A southern fault

The South is to blame for the shattering of a dream called Rio

By William Moomaw
Published: Wednesday 15 October 1997

-- (Credit: NICKY THOMAS)immediately after the 1992 Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, it was fashionable to write about the meeting's historic, path-breaking and planet-saving achievements. Today, five years after Rio, it is equally trendy to comment in bleak and dreary terms about how the 'promise of Rio' has been squandered. While the first set of commentators blew out of proportion the significance of Rio, the latter blindly accepted that exaggeration and thereby propped themselves up for what could only have been a disappointment. The failure of Rio seems to have hit Southerners particularly hard for it is they who have primarily believed that the meet marked the beginning of a new era in North-South dialogue. They were convinced that they would have a greater say and leverage. Needless to say, that era is yet to arrive.

Not surprisingly, the most popular theory among Southern delegates at the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (Earth Summit ii ) held at New York in June this year focussed on how the North has failed to live up to its promises and the changing domestic demands and preferences in industrialised countries. Although not without substance, this theory accounts for only a part of the story.

At least two other explanations need to be considered if one is to understand why the euphoria fizzled out. The first relates to a miscomprehension about exactly what the promise at Rio was and the second refers to the South's own failure in distinguishing between the process of simply making demands and that of strategically actualising them at the negotiation table.

Contrary to popular rhetoric of the time, the great achievement of Rio was not that it established a new North-South pact but that it created the conditions for one to materialise. And the existence of a conducive environment does not mean that the task at hand is easy to achieve. The distinction is subtle, but critical. The impact of Rio on the South cannot be underestimated. What the summit did was to reintroduce the term 'South' into academic and popular lexicons; it revitalised a g -77 (a group of developing countries) that had languished through much of the '80s; it opened up a whole new set of negotiations in which the North-South axis provided the pivotal line of discourse and above all it cemented the linkage between the environment and development. What Rio did not do was to effectively use these enabling conditions to create the 'new and more meaningful' North-South pact that the developing world constantly calls for.

Another reason why the North-South dialogue has eluded us is largely because the Southern coalition (as represented by the g- 77) does not have its own act straight. It has consistently lacked both a clear vision of what it wants from this new global politics of sustainable development and a strategy for getting it. While the South has been convincing in its criticism of the North's environmental agenda, it has been unpardonably inept at articulating an authentic Southern environ-mental agenda. One may therefore call the g- 77's attitude to global environmental politics as being entirely reactive rather than being proactive. The South's strategy in environmental negotiations fluctuates between throwing tantrums about the North's past injustices and making petitions for further developmental assistance. The former attempts to play on the North's sense of guilt and the latter on its generosity. And neither seems to have worked.

In essence, the failure of the South at Rio and in the five years since has stemmed from not only the South's inabi-lity to define what it wants in precise terms but also in presenting what the North has to gain by agreeing to its demands. Until the South does its homework on these two counts, a North-South dialogue cannot graduate from the level of tantrums and petitions to that of serious negotiation. The onus of realising the potential created by Rio lies firmly with the South and if this does not happen, the South has only itself to blame.

Adil Najam is a member of the environmental policy group, department of urban studies and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA

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