Rio+20: Suspicion or Sustainability?

After my earlier blog post, I realized that a lot of people might not really know exactly what Rio+20 is and the significance it can play for the world of international development. As you read on, think about what Rio+20 can and will bring us, think about international development and can bring about solutions, think about your opinion and if this conference shares that or contradicts it. Just think.

Rio+20 is the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development that is currently underway (June 20-22 2012) and it is taking place exactly twenty years after the Earth Summit in Rio, Brazil. The Earth Summit in 1992 was where Agenda 21 was signed and ratified, making commitments to changing the ways that economic growth, social equity, and environmental protection are approached. The Earth Summit was essentially a landmark conference in raising awareness and making commitments for sustainability, environmentalism, and equality.

This year, Rio+20 is reviewing some of those former commitments and seeing where nations need to be headed for a sustainable future without poverty. This conference has thousands of participants from governments, non-governmental organizations, private sector representatives, and even concerned citizens.

Rio+20 has two focus areas: ‘a green economy in the context of sustainable development poverty eradication’ and the ‘institutional framework for sustainable development’. The first area – green economy for sustainable development and poverty eradication – works towards having a holistic, sustainable approach to all business, government, and other decision-making. To do this, it means taking social, economic, and environmental concerns, and the ways in which they interact, into account prior to making any decision and using the most beneficial decision to those concerns. The second concern – institutional framework for sustainable development – means taking the same decision making process and ingraining into to all levels of government and governance. It recognizes that current governmental decision-making often neglects sustainability and that through ingraining sustainability into their frameworks they can have longer lasting decisions, policies, and, ideally, a more equal world.

In addition to the themes for the conference, Rio+20 has also identified seven priority areas to focus on for the conference; which include ‘decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans and disaster readiness’. These priorities highlight some of the biggest concerns for sustainability now and in the future and with significant progress and international cooperation on these topics the outlook for the future would be greatly improved.

Wednesday, June 20th marked the start of Rio+20 despite protests and nations have agreed on a draft discussion. Understandably, many people and organizations are skeptical on what results Rio+20 will actually bring, but there has still been progress. United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, acknowledges that in the past sustainable development has not the attention or effort dedicated towards it that it deserves and needs and that they have not met their commitments or goals. While a draft document has been made and agreed upon, titled “The Future We Want,” this draft document is still vague. It holds no requirements or commitments for nations, no real forms of measurement, or targets, and fails to meet the needs or hopes of many international non-governmental organizations. While many nations agreed that between 30 and 100 billion dollars would be required for sustainability initiatives, only 30 billion dollars are drafted and required in the text, which also does not include where the funds will come from.

What was hoped for and what may still transpire are the creation of Sustainable Development Goals, which would replace the Millennium Development Goals in 2015 when they expire. Another hoped outcome of Rio+20 would be the creation of a new index to measure human development. The current model is the Human Development Index, which ranks nations with regards to the quality of life; it takes life expectancy, literacy, and GNI/GDP into account. The proposed model would be the Sustainable Human Development Index that would use the pre-existing Human Development Index but add a measure of sustainability that would have to be determined and quantified at Rio+20.

Personally, I find it most interesting that even nothing transpires directly out of Rio+20, there have still been major commitments in the public and private sector outside of government. As of 12 noon on Thursday June 21st, there were 517 voluntary commitments to sustainability from the private and public sector, these commitments must be concrete goals, with detailed timelines, and will be subject to periodic reporting. This gives us clear goals, with measurable impacts that we can see and watch grow.

A second positive impact is the Rio for People conference that culminated on June 20th at the same time as Rio+20 began. This conference focused on ‘strengthening people’s capacity for genuine sustainable development’ and featured 200 groups from civil society, including environmental non-governmental organizations, unions, religious parties, and representatives from indigenous populations. This conference chose to go beyond the set agenda for Rio+20 and look for sustainable, alternative options for biodiversity, poverty elimination, and climate protection. This conference was an opportunity for grassroots workers on sustainability to meet and share ideas and models, as well as to critique the larger top-down models and ideologies.

Rio for People, resulted in distrust towards the larger Rio+20 conference which can be summarized with the words of one Vietnamese activist, “We are suspicious of this talk of a green economy. It seems like another attempt by the rich powers to impose a model on poor countries.”

Which brings us back to the original questions, what will Rio+20 bring the world? Is there hope for international development? Are these conferences the answer? Or do they promote the top-down model of development? Can policy create sustainability?

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Rio 20+ Progress after 20 years, or still moving in circles?

As the Rio 20+ conference is set to begin, it will be interesting to see how it progresses and how sustainability has developed as a key item on the global agenda. The two main focus areas for Rio 20+ are a ‘green economy in the context of sustainable development poverty eradication and the institutional framework for sustainable development.”

While these are great focal areas, the conference seems to lack the force necessary to guarantee and police commitments. Developed nations have been notorious for regressing and failing to meet the commitments, promises, and goals set out and there is little to show that this conference will be any different. Prior to the beginning of the discussions, only 37% of the draft agreement had been agreed to, with the refusals and changes made primarily by developed nations.

Nations are still wrapped up in the debate as to whether food, water, and sanitation should be considered universal rights (despite their inclusion in the millennium development goals). Come on Canada! Water is necessary for survival, so as a basic need, shouldn’t it be protected?

What is also fascinating is that all nations participating recognize that 30-100 billion dollars are needed to meet the current and prior commitments to sustainability, but none can agree as to where these funds should come from. So, everyone knows that something needs to be done, but none are willing to contribute in order to make it happen.

Talks begin on Wednesday, I’m curious to see what happens. But in the mean time, what do you think? How will the conference turn out? Will commitments be made or reaffirmed? Will we leave feeling hopeful?

Millennium Development Goals (again)

 Water

There are news articles everywhere saying we’ve met the MDG target for access to clean, drinkable water and technically we have. We have halved the percent of population without access to clean water, with 2 billion additional people having access. But are we done yet?

While it is incredible that 89% of the population has access to clean, drinkable water (comparable to 76% in 1990), that means that 11% of the population is still forced to drink unsafe, unclean water every single day, 40% of which is in Sub-Saharan Africa. So are we done yet? Absolutely not, but at least progress is being made.

On another note, lets take a peak at the goal for maternal mortality.

Under this goal the UN is hoping to reduce maternal mortality by three quarters and ensure universal access to reproductive health. Now it is often said that these two indicators are often the best clue into the status of women’s rights and gender equality in a particular country. Some progress has been made, but this goal has seen the least progress and in many cases the least effort.

While nations around the world are making significant efforts to improve women’s rights, access to reproductive health (contraception, information, and abortion), increasing access to trained professionals prior to, during, and after birth, and increasing education and knowledge in general, we have countries closer to home where access to reproductive health (contraception, information, and abortion) is still considered fair game for public debate.

From 1998-2010 the USA actually regressed in terms of their maternal mortality rate showing an increase of twenty-five percent in a twelve-year period. Its appalling that such a thing can happen in a nation with health care readily available, and it demonstrates that gender equality and women’s health was not at the forefront of the nation’s agenda.

In Canada, we have the pesky little issue of abortion. Abortion is legal (huge win for women’s rights), but not available throughout the entire nation where some provinces and regions do not have the tools or facilities to perform abortions forcing Canadians to travel huge distances to seek out medical care. This drastically increases the cost, and decreases the availability of such reproductive health to girls and women who may not be able to travel and/or live in rural regions. Even more appalling is that we still have elected officials who are trying to make abortion illegal-may I add that I have yet to ever hear or see a female MP in Canada try to overturn our current abortion law? An MP from Kitchener has been trying to bring the abortion debate back into parliament since Christmas of 2011.

Does that mean that women’s rights are regressing? Maybe, but with absolute certainty it means that every nations must make a firm commitment to improve women’s rights, health, and access.

To check out international progress on the MDG’s go here.