Twenty years ago, the world saw the birth of a prominent sustainable development document – Agenda 21. Drafted in 1992 during the then Rio Earth Summit, it was envisaged as a ‘blueprint’ for economic growth, considering social equity and environmental protection. This year’s summit – the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (The Rio+20 Conference) – therefore, can well be seen as the coming of a full circle of a very ambitious project aimed at helping humanity, and thus also a time to count the wounded and assess the ground covered.
One would assume that world leaders must be feeling a heady mix of emotions while looking back. There have been some significant developments on the way and yet, perhaps more significantly, several disappointments as well. This conference then, is one more chance handed out to our world leaders, to prove their political commitment towards sustainable development. For too long, rhetoric has dominated action. The Rio+20 Conference is the perfect opportunity for them to prove the converse. With participation from NGOs and the private sector, the conference is rich with convenient viewpoints and the ideal platform to arrive at an even stronger commitment – one with teeth and accountability.
This is not only a time to see how far previous commitments have been met, but also the time to analyse existing agreements for their loopholes and drawbacks in order to arrive at future courses of action. This is where the commitment of the private sector can be seriously judged. The feedback and inputs of NGOs are also invaluable for this exercise. Not that just past commitments are incomplete, the world is also a witness to emerging challenges which need fresh and cooperative thinking.
If we are to judge by the theme of the conference, the ambitions of those in charge surely seem to be encouraging, to say the least. The theme of this year’s conference (as put forward by the UN) is to forward a green economy while striving towards poverty eradication and sustainable development, thus formulating an institutional framework for sustainable development. Along with the theme, seven priority areas have been identified as well – decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans and disaster readiness.
However, there are a few problems that may creep up from such an ambitious theme. Firstly, looking at the list of objectives, one sees an immense potential for rhetoric once again. Similar buzzwords have been used time and again to appease immediate concerns, which are only forgotten soon after, as a result of myopic thinking, incompetent governance and the nonexistence of accountability. Forgive me for my scepticism, but this new round of grandiloquence seems poised to go down the same flaccid path of political impotency yet again.
For those with slightly greater faith, a second danger is the enormity of the task undertaken. We have so far failed to stem almost all of the problems afflicting the world today. In that case, taking on such a complex agenda might result in that most clichéd of endings – a royal fizzle out!
Ironically, there is a greater danger coming from the effort to not see such a disappointing end. Many a times it has been observed that in a rush to declare the success of such rounds in world politics, leaders hasten what is otherwise required to be a patient and painstaking process. In the process, many important issues or details are discarded through dyspeptic negotiations and what is left is more problematic than the initial problem itself. To make Rio+20 successful, a strong and effective conclusion inducing tough political commitment is absolutely essential, but in the rush to achieve such an end, one has to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water.