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Black and white photo of an old man sitting in an old bus, one the white buses that evacuated 15 000 people from concentration camps

During the last months of World War II the White Buses, a Swedish humanitarian operation, evacuted Scandinavians in concentration camps in Nazi Germany. Around 15 000 people were evacuated. Stig Svensson was a volunteer driver on one of the buses. “I’ll never forget what I’ve experienced”, he said in a 1992 interview, photo by Jonn Leffmann, SA BY-3.0.

Addressing Climate Injustice: Aid, Reparations or Solidarity


“Developing” vs “Developed”

Reflect: What does it mean to categorise some countries as “developed” and others as “developing”? What are countries “developing” towards? What other words might work better?

In this section, we’ll think a lot about money and financial resources. “Development” is primarily measured economically, in Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It is important to remember that other factors could be just as, if not far more, significant. There are countries which are doing well by common-sense indicators of wellbeing, yet have a comparatively low GDP. Economic anthropologist Jason Hickel gives the example of Costa Rica:

With a life expectancy of 80.4 years and levels of wellbeing in the top 7% of the world, Costa Rica matches many Scandinavian nations in these areas and significantly outperforms the United States, despite a GDP per capita of only $12,000, one-fifth that of the US. [1]

In her video, Stabinsky told us that “climate justice also, and this is a really important element, it means mobilising finance (from developed countries) to help developing countries.” What would this climate financing look like?


International Aid?

Economically richer countries tend to provide international aid to poorer countries. This is considered a way to “help” countries to “develop” to the same level (and often according to the same rational) as rich countries. In the case of climate finance, it might mean providing money and education to build infrastructure to protect cities from flooding, reinforce buildings against storms, or create more resilient agriculture. Aid money tends to go through international organisations like the UN, the World Bank or international NGOs, which fund the projects of NGOs working on the ground (which may or may not be led by locals). This money and education gives richer countries some level of control what projects operate in other countries,, despite having no democratic authority and limited awareness of the local context. Aid is therefore not necessarily a tool to empower others.

One example might be the UN’s Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+), which uses payments for ecosystem services to compensate local communities for loss of forest resources if they stop felling the trees or grazing in the area. The idea is that the carbon saved in the trees is sold on the carbon market, providing a local income. Anthropologists Örjan Bartholdson et al. show that, in the case of the Kolo Hills, Tanzania, this language of carbon trading was not clearly communicated to locals in the area, some of whom expected large sums of money. The final amount was a couple of dollars per household, despite significant losses in livelihood. Bartholson et al. write:

the payment to each village depended not only on the amount of sequestrated carbon, but also on how well the rules imposed by REDD+ were upheld and the level of participation in REDD+ activities. [2]

The small pay-out was then distributed to village elites, with just a few villagers involved in planning how it would be used. Dino, a farmer in Bartholson et al.’s study, told them:

We were told that we would receive a lot of money through the carbon sequestration, but so far it has just been talk. …Even during the British rule, we could let our cattle graze in the forest, but not now. It is yet another one of those European programs; they bring nothing good to us. [2]

In the Kolo Hills case, compensations also included chemical fertilisers and pesticides so that farmers could intensify maize production to replace their subsistence (of timber, charcoal, medicinal plants and pasture) from the forest. The project therefore may have incentivised participants to cut trees in other forests, outside the target area, and clear the area for intensive agriculture – increasing deforestation and degrading the soil in the process. The project went against one of the project NGO’s own research, where:

more than a fifth of the interviewed villagers said that they believed it would be better to create agroforestry farming, than merely set aside land for pure forest conservation. This view of their production system and landscape use builds on a tradition of integrating forest and agricultural land uses. [2]

The villagers’ own knowledge and wishes were not taken into account because they were not recognised as experts in their own lives and ecosystems.

In narratives about aid, there is often an implied (or stated) continuity with “help” provided during colonial rule which “allowed” colonies to develop and industrialise. Given the history of colonial exploitation, some argue that former colonial powers owe reparations to their former colonies for centuries of injustice.



For example, writer and politician Shashi Tharoor made the case that British rule cost India incalculable sums of money:

India’s share of the world economy when Britain arrived on its shores was twenty three percent. By the time the British left it was down below four percent. Why? Simply because India had been governed for the benefit of Britain and Britain’s rise for two hundred years was financed by its depredations in India. In fact, Britain’s Industrial Revolution was actually premised upon the deindustrialisation of India. [3]

In addition to the many thousands of people who died in the army, Britain’s total war debt to India includes an unpaid 1.25 billion of today’s pounds for weaponry, supplies and horses. The diversion of food supplies cost millions of Indian people their lives – for example during Bengal Famine, when Winston Churchill ordered India’s emergency food supplies to be sent to the British army, and four million Indians starved.

To describe India as a “developing” country benefiting from western aid is an injustice because it implies that it is India which should be indebted to Britain. Reparations could never compensate for the suffering the British inflicted in India, but Tharoor argues that they would be:

a tool for you to atone for the wrongs that have been done. [3]

The debts economically rich countries owe “developing” countries are not merely historical. In a 2016 report, the organisation Global Financial Integrity, the Norwegian School of Economics and “a team of global experts” found that “developing countries” continue to be the “net-creditors to the world” as:

since 1980 developing countries lost US$16.3 trillion dollars through broad leakages in the balance of payments, trade misinvoicing, and recorded financial transfers. These resources represent immense social costs that have been borne by the citizens of developing countries around the globe. [4]

This is money which might otherwise have been paid in tax to governments in the Global South, but was instead siphoned off to the Global North:

Every dollar that leaves one country must end up in another. Very often, this means that illicit financial outflows from developing countries ultimately end up in banks in developed countries like the United States and United Kingdom, as well as in tax havens like Switzerland, British Virgin Islands, or Singapore. This does not happen by accident. Many countries and their institutions actively facilitate—and reap enormous profits from—the theft of massive amounts of money from developing countries. [5]

In this context, much international aid for climate adaptation or mitigation starts to look like greenwashing. In the next section, Karen O’Brien proposes “transformation” as an alternative approach for addressing climate crises. What would global transformation, moving beyond colonial power dynamics, look like?



In the climate movement in western countries, activists often talk of acting “in solidarity” with the Global South. This may mean protesting extractivism, speaking out against neocolonialism, or pushing for changes in systems and lifestyles in the Global North. De-growth proponents like Hickel propose “de developing” developed countries to a sustainable level of consumption, comparable to some other countries [6]. This would reduce the impacts on the rest of the world of richer countries’ emissions, pollution and extractive exploitation.

As an example of solidarity, watch the trailer for the 2018 documentary Nae Pasaran.



  1. Hickel, J. (2017). Human flourishing doesn’t require perpetual growth; it requires sufficiency, Jason Hickel [Blog]. Available at
  2. Bartholdson, Ö. et al. (2019). Is REDD plus More of an Institutional Affair than a Market Process? The Concealed Social and Cultural Consequences of an Ongoing REDD plus Project in Kolo Hills, Tanzania. Forests. [Online] 10.
  3. Tharoor, S. (2015). Britain Does Owe Reparations, Oxford Union, Youtube [Video] Available at
  4. GFI et al. (2016). New Report on Unrecorded Capital Flight Finds Developing Countries are Net-Creditors to the Rest of the World. Global Financial Inequality. [Report] Available at:
  5. GFI (Undated). Illicit Financial Flows. Global Financial Inquality. Available at
  6. Hickel, J. (2015). Forget ‘developing’ poor countries, it’s time to ‘de-develop’ rich countries. The Guardian. Available at


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