‘We don’t see the necessary urgency and commitment from member states’ - Rio+20 interview with Cristina Diez Saguillo, Main Representative to the United Nations, International Movement ATD Fourth World

Cristina Diez Saguillo has been a member of the International Movement ATD Fourth World's full-time volunteer corps since 2003. Prior to that she worked in the financial sector as a fund administrator and worked in grassroots projects with children and young people in poverty in disadvantaged urban areas of Spain. In 2010 she became the main representative of the organisation to the United Nations.

What issues is ATD Fourth World bringing to Rio+20?

The main issues we’re bringing to Rio+20 are human rights and the participation of all stakeholders, with special attention to those most affected by extreme poverty and exclusion.

The conference should contribute to building a new sustainable development framework and the outcomes should be based on internationally agreed upon human rights principles and standards. The work of the UN Human Rights Council in developing Guiding Principles on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights provides a useful reference point in developing a human-rights based approach to sustainable development and poverty eradication. A rights-based approach will ensure the following:


  • Specific attention is given to the poorest and most vulnerable people who have been historically, and remain at present, most affected by both environmental degradation and social and economic exclusion. Proposals on environmental protection, climate change mitigation and adaptation and economic transition should include mechanisms to ensure that benefits reach people living in extreme poverty. This should include providing the means to establish a universal social protection floor for all to move towards full enjoyment of social and economic rights.
  • All sectors of society are able to participate in the conception, implementation and assessment of sustainable development policies and programmes, including people living in extreme poverty. This requires relevant decision-making bodies at all levels to establish specific mechanisms and institutional arrangements through which people living in extreme poverty can also effectively and meaningfully participate in all stages of decision-making processes. Obstacles to participation must also be identified and addressed, such as lack of access to relevant and understandable information, opportunity costs and stigmatisation.
  • Priority is given to a new sustainable development framework that builds on local knowledge and capacities, and empowers local communities with the technologies, financial resources and skills required in order for these strategies to be sustainable and break exclusion. To the extent possible, small-scale, inclusively managed projects should be promoted and supported, in order to protect the environment, strengthen the relationships in the community and improve the living conditions of people living in poverty.

Do you think Rio+20 is adequately addressing the issue of extreme poverty?

No, the draft outcome document does not emphasise that eradicating extreme poverty is a necessary condition for the realisation of sustainable development. For this to be possible the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable development must be fully integrated and treated with equal importance in programming, financing and delivery.
For this we have proposed the following amendments to the Rio+20 zero draft outcome document:

  • [add: 104 bis: We recognise that groups and people historically and systematically excluded from the benefits of sustainable development and suffering the worst effects of environmental degradation, notably people living in extreme poverty and including women, indigenous and traditional communities, slum-dwellers and landless farmers, must be at the centre of efforts to build sustainability at all levels. We recognise that their knowledge and experience constitute an essential contribution to humanity in dealing with global challenges. In order to achieve full respect of fundamental rights for all and recognition as productive citizens, we strongly encourage:
  • the necessary long term investment to promote fair and equal participation, including the removal of economic, social, educational or cultural barriers to participation, access to information and capacity building, in decision-making process in all levels, including within international institutions. Special attention must be given to participation in the follow-up of the outcomes of this conference, in the assessment of the Millennium Development Goals and in the process to establish a post-2015 framework.
  • the creation of mechanisms to promote for the most vulnerable people and groups the benefits of transition to sustainability, including formal recognition of the environmental services they provide, prioritising capacity building and access to green jobs, human rights safeguards to development and conservation projects and recognition of property rights and full access to the sustainable use of water, agricultural land, forests, oceans, clean energy and other common resources necessary to guarantee the fulfilment of fundamental rights.
  • the adoption by the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly of the Guiding Principles on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights as an important tool to promote the respect of human rights for all in sustainable development programmes and to make progress on the eradication of extreme poverty.]

Do you think Rio+20 will produce any radical changes to address today’s global crises?

We would like to think so, but unfortunately we don't see the necessary urgency and commitment from many member states. There is very little political will for new commitments. Although Sustainable Development Goals are being touted as a concrete development that may emerge from Rio, they are unlikely to go beyond commitments and pledges previously made. Up to now, the implementation gap shows the lack of real commitment on the part of member states.

So there is a need for a new development framework founded on implementing existing human rights principles and standards.

The poorest peoples and countries are most threatened by the consequences of global warming, of food price volatility and of international negotiations. In countries around the world, indigenous inhabitants are evicted from their ancestors’ territories by land grabs, or for ‘carbon projects’, where multi-national companies and banks buy carbon credits from governments.

The dominant patterns of production and consumption are jeopardising our planet, and are not sustainable. When it plunders natural resources, increases inequalities and generates social exclusion, economic growth is more the cause of crises rather than the response. Transition towards a green economy must lead to a fairer economy as well, not one that is submitted to the power of finance and speculation. It is clear that the financial deregulation that many governments have supported over the last decades must now be reversed. All across the world, the world's poorest citizens are forced to sell their labour at the lowest wages and in the most difficult conditions, in activities rejected by others, and with no stability.  A new economy must build on their efforts to provide better working conditions and social protection.

It is high time to distinguish between activities that must prosper because they meet the basic needs of all citizens and are sustainable, and activities that must decline, because they only meet superfluous needs, or are unsustainable. The former, such as family biological agriculture, should be supported by public authorities, while the latter should bear a higher level of taxes. Here are our main proposals:

  • Promote a bottom-up approach, building on local initiatives where economic means are used to promote the wellbeing of people in their communities, and not only to make profits.
  • Set in place a universal social protection floor to include universal healthcare cover, free access to education, a minimum income system to protect those unable to work from extreme poverty, and pensions for old age, disability, invalidity and loss of a spouse.
  • Include the promotion of decent work in development strategies.
  • Right to a safe environment – poverty is violence and people in extreme poverty suffer different kinds of violence, including environmental violence. Environmental justice and building peace must be at the forefront of sustainable development.
  • States and international agencies should adopt measures and ensure the resources needed to carry out systematic impact assessments to identify and address the effects of sustainable development policies on people in extreme poverty.
  • Include protection for food-producing agriculture, a factor in national sovereignty, as well as clauses to safeguard human rights as part of trade agreements, as suggested by the UN Human Rights Council.

What do you think civil society needs to do to see radical change result from Rio+20?

A broader mobilisation of civil society at the national and local levels - there is already mobilisation at the international level - is needed in all countries, and especially in developed countries.

Looking at the question in a broader sense, the radical change we are working for – in Rio+20 and more broadly for any international, national or local process where the future of people living in poverty is discussed - is that enabling conditions are created for the most vulnerable, excluded  people to participate in the development process. This implies a radical change in the way we establish the agendas, timeframes and pace of discussions. Genuine participation means that there are enough people with a direct experience of poverty at the table to collectively articulate their knowledge, and furthermore that no other actors take the place of those living in poverty or speak on their behalf.

As one of the members of ATD Fourth World with a direct experience of poverty said recently in an international gathering, “It is not so much the solutions reached in our dialogue that are important, as being able to reach these solutions all together.”

If we want to see these changes happening, we as civil society need to make progress in this direction and build our advocacy efforts with the genuine participation of those most affected by the issues for which we are advocating.


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