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Rio Summit: Why The UN Puppets over The Real Change Makers?

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By Ankur Sohanpal:

The Rio+20 Conference in 2012, was primarily called as an urgent global environmental intervention — I think a handful of visionary environmentalists of the world must have foreseen what was to come (what exists today) and convinced powerful heads of states and UN officials about how catastrophic is could be to the world. Then many such conferences followed — some centred around collective governmental policy interventions and some concentrating on PPPs (public private partnerships). Most of them, involved collective high level actions for climate change, pollution, deforestation, displacement of indigenous communities, global health indicators, global water and sanitation, energy conservation and access, ‘millennium’ goals of development and whatnot. Here, high level means that the decisions were made by ‘high-level’ people — heads of member states of UN, of important multilaterals and other international organizational heads. The percolation of agreed actions to the grassroots level was subtly assumed.

For example, the Rio+20 conference in 1992 or UNCED (United Nations Conference on Environment and Development) concentrated on water, alternative sources of energy to replace fossil fuels and reverse ecological degradation. IPCC (Inter-governmental panel on climate change) facilitated the Kyoto protocol- an environmental treaty. Then followed the Millennium Summit, again attended by world leaders. These again were interspersed with conferences on sustainable developments — the CSDs (Commission on Sustainable Development).

Now let us take a ‘goals and achievement’ view of the situation. Most of these conferences set goals on the broader goals to be achieved, and discussed the funds that would be allocated (volunteered to be delivered by member states, many failing to deliver even that) towards the same. No one could have chosen a more round about pathway for this. Take the MDGs for example — the targets and the method of approach were always controversial, but they were then topped with ultimate underperformance in cases of nutrition, sanitation and others. Agricultural interventions for smallholders-poor farmers, who contribute to most of the food in the world were not prioritized and consequently look where we stand now — millions of babies and people in the world either starve for lack of food (1 billion hungry in the world — just read anything on the hunger crises in African countries), or have to eat less than sufficient and suffer mental debilitation for the rest of their lives.

Lack of water and fuels causes mental distress to most of the poor world and also exposes women to violence. The MDGs related to water may have been achieved, but there are still many children who die under the age-of-5 from preventable diseases contracted by contaminated water. A new study that our Union Development minister supported even suggested that poor water and sanitation are linked to malnutrition and subsequent death of a large majority of our country’s children, and probably children elsewhere in the world as well.

Access to energy is another issue — people still light their dark houses with kerosene lamps, exposing themselves to dangers of fire, and having their productive hours reduced by a dramatic number. Women and children suffer from the toxic smoke that indoor stoves let off while cooking — about 2 million people worldwide die of this affliction, called the indoor air pollution. I am very sure, that the broad headings like ‘sustainable development’ and ‘poverty eradication’ are given because even the member states must be sure that they are missing some or the other developmental issue, after all this time. In the end, it is safe to say — the potential of such conferences has not been fully realized, and hence, perhaps, the opportunity of having all the major powers of the world has gone in vain.

I have no objection to the initial intentions of all the aforementioned conferences. I believe they were initiated in the right spirit. Perhaps, the execution got messed up in the way — how else would you describe global level conferences that have underperformed after substantial investments and time? What could have been done better?

I think there is a lot that can be done:

An apt example of innovation in progress would be a farmer coming up with a hand-operated water irrigation pump, against what he would have never been able to buy. An example of progress in implementation is an English-uneducated insurance agent from a village who ensures that his village folk save money for community insurances by using recurring deposits, thereby insuring themselves against risk. Take a million such examples, and you will find that social entrepreneurs and micro entrepreneurs, the former the more self-aware, educated (Harvard, Stanford, IIM-A, being the well-known institutions producing such people, also, look into Ashoka changemakers, and ‘Unreasonable’ fellows) class of people, and the latter the mainstay of economies in the majority of the world — rural and urban underserved pockets, have individually made the most developmental difference.

To have the base level implementers who have always been innovating without help and succeeding at it, would be better suited to drive detailed discussions of these global conferences. The corporations, the organizations and the governments stand to benefit from this, as innovation would cut costs, be more impactful and put the sponsors of the innovating changemakers in the spotlight for global acclaim. This is, I believe, a strategy that India must use. Being a nation that still accepts aid, cannot adequately feed more than half its population, and cannot make 60 per cent of its population use toilets for bodily disposals, innovative models are not lacking. To use these innovators who have the best knowledge of the grassroots scenario and markets as their champions would be the most obvious thing to do.

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  1. Aakanksha

    A very thoughtful article. I fully agree with you that it is the grassroots level innovators that have done more for the poor and rural people than the various government schemes.

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