IFI governance


Global South feminist perspectives and proposals on accelerating climate finance for countries facing debt crises

12 October 2022 | Minutes

Olabukunola (Buky) Williams and Emilia Reyes discuss feminist perspectives on climate finance at the Annual Meetings 2022 CSPF on October 12, 2022. Credit: author


  • Olabukunola (Buky) Williams, Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Lead, Akina Mama wa Afrika


  • Emilia Reyes, Program Director, Policies and Budgets for Equality and Sustainable Development, Equidad de Género – Ciudadania, Trabajo Y Familia
  • Michelle Comas Canas, Researcher in the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Department, Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS)


Buky Williams: We tend to talk about the issue and not so much about the solutions, very excited to be doing that today. Help us paint a picture in terms of what you know about the debt crisis, climate vulnerability, it is happening already in the communities we work with. I work on health, but there is no way my work can happen without understanding the climate emergency and related vulnerabilities. We have some upcoming important events like COP, how do we go beyond the numbers & headlines, let’s have an in-depth conversation.

Michelle Comas Canas: I want to start by saying something not new – global south countries are facing an overlap of problems: debt, consequences of climate change, resource exploitation for green transition. At same time most of financing comes in the form of debt. Countries need to decide if they use their funds to serve debt or human rights obligations.

Yesterday Eurodad published report saying that small island states pay 18 times more to creditors than on climate. Most debt in foreign currency, so countries constantly have to look for ways to accumulate more currency. Best way to get this is to deepen & expand extractivist models.

We see all this at work in Argentina, it has gone through several cycles of indebtedness, have seen different strategies to repay. In 1976, government took up debt, in the 90s solution was to follow Washington Consensus. Privatization, expenditure cuts, country obtained the dollars it needed. But widely unsuccessful, growth in poverty through austerity, continued to accrue debt. Debt left from 90s was paid in early 2000s through commodity boom esp. of soybeans. Even through the high prices of these products allowed country to repay and expand social programs, it also had its costs: increasing cultivating areas at expense of peasant & indigenous communities, deforestation, soil degradation.

In 2018 largest loan in the history of the IMF – proper procedures not followed, politically motivated. Situation today: growth of pressure, hegemonic discourse that the way to pay for this debt and develop country is to make a strong bet on extractivist industries. Continue agri business expansion, exploit oil fields. This urgent need means that this extraction is made without proper consultation of communities, environmental standards, workers safety.

UN Independent Expert for debt & human rights highlighted importance of discussing the consequences of these projects with communities. A state that has these kind of restrictions is weaker vis a vis corporations and more prone to corporate capture.

We need to change the way we think about debt sustainability. DSA done today is limited to a few macro variables, translated into public policy recommendations. Human rights and environmental considerations are not part of it, really have to analyse if debt is compatible with the sustainability of life. That’s why a feminist perspective on debt is important. As governments are trying to comply with IFIs and pay their debts, start to retire from public services. It is women with their bodies and time compensating for this.

Developed countries must be held accountable for their role in climate and debt crisis. They produce most emissions, and not enough funds are assigned for climate finance – not even modest contribution targets are met. IMF & World Bank are also responsible for conditionalities attached to loans. IMF has known this a long time: debt cannot be separated for its impacts on human rights, women, and the environment. Have to reform the current debt architecture, need to be democratic, include voices of all countries and remove veto power of developed countries, have real participation processes for affected communities.

Poor countries are the main victims of the consumption patterns of global north countries. At the same time they have to go into debt over and over again with creditors from these countries and IFIs where these countries have the majority of the vote.

Buky: I felt that. We are speaking in the colonizers language and they still don’t understand. This issue of debt – they make it seem like it’s separate from the climate crisis or gender justice, health, education, social service provision. Who holds the power, who makes decisions. A lot of this debt is held by private lenders, 60%. Need to focus on extractivist models to get out of these situations. I keep hearing that the Bank has to get the money back, they need to balance – but why? In favour or who? Countries like Uganda, Zambia, you read IMF statement that you should put austerity measures but also health & education, the math doesn’t work.

Emilia Reyes: I’m very sad that Lidy Nacpil is not here, because she has been following the climate finance conversation, was hoping her intervention would balance mine. Need to differentiate that climate finance as opposed to environmental sustainability – climate finance refers to the climate emergency, which needs special allocation of funds. On the other hand, my idea of mainstreaming environmental justice in the entire economic architecture goes beyond that. 6 of 9 planetary boundaries have been surpassed, they are interconnected. For example, land use, pollution, plastic. Many components need to be related – biodiversity is taken care of in another convention, but all these elements are crucial. Biodiversity and climate change pivotal entry point that will lead to full collapse or help us slow down deterioration in other boundaries.

Climate finance – money has two dimensions, economic and normative. People tend to focus on economic, but normative is even more important than the purchase value, it gives it a quality that can shift the direction of flows. Through principles like “polluters pay”, direct access, but also regulation, can make a shift. We want to keep it inside the UNFCCC framework, there is some accountability about climate finance. We are concerned when other actors want to bring in climate finance, private actors, trying to shift notions agreed in the UNFCCC to put profit first over agreements made with developing countries at the table. We also know that UNFCCC climate finance discussions have many problems – what has been agreed has not been delivered. Discussion of GCF replenishment at the moment, want that, but it is not enough. Have to have a frank discussion on if the ODA framework is enough – we are facing extinction, the ODA limitations should be surpassed with a franker conversation. One issue is debt, the debt of rich countries in destroying our planet and now they have to pay that debt.

Also debate on private actors, they need to be regulated. Difficulty in CSO discussions to target fossil fuels. UNFCCC is like the WTO of climate finance, it is a market space. Due to civil society push it is that adaptation, loss & damage, gender etc. have been brought in, but at the core it keeps being a marketplace for carbon emissions. What are the mechanisms that will be placed under UNFCCC, when the logic of the market is what got us here. Limitations of UNFCCC – want to uphold principles and gains made there, but need to improve it. For example, loss & damage is not enough, but on the other hand has rallied civil society and global south leaders, it has been an entry point for a larger discussion on reparations and the real solutions needed.

Leads me to new quantifiable climate finance goal, and definition of climate finance itself. It is important because that definition will determine what we are going to get. Issue of debt is key, we heard the rumours that developed countries don’t want to talk about debt inside the UNFCCC, but on the other hand want to bring in language of bonds, which are debt instruments. To the minds of the countries, if it’s not ODA, we’re going to come up with bonds, challenging the logic of global solidarity. We should challenge the framework of debt sustainability to include the sustainability of life and care. But then coming back to the technicalities: so-called trillions needed are equated by trillions poured by banking industry into fossil fuels. This needs to be regulated. Second, biodiversity agenda, has a different entry point – extractivism and resource justice. Developed countries are responsible for 92% of carbon emissions, but also 72% of excessive resource extraction globally, and half of those come directly from the global south for the benefit of the global north. That is directly linked to destruction of environmental integrity.

Concern with climate change agenda, is that they will continue betting on growth, for that they need clean energy, but they will need the same fossil energy plus clean energy, will mean more violent extraction. If you deplete an ecosystem, there will be a heating of the planet no matter what, even if you reduce emissions. There is not a single scenario in IPCC report where they envision a stop of the exploitation from the global north of the global south. No planning of any commitments of the financial industry. No consideration of an economic crash. We know things are even worse than they are, we are planning financing needs based on scenarios that are already not realistic.

That is why we are bringing the discussion of resource justice – a cap and fee and divest system. Should cap level of extraction on all levels within planetary boundaries. Start taxing extraction, add a fee for resources that are particularly damaging for the environment. That fee should be used to pay for restoration, reparation, loss & damage. In Mexico, lithium became very wanted, foreign companies came in, illegal mining started and environmental defenders were murdered. Journalists getting death threats, kidnappings and murders. President launched a bill to ban the extraction of lithium beyond a certain point.

Regionally, there can be an alliance, cap & fee would bring revenue, this can be managed fiscally. Globally, this discussion will bring us to the subsidy that the south is providing to the north, can be brought into trade and other discussions. Divesting, when it happens at the regional level brings us to the global trade, an entry point for climate finance. We need to:

  1. Remind everybody there are 3 global subsidies: 1. global south to global north, 2. Women by unpaid care work, 3. Indigenous peoples upholding 80% of biodiversity.
  2. We are in a dire moment of corporate capture, Coca Cola sponsoring UNFCCC etc., have to hold accountable the institutions we rely on.

Buky: I love the idea of resource justice. It highlights that our countries subsidize these countries. Turns around these conversations of “developed countries are sending aid”. In terms of capping level of extraction – wonder if our countries will be willing to take that on. World Bank patting itself on the back. How do we get solidarity among our countries to be able to negotiate and push back.

Michelle: I don’t think we have figured it out yet. For what also matters – we are extracting this, obtaining this money, what are we using it for? Just to repay debt or to improve living conditions of our people. Even companies exploiting the resources are taking the money back to their HQ offices, extracting from global south countries. Even if we play by the rules of the IMF and World Bank, there are things we cannot tolerate. For example, surcharges policy at IMF – it doesn’t need to exist, it is a punishment of countries that need funds the most. There is no reason why this is not abolished.


Questions & Answers

Iolanda Fresnillo, Eurodad: I have been campaigning on debt for many years, have had a strong narrative in the early 2000s from the Global South, but today is a different situation. Frame climate finance and debt cancellation under umbrella of reparations, but also stop extraction, pollution etc. How can we make that narrative bigger? Because otherwise all the conversations become charity. Can we learn from the experience of strong campaigns on ecological debt from the past? Second, proposals for “what to tell the Bank”. Huge risk of market solutions taking over – green bonds, blue bonds, rhino bonds. They will compound the debt crisis. Some people are actually supporting that, even from the climate community. That leads me to the third thing, which is climate for debt swaps. Another false solution. Debt swaps can be done if done very very well, but also very badly, and way too small. Spanish government has used debt swaps to promote corporations in Latin America. There is an increasing call for this coming from the community, how can we have that dialogue with climate community to be careful of these false solutions without being patronizing.

Emily, Global Voices Australia: Australia is very extractivist. What happens when resources get scarce, we still have the debt but no leverage in terms of what we get out of the ground.

Emilia: Degrowth movement has a lot of proposals, like stopping planned obsolescence. Extraction has happened for centuries. Just to get the same pattern of consumption, we now have to extract 30 times more to get the same quality of materials because we have to dig deeper because we have depleted resources. We will need 9 planets to get the technology and energy if we keep the same levels of consumption. We cannot keep on this path. Degrowth framework. On what to spend the money? Public services that emit less, many proposals on how to divest, reduce sectors that are not useful. The private jet industry, fast fashion, obsolete tech. We need to shift the paradigm, challenge the UN Secretary General and IFIs that growth should not be the measure of progress, need to divest.

Luckily, climate is “trendy” now, so we need to use the moment. There is a lot of desperation from the climate movement on the ground, need finance urgently, but many environmentalists stuck in ODA discussion, need to support them with expertise from this community.

Michelle: One thing Iolanda was saying on bonds & climate debt swaps, one of the risks is that we are finalizing taking care of the world – we are taking all this and putting it through the lenses of profit and financialization. Cannot be the way we think about these problems. At the same time, when communities are asking for it, it’s hard to say no – they have no money, no resources. How can we get resources to these communities without using the wrong tools.

Anne Songole, FEMNET: Thinking about how the World Bank operates – when decisions are made on climate finance, they are always made when something is already in place. There are existing country partnership frameworks used as their models of financing. Does anyone have a view of what works in different scenarios? When we think about issues of debt, has anyone ever seen with the CPFs how the financing could be turned around and used for other things? Debt in Kenya 77% of GDP, how are these scenarios reflected on.

Jon Sward, Bretton Woods Project: A comment on the World Bank climate finance – we don’t actually know if the accounting is consistent in what they tag as climate finance. Oxfam tried to do an audit with a representative sample, but there is not enough information in the public domain to recreate this, they just publish an aggregate but not a project breakdown. Bank claims that climate finance is going way up, but don’t have a clear understanding. World Bank is not unique, transparency is an issue across the broader multilateral and bilateral space. The approach of the Bank especially in consulting civil society on the ground is very poor, very uneven, at project level and CPF process. There is a call from shareholders to pursue and evolution plan, mobilize private finance, promoted by G7 shareholders not just at the Bank but also MDBs. Need to strategize how to counter this push, it is taken us further away from this normative dimension of money that would add equity.

Emilia: More broadly, challenge premise on growth. Needs a thorough reassessment of IFIs in the climate crisis. We don’t need another institutional actor promoting growth, we need promotion of wellbeing of people and planet. Second it has to be done democratically, democratic deficit of IFIs. Third prioritize public over private funding.

Michelle: My two key issues would be that these institutions need to work within the human rights framework, they are responsible for those rights. Second, need to be democratic and open to real participation.

Buky: Countries want to be seen to create a strong agenda putting forward false solutions, we need to push back. Civil society dragged into this process. Idea of private-sector-led solutions, need to recognize primacy of public finance and of the affected communities.