RIO Summit 2012: What to expect? Interview with Tariq Banuri

Conversation with Tariq Banuri, then at the UNDESA, on his expectations for Rio plus 20 summit to be held in 2012.

Q: Which expectations should we have with regards to the upcoming Rio Summit 2012? Are we going to achieve a good agreement with a feasible agenda? What should young people expect from Rio?

A: The political challenge for Rio+20 is to demonstrate both a shared understanding of the nature of the current crises and a collective willingness to respond. At a superficial level, everyone knows what the problems are - they are often referred to as the combined ecological, social, and economic crisis - but many in the policy world do not connect the dots; they still think in fragmented ways, putting each crisis in a separate box and trying to treat it separately from others. This is not working. The core message of sustainable development is that there are systemic relationships between what appear to be independent problems. Unless policymakers of the world agree upon a common understanding of the challenge, it will be difficult for them to craft an effective and cooperative response.

By using the words ‘common understanding’ and ‘cooperative response’, I do not mean to suggest that Rio +20 will succeed only if everyone rises above their parochial interests -although that would be most welcome- but that Rio +20 should enable all countries to pursue their national interests jointly through common solutions and cooperative action. This is precisely what happened in other successful periods of our history. Today, the world has changed fundamentally and we need to come together to redefine the common agenda in this changed world.

There are many elements to this common agenda. In my view, the one that is most urgent and of the highest priority, as well as a bridge between all other agendas, is the energy challenge.

Q: Reading the news about the preparatory process and what is going on, a general concern is rising that the emphasis put on the green economy today could replace or even minimize the concept and framework of sustainable development. What is your opinion on this?

A: I don’t see that danger myself. In the beginning of the process, there was concern that the green economy could be a Trojan Horse to sneak in new forms of restrictions on developing countries. As the term comes to be understood better, the danger may fade. This understanding places the green economy squarely within the context of sustainable development, as a means of reconciling economic policies and economic behavior with social and environmental needs. The focus on the economy is not bad, as this is a place where action is needed.However, it is an unfolding process. A number of areas have emerged where new agreements may be possible. These include the idea of sustain- able development goals, the optimal frameworks for national strategy development, sustainable access to energy, support for sustainable urban development, collective responses to the increasingly frequent natural disasters, and policies to ensure sustainable food security. There could be others.

Q: There are two more concerns: one is the divergence of agendas between developing and developed countries and the fear -be it wrong or right- of developing countries that such process (like the climate change one) might slow down their growth and development. The other concern is about the little engagement of governments and national institutions emerged so far. Are these concerns real?

A: Yes and no. In regard to engagement of governments and national institutions, it is true that they started slowly. There was little active engagement in the beginning, i.e., from mid-2010 to early 2011, but after the second meeting of the preparatory committee (7-8 March 2011), the degree and quality of national engagement has improved dramatically. People are organizing meetings and discussions, asking questions, sup- porting analyses, and offering opinions on a huge range of issues. This is not surprising. People tend to focus when the deadline comes closer. I do not see this as a major concern. Regarding the issue of implications for the development agenda, this has been a key challenge going back to 1972. I can tell you the consensus really is not on thwarting the development agenda but on making the development agenda possible in the age of crisis. You can see this view coming from both developing and developed countries. This is the hope. Whether or not it is realized in practice depends not only on the good will of various parties but on the level of preparation and the quality of inputs provided by governments, as well as by civil society organizations like SID. The more substantive content there is in these inputs, the greater the likelihood of a substantive agreement. I don’t think there is a sort of global conspiracy to set traps for development. It is rather the contrary.

Q: What do you think about the idea that ‘we cannot achieve sustainable development until we change economic paradigm?’ Is this approach realistic?

A: This conversation has been going on among some parties. Frankly, I find it to be pretentious and lacking in seriousness. When John Maynard Keynes or Paul Samuelson or Amarthya Sen were writing their papers, they didn’t say they were going to invent a new paradigm; rather they looked at the world and suggested some solutions to the problems that they saw around themselves. The solutions that worked in practice became acceptable, and in retrospective the term paradigm was applied to the framework they had used for analysis. You try something and if it works other people may refer to it as a new paradigm or a new model. You don’t start out by saying that you will design a new paradigm. We are in a crisis situation, and we need to come up with solutions. This is what I think.When these solutions will be sorted out and their efficacy will be clear, then might end up being defined as the new paradigm offered by thinkers of the first few years of the twenty-first century. Our task is to look for practical solutions, not for new paradigm.

Q: We are recording this interview during the SID World Congress 2011 in Washington. I would like to ask you a quick comment on this congress and which are the issues and/or divergences emerging that organizations like SID should address.

A: The main issue that organizations like SID need to consider is the impact on development of the recent series of crises: food, energy, climate, financial collapse, and global recession. The development agenda needs to re-position itself in the context of these crises. There was a time when SID was in the vanguard of thinking about emerging challenges and future solutions for development, but then it lost direction for a couple of decades. Perhaps this age of crisis is the right time for SID to recover its earlier innovativeness and vision.

Interview by Angela Zarro

This interview will also appear in the SID journal Development, issue 55.1 on 'Greening the economy'. Forthcoming, March 2012 (pp 10-12).

Photo: Yogendra174/flickr