The Need to Channel Globalisation Towards Sustainable Development

AT the Rio Summit, the world's citizens were assured by our political leaders that at last some serious action would begin to tackle the serious problems of development and environment and bring us back from the brink of crisis and catastrophe. And the action would be inspired by global partnership to sustainable development, where the rich and the rich countries would change their unsustainable policies and practices and help the poor and the poor countries through increased aid and better access technology.

Five years later the world's citizens are extremely disappointed and indeed we are alarmed at what has happened. Environment problems are worse than ever. The spirit of Rio seems to have vanished. Aid has fallen. Financial resources continue to be sucked out from the poor countries through debt servicing and low and declining terms of trade. The rich countries seem to be advocating a fallacious position that private investment can substitute for aid to the poor when everyone knows that private investments move towards profit-maximisation (and not sustainability), that most of the capital flows to the South are short term, speculative and that FDI mainly goes to only a dozen countries. The poor countries need the right kind of aid, and they need debt relief and better terms of trade more than ever, so that they can build their own domestic capacity. Only then will investments flow, and not before. It is simply fraudulent to wave private investment flows to the poor as a panacea and as an excuse not to fulfil the obligations of Rio.

Development and the principle of and right to development seem to be challenged today by some Northern governments, and there is even a real danger now that the environment will be used as a reason to stop the legitimate right of developing countries to enjoy development. By no means have the four components of sustainable development - economic and social development, environmental protection and equity among and within nations - been accepted as the old debates begin again.

The environment has dropped many notches down the global and the national agendas.

The major reason is that in the five years after Rio, the process of globalisation linked to liberalisation has gained so much force that it has undermined and is undermining the sustainable development agenda. Commerce and the perceived need to remain competitive in a globalising market, and to pamper and cater to the demands of companies and the rich, have become the top priority of governments in the North and some in the South. The environment, welfare of the poor, global partnership, have all been dislodged and sacrificed in this wave of free-market mania.

The most glaring weakness at Rio was the failure to include the regulation of business, financial institutions and TNCs in Agenda 21 and the other decisions. These institutions, are responsible for most of the world's resource extraction, production, pollution and generation of consumer culture.

UNCED and CSD have failed to create international mechanisms to monitor and regulate these companies. Instead their power and outreach have spread much more. In particular, the Uruguay Round agreements and the establishment of the WTO have institutionalised globalisation. Through its strong enforcement system the WTO and its legally-binding rules threaten to override all other declarations, action plans and paradigms, whether they be Rio, Copenhagen or Beijing.

The globalisation process, enforced especially through the rules of WTO, rewards the strong and ruthless and punishes the weak and poor. In fact it defines the criteria for success and failure, for survival and collapse. Its paradigm places profits and greed above all else, and its unregulated operation will continue to downgrade development, social and environmental concerns at both national and international levels.

It is the antithesis to sustainable development and to global partnership.

The UN and the CSD need to address this crisis of the battle of paradigms between unregulated globalisation driven by individual self-interest and corporate greed, versus global partnership between rich and poor towards sustainable development.

We need political will and moral courage, we need moral will and political courage, among our governments, both North and South. The kind of globalisation we have is not sustainable, neither is it inevitable or uncontrollable. It has to be stared in the eye, and regulated, channelled, directed towards sustainability goals.

Otherwise all the words we speak in the next few weeks and months will be marginal, will be only a kind of play, unless we are able to face up to the real challenge of this globalisation process.

The UNGASS must make a decision to reassert the primacy of global partnership, to reassert the right of the poor to develop, the duty of the rich to curb their lifestyles and to help the poor, and the common but differentiated responsibilities to save the Earth.

The UNGASS must set up a mechanism, such as a sub-commission or a high-powered working group, to examine and take decisions on globalisation and how it should be channelled towards sustainability, and this should be a cross-sectoral issue to be discussed each year in future. The legally-binding rules of the WTO should be reviewed to assess their contribution or otherwise to sustainability goals. This can be done through the in-built review process of the WTO. But such an assessment should also be done independently, through the CSD and other bodies. In particular, the new issues now before the WTO (investment and competition policy and government procurement) must be subject to serious study for their impacts. In particular, the moves by Northern governments to introduce a multilateral investment agreement through both the OECD and the WTO are likely to have very adverse impacts on both development and environment and if the MIA or MAI is passed it will override many aspects of Agenda 21 and render impotent many of the issues and actions we will discuss in the next few weeks. The UNGA and the CSD cannot ignore what is happening in the WTO, nor confine its attention only to the 'trade and environment' spectrum.

We have to make the WTO more and more transparent to the world, and more accountable to sustainable development. The narrow paradigm of gaining more and more 'market access' for the big companies, especially to the markets of the developing countries, must be modified and tempered by the larger paradigm of sustainable development.

The Special Session of the General Assembly must tackle these larger issues of globalisation, otherwise we will be overwhelmed, and there will be nothing optimistic to talk about when we convene again five years from now for another review.

If at Rio we were moved by the urgency to save the Earth, all the more, in fact many times more, do we have the need to eradicate poverty, and institute equitable mechanisms to defend the environment. We urge our political leaders and the officials in government and the UN to redouble their efforts to re-establish sustainable development at the top of the agenda. We in the NGO community, needless to say, will continue to fight for people's rights and the Earth. There is nothing more important in the world today that needs to be done.

(New York 23-27 June 1997)