By Nisha Tabassum, Partners for Change Fellow
I clearly remember my shock at being chosen to attend the United Nations Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in late June. I remember thinking the likelihood that I would be chosen from among the many more experienced IS’ers (International studies majors) was zilch. I had just woken up from a nap to an email from Dr. James Biles inviting students to write a paragraph stating why they should be chosen to go. I figured I had no shot: I was not as active in the International Studies club the previous semester as some of the other students, and I was a new International Studies major with a concentration in development. Despite my reservations, I applied, half-awake. I knew that attending a conference of such magnitude and importance would not only boost my knowledge and understanding of development, but also serve as an enriching experience I could always carry with me.
The next day I got a reply from Dr. Biles informing me that I was chosen to attend the conference with Professor Kyle McDonald (I had no idea who he was at that moment) along with my peer, Dairanys Grullon-Virgil. I guess the Gods were really in my favor after all! In less than 24 hours, taking a chance had led me to a probably once-in-a lifetime opportunity related to my interest in development.
The Many Aspects of “Sustainable Development”
Two weeks later, we arrived in Brazil and got settled in a tiny apartment in Copacabana, a tourist town. The next few days I attended many workshops at Rio Centro, the site of the conference. The workshops, hosted by diverse NGOs, major institutions, and smaller organizations, covered a variety of topics related to sustainability—the environment, women, youth, communities, indigenous people and much more. It was amazing learning about so many aspects that comprises the term “sustainable development.”
One particular workshop made me consider what topic I wanted to cover in my senior thesis. The workshop focused on an organization by the name of REAL Development, which seeks to bring development programs to poor communities in impoverished countries. What was unique about this organization was its approach to bringing development to communities. The approach consists of organization staff going into local communities, such as in India, asking locals what their needs are, and then giving them the resources to improve their livelihoods. Real Development introducing them to ways to invest, build houses, and become entrepreneurs. This approach made me think about “top down” versus “bottom up” approaches to development, and the characteristics that define each. Thus, I began to entertain this idea of focusing my thesis on investigating case studies of “bottom up” and “top down” approaches of development in impoverished communities and the merits of each.
I also enjoyed a forum that the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) hosted on the use of GDP to measure development. The speakers were Helen Clark, an UNDP administrator, Michael Zata, the president of Zambia, and Helle Thorning-Schmidt, prime minister of Denmark. This forum challenged participants to look beyond GDP as the indicator of development. Numbers should not be the only source to determine how well a country is doing. From this interesting forum, I learned it is important to consider other indicators, such as jobs, education, and resources when assessing development beyond GDP. During this discussion, President Michael Zata made a memorable remark: “Africa is poor because they are always begging the superpowers for money. Why is it that Africa has more natural resources than some of the dominant countries, yet they are one of the poorest? What Africa needs is not money given to its states but rather resources such as equipment, training and tools to improve the economy.” Tis’ makes sense—qualitative versus quantitative. Human livelihoods, in my opinion, should not be quantified.
Although I enjoyed the conference immensely, I still had a couple of critiques. Many of the panelists had difficulty sustaining the interest of the participants; there was confusion about the scheduling and to me, many NGOs seem to be using the conference as an advertising base to market their work. I also felt that a lot of the talk about sustainable development centered on what “should be done” as opposed to “what is being done.” Granted, there is a whole world of dynamics I do not understand yet about NGOs and their approaches to development. But from an objective perspective, I got tired of hearing jargon that was disconnected from concrete solutions and answers.
Discovering Brazilian Culture
In addition to learning about the many aspects of development, I also learned many things about the Brazilian culture. In Brazil, for example, people take their time to do things; life happens at a much slower pace. The people in Rio also seemed very concerned about their health. I noticed many people were very adamant about working out and eating healthy. It was particularly amusing to see a very, wrinkly old man in a Speedo running down the beach—that is how serious the people are! Additionally, Brazilian seem to know how to have fun. The professor, Dairanys, Silvia and I came across a Brazillian “forro”—their versions of a party on the rocks that dot the beach. It was so lively and interesting to see how the locals get down and groovy without worrying about paying a cost. We also got a chance to visit Lapa, Rio’s former red-light district, turned into the nightclub district. This place comes alive during the weekend nights—people milling about everywhere on the streets, dancing, singing—just having a good time. Last but not least, Dairanys and I got a chance to visit the Cristo Redenter. This larger than life statue of Jesus Christ was a spectacular sight! And it made me realize that, indeed, we were actually in Brazil.
Overall, I had an amazing experience, and cannot thank City College and the International Studies department enough for allowing me to go! I definitely feel that my experience at the conference enhanced my knowledge of and comfort level with the subject of development. I also felt very empowered being in the presence of so many world leaders. Who would have thought that by taking a chance to apply for something I did not think that I would get, I opened myself up to so many enriching experiences.
Read about Nisha and our other contributors here.