TWN Briefings for WSSD No.2

Hope or Despair: Scenarios of What May Happen at WSSD

By Hira Jhamtani

A message of hope was the title of Emil Salim’s first address as the Chairman of the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) for the WSSD. When presenting a text for negotiations of a plan of implementation during PrepCom II in New York, the title of Salim’s address was ‘A journey of hope’. Indeed many people were hoping that WSSD would strengthen the commitment to implement a socially just and environmentally sustainable development that was made during the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro ten years ago.

But the journey of hope is full of thorns. It has become a journey laced with hopeful rhetorics but lack of committed actions, as reflected during the PrepComs. Initially, the draft plan of implementation was supposed to have been agreed at PrepCom IV in Bali, the last stop before Johannesburg. But at the closing of PrepCom IV, some 73% of the text was agreed. Bali was also supposed to produce initial elements for political declaration to be negotiated and finalised in Johannesburg. The plan of implementation and the political declaration are a package, thus if there is no consensus on one, the other would not materialise.

That a consensus on a plan of implementation was not in Bali achieved in Bali is not the real thorn. After all, Bali was only a PrepCom meeting. The real thorn is the seemingly  entrenched North-South (developed-developing country) divide over some important issues, much like what happened in Rio ten years ago. The largest part of the 27% of the text not yet agreed was on finance, trade and globalisation. It needs to be noted that the final negotiation process in Bali over the trade and finance aspects of the Means of Implementation part involved ministers, rather than senior officials. And yet no consensus was arrived at. Therefore it is not a matter of more time for negotiations, but rather the lack of a political will to make the WSSD a success in terms of the substantive actions.

The bone of contention was the objections of US and European Union over debt relief/reduction for developing countries, greater market access for agricultural products from developing countries and phasing out of market distorting subsidies, new and additional financial resources. G 77 and China wanted to include an action plan to ‘reform the global financial architecture’ but was willing to accept a weaker language since developed countries did not want this either. These are issues that would address the inequitable economic power relations between the North and South as part of sustainable development process. By refusing to tackle them, the North is basically saying that they do not want to commit to sustainable development.

The text is now being sent as it is to Johannesburg.

All in all, there is a tendency to make the process rather than the contents of the WSSD a success. In this context, we can try to picture the possibilities of what would happen in Johannesburg.  First, WSSD may successfully produce a plan of implementation together with a political declaration (the type one outcome), plus the partnership initiatives (type two not-negotiated outcome). This would reflect a successful process but not necessarily a concrete and strong commitment. For this to happen, it would mean that the language on trade and finance would simply be ‘cut and paste’ from the ministerial declaration of the fourth WTO (World Trade Organisation) ministerial meeting in Doha and the Monterrey consensus on Financing on Development. G77 and China’s language on reform of the global financial architecture would be watered down to become meaningless sentences. In essence, a repetition of Rio would happen, in which developing countries would lose out, developed countries would have not strong obligations to become a pioneer in sustainable development. The world would still have faith in the international negotiation process but would lose a real opportunity to save the earth and humankind.  This would be the most probable thing to happen.

The second possibility may be that no consensus would be reached on the plan of implementation and political declaration. This would be akin to what happened at the 1997 Rio plus five meeting. The partnership initiative might be salvaged but this would be a mere list of partnerships with no long-term commitment to sustainable development. For this to happen, the G 77 and China would have to stick strongly to their positions on trade and finance and the North refuses to cooperate. Therefore this possibility might happen if the North-South divide is so large as during Rio Plus Five. Non-government organisations (NGOs) would be very critical of this outcome. Therefore the partnership  (or Type Two) arrangement might not even materialise beyond mere announcements in Johannesburg. Ultimately, it would be only a saving face for the UN negotiation process.

The third possibility would be ‘no outcome’ whether in Type One or Type Two. This would be consistent with the commitment made in Bali, that the Type Two outcome is no substitute for Type One. Thus if there is no Type One, there would be no Type Two. For this to happen, NGOs and other community groups have to apply a very strong pressure to boycott the partnerships. If this happens, the UN and international negotiation system would lose credibility, and a substantial amount of money, energy and time would have been wasted. This would be a very unlikely possibility, but still a possibility.

The fourth possibility would be  ‘a total success of WSSD’. This would mean that the plan of implementation contains strong language for concrete actions, the political declaration would be as strong as the Rio Declaration, and the partnership initiatives would involve all stakeholders in a transparent and equitable manner. This would have to be the real destination of the journey of hope as envisaged by Emil Salim. For this to happen, the North-South divide would have to be bridged, the entire plan of action will have to be rewritten and the partnership initiatives already on the pipeline will have to be totally revised. Given the short time (less than a month to Johannesburg) and the conceptual differences, this is a very, very remote possibility. This can happen only through a tremendous public pressure on governments both in the North and the South, and on the UN. This would need actions on the scale of the Seattle social movement during the fourth Ministerial Conference of the WTO in 1999, and the World Social Forum in 2002 that declared a powerful message ‘We believe Another World is Possible’. 

But the realistic thing to do would be to go to Johannesburg with an honest appraisal. The WSSD would be the real destination of the journey of hope if the participants, both government and non-government, would just honestly acknowledge the lack of commitment to sustainable development, the problems for that lack of commitment and start fresh building new commitments.

Johannesburg may not produce anything spectacular, so let us just look at Johannesburg as a soul searching exercise to ask difficult questions that we, and especially governments, have been avoiding. Just one simple question, why is it so easy for governments to commit to the agreements at the WTO or commitments made with IMF/World Bank, but why is it so difficult to commit to the commitments envisaged by Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration? The honest answer of this question would be the beginning of the journey to real hope.

Hira P. Jhamtani

Board member of KONPHALINDO, a NGO based in Jakarta.