Skip to main content
Guest Blogs

Is there a secret to promoting sustainable development?

Share this:

"The promotion of sustainable development is perhaps the clearest contemporary manifestation of the human quest for freedom and dignity. And it all comes down to hard work and dedication." After joining the Elders+Youngers intergenerational dialogue this summer to debate the issues surrounding the Rio+20 summit on sustainable development, Pedro Telles reflects on what he learned.


A few months after Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, I can reflect more deeply upon a unique opportunity that came with the world summit: joining four Elders and three other young activists from China, Nigeria and Sweden for the Elders+Youngers project, a series of open virtual dialogues on sustainable development that culminated in several events and activities in Rio de Janeiro.

At first I could not tell if a genuine dialogue would be built. Would the Elders have the time and availability to talk to us? Would there really be room to openly discuss Rio+20 and the issues at stake? Would it be possible to strengthen the debates and the mobilisation around sustainable development in a relevant way?

Fortunately, I soon realised that the answer to all those questions was ‘yes’. And from this great experience, I take great learnings.

The first is very straightforward, and ended up being a mix of frustrated and met expectations: there is no magic when it comes to the promotion of sustainable development. When I heard that I would work with Mary Robinson, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Desmond Tutu and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a hope arose in me that maybe I would learn some secret or trick that would broaden my ability to help drive positive change in ways until then unimagined.

But as I somehow already knew, such a trick or secret does not exist.

I certainly learned more than I could imagine from The Elders, a multitude of things that made me grow a lot. But above all I learned that, to achieve what they have achieved and effectively contribute to a fairer and more sustainable world, it all comes down to hard work and dedication.

The second learning is how intergenerational dialogue is crucial to sustainability – the activities related to the Elders+Youngers project were only a few among many that evidenced this at Rio+20.

Young people cannot live in a bubble, just talking among ourselves or addressing exclusively youth issues – this limits the debate and reduces its impact. At the same time, older people must not exclude half of the world’s population from the construction of solutions, nor ignore the many relevant ideas that can be brought up by a young and fresh look at the problems we face.

A dialogue between the generations not only benefits everyone involved, but also helps bring more people into the discussion – many comments posted by the community in the texts published on The Elders’ website emphasised that.

Youngers Marvin Nala, Sara Svennson, Esther Agbarakwe and Pedro Telles

Youngers Marvin Nala, Sara Svennson, Esther Agbarakwe and Pedro Telles

The third learning came with the Youngers, who naturally became friends. It was the first time I had the chance to work for a long period with people from three different continents. This brought me clarity about something that we often read and talk about, but rarely experience so vividly: how the appeal of sustainable development is truly universal.

The promotion of sustainable development is not of interest to just a few people or specific regions, nor does it exclude any groups – it is perhaps the clearest contemporary manifestation of the human quest for freedom and dignity. This quest has manifested itself in different ways at other times, when the concept of sustainable development didn’t even exist. Today, it seems clear that sustainable development is the crucial step to be taken, and the way this became evident among the Youngers – a diverse but cohesive group from the beginning – was very symbolic.

The fourth and fifth learnings came from conversations I had with Desmond Tutu and Muhammad Yunus, also a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and former member of The Elders.

I asked Desmond Tutu if he could share with me a lesson learned from any mistake he had he committed in his life. He replied that sometimes, when we are working in favour of something that we know is right, and we are sure we are right, we can assume a posture that is somehow arrogant – and this closes possibilities of dialogue in a way that does not help in solving the problem.

From Muhammad Yunus, during a conversation about the fight against poverty, came one of those comments that makes us realise how traditional ways of looking at the world prevent us from seeing things from radically different perspectives.

"Why do we accept the idea of unemployment?” he asked the Youngers. "For thousands of years, all humans were productive without having to be hired by anyone for that. And suddenly, two hundred years ago, we started believing that we need to be hired by someone to produce or to be considered productive. This is wrong, and does not do well to people or to society. We have to stop accepting the idea of unemployment, and make clear that everyone can be productive."

The sixth learning was noticing how limited – even to an Elder – is the access to information in conferences such as Rio+20. The four Elders engaged with Rio+20 were not directly involved in the negotiations, and on several occasions made it clear that, even with all their networking, it was difficult to know what was going on in the conversations that defined the course of conference. The protagonists of such conversations themselves had only partial knowledge of everything that occurred. This shows how NGOs and social movements still work in the dark a lot when it comes to trying to influence the multilateral system, no matter how well prepared we try to be.

Finally, it was interesting to notice the existence of a misalignment between Elders and Youngers on describing what can be considered a ‘significant result’ in conferences such as Rio+20. None of us were satisfied with the Rio+20 results, and everyone felt that much more had to be achieved. Still, some Elders indicated that it is necessary to take into consideration the multilateral system as it is designed today. Given the conditions, small advancements that frustrated the Youngers can be seen, from another perspective, as difficult and relevant achievements.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Pedro Telles answering questions on Rio in a videoed Q&A

Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Pedro Telles answer questions during a video Q&A in Rio

Ultimately, this leads one to think about the need for a revolution in multilateralism. If it is not possible to expect greater progress coming from the structures we have today, structural changes are urgently needed, as there is no more time to waste.

From everything that I lived alongside the Elders and Youngers, I believe these seven points summarise well the main learnings that I carry with me, which add up to the huge inspiration that came with the project.

The project was considered a success by everyone involved, and I am deeply thankful to the Elders, the Youngers and everyone from The Elders Foundation and the Global Campaign for Climate Action who helped make this happen. I hope that this was the first of many medium- and long-term projects bringing together The Elders and young activists, and that many more people can go through similar experiences.

For now, I am very happy to know that I can walk beside this amazing group of people to help build a fairer, more peaceful and sustainable world for everyone.

A version of this blog was first published in Portuguese by Vitae Civilis, Brazil - read the original article.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation

Share this article

Keep up to date with The Elders’ COVID-19 digest:

Sign up to receive regular updates about The Elders’ activities during the COVID-19 pandemic. We will never share your email address with third parties.

Keep up to date with The Elders latest News and Insight:

Sign up to receive monthly newsletters from The Elders. We will occasionally send you other special updates and news, but we'll never share your email address with third parties.


I would like to find: