The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

A business echo chamber at Rio?

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Just back from Rio+20, where the one thing everyone seems to agree on is that the draft agreement up for approval by heads of state has failed even the most pessimistic projections. Government negotiators have expressed their dismay and NGOs are widely condemning the event as a farce, or as Oxfam has put it: “Rio […]

Just back from Rio+20, where the one thing everyone seems to agree on is that the draft agreement up for approval by heads of state has failed even the most pessimistic projections. Government negotiators have expressed their dismay and NGOs are widely condemning the event as a farce, or as Oxfam has put it: “Rio will go down as the hoax summit. They came, they talked, but they failed to act.”

Over at the Corporate Sustainability Forum (CSF) and Business Action for Sustainable Development (BASD) events on the margins of the official Rio conference, the mood was decidedly different. The four-day gathering attracted over 2,500 business leaders and sustainability experts to laud private sector progress and launch new initiatives. While government leaders were wringing their hands, here a stream of corporate executives took the stage to call for greener economies and respect for human rights. The panel themes I took part in are indicative—business and water risks in times of conflict, climate change resiliency measures for small farmers, the need for sustainability expertise on corporate boards, and stakeholder expectations of businesses with respect to the human right to water and sanitation (full CSF agenda here).

The CSF’s official report directed to the UN General Secretary includes over 200 corporate and industry commitments and a variety of progressive public policy recommendations, including:

  • “Make the Rio+20 conference the beginning of the end of all subsidies to fossil fuels and reorient subsidies towards clean and renewable energy”;
  • Enforce human rights, labor, environmental, and good governance standards;
  • Invest in agricultural productivity, particularly for smallholder farmers;
  • Promote increased disclosure of integrated corporate sustainability information and require all public and private pension and investment funds (including sovereign wealth funds) to integrate environmental, social and governance factors into their operation.

Those recommendations were burnished by specific commitments, including calls by various CEO groupings for more transparency around environmental and social impacts (including a Natural Capital Declaration to “ integrate natural capital considerations into products and services”) and public commitments to water sustainability and access.

The social movements and NGOs gathered at the Peoples Summit across town dismissed these efforts out of hand. If anything, the more business talked the more “the people” objected. Friends of the Earth, La Via Campesina, Third World Network, and others delivered a petition to end “Corporate capture of the United Nations” and to resist market-based solutions as false promises that only serve to “further concentrate the control of corporations over land, resources and peoples’ lives.”

Among the corporate folks at the CSF/BASC events, there was a sense of frustration that business was being misunderstood by all sides – recalcitrant governments believing that stronger regulations and transparency are antithetical to business interests (and therefore being far too timid), and “radical” NGOs refusing to see anything good coming out of business-led initiatives. It’s easy to understand that frustration in the midst of all the clamor around new innovations and good corporate practice at the CSF/BASD, and there is no denying the fact that some business leaders are far ahead of governments in their public advocacy.

That said, for all the energy and promise of the CSF, there is a bit of a disconnect with the concerns of civil society. The explicit attention to human rights, transparency, and public policy engagement are welcome, but these discussions are too often separated from issues of accountability, power inequities, and political capture. Philanthropic initiatives and innovation still figure too prominently and are detached from core business practices and influence, as if a company’s good works could someone make up for harmful products, practices, or lobbying.

If your diagnosis is that we’re on the right course, but we’ve got to chip away at bad practices and scale up the good (and indeed the official theme of the BASD event was “scale up”), then there is much to cheer in the CSF/BASD events. If, on the other hand, your diagnosis is that we are going over a cliff and nothing short of major transformation will suffice—which is the implicit if not explicit diagnosis of all the major studies going into Rio+20—then we need to get to root causes quickly and avoid distractions.

Those root causes are not technological; they are fundamentally about power and politics. That’s not to diminish the good will and good efforts of many CSF/BASD participants, but to urge more focus on the real drivers of poverty, hunger and environmental degradation. There are reasons why governments are feckless and civil society is in the streets—and we won’t make much progress on sustainability until we address them.

 

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  1. andy@getsustainable.net'Andy Savitz

    Chris,

    Well put. I understand your comment about philanthropy, a bandaid at best, but not sure what you are saying when you lump innovation in there in terms of figuring too prominently. Is it because innovation is a promise about the future and not directly helpful today?

    Warmest,

    Andy

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  2. 1ness4all@comcast.net'Jay Berman

    Chris, your analysis is cogent and well articulated. I would fall on the side of major overhaul or transformation of all the institutions of society in response to the impending series of interconnected issues we are now facing. The hubris of western society and culture virtually ensures we must face the abyss before change will happen. The Mayans aptly predicted that this would be the year. Let’s hope we are up to the challenge. Namaste

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  3. Alemi.wais@gmail.com'Wais Alemi

    “Rio will go down as the hoax summit. They came, they talked, but they failed to act.”
    Your address towards the subsidy on fossil fuels and that the world should be more focused on renewable energy. it is a good interpretaion when it comes to the developed world. Example of an underdeveloped country where still the focus remains on the industry needs, how do you propose for more renewable energy. Afghanistan has nothing, lack of infrastructure, no human work force and the underlying features that support the promotion of renewable technologies are non existent. on the other hand Pakistan still provides majority of its energy needs from thermal plants fueled by these so called unsubsidized fossil fuels. i think this policy matter needs to be re invistigated as there are many gaps in and around it. Shukran, Wais

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