Education for Sustainable Development and Shifting the Paradigms

by Anna Odell

One of the issues when dealing with “sustainable development” is the lack of clarity around the term itself. We have spent an entire term working, studying, and understanding text such as the “The Future We Really Want” in depth and grasping the general issues that are relevant for Rio+20. But at times, I feel as though we need to take a step back and look at what we expect developing nations to become and what developed nations need transition to. What are they developing towards? To paraphrase Mr. Kartikeya Sarabhai, from the Center for Environmental Education in India, when examining development, we have to define what sort of development we are looking at. What do we actually want our future “green societies” to look like, and how will we get there?

The current model of development is illogical; developing nations are attempting to develop into the model that the developed nations have created, while at the same time the developed nations are attempting to transition to sustainability. However, the planet does not have the capacity for the world’s population to develop into over-consuming nations, such as the United States. As we use the current “developed” world as a model, we are running into some serious issues. While listening to the negotiations, sometimes I feel that states need a gentle reminder that sustainable development is not simply “development.” Instead of moving into the model already set by the developed world, developing nations have the unique opportunity to skip the wasteful carbon intensive development process which is socially, environmentally, and economically inequitable and inefficient, and shift to being sustainably developed. It is necessary for us to re-envision how we want our world to look, and how we are going to get there.

That’s where Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) comes into the picture. Mr. Sarabhai stated, “The real change is when people change,” and education is one of the most effective ways of implementing that crucial and necessary change. For generations we have had an education system that has attempted to teach us to obey societal norms and categorize, and now we need an education system that teaches us to think critically (and in fact, human ecologically) in order to solve the most serious problems ever facing the human species. According to Mr. Sarabhai, “not only do you need a different paradigm of development, you need a different paradigm of education.”

Another common issue with the current education and development paradigm is the assumption that the rich, developed world has it all figured out. It is also important to note that clearly the presence of an advanced education system itself does not imply “sustainable development.” Despite 80% of United States citizens having a post-secondary degree, the comparatively small population of the United States consumes about 30% of the world’s resources. ESD must include policy makers, youth, disadvantaged communities, and developing and developed nations. Ms. Laila Iskander, of the Community and Institutional Development Consulting in Egypt, shared a powerful example of the system of trash and recycling collection system that was organized by the poorest people in Cairo’s slums. People would go door to door collecting trash, then sorting it and recycling and reusing it into products to be sold for profit. This system grew to employ over 120,000 workers, and with the help from an NGO, education programs were started and those who never received a formal education were able to start their own businesses and flourish. Then, the North discovered something magical: Landfills. Landfills were then imposed on Egypt, creating a system in which trash was taken far away from the city (and the workers who were actively collecting and supporting themselves) and multinational corporations took control over what previously was an entirely local, economic system. The transportation of the trash is actually much more carbon intensive and inefficient. Ms. Iskander stated, “we need to stop talking about how we must education the poor people in the South; It is the people in the North who need to learn first.”

The Complexities of a Human Rights-Based Approach

by Lara Shirley

1. The demand for a human rights-based approach

In various side-events and negotiations, the concept of a human rights-based approach has come up several times, especially with regard to indigenous peoples, food security, and water.

This is essentially to ensure justice and effectiveness in the agreements that come out of these negotiations, and is particularly relevant within the context of sustainable development. Human rights are essential for reinforcing the social pillar, which can otherwise get lost between the economic and environmental pillars, as they are more easily measurable and less ignorable, although the economic more so.

There was an open letter written by 22 human rights UN experts calling for the document to contain human rights standards in their development goals in order to be successful. For goals to be effectively achieved, there needs to be accountability: for accountability, there needs to be standards, and human rights can be used as those standards.

2. The excuses against a human rights-based approach

Within the UN, human rights are (technically) non-negotiable: they are its cornerstone and one of the initial motives for its creation. Because of this, giving something ‘rights’ in UN carries a lot of weight and often responsibility as well.

Since a human rights-based approach is to help those who don’t already have rights, those that do have them dislike it because they are benefiting from the current situation. Thus, this proposal is unwelcome for most developed countries (excepting the occasional insertion from the Holy See and Liechtenstein).

Developed countries lamely hide behind a few pretenses to avoid acknowledging this. One of the most common excuses is that because the concept of ‘rights’ is apparently vague, the parties discussing it feel uncomfortable committing to something that they don’t know the definition of, and so they replace it with heavily weakened synonyms: ‘universal access’, ‘non-discriminatory access’, or even a paltry ‘commitment to’.

The US is exceptionally adept at dodging the human rights bullet, and during the food security negotiations even stated that a human rights-based approach is irrelevant to a document on sustainable development, because it is being discussed elsewhere.

However, it must be noted that the G77 is not the greatest advocate for human rights either. While they do push for rights to water and food, indigenous rights remain underrepresented. Some developing countries – China being the most obvious example – see human rights as another form of imperialism from the global North, as another excuse to inhibit economic development and impose culture. One issue being wrangled over in negotiations today was development in developing countries – a right that can be hindered by human rights.

3.  The moral implications of the framework of a human rights-based approach

What made the strongest impression on me – during all the events, but especially the indigenous peoples’ side-event – was this juxtaposition between indigenous representatives earnestly speaking about respect for and protection of their cultures, and their use of a distinctly Western non-indigenous negotiating tool: the UN Charter of Human Rights. Their aims become somewhat diluted because they are defined by these channels formed by a completely foreign mentality. In order to take action at such a high level, in this kind of organization and interacting with certain kinds of people, it is necessary to slot yourself into a bureaucratic shape in order to be comprehended and perhaps even listened to.

Unfortunately, by doing this you lose meaning: perhaps not technical meaning, but underlying significance. This links into the previous paragraph of China’s tussle between human and development rights: rights seem to morph into a mere trade-off, and human rights become just another negotiating tool to be manipulated back and forth instead a symbolic and unifying message.

This is not to say I am criticizing the indigenous people for going through this system, because they want results and the UN has the potential to give them that. Crechin Gordon, a policy analyst at the Indian Law Resource Center, spoke at the indigenous people’s side event and explained that a human rights-based approach is key. When socioenvironmental impacts are discussed, responsibility is invoked on actors to mitigate those impacts. When human rights are discussed, you invoke a duty to not violate those rights in the first place. With their acknowledgement, their violation has at least a chance of being prevented.

Human rights are another convoluted terrain fraught with implications and are far more difficult to navigate then they first appear. However, unlike many UN constituents, human rights actually have the potential to be politically maneuvered by major groups to make a change for the better. More power to them.

Jean-Pierre Thebault and France/EU at Side Events


By Bogdan Zymka (Drawing by Ana Puhac)

Side events at the Informal-Informals in New York provide insight into what civil society is up to while the formal informal negotiations go on inside the ECOSOC conference room. Major Groups and NGOs are hosting discussions outside of the negotiations in order to open dialogue with civil society for input into the importance of their messages directly from the constituencies they represent at the informal-informals. It feels like the only enthusiasm for using Rio+20 as a platform for real change is coming from these side events, largely organized by progressive groups.

Member states are aware of the possibility of influence in these Major Group discussions and big names in the negotiations are making their presence apparent in the message being taken away from the side events. A notable presence in side events such as The Role of Major Groups/Civil Society in the Future IFSD and Key Messages of Indigenous People for Rio+20 has been Jean-Pierre Thebault, the Ambassador for the Environment from France representing the position of the EU and France.

Thebault’s involvement in the side events feels strategic and reminiscent of the classic lobbyist. His manor is polite; he waits until the end of the discussion to engage in dialogue. His stance is similar in most events. In The Role of Major Groups/Civil Society in the Future IFSD he affirmed that France has always been a proponent of direct involvement for Major Groups in the decision making process and that they are doing everything they can to influence the EU’s position in order to put forth text that puts power into the hands of the people that governments represent. His message ended with that it was originally former French Minister to the Environment and Green Party leader Brice Lalonde, that proposed that the negotiating space be comprised of fifty percent Member States and fifty percent Civil Society and Major Groups. Thebault pushed for access to documents and speaking time at events such as informal-informals, a process which civil society can only observe. The room ate up the statement, happy with a body such as the EU being on board, but unaware of the consequences from letting lobbying bodies like theirs push the conversation without criticizing their position.

Thebault was again present in the Key Messages of Indigenous People for Rio+20 with largely the same rhetoric. However, the EU’s agenda of painting themselves as the heroes of the process while still making an effort to water down policies was poorly hidden.

Indigenous Peoples have the ears of the member states that represent them. They are an effectively organized group that has made large gains in influencing policies they are a part of. During the end of the discussion is where Thebault’s argument faltered. The discussion had agreed that the next step to action is to pressure large groups like G77 and the EU, and that they need to push with urgency. Thebault followed the consensus by reaffirming that the Major Groups need to push for access with urgency or “else you’ll be planning for Rio +30.” There was a follow-up question and Thebault’s response was contradictory but predictable. He stressed that Major Groups, especially Indigenous Peoples, should only push for access and not full integration and participation in the decision making process, as a small step to begin the process of integration.

Hasn’t it already been twenty years? These types of small steps have gotten us only marginally closer to integration, with member states continuing their influence while the Major Groups’ voices remain completely devoid of any real decision-making ability or influence. The time to push is now; we have the possibility for interventions but Major Groups sit by and can only observe as the tyrannical dismantling of the future we really want takes place.

The outcome of Rio must be a concrete start to implementation of the equitable idea of Sustainable Development. It’s been twenty years too long. Thebault is correct, if we don’t push now and push hard, we are only planning for Rio +30 but we must be careful of pushing a diluted agenda. This is our future that is being picked apart, we must have a voice in its outcome and we’ve waited long enough for substance.

Vagabonds and Adventurists!

By: Mariana Calderon

               As part of the Major Group of Children and Youth and as a student studying international policy, I am very interested in what my role at international negotiations can be. In this respect, I am just one of a very large number of individuals, organizations, and groups – Major Groups, that is. There are nine major groups recognized by Agenda 21, and part of the discussion on the IFSD addresses the participation of Major Groups and other stakeholders in the international negotiation process.  This initiative has been rooted in discussions in a push to uphold the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21 (both specifically mention the importance of stakeholder involvement, through the “participation of all concerned citizens,” and the “commitment and genuine involvement of all social groups…in decision-making”).  Up until now, civil society involvement in the negotiating process has been limited to observation and lobbying – except for in a few more progressive conventions (such as the CBD, and specifically in the negotiations on the Nagoya Protocol), meetings have generally shut out many of those most invested in the results. It is not surprising, then, that many Major Group and civil society members are working for improved participation in the UN process as an outcome of Rio+20.

This was the topic of a side event I attended on Tuesday (20/3): The Role of Civil Society/Major Groups in the Future IFSD. Panelists included representatives from the Stakeholder Forum, the Local Authorities Major Group, and the U.S. Department of State. Much of the discussion revolved around what was phrased as the “plight” of the UN: Institutions develop slowly and often painfully, and begin to decay when the systems fail to adjust to new “realities” and environments. Current UN institutions face two challenges – lack of implementation, and the lack of a multi-stakeholder process. The involvement of civil society is often seen as a sort of panacea; once decision-making becomes inclusive, stakeholders could push for more progressive actions, leading to adaptive institutions and an increase in implementation. On the other hand, there is also some fear that once civil society becomes more involved, we will become scapegoats for lack of implementation. Nonetheless, there is a general agreement that Major Groups and other stakeholders must be allowed to participate in decision-making in order to bridge the gap between the current system and the changing environment. The question then, is, how can this be made to happen?

Because re-opening the UN charter to include language for stakeholder involvement would be a messy and almost certainly ineffective strategy, only three strategies for creating an inclusive decision-making process are typically discussed. The first and second involve reforming and strengthening existing institutions, the Commission on Sustainable Development and/or, reaching higher, ECOSOC itself. The third is one of the most talked about possibilities for Rio: The establishment of a Sustainable Development Council. Much of the discussion on Major Group involvement repeatedly touched on this idea; it would be easier to allow action and involve stakeholders with a mandate and structure written in 2012 than to struggle to work with the older structures of CSD and ECOSOC.

Jan-Gustav Strandenaes of the Stakeholder Forum was the first speaker, and the first to bring up the idea of a SD Council. He stressed the need for a system that could deal with new “realities” as they occurred, and which could champion sustainable development at all levels. The new realities that he spoke of dealt not only with the changing environment, but also the changing attitude of civil society – increasingly, “people influence, decide, and are where the money is,” and of course, when you speak of a robust and adaptable system, you are really speaking of one that has money.

The next panel member to speak was Neth Daño, from ETC group in the Philippines, and member of the International Environmental Governance (IEG) Advisory Group. She advocated for the development of broader and deeper mechanisms and spaces for the engagement of groups involved at levels below the international sphere. She asked us to take note of the “brave experiments” of other civil society involvement processes, such as in the World Committee on Food Security, which has freely allowed speaking rights to civil society (though not voting rights), and she challenged us to “push the door opened by these processes even farther and take over!”

Maruxa Dardama, Network of Regional Governments for SD, discussed the concept of multi-level governance and the fact that implementation of SD occurs primarily at local and regional levels. She also advocated for a new category of non-state actors: “Governmental Stakeholders” (while noting the irony in having a MG for Local Authorities – fully fledged governing structures which cannot fully participate in International Environmental Governance).

In the remaining time of the session, there were responses from various sectors, as well as general comments and input. References were made to the many institutions outside of the “core” UN system that play important roles in SD; financing institutions and corporate powers, for example, play a large role and should be allowed to participate, but there also is a need to achieve some semblance of discipline in these groups. Additionally, the importance of keeping a multi-stakeholder process transparent was also stressed – Tomás González, UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service, pointed out that making key documents available to everyone would allow for better engagement by society. This hit particularly close to home as [Earth], along with many other non-State groups, has had to work with leaked documents in order to follow negotiations here in NY.

One other suggestion, to develop a compendium of voluntary commitments from both State and civil society actors, was made by John M. Matuszak, U.S. Department of State. This is intriguing for two reasons: First, because a collection of voluntary commitments may look pretty, but, as we all know by now, “voluntary” usually equates to “ornamental.” Secondly, and particularly, the suggestion is curious when one considers the discussion early on in negotiations about the inclusion of “Heads of State” vs. “Representatives of Peoples of the World” vs. “…and other leaders including representatives of civil society,” in the preambular text. The discussion is really about who the responsibilities should officially fall to, and while I’m inclined to say “Everyone,” everyone thinks it should be, in particular, “everyone else.” This is the unmentionable part of increasing participation by civil society. Yes, civil society seems to be more aware of our responsibilities (or at least, we own up to it more often), but there will be consequences once it is officially in text, previously mentioned scapegoat syndrome included. The more hard-won our participation is, the harder we will have to work to live up to our own expectations.

This is a small price to pay, however, for true representation. Meena Raman from the Third World Network pointed out that this is not just about access, but also about who is making decisions, and who actually is being heard. While right now, Major Groups have an indirect voice (Brice Lalonde, Executive Coordinator for Rio+20, told [Earth] as much in an interview, claiming that we have a larger voice, and more power, than we think), there is a major difference between writing letters or lobbying delegates, and having direct representation and a voice that always has a mic at hand.

Julian addressing the room at the Major Groups/Civil Society side event

Julian stated as much to the room, reminding participants that the governments no longer represent us in this process, and that it has become a matter of representing ourselves – not just the youth, but all the other members and groups of civil society. Julian spoke of the frustration we feel as we sit in the back of the room, taking notes on what delegates say, and sincerely wishing we could “have the floor,” both to support our allies, and point out the haphazard logic so often used to justify changes to the text that are detrimental to our mission for sustainable development. Others in the room related to this frustration, and spoke words of encouragement, telling us to hold fast to our optimism and drive. Neth Dano, in particular, has kept her unbridled optimism, assuring us that she too, hopes to be proud to tell her children that she “was a part of this gang of vagabonds, and adventurists!”

I know I, at least, am clinging to my optimism tooth and nail, for, as Neth told me, it’s the only way to survive in these halls. My optimism doesn’t depend on what happens in the negotiating room, however. It stems from participation in groups such as this one, at side events, in the hallways, and in the café, where delegates and participants can become people again, with innovative ideas, open minds, and words of encouragement for each other. The range of topics discussed in Conference Room B was wide, but it all came down to responsibility, and seeing everyone’s willingness and even enthusiasm to assume this responsibility by pushing for increased participation has been one of the most heartening parts of returning to the often-dreary world of international negotiations.

Lalanath De Silva asked the room “What will be your legacy?” I know what I want my future, and my legacy, to be like, and I’m ready to fight to be able to help create it.