Lord Paddy Ashdown, President of UNICEF UK argues that Rio+20 will have a positive impact for millions of the world’s poorest children.
“You may find some of the images in this report disturbing,” Natasha Kaplinsky warned ahead of a report from Niger on last week’s ITV evening news. Over two nights Rohit Kachroo reported on the food crisis afflicting West Africa which has left millions on the verge of starvation.
His report on Tuesday from a hospital in Maradi in southern Niger included footage of a severely malnourished eight month-old boy, Jahaman. The rise and fall of his tiny chest as he struggled to breath was difficult to watch.
By the time of Wednesday night’s broadcast Jahaman had lost his struggle to survive. It is stories like Jahaman’s and the food crisis in the Sahel region currently affecting an estimated 18 million people in nine countries across West Africa that made the outcome of the Rio Earth Summit so vital.
Yet as the summit reached its conclusion on Friday criticism from environment groups, charities working on poverty issues and the mainstream media over the strength of the agreement was becoming louder.
And yet the news coming from Rio has not been all bad. Indeed, some positive outcomes have emerged from the summit. These include both a recognition of climate change as a “cross-cutting issue” and of disaster risk reduction as a central part of long-term development – something I was especially glad to see as this was the centre piece of a recent report I wrote for the government on humanitarian emergency relief.
The food crisis in the Sahel is instructive when we consider what should come next. Two years of failed rains, crop failure and rising food prices have all been exacerbated by climate change; farmers across the region are being forced to sell livestock and tools and to decide whether the little grain they have should be eaten or planted for next years harvest.
Over a million children now need life saving intervention this year if they are to survive. Adults, will suffer too as the crisis deepens. But the children will suffer most; many will die.
Whilst humanitarian interventions are essential in such situations, development solutions are crucial to avoid these crises in the future.
By recognising “that the scale and gravity of the negative impacts of climate change affect all countries and undermine the ability of all countries, in particular, developing countries, to achieve sustainable development” the final Rio document takes a important stride towards the integration of social, environmental and economic resilience to climate change into all development strategies.
The report also calls for strategies “that integrate disaster risk reduction and climate change into public and private investment, decision making and planning.” This linking of climate change and disaster risk reduction and development aid is an important step forward. In the next decade, up to 175 million children are likely to be affected every year by the kinds of natural disasters brought about by climate change.
To avert humanitarian crises it is essential not just to tackle the causes of climate change but also to build resilience to disasters. By helping communities to adapt to risks we can help avoid humanitarian disasters in the future. This includes setting up early warning systems, equipping and educating communities, increasing the capacity of Governments to cope, introducing alternative livelihoods that are not as dependent on natural resources and changing agricultural practices to be better suited to a drier climate.
Adaptation is often “development” that doesn’t just respond to the needs of the past, but looks ahead to prepare for the future. Another key paragraph in the final document, one which was skirted over in earlier drafts, is a recognition of “the importance of the active participation of young people in decision making processes.”
The centrality of children to the sustainable future of the planet is a vital element which needs to be taken forward into the debate about the global goals that will replace the Millennium Development Goals which expire in 2015.
From Maradi in Niger the horse trading of world leaders in Brazil may seem like a world away, but the link between the decisions reached in Rio and the humanitarian crises in the Sahel and other parts of the world is a direct one.
Whilst Rio+20 may not have achieved everything that it might have there are nonetheless some silver linings to the storm-clouds that over Sugar Loaf Mountain.
How would I rate Rio? 6 out of 10 – maybe even seven if, crucially, what they declared now leads to real action, rather than self satisfaction. And that’s now up to our politicians.
- Lord Paddy Ashdown is the President of UNICEF UK. His views do not necessarily reflect those of ITV News.