Rio+20 solutions too Northern, say South Asian analysts

A man holds washed iron ore in India — there's a tension at Rio+20 between environmental protection and economic growth Copyright: Flickr/CDEGlobal

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[NEW DELHI] An absence of strong scientific and policy research in developing countries has stifled their ability to contribute to Rio+20 debates, according to some South Asian development policy analysts. Countries do not have the body of work behind them to help them articulate and support their points of view, analysts say.

"A little discussed aspect of the global sustainability debate is the arsenal of policy research that the developed countries deploy in their favour, based on fundamental work in areas such as environmental economics," said T Jayaraman, a professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, India.

"The North is in the process of rewriting the intellectual and ideological terms of discourse of sustainable development in general and in specific areas such as climate change," he wrote in a commentary in India's Economic and Political Weekly (3 June).

"The developing countries have, however, little by way of knowledge capacities to fall back on, in terms of alternative viewpoints and perspectives and detailed policy research based on them."

While profound environmental and poverty-related problems persist — and in many cases are worsening —  proposed mechanisms for dealing with them have changed or developed, with ideas such as the 'green economy' and putting an economic value on natural resources becoming mainstream.The Rio+20 summit (the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, 20–22 June) takes place 20 years after the original Rio Earth Summit, which agreed milestones such as Agenda 21 (a blueprint for sustainable development), and led to conventions on climate change, biodiversity and desertification.

But some developing countries, particularly in Africa and South Asia, are fearful that environmental and economic issues are to take precedence over social, poverty and equity issues.  

Their primary concern is what they see as an incoherent definition of the green economy. They also believe national priorities should determine each country's specific strategy for environmentally-friendly growth.

Jayaraman told SciDev.Net that India is going to Rio "unprepared", without a clear national approach to sustainable development.

"The southern voices are getting marginalised," Mohan Munasinghe, chairman of the Sri Lanka-based think-tank, Munasinghe Institute for Development, told SciDev.Net. Munasinghe is part of the UN team that won the Nobel Prize in 2007 for its work on climate change, and helped draft Agenda 21.

"We [developing countries] need a whole generation of policy analysts who can support their political leaders — who still depend on North-based or North-centric policy analysts," he added.

Developing countries are grappling with some basic dilemmas, Munasinghe explained. He cited the example of the principle of 'weak sustainability' versus 'strong sustainability'.

Weak sustainability encourages countries to harness their natural resources for development resources, such as national capital and health. Under the principle of strong sustainability favoured by environmentalists, all natural resources must be protected.  

"How will development take place then? There has to be some trade-off, especially if a developing country has some abundant natural resource, which could become the springboard for economic growth and poverty reduction.

"For developing countries, the problem is enormously complicated," Munasinghe observed, and "the mainstream economic logic [often] comes from elsewhere."

This article is part of our coverage on Science at Rio+20.