RIO + 20 – the end of the road for the grand international conference?

June 26th, 2012

I’m sitting in the airport waiting for a plane back to London having spent the past week with a small team from Practical Action at the Rio + 20 negotiations. We’ve been particularly focussed on the discussions around energy access for the poor that were a theme through side meetings and discussions throughout the week.

This is the first time I have attended an event like this. And my impressions? Largely disappointing. Speaking with a fellow conference attender a minute ago we both came to the conclusion that if you were going to design a process to ensure agreement was reached on steps to ensure a sustainable future for all of us on the planet, this would not be it. In the formal part: endless and inconclusive negotiations on the minutiae of text, with national governments treating the process as if they were bartering for terms of trade as opposed to trying to prevent global disaster. And in the informal part: hundreds of side events – some really fascinating, others really dull, but none having any impact on or relationship to the sterile and hopeless process going on in the main negotiations.

That said, there were some positives to take away from the week. The issue of energy access got a lot of attention in the side events and was one of the few areas where hard financial commitments were discussed during the week, albeit outside of the formal proceedings. I attended the signing ceremony for 3 agreements between the Norway and Ethiopia, Kenya and Liberia for energy access programmes under the Energy Plus initiative. And although the UN Secretary General’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative attracted some criticism for its lack of engagement with civil society (the UN could learn from the Norwegians who seem to have made a better job of civil society consultation under Energy Plus), they too announced a whole series of commitments from governments, donors, private sector and NGOs (including Practical Action). I was also heartened to attend an event discussing alternatives to GDP as a measure of social and economic progress, which included presentations about work going on in the EC and in the OECD to develop national systems of accounting that would incorporate ideas of wellbeing and natural capital.

So all in all my take would be: an abysmal meeting in terms of the formal proceedings, with a complete lack of leadership from heads of government and a final document generous only in its use of platitudes and worryingly short on concrete proposals, but some interesting side events showing that civil society and sometimes even the EC and the OECD are occasionally still doing interesting stuff!

For me, Rio+ 20, coming after the failed Copenhagen Climate Change talks and some eminently forgettable global meetings in between, marks the terminal decline of the big set piece international conference. The global leadership and vision that delivered the international conventions on biodiversity and climate change 20 years ago at the original Rio conference have disappeared. We need a different format if we are to make progress in the future. Maybe we should subcontract Avaaz to run the next one virtually and crowd source some common sense instead?

2 responses to “RIO + 20 – the end of the road for the grand international conference?”

  1. Jennifer Lentfer Says:

    The fact that we spend precious little time thinking about, let alone resolving, the issue of who is considered the most important “experts” to include in these mega-meetings is of concern to me too. For example, I’ve been preparing for the upcoming XIX International AIDS Conference in July here in D.C. I wonder of those 25,000+ “experts” gathered, how many have lived, “on-the-ground” expertise? How many participants have cared for their dying neighbor or counseled a child who has lost a parent? Let me say, not enough. There is a cost to all of us when the best minds and perspectives are continually left out of the dialogues that ultimately influence and affect resource flows.

    With blogs and social media, this can change. We are expanding the very notion of who is an “expert,” albeit slowly. We need credible and articulate and confident people from the grassroots who are dependent upon sustainable development who are willing to speak up AND credible, articulate, and confident leaders willing to share the stage.

  2. Mansoor Ali Says:

    I am slightly optimistic about these grand meetings. They provide a reference point for all to work on the common goals and may assist governments and donors to align their priorities. On the other hand, these conferences mirror very much the top down institutional culture, we live in. Many governments are a small model of such hierarchies.

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