Where is health in Sustainable Development? Views from the Coordinator of IFMSA’s Think Global Initiative at the Rio+20 2nd Intersessional

‘Your here with who?’ (accompanied by a puzzled look) this was the response I got from the person sitting next to me, early one cold Wednesday morning in NYC, whilst waiting for a training to start on how civil society can engage with the Rio+20 process. As I explained to him who I was and why I was there he seemed to brighten up, but I think was still a little confused as to why medical students were in attendance at this meeting and secondly why they would have the slightest bit of interest in Rio+20. This seemed to exemplify the reaction I got from a few people at this meeting but as I grew more confident in what exactly I was doing there it seemed that people were starting to switch on to why health was important to this process and what we in the health community could bring to it.

So to begin with I though I would start by introducing what the Rio+20 summit is, it is the UN conference on Sustainable development and is called Rio+20 because it is 20 years after the original Earth Summit in 1992. Back then the whole conference was about environment, and now it is about all three pillars of sustainable development: economic, social and environment. The main outcome of this conference that people have been talking about for months now is a roadmap to a green economy, though there does seem to be little consensus to what a green economy actually is.

Back to the Intersessional, it was a two day event at UN HQ in NYC last week with a training day for stakeholders the day before. The aim of the Intersessional was to decide the format of the zero draft which is currently being compiled. The zero draft is a text which is most likely going to be about 18 pages long and condense down the 30,000 pages of text from over 600 stakeholders (governments and civil society groups) of which the IFMSA is one of them see this link . The Zero draft is due to be released next month on the 22nd January and will be published on the Rio+20 website.

For the few days I was in New York I had embedded myself within the Major Group for Children and Youth (MGCY), the resolution from the UN GA creating the summit allowed for a great deal of civil society participation organised around 7 major groups. This group were an interesting mix of both young people and organisations working with young people e.g. UNICEF, though it must be noted that they mostly had a strictly environmental focus. Since the IFMSA and health community in general are coming to this rather late in the process it was best for us to work through them for the time being.

The Plenaries themselves were slightly tedious, I was involved with tracking for MGCY which consisted of sitting listening to all the speakers and identifying policy positions and sticking them on a google doc then identifying which countries shared the exact same position. Given that most countries said variations of the exact same thing I was ready to kill myself if I ever heard the phrases ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ or ‘short, concise political statement’ and generally talked about the environment. A few exceptions to this were some Latin American countries who did not believe in the private sector, Island states talking about a Blue Economy and the US who wanted a ‘5 page non-binding aspirational political statement’ that the average person on the street could understand with a compendium of voluntary commitments The upside of these sessions each civil society grouping got to submit a position statement, check out the MGCY one which has some mention of health and also the Indigenous Peoples one for being probably the most radical thing I heard in those few days.

The interesting bit of the session was the side events, suddenly from not hearing the world health mentioned at all I started to see the relevance. In particular in sessions around sustainable agriculture, cities and the creation of Sustainable Development goals.  The cities and agriculture all talked about environments to create healthy lives and although I don’t think we could input on the technical stuff I think the health community has a lot to contribute in terms of framing these arguments (reducing the amount of cattle reared etc..). The really interesting session was that by the Colombian government who have proposed creating Sustainable Development Goals to compliment the MDGs with health potentially acting as a key indicator.

To finish up I think I will just say where can the IFMSA fit in and what should our plans be moving forward from this:

– Health currently isn’t being mentioned much so making sure the conference does take into account the social aspect of Sustainable Development.

– Promoting health as a key indicator of well being and as a central part of alternative economic indicators to GDP.

– Acting as a go between for various health groups which we made initial contact with at the intersessional to form an alliance of health groups around Rio.

– Generally encouraging health professionals to be part of the wider civil society mobilisation around Rio.

– Develop a policy statement on Sustainable Development

On January 22nd the Bureau will release the Zero Draft and also the schedule for events running up to Rio as well as what if any civil society participation will be allowed, before then we should have formed a SWG on sustainable development to work together in the run up to Rio.

Thanks for reading this and have a Happy Holidays,

Mike Kalmus Eliasz

(TG Coordinator)

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