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Wednesday, Sep 04, 2002

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Opinion - Environment

Of missed opportunities and closed doors

Chandu Nair

Conference: "The confusion of a single man multiplied by the number present."

Taking Issue, a newsletter at the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

THE big issue hogging the headlines at the start of the World Summit on sustainable Development (WSSD) at Johannesburg was not development, poverty or the environment. It was quite simply, access — who gets what kind of access to the Summit.

A number of accredited people were turned away from the Sandton Convention Centre, the main conference venue, over makeshift participation rules drafted without prior warning on August 26, the first day of the Summit.

Angry NGOs were quoted as saying "while we are queuing for hours to get passes or figure out how to enter the building, decisions about our lives, our livelihoods, our waters and our environment are being made without our participation. We did not come here to debate about how to get into the convention centre... 6000 people are the maximum the Sandton convention centre can accommodate, the place where official negotiators are meeting. When that number is reached, participation from civil society is subsequently reduced to allow for more official negotiators. NGOs are upset... The UN is making democracy into a travesty we want to engage".

This simple issue of physical access and active participation, which has triggered angry protests is symptomatic of the larger issue of access, or rather the lack of it, in many countries today. Access to resources, information, to markets, to food, to justice and security. Take a look at the results of an online poll done just before the WSSD on what are the key issues:

What are the key elements of a global deal?

  • Poverty eradication — 23 per cent

  • Equitable and sustainable access to resources — 20 per cent

  • Securing environmental and social rights — 11 per cent

  • Access to information and participation — 5 per cent

  • Recognition of social and economic debts — 5 per cent

  • Cancellation of financial debts — 5 per cent

  • Changing values guiding human behaviour — 29 per cent


    Poverty eradication is a major issue especially for developing nations, such as India. The world is, perhaps, wealthiest today than it has ever been in the history of mankind. But the distribution of wealth, both between and within countries, is highly skewed. Over 1.2 billion people struggle to eke out a living on less than $1 per day. On the other hand, the assets of the three wealthiest men match the combined economies of the poorest 48 nations!

    Such disparities are already fuelling tensions. But the response of the developed nations so far has been disheartening. The US, for instance, is deafeningly silent on wasteful consumption. (An average American during his lifetime consumes and disposes 80 times as much as an average Indian.) At the WSSD so far there has been no commitment, especially by the developed nations, or action plans drawn up to ensure better and more equitable distribution of the world's wealth.

    The way to ensuring improved distribution of wealth and income is through enhanced and sustained access to resources, environment and social rights, as well as information and participation. The process of enabling access is highly politically volatile as it involves the devolution and dilution of control and power, which established players and "the system" find contrary to their own interests.

    At the opening of the WSSD, hundreds of angry African farmers and fishermen demonstrated for more access to natural resources. Organiser Manfred Van Rooyen said, "There are more sharks on the land than in the sea."

    Access touches even basic vital necessities, such as water. In Africa, it is already becoming an explosive issue. According to WSSD-GEM, a newsletter of a women's NGO, "If the World Bank pushes through with its policy of privatising water in Africa, many people will just have to turn off their taps." The activists describe water as the "black gold" which multinational companies will target in the 21st century. (India is already witnessing the increasing presence of Coca Cola and Pepsi in the packaged water business.)

    The newsletter points to the case of Bolivia where water prices went up 300 per cent when a private company from California took over water management. Women, who were not at all consulted, are the ones bearing the burden of walking long distances to get water, as they cannot afford to pay for it. The average family in Bolivia today has to set aside a quarter of its income on water! Likewise, in some regions of Africa, women spend up to 27 per cent of their caloric intake fetching water.

    Programmes, such as these reflect the consistent failure of many governments to connect with and involve stakeholders in vital decisions, and lead to crises for the common man. However, they are seen as enriching a few at the expense of the many.

    In Cairo, for instance, the administration has decided to hand over garbage collection and recycling to a MNC from January 2003 at very relaxed terms. Compared to the 80 per cent being recycled by the 60,000 garbage collectors, the MNC has to recycle only 20 per cent.

    The indications emerging from deliberations at the WSSD so far are not encouraging. Multinational agencies, such as the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO were accused by civil groups of fuelling poverty by pursuing a "neo-liberal economic policy that excludes the poor and enriches an exclusive minority." The general feeling is that at the current rate, poverty will never be halved by 2015, the earlier target.

    Likewise, gender issues, which found a significant place in Agenda 21 of the Rio Summit 10 years ago, are conspicuous by their virtual absence so far. Part of this lack of understanding or appreciation perhaps lies in the fact that most negotiators are male and women are painfully scarce in leadership ranks of either bureaucracy or politics.

    Over the last 10 years since the Rio Summit, there has, therefore, been a growing adversarial relationship between governments, bureaucracy and "the system" on the one hand, and the civil society or citizens groups on the other.

    At the WSSD, too, an NGO, SDIN remarked: "Again, civil society is being made into a liability... It is treated as a security hazard. But at every UN meeting, civil society participation is spoken of as necessary ".

    Clearly, there is a need for mindset change, within as well as between countries. There are issues, such as the need for development assistance and finance where the expectations of certain developing nations and the extent to which richer nations are willing to help, are totally out of sync. There is also the need to seriously consider the slowing down, even reneging of international agreements and understanding. (For instance, the refusal of the US to sign the Kyoto Protocol.)

    In an op-ed piece in the International Herald Tribune (August 28), President Mbeki of South Africa, President Cardoso of Brazil and Prime Minister Persson of Sweden (the hosts of the three Summits so far) jointly wrote: "The Johannesburg Summit is the opportunity for countries to form a global partnership for the protection of the environment and for social and economic development.

    A partnership not simply in the donor-recipient paradigm but one to which we all contribute. Only a global partnership between governments, business and civil society gives us the power to meet the challenge."

    "If opportunity does not knock, go out and build a door." So goes the saying. But as the Summit comes to a close, this does not seem to have happened. Another missed opportunity?

    (The author, Director, Scope Marketing & Information Solutions Pvt Ltd, is writing from Johannesburg.)

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