately, and it didn’t happen accidentally. So the Paris Agreement has three pillars of action, which is really significant, mitigation, adaptation, loss, and damaged. Now the battle since the Paris Agreement was adopted, is implementing the loss and damage pillar, and of course loss and damage, because it’s about permanent or slow onset of permanent damage, there is this issue of compensation and reparations.
Chee Yoke Ling: And I think, first the Pakistan minister has said it. And just last week in the UN General Assembly, the prime minister of Barbados, Prime Minister Mottley, has also raised this. So just look at the statements that are coming out of the General Assembly Summit as we speak, from last week onwards, that reparations, loss and damage, the failure of the G20. Even the Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres, has made a very strong statement because we have multiple unprecedented crisis. So what will happen in Egypt for the next meeting of climate.
Chee Yoke Ling: So although we have that pillar in the Paris Agreement, there’s a process that has started already, but the implementation of the loss and damage pillar has been really slow and there’s been a strong pushback from, unfortunately, the OECD countries and so it’s just been dragging its feet. And meanwhile we see the real impact around the world and that’s why it’s become such a strong issue. It’s already in there. So it’s about implementation that we want to see, commitment to implementation to come out of the next meeting. Of course, composition reparations is a big taboo for the polluters.
The Mint: Well, yes. And could the G-77 be united on this, in calling for this, do you think?
Chee Yoke Ling: I think there’s a lot of discussion among the different groupings. Like I said, it’s a big group of countries and obviously the first line normally, and this was really very much a small island states, which were very loud on this, but in the end, the loss and damage pillar couldn’t have been there if there wasn’t a unity of the G-77, and I think that’s important to stress. And while we focus a lot on the vulnerability of islands, you look at what happened to Pakistan or stretches of the Indian coast. So in terms of the impact, it’s across the south. So we hope, and the discussions are going on right now because once you get implementation, then you have a lot of details you need to agree on. So we do hope that in Egypt, given what has been happening in the real world in terms of loss and damage, that we will have something that will move forward in terms of concrete implementation.
The Mint: And one thing of course, which is happening is what some people call a new Cold War. And obviously it’s combined with a hot war. And so some people suggested we’re almost moving to a war economy where there’s different sides and that people are organising their supply chains around where their friends are, who’s on side, resisting the expansion of China, obviously. How do you think those sorts of dynamics are going to play into COP 27?
Chee Yoke Ling: I think that, interestingly enough, the last two, three years of the COVID-19 pandemic has also woken up and made us think. In us, I mean, all of us, including those who are running countries, our political representatives and the leaders. The supply chain is vulnerable, so the more you integrate, you think is good, but I think the pandemic [inaudible 00:16:21], or even natural disasters, that supply chain can be also vulnerable and the impacted populations of the South. Because in that supply chain, we are still commodity producers in many respects, just because I have lots and lots of industrial areas that are doing these trips and the electronic parts. It actually is commodity. It behaves like a commodity. My value add is very little in food production, so all those things, our dependency in the supply chain, where in the south, we are very vulnerable, economically speaking, food security wise, dependency on importing a lot of materials.
Chee Yoke Ling: So I think we have to rethink what supply chain means. And I think the role of China, there is so much… I actually spent almost 11 years living in Beijing, working there. And I went in 2006 and I left in 2017. And I would say from a personal experience, going into China was a big learning experience because when we say China, what does that mean? Within China there’s so many dilemmas, contradictions and so what does expansion of China mean? And I think we need to unpack all that. Otherwise it’s easy to use China as the excuse for everything. At the same time, I would not equate, frankly, China as the same level, let’s say with the US. We talk about the two. Yes, there is a [inaudible 00:17:44] economically speaking, but they’re also very mutually dependent. So I think it’s more complex than us being glib about analysing any of these things.
Chee Yoke Ling: So I think the challenge for us in civil society is, how do we understand more and work to understand more. But I think the China piece, to be frank, Henry, is quite complicated. I think to have a good discussion on China. Takes a little bit more time. I suppose what I want to say really is that the tensions are growing. First, the US, China, and the trade tensions are real. At the same time, you look at China, so much of the government bonds of the US also, the Chinese have bought that. That also links them into the US. And the US consumer has benefited for such a long time from all those cheap products. And all suddenly is anything Chinese is horrible, terrible. So I think that feeding of xenophobia across the world for domestic political reasons and for certain interests of the different countries, doesn’t mean that all of us in the society of any of these countries should buy that narrative. And I think that’s the challenge in the world of journalism, to be able to convey that without being just generalising.
The Mint: And obviously China has developed very strong relationships with a lot of countries in the Global South through the Belt and Road Initiative. And so presumably, if tensions between the US and China grow, a lot of countries in the Global South are going to be torn [inaudible 00:19:29]
Chee Yoke Ling: Yeah, I think yes. The thing about China, of course also historically, for example, China and Africa have a relationship. The China Africa relationship goes back a long, long way, because after the revolution, when the republic was set up from the early states, to recognise the Chinese Republic, the people’s Republic were African states. So there is a solidarity that goes back and it was a cold war. We know the legacy of colonialism and the legacy of the Cold War is immense and I think that’s why always when we talk to the younger people, we are working together and we bring them into the world. We say history, history, history. Because history and institutional memory are so important. Whether it’s a institutional memory of negotiations, why this tax is the way it is, why are these paragraphs the way this, cause we forget that then we don’t know how to link it to implementation or why.
Chee Yoke Ling: And the same thing with history. So I think that’s really important. Now of course we can be cynical about things, but if it’s cynical then we’ll say, “Let me get to my little corner and just live out the COVID, live our global warming.” But I think we do not want to be open-eyed and dreamy-eyed about the reality of the world. But if we become cynical, we are going to give up. And I think that in every country we have to work. And as civil society, we believe very strongly that we need to work with all the progressive forces in all countries cause in the end we are, in our own countries, the front line of getting accountability. So I warn my friends in the United States and more people to not just let the Washington get away with saying some of the things they do in the international arena.
Chee Yoke Ling: At the same time, you may have a China or other developing countries that don’t know how to be slick about those soundbites, when there are press conferences. Because it’s too complicated. So I think for us seeing from, so-called the inside, of all our own countries, we under no illusion either because we fight at home for better things and we challenge our own politicians and our parliamentarians, but we cannot give up because I think more than ever we need to find the like-minded people cause in the end, it is about the individual who will commit themselves in and out of government, in and out of institutions that we have to work together and hold true to principle.
The Mint: Well, I think that is a very good point at which to end because… But I think in these times, clearly, we need to see across differences, don’t we work [inaudible 00:22:20]
Chee Yoke Ling: Yes, we need to. And also to realise that there are huge differences. Why? Because power dynamics are real. We are not equal. I think many of us in Third World Network, really things like a stakeholder is a multi-stakeholder. There’s an assumption that we’re all equal. I’m sorry, Mr. Bezos, Mr. Gates, you and I, and even presidents and prime ministers around the same table, we know who are the most powerful individuals around that table. So there is power and balance. And we do see for all the problems, the United Nations is still that platform of multilateralism that many of us in the civil society side will not give up. We will fight to regain it and we will make it do what it actually is supposed to do with the peoples. That’s the opening line of the Charter of the United Nations.
The Mint: Well keep going. I say, and I think it’s part the work you’re doing.
Chee Yoke Ling: Thank you.
The Mint: And thanks very much for taking a break to talk to The Mint Magazine.
Chee Yoke Ling: Welcome. And I look forward to reading your magazine with all the other articles as well.
The Mint: Thank you.
Chee Yoke Ling: All right, so you were trying to go…