Shared agendas: the Rio+20 Conference

I enjoy the street banter in Saigon.  Cyclo drivers can be particularly fun.  They’ll spot you on the pavement, with family entourage in tow, and beckon you over to their rickety mobile contraption.

Jump on board, there’s room for all the family

Seemingly oblivious to your own counter gestures – where you shake your head and point incredulously to your two children, their buggies and the assortment of other luggage that you seem to have accumulated walking down the street – they will be undeterred, remaining all smiles and nods and encouraging hand gestures.

What I love is that you know, one way or another, that the guy would get you all on his cyclo if you gave him half the chance.  He’d make it work, despite the ludicrous sight that would unfold, and aside from the rather precarious health and safety minefield you’d be stepping into in the proceedings.

This characteristic energy for a sale, the entrepreneurial spirit, can be found everywhere in Vietnam.  It is contagious, inspiring, and is driven out of sheer adrenaline, on behalf of the seller, whose livelihood is reliant on the very smallest transactions happening as many times a day as he or she can manage.  Every dollar counts…

In the summer of 1992 I was halfway through my A-levels, working as a barman during the holidays to pay off the overdraft, and beginning to wonder what lay ahead the following year after leaving school.

On the other side of the world, in Rio de Janeiro, an historic United Nations meeting was taking place at which important statements about poverty and the environment were made, catalysing an era to follow when commitments to remedy these issues were signed up to by a host of people – by governments, the private sector, civil society organisations, and many others.  Companies began laying claim to being more responsible, individuals more ethically minded, and the public sector more transparent.

Glossing over the details of it all, it is fair to say that the general mood swing initiated in 1992 was watershed-like.  The alarm bells had been sounded.

Wind forward twenty years and the UN Rio+20 Conference is but days away.  In fact, there’s only seven days left to go until “The Future We Want” – according to the countdown clock on the conference website’s homepage.

Commentators in the press are voicing opinions about Rio+20 ranging from “delay the meeting, nothing will be achieved” through to more apocalyptic offerings themed around the timeliness of this gathering to “tackle head on” all of the aforementioned planetary problems.  All over again.

No matter where you stand on the value of holding large meetings (I met someone at a networking event here in Bangkok last night who had read that 40,000 people were expected at Rio) one thing is for certain: we cannot afford to continue to make the case for action.  If we were “running out of time” to address the bad stuff back in 1992, then two decades on and the stoppage time clock is now ticking.

85% of the world’s oceans (according to this morning’s Bangkok Post) are overfished and overexploited.  And they are full of toxic waste.  “Approximately a billion people around the world,” the paper quotes, “are always hungry”.  Look out for similar statements over the coming days prior to Rio+20 kicking off, made by a host of voices – politicians, humanitarians, bloggers.  We all like to express our views.  (For some interesting reading from CARE, on the subject of climate change, check out Kit Vaughan’s piece in yesterday’s Huff Post.)

No longer a barman, I was ten years into my career when I walked into CARE’s office in Southwark, London, for a job interview.  I’ve still not succeeded in paying off the overdraft, but thanks to the natural exposure to some of these global issues that a job at CARE facilitates, I’m beginning to be more familiar with the dynamics and trends associated with our line of work.

This is a line of work in which you witness positive and life changing outcomes for people on a daily basis.  For cyclo-drivers perhaps, and for the many billions of others whose next sale is the only thing on their mind.

A line of work in which some of the most dedicated colleagues with whom I have teamed up, plough their every waking hour into designing, developing, fundraising and implementing projects that will make huge differences to entire villages, towns and communities.

It is also a line of work that has never been able to stop, pat itself on the back and say “job well done.”  We remain so very far from righting the many injustices and underlying causes of poverty that infect, disrupt and dismantle as they do.  Pick your topic.  Whether it’s the existence of equal access to jobs and income opportunities, access to proper healthcare services, to schooling, access to information, to unionisation, to the right to speak out.  There are few countries – in any part of the world – that can lay claim to having resolved each of these societal issues for all of their citizens.

Progress is being made, and new technologies and new ways of engaging people in the debate are playing their part.  There will be good news stories shared in Rio, and there will be talk of collaboration, of partnership, and of the intricacies of measuring impact against a set of criteria.  Some will say the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) are woefully off track – they themselves expire in 2015 – and others will point to the transformative way that some countries have experienced credible changes thanks to the more determined and focused set of interventions that the MDGs can take some credit for instigating.

An increasing amount of the development debate is being centred around the role of the private sector – of businesses, industry groups, large corporations, small enterprises, individual entrepreneurs.  This is an area that CARE International has been working on for many years, and one from which we are drawing an increasing body of results-based evidence.

For example, CARE is implementing programmes that improve access to the world’s financial markets to the many billions of people cut out of the loop and sidelined.  We are addressing supply chain issues in a way that is improving the returns and the information flows to those small-scale farmers historically excluded from the system.

In Bangladesh, our six years of managing a rural sales initiative of household products to remote villages has recently resulted in taking this experience up to a new level – by scaling the initiative into a fully fledged and self sustaining social enterprise called JITA (click on the link to read more).

In terms of soundbites leading up to Rio about the role of business in environmental and social development, look out for the term “shared value”.  It’s a phrase coined in recent years to describe a more integrated set of relationships between the private sector and the world’s producers and consumers.  One that aims to increase profitablity and tackle societal issues at the same time.  For those with 1min 52secs extra to spare, then have a gander at this for more details…

What I believe CARE is good at in terms of the value we contribute to this general debate, is how we are able to bring the world of the private sector closer to that of local communities, striking a better deal for those selling and producing at one end of the chain, and those purchasing, distributing and profiting at the other.

Call it “shared value”, or building a ‘win-win’ scenario (for the company or business involved, as well as the farmer or the street-vendor).  Call it whatever fashionable phrase of the moment you like.  For me, it’s about fairness, and about the longer term.  People and planet.  Cyclo driver, barman, consumer, tradeswoman, opinion formers alike.

Will all of these different groups of stakeholders be represented by the many thousands of Rio+20 Conference participants?  Let’s see.  I hope so.  We need all voices heard, and for this meeting to squarely place an emphasis on the idea of truly shared agendas.

With this in mind, I hope this conference can cut through the administrative fug of the thousands of man and woman hours of wordsmithing and drawing up new declarations and, instead, offer up practical solutions to the world’s problems, with the understanding that there is a role for everyone to play in making them happen.

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