On June 20-22, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The conference, known as Rio+20, signified the end of months of negotiations at the UN in New York and then a hectic week of negotiations in Rio before the conference. In the end, the delegates were not able to agree on a complete document, so the Brazilian government stepped in and presented its own version. The outcome document, called the Future We Want, is 53 pages and 283 paragraphs of governments’ political commitments on everything from oceans to food to cities to gender equality.

During the pre-conference negotiations in Rio, much of the debate was on the inclusion of “reproductive rights” in the document. Pro-life groups rightly praised the Brazilian government’s decision to exclude this phrase from the outcome document, since it is widely known that “reproductive rights” is code for abortion. This omission, among others, inspired the Women’s Major Group to express its outrage and to call the document a complete failure, and the utter despair of abortion advocates should be encouraging to pro-lifers.

So, after Rio+20, where do we go? All eyes are now on the future development of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Future We Want sets up a mechanism for the introduction of goals that will piggyback on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expire in 2015. The MDGs, which present targets for the achievement of priorities such as maternal health, education, poverty eradication, and environmental sustainability, will not be achieved by 2015. Thus, at the General Assembly in September, a 30-person committee will begin to assess and enumerate SDGs.

The next battle is thus determining what these new goals will be. It is certain that abortion activists like International Planned Parenthood Federation will push for the inclusion of universal recognition of reproductive rights and universal access to contraception in the list of SDGs. This inclusion would be an affirmation of the idea that population reduction is critical for the success of developing nations that cannot sustain their growing populations. The misguided reasoning is that a smaller population leads to more economic opportunities and more available jobs. This dangerous premise has inspired population control policies and practices and human rights violations in China, India, Vietnam, and Cambodia, among other countries.

This does not reflect the reality that it is poverty, not populations, that is the real culprit in failures to achieve sustainable development. It also ignores the innovation and problem-solving capacities of people, the first principle of the Rio Declaration from the 1992 Earth Summit. The new SDGs then must focus on lifting people out of poverty and fostering the exercise of their creativity. Some critical areas for SDGs are:

Health: Healthy people can focus their efforts on positive pursuits and do not drain countries’ resources. In many developing countries, there is still a need for even the most basic health care. Medical infrastructure, like hospitals and technology, will provide more people with better access to health care. Maternal health care, including prenatal and postnatal care and emergency obstetric care, is also critical because mothers are central figures in every family and community, as caretakers, providers, and teachers.

Education: Education empowers people to develop and realize their creative potential. Many people around the world, particularly girls, do not even have guaranteed access to primary schooling. This disadvantages them from accessing the ideas and developing the skills necessary for positive participation in a society.

Youth: A society that is invested in its youth is a society that is invested in its future. Unfortunately, discussions about youth at the United Nations are inevitably accompanied by the promotion of sexual rights. Youth are not simply sexual beings; they have very real concerns about education, employment access, and skill development that must be addressed by the SDGs.

Good governance: No effort to achieve sustainable development can succeed in a society that operates under corruption and bribery. Good governance means the establishment of the rule of law and the recognition and promotion of political rights, economic freedom, and private property which allow people to pursue their interests.

Cultivation of cultural capital: Cultural capital is the highest form of capital in a society. It is the ideas, beliefs, values, and knowledge that attach meaning to events and make up the mindset that informs each person’s actions. It is culture that informs how each person uses all other forms of capital, such as natural resources, tools, and institutions.

In an ideal world, the SDG committee will consider these priorities when determining the new SDGs. In a realistic world, the battle will be to remind the committee that creativity of humanity is the Earth’s greatest resource.

Meghan Grizzle is Research and Policy Specialist at the World Youth Alliance. She graduated from Harvard College in 2007 with a Bachelor’s and a Master’s in Linguistics and from Harvard Law School in 2011.

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