This morning, the Tenda Milton Santos at the People’s Summit was all about giving civil society a voice in the struggle for a sustainable future. The workshop “Civil Society Voices on Rio+20” offered civil society representatives from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Latin America a stage to present perspectives and recommendations on the two central topics of the Rio+20 conference – green economy and the institutional framework for sustainable development – they had developed within five preparatory regional conferences in the run-up to the UNCSD. The debate “Towards a Green Society?” discussed participation as a decisive concept when it comes to the goal of achieving a socially just and equitable sustainable society. The big topic ended up being power.
“If we are to discuss the social dimension of sustainable development, we need to start by looking at the power structures underpinning the Green Economy debate. Whose knowledge, whose interests are framing the agenda?” asked Peter Utting, Vice-Director of UNRISD, Geneva. For him, it is participation which plays a key role when it comes to tackling the existing power structures informing the Green Economy-debate and increasingly disconnecting it from goals like social equity, justice and poverty eradication. Participation, though, has to go beyond the shallow notion of “stakeholder consultation” to which the concept of participation is often reduced. Rather, as Peter Utting put it, participation substantially has to be about collective organizations (re)gaining control over resources and institutions they are affected by.
Towards a Green Society? Participation for Social Change.
Starting from this, the panellists, together with the many people who had found their way to the Milton Santos tent, engaged in a discussion of the power civil society can mobilize – and the challenges that come with it.
While the panellists of both events were confident about civil society taking a stand and claiming a central role in the debate on Green Economy – a debate which will be crucial not just for our future, but that of the following generations as well – some also pointed to the need to go beyond that. Important though it is for civil society actors to come together, to build up trust and confidence by talking to each other, to find a common language and common perspectives which allow for a strong, united social movement and thus to experience itself as a power that is able to make a difference – if there shall be change, then civil society will have to reach beyond its own borders and engage in constructive talks with official institutions and also representatives of those positions they are confronting, Thaís Brianezi from the University of São Paulo pointed out.
Even though his statement was not directed at this aspect, Gurmit Singh, Director of the Centre for Environment, Technology and Development in Malaysia, made an important point concerning the responsibility that comes with the decision to get involved. With regard to the rather pessimistic views the “Civil Society Voices”-panel shared concerning the UN being able to put into practice the idea of sustainability, he asks the critics to think it through: “I’d say: ‘Dissolve the UN!’ – but what’s the alternative?” While some requested to overcome the nation state-centred governance system as such, others, like Munetsi Madakufamba, Programme Director and Deputy CEO of the Southern African Research and Documentation Centre (SARDC), criticize the monopolization of the UN system by the powerful and rich states and argue for a more democratic and transparent system. For Yaritza Espinoza, Environmental Activist from Panama, it does not really matter whether or not she considers the UN a good thing or not. “I’m with the rights of mother earth”, she says, and she will fight for these rights – be it within the UN-process or elsewhere.
Civil Society Voices on Rio+20, first panel.
In the end, the fact that civil society proved capable of reflecting its own role and actions critically, only added to the importance of an active citizenship and rich forms of participation. For Laura Rivel from Oxford University, one important role for civil society is to make visible the diversification of knowledge patterns and the power structures they underpin. While the discussion about Green Economy is still widely framed by classic economic approaches, conflict and contestation of knowledge are increasing, which is shown by ecological economy theories becoming more widely discussed. However, for these contestations to have any influence, they need to be heard in a wider public. “Many people would like to see Rio+20 as a non-event”, she says. “But we can make it an event!”