The countdown has started to one of the most important international gatherings in years, if not decades; the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development.
Sustainable development is not only about economic growth and improving standards of living, it is about addressing these issues in a way that will allow our children and grandchildren to live on a planet that has not been depleted of its natural resources, has clean air, safe water and less vulnerability to natural and man-made disasters. In other words, all children should be able to enjoy the abundant, yet finite, resources of mother earth.
Yet, children's voices will not be heard at Rio+20.That's why UNICEF, as a global child rights organisation, has a responsibility to be the voice of voiceless children. They are the inheritors of the earth.
In June, more than 130 heads of state and government will be joined by an estimated 50,000 business leaders, mayors, activists and academics as part of an attempt to build a global coalition for commitments and action on the most important challenges facing all of us; reducing poverty, inequality and ensuring environmental protection on an ever more crowded planet. In other words how to build sustainable development.
But success is not guaranteed. This is, after all, Rio+20, twenty years on from a previous attempt when leaders met in Rio de Janeiro to build global consent on sustainable development. Let's be honest, much aspirational hype flowed then, but few concrete ideas of large-scale eco-friendly impact.
The signs are, again, ominous. Countries remain divided on goals and processes.
This is of great concern as Rio+20 offers a second chance to act. Rio, once more, offers an opportunity to hit the reset button: to set the course for a future that balances the economic, social and environmental aspects of prosperity. It's an opportunity to create a caring society, caring for children and caring for the environment.
'Sustainable development' is an anodyne phrase. It hardly trips off the tongue, or crops up in everyday animated conversation, but its meaning for all of us is stark. As more of us live on the planet it is becoming rapidly apparent that our natural resources are under stress.
Hunger, drought, scarcity of natural resources and steep rises in commodity prices are hitting those who can least help themselves. For those less fortunate it can mean life or death.
And we have to face up to it; we cannot consume our way to global economic growth and prosperity. The challenge is to come up with new ways of doing things. Speaking up on behalf of children, we at UNICEF have something to say about this seemingly intractable sustainable development problem. Here are some ways forward.
Firstly, the survival, development and protection of children are central to sustainable development. By definition, sustainable development is about intergenerational responsibility, a collective responsibility to ensure a safer, cleaner, and healthier world for all of today's children, and for their children. A sustainable future requires that children have the opportunity to grow-up healthy, well-educated, and protected from violence and neglect. It also requires that they and their children have access to clean water, clean air, and food, now and in the future.
Yet, today these requirements are far from being met: 180 million children under five are irreversibly affected by stunting (low height for age); 99 million children remain without access to improved sources of drinking water, and 208 million are without access to safe sanitation. This dire situation is further exacerbated by growing environmental degradation and resource scarcity. Poverty is rarely eco-friendly and such environments lend themselves more readily to political instability. Our interconnected world means few of us are immune from the effects of these deprivations and instabilities.
Secondly, equity should be a core principle of sustainable development goals. Broad-based inclusive growth improves the livelihoods of children, women and families living in poverty. In addition, there is growing evidence that investing in the health, education, and protection of societies' most disadvantaged citizens, addressing inequity, is more likely to lead to sustained growth and stability. A greener model of growth is imperative, but it must also be inclusive. The most vulnerable currently pay the highest price of unsustainable development; inadequate access to safe water, quality food and fuel costs that are often beyond their reach.
A pro-equity approach represents a cost-effective investment in the future and putting equity at the centre of the agenda requires increased investments in all social sectors.
Thirdly, as I mentioned in my opening paragraphs, meaningful child and youth participation in the conceptualisation, planning and execution of sustainable development solutions must be a necessary component of sustainable development. Today's and tomorrow's children and young people will be the leaders of sustainable development for future generations.
They should be empowered to influence their future, claim their rights and voice their concerns at international, national and community levels. Engaging children and young people is not only good in principle; it also improves results for sustainable development. For example, mapping by children and young people of local hazards in neighbourhoods prone to climate-related risks has demonstrated results for climate adaptation. Engaging and involving children and young people in developing and accessing green technologies, e.g. small-scale energy development, can directly benefit their well-being and create better prospects for job opportunities.
Other examples of inclusive green solutions include: policies that guarantee transparent information and community-participation in decisions related to extractive and energy industries; and policies that allocate a fair share of green technology investments to provide the disadvantaged with opportunities to build local capacity and fully engage in the green economy.
So, UNICEF will be promoting child rights arguments for genuine sustainable development. If development is not sustainable for tomorrow, it is today's children who will suffer. And, by investing in children now, we help make development sustainable.
Proponents of equity usually press for the benefits of growth to be shared equitably. A question asked less frequently is how equity strategies can benefit growth. How equitable investment in health and education, social sector spending, can also make growth more sustainable.
Equitable investment promotes social and political stability, and builds resilience to future shocks.
Sustainable development is a global problem. It demands a global response. Can we collectively rise to the challenge at Rio+20? The costs of not doing so are enormous. We must now start to build the future we really want.
The writer is
UNICEF Representative in Sri Lanka