Even as the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) gets underway in Johannesburg, it gathers with the gloomy perception that the world has not become any better than was ten years ago when the Rio -Earth Summit was held to usher positive changes.
More dangerously, the fragile coalition that was put together at Rio for a commonality of approach and responsibility seems under severe threat. In its essence, sustainable development translates into a concept of economic and social development that is also equitable. The very fact that one out of every six persons lives with an income of less than one US dollar per day, only highlights the urgency of such an endeavour. However, the more important issues of more equal global resource sharing and ensuring minimum access of basic resources to all, have got mired in complexities with respect to allocation and distribution, conservation, pricing, regulation education, participation and sustainable use. At a global level, problems associated with the continued indiscriminate use of natural resources by the North have been aggravated by the South’s rapid population growth, rising industrialization and increasing environmental degradation and pollution.
To an extent the Rio conference did mark a concerted affirmation of the need to seek socially and ecologically effective solutions collectively. However, the translation from vision to action never took off in any substantial way. One of the primary reasons for this failure was the collaboration required to be made with all stakeholders, which at all levels never materialised. For example, the environment, which the world’s poor inhabit has degraded even further. More people have become environmental refugees but where is the programme to build the capacities of the poor for empowering them to live in harmony with natural resources that are depleting? Or take the example of millions of small and marginalized farmers whose livelihoods are being threatened. Champions of liberalization argue that integration with the world economy will throw open opportunities for these farmers through export oriented production. However, this very skillfully ignores the foremost issue about the daily needs of these farmers and their families. Underlying this gross neglect is a political economy that pins its belief on unending growth that perpetuates unmitigated consumption and insatiable profiteering in the name of capitalism. It carefully overlooks wasteful over-consumption of the North as testing the social and ecological limits of the world. Meanwhile in direct response to the rise of the environmental movement, the North has displaced ecological disequilibrium to the South.
Two of the main reasons for the breakdown of the Rio consensus would be the increasing North-versus South divides and US unilateralism. This assertiveness was signaled with renewed vigor by George Bush’s decision to pull out of Kyoto Protocol on environment. Although the EU has expressed concern over this development, there is no doubt that European MNCs, along with their US counterparts, stand to gain enormously from what the US is now unabashedly espousing in terms of public-private “partnerships” in water, energy, and other areas. This is nothing but securing hitherto unexplored areas that were exclusively owned publicly (given their social utility) for private profiteering and exploitation. In fact there are genuine fears that in order to achieve this end the North is willingly working to dismantle the achievements at Rio by withdrawing from key principles (such as common but differentiated responsibility) and blocking any new government commitments to implement Rio’s outcomes (like that Agenda 21 of the Rio Summit, which recognises the developing countries basic right to development).
So the message from the North led by US is to trust unregulated corporate initiatives. Let us take the water privatisation issue that has figured not only in the Doha round of WTO negotiations but also in the draft “Johannesburg Declaration”. It is also becoming increasingly clear that at the expense of the United Nations, multilateral institutions like WTO, World Bank and IMF are becoming the arbiters of world’s resources and appropriation. The IMF and World Bank argue that since Third world countries are too poor to subsidies their national services, the only viable option is to privatize them and charge user fees. Hence it is not surprising to find that their loans routinely include conditions requiring increased cost recovery and or full cost recovery. In many cases, this so-called economic pricing is nothing but a euphemism to facilitate the participation of private companies in operating water systems where consumers meet the expenses of running the systems (capital, operation and maintaining costs) and pay enough for company profits too. It is a fact that water privatization or cost recovery provisions have been attached to loans to Angola, Benin, Guinea-Bissau, Honduras, Nicaragua, Niger, Panama, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Tanzania and Yemen. As a consequence, the poor are being excluded because the companies do not go where the people cannot pay user charges. Indeed the multinationals, which have only recently started their major moves into developing countries, have quickly accumulated very poor social and environmental records. In Indonesia, Suez and Thames Water have both been charged with tampering with water pricing. In South Africa, protesters claimed that Suez was taking excessive profits, grossly overcharging for its services, and leaving the municipality unable to pay its workers a living wage.
So are there no instruments that can protect poor people and natural systems from being plundered by global corporations? Or more precisely, is there no alternative mode of development as opposed to capitalism and its attending ills? An alternative that incorporates accountability, social responsibility and sustainable development is indeed possible. There is a growing movement round the world, which aims to reverse the trend of privatization of common and scarce resource. For example in a Bolivian city where the privatization of water delivery services increased prices by as much as 300%, it ignited a popular uprising that has become a global flashpoint against privatization. The moot point is to develop national responses to the contractionary policies of the IMF and examine new options for financing sectoral reforms in an equitable and socially responsive manner. Ten years ago, Rio showed the way, and this time too at Johannesburg it is imperative that the Third World does not succumb to the pressure tactics of the North in seeking equal opportunities for ecologically and socially just development.