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Rod Oram’s Rio Blog #3

Written By Rod Oram, Rod’s Rio Blog # 3, Sunday 17th June:

The People

Flamengo Beach is one of Rio’s beaches for the masses. It’s beautiful but sparse in amenities because it is cut off from the city centre by a multi-lane highway.

Meanwhile, glamorous people hang out at Copacabana, Ipanema and other ritzy beaches packed with fancy restaurants, smart shops and high-rise apartments.

So Flamengo Beach is the right home for the People’s Summit, a place for all those who distrust global institutions and systems to meet, share their ideas and bond.

Even though it is approved by the city government and sponsored by some large local companies it carries the torch of the Occupy Movement, even down to some self-organizing events and a People’s Assembly.

The people thronging here offer a counter-voice, a different view of the world to that expressed across town by government and civil delegates to the United Nations Rio+20 sustainable development summit.

At Rio+20 the talk is of global co-operation, private sector partnerships with government, finance and technology transfer mechanisms, multi-stakeholder meetings, compacts and the like…all, hopefully focused in ways to make development sustainable in economic, social and environmental terms.

At the People’s Summit the talk is of anti-imperialism, Gaia, local sustainability, religion (established, alternative or traditional), the rights of everyone, everything, everywhere and the like…and hopefully within a vision of a kinder, enduring planet.

At Rio+ 20 the paragraph-by-paragraph negotiations on a summit declaration on sustainable development are arcane and tortuous. The gulf between developed and developing countries is as wide as ever, particularly because the former are pleading poverty in these austere times. Distrust of each other’s motives is running high. Meanwhile, youth delegations, NGOs, interest groups and other civil society delegates attempt to inject ideas, energy and resolve into the process.

At the People’s Summit the conversation is vigorous, sporadic, serendipitous. The only goal or agenda is to spread the word and seek the comfort of fellow believers

Both summits want a future for humankind. If there is to be a Rio declaration on that, it will come from governments, but only if they can cobble together 300 or so paragraphs into some statement of intents and aspirations.

But who informs the governments? Who gives them a mandate to negotiate? Some argue they are democratically elected representatives of their people; others have different rationales for why they hold power. All would claim they know what their people want, or at least they know what’s best for their people.

What, though, does civil society really want? The People’s Summit, NGOs, interest groups and lobbyists inevitably offer only some of the breadth of views held by societies around the world. A wider range of voices is needed, hopefully though different mechanisms.

To help broaden input to Rio+20 the United Nations Development Programme, the agency headed by Helen Clark, came up with the idea of dialogues. These are, it says, meant to “bridge the gap between civil society and the government negotiations.”

Over the past two months it has organized online discussions on 10 themes such as employment, cities, food, water and oceans.  Small international teams of academics have moderated each of the discussions and shaped the ideas into some proposals and themes, which people have voted on. For example, in the employment dialogue 63,000 people contributed to the ideas online and 1.3m people voted on them.

The top 10 in each theme were presented in dialogue sessions over the weekend in Rio in the run up to the summit proper, which runs from Wednesday to Friday.

The summit delegates from civil society and government in those discussions then voted to find the top two (to accompany the top choice on line). Then, the three proposals on each subject (30 in all) will become part of the final summit “Outcomes” document.

The employment dialogue, for example, attracted some 750 of the delegates, with a panel of 10 very varied people on the stage discussing the 10 proposals.

They included Nana-Fosu Randall, a champion of family rights from Ghana, a youth leader from Serbia, a young Chinese academic, Maurice Strong, an 82 year old Canadian environmentalist and former politician who was the leader of the Rio summit in 1992, JK Galbraith, who is an economist as his father was, and Sharan Burrow, ex head of the Australian labour movement, and now head of the international one.

The debate ranged astonishingly far and wide. For example, Deborah Wince-Smith, president of the US Council on Competitiveness, argued for business-government partnerships, while Ms Randall was more concerned about young people in Africa getting jobs so they didn’t by arms and start civil wars.

Jon Watts moderated all this with some difficulty. The Guardian’s former Asian environmental correspondent based in Beijing, Jon has recently moved to Rio to head the paper’s Latin American coverage. He was a speaker at this year’s Sustainable Business Network’s annual forum in Auckland.

Trying to work changes into the 10 proposals that had come through the online process proved very tricky. It was hard to craft the language and the AV system was not set up to change the list projected

Jon manfully battled through the difficulties, with Sharan coming up with ingenious ways to combine various proposals and adding only a few words that changed them significantly.

Crucially, the role of organized labour had not come through in the online process. But Sharan was a persuasive advocate for it and worked it into the text.  Nothing can stop a canny Aussie union sheila when she deploys her considerable skills.

So when it came for delegates in the room to vote on the top proposal, they chose the one calling on governments to put green jobs high on their agenda…with the freshly added words about the protecting the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively.

It collected 73% of the votes. Clearly, old political skills can work a treat in the new tools of mass democracy.

You can download a paper on the Dialogues at




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