Let a hundred policies bloom at Rio+20

The Nobel laureate, Elinor Ostrom, who died this Tuesday, through her empirical work on polycentric governance and institutions for collective action, emphasised that there exists "no single panacea" for managing common resources.

She emphasised that single policies adopted only at a global scale are unlikely to generate sufficient trust among citizens and firms for collective action to take place in a comprehensive and transparent manner.

At the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit in February this year, she said that mechanisms developed by the multilateral regime, national governments as well as local solutions have their own relevance. Polycentric approaches should be promoted, even if they lead to overlaps, she would argue.

The event will mark the 20{+t}{+h} anniversary of the UN Conference on Environment and Development or the 'Earth Summit', the first event that brought together the global community, state and non-state actors, with 108 heads of states and governments and representatives from international agencies and NGOs to deliberate on sustainable development.

The 1992 Rio Declaration with 27 principles was built on the 1972 Stockholm Declaration. The 1992 Earth Summit also served as the bedrock for three Rio Conventions - UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.

Rio+20 deliberations (or Stockholm+40) have been focusing on two themes - green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and an institutional framework for sustainable development.

Analysing partnerships registered by the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), we see state and non-state actors have mobilised involvement of the major groups (especially NGOs, researchers and academics) and initiatives have been directed towards capacity building such as institutional strengthening, technology transfer and knowledge partnerships.

Examples also show how non-state actors and state actors together facilitate international cooperation - a partnership on organic agriculture shows how a research institute in Ghana provided capacity-building support and transfer of know-how to the Government of Dominican Republic for sustainable food production, revitalising rural development and conserving natural resources.

Another example of a partnership which brought together many governments and major groups from across the world regarding issues related to economic growth, social equity and environmental sustainability is the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership.

However, major gaps remain. In the indicative CSD partnership list, in terms of geographical spread, only 1.4 per cent of the total partnerships have been at the local level (see pie chart).

Partnerships with groups including farmer groups, women groups, workers and trade unions and youth groups have also been only partly successful (see table).

The CSD could also increase efforts to involve major groups from the developing countries, as those countries stressed during the preparatory processes of Rio+20 in March last year.

What would this then mean for partnerships? This could then mean having local cooperatives, institutions such as grameen banks, local authorities (including panchayats and municipal bodies) and self-help groups that also appear in the major groups' list.

Examples in India also show that social programmes have linked panchayats, the Union Government, NGOs and the multi-lateral system.

While implementation needs to be enhanced domestically, such partnerships indicate that the multi-lateral system is especially relevant for sustainable development in a globalising world, with state and non-state actors at all levels working collectively.

Having actors from many levels is important to make global deliberations such as the Rio+20 inclusive.

Which global institution would take this forward? As appears in the zero draft outcome document of the CSD, this would perhaps then depend on an enhanced CSD or a Sustainable Development Council. This will be discussed at the Rio+20.

In a recent article on Rio+20 titled Green from the Grassroots, Ostrom succinctly argued that a variety of overlapping policies at local, sub-national, national and international levels is more likely to succeed than a single, overarching binding agreement.

Such an evolutionary approach to policy provides essential safety nets should one or more policies fail. She emphasised that all stakeholders - countries, states, cities (and villages), organisations, companies and individuals - must have a stake in establishing policies and related goals.

As her and her students' work demonstrates, cooperative activities and local action for managing common resources by small user groups can lead to optimal results, provided that stakeholders are adequately informed and also empowered to act.

Whatever the outcome of Rio+20, we know from wisdom that no singular outcome can be a panacea for our common future or the future we want.

Tags: Rio+20, polycentric approaches, diversity of policy inputs, right environment outcomes, Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and