Extremes of wealth and poverty “are symptomatic of structural flaws in the economic system and its institutions, and need to be corrected.”
This was one of the concepts explored by the Baha’i International Community (BIC) delegation, which included three representatives from Canada, at last month’s Rio+20 – United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil.
Rio+20 aimed to address two major challenges: the transition to a green economy in the context of sustainable development and the eradication of poverty, and the development of institutional frameworks for sustainable development.
In a statement to the conference titled “Sustaining Societies: Towards a New ‘We” the Baha’i International Community highlighted the principle of trusteeship: “the idea that each of us enters the world as a trust of the whole, and in turn, bears a measure of responsibility for the welfare of all,” the importance of eliminating extremes of wealth and poverty, and the need for a unifying approach in deliberations which “must promote the participation of people in determining the direction of their communities.”
Baha’i delegates participated in a wide range of side events and parallel conferences, organized a panel on the “Elimination of the Extremes of Wealth and Poverty in a Green Economy Context” and co-sponsored an event on the topic of “Faith Values and Education for Sustainable Development” in collaboration with the International Environment Forum, a Baha’i-inspired organization, UNESCO, and Yale University’s Forum on Religion and Ecology. The BIC also held workshops on ethical and spiritual principles in development as part of the People’s Summit.
Two of the three Canadians in the Baha’i delegation were youth. Nur Shodjai is a fourth-year International Relations and Environmental Science student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and Miles Hanks is a second-year Earth Sciences student at Carleton University in Ottawa.
Shodjai and Hanks maintained blogs featuring their reflections on their experience at Rio+20, at which more than 100 heads of state and representatives of governments, and some 40,000 representatives of international agencies, civil society, and other groups, were present.
The principle of trusteeshipShodjai and Hanks noted the challenge posed by loyalties that do not extend beyond the nation state, and commented on the rift between industrialized and developing nations.
Developing countries “feel that they have the right to exploit their environments and pollute in order to develop and come out of poverty since the developed countries did the same thing over the past century,” Shodjai explained. Meanwhile, industrialized countries are unwilling to lead by example.
The two Canadian youth sought to promote the principle of trusteeship as a response to these challenges. They helped to organize a workshop on that theme as part of Youth Blast, a parallel conference for youth. The principle of trusteeship challenges the ethical basis of loyalties that do not extend beyond the nation state.
As an active participant in Youth Blast, Hanks was impressed by how the discussions inevitably shifted to focus on the moral values underlying each question.
A discussion of the policies related to the allocation of water resources broadened to consider “the moral framework underpinning people’s relationship to each other and to the environment, and how this shift in thinking from a focus on temporary material solutions to a concern about the underlying moral issue is one that is required in order to find progress.”
The consultative processShodjai noted that the negotiation process was very slow and challenging at times, and that there was much concern among delegations from civil society that the conference would represent a step backwards relative to outcomes achieved in past agreements.
“I began to see that success in Rio was not a black and white issue. Intense efforts led to an outcome document and hundreds of voluntary commitments from member states, businesses and NGOs.
“Civil society had the highest level of participation thus far in the history of UN negotiations and there was also an exciting convergence of a vision for the future between the civil society groups and an effort to communicate this with governments. This discussion alone is a great achievement.”
This reflection echoes the ideas shared in the Baha’i statement to the conference on the theme of consultation. “For progress on the international stage to be sustainable, it must take place within a framework that promotes the attainment of progressively higher degrees of unity of vision and action among its participants.
“Each forward step—far from representing a momentary triumph of a single person or faction in an environment of competition—becomes part of a collective process of learning by which international institutions, states and civil society advance together in understanding.”
The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development ended on 22 June 2012. Representatives from 30 countries are now tasked with defining a set of sustainable development goals to be presented to the UN General Assembly in September 2013.
Posts to the BIC Interns’ blog:“Rio+20: Reflections and Realizations” by Nur Shodjai“Exciting events at the Rio+20 Youth Blast” and “Actions of the Youth” by Miles Hanks