The sharp learning curve of an LDC negotiator
Fatima Athoumani describes the fast-paced journey to representing her nation of Comoros at the UN climate talks.
My home, the Union of the Comoros, is a four-island archipelago, located 300 kilometres off east Africa’s coastline. Climate change is increasing our vulnerability to threats such as sea-level rise and extreme weather events including cyclones, floods and droughts. As both a Small Island Developing State (SIDS) and a Least Developed Country (LDC), we are battling hard against climate change – but the odds are stacked against us.
I have worked in the government’s climate change department since 2011 and am responsible for monitoring climate change adaptation projects. I also helped prepare the reports to be presented to the international community, summarising Comoros' national climate commitments, and how far it has delivered these.
In 2016, I participated in a European Capacity Building Initiative (ecbi) workshop. IIED leads the ecbi programme, which trains representatives from developing countries to negotiate at the UN climate talks. With the bursary I received, I was able to accompany the Comoros delegation to the COP23 negotiations in Bonn.
Climate expert, novice diplomat
Two ecbi workshops held in Dakar in 2016 and 2017 provided me with the fundamentals a delegate needs to navigate the complex climate negotiations. Despite my expertise in how climate change is playing out on the ground in my own country, I soon realised I had some big knowledge gaps – about the workings of the UNFCCC, its history and the importance of multilateral agreements.
I had no idea how the negotiating sessions were conducted, for example the tactics that each bloc deploys to defend its position while keeping its strategy on track.
The workshop’s mock negotiation sessions were a real eye-opener for me. Each participant took on the role of a country and we negotiated back and forth until a common text was reached. We learnt the official procedure that must be followed when it’s a representative’s turn to speak or ‘take the floor’, we were trained in how to form groups with other countries, and from there formulate common positions.
I was nervous – it felt like a real negotiation! This hands-on lesson of how the negotiations work in practice was invaluable for improving my skills.
Thrown in at the deep end
Then for the real thing. I attended two UNFCCC negotiating sessions: COP23 in December 2017, and the Bonn climate change conference the following spring. During these two events, I followed the discussions around National Adaptation Plans (NAPs).
It was a challenging environment with a lot to take in. So many people with so much information flying round – I felt lost! But after a shaky start, I came to my senses and I remembered everything I had learned in the workshops on the psychology of a negotiator: the importance of having a strong mindset and ways to avoid stress and anxiety. I was then able to focus.
When there was a break in the negotiations, some developing countries gathered for informal coordination meetings. I listened, proposed ideas, asked questions – learning all the time.
Taking part in the negotiations requires a lot of preparation and making sense of huge amounts of paperwork. I had been warned about this in the ecbi workshops but had not anticipated these volumes! I had read several documents on multilateral agreements and on certain topics (such as adaptation, mitigation, and loss and damage) but there were still big knowledge gaps to fill.
To prepare well for the sessions and keep up with all topics discussed, reading key document from previous conferences helps, such as the declarations, group communiques (PDF) or submissions to the UNFCCC (PDF) on specific topics.
The ‘wearing down’ technique
The techniques and tactics that countries use are impressive. At COP23, negotiations on the Adaptation Fund had ground to gridlock. Each party was on the offensive with hard-line positions on how the fund should operate and be funded.
It was fascinating to see the different strategies the countries deployed: developed countries, for example, dragged out the negotiations by constantly asking for adjournments, seeking to frustrate and – slowly, slowly, slowly – wear others down. I did not think that a decision would be reached, and yet gradually parties began to compromise, positions shifted, points were agreed.
I also noticed that the widespread use of English presented a major barrier for French-speaking countries. Translation during negotiations is limited: interpreters are only available during official sessions, and official documentation appears first in English with translated versions taking a long time to appear. As a Francophone, you are always playing catch up – it was very clear to me that these countries need more English language support.
My hopes for Katowice
Here at COP24, I’m continuing to follow the negotiations surrounding NAPs. These plans allow developing countries to identify their adaptation needs and develop strategies to address them.
But without financial, technological and capacity building support, Comoros and other LDCs will not be able to implement their NAPs.
COP24 must deliver decisions that significantly scale up climate finance for poor nations – and the LDCs will be negotiating hard to get the outcome we need.