Summits, Sustainable Development and Stability Jayati Ghosh

The weariness and cynicism the phrase arouses are almost palpable. “Another UN Summit” people say, as their eyes glaze over and they shrug their shoulders, barely having the enthusiasm to enquire about the objectives, the means to be adopted, or even the participants.

And at one level, such impatience with UN Summits is completely understandable. In the past decade, there have been at least seven major UN Summits, including the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, the Population Summit in Cairo in 1995, the Social Summit in Copenhagen and the Women’s Conference in Beijing in 1995, the Habitat II Conference in Istanbul in 1996, the Millennium Summit in New York in 2000. Each of these has been more than simply large spectacle, coming out with a string of pious declarations and even time-bound “commitments” by countries, designed to improve the conditions of the peoples of the world.

And yet, there has been no associated change in conditions on the ground – environmental damage continues apace, inequalities have worsened, material lives across the world have become more fragile and insecure. This is why such Summits seem, to so many people at the moment, to be little more than reasons for another set of international bureaucrats and national delegates to visit yet another country and salve their consciences by publicly affirming their commitment to justice and equality.

Even so, it would be wrong to be completely cynical about these exercises, or to allow them to turn into talking shops that are complete failures in practice. The UN may seem like an expensive dead duck, but it is still potentially one of the important institutions that can be used to push for pro-people government policies, and to combat the other more powerful multilateral institutions, such as the IMF and the WTO, that are now blatantly serving the needs of corporate capital rather than the citizens of the world.

Consider what the second Earth Summit, or the World Summit on Sustainable Development about to be held in Johannesburg, is all about. As a conference on the kind of development that should be pursued by both developed and developing nations, poverty, over-consumption and unsustainable lifestyles are supposed to be major concerns.  Officially, the main objective of the Summit is “to reinvigorate political commitment to sustainable development”. It is supposed to conclude with a “Johannesburg Declaration”, reaffirming governments’ commitments, with a negotiated implementation plan outlining priority actions that will promote economic growth, social development and environmental protection.

Of course all this is more necessary now than ever before, as world consumption patterns have never been so unequal or so unsustainable. The problem is that the United States government, in its new more aggressively uncompromising persona, has already undermined the outcome of the process well before the Summit started. While George Bush (unlike most world leaders) will not even attend the conference, his administration has already done the groundwork, in the preparatory meetings, of removing all policy potency from the text of the declaration and providing another paean to the glories of unregulated capitalism. The US is effectively trying to push its free trade and investment agenda, as expressed also by the WTO, as synonymous with sustainable development.

In fact, the US is trying to force a withdrawal even from the negotiating principles agreed in Rio. These include the precautionary principle, which states that governments should be especially cautious whenever there is a possibility of devastating and irreparable environmental harm. This principle also underlies the BioSafety Protocol and similar public policy. However, the US has already complained that it conflicts with free trade, and has used the WTO dispute mechanism to push this point.

In addition, the US administration wants to roll back the principle of “common but differentiating responsibilities” – the idea that those countries that are most responsible for harm to the environment should also play the biggest role in dealing with the problem. This is not only obviously just, it is also the only practical way to deal with the issue, since poor developing countries simply do not have to resources to even begin to tackle the problem. The refusal last year by George Bush to sign the Kyoto Protocol to deal with climate change was one way of scuttling this, but the US administration has even undermined other international efforts to fund poor nations’ implementation of Rio agreements.

But the US government is not the only culprit, of course. The governments of developed countries together have forced some crucial changes in the draft text, such as the commitment to develop a framework for transnational corporate accountability. That has been watered down and put very low on the agenda. Instead, what has been given great prominence is the extension of corporate opportunity – by allowing for private involvement and control of crucial areas of service delivery, including water; and by pushing for “public-private partnerships” in all the important priority areas. Since such partnerships are now known to be little more than yet another means for public subsidising of corporate profitability, they may well aggravate existing problems.

All this reflects changes in international power relations, whereby large corporate capital in various manifestations has become disproportionately potent, typically with the active connivance of the elites and ruling groups in both developed and developing countries. That is why conference after international conference, that has the potential to push for genuine alternative policies, has been hijacked by these interests. The Johannesburg Summit currently looks set to go the same way.

But of course this should not be allowed to happen without a fight. Corporate capitalism now faces a worldwide crisis of legitimacy. The alienation and despair of large populations in developing and poor countries, as well as in economies ridden by financial crisis, is well known, even though they seem not to matter so much in international policy making. But surveys show that even the majority of people in the US now feel that corporations have too much power and need to be curbed. This is clearly even more the case for issues with long-term significance such as environment. As Victor Menotti of the International Forum on Globalisation put it “If you can’t trust them with your pension, how can you trust them with the planet?”

After a long time, therefore, the current world system looks not only unsustainable but also unstable, unable to control the spasmodic particular crises which are breaking out all over the place. This also means that the potential for real change is greater. So, along with the noise made by the other parallel meetings in Johannesburg – the NGO Summit, and the gatherings of all those who could not pay the fees for the NGO Summit – there has to be much more noise made by all of us domestically in our own context, to force changes in current government policies which ensure neither democracy nor sustainability, and to control and limit the power of large capital which currently destroys both.