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Rotary International President Elect Gary Huang Addresses RFPD Membership at Annual General Meeting in Lisbon1716 days ago
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A Letter From Our Chairperson1716 days ago
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Clergy Forum: United Nations Conference leaves attendees with more questions than answers
Category: Population | By RFPD, 16-Aug-2012 | Viewed 2150  Comments 1 | Source Whittier Daily News
By Judy Prather, Ph.D. 

My husband and I have just returned from 10 days in Rio de Janeiro attending the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, popularly shortened to Rio+20 as it occurred two decades after the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio in 1992.  That meeting was best known as the Earth Summit. Press reports, to the limited extent that there have been any, have characterized the results of the current conference as disappointing.  The agreement of governments outlined only aspirations for sustainable development in a wide range of areas but set no timelines or specific objectives let alone any new agreements to limit greenhouse gas emissions or other pollutants where progress over the past 20 years has been far short of that envisioned in Rio in 1992.

However, the official deliberations were only one part of a much larger event - a conference which brought together activists and experts from around the world, including more Nobel laureates than have ever been assembled in one place before. Those deliberations provided evidence of commitment and action and of hope even if the official outcome was disappointing.   I attended the 1992 Rio conference and was elected chair of the delegation of North American nongovernmental organizations, and I also attended the 10-year follow-up conference in South Africa.  Though the promise of Rio 1992 has not been fulfilled, Rio+20 in its entirety was evidence that substantial progress is being made.

Many activists shared the negative perspective of the press and indeed worked to shape the media's view. The official conference report is titled, "The Future We Want."  A petition was circulated at Rio entitled "The Future We Don't Want," calling attention to the absence of any firm goals in the official agreement and the appearance that there was some backsliding ("regression" in U.N. speak) on women's reproductive health and access to family planning. The official document speaks of working to achieve these goals but imposes no obligations.  There was also some concern that "sustained economic growth" was referenced repeatedly though almost always in conjunction with "sustainable development" and with uses of the latter phrase far out numbering the former.

In part, the disappointment stemmed from unrealistic expectations. The current conference was about sustainable development not environment and development as in 1992.  A set of Sustainable Development Goals is envisioned to succeed the Millennium Development Goals of the U.N., which focus on reducing poverty and increasing education and which it was hoped would be accomplished by 2015. That provides three years to work out the specifics, and one commentator has even suggested that the vagueness of the Rio+20 agreement is an advantage as it avoids "locking in specific goals without doing the necessary spade work on evidence and coalition building," which has been a problem for past documents.

But these were all concerns about the results of the official deliberations which primarily occurred in the preparatory committee meetings of June 13-15 and were then formalized in the conference of June 20-22 with the participation of heads of state or their representatives. Hillary Clinton represented the United States and made a very forthright statement particularly on women's rights and access to reproductive services.

Three other major events took place in Rio over the full 10 days: Side Events, essentially an academic type conference with panel sessions running at hour-and-a-half intervals from morning to late evening; an exposition across the street from the main conference center with exhibits from governments around the world and some large businesses; and a People's Summit held in a waterfront park in downtown Rio. The official deliberations and the Side Events were organized by the U.N., which counted over 45,000 participants, press and staff and required some accreditation through a government, the U.N. itself, or some recognized nongovernmental organization. Thousands more, particularly ordinary Brazilians were able to view the exhibits and the People's Summit.

I note this because it suggests that the real accomplishment of Rio+20 was to rejuvenate concern for sustainability and to spread information about what is, and can be, done to achieve that goal. We spent most of our time attending the panels of the Side Events. Space does not provide for a recounting of any of these or even a summary of the major themes and tensions which emerged. Suffice it to say that we heard from experts and activists from around the world who are doing serious and sustained work to lift the peoples of the world from poverty and to preserve the Earth while doing so. Will this suffice to save the planet? Only time will tell. But we came away with the knowledge that people across all levels of society, across all professions and industries, and across all faiths and creeds are dedicated to the effort and this brought us renewed optimism which we hope you will share.

Judy is the North American Coordinator for the Rotarian Action Group for Population and  Development. 
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RFPD, 17-Sep-2012
London Summit: a compilation of commitments, see http://www.ippf.org/news/blogs/London-Summit-compilation-commitments
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