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Less Is More in Rio?

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
June 20, 2012
Folha de Sao Paulo

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First published in Portuguese in Folha de Sao Paulo.

The 2008 financial crisis revived the phrase "too big to fail," referring to the dire economic consequences of not bailing out large U.S. banks. The difficulty in achieving a meaningful outcome at this week's G-20 and Rio+20 meetings suggests the alternative: too big to succeed. There is too much at stake: the global economy in Los Cabos; global environmental and social welfare in Rio. In Los Cabos, the continued split over fiscal stimulus and austerity is a far cry from the expectations four years ago that the G-20 would engineer financial fixes to manage such crises. In Rio, the increasing divide between developing and developed countries has yielded to a more glaring truth: more than 50,000 people representing over 100 countries and organizations can't possibly produce a meaningful consensus to sustainably develop, protect, and grow.

Remember the disconnect between the street and the official delegations at the WTO meeting in Seattle, 1999? Or, 10 years later, the chaos at climate talks in Copenhagen? A decade of declining benefits from such large global confabs has made low expectations a necessary ingredient for their very success, or so says the conventional wisdom. Another verse in this new testament: each head of state, especially the democratically-elected, brings mainly their own domestic preoccupations to these meetings. President Obama's election this year could hinge on preventing European spillover from jeopardizing an already weak economic recovery, for example. Would showing up in Rio bolster his standing at home or improve the summit's outcome? Likely not. Secretary Clinton's global stature—arguably every bit as mega as her boss and in many ways more tuned in to related issues of development, gender, and security—more than satisfies.

But success in Rio will be defined less by the stature of official delegations or laudable but nonbinding aspirations of the final document, and more by the state governors and mayors of major cities making commitments with private capital to green infrastructure investments and real mechanisms to reduce emissions. Or on the margins of the conference, where the explosion of free speech is evident in the virtual streets of social media and on the pavement outside of BNDES, in the tents of Flamengo, and, even in the protests against Ahmadinejad on the beaches of Ipanema.

Twenty years ago Guatemala and Colombia, who today have advanced the concept of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), were fighting civil wars—not worrying about how global environmental stewardship might impinge on national welfare. My bet? Twenty years from now, we will have made measurable progress in the goals of green growth, food security, poverty reduction, and protecting water, oceans and forests. But that progress will be made in the smaller spaces of the possible, where less may well deliver more than giant global fora can actually achieve.

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