By their own admission, it is an “extraordinary” group of leaders from across business, NGOs, trade unions and science that have come together to find a new path towards sustainable development. But then again, these are extraordinary times.
Several powerful CEOs, including Unilever, Alcatel Lucent, Coca Cola and Anglo American, have joined forces with trade unions, NGOs and scientific institutes, to define a new multi-dimensional approach to solving the world’s sustainability challenges.
Their message to governments at the Rio +20 conference is very clear. While politicians can set goals, move toward common standards, seek free and fair trade flows, and mobilise finance, they cannot save the world on their own.
The group, calling itself the Friends of Rio, go further by saying in coded language that governments actually need all the help they can get and would be foolish to turn down the support of emerging coalitions of business and civil society.
Friends of Rio, state: “Multi stakeholder efforts can often achieve, through collaboration, what governments working alone cannot, especially for those in developing countries. Such co-operative efforts can be transparent, participative and accountable.
“They can share costs and risks. They can be economically viable and at the same time they can demonstrate clear social and environmental benefits. They can be based on sound scientific knowledge and produce practical outcomes at scale, in a specific timeframe. And they are doing so now.
“Our proposition is clear: by tapping our combined capabilities, experience and insight, and our worldwide members, customers and value-chains, we can be a valuable informal civil society, business and science network to help government marshal specific multi stakeholder action on sustainable development across regions, issues and economic sectors, quickly and at scale.
“Working together, we can produce practical results to support wider government efforts. We can get things done. We invite government leaders gathered in Rio to engage us, and others of like mind, to help do so. There is no time for waiting.”
The signatories, who also include the heads of WWF, the International Trade Union Confederation, the Red Cross and the Stockholm Resilience Centre, also make it clear they expect to be partners with government rather than being seen as a sideshow.
“Governments must mainstream their recognition of, and support for, such activities, making them part of their ‘official’ discussions on sustainable development,” the group says.
While the Friends of Rio has started out with 26 members, it suggests that it can expand quickly as others join the informal campaign.
It points out that while there are many ideas about how to deal with the social, environmental and economic challenges of our age, the advantage of its approach is that it is already working in many parts of the world and across several sectors.
In fact the group showcases 30 practical examples of how innovative coalitions are already working.
These range from the Consumer Goods Forum, the Sustainable Energy for All and Sanitation and Water for All initiatives, to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.
“There is now substantial evidence that clearly-defined coalitions of willing and able actors from across government, business, science and civil society can mobilise their combined skills, innovation and resources to make clear progress at scale, against specific sustainable development goals,” it says.
“Such practical collaborations cut across traditional boundaries of interest, expertise and nationality. They can be participative, transparent and accountable. They can be designed to meet combined social, economic and environmental objectives, relevant to each particular sustainable development goal. And they can and do deliver practical results, fast.”
In its statement, the Friends of Rio expresses strong support for the development of a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) but state they need to have clear targets, timelines and indicators, and be integrated with the existing post-Millennium Development Goal (MDG) review process.
“These SDGs should integrate together the three dimensions of sustainable development, and be universally applicable and equitable,” it says. “In Rio, governments should also agree on the key thematic areas for the SDGs, including food, water and energy security for all.
“Significant improvements in scientific research since 1992 allow us to better understand and predict how our environment is changing, and must also be used to help design these goals.”
The development of the Friends of Rio has itself been a collaborative effort supported by the World Economic Forum (WEF).
Dominic Waughray, head of environmental initiatives at WEF, says that what had become clear in recent years is that there is an enormous amount of expertise emerging from new areas such as cities, networks of provinces, scientific communities and think tanks, which are working in collaboration and showing strong progress.
“We are witnessing a transformation,” he says. “We know we are experiencing a re-balancing of the global economy to a new growth paradign. We are experiencing the change process and that is creating uncertainty within international institutions. If we are in a transition, this creates an opportunity in a structural sense to have a vanguard set of scaled examples that can show you how to utilise new multi-dimensional sets of stakeholders. I do believe there is enough evidence and energy to show it is possible to make rapid progress. Human inclination is to think that if we are still having this conversation in five to ten years time, then we will have lost a golden opportunity.”