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Post-Rio Sustainable Development and the Summit

Maurice F. Strong

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The state of the world has changed since the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), which was held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992, and not necessarily in ways which are consistent with the hopes and aspirations raised there some twoandahalf years ago. This has affected the political realities confronted in contemplating what can be done on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Bretton Woods Institutions and the United Nations itself, to reshape those institutions and to prepare for the world that they will confront in the next 50 years. The world that will exist over the next 50 years will be very different from that which gave birth to these institutions in the aftermath of World War II.

Twoandahalf years after Rio, it is still too early to pronounce judgement on its final results. These results will depend on what governments and others do now to give effect to the agreements reached at Rio, including the statement of principles in the Declaration of Rio and the comprehensive program of action, Agenda 21, which was designed to give effect to those principles, and the two international conventions on Climate Change and Biodiversity.

The process of achieving consensus among 180 governments is not easy, and some of the proposals that went to UNCED, particularly those addressing patterns of production, consumption, energy and population, were watered down to get consensus. Nevertheless, the agreements reached at Rio represent the most comprehensive and farreaching program for the future of the earth ever agreed to by governments, and the fact that these agreements were reached by virtually all the nations of the world, most of them represented at the highest political level, surely gives them a unique degree of political authority. And in a world which has no global government and no enforceable system of international law, political authority is the ultimate authority, however weak it might be perceived to be. However, political authority does not guarantee that these agreements will be implemented. So far, the record is mixed at best. To some degree this is understandable. A plethora of immediate and pressing political and economic concerns have continued to preempt the attention of governments and citizens since Rio.

Most disappointing is the lack of response by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries to the needs of developing countries for the additional financial resources which all governments at Rio agreed were required to enable developing countries to make their transition to sustainable development. The rich have seldom felt poorer than they do today. Indeed, there is no one who feels so poor as the person who is a little less rich today than he was yesterday, and that is the current mood of industrialized societies.

What is particularly discouraging to developing countries is that progress towards meeting their needs has been set back since Rio, as a number of donor nations have reduced their Official Development Assistance (ODA). All the signs currently point to further reductions. Moreover, resources that might have been available for development assistance are being diverted to meet growing emergency humanitarian needs around the world, as well as the needs of the countries of the former Soviet Union for the rebuilding of their shattered economies.

Although there is more competition for a diminishing pot of ODA, private capital flows are increasing and are already far in excess of ODA. In the years to come, private capital will certainly be the primary source of external capital for developing countries. Therefore, it is very important that these private capital flows be sensitized and responsive to environmental and sustainable development needs. If they are not, the investments being made now in the rapidly growing economies of the developing world will simply not be made in accordance with the principles of sustainable development.

There have been some positive developments since Rio. Many developing countries, despite their disappointment with the amount of assistance available, have taken steps to implement many of the measures called for in Agenda 21. This action was stimulated not only by Rio, but also by a much greater awareness of their own environmental problems and concerns. Many developing countries are experiencing serious environmental degradation, particularly in their larger cities, and the environment is becoming an issue of political significance at the local level. At the international level, the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) has been established as the forum for continuing governmental consultations and cooperation in following up and implementing the agreements reached at Rio. A Highlevel Advisory Board on Sustainable Development has been established to advise the UN SecretaryGeneral on Agenda 21 implementation issues. However, without pronouncing any final judgement, these mechanisms are off to a somewhat slow start.

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