The World After

By Sunita Narain
Published: Monday 30 September 2002

The World Summit on Sustainable Development (wssd) is over. The best thing about it is that it could have been much worse. As I write this with regret and bitterness about the idealism of times gone by, I begin to feel my age.

I was not in Stockholm for the first world environment conference in 1972, but I heard about it from my colleague Anil Agarwal. This was before global warming appeared on the radar, so there was little talk about global cooperation, and the South was not clear why environment should be an important issue. The Brazilians still thought smoke was "the sign of progress" and Indira Gandhi called poverty "the greatest polluter". In spite of this lack of understanding, Anil used to say, there was concern and there was global leadership.

I was at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. By then the environmental movement had captured public imagination. The problems of biodiversity loss and the ozone hole were all too real. Negotiations on the climate change treaty had brought to the fore the critical need for nations to cooperate. Developing countries, though unwilling partners to begin with, realised that it was important to be part of the rule-setting process so that the differentiated responsibilities of countries were recognised. But most importantly, there was energy and vibrancy at Rio, born out of hope and idealism.

By the time Johannesburg has come around, idealism has become a dirty word. Negotiations have become a matter of business transactions and tired word play. If you say population, I say consumption. Although there were over 20,000 people at the summit, their voices were muted. This was partly by design -- five different venues for civil society events meant energies were dissipated.

When we got to Johannesburg, the draft document to be negotiated - the plan of implementation was still heavily bracketed (un parlance for text that is not agreed on). Negotiators were frantically working nights to reach consensus. Activists were busy lobbying negotiators for changes. In this flurry to agree on the right language, no one seemed to notice that the draft itself was so watered down that even if all the brackets were removed, the result would amount to next to nothing. No wonder then that the final document consists only of repackaged soft targets -- sometimes even more diluted than previous agreements. For instance, the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (cbd) calls for species loss to be stopped, but the wssd plan only agrees to "significantly cut" the rate of species extinction by 2010.

It now seems to me that this conference was designed to fail and the incompetence of its organisers was not accidental. Why? Simply because the multilateral system is now an "unnecessary restraint" for the world's most powerful nation, the us. Weakening this system is a key objective of us foreign policy. The game plan is to shift focus from global responsibility on issues such as climate change, onto national governance, by arguing that poverty and environmental degradation have little to do with global trade or financial systems, but are caused by corrupt and irresponsible governments of the South. This also becomes a convenient argument against aid, which they claim does not work because of corrupt national governments. Instead, they promote funds from the private sector. In this process, un agencies are emasculated, either by driving them to bankruptcy or by destroying their credibility with failures such as the wssd.

Foreign aid and policy will then become a simple business proposition -- strong against the weak. Rich against the poor, transacting business in self-interest. It is for this reason that "partnerships" -- between corporation and civil society -- was the buzzword at this conference. It is also not an accident, that the key fight at Johannesburg was to subvert the Rio agreement - indeed the basis of the global consensus - that countries would have "common but differentiated responsibilities" for the protection of the environment. This principle has been the basis of jurisprudence -- particularly for key negotiations on climate change -- as it sets the terms of agreement between the North and the South.

In this charade, the eu, instead of trying to work as a countervailing force against the US, seems to have also decided to play the self-interest game. Even while playing the green card -- calling for targets on renewable energy -- it made sure that its strongest attack was on the developing world, by linking trade to environment and labour standards. As a result, the eu pushed developing countries into the arms of the us. Of course the g77 grouping of developing countries, which includes everybody, from oil producers to desperately poor nations, had little proactive agenda. These countries were busy doing damage control, fighting with their backs against the wall. In the final analysis, it did not lose as much as it could. Call this a victory if you must.

What then do we do next? Turn our backs on what is happening? Accept and play the game? Or still hope to bring back the idealism of yesterday? Negotiation veteran and friend, Jurgen Maier, put it aptly: think of Johannesburg as the morning after a lost election. It seems the world is lost, till you think of the next election and begin work again.

-- Sunita Narain

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