WSSD: dialogue of the deaf

The needs of many were once again compromised to accommodate the demands of a powerful few. Given the alarming tilt towards self-interest and unilateralism by the rich, will the concerns of poor countries ever be addressed in global negotiations? Battle of the brackets World's biggest trade fair "Let's put our cards on the table"

By Richard Mahapatra, Clifford Polycarp, Anju Sharma
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015 | 21:11:47 PM

WSSD: dialogue of the deaf

-- (Credit: FOE)
The World Summit on Sustainable Development (wssd) failed Thobeka Fani, 24, resident of Alexandra, a poor suburb just nine kilometres from Sandton, the upmarket venue of wssd. Some 21,000 delegates, including 104 heads of state and governments, gathered between August 26 to September 4 to bridge the gap between the world's poor and the rich -- metaphorically the distance between Fani's Alexandra and the summiteers' Sandton. At the end of the summit, the distance seems impossibly intractable.

"I expect many things from the world leaders which can help me live a quality life with good health and a job," Fani said, three days before the summit ended. After 11 days of hard negotiations, world leaders did not have much to help Fani realise his cherished good life. Like Fani, one-fifth of the world's population that sustain themselves with less than a dollar a day would find the summit a wasted opportunity.

Unlike the 1992 un Conference on Environment and Development (unced) in Rio de Janeiro, no road map for sustainable development -- like Agenda 21, or global conventions like the Framework Convention on Climate Change -- was to come out of wssd. Instead, this was meant to be a conference of action, a summit that set deadlines and came out with a Plan of Implementation for the promises made at Rio. The Plan that finally emerged, however, is no more than a series of vague expressions of intent (see box: Highlights ).

Few concrete deadlines were agreed: to halve the number of the world's poor living on less than a dollar a day by 2015 and significantly improve the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020; to halve the number of people living without access to clean drinking water and decent sanitation by 2015; and, to restore the depleted fish stock in the world's oceans by 2015. Targets for renewable energy were rejected -- there was only a commitment to 'substantially increase' the global share of renewable energy. The plan calls for 'a significant reduction' in the planet's loss of biodiversity by 2010. However, there was no breakthrough in highly contentious issues such as opening the markets of industrialised countries to products from the developing world and removing Northern agricultural subsidies that work against farmers in the South.

A political declaration circulated by host South Africa was almost dumped at the last moment when the us wanted to include terrorism as a threat to sustainable development. The Palestinian government, meanwhile, wanted foreign occupation listed as an obstacle to sustainable development. Consensus was reached only after separate paragraphs on these two issues were added. The final Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development is mild, recognising that poverty eradication and changing consumption and production patterns as prerequisites for sustainable development, and the ever-increasing gap between the rich and poor as a major threat to global prosperity, security and stability.

The declaration also underlines the importance of multilateralism in solving global problems, the future of which seemed particularly threatened at wssd. The us, in particular, opposed any firm commitments or deadlines, and made it clear it was not interested in the multilateral wssd process. "The wssd is focusing more on text, more than 35,000 words. These words can't save the Earth," Paula Dobriansky, head of the us delegation, told a press conference midway through the negotiations. Instead, the us tried to shift focus to voluntary 'Type ii' agreements -- partnerships between governments, regional groups, local authorities, non-governmental actors, international institutions or private sector actors. "We need actions," Dobriansky told the media. "That is why we have come to Johannesburg with practical partnerships."

Through the partnerships, she declared, the us had become "the world leader in sustainable development". Far from it, the emphasis on partnerships only reflects usa's allergy to multilateralism in any form. As a us senator was quoted in one of the newsletters circulated in the summit, "The country sees any multilateral process -- be it on arms control or the International Criminal Court -- as obstacles in the way of the world's richest superpower."

The European Union (eu), egged on by France in particular, stalled any progress in the removal of domestic agricultural subsidies that work to the detriment of Southern farmers. Meanwhile, the G77 was as unprepared as ever, and was left either presenting proposals for half-baked ideas like the World Solidarity Fund which will serve more as a begging bowl than a solution for poverty, or defending principles that had already been agreed to at Rio, but were raked up again by industrialised countries. Rifts within the G77 were apparent. While most of the G77 gave in to the demands of its opec (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) members and opposed the target on renewable energy, for instance, Brazil came out in strong support for such a target, proposing an even stronger deadline than the eu.

Despite the lack of progress, there was very little pressure from civil society on governments to perform at Johannesburg. This was partly because civil society participants were scattered in several venues around Johannesburg. For instance, Nasrec, the venue allotted to non-government organisations (ngos), was at least 45 minutes away from Sandton. The only collective show of civil society displeasure at the proceedings in Sandton, other than speeches at side events, came when us Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the plenary. His remarks were greeted with shouts of "Shame on Bush" and with booing. Several of these protesters were arrested by un security.

The meeting was unable to achieve much progress (other than agree on a completely sterile plan and declaration) despite some changes in the usual un format of conferences, and the adoption of certain techniques, which worked to break a deadlock in the negotiations for a protocol on biosafety. According to Mostafa Tolba, former executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (unep), this was done to provide a more informal setting so that governments do not make formal declarations of their positions that they later find hard to change. The negotiations then followed the 'Vienna setting' borrowed from the biosafety negotiations -- instead of all countries participating in the negotiations and leading to a deadlock, spokespersons were chosen to represent the key positions. The 'Johannesburg setting' was the same as the Vienna setting, except that it was at the ministerial level.

For many who have been slowly getting disillusioned with the ability of the un process to promote global understanding and cooperation on environmental issues, the failure of wssd only highlighted the problem. As Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela and leader of the G77 group of developing countries, said, " un summits have become an illogical and predetermined dialogue of the deaf in which political leaders of the world have no real impact on the final outcome of major conferences." Added Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe, "The focus is profit, not the poor; the process is globalisation, not sustainable development; while the objective is exploitation, not liberation."

But for all its faults, the un is probably the one institution that gives less powerful countries the hope that their concerns will receive a fair hearing in a multilateral forum. Multilateralism cannot be written off, much as the us would like to see that happen. Instead, countries will have to put their heads together to find a way out of the current deadlock and to prevent events such as the wssd to become disasters.

Battle of the brackets

-- (Credit: Clifford Polycarp / CSE)It took 9,000 delegates almost 225 hours of strategising, negotiating and arguing over the language to reach an agreement on the 150 clauses of the final Plan of Implementation. After the Bali preparatory meeting, the un proudly claimed that 75 per cent of the text had been agreed upon, and only 25 per cent remained bracketed (controversial text in negotiating documents remains bracketed until the final language is agreed upon by all governments). By the end of the first week of wssd, less than five per cent was still bracketed. The problem with this method of notching progress, of course, is that the removal of brackets often signifies that the language of the text has been twisted beyond recognition, to eventually mean nothing. At the end of the two weeks in the convention centre, all the brackets had been removed, but there was little to show for the success of the meeting. Looking for firm action points in the Plan of Implementation amounts to looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Only the most optimistic non-governmental, non-intergovernmental participants sought consolation in the fact that at least status quo was maintained, and the summit did not take a step backwards by reopening agreements reached at Rio, Monterrey and Doha.

If developing countries can claim any victories, it would be in the agreement to negotiate a global instrument to ensure 'benefit sharing' -- where local communities get a share of the benefits if their biodiversity or traditional knowledge is used to develop a commercial product -- within the framework the Convention of Biological Diversity (cbd). Such an agreement, if given teeth, would go a long way in protecting the rights of the poor. But many countries at the wssd strongly opposed making any such instrument legally binding, so it is unlikely that the instrument will be very effective. The us has already said that if such an instrument is legally binding, it will have implications on the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (trips) agreement, which does not recognise the rights of communities to their knowledge.

poverty eradication: Before they gathered to Johannesburg, governments had already agreed to halve the number of the world's poor whose income is below a dollar a day by the year 2015. There was little clarity on exactly how this would come about, but a G77 proposal to set up a World Solidarity Fund was agreed. The un General Assembly will now decide the modalities. However, the text makes it very clear that any contributions for this fund will be voluntary. In addition to governments, individuals and the private sector are invited to contribute.

Unfortunately, the fund is a prime example of the lack of preparedness and foresight by the G77. The Centre for Science and Environment had proposed such a fund in the run up to the Rio Summit in 1992, but made it clear that it should not depend on voluntary donations, but on a global system of taxation. A democratic panel should govern it with equal representation from the North and South, and the funds should be used to promote sustainable livelihoods among local communities. The G77, however, proposed the fund without a well-thought out proposal on how exactly it will be used to fight poverty. The proposal was received with some amount of scepticism -- the eu, for instance, had reservations, saying that the stated objective 'poverty eradication' was too vague, and they need to meet their existing oda commitments before establishing a new fund. So although the fund has been agreed to, it is unlikely to have contributions, and it will become nothing more than yet another forum for poor nations to go begging in years to come.

To fight poverty eradication, governments also agreed to improve access of indigenous people to economic activities, and recognise their dependence on renewable resources and ecosystems, including sustainable harvesting -- a decision that is likely to have repercussions on the International Whaling Commission, where sustainable harvesting of whales by communities is an controversial issue.

trade: Developing countries had hoped that at the wssd, industrialised countries would commit to phasing out trade distorting subsides in their countries, and also to provide exports from poor countries better market access. These two measures would go a long way in ensuring that poor countries have a level playing field in international trade, and become self-reliant. It has been constantly pointed out that if Northern countries simply stop subsidising their farmers (these subsidies amount to as much as us $1 billion a day), and allow fair competition for agricultural produce from developing countries in world markets, the total benefit to poor countries would be far more than the flow of official development assistance from the North.

However, wssd turned out to be a huge disappointment in this respect, as the eu (mostly France) and the us resisted any commitment to reduce their agricultural subsidies and open their markets to goods from developing countries. The best that the developed countries could agree was to reiterate the vague promise they made in Doha, in November 2001. The section on agriculture in the Ministerial Declaration from Doha, agreed that countries:

" ...commit (themselves) to comprehensive negotiations aimed at: substantial improvements in market access; reductions of, with a view to phasing out, all forms of export subsidies; and substantial reductions in trade distorting domestic support."

On the issue of providing market access to non-agricultural exports from developing countries, the Doha statement agreed:

" negotiations which shall aim, by modalities to be agreed, to reduce or as appropriate eliminate tariffs, including the reduction or elimination of tariff peaks, high tariffs, and tariff escalation, as well as non-tariff barriers, in particular on products of export interests to developing countries."

The relationship between the rules of the World Trade Organisation (wto) and multilateral environmental agreements was another controversial area at the wssd. This has been a sticky issue ever since the Uruguay Round, with the trade and environment regimes often contradicting each other. Several attempts have been made to clarify this relationship in the past, but without success. wssd was no exception in this regard. At one point in the negotiations, there was a genuine fear that all environment agreements would have to be made 'consistent with wto rights and obligations', thus giving the trade body more power. After protracted negotiations, however, it was only decided that governments 'enhance the mutual supportiveness of trade, environment and development' -- leaving existing controversies unresolved.

finance: No additional funds were committed at wssd. The only concession that developing countries got was that the un's Economic and Social Council (ecosoc) would follow up on both, the wssd and the outcomes of the Monterrey conference on Finance for Sustainable Development. The text on finance also reflects the attempt to shift focus from aid to foreign direct investment (fdi), and contains promises to "facilitate greater flows" to developing countries. However, to get this fdi, developing countries will have to "create the necessary domestic and international conditions".

rio principles: Developing countries succeeded in keeping the references to the 'common but differentiated responsibilities' of rich and poor countries in the text, but the us announced in the closing plenary that this principle does not infer any obligations under international law. It was agreed to refer to a 'precautionary approach' instead of a 'precautionary principle'.

water and sanitation: The proposed deadline to halve the proportion of people without safe drinking water and adequate sanitation by 2015 resulted in a protracted and torturous negotiation that started a day before the summit, and ended more than a week later. The main opposition came from the Japan, usa, Australia and New Zealand. The us did not want to go beyond the targets agreed to in the Millennium Development Goals (mdg), which include a target to halve the number of people with no access to safe drinking water, but no target for improved sanitation.

natural resources: The earlier text called on countries to achieve a significant reduction in biodiversity loss by 2010. The final agreement does not include the 2010 deadline -- countries agreed to 'achieve a significant reduction in the current rate of loss of biodiversity', provided new and additional financial and technical resources were made available. After considerable difficulty, the us agreed to allow a roundabout reference to the Kyoto Protocol.

fisheries: The fact at the us agreed to a deadline to 'maintain or restore stocks' to levels that can produce the maximum sustainable yield with the aim of achieving these goals for depleted stocks on a urgent basis and where possible not later than 2015 was touted as a major success, since getting the us to agree to any deadline had been so difficult. However, the fact that no criterion to measure 'sustainable yield' is specified in the plan, making it easy for countries to escape the targets.

sustainable production and consumption: The text on promoting sustainable production and consumption is weak, and puts very little pressure on developed countries to change their environmentally harmful lifestyles. The eu had proposed a 10-year work programme for all countries to accelerate the shift towards sustainable consumption and production. Opposition from G77 and Japan, usa, Canada, Australia and New Zealand diluted this proposal, and countries now merely have to 'encourage and promote the development' of 10-year 'framework of programmes' towards sustainable consumption and production. Among other things, this section of the plan calls on countries to encourage cleaner production and eco-efficiency, promote the internalisation of environmental costs, enhance corporate environmental and social responsibility; and aim to have a global system of classification and labeling of chemicals in place by 2008.

renewable energy: No definite targets for renewable energy were agreed to at the Summit, and it was only agreed to phase out harmful energy subsidies 'where appropriate'. Although the target to increase the share of renewable energy resources to at least 15 per cent of the total primary energy supply by 2010 was supported Europe, it was opposed by the us, and by some members of the G77. The us stand owes much to President George Bush's now infamous axis with the oil companies. The G77, meanwhile, was heavily divided on the issue. Countries belonging to the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (opec) opposed any such targets, and many countries within the G77 (such as India) felt they should support the opec. But the small island states within the G77, which stand to lose a lot from climate change, and Brazil were strongly in favour of renewable energy targets. India claimed to be against such targets not only as a show of support for opec, but also because they felt that any targets they take on in the wssd forum could be misconstrued as India taking on commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions under the un Framework Convention on Climate Change. The logic of this argument was not very clear -- particularly since India has already set a national target -- 10 per cent of the additional energy that the country will produce by 2012 will be from renewable sources. India finally agreed on targets but only with the clarification that makes nuclear energy and large hydro projects were included in the 'renewable' package.

governance: Any expectations that it would streamline the global institutions that deal with sustainable development, or define their responsibilities clearly, were dashed early on in the wssd process when it became clear that negotiators did not want drastic changes in the existing system. Instead, in the discussions on governance, industrialised country governments focused on national governance, and were reluctant to talk about global governance. Negotiations were reduced to a ping-pong, where developing countries demanded good global governance every time industrialised countries raised the issue of good national governance. As expected, the final compromise signifies little, but was adopted after South African environment minister Valli Moosa presented it to ministers on a 'take it or leave it' basis. It calls on international financial institutions to incorporate sustainable development policies in their work "within their mandates".

health: The section on health aims at developing programmes to reduce by two-thirds infant and child mortality rates by 2015, and prioritise the impact of air pollution on women and children for developing countries. Governments committed to reduce the prevalence of hiv in men and women aged 15 to 24 by 25 per cent in affected countries by 2005, and globally by 2010.

World's biggest trade fair

-- (Credit: UN Photo)Unwilling to commit to a concrete sum of money over a concrete period of time to fund sustainable development in the South, the us came up with the idea of partnerships (also called "Type ii agreements" in wssd jargon) during the preparatory process of the wssd. Several aspects of these partnerships are designed to suit current us foreign policy. They are voluntary; involve no firm multilateral commitments for funds or deadlines on part of the us government; bring corporations firmly into the picture giving them a free hand to promote their interests through such partnerships; and best of all, ensure that responsibilities remain fuzzy. There are no rules to govern partnerships -- only a set of flimsy guidelines that were not even discussed in Johannesburg.

There were several protests against partnerships from civil society groups when the idea was first proposed. These groups rightly pointed out that governments were trying to abdicate their responsibility by talking about bilateral deals in a multilateral forum like the wssd. They were also uncomfortable with the importance given to corporations in these partnerships. "The Bush administration's hijacking of the summit through partnerships is to promote big businesses," said Deborah James from Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based non-governmental organisation (ngo). "Big businesses cannot be trusted to keep their books, they certainly cannot be trusted to keep the Earth." Despite these protests, Type ii agreements became part of the wssd package with minimum fuss and discussion. In many ways, these partnerships were the only hope for funds in a conference where it was otherwise clear that no further financial commitments would be forthcoming from the industrialised world. This won over several allies for the partnerships -- particularly the cash-strapped un organisations.

The un designated a special room for announcements of partnerships at the Summit venue, and provided hourly updates. Nitin Desai, under-secretary general, department of Economic and Social Affairs (ecosoc), praised the agreements as the major outcome of the summit, moving from "words to action". According to the United Nations Development Programme (undp) administrator Mark Malloch Brown, "The Johannesburg Summit may disappoint now but surprise with its follow up. There is a synergy between governments, the private sector and civil society. It has been the world's biggest trade fair and it will bear fruit." George Kell, executive director of the global compact in the un secretary general's office, said the partnerships have "energised the un system".

The Indian delegation had loudly opposed such partnerships before the summit, saying they would find them acceptable only if four conditions were met. They wanted the goals of the partnerships to have clear linkages with the final Plan of Implementation to ensure that they did, in fact, work for the goal of sustainable development and not against it for the partnerships to be country-driven, not donor-driven for each partnership to be no less than us $5 million, and an assurance that the partnerships would involve 'new and additional' funds, and not merely be a repackaging of existing aid.

Other governments had similar misgivings. Norwegian minister of international development, Hilde Johnson, had warned participants against "Type ii partnership initiatives financed from existing oda flows, with no additionality, putting 'green paint' on old projects, or launching new ones primarily directed towards show-offs and flags for donor governments, undermining national ownership and coordination in poor countries". At the fourth preparatory meeting of wssd in Bali, she pointed out that very few partnerships had been registered by developing countries, yet national ownership was necessary for their success. None of these misgivings were even discussed at wssd. While it suited some to have them slip in quietly into the wssd outcomes with minimum rules, groups against them hoped that if they ignored them enough, they would be sidelined in the wssd process and only form an insignificant outcome.

The only mention of partnerships in the Plan of Implementation calls on governments to encourage partnership initiatives to support the outcome of the wssd. Reference to the need to establish modalities for the follow-up to the partnerships has been removed (the us wanted the Commission on Sustainable Development (csd) to be appointed the monitoring agency for partnerships, and to develop these modalities). Instead, the Plan cryptically calls on "further development of partnerships and partnership follow-up" to "take note of the preparatory work for the Summit".

At the final count, more than 220 partnerships, representing us $235 million in resources were identified during the summit. These range from a deal between J Walter Thompson, a Canadian advertising agency, the Canadian government and unesco to "help communicate sustainability around the world"; to a partnership between the us-based World Resources Institute (wri), the Andean Development Corporation and the un Conference on Trade and Development (unctad) to help small and medium biodiversity-based businesses from the Andean and Amazonian regions to access credit and venture capital. The us and Japan made no bones of the fact that they were simply taking out money from existing aid projects and re-packaging them as new partnerships -- putting green paint on old projects, as Johnson warned. In a press conference, both announced a partnership on health, where they would redirect funds from the Global Fund for hiv, tb and Malaria to other bilateral disease control programmes in the Asia-Pacific region.

'Let's put our cards on the table'

-- (Credit: Clifford Polycarp / CSE)whether the us is undermining the multilateral process by shifting emphasis on partnerships
The us is against everybody in the world. Partnerships are not obligatory for governments to be accountable. They are an agreement between two people. They may announce it or they may not announce it. It has absolutely nothing to do with the system of governmental commitment. This is an inter-governmental meeting and what is required is that these governments will have to commit themselves to specific things which will be followed up. Nobody wants another 10 years to pass and then who ever lives will comes in 2012 and says very little has been achieved in Rio+20. We are not going to keep doing that.

The Americans have definitely taken the stand to keep away from contributing to oda. The us was the only country which reserved its position on the 0.7 per cent oda target. This target came from the First international development strategy of the un, negotiated in 1970. At that time, the actual oda from developed countries was 0.35 per cent. Unfortunately, we are going down every year. At Rio it was 0.34 per cent, when we went to Rio+5, in 1997, in New York, it went down to 0.29 per cent. Today it is 0.22 per cent. So, we are asking for an increase and the developing countries, I'm sorry to say, are just repeating this like a broken record as if it is a holy book from somewhere. Since 1970, we never reached 0.35 per cent (in actual oda levels). Never.

Globalisation, well, the language is about human rights, the impact of globalisation, the relation between trade and environment, all these are put in one package. There may be some compromise language that will not satisfy anybody, and surely will not satisfy the outside world. But when you agree on a compromise of that sort it means you are in a language that doesn't mean anything. Something that can be interpreted by everybody. But, I am not surprised because I have been Stockholm, I have been Stockholm+10 in Nairobi, I have been in Rio and I have been in Rio +5. And nothing has changed. The situation of trade-offs at the very last minute. It is disheartening that we continue for 30-40 years using the same techniques and we don't talk openly to one another.

changes needed to break out of the present deadlock between countries
I did suggest a way (out of this deadlock) to the Commission on Sustainable Development (csd). In the first session, I had left unep and was chairing the Egyptian delegation. We were talking about finances. The developed countries were saying that taxpayer's money is misused by the developing countries. I said you have to understand that you are taking back 80 to 90 per cent of the money that you are giving us for your own experts whom you send us at very high costs, and the equipment that you force us to buy from you. You are moving your own economy with what you call aid to us. We have complaints, you have complaints. We should put on the table our concerns of how you handle finance and technology transfer, what you consider as corruption, mismanagement and so on. And let us talk sense outside this forum, where each government announces its position and then cannot step down.

Let me be very open, I think our problem is that the people in the developed countries are coming fully prepared. Each delegation comes with 15-25 people. Each one of them is supposed to talk about specific items. And he has a full brief on this -- where to go, what to negotiate, his fall back position and his limits. I don't think that we have anybody in the developing countries who has that sort of brief. So, it is the same technique of the nitty-gritty's of the comma here and there, the things that stick in their minds. The G77 meets everyday, but do they come up with a real position that they stand up for? There was some leadership in Rio. In the whole process of preparation in New York over the last three or four sessions, and the one in Bali, there was no clear leadership to me in the developing countries.

I do not know, until now, why we don't have a small secretariat for the G77? Don't tell me that 130 governments of the third world, including some of the very rich ones with oil and so on, cannot pay for 15 young qualified intelligent boys and girls from each region -- Africa, Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean -- who have been exposed to the international negotiations to go through the documents and put forward options for the governments to decide. Sometimes, they tell me that they don't want to make it formal. I say why? What are we shying from? The oecd has a secretariat in Paris that is 10 floors and full of staff. The eu has a secretariat in Brussels, a huge secretariat and one person speaking on their behalf. What is the problem with us making the G77 an official body. I know Africa has different problems from Asia, from Latin America. But we should know how to reconcile our position otherwise they are going to do what they are doing. They are going to push us against the wall because they are prepared, they know what they want and we don't know what they want. We are just saying no. We don't come up with alternatives.

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