Can the road to Paris lead to the road to dignity?

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15 December 2014

After climate negotiations drew to a close in Lima, Jonathan Reeves reflects on the UN Secretary General's synthesis report on the post-2015 agenda and asks whether the "road to dignity" will take us to the right destination.

Negotiations went long into the night at COP20 in Lima, Peru, but the road to dignity seems no clearer (Photo: Ministro de Relaciones Exteriores Gonzalo Gutiérrez Reinel, via Creative Commons)

So many roads, so much at stake
So many dead ends, I'm at the edge of the lake
Sometimes I wonder what it's gonna take
To find dignity

Bob Dylan

So the UN Secretary-General (SG) has used his much-awaited post-2015 synthesis report to usher the New York caravan along the road to dignity for all by 2030. He proposes six "essential elements" to "help frame and reinforce the universal, integrated and transformative nature of a sustainable development agenda" and communicate this agenda.

He also urges coherence among the three major intergovernmental processes and events of 2015: the Third International Conference on Financing for Development (FfD), the finalisation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their agreement at the post-2015 summit and the agreement of a post-2020 climate regime at COP21 in Paris next December. (He doesn't mention the other big one, which is the agreement of a post-Hyogo disaster risk reduction framework in March.)

The coherence of these processes and their outcomes will be important for arriving at a fit-for-purpose global governance regime for sustainable development; a regime that enables and incentivises the transformative shifts in behaviours required. But can the road to Paris lead to the road to dignity, and should dignity be our destination anyway?

The Independent Research Forum (IRF2015) suggested that the overarching objective of the SDGs (PDF) could be described as arriving at a world in which no one is left behind, with equity for all and economies that work for people and planet.

What will it take to get to this world? We agree a new global partnership for sustainable development is needed – a universal compact based on the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. But it will also take a revolution of values.

As Martin Luther King said, a "true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth… and say this is not just." So I see much more value in emphasising equity (including inter-generational equity) and justice (another of the SG's six essential elements) rather than dignity.

I didn't hear anyone ask which way dignity lay at the climate COP in Lima over the last fortnight. But one step at a time: the priority for Lima was to ensure that the road to Paris was still worth travelling.

What is dignity anyway?

The SG's report suggests that it is achieved through ending poverty and fighting inequalities. These two objectives would surely be near the top of any version of a post-2015 agenda – certainly mine and IRF2015's. But will they result in dignity for all? Or will aiming for dignity for all help end poverty and inequality?

For me, dignity is seen in the resistance of the oppressed and the humility of the blessed – an essential element along the journey through this imperfect world, but not the destination.

It seems to me both patronising and inaccurate, from my personal experience, to suggest that the poor cannot possess dignity. The prevalence of inequity and injustice, though, does make it hard for any of us with the means to do something about it to look dignified.

The closest thing to a discussion of dignity I saw at the Lima COP was at a press conference of Peruvian indigenous leaders. An indigenous woman told an almost empty room how she felt offended by the offer from international governments to pay her community ten soles to protect a tree. She said a kilo of fish cost them 12 soles (a small artificial Christmas tree would set them back nearer to 100 soles, I noticed). And in any case, these people appreciated the true value of the trees and would naturally manage their forests and trees in a sustainable manner. 

Recent World Resources Institute analysis shows that the evidence backs this up: where indigenous peoples have legal rights to their forest, protected by government actions, these forests are better protected and carbon emissions lower.

In the revolution of values, there will be plenty of need to ask what is being valued, how and by whom?

And in any case, how do we measure dignity? One critical element in any attempt to transform unsustainable and inequitable behaviours will, of course, be new metrics to guide decision-making.

IRF2015 proposed a small set of around ten meta-metrics (PDF) to track and communicate progress towards the whole SDG agenda. But metrics alone will get us nowhere – we shall also need more and better connected social and political movements, education, diverse communication activities and innovative policymaking and cooperation that push in the same direction against poverty and inequality.

Dignity is not the destination we are aiming for. The road we need to follow involves a far broader transformation in our values. It is going to be a bumpy ride – which is why we must not forget the post-Hyogo disaster risk reduction framework along the way.

Dr Jonathan Reeves (jonathan.reeves@iied.org) is a senior researcher at IIED, working with IRF2015. This blog was originally posted by IRF2015.

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