WITH HUGE reductions in aid already under way and further cuts to follow soon, transfer of resources remains the most contentious issue in international relations, says International Development Research Centre (IDRC) chief Keith Bezanson. Bezanson spoke to Down To Earth on the strengths and weaknesses of Agenda 21, the collapse of a stable economic order in Europe and what he called the "mania of production" in the North. While he conceded that Agenda 21 is recognised as a document capable of establishing a more equitable world order, he also said aid cuts from donor countries for the greater research and analysis required to implement Agenda 21's objectives would defeat its goals.
What do you think of Agenda 21, especially as there are so many who would prefer to find fault with the document?
It's a broadbased question. Agenda 21 should be taken for what it is -- a broad inter-governmental agreement on a number of principles and objectives that is long on statements of generality and statements of broad purpose, but short on statements of detailed objectives and ways of getting there. For all its defects, however, Agenda 21 is a great step.
What are the major weaknesses of Agenda 21?
A major deficiency in Agenda 21 is its incoherency. It's a whole series of disjointed text. If you've got to the fourth chapter and managed to remember the outlines of the first, you've done better than most people.
Agenda 21 talks little about institutional arrangements, including capacity building, which is mentioned throughout the document. Agenda 21 doesn't come to any commitment. It doesn't say how gaps in institutional arrangements can be filled. It stays at a more abstract level. While Agenda 21 says a lot as a plan of action, it says nothing about the priorities.
Don't you think this is the fundamental problem with the document?
Quite right. There are no priorities and, therefore, it's easily ignored by those who could do something about it. But I am not sure that priorities in that kind of document would have resulted in value-addition. There was so much dispute, so much fear and distrust in the implications of all those things that were said and those that were not, that if one had set priorities at that stage, we may not have got what we did.
What do you think are Agenda 21's most important elements for you as an organisation?
I fancied you would ask this question. Let me come to this in two ways. I just mentioned capacity building. Now what is capacity building? Capacity building means different things to different people. Fundamentally, we are talking of building knowledge systems, which buttress those connected to institutions, and arrangements conducive to the exchange of information. But it's not as if capacity building was the new panacea.
Are you suggesting there's nothing new with capacity building?
Strangely, in all negotiations following the UN Conference on Environment and Development, capacity building was assumed to be something new. It seems to me that we have a lot of installed capacity. The road to Rio was perhaps a reaffirmation of that capacity, through instruments of civil society. Organisations at every level came forward and were very clear about the issues.
The problem is one of getting somewhere and the institutional mechanisms necessary to bring a cohesion in the variables, including, if I can come back to your question, how do we set our priorities? Fundamentally some of the priorities will threaten one group and some others will threaten another. We are only in the process of building a consensus around those things that must be done. Old institutions have to be dispensed with because they are based on the concepts of conservation and resource allocation against an economic paradigm that assumes that environment is basically an externality.
In this context, where is more understanding, research or analysis needed to implement Agenda 21?
A lot more analysis needs to be done. One of the reasons we were able to get to Rio was the analyses researchers and scientists had done before the meet. However, there are innumerable gaps in the know-how, where the community has to evolve new technologies. But no amount of technology will be able to fulfill the basic needs of our population. Most would say that it can't be done as we have surpassed certain limits. Therefore, a great deal needs to be done to explore the possibilities and limitations of better technology because technology is not neutral. We must recognise that there is a throughput to everything and anything, however efficient, will consume a physical input to produce a commodity.
What is your organisation doing to improve research, understanding and analysis vis-a-vis Agenda 21?
The biggest mistake that we can make now would be to allow the issue of sustainable development to become a point of accusation and counter accusation. If conditionality about international conduct becomes a matter of whose ox is to be gored, we shall become poorer. Consensus on conditionalities is absolutely necessary. What we are attempting is to evolve a consensus on what should be done and what the conditions should be.
One of our fundamental concerns is what the process might be. We have taken many steps to make information available, on the basis of equity, to people across the world. We have documented the entire Rio proceeding and are going to make this available on a production-cost-only basis.
What is the future of aid? Do you think a decline or stagnation in aid is good? Will this be reversed?
I think it is not a temporary phenomenon. Reduction in aid is an impact of the forces of change moving through the world. We have an enormous fear emerging from the realisation of the depths of change. And this is what has resulted in a sense of financial insecurity and subsequent reduction in aid.
There are two other factors. We have had a paradigm of global vision in the 1950s. I think that vision is again fading out. Every country in the North is worried about losing out and has, therefore, entered into a mania of production and consumption, resulting in a mania of resource exploitation. This is a permanent phenomenon and terrible. It's frightening if as a world we are dismissive of the equity of global space and resources. What is needed is not just a change in the financial situation by a few points, but an entire change in our concerted vision. I don't attach much importance to a short-term situation, but in the long run, if we aren't committed to a more equitable order I don't see how we can continue surviving.
Isn't it ironic that when the West has won its greatest ideological battle -- the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the victory of democracy and the market -- it is nervous about the changing scenario?
Absolutely. This is one irony. The second irony is that if we go back to the global order that we established in 1944-1945, those who had drafted the order had assumed that if we open up markets globally, it could settle all our disputes without recourse to violence. We tried to make the world a secure place by building institutions. But today, having done this, we find our world more insecure than ever. This is a global failure.
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