Poverty crowns the Rio+20 Summit


Next week, precisely on 20th to 22nd June 2012, the world’s attention will be drawn to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD). This will be exactly twenty years after United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992 where 178 countries, 108 of who were represented by their Heads of State or government, brought into signature the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and adopted Agenda 21.

These were viewed as global blue prints to ending poverty and for sustainable development. Notably some 2,400 representatives of NGOs and other 17,000 people also participated at the parallel NGO Global Forum.

Whereas the Rio 1992 summit rightly concluded that sustainable development can happen only if global poverty levels are dramatically reduced, poverty alleviation measures have been dismal. The World Bank 2008 data estimates indicate that number of people living on under $1.25 a day is at about 1.4 billion worldwide, half of whom are Sub-Saharan African. The October 2011 UNEP report on the progress of implementation of the Rio principles titled “Keeping track on our changing environment” indicates that despite repeated reaffirmation, the progress has not only been very slow but also poor on the major goals set out in Rio.

Within these twenty years, many changes have been experienced. According to the European Journal of Social Sciences (Vol. 16, No. 4 of 2010) Poverty in Africa has become one of the major problems hampering the growth and development of the continent. In 2009, 22 of 24 nations identified as having “Low Human Development” on the United Nations Human Development Index were located in Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2006, 34 of the 50 nations on the UN list of least developed countries were in Africa. Africa’s share of income has been consistently dropping over the past century by any measure.

In an article in the Journal of African Economies, Prof. Jeffrey Sachs, says that the average European worker in 1820s earned about three times what the average African did. Today, Sachs says, that has changed and the average European earns twenty times what the average African does.

It is such inequalities and their ever increasing gaps that the Rio Summit in 2012 grapple with. We need explanations why poverty has continued to increase in the developing world even as the efforts towards development and improved environmental conditions remain high on the global agenda in the last two decades. Developing countries on the other hand must revisit the statement by Ivory Coast in 1972 in Stockholm where she stated that, “it would prefer more pollution problems [in comparison to poverty problems], “in so far as they are evidence of industrialization”.

Poverty as manifest in Africa (and may be the rest of the World) does also emanate not only from the moral crisis that is born out of globalisation but also from the propping of globalisation by global structures like the UN, the IMF and the World Bank under their various programmes like structural adjustment programmes and to some extent even the MDGs. Within this, communities have systematically been attacked, equated with backwardness and vigorously replaced by individualism, celebritism and consumerism. The very basic duties and obligations to each other and to the rest of God’s creation have been abandoned.

No wonder there is so much plunder and impunity toward people and nature, from North America to Korea and from The North Pole to the South Pole. Effectively, globalization can therefore be said to have prepared the fertile grounds for the rise of a global demagogue, just as it was before the rise of Hitler.

It is for this reason that the so called post-2015 development agenda that Rio+20 is supposed to launch must be one that unmasks and negates the ideological “truths” underpinning globalisation because the dominant model of development – economic, political and social – has failed and it would be unethical and risky for humanity to continue in that path. Rio+20 must stop globalisation’s unprecedented assault on most of the Earth’s life-support systems, including human dignity. Rio+20 must stop the use of human labour, creativity, intelligence and natural resources to profit only a few because such negates the very notion of sustainable development. Rio+20 must bring to an end the confusion that growth of gross domestic product equals to progress in society.

Rio+20 must clearly state that poverty is not a technical challenge in which categories of inequality and social justice are neglected. In short, Rio+20 must transform Sustainable Development from being a mere phrase into a day-to-day reality in people’s lives. I want to speculate that it is the fear of this enormous challenge that Rio+20 is facing – that also questions governance and leadership – which is making many Heads of States and governments opt to stay away from Rio.

It is therefore incumbent upon every African delegate in Rio, whether a Heads of States or Government, a public servant or an NGO activist to ensure that Rio settles for not less than a “People before Profits” or “Life before Death” development and global governance paradigm within a strict adherence of the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities.

Anything short of this should be completely snubbed. Rio and those who want to continue perpetuating global inequality and injustices must be told (using the words of Indira Gandhi in a similar conference in 1972 in Stockholm, Sweden) that “poverty is the worst form of pollution”. It must be made clear that, Africa and the underdeveloped world, would be better-off with no deal at all than having a deal that procrastinates facing the real issues.

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