Mohamed Nasheed, former president of the Maldives. Photo by: humanrightsfilmfestival / CC BY-NC

When he was president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed gathered members of his cabinet for an underwater meeting. Thirteen politicians dressed in scuba gear took their seats 20 feet below the surface of the ocean, off the coast of one of the hundreds of islands that make up the flattest country on the planet. They hoped to draw attention to the threat of rising sea levels, ahead of the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, where this tiny archipelago nation in the Indian Ocean pledged to be the first carbon neutral state.

“The Maldives is just one meter above the sea level,” Nasheed told Devex, explaining that the country, whose economy depends on fishing and tourism, is particularly vulnerable to any slight changes in the ocean, and could someday be submerged by the waters around it. “I think any president in the Maldives, anyone who wants to deliver a good life to the people of the Maldives, must think about the environment and they must work to save it. Because we are so vulnerable, we have a moral authority to tell others of our predicament, of our difficulty and our challenges.”

Nasheed spoke with Devex at the Skoll World Forum near London, where he now lives in exile. He explained how, in 2012, he was forced from office and later sentenced to prison. He was granted political asylum in the United Kingdom after traveling to London for medical treatment.

At Skoll, he spoke on the panel “Energy Leapfrogging or Carbon Imperialism?”

The discussion was on the tradeoffs or false choices between fostering economic growth and making a clean energy transition. It is a debate that will be front and center at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change talks in Bonn, Germany this week.

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“For me, it’s like saying the West has brought us to the brink and now developing countries must have the right to push us off the cliff,” Nasheed said of an argument made by some developing countries that, because developed nations became rich on the back of processes involving heavy carbon emissions, they should have the right to do the same. “There is a low-carbon development strategy, and we must embrace that. Leapfrogging energy, in my view, would be to jump further than what the West has done.”

He gave the example of typewriters, suggesting that just because some countries had them, this does not mean that other countries need to go through that step as part of their development path, he said.

“There is new technology available, there are new methods available, [that are] economically far more feasible and financially far more viable,” he said.

“It is problematic that the global development community is funding obsolete technologies, the pouring of concrete and building of walls, instead of working with nature or supporting and scaling new technologies.”

He pointed to Sri Lanka’s slow transition toward solar energy as an example of the choices that emerging nations face. Even the most expensive photovoltaic solar panels can generate electricity at a lower cost than diesel, he said, so Sri Lanka would be saving money if it made the switch.

“Why should they stick to obsolete technology which is far more expensive and not embrace the new technology?” he said. “I think this is madness.”

Sri Lanka was also the first country to promise the comprehensive protection of all of its mangroves, shrubs and trees that live along the shores, a move that Nasheed celebrates. He said it is problematic that the global development community is funding obsolete technologies, the pouring of concrete and building of walls, instead of working with nature or supporting and scaling new technologies. A meter of breakwater — structures that protect coasts from the force of waves — costs $4,000 in the Maldives, he explained. This country of 1,200 islands requires more cost-effective and environmentally sustainable solutions.

Nasheed splits his time between London and Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he has been meeting with the Maldivian Democratic Party about his hopes of standing as a presidential candidate in next year’s elections in the Maldives.

A former journalist, Nasheed previously worked for a small magazine that covered issues such as human rights, democracy and the environment. After his reporting exposed torture and abuse in Maldivian jails, among other reporting critical of the government of then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Nasheed was himself arrested. He spent half of his adult life in prison, with 18 months in solitary confinement, and was tortured twice, he told Devex.

Nasheed went into politics with the hope that being elected as a member of parliament would afford him some protection. His path in politics led him to the presidency, to which he was elected in 2008, at the age of 41. He was replaced by his deputy and later by current President Abdulla Yameen, the half-brother of former President Gayoom, amid disputed circumstances, which an inquiry concluded had been constitutional but others describe as a coup.

“In my view, development can only happen when human rights are protected. Development is not something that we can actually plan and then push. It’s what people do that leads to development. For people to do good things, innovative things, productive things, they have to be free,” he told Devex.

One of his key messages for the global development community is that funders and implementers must consider governance, which he described as the most important adaptation measure and the best monitoring mechanism available.

“If you really want to safeguard your aid money, you really need to have governance sorted in these countries,” he said. “Otherwise you’re doing the wrong projects in the wrong places at the wrong price, and you’re giving the contracts to the wrong people.”

“Sea level rise is happening in the Maldives. For us it's not something that's happening in the future. It's happening now."

Without considering governance, the global development community might as well be throwing their money away, he said.

“The Island President” is a film that follows Nasheed’s involvement in the complex negotiations at the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009, where he pushed for a return to 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — the only climate target that can save the island nation, he said.

“If you have more than 350 particles of carbon, global temperatures would rise over 2 degrees, and that would raise sea levels,” he said. “That is happening in the Maldives. For us, it’s not something that’s happening in the future. It’s happening now.”

One of the concerns Nasheed has about summits like this week’s U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change is that the parties coming together tend to reduce their ambitions to the lowest common denominator, he said.

The Alliance of Small Island States — which are, like the Maldives, most vulnerable to sea level rise and other impacts of climate change — is now chaired by Ahmed Sareer, the Maldivian Ambassador to the U.N.

Since Nasheed was ousted from power, the Maldives has abandoned its carbon neutral pledge, and is pursuing a new strategy of seeking investment from China and Saudi Arabia with the stated intent of renting out, fortifying, and building new islands. Nasheed’s former climate adviser is among the concerned observers who have argued that the current government can no longer represent climate leadership.

One of Nasheed’s messages at Skoll — a conference focused on social entrepreneurship — was the role of the private sector in addressing climate change.

“I do believe that market mechanism is the best option available for us to save the planet and have economic growth,” he said. “We must save the planet and we must have economic growth.”

While groups including Amnesty International are expressing concerns about human rights abuses and the silencing of political opponents in the Maldives, the opposition has come together on a single platform, hoping for a legislative agenda for a free election, Nasheed said.

“It won’t be that simple … More leaders are being charged, and arrests will continue,” he said. “But I want to tell everybody we are not giving up.”

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About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.