Spotlight G-20 & Rio+20: Challenges of sustainable development: beyond the G20 and Rio +20 Summits

Alejandro Chanona, guest blogger

The 1992 Rio Declaration identifies the “right to development” as the synthesis of existing human rights, such as the right to a proper life, to higher levels of health, education, housing, job and food. However, there is a big gap between states’ discourse in support of sustainable development and the well-being of the individual and the actions and commitments needed to achieve them.

The fundamental problem is that, since 1992, there was an attempt to implement an ideal model of development (sustainable development) without changing the dominant economic paradigm. Quite to the contrary: that paradigm became more deeply entrenched. The redefinition of global development since the 1987 Brundtland Report and the 1992 Earth Summit, which is the context for the Millennium Goals, coincided with the most speculative handling of the economy and its securitization, creating a contradiction that persists until today.

The neoliberal economic model has displayed its limits: the recurring economic crises and the widening social gaps have brought globalization to a true ethical crisis. Globalization socializes losses and privatizes gains, deepening the gaps and inequities. The neoliberal economic model has been unable to spread well-being. The G20 and Rio+20 Summits were held in a context of widespread crisis. In both cases, the results were limited.  The Rio+20 Summit did not become the milestone to launch a new narrative of development.
1. Conceptual challenges

In addition to renewing and expanding its supporting values and principles (solidarity, intergenerational justice, international cooperation, shared responsibility, well-being etc., we must clarify the concept and scope of sustainable development. It is necessary to redefine the concept of development, its content, its empirical references and its multidimensional character.

A change of paradigm must be accompanied by a renewed discursive-conceptual framework, as well as new indicators to measure social well-being. A paradigm shift also suggests the need to abandon non-comprehensive and short-term strategies for the fight against poverty based on minimalist monetary indicators. Therefore, a new set of indicators for development is needed which would mean a profound redefinition of international society, the state, and humanity itself.  We need to firmly promote a comprehensive and multidimensional vision that recognizes the interconnections among development, equity and the environment; this interconnection is effectively summarized in the concept of sustainable development. The purpose is to generate a new discourse that can permeate daily life, public and social arenas, bilateral, regional and multilateral forums, and finally be incorporated into a new narrative for the tasks of national and global politics and policies.

2. Challenges of the economic model and the State

The difficulty in achieving the development and human well-being goals lies in the failure of the neoliberal economic paradigm. Over past decades, the global economy has been characterized by constant crises that have originated with a common denominator of speculation in financial markets. The neoliberal narrative about the magic of free markets and the logic of their self-regulation are broken down. It is time to restoring legitimate, fundamental rights and the right to social and economic development for the majority in the face of private interests of corporations and speculation.

Among the populace, there is a widespread feeling of weariness because of the mediocrity of its leaders, the recurrent economic crises, and the fact that people have to pay for financial bailouts that only make banking elites richer and society as a whole poorer. This results in social movements such as Occupy Wall Street, the Indignados of 15-M in Spain, and #yosoy132 in Mexico, among others.

The current crisis of the international system as a whole opens up the possibility of rethinking the relationship between State and market, and the dominant paradigm that has held sway for several decades. The State should recompose redefineits position towards society and towards markets, seeking formulas to achieve a real balance of the inequalities that arise from markets due to their very nature, increasing capacity for creating jobs and for the equitable distribution of wealth, regulating speculative activities, improving conditions for transparency and accountability, and opening up channels to greater social participation in public decision-making and policy implementation.

3. Challenges of the green economy

One of the challenges is the transition to a green economy that will strengthen the economic capacities of States and incorporate components such as social development and environmental protection, that is to say, the three pillars of sustainable development. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), a green economy is a system of economic activities related to the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services that results in improved human well-being over the long term, whilst not exposing future generations to significant environmental risks and ecological scarcities.

Progress towards this new focus has faced several problems, including perception regarding minimum-to-null economic benefits and the elevated cost of investment relative to low profit rates. Debate continues to date on how to finance a green economy.

In terms of green economy, the challenges are clear:

  • Avoiding a uni-dimensional definition centered on the environmental issue, without considering  economic development and social equity dimensions.
  • Generating flexible policy frameworks that respect the differences among countries and enable their adaption to national particularities and needs.
  • Guaranteeing that countries especially developed ones) do not use the green economy for trade- protectionist purposes
  • Redefining the relationship between the State and the private sector.  Mechanisms of regulation, accountability and transparency should be established.

4. Operational Challenges

Public policy needs to be set in motion in countries where ideal sustainable development can be reached. This will require a broad-based agreement in regards to a minimum common denominator of policies that all States should implement and a commitment to use specific indicators to measure progress. These policies should contemplate short, medium and long-term goals and should be developed with a cross-cutting focus in order to address all three pillars of the sustainable development model.

5. Participation Challenges

Activating a new paradigm grounded in the logic of sustainable development will require a broad-based alliance among civil society, the private sector and the State. The State needs to redefine its role and assume full responsibility for the welfare of the population. The State should be a protagonist in promoting and consolidating this paradigm of sustainable development.

6. Challenges related to international cooperation

It is critical to renew the international cooperation agreements and their development financing mechanisms. In the former case, it is essential to redefine the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.” Nowadays, it is no longer possible to simply categorize countries as either “developed” or “developing”. New commitments should also be forthcoming from emerging market economies and middle-income countries. Regarding financing for development, clear rules about operations, monitoring and accountability must accompany the deployment of mechanisms for disbursement of Official Development Assistance.

Alejandro Chanona is Professor at the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and is currently coordinating the research project, ‘Debating Development Models and Human Security’.

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[1] United Nations Environment Programme, XVII Meeting of the Forum of Ministers of Environment of Latin America and the Caribbean, General Information that can be used by the Ministers and Heads of Delegation for the dialogue on Green Economy, [UNEP/LAC‑ IG.XVII/4], Panama City, Panama, 26 to 30 April 2010.

[2] Cfr. Martin Khor,  “Global debate on green economy”, The Star, Malaysia, 24 January 2011. Available in: TWN Update on Sustainable Development Conference 2012 (Jan11/01)
25 January 2011
Third World Network. <http://www.twnside.org.sg/title2/sdc2012/sdc2012.110101.htm>