Death by a Thousand Dialogues

The currency of diplomacy is conversation and there’s no shortage of that commodity. A host of international gatherings took place recently including the G20 in the beach-side resort of Los Cabos, Mexico and the Rio +20 Environmental Summit in Brazil. Others have finished without the usual fanfare including the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue which got hardly a mention while human rights dissident Chen Guangcheng holed up at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

So many bilateral, multilateral, and international discussions, so little getting done. By getting done I mean actual, measurable results against the growing wave of problems facing the global economy including unemployment, poverty, healthcare and environmental catastrophes in waiting or already in full bloom. The AP’s Seth Borenstein lays out the numbers for the last two decades – temperatures, pollution and forest destruction – all up.

What’s on tap so often runs flat at these gatherings. Tens of millions are spent on agenda setting, speech writing, and conference rooms. The official preliminary budget for the G20 in Mexico ran to nearly $55 million.  And for that princely sum the content if not the character of these gatherings leaves a lot to be desired.

On the main stage distinguished statespeople routinely talk past each other regarding weighty policy issues, pose for the obligatory photo ops, and then dine on multi-course meals of questionable delicacy. Their subordinates work twenty hour days to finely craft consensus-driven joint statements that in the end say a lot about nothing much at all.

And then they all leave.

Since so much time is spent on honing the words here is a handy template for future world gatherings:

The {name of delegations} emphasized the importance of {insert big problem},
reaffirmed their commitment to strengthening {some vague common action},
and dedicated themselves to continuing consultations on {matters of mutual interest}.
Thank you. Thank you very much and good night.

These gatherings do have some value. They add greatly to the local economy. Hotels and restaurants fill to capacity. Heads of state gain potentially valuable face time with their peers. Obama and Putin had a lengthy meeting running two hours which put Syria back in the spotlight. Had it not been for the annual gathering intermediaries would only relay less influential talking points. There’s still no substitute for a good old fashioned face-to-face chat.

Besides the PR value of the summitry circuit, networking, which in principle should lead to game changing coalitions and cooperative action, plays a significant part. But on the environmental front much more is being done at the local level than the national or trans-national. Cities are lowering their carbon emissions not because of global agreements like the Kyoto Protocol, but because of local political and economic pressure.  In a positive turn The World Bank and U.S. Department of State have announced a city to city initiative to cut landfill methane emissions. That’s where the real change happens. The UN’s Rio +20 has also instituted a voluntary commitment feature (in some ways similar to the Clinton Global Initiative although that requires real money projects to participate).

If the G20 or any of the other dozen or so global gatherings want to make a serious dent in the ills weighing on this and future generations then send less people to talk shops and put that money saved to constructive use. There are tens of millions of households without electricity – simple solar powered lighting systems cost less than $100 each or biogas systems fueled by animal waste ($300). The same goes for clean water. A new well can cost between $2-$20 per person.

To avoid the aid trap (populations and governments becoming overly reliant on “free” money) microlending programs offer market-based solutions.   Perhaps an “action speaks louder than words” surcharge should be applied for every delegate to a world conference. Talk is cheap after all, unless of course you’re flying to Los Cabos.