Earth Matters

Will the North decide the path of sustainable development for the rest of the world? Will the interests of the South be protected? As preparations for the World Summit on Sustainable Development get underway, many contentious issues boil over

NEVER say die. In a little under a year, national governments and members of the global civil society will meet in what they hope will be yet another "historic" event. Known as the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), the meeting aims to review progress on sustainable development since the landmark 1992 Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. WSSD will take place in Johannesburg, South Africa, from September 2-11, 2002, and is expected to draw more than 110 heads of state, as well as over 50,000 delegates and members of non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Preparations for the conference have begun through a series of governmental and non-governmental meetings, at both regional and national levels. However, it is too early to predict whether this conference will be different from its predecessor. The operational content of the term 'sustainable development', in spite of numerous attempts at definition, still remain ill-developed. Key questions such as who is responsible for ensuring the rights of future generations of not only the rich but also the poor, stand in need to be incorporated into the 'sustainable development' dialogue.

Both government and non-government sectors are keen that WSSD does not negotiate the Rio Summit's tired rhetoric but focuses instead on addressing new challenges and opportunities that have emerged since then. This perspective is emphasised largely through calls for 'new development models' at the preparatory meetings. "New ways and means would have to be found to move towards sustainable development," states Emir Salim of Indonesia who is chairing the preparatory committee for WSSD. "A new ethics, based on recognition that the current model of development is outdated, is required to meet the challenges of the new century," stated Crispin Tickell, a former ambassador of UK to the UN, at a WSSD preparatory roundtable of experts held in Vail, Colorado, in June 2001.
Developing countries also seem determined that WSSD place their concerns central to a development model that is different from that followed by the West. "Developing countries have, to some extent, been used as laboratories for a plethora of development models of the West," states a report of the WSSD preparatory regional roundtable for the central and south Asian region held in Bishek, Kyrgyzstan (July 30-August 1, 2001). "People in developing countries need to be fully consulted on development paradigms so as to have ownership of the development approach adopted," it adds.

Whether these strong words will find their mark on WSSD's agenda remains to be seen. Its final document, which will be largely fed by recommendations from these ongoing preparatory meetings, will not be finalised until May 2002. Efforts have been made to ensure that they incorporate the participation of both governments and NGOs at large. So far, so good.

Few new proposals, however, seem to emerge from these meetings. The usual suspects, such as poverty, population growth, and food security are unfailingly tackled at the preparatory meetings, as are "new" ones like globalisation. The North's high consumption levels are a main concern for many developing countries. Round tables already held have emphasised that the consumption patterns of North America and Europe deprive developing countries of resources for sustainable development. The report of a preparatory roundtable for the Latin American and Caribbean region in Barbados (June 18-20, 2001) confirmed that, "The external debt burden, constraints on market access and environmental deterioration were caused by industrialised countries' unsustainable production and consumption." However, exigencies associated with certain issues clearly claim precedence over others during these discussions, and are likely to hold centrestage at WSSD.

Poverty, a key concern of developing countries, is being flagged at almost every preparatory meeting as a "hindrance" to sustainable development. An Asian and the Pacific ministerial conference, held in Kitakyshu, Japan, from September 4-5, 2000, identified, "the poverty situation in the region" as a "major obstacle to sustainable development", and recommended that integrated and participatory action plans in adequate details be drawn up, and implemented to alleviate poverty. The central and south Asian roundtable identified reasons for poverty in the region as rising levels of income inequality and lack of natural resources.

Since Rio, there has been no substantial attempt to address poverty in the international forum. Irrespective of the ubiquitous rhetoric, there seem to be few concrete proposals emerging from the preparatory meetings on the issue. Many Southern countries feel that the global community has failed to address the complexity of poverty, drawing in dimensions such as the link between environmental regeneration and rural poverty in developing countries. In many poor countries, the root of rural poverty lies in the shortage of natural resources to build up the rural economy. It is, therefore, essential that WSSD's dialogue on poverty identifies these linkages (often ignored by traditional economists, who focus on economic poverty) and incorporate the priorities for action identified by local grassroot groups. The central and south Asian roundtable rightly identified as a WSSD priority, "the need for development paths that are sympathetic with, and supportive of, traditional cultures and practices of the region."

Unlike poverty, globalisation is indeed a 'new' topic for WSSD in the sense that the term was not so widely used in 1992. Nor did the Rio Summit address the issue in all its complexity. The main question is how to make globalisation work for sustainable development. The central and south Asian WSSD roundtable acknowledged that "countries will have to consider what globalisation means for them in terms of sustainable development, how they may benefit from globalisation, and minimise adverse consequences." Another preparatory roundtable for African countries in Cairo, Egypt, (June 25-27, 2001), stated that "it is hoped that WSSD will seriously address the issue of globalisation and contribute to the steps of sustainable development...."

While meetings worldwide have acknowledged that globalisation has brought economic benefits to certain sections of society while surpassing the poor of developing countries, they have yet to chalk out guidelines on how best to address this issue at WSSD. The round table for the east Asia and the Pacific region in Kuala Lumpur (July 9-11, 2001) recommended that governments establish fiscal policies that "progressively tax high income groups and finance human resource development and empowerment of the improve their access to and ownership of natural resources."

Financing for development
A main drawback to Rio's programmes has been the declining level of official development assistance (ODA) to developing countries, which increasingly fell during the 1990s. The Rio Summit had called for donor countries to contribute 0.7 per cent of their gross national product (GNP) as ODA to ensure the implementation of its programmes. Only four countries - Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Sweden - have been able to deliver this promise so far. So it is not surprising that declining development aid has become a main topic at preparatory sessions. The main emphasis of the preparatory meetings has been on "urging" industrialised countries to "honour the commitments".

However, there have been few recommendations on "innovative financing." The roundtable for east Asia and the Pacific called for engaging in policies based on the "polluter pays principle". The central and south Asian roundtable, on the other hand, recommended that WSSD call for reduction of military spending and redirect such expenditure to social and environment programmes. The roundtable for Latin America and the Caribbean stated that mobilising capital from residents abroad could also be an important source of financing for development programmes.

Surprisingly, there seem to be few takers from alternative financing mechanisms, such as the Tobin tax. The Tobin tax, which has attracted attention in the international arena in recent years, was originally suggested by the Nobel laureate economist James Tobin in 1978. It was basically a tax on very short, two-way international currency transactions. Every time traders exchanged currencies, they would have to pay the Tobin tax. The purpose of this was to discourage currency speculation, and thus lead to a more stable world exchange market. In the 1990s, the idea of a Tobin tax saw revival, mainly for the purpose of using the tax to pay for development initiatives. In the context of the ongoing WSSD preparatory meetings, the use of Tobin tax for financing development has not featured much. The extent of its presence has been restricted to calls for closer examination of the mechanism. The Latin America and Caribbean roundtable, for example, noted that "the 'Tobin tax' continues to be discussed and deserved further consideration." On the other hand, the roundtable for Africa in Cairo, Egypt, while identifying "capital flight" (as well as dwindling ODA levels) as major constraints to its economic growth, did not specify the Tobin tax option.

Fresh water
Fresh water promises to be another key priority at WSSD. Water use in the world has increased over six times in the past 70 years, and the world is currently using 54 per cent of the annual freshwater. It is no wonder that integrated water management is a hot topic - littering the international arena with intermittent global conferences on fresh water use, access and ownership.

Privatisation of water and the relationship between the private and public sectors in water management will be a key focus of the WSSD discussions. Northern countries seem to be particularly pushing the agenda of privatising water, identifying it as an economic good. The logistics of this proposal, such as identifying the role of stakeholders, remain hazy. Southern countries generally have been wary of dialogue that attempts to privatise water, which they see as a social good.

An NGO preparatory meeting in Copenhagen in June 2000, focussed on finding common ground and strategic options on problems associated with ownership of water. It mooted the possibility of creating water users associations, and local/regional water councils bringing different stakeholders to the decision-making process on water management.

The question of who is in charge of sustainable development has seen heated debate in recent years, especially in light of the Commission on Sustainable Development's (CSD) failure to impress. CSD, instituted after Rio to monitor the implementation of its programmes, has no legislative power. Therefore, many see its forum as a mere talk shop. Although it holds annual meetings, few concrete resolutions have emerged from them. CSD's fate will likely be discussed at WSSD. There have been calls from certain sectors for a creation of a world environment organisation (WEO), along the lines of the World Trade Organisation that oversees the global multilateral trading framework, to spearhead international environmental governance. Many NGO meetings have also called for strengthening the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and expanding its 'environment' agenda to incorporate 'sustainable development' as well.

UNEP waits in the wings. It has begun an international environmental governance (IEG) process to strengthen its role in environmental governance and broaden its financial base. A ministerial conference in Malmo, Sweden, in May 2000, declared that WSSD should review the requirements for a stronger institutional environmental governance, identifying UNEP to take a lead role. Since then, other intergovernmental meetings as well as expert consultations on IEG have been held. At the latest IEG intergovernmental meeting, held in Algiers, Algeria (September 9-10, 2001), Germany asserted that WSSD would lead to UNEP's upgradation into a WEO, while France also reiterated its support for the same proposition, calling for increased financial allocations to the organisation. Although G77 and China supported the IEG process, they were reluctant to support the creation of new IEG institutions. India outrightly rejected the creation of a WEO and, with Malawi, supported the strengthening of UNEP instead. At this juncture, critical decisions on how to "enhance" UNEP are still unclear.

There are those who are hopeful about the possible outcome of WSSD. "We can see light at the end of the tunnel," says Salim, of the upcoming conference. This, despite the fact that Rio's ambitious agenda has had little effect on the world's deteriorating environment. A recent diagnosis of the planet's health by the United Nations in its 2001 State of the Population report states, "human activity has affected every part of the planet, no matter how remote, and every ecosystem, from the simplest to the most complex." Clearly, a key lesson from Rio is that high profile conferences do not get governments to act. Even UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has stated that "One thing we have learned over the years is that doom-and-gloom scenarios are not enough to inspire people and governments to act." What would, then? Trends at the forums of multilateral environmental agreements, which have cropped up in the wake of Rio, indicate that environmental concerns matter to national governments only so long as national economic interests are not compromised. Collective responsibility towards sustainable practices disintegrate the minute governments feel their economic interests are threatened. This case is best exhibited by the role of the US in MEA forums. The US has rejected one MEA after another, the most recent being the Kyoto Protocol under the climate change convention, which calls for curbing greenhouse gas emissions of industrialised nations. Despite being the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the US has argued that it will not partake in any agreement that will compromise its economy and the lifestyles of its citizens. As powerful nations like the US get away with their transgressions, WSSD is likely to do little to change the present scenario.

Annan has stated WSSD will be a golden opportunity for world leaders to show that they take the idea of stewardship of environmental governance seriously. Its success depends on the willingness of national governments to go beyond mere rhetoric. That was Rio's biggest hurdle, and will also be WSSD's.