As I’ve traveled again today to New York for an additional week of Rio+20 negotiations at the UN, it's time to address perhaps the most common question people are asking as the Earth Summit is approaching: Is it worth all the effort?
The slow pace of negotiations causes frustration and pain at all levels, from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon , to elder statespersons like Gro Harlem Brundtland and Fernando Henrique Cardoso to NGOs and Trade Union organization. Frustration and fatigue is the most widely shared feeling at all sustainability summits because it isn't easy to reconcile the tension between the three pillars of sustainable development (economic, social and environmental). There are also too many differing vested interests among the 193 UN member States, as well as among this nebulous corps described as "civil society". This tends to bring everyone down toward the lowest common denominator, and inevitably those with higher ambitions we are rarely happy when we go home.
So, why is it that despite the flaws, almost everyone comes back and gets involved whenever another summit is announced? Why are the UN and civil society so addicted, as if these summits were their (our) cocaine? Here are five reasons I can see why so many NGOs always come back.
1. Agenda-setting: The truth is that most of the progress in international policy in the last decades finds its origin in one or more citizen groups who’ve championed new policies and measures. I can remember a few instances where the initiative came directly from within a government or the UN but these are exceptions, and even with these the first thing the government or the UN does is to reach out to, and strategize with, potential allies from within the NGO community as a key element of an outreach approach.
2. Damage control: International policy doesn’t move in a straight line, it goes back and forth influenced by factors that often have little or nothing to do with the subject matters (changes of parliamentary majority and leadership in key countries, financial and other crisis take up attention and resources to the detriment of environmental and social issues, a committed government minister is replaced, etc.) or that are directly relevant (lobbying by sectorial interests, change of public perception…) That’s the watchdog function of NGOs; to fulfill it one needs to be there to see what’s going on, help the allies, destabilize and neutralize the adversaries, and bear witness. The web of multilateral environmental instruments, made up of a combination of legally-binding treaties and conventions, action plans and agreements contained in political declarations is like a football playing field; we’re reaching the end of the second half of the game, but we don’t know if we’ll be granted extra time (and penalty shoot outs).
3. Window dressing: For many non-State actors, a summit is an opportunity to give visibility to their own work, even though it can be difficult among so much background noise. Since Rio’92, the host countries of major intergovernmental meetings provide facilities, including entire pavilions, for governments and private entities to display their work and to debate on their own terms. Entities that are worlds apart use these opportunities in their own ways, and Rio+20 will be no exception with – for example – the Corporate Sustainability Forum on the one hand and the People’sSummit on the other. These fora are handy for the media in search of stories and background pictures, especially when the political negotiation is deadlocked in private rooms and there is little to show and report there.
4. Recognition and visibility: Some private entities, including some NGOs, like to say they’ve been part of it even if they’ve not really been an active part of it. You can bet that the 2012 Corporate Social Responsibility reports of many corporations will say that they were in Rio even if it’s hard to tell what they’ve actually done (or even if what they’ve done was undermining progress). Of course the same also happens with some NGOs; for example some flag on their websites they have Consultative Status within the UN Economic and Social Council (like more than 3500 NGOs across the world) as if it was a great achievement. The good news is that often NGO representatives who come for the first time get it fast and become shining stars after (or even during) their first experience. Another good news: not everything in the private sector is greenwashing: there is an increasing constituency of committed green entrepreneurs who are changing the patterns of production, trade and consumption; among those who were already at Rio’92 and Johannesburg 02 also some have learned the lessons of their mistakes and they should be encouraged.
5. Family reunion: An Earth Summit looks like a large family gathering and its most trivial aspects can be irritating. So it's important is that it be full of tensions, intrigues, alliances, separations and divorce, shouts, screams, tears, and also laughter. Like in any large family.
This blogpiece is also available in español, HERE (ÁQUI) on the website of the Spanish news agency EFE.