Rio+20 Countdown: Civil Society Can Choose Recognition or Responsibility

This is Part 7 of a series of blog posts leading up to the Rio+20 Sustainable Development Conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on June 20-22.  The full series is available here.


At Rio+20 Conference, civil society, nongovermental organizations, ecoprotesters can choose recognition or responsibility….but for the post Rio+20 agenda to work they will need to do both.

Global environmental politics has a host of interested civil society actors from a number of different perspectives, serving different constituencies, and with radically different ideas for how the world can make environmental progress.  At Rio+20, this many headed set of actors will be represented inside the official conference space, outside in the streets of Rio, and in a set of counter-conferences assembling different ideas.  The first Rio Conference (Rio+0) brought NGOs together in a loose network of connections, the Johannesburg Conference (Rio+20) formalized this with a set of Type II Partnerships with states and corporate entities, what will Rio+20 produce for these actors?

As explored earlier, one prominent strategy for civil society is to push for recognition of their particular issue.  Pressure by youth advocates, indigenous groups, and women’s organizations have  constantly achieved recognition, but only women’s organizations have been able to move beyond mere recognition in the past few declarations.  This pressure may be the reason that in terms of problem-areas, the current Rio+20 draft appears to include every possible issue rather than restricting it to a limited list of problems.

However, a number of NGOs for the past 20 years (even longer in some cases) have sought a different pathway: coordinated projects and governance systems with corporations, states, and international organizations.  The Forestry Stewardship Council, TRAFFIC, and other examples abound.  The formal Rio+20 Conference will include a host of discussions about these and NGOs will be prominent throughout the Conference.  In this system, NGOs are critical partners sharing in the responsibilities of environmental governance.

The critiques of each technique are made often, although rarely in direct forms.  Fighting for recognition of a particular niche issue continues your funding, but does not create the projects of the green economy.  Taking responsibility with states and multinational corporations decreases the critical role of civil society and only achieves green washing.  Both of these are true to a significant extent and should not be dismissed.

The negotiation strategy of the U.S. seems to be to augment a transparent economic system that empowers civil society to be partners to help get information into the world and critics that can use public pressure to change actions.  This strategy with the sustainable development goals and minor institutional changes, which looks like the most likely outcome (written 5/28/2012–may change), requires civil society to fight for both recognition and responsibility.  Civil society will be needed to keep the world honest (recognition) and also expand its accountability to a wider public (responsibility).

So…what’s my problem?  Currently civil society has adopted a division of labor: you have some that fight for recognition (Greenpeace, niche organizations, direct action environmentalists, etc.) and those who are taking active responsibility (IUCN, The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, etc.).  These divisions have to get a lot messier if the likely Rio+20 small governance terrain is going to succeed.  It may quickly become where all civil society and NGOs have to 1. keep all actors honest and 2. expanded accountability.

The network of global environmental civil society developed significantly after Rio+0.  They may reach their high point after Rio+20: But in order to do so, they will have to simultaneously push for recognition of niche issues while expanding their accountability to a wider constituency.  Not an easy task, and one which will be more difficult with the likely deadlock on institutional reform.


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