Rio+20: A Future That Lao PDR Needs - by Minh Pham

13 Jun 2012

In one week the world will meet in Brazil, aiming for a new milestone in accelerating progress toward development that meets the needs of present generations without compromising future generations’ ability to meet their own needs.

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, known as Rio+20, is expected to bring together up to 50,000 people from 20 to 22 June, including a high-level delegation from Lao PDR. Rio+20 will mark achievements since the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, also held in Rio de Janeiro.

More than 130 heads of state and government are expected, joined by business leaders, mayors, activists and investors.vThese thousands of high-level participants can form the core of a global coalition for change that sets in motion a revolution in how we think about creating dynamic yet sustainable growth, under the Rio+20 banner of “The Future We Want.”

The Conference aims to secure renewed political commitment to sustainable development and to assess implementation of internationally agreed commitments. It also will address new and emerging challenges such as “green jobs,” universal energy access, food security and sustainable agriculture, sound water management, and improved resilience and disaster preparedness.

But sustainable development is not just about the environment. Instead, it occurs at the intersection of three dimensions of human well-being: social, economic and environmental. A new emphasis on sustainability can offer a “triple bottom line” – job-rich, green and equitable economic growth, coupled with environmental protection and social inclusion. As such, Rio+20 focuses on the “green economy,” linked to poverty eradication, and on the institutional framework for sustainable development, including financing, capacity development and cooperation on green technology.

Countries generally agree on the overall need to act to meet pressing issues with regard to sustainable development. Yet deep skepticism among many developing countries, and entrenched positions among developed countries, have prevented agreement thus far on a draft of a Rio+20 action plan, illustrating the challenges of forging consensus on such an important global public good. Thus, some officials from these countries fear that a “green economy” may be good only for already-developed countries.

Like Lao PDR, many developing countries are highly reliant for growth on profits and revenues from extractive industries and other forms of exploitation of natural resources. They fear that “going green” may lead to “green protectionism” and limited growth, giving rise to new trade restrictions, new conditions for development assistance, and new strategies forcing them to buy unaffordable technology from developed countries. Others worry that the “green economy” concept does not capture issues that can promote much-needed equity, such as a universal social protection floor or fiscal and tax policies that ensure better social distribution of wealth.

Considerable skepticism also exists with regard to another Rio+20 objective, on developing a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs could serve as concrete and measurable global benchmarks on targeted issues, much as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have done for the past decade. It remains unclear, however, what should be included in the SDGs and whether agreement can be reached to make them universally applicable.

This links to the second Rio+20 theme, on improving the international framework for sustainable development. One key proposal, supported by the European Union, is to establish a new specialized international agency as the global authority on the environment. In turn, this strong global agency could bring together efforts on issues such as climate change, biodiversity and desertification. It also could be present at country level to assist with national environmental issues.

Amid all this, Lao PDR already knows the future it wants, which has been well-articulated in its national vision: It wants to be a middle-income country, an equitable country, a stable country. This also captures the future it needs, in the context of substantive progress toward graduation from Least Developed Country (LDC) status by 2020, including achievement of the MDGs by 2015. Yet as noted, much of Lao PDR’s growth is driven both by non-sustainable development, including mining and forestry, as well as by potentially sustainable development such as hydropower projects, but only if they incorporate rigorous social and environmental impact assessments.

It is heartening that practically all development sectors in the country consider sustainability issues. The Government has taken some positive policy decisions, such as the recent announcement that it will reduce its economic reliance on mining. At the same time, an institutional arrangement to coordinate sectoral sustainable development plans is lacking, and implementation requires strengthened monitoring and evaluation.

The Government will need to carefully think through how to incorporate sustainable development in its longer-term vision, considering questions like: Will a “green economy” interrupt Lao PDR’s growth path? Can the country balance the right to development against the obligations that come with such a right? Can it realistically “go green” without a “gray” industrialization phase? And can this happen while much of the world is “going red,” reeling in the midst of financial crises that often prevent developed countries from paying for their green ideas?

To answer these questions, the Government may wish to focus on a few particularly relevant issues: poverty reduction, nutrition and food security, water management, forest management. It may wish to use the nascent SDGs as a guiding principle for subsequent national development plans. In the long run, a “green economy” may be a good goal for the Government to embrace, offering opportunities for communities and the private sector to take advantage of policies, incentives and markets that are sustainable.

At this stage, meanwhile, the Government must consider the future it needs, as well as the future it wants. Rio+20 should inspire new thinking, and inclusive national efforts on sustainable development must offer hope for real improvements in people’s lives, as well as more effective use of resources. If Lao PDR can unite around a shared vision, then it can achieve a future made to last.

Minh H. Pham is the Resident Coordinator of the United Nations System in Lao PDR and the Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Programme. Michel Goffin, Charge d’Affaires a.i. of the Delegation of the European Union in Lao PDR, contributed to this article.