‘Civil society needs to be vigilant’ - interview with Elizabeth Thompson, Assistant Secretary-General and Executive Coordinator, UN Conference on Sustainable Development – Rio+20

Elizabeth Thompson is a former Minister for Energy and Environment of Barbados who also served as Minister for Physical Development and Minister for Health. Ms Thompson was appointed to the Barbados Senate and was a practising attorney as well as a journalist. She has also served as a lecturer in ecology, economy, energy and politics.


 What do you think are the major challenges facing our world today, and how will Rio+20 address these challenges?

The major challenges facing the world all have to do with sustainability and include:

  • building a global financial and economic system which is not characterised by boom and bust cycles
  • eliminating the broad inequities which typify the North-South divide and increasingly the divide within individual countries
  • the absence of the mainstreaming of sustainable development policy so that such cross-sectoral approaches inform national policy formulation and delivery
  • the need for a change in the thinking that social and ecological concerns are not significant contributing factors to economic growth and development and therefore need not concern ministers of finance
  • allowing people a greater say in their governance and access to the benefits of growth
  • the urgent requirement to remove people from the clutches and cycles of grinding poverty, particularly women and girls
  • the need to prepare seriously for a post fossil fuel economy
  • the importance of embracing metrics that go beyond GDP to truly assess quality of life
  • a recognition that the earth as an ecosystem is being seriously and adversely affected by man's unsustainable consumption patterns
  • persuading the business sector to act with a greater sense of corporate social responsibility, recognising that social entrepreneurship and sustainability equals profitability  

The Rio+20 conference will address these issues both directly and tangentially. First, the very convening of the conference itself generates global attention and solution-oriented dialogue, programmes and partnerships on the issues. Engaged in the dialogue are all possible stakeholders, from national and international state and non-state actors.

Second, the conference represents a very real opportunity for all of us as ‘shareholders of Earth Incorporated’ to evaluate the problems with which we are faced and craft solutions to those problems which are based on our individual national circumstances and capacities.

Third, through the medium of the global green economy, the issues of sustainable consumption and production as well as the post-petroleum society and economy can be discussed and planned for in a structured and strategic way.

Fourth, by structuring one of the themes around economy, attention is placed onto the role and responsibility of the business, industry and investment sectors in generating sustainable wealth, growth and jobs. The transition to a low carbon economy will not happen without the collaboration of the private sector.

Fifth, by considering issues relating to policy implementation and the institutional architecture for policy and programme delivery, we are made to analyse where weaknesses and errors existed and see how these might be strengthened to build new more effective delivery mechanisms.

Finally, in so far as the Secretary General's High Level Panel and the Co-Chair's zero draft identifies many of the critical elements and issues which are proving obstacles to development, countries now have an opportunity to rise to the challenge of shaping and putting in place critical and unprecedented policy, programmatic and partnership interventions that will serve as a historical turning point for the people of the world and the planet which supports their lives and livelihoods.

As the Executive Coordinator of Rio+20, how are you engaging with multi-stakeholders in the lead up to the conference?

In the lead-up to Rio+20 the Executive Coordinators are trying to meet with as many stakeholders as possible to understand their perspectives and make sure they are fairly represented in the process. We are cognisant that the process is an intergovernmental one, but understanding that governments all over the world are being called on to listen to and address the concerns of their citizens. Clearly, serious support to consensus building leading up to Rio+20 and in the negotiations will have to be given, while ensuring that we retain the role of unbiased stances of ‘honest brokers’ in order to ensure that countries derive the optimal benefits from the negotiations for their citizens. Our role is about fostering accord on the issues, helping to ensure that sustainable development is mainstreamed and ensuring that Rio+20 has a legacy of solid achievement and is perceived as the moment at which leaders decided to bridge the development divide. It is an intense role.

What do you see as the major challenges in establishing a concrete, ambitious outcome agreement?

There is much talk of a higher level of ambition in the agreement but very little dialogue on how that is to be done. During the last round of meetings, one ambassador framed the issue something like this - he said we needed to ask ourselves philosophically what we want the outcome from Rio+20 to be.  What are the development issues that need to be addressed and what are the best policy frameworks and institutional structures to address them? Then we need to find specific actions and language which capture these concepts in the negotiation process and document. He cautioned that if there was an immediate rush to joust over the quality of language without careful consideration of the content and what it delivers, then we would not have the strong outcome at Rio which the world so badly and urgently needs.

What is your message to civil society?

That civil society’s role is invaluable in working at every level of society and educating companies and communities on the importance of sustainable development. Civil society needs to play a role in helping to develop new initiatives which will deliver on sustainability and most of all, civil society needs to be vigilant in ensuring that countries commit to sustainability and continue along the pathway they have defined to achieve it.