The David and Goliath fight
I am writing from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, where the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), also called Rio+20, is being held. The conference is fairly important as it is intended to create a global agenda for addressing the acute environmental and social challenges facing the world.
For us in Barbados and the rest of the Caribbean, as Small Island Developing States (SIDS), having a voice at this conference was important to draw attention to the specific vulnerabilities of our countries, particularly issues relating to climate change, the impact of natural disasters and the need for financing mechanisms to support the process of building resilience.
First, before anyone asks, I am not part of the official Government delegation so I am not travelling on taxpayers’ money. That being said, I would question the sanity of anyone who suggests that this event was not important enough for Barbados to be represented at the highest level. We can argue about the size of the delegation, perhaps, but not about the need for an official presence.
I can imagine that for most people such issues and processes appear academic and far removed from the personal struggle and tensions involved in day-to-day living. However, it is these issues and the policies that are framed for handling them which directly impact how difficult or easy our daily living will be.
If the scientists are correct, we are reaching certain “tipping points” where the carrying capacity of the earth will be reached, with significant implications for our ecological survival.
I hope that I am not boring you, but I want to highlight a few aspects of the conference that I feel are important.
First, I want to acknowledge the efforts of the region to take a coordinated approach and stance on the issues of the Rio Conference.
In particular, the positions of our negotiators on climate change were so well noted that in discussion with a Kenyan delegate, he pointed out that the key people not to be messed with in the climate change discussions were Selwyn Hart from Barbados and Ambassador Dessima Williams from Grenada.
However, this conference, like so many international ones, has essentially become another battleground for the David and Goliath fight ongoing between developing and developed states.
Developed countries demonstrated complete intolerance to arguments for a differentiated approach for developing countries and were also unmoved by arguments for special funding mechanisms to assist these countries.
Apparently we are living in the age of the level playing field, where we should all be playing by the same rules regardless of size or circumstance.
Moreover, arguments that developed countries should “pay” for historical and modern injustices are being seen as part of an irrational and emotional logic that no longer belongs in modern negotiations. Developed countries, as the main producers of goods and services, are also responsible for using up most of the earth’s natural resources and doing some of the worst environmental damage.
Developing countries’ reaction to this has been to hold out on key areas of interest to developed countries. The participation of stakeholders and elements of the green economy therefore became sticking points.
What we have ended up with is a watered down text which some people are lukewarm about, even some governments, and some people have dismissed. There have been a number of protests throughout Brazil, and others – like me – are resigned as to the logical outcome when we invest all of our hope in political processes which, though well intentioned, invariably become highjacked by the issues of power and vested interest.
What being in Brazil has also reinforced for me is the tenuous balance between economic development and social equality and equity within countries. Brazil, with an annual GDP growth rate of five per cent, is said to be the world’s sixth largest economy. Someone should perhaps tell that to the street children I saw sitting in the pouring rain, gambling on the street corner, and the high class and very visible prostitutes, many of them young girls, in the main tourist belt.
Brazil is noted as having the third worst inequality index in the world, with black and indigenous people at the very end. Perhaps we can ask the accountants to think about this when they make recommendations for governments to cut back on their social programmes.
A country is not only an economy; it is driven by a mix of both social and economic factors. The reaction to imbalance in one area cannot be to the detriment of the other.
• Shantal Munro Knight is a development specialist and deputy coordinator at the Caribbean Policy Development Centre. Email [email protected]