BSR at Rio: 20-20 Visions

June 20, 2012
  • Aron Cramer portrait

    Aron Cramer

    President and CEO, BSR

This is the fifth post in a series covering BSR at the Rio+20 Summit. The first post reflects on accomplishments in CSR over the past 20 years, and the second discusses corporate strategies for human rights. The third post explores BSR's Future of Fuels initiative and the fourth adds the Brazilian perspective to the discussion.

This week’s twin summits, the G20 in Mexico and the Rio+20 Summit in Brazil, tell us a lot about how the world works—or more precisely, how it is not working.

One would assume that a gathering of the world’s largest businesses would be focused intensely on the present, and that a gathering of the leaders of the world’s most influential countries would be focused on the future. After all, political leaders are supposed to have vision, and business leaders are about getting things done, right?

This time, that traditional reality has been turned upside down.

In Rio, in a coalition assembled by the World Economic Forum, CEOs of companies like Coca-Cola, Unilever, and Alcatel-Lucent have put their names to a declaration calling for collaboration with government and NGOs to achieve “the world we want.”  They are articulating a vision of shared global prosperity and environmental stewardship that has traditionally been the role of government.

Meanwhile, up the Trans-American Highway in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, the G20 leaders are mired in our lingering financial crisis, stubborn unemployment, and domestic political problems. If CEOs are (fairly) critiqued for looking only to the next quarter, government leaders may be even worse: focused on hourly numbers of the currency and stock markets, and monthly employment figures. There is virtually no vision coming from the G20. What’s more, very few will be making their way from Mexico to Rio—even though the date of the Rio Summit was changed in part to provide an easy way to “do” both summits.

As Washington and Brussels dither, it has become all too easy to reject government as terminally incapable of leadership. This is, of course both dangerous and wrong. Indeed, the “Friends of Rio” coalition has made a specific point of saying that their efforts will make far more headway if government is fully engaged.

Before Rio started, I argued that real, lasting progress would come not from intergovernmental agreements, but rather from broad coalitions of actively engaged participants. This worldview defines much of the Rio summit, and is largely absent at the G20. And as flawed as the Rio summit may be, it will be remembered by history as a messy but promising example of how the world works in the 21st century. Meanwhile, we’re likely to remember the smaller gathering in Cabo as the symbol of a dying era of global governance.

The stakes are too high for the story to stop there. It’s time for the multifaceted coalitions at Rio to go even further, and for the political and national leaders of the G20 to reclaim their role as the stewards of the public interest, with sustainable development as their north star.

Disclaimer: This series highlights BSR's perspectives about the potential implications of the Rio+20 Summit. Cramer did not attend the summit, and BSR staff participated in several related side events in Rio.

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