More than 130 world leaders are meeting in Rio de Janeiro this week for Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. Few experts believe these presidents and prime ministers will come to any groundbreaking international agreements.

It may not matter.

The real progress on the themes of the conference — a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and the necessary institutional framework — could happen at the side events, the cocktail parties, even the chance meetings in hotel lobbies. After all, at least 50,000 stakeholders – corporate and civil society leaders, environmentalists and aid officials among them – will also be attending the summit, reinforcing old relationships and forming new ones, as they look for ways to align their interests with the conference goals.

A delegation from the International Business Leaders Forum, for example, will meet with fellow members of the Business Call to Action, a global membership platform that encourages private sector companies to create profitable businesses that boost development. They will also discuss ways to embed sustainability principles in management education.

“I have huge hopes for these kinds of things,” says Graham Baxter, senior adviser for the organization, “but no hope in hell of anything getting done at the global level.”

He remembers his experience from a decade ago at the United Nations sustainable development conference in Johannesburg, the 10-year follow-up to the Earth Summit, which also took place in Rio. Baxter attended as part of the solar delegation of BP, the London-based global oil and gas company.

“I spent an interesting few days talking about solar panels and solar power,” he remembers. “In the evenings, I was very buoyant, while my colleagues who were engaged with the U.N. process were very miserable.”

While formulating international agreements is never easy, the current global economic problems are making the attempts at Rio+20, which is scheduled for June 20-22, even tougher than usual. Countries are hoping growth will pull them out of the doldrums, with its unsavory consequences being of secondary concern. Then, there are the distracting effects of debt crises in Europe and national elections in the United States, which many believe are behind U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision not to attend. The U.K.’s David Cameron, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Japan’s Yoshihiko Noda have also sent their regrets.

Still, at Rio, the United Nations will push sustainable growth — and its economic, environmental and social benefits — to the forefront of global planning. The declaration world leaders will sign at the end of the three-day gathering is expected to include a call for sustainable development goals that could pave the way toward a global framework to replace the Millennium Development Goals, which expire in 2015.

Although Rio+20 may not turn out to be the watershed moment for sustainable development that some have hoped it would be, what is ultimately decided at the summit could shape the work of the aid community for years to come.

The telling tale of the ‘zero draft’

Rio+20’s challenge began with the shaping of the summit declaration. The drafting process was led by the permanent representatives to the United Nations of South Korea as well as Antigua and Barbuda, with support from the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, headed by Undersecretary-General Sha Zukang.

Work started in 2010 on ideas that might be included. After a series of talks in 2011, the so-called “zero draft” was released in January 2012. It ran 19 pages and included 128 paragraphs. Pre-conference negotiations continued to shape the document, with the EU, United States, G-77, Association of Small Island States, Japan and the Nordics all making major contributions.

The plan: representatives would prepare 90 percent of it in advance, leaving the toughest 10 percent for the leaders to work out in Rio. But the 90 percent quickly became unwieldy; the negotiations contentious. World Wildlife Foundation Director General Jim Leape warned the talks might collapse.

The main difficulties lay in prioritizing among the many issues that countries care about: food security, water, oceans, energy, gender. Some wanted to emphasize the inclusion of groups that haven’t traditionally been given equal power: women, minorities, indigenous peoples and the youth. Others championed the use of technology to hasten progress on all fronts.

And every nation looked out for its own perceived best interests.

“The small island developing states wanted a segment on their particular problem. And so did the mountain states, and the least developed countries,” explains Melinda Kimble, who focused on the draft as part of her work for the U.N. Foundation, where she is senior vice president and oversees the International Bioenergy Initiative.

Developed countries resisted the concept of technology transfer as part of the summit declaration. And even terminology became problematic. Though “green economy” is one of the conference themes, countries continue to argue over its definition. Developing countries seem concerned that green growth is code for protectionism, and may be used to stifle the progress they anxiously need to lift their citizens out of poverty.

Institutional issues divided the negotiators, too. Should the U.N. Environment Program become a specialized agency? The United States and Japan said no. The EU was in favor. Should the Commission on Sustainable Development become a Sustainable Development Council, as Norway suggested? Should the United Nations start adopting sustainable development goals? What to do about the Millennium Development Goals come 2015: Let them expire? Replace? Extend with minor tweaks?

Ultimately, pre-conference negotiations ended with barely a third of the conference declaration’s language finalized, insiders reported Friday. Agreement has been reached on generalities like reaffirming the commitment to sustainable development and promising to help least developed countries implement the Istanbul Program of Action.

World leaders must now decide the rest in frantic last-minute talks prior to and at the Rio gathering, as the world watches and chimes in via Facebook (UNRioplus20), Twitter (#futurewewant and #Rioplus20) and other channels. In the months leading up to the summit, the United Nations Foundation and Devex have been highlighting sustainable development solutions by some of the world’s leading thinkers and doers as part of a joint campaign called Rio+Solutions.

The post-MDG agenda

The conference will provide guidance to the United Nations and its partners on a global development accord to succeed the Millennium Declaration.

“The world community seems to be coalescing around the idea of sustainable development goals to follow the MDG-period,” says Jeffrey Sachs, the economist and director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute in New York.

Indeed, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has suggested countries should focus on SDGs in the years ahead. But skepticism remains: Some aid experts are adamant that the MDGs should not be retired before its targets have been reached. Others worry about the burden two sets of development goals would place on the international community. And some simply question whether world leaders will be able to agree on a set of global SDGs that is as ambitious as it is workable.

Ban’s recent appointment of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron to a high-level panel that will craft a set of goals for the post-2015 world adds a wrinkle to the hopes for Rio. Will the leaders there set up a negotiating process, or wait for the panel’s draft recommendations, which could come in within a year?

Negotiating processes are expensive and slow, and as Rio+20 reminded us, agonizingly difficult. Keep in mind that the MDGs were not independently negotiated, but pulled from previously agreed-upon goals. Though Rio+20 comes very early in the process of developing the post-MDG agenda, it could play a significant role in it.

What the leaders at Rio+20 ultimately agree on in the outcome document — on energy and water, city planning, unemployment or any of the other issues on the table — will be a concrete step towards “the future we want,” which is the slogan for the summit.

Rio’s impact on foreign aid

Rio+20’s emphasis on sustainable development will push the aid community to hone in on the “triple-bottom-line,” as experts call it. This includes the economic, environmental and social implications of its work.

“It will reinforce the environmental side of the development agenda,” says J. Brian Atwood, chair of the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation’s Development Assistance Committee.

About $22 billion of the $130 billion of official development assistance already goes toward climate change work, but going forward, development workers in other sectors, like health, education and agriculture, will also need to think more specifically about the environmental and social consequences of their projects, alongside the potential economic benefits.

“They’re all interdependent and you can’t achieve one without thinking of the others,” says Dirk Willem te Velde, head of the International Economic Development Group at the Overseas Development Institute. “It’s increasingly clear that planetary boundaries and environmental challenges are setting a framework for economic development and poverty reduction. We need to change the mindset.”

Evolving approaches to development work will be discussed at Rio+20, especially at the sideline events. Experts are emphasizing the need for solutions that are incubated within the countries that must adopt them, and then assisted by external funding and expertise, which is how India, China and Brazil have made great gains: They’ve developed strategies that match their population and their resource base and pursued them with a combination of domestic and outside support.

There will be more talk about partnerships — between rich and poor, public and private actors, north and south and within the Global South — instead of a paternalistic approach to development.

“The more forward-looking companies are realizing that they’ve got to embrace this for business reasons,” says Maura O’Neill, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s chief innovation officer, about the corporate sector’s growing engagement in development causes. “It is possible to do great prosperous business advances and also step more lightly on the earth.”

Examples are manifold – and some not without critics. Take genetically modified seeds, for instance, which may be more drought-resistant and thus produce more sustainable crop yields. Or a five-year partnership between PepsiCo, the Inter-American Development Bank and others to create a sustainable market for sunflowers while providing loans and an income source for about 850 Mexican farmers.

As world leaders push sustainable development, they are also highlighting the importance of good governance and strong institutions – public, private and civil society.

“The global upheaval we have all over the world stems from dissatisfaction that people have with the misuse of resources,” says Richard Joseph, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who focuses on the global economy and development. The stakeholders at Rio+20, he suggests, should address “how to go from objectives to operations when institutions are weak. Currently, the gap between the potential for progress and reality is well under 50 percent.”

Then, there’s the critical issue of measuring success.

“The whole system of creating goals, holding people accountable, doing surveys, has created progress,” says Atwood. “It motivates the development community.”

Will any of this get us closer to providing a habitable world for our great-great grandchildren? Only time — and a lot of it — will tell. An elongated time frame is one of the top challenges advocates for sustainable development face. It may take a while to measure success, and this conflicts with most politicians’ focus on shorter-term goals and their own re-election.

In the meantime, there’s some exasperation about meetings-after-meetings-after-meetings that don’t seem to accomplish much.

“A lot of people go from city to city, taking part in meetings to talk about these things,” says Joseph. “At a recent one in D.C., one person said we should aim for fewer meetings, and everyone applauded.”

Consider the alarming carbon footprint of Rio+20 itself, after 50,000 participants have flown in, negotiated and networked, then flown home. That’s a lot of jet fuel. Better make it worth our while.

Tell us what you think! Comment below or tweet to @devex with #RioPlusSolutions, and catch up on other Rio+Solutions content here or on Facebook.

About the author

  • Rebecca Webber

    Rebecca Webber is a Devex correspondent based in New York City. A graduate of Georgetown University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, she has covered news, women's issues, politics, health and personal finance for publications such as Psychology Today, Parade, More, Real Simple and Glamour. She also teaches writing for Mediabistro.