2024 Barbara Ward Lecture: put social justice at the heart of sustainable development, says Mafalda Duarte

The executive director of the Green Climate Fund called for climate action to be rooted in a commitment to solidarity and social justice in her 2024 Barbara Ward Lecture.

Article, 14 June 2024
Barbara Ward Lectures
A series of lectures by the current generation of outstanding women in development, in honour of IIED's founder

Watch Mafalda Duarte's 2024 Barbara Ward Lecture

As she addressed the audience of the 2024 Barbara Ward Lecture, Mafalda Duarte, executive director of the Green Climate Fund, echoed Ward’s own reminder to “widen our understanding and solidarity to planetary level”.  

“Most of us have had moments in our lives when we realise that some issues are much bigger than ourselves. Moments that speak to our essence as human beings and compel us to act,” she said.  

It was this sense of shared humanity that formed the central theme of Duarte’s lecture, which she began by recollecting two such moments in her own life: witnessing extreme poverty and wealth inequality during Angola’s civil war, and experiencing first-hand the devastation of the floods in Mozambique in 2000. 

More than two decades later, and despite impressive progress in some areas, two billion people still live in poverty or near poverty, wealth inequality is rising, and climate change and nature loss are accelerating with deadly consequences. With climate disasters pushing millions into poverty every year, the effects “will get much worse,” Duarte warned.  

Interconnected crises — including the COVID-19 pandemic, the global cost-of-living crisis, climate change and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — have been detrimental to food security and development, she noted. 

“For the first time in decades, because of [COVID and the Ukraine war] and the compounding effects of climate change, 165 million people fell into poverty.”  

Breaking the debt cycle 

At the same time, global events have deepened the debt crisis: a critical issue that “once again jeopardises the development and climate aspirations of low- and middle-income countries,” Duarte said. 

The average total debt burdens among low- and middle-income countries rose sharply during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. “But it’s not just the quantity of debt that is disproportionately impacting these countries. It is the terms under which they are being forced to borrow,” she stressed. 

This is a structural issue: “On average, developed countries spend 3.5% of their revenues on interest on their debt, versus 14% of revenue in the least developed countries… These same counties — the most climate-vulnerable countries — are spending more paying off their debts than they are receiving in climate finance.” 

Duarte challenged the current system of economic growth, which is “founded on ecological destruction and persistent social injustice [and] systematically disadvantages low- and middle -income countries by moving investments away from them”. 

Efforts to break the debt cycle for these countries must be grounded in deep-rooted change. “Leaders and institutions have acknowledged that the financial system isn’t fit for purpose,” said Duarte. “Breaking the debt cycle, responding to climate change and meeting our shared development goals require a transformative socio-economic shift. Yet, much like our efforts against climate change, it’s not happening fast enough.” 

A woman stands at a podium in the foreground, while a large seated audience listens.

Mafalda Duarte delivers the 2024 Barbara Ward Lecture on 14 May (Photo: Benjamin Mole/IIED)

A global solidarity pact

The need for solidarity was a cross-cutting theme in the lecture. Drawing on the work of IIED’s founder, Duarte said: “More than 50 years ago Barbara Ward argued that we needed to tackle poverty and environmental disasters hand-in-hand, through the transfer of wealth from the richer world to the poorer.

“The idea that one person, one community, one nation living in deprived and poor conditions is isolated from those in affluent countries is an affront to our own humanity. It’s also an affront to the basic understanding that climate change is borderless… We are ignoring our unity at our collective peril.”  

What Duarte is proposing is a “solidarity pact” between high-income and low- and middle-income countries. This would involve a financing package historic in scope and scale, akin to a Marshall Plan, that would: 

  • Offer robust support to countries battling the twin crises of climate change and debt  
  • Respect nations’ sovereignty and right to make their own decisions 
  • Recognise that those least responsible for the climate crisis should bear the least of its debt 
  • Recognise that countries trapped in poverty, food insecurity and ecological degradation need more fit-for-purpose finance terms 
  • Replace the heavy chains of high-interest loans with a blend of grants and concessional finance 
  • See the private and public sectors working in tandem to ensure that the transition to a low-carbon economy is affordable and equitable, and 
  • Recognise that rising wealth concentration threatens human progress, social cohesion, human rights and democracy.

Collective action is possible but more remains to be done, Duarte said. For instance, in 2022 (two years after the original deadline), developed nations finally mobilised US$100 billion for climate investments in low- and middle-income countries — reaching their annual target for the first time since being set in 2009. 

However, this is only a fraction of what is needed. Some estimates suggest that the world needs to invest $90 trillion by 2030 in sustainable urban, energy, transport, water and other infrastructure assets, Duarte noted. 

“Which might beg the question… If it was already so difficult to mobilise $100 billion, how will the international community be able to mobilise even more? These are the discussions happening right now in terms of the new Collective Quantified Goal on Climate Finance,” she said.

Political will and public support 

In Duarte’s view, the failure to channel climate finance to where it is most needed is not down to a lack of ideas or opportunities. What we need, she said, is solidarity: “Determination, political will and public support.” 

Elsewhere, she highlighted a number of important levers that can and should be pulled to trigger change. 

Empowering people, particularly women and young people, is key. As is the potential to galvanise action by connecting climate change to other issues (such as health) to propel people to act.  

People can also leverage technological advances such as blockchain to enhance decision making and empower new networks.  

Meanwhile a new power dynamic is creating opportunities for climate action at all levels, both local and global. “Old power, held by a few and jealously guarded, closed, inaccessible, is giving way to new power, which is made by the many: power that is open, participatory and peer-driven,” Duarte said.  

Finally, she reminded listeners of the compelling business case for climate action, which sees corporations that actively plan for climate change securing higher returns on investment than companies that do not. 

Tapping into these levers with the appropriate quantum of financial support is key. But improving the quality of how this finance is delivered is also crucial, Duarte explained.  

She set out four key priorities in this regard:  

  1. Improved agility and simplified access 
  2. A focus on the poorest and most vulnerable 
  3. Empowering the private sector, and  
  4. Moving from “a do-it-alone, transaction-by-transaction approach to the co-creation of investment opportunities,” bringing together the public sector, private sector and development finance institutions. 

“This is the vision I laid out for the Green Climate Fund shortly after becoming its new executive director in August last year. And that is the reform agenda we are implementing,” said Duarte. 

A realm of opportunity 

“The socio-economic transitions required to meet our development goals and respond to the climate crisis are unprecedented,” Duarte acknowledged. “And we can only deliver with social justice at the heart and core of what we do.” 

She continued: “We have seen communities and people reject measures that are important from a climate perspective, because we are not looking at social justice. But if we do, it will help us realise that a life of shared prosperity, of connection to our communities and broader humanity, is the one that actually brings us purpose, fulfilment and happiness.” 

Duarte closed with a collective call to leave fear uncertainty and doubt behind, and “move into the realm of opportunity, possibility and meaning”.  

“Our future doesn’t depend primarily on governments or powerful corporations. It depends on our individual agency because our decisions matter: how we educate our children; how we treat others; how we consume; produce; invest; and vote. They all matter,” she said. 

“Let us galvanise and inspire each other. Because, if there’s anything Barbara Ward has taught us, it is that what was previously unthinkable can quickly become reality.”