The Istanbul Declaration: Paper plane or paper tiger?

A meeting in Istanbul, Turkey on March 22nd, 2012 of the Global Human Development Forum tackled the basic issues of development as they will be approached at the Rio+20 meeting this summer.  The meeting was organized by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the government of Turkey and a host of development experts, nongovernmental organization representatives, and development ministers from around the world.  The group unanimously approved the Istanbul Declaration setting priorities for development in the international meeting in Rio which intends to focus and direct the sustainable development agenda for the future.

The Istanbul Declaration is available here and more official information is available here.

Key highlights of the Declaration include:

  • It is time to reset the global development agenda. The world needs a renewed commitment to sustainable development and strong political leadership to implement it.
  • It should include a strong emphasis on social inclusion, social protection, and equity—in recognition of the fact that economic development has too often gone hand in hand with environmental degradation and increased inequality.
  • As we all work together towards this“new deal”, we recognise that economic growth and wealth creation should be inclusive, generate new decent jobs,and reduce poverty. The benefits should be extended to every individual in society. Defending and promoting the right of all to a clean and safe environment and a good standard of living—through the use of rights-based social compacts and the expansion of social protection to include the environmental dimension—are also required.
  • Adjustments to current patterns of production and consumption are needed to afford future generations the same (at least) development opportunities as the current generation.These adjustments will require structural transformations.

The development scorecard has been set in high, but vague, terms for Rio+20.  While emphasizing the need for development to be inclusive, increased official development assistance, and coupling rights of people to a clean environment and good standard of living, few of this signaled any clear indicators on which to evaluate the Rio+20 meetings in June.

The Johannesburg Declaration from the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development provides us with a criteria on which to judge declarations.  Issued a decade ago, some of its highlights include:

  • We commit ourselves to building a humane, equitable and caring global society, cognizant of the need for human dignity for all.
  • The deep fault line that divides human society between the rich and the poor and the ever-increasing gap between the developed and developing worlds pose a major threat to global prosperity, security and stability.
  • Recognizing the importance of building human solidarity, we urge the promotion of dialogue and cooperation among the world’s civilizations and peoples, irrespective of race, disabilities, religion, language, culture or tradition.
  • We agree that in pursuit of its legitimate activities the private sector, including both large and small companies, has a duty to contribute to the evolution of equitable and sustainable communities and societies.

This is not meant to be a criticism of declarations as simply paper planes (written, folded, sailed, and forgotten), although this is a risk that should be considered very real.  Rather, it is a caution that the crucial aspects of declarations is only partially putting the words down and getting unanimous consent to broad, fairly innocuous statements.  The more dramatic component of declarations is transforming them into firm agreements.

Prior to international meetings, declarations can focus on setting the agenda, establishing negotiating points, limit the policy universe, and create clear criteria for the world to assess the results of negotiations. Paper tigers are those declarations that end up impacting future negotiations.

The Istanbul Declaration, like many before it, choose not to attempt any of these issues and push the agenda forward.  This doesn’t necessarily doom the impact of the Istanbul Declaration, it may become a crucial point in later discussions; but, if it plays a key role in the negotiations, it is not a result of the specifics in the Declaration it is a result of how the powerful agents use it to transform the agenda at Rio+20.

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