A few rays of hope at the Rio+20 jamboree

By all accounts, last month’s mega global jamboree Rio+20 has been expectedly labeled a huge failure. Few would have anticipated anything concrete to emerge, what with the precedent set by the string of similar spectacular failures at reaching consensus about dealing with the world’s interrelated environmental, social and economic problems at previous such mega jamborees in Bali, Copenhagen, Cancun and elsewhere.

The complexity and magnitude of these intimately connected problems among the peoples of the world are not only a challenge to comprehend in itself, but the competing forces driven by commercial, religious, economic and aspirational vested interests that influence them make them look like an unsolvable conundrum – at least in the manner and mechanisms in which the solutions are being sought today.

Previous conferences have repeatedly shown that multilateralism has failed. That was exactly the case at Rio+20 as well. Delegations from 188 countries including more than a hundred heads of state (minus the biggest of them all – Barack Obama) and some 45,000 delegates drawn from across all persuasions in life had little by way of anything concretely positive for the 4000 attending journalists to report to the world.

But it would be too early to treat Rio+20 as a complete write-off in the sense that previous such conferences were. There are a few reasons why. For one, the preparatory steps to Rio+20 took on board a grassroots approach. It had a system for information and communications technology infrastructure to involve the wider community. People from anywhere in the world could participate in pre-summit deliberations using simple web technology. Submissions, which could be made on a range of listed topics, were to be taken aboard for greater consideration in leaders’ deliberations.

It is not known how much this system contributed to the three day deliberations or if it added any value to the general discourse at all. There has been next to nothing about the workings of the system in post event news releases, so there is no knowing how useful it was. But the important point is that the very thought of such a process and the attempt to put it in place was a step in the right direction. For one thing that has not been attempted at previous conferences is a bottom up approach and this was the first time that there was a semblance of it.

At the end of Rio+20, however, no binding agreements were arrived at or signed on. None of the overarching commitments that have been repeatedly sought after at such mega events previously were to be seen. Rather, a feel good document was put out, with several initiatives agreed to, mostly informally, by the more serious minded and well meaning forces from all sectors including large business houses.

In fact it is these small measures that hold out any hope of achieving anything significant in moving towards sustainable practices in future human endeavour: more than a flicker hope for the growing collaborative movement across sectors for sustainable development. Some 700 commitments worth more than $500 billion were publicly announced at the summit. None of these are under any agreed upon framework but are by and large voluntary.

Other voluntary measures, which in some cases also had corporate and government support were initiatives like planting 100 million trees by the year 2017 to greening 10,000 square kilometers of desert – and empowering thousands of women entrepreneurs in green economy businesses in Africa.

This is a refreshingly bottom up approach rather than the ever elusive statutory, over-arching agreement approach that world leaders have been pursuing for the better part of two decades since the first Rio summit in 1992. All these conferences have been cast in the top down mould – driven by policy suitable to competing vested interests based on the holy grail of economic growth. Having done that, the idea was to then set about thinking up programmes that would fall under the top down policies – and finally finding funding to make them happen.

History tells us that tack has not worked. If at all it did, it was patchy. For instance, repeated earmarking of funding for adaptation and mitigation to counter climate change in countries and regions deemed most vulnerable, like Kiribati in the Pacific Islands region, at previous conferences has brought a mere trickle of assistance to the suffering regions, if at all.

If anything ought to work, it is this bottom up approach that will. That is because the people, NGOs, individuals and parties involved are bound together in their belief that something needs to be done seriously and the only way to do it is through a multi disciplinary approach rather than a multilateral one at top governmental levels. To borrow a phrase from an unsavoury historical context that was used in the Middle East by a former American President, the only thing that will work is a ‘coalition of the willing’.

The other positive outcome is the willingness shown by likeminded businesses that have come to realise that adopting sustainable practices in whatever they do is the only way forward. Sustainability has turned out to be the big mantra for businesses over the past decade or so and such bottom up initiatives will give impetus to more businesses across the board to adopt sustainable practices as they begin to realise that ultimately these practices have a positive effect on the bottom line.

The popularity of the idea will begin to evolve scales to ‘measure’ sustainability. That will be followed by standards and perhaps certification systems – all of which will add immensely to the aura of an enterprise both through the bottom line and through reputational value. After all, any human enterprise can make sense only if there a discernible gain is seen in it.

One way to achieve this is to put a value on sustainable practice. And that is perhaps the single most significant though informal outcomes of Rio+20: One of the innovative initiatives agreed to at last month’s event is Natural Capital Declaration. Its idea is to get as many layers and sectors of society across the world to agree to the idea of affixing an economic value on nature. This is in direct contrast to previous approaches that did not put an economic value on nature. This is a novel concept that will help measure sustainable strategies and therefore encourage businesses to develop them – not just because they are good for the environment but also because they promote profitability.

It is an idea whose time has come and if it gains critical mass, may well point the way ahead to a sustainable future.

First appeared in Islands Business, July 2012 as a opinion piece ‘We Say’

End of the news media as we know it?

Turmoil in Australian news media is the thin end of the wedge

One of the pithier definitions of news is, ‘something that someone somewhere doesn’t want you to know’. That someone is usually in a position of power – either in government or in business – and what they don’t want you to know is some shady stuff that has been done at your cost.

It is no surprise that the powers that be – whether government or business – so often find themselves at loggerheads with the news media. Most politicians and businesspeople are of the view that the news media is a necessary evil that has to be lived with.

History is littered with instances of politically motivated muzzling of the media with methods ranging from financial and physical coercion to the enactment of legislation heavily loaded against libertarian freedoms, mainly targeting the freedom of expression, leading to censorship in many guises.

Less obvious is the influence that big business wields over the news media. Big spenders of advertising dollars have mastered the fine art of extracting their pound of flesh in terms of gaining favourable exposure – while getting the media to gloss over what would seem unfavourable – by leveraging their huge ad spend, which indeed is the lifeblood of the news media. The influence of big money has muscled its way to the front pages. And quite literally, too: think how often these days you see a highly paid for advertising wraparound concealing the front page of a newspaper under a faux masthead.

The burning desire to control the media has traditionally been associated with politics and politicians – not so much business and businesspeople. However, that is about to change, as we are seeing it unfold in Australia – but more about that, a little later in the piece.

The Fourth Estate’s vulnerability

By its very nature, the Fourth Estate, which is supposed to be the independent guardian of common people’s interests, is fraught. It does not have the same locus standi that the three estates or pillars – legislature, executive and judiciary – of democracy have. In that sense it is powerless. But then, it derives whatever semblance of the power it has from the people – by virtue of being a guardian of their interests and keeping a hawk’s eye on the goings on in the dealings of the three estates and the effective separation of their powers, which is the very essence of democracy.

The ideal, dispassionate, independent news organisation would therefore be one that would be completely supported by subscription and newsstand sales, paid individually by readers. This, like most ideal stuff, has never been possible and a news organisation is simply unviable commercially without advertising or some form of government subsidy (as in the case of broadcast media in many countries around the world, including developed nations).

Never viable as a solely subscriber supported enterprise, the dependence of the news media on advertisers has grown exponentially over the decades. The advent of the internet, especially since the 1990s, has exacerbated that dependence, not least because the world’s news media fell over one another in a mindless scramble to give all content away free.

That decision to give it away free even further alienated the tenuous financial support the news media received from end users or news consumers, increasing their dependence on advertising dollars while at the same time having to deal with falling circulations and concomitant sliding advertising revenue.

The ease of accessing news from a variety of sources on a range of digital devices at no cost has sounded the death knell of the news media, as we have known it. The virtual elimination of subscriber supported revenue streams and the complete dependence of the news media on advertising dollars has greatly compromised its independence.

This realisation has come in too late and the news media is once again scrambling, falling over one another to erect ‘paywalls’ so that subscribers pay for what they read, watch and listen. Leading news organisations around the world have been experimenting with various models but none seems to have hit upon a scheme that works satisfactorily. Twenty years of free news content from multiple sources has all but nullified brand loyalty and it is hard to convince people to pay for what they have been used to getting free for two decades.

Big turmoil in Australian media

Most big news organisations are deeply in the red and the fact that their traditional business model is coming unstuck is borne out from what has happened in the Australian news media last month.

Fairfax, among the country’s largest media houses and the publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, announced plans to cut 1900 jobs and shut down two printing plants over three years. The two leading newspapers will cease to be broadsheets and will be in a smaller ‘compact’ size (the editors-in-chief of the two papers have also announced their decision to step down). Fairfax’s share price has seen a precipitous drop of 85% in the past five years.

The company has also announced that it will start charging for content, following in the footsteps of its big rival, News Limited, which also, incidentally, announced big job cuts in its Australian operations last month.

Meanwhile, the bigger story in Australian media that has repercussions on all big media houses around the world and perhaps portends the shape of things to come is the acquisition of nearly 19 per cent of the stake in Fairfax by Australia’s richest woman and mining magnate, Gina Rinehart.

Ms Rinehart is reported to have asked for a say in the appointment of directors on the board and also reportedly refused to sign a document that guarantees editorial independence. Her group has indicated that it may sell the stake if conditions are not met. Also, it is well known that Ms Rinehart is opposed to the Australian government’s carbon tax regime and mining policies that are seen as restrictive by the industry. It is clear in her acquisition and recent statements that she would like control on media content and opinion.

Australia’s Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said this would lead to a “crisis of confidence among the readership” and the developments have worried Treasurer Wayne Swan enough say, “I think that has very big implications for our democracy, I think we should all be very concerned at this turn of events.”

It is interesting to see what was widely touted as the very bastions of free media that didn’t bat an eyelid before condemning attempts at media control in poorer countries around the region are now under threat of losing independence to vested interests powered by big money.

The advent of digital media and the entry of big money are set to change the face of the news media forever. What won’t change is that clever definition of news we began with: something that someone somewhere doesn’t want you to know – except that such concealment won’t even serve the purpose of the proverbial fig leaf.

First appeared in Islands Business, July 2012

Geopolitics may be a bigger headache for islands than climate change

That the Pacific islands region will be the theatre of action in the next big global race for geopolitical hegemony is not a question of if as much as it is of when. And that when may be soon. Once it breaks out, the race could stay a cold war for a long time, with all sorts of posturing from all parties, or it could escalate into a full blown battle. No matter how it finally turns out, the next big theatre for the big powers’ global machinations will be the Pacific and its epicenter could well be Fiji’s capital Suva.

At the turn of the millennium, this twenty first century was touted as the century of the Asia Pacific. The promise was great: the Pacific Rim countries’ confidence brimmed powered by their blitzing growth rates, the Asian tigers were on a roll, the Pacific islands were redrawing the extents of sovereign oceanic territories as new mineral discoveries were being made on land and the seabed.

The first decade of this century saw sustained forays by the Asian giants into the Pacific islands region, establishing new outposts in tiny island nations, helping build infrastructure and doling out loans and grants with a firm eye on the vast natural resources that the islands are thought to possess. All this happened as the Pacific islands’ traditional western world partners were progressively downsizing their long held commitments to the islands.

Throughout the first decade of this century, China had a fairly open run of the Pacific Oceanic region. It upped its financial assistance and infrastructure building programmes around the region in schemes and arrangements that were different from the ones Pacific island governments were used to when such assistance came from Western friends.

Pacific islands leaders spoke approvingly of China’s ‘no strings attached’ approach to aid, in marked contrast to the West’s more structured and highly conditions-based manner of dealing with assistance programmes. This was enticement enough for most Pacific island countries to happily get into bed with China for several ‘development’ initiatives in return for poorly documented (at least in the media) concessions in tapping natural resources and fisheries.

Simultaneously, political developments like those in Fiji forced leaderships to evlove strategies like Fiji’s ‘look North policy’ where almost every new realm of economic and developmental activity became closely aligned to China, Korea and several other countries of the Pacific Rim, gaining precedence over traditional ties to Australia and New Zealand.

China has played its game in the Pacific cleverly. It has employed what commonly goes for ‘soft power’ to win influence. It has extended the hand of unconditional friendship and one cannot say that there has been coercion or threatening of any sort. That is one of the reasons why its influence has grown so rapidly over such sweeping swathes of the Pacific – under the radar as it were.

Meanwhile, the United States was busy with its endless war mongering in the Middle East for the better part of the past two decades and all but ignored China’s growing influence in the Pacific islands region. As if awoken suddenly from a deep slumber, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton made a knee jerk statement during one of her Pacific whistle stop tours a few years ago that the US would not “cede” territory to anybody – obviously implying that it wouldn’t take China’s machinations in the region lying down.

As the world now progresses towards the middle of this century’s second decade, it is becoming increasingly apparent that this is the century of the Asia Pacific for many more reasons than those that were touted at the turn of the millennium. And some of these reasons are undoubtedly a cause for worry – not just for the region but also for the world.

China has already begun protesting against the US’ planned joint exercises in the Pacific this year that involves some 22 nations including several of the Pacific Rim including Australia and New Zealand and even distant powers like Russia. China has pointedly been excluded from these exercises that will include a range of nuclear submarines besides other sophisticated naval hardware and armaments.

China is also dealing with a number of more regional geopolitical and territorial problems – particularly the one involving the Philippines in the South China Sea. The Philippines has a strong US connection for historical reasons. This is one instance of how these local problems have the potential to polarise the region across the two superpowers vying for the region’s favours.

The joint naval exercises are obviously a bold and firm statement directed at China that the US wants to make that it well and truly means business in the region. In including 22 nations in its exercises including South Korea and Japan, it has thumbed its nose at the Asian superpower. In fact the US started this sort of posturing when it rebuilt its embassy in Fiji’s capital Suva.

In ages gone by, kings and emperors announced their hegemony by building towers and monuments on the territories they conquered. In modern times, countries can’t conquer and can’t build towers and monuments. Instead, they build embassies in the countries they want to win favour from in helping them expanding their influence. So when China rebuilt its embassy into a bigger facility in Fiji, the US decided to follow suit almost immediately.

For both countries realise the strategic, geopolitical importance of Fiji, just as colonial powers in bygone eras had. In any aggression that takes place in the Pacific Ocean in the near future, Fiji will undoubtedly catapulted into centre stage because of this.

What has begun as benign posturing could quite easily escalate into a cold war but could a cold war result in a full blown conflict? Consider this: the arms industry is the engine of the US economy. With action in the Middle East all but over, there are few places left for war mongering. The Pacific Ocean is an extremely suitable candidate to kickstart the arms industry and pull the country out of the recession. The development of a whole new suite of weapons suited for vast stretches of ocean would be a challenge worth pursuing and investing in. And thanks to the sparseness of the population, collateral damage would be negligible.

Fanciful though this may sound, the possibility can scarcely be discounted. Unfortunately for the Pacific islands and their citizens, they have already been reduced to pawns. Geopolitics may well grow to be a more pressing worry than the ravages of climate change.

First appeared in Islands Business, July 2012 as an opinion piece in ‘We Say’