The development community reacts to Rio+20 agreement

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during a food security side event held on the last day of the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development. Photo by: Eskinder Debebe / UN

The future we want may be decades away, but its blueprint is now available for download.

That’s the conclusion at last week’s U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which ended Friday, June 22, with the signing by world leaders of an agreement that is expected to influence development cooperation for years to come.

U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said in her address Friday to the Rio+20 plenary that, “We have coalesced around an outcome document that marks a real advance for sustainable development.”

But critics used much less congratulatory language as they reviewed the document, which had been condemned before proceedings even began.

“That the Rio outcome fell short of the highest expectations was not only predictable, it was predicted — by everybody,” wrote Foreign Policy Senior Fellow Bruce Jones on the first day of the conference. Foreign Policy had called Rio “a failed summit” by the time it opened.

Governments, the private sector and civil society committed more than $500 billion on efforts to advance sustainable development during the three-day event. But only a smattering of noteworthy announcements were made on the third and final day:

  • The United States launched a partnership that aims to link hundreds of millions of private sector dollars with clean energy projects in Africa. The partnership comprises part of the U.S. commitment to the U.N. Sustainable Energy for All campaign, and will provide $20 million in government grants to African business owners. Collaborators include the U.S. Trade and Development AgencyState Department and Overseas Private Investment Corp.

  • Clinton also announced an agreement with more than 400 companies to support eliminating deforestation caused by their supply chains by 2020.

  • U.K. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced a national competition worth 3 million pounds ($4.7 million) to reward innovative ideas for sustainability. The contest will focus on “greeniuses” who are coming up with technological solutions to energy, food and water problems. Proposals are subject to a “value for money assessment.”

  • The EU and Brazil signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a dialogue on agriculture that aims to promote bilateral technical cooperation in agriculture and rural development.

  • Norway signed a green energy cooperation agreement worth 850 million Norwegian kronor ($142 million) with Ethiopia, Kenya and Liberia. Funds from the performance-based financing will be disbursed over five years.

The lack of tangible decisions made during the conference led some participants to refer to the event as “Rio Minus 20” or “Rio Plus 20 Minus 40.” Overall, opinion surrounding the outcome of the summit remained low:

  • ClimateProgress wrote that several of the U.S. announcements made during the conference were about old programs that had been re-packaged for the conference. But it did say the U.S. initiative to partner with African business for clean energy was indeed a new partnership.

  • Gro Harlem Brundtland said the outcome document leaves out reproductive rights, an omission she called “a step backwards.” She was not alone in her criticism. Family planning advocates, including the International Planned Parenthood Federation, said reproductive rights had once again been sidelined.

  • WWF International Director General Jim Leape said the final text is a “caricature of diplomacy.” But Leape drew hope from the individual actions of governments, the private sector and civil society to forge a clear path to sustainable development.

  • Human Rights Watch listed the ways it felt governments fell short at Rio+20 by neglecting to codify important rights and freedoms such as expression and assembly in the final document. It did make note of the new inclusion of the universal right to food, safe water and sanitation.

  • The Guardian posted a video of climate protestors who claimed the final text was a betrayal to future generations, implying that dissatisfaction with Rio outcomes was not limited to official delegates or policy wonks. Reproduced tweets on the site suggested that China, on the other hand, was satisfied.

  • A World Wildlife Fund text analysis of the outcome document revealed that while governments “encouraged,” “supported” or “reaffirmed” 208 things, they only committed with the phrase “we will” five times. Delegations will now prepare for a September meeting of the United Nations, where a working group of 30 countries will identify areas of priority and targets for sustainable development goals.

  • The lack of commitments to timetables and outcomes is a “huge setback for Africa and other developing regions of the world,” Africa Progress Panel members Michel Camdessus and Muhammad Yunus opined.

  • Pakistan’s former environment minister Malik Amin Aslam Khan said the outcome document “has everything that everybody wanted but misses out on the most important ingredient — a focus as well as a concrete action plan to provide some credence to this general statement of good intent.”

  • Cielito Habito of the Philippines pointed out that despite international agreements at Rio, it was still up to regional organizations to facilitate cooperation and collaboration, and individual nations to mainstream sustainable development into domestic planning and execution.

  • For German Advisory Council on Global Change chairman Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, global leaders made “a lot of noise” at Rio+20 but weren’t able to tackle any single problem “resolutely.” Schellnhuber suggests we now need “pioneers from all spheres of the world community.”

  • Sustainable development lecturer Peter Doran says the results of Rio+20 “said more about the state of geopolitics than any advance in sustainability.” For him, the most interesting thing that came out of the conference is the realization that the “West’s power to define development — even green versions — has begun to recede.”

  • The United Nations, academic Ilan Safit said, seems to have “given up on the role it can play in shaping a global community along the lines of ideas, identity, and identification, rather than restricting such important summits to practicalities.”

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About the author

  • Jennifer Brookland

    Jennifer Brookland is a former Devex global development reporter based in Washington, D.C. She has worked as a humanitarian reporter for the United Nations and as an investigative journalist for News21. Jennifer holds a bachelor's in foreign service from Georgetown University and a master's in journalism from Columbia University and in international law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School. She also served for four years as an Air Force officer.