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Rio+20: Pessimism Pervades NGOs

Despite governments' claims of progress, NGOs are less than pleased.
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A discussion at the Peoples Summit at Rio+20. Photograph by Florian Kopp, CIDSE.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil:

For NGOs at Rio+20, a palpable air of pessimism has hung over the summit. Initial perceived failures to reach agreements on issues integral to a new era for sustainable development have been compounded by an inability of NGOs to project their voice. However, this appraisal of initial pessimism was not one shared by governments keen to project progress.

At the end of last week it was announced that delegations negotiating on the conference outcome document before heads of state arrive in Brazil today had failed to reach an agreement. While a paltry 37% of the outcome document was agreed upon – a 15% increase on the amount agreed at the end of three separate negotiations held in New York this year – government delegations none the less rose to report "considerable" or "significant" progress. Realism was conspicuous by its absence.

To salvage an agreement, and consequently its own image, the Brazilian government drafted a new compromise document, the 'Brazilian text', the final version of which was released yesterday. The document is by and large supported by the G77 and China. The EU and "JUSCANZ” (which includes the likes of Japan, the US, Canada and Australia) however, have concerns over many elements of the text.

Moving goalposts

Most NGOs see the less prescriptive language around the contested and ill-defined "green economy" concept as something of a victory. Added to this is the re-affirmation of a series of rights, including to water and food, and also the Right to Development. "Common but differentiated responsibility" – namely, that rich countries should pay more for having contributed more to the problem – is also included in the text. However, sexual and reproductive rights have been watered down to an issue of access, while deep concerns remain around the eulogising of the private sector, on which no negotiating block has sought to impose greater regulation while simultaneously granting it greater responsibility. And although addressing unsustainable production and consumption underpins all three pillars of sustainable development, Rio+20 – like the Earth Summit before it – will not allow the economic system to be examined.

Throughout the process leading up to Rio+20 – indeed up to the entry of the Brazilian government – there had been a discernible regression around rights and equity principles, led by the richest countries and reflected in attempts to delete or "bracket" – i.e. leave un-agreed – 20-year-old Earth Summit principles.

The now enshrined rights to food and water became the issues of "access to food" and "access to water." The "fundamental right of universal access to health" was pared down to recognising "the importance of universal health coverage”, a fight led by the US which vigorously opposed the "fundamental" in negotiations. Even poverty eradication had been re-qualified as eradicating "extreme poverty”. For progressive NGOs which have expended much time and energy battling back-tracking on these principles, the victory is a defensive one framed around a struggle to get states to re-commit to what they supposedly have already endorsed.

What did NGOs do about this situation?

Access to the various rooms where groups negotiated on the text was patchy. On many occasions, either through lack of space or the decision of the group chair, NGOs and other "Major Groups”, supposedly stakeholders in Rio+20, had even their ability to observe negotiations restricted. This reflected a trend that began in New York where NGOs were restricted to five minutes of input at the end of every session.

The ability of NGOs and other Major Groups to get messages to the media through press conferences is also minimal – there is one press conference a day for the hundreds of organisations that make up the nine Major Groups comprising NGOs, women, farmers, indigenous peoples, business and industry, children and youth, trade unions, science and technology, and local authorities.

The bulk of NGO activists are to be found at the "Cúpula dos Povos," the People's Summit, which began last week and lies a two-hour bus ride away from RioCentro. Consequently protests have been absent in RioCentro, where 24 hours notice and a UN permit are required. The small mobilisations seen within the centre so far have been seized upon by otherwise unoccupied press photographers. NGOs have been divided, and if not ruled, at least stifled.

The situation faced by NGOs is cast against a corporate agenda many progressive NGOs feel is taking precedence at Rio+20 and threatening its entire raison d’être. There is a lack of will to regulate the private sector in the outcome document while at the same time shifting more responsibility to it. The US suggested in one meeting that a strengthened UN Environment Programme or its replacement at the UN could be backed by private sector funding. Just as galling is the access of the tent for business and industry at Rio+20. In stark contrast to the distant People's Summit, it lies across the road from RioCentro.

Heads of state – or in the case of the US and UK, their proxies – arrive in Rio today. While the official message will doubtless be one of great progress for people and planet, there remain strong reasons for pessimism on the part of NGOs.

Mark Dearn is at Rio+20 with Philippines-based NGO IBON International. He represents NGOs on the Rio+20 Major Groups Media Advisory Committee.

This article was originally published here in the Huffington Post.

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