The Road to Rio+20: Learning From Johannesburg in the Wake of Durban

Ten years ago, the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) took place in Johannesburg, South Africa, marking the ten year anniversary of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. The WSSD differed from many previous U.N. conferences in that no new treaties or international institutions emerged from Johannesburg (although it did produce another plan of action). What was new at the WSSD was the encouragement and recognition of hundreds of commitments by governments, businesses and civil society organizations to engage in Partnerships for Sustainable Development.

The partnerships were voluntary multi-stakeholder initiatives intended to contribute to the implementation of Agenda 21- the “blueprint for sustainable development” adopted at Rio in 1992.  They addressed the full gamut of environmental, social, and economic issues that are embodied in the concept of sustainability. The term “partnership” was used broadly to encompass a range of institutional arrangements from informal networks to bilateral projects between a donor and recipient to more formal “coalitions of the willing.”

The world seemed tired of talking and was ready to act to achieve sustainable development on the ground and in communities—where it really matters. The subsequent decade saw the rise of the partnership model both internationally and domestically in the United States—not only as a part of the government itself through USAID, but also as a part of action-oriented non-governmental organizations like the Clinton Global Initiative.

As the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP 17 meeting in Durban came to a close last month with yet another roadmap to action and with little concrete commitment to act, the world seems to agree on one thing—delay. Is the UNFCCC negotiations framework achieving real environmental benefits and mitigating climate change? How can governments and civil society achieve concrete progress in the meantime? Are partnerships a part of the solution? Many world leaders still seem to think so.

A side-event in Durban focusing on “Advancing Public-Private Partnerships for REDD+ and Green Growth” drew significant attention and participation from global leaders and NGOs, including U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, environmental ministers and other leaders from Norway, Germany, South Africa, Indonesia, New Zealand, Ireland, and the United States; and leaders of prominent NGOs such as the World Wildlife Fund. The Clintons, Barack Obama and Nobel Peace Prize Winner and Liberian President Ellen Sirleaf had prepared special messages for the event. The main message of the event was that no government can avoid deforestation on its own—avoiding deforestation requires partnership between governments, communities, NGOs, and the private sector.

But while many leaders remain enthusiastic about the promise of the partnership approach, criticisms have also emerged. These include the perception that the partnerships created in Johannesburg have not achieved concrete environmental benefits, and that partners have not followed through on their commitments due to the “voluntary” nature of the partnerships. It should be noted, however, that all actions by national governments in the international arena are de facto “voluntary” – be it to sign a treaty, to agree to a global-negotiated plan of action, to adopt a set of goals like the Millennium Development Goals, or to be part of a “partnership.” Experience has shown that, regardless of the form international agreements take, there are often problems in the black box of implementation. A nation’s compliance with so-called “legally-binding” commitments is not necessarily greater than that with soft law commitments where strong compliance mechanisms and domestic political will are absent.  Take, for instance, Canada’s decision to exit the legally-binding Kyoto Protocol. It would thus be hasty to assume that the voluntary nature of partnerships makes them ineffectual, without first examining how they have performed over the past decade.

As the world gears up for Rio+20, it is important to evaluate what we know about the success of these partnerships in achieving real results. Unfortunately, we know very little. While people involved in partnerships recognize and verbalize their value, they have difficulty quantifying or demonstrating this value because of the pervasive lack of monitoring and evaluation currently required of many partnerships. This lack of information on the effectiveness of the WSSD partnerships has been exacerbated by the relatively passive role played by the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) in reporting on and facilitating partnerships. Unfortunately, close to ten years after the partnerships model was launched in Johannesburg in 2002, the CSD does not appear to have comprehensively assessed the successes of the partnerships approach. No quantitative analysis of the aggregate impact of the Johannesburg partnerships has been conducted, as well as very little evaluation of the individual environmental impact of partnerships.

This lack of information, however, should not be interpreted as evidence that the partnerships or commitments approach does not work. Rather, it should send a clear message to the world that commitments made at Rio+20 should include a real commitment to transparency and accountability, as well as place an emphasis on benchmarking, monitoring, and evaluating the commitments made there. In fact, where partnerships have been diligently monitored, the results have been promising—take for instance the resounding success of the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles in removing lead from gasoline worldwide. The world owes it to itself to more systematically explore the potential of partnerships to solve pressing environmental problems such as this. As such, a major goal of Rio +20 should be to ensure that the requisite analysis is carried out in order to better understand the big picture of the partnerships approach and its real potential to achieving global sustainability goals.

As a part of its Zero Draft submission, NRDC envisions that national governments, local officials, CEOs, and civil society leaders alike will make specific commitments to concrete outcomes that would be placed in a registry of sustainability commitments administered by a new Global Center for Sustainability Actions. A statement to this effect made it into the “Zero Draft” of the Rio+20 Output Document, which states that “We welcome the voluntary commitments made at Rio+20 and invite the Secretary-General to compile them in a registry/compendium that will serve as an accountability framework.” This idea has much promise, but to ensure it lives up to its full potential, other key actions in Rio+20 need to accompany it in order to avoid past mistakes. (See also Jacob Scherr’s recent blog post analyzing the “zero draft” and emphasizing the importance of accountability and achieving real results at Rio).

First, a mere registry is not enough. A Global Center for Sustainability Actions must be created to administer, support, and monitor commitments, and it must become an active champion of commitments and partnerships. It should not simply replace the CSD as a new instrument that passively provides (often outdated) information on the status of partnerships. The Center should have a full time staff and actively facilitate and support partners in achieving their commitments and goals. Responsibilities could include attracting new partners and commitments, mobilizing funding, connecting partners and facilitating action, producing technical reports, communicating on successes, and providing any additional support that is necessary. This support is an essential feature of many of the partnership models that have been successful. To allow for this level of support to take place, parties at Rio+20 must commit to adequately fund and support the Center.

Second, the Center should serve as an active intermediary (similar to the role of the Clinton Global Initiative) to facilitate the creation of new partnerships after Rio+20 and to continue to actively attract new resources to achieving sustainable development goals. The Center must harness new advances in social and professional networking tools to help potential partners connect throughout the year and to share resources and information in a highly interactive manner both with each other and the public. A registry or database is a useful informational tool, but can be too static to meet the needs of the partnerships approach, which is inherently dynamic, based on forming connections and networking.

Third, in addition to being an active facilitator of partnerships and commitments, the Center should promote a culture of accountability. At the very least parties should be required to comprehensively report on their progress annually. A failure to meet reporting expectations should carry some consequence, such as the threat of losing official international recognition and the associated resources provided by the Center. The commitment process should require parties to conduct sufficient preparatory work to ensure that they will be well poised to achieve concrete goals and monitor outcomes. To this end, parties should define their metrics and monitoring methodology in advance and commitments should be required to follow an outcomes-based approach. At Rio+20, parties should set collective goals for achieving specific short-term measureable outcomes, and then the Center should help monitor and evaluate the progress of parties in reaching those goals.

If world leaders and civil society are able to make a real commitment to commitments at Rio+20, this approach has much potential to bolster our ongoing efforts to build a more sustainable world and implement the vision articulated in Rio almost 20 years ago.