Stumbling to Johannesburg

The third meeting of the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom 3) for the forthcoming Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development provided some indication of the huge chasm that remains to be bridged between the proposals for reform set out in the Rio Summit Programme of Action (Agenda 21) and the current reality. Yin Shao Loong, who attended the PrepCom which was held at the UN in New York, reports.

THE third meeting of the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom 3) for the forthcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, South Africa, made little progress in upholding the spirit of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and the programme of change it proposed for the 21st century, Agenda 21.

Instead, the meeting which was held in New York from 25 March to 5 April 2002 revealed the gulf between the ideals expressed in Rio - a chance to reconcile environment and development, North and South, rich and poor - and the harsh realities of our present time.

Negotiations appeared stalled after the first week of consultations when the 30-page Chairman’s Paper of the proposed plan of action for implementing Agenda 21 ballooned to a compilation text of 100 pages. The text was sub-divided into 10 sections: an introduction, poverty eradication, changing unsustainable patterns of consumption and production, protecting and managing the natural resource base of economic and social development, sustainable development in a globalising world, health and sustainable development, sustainable development of small island developing states, sustainable development initiatives for Africa, means of implementation, and a section on governance covered in a separate paper.

The list of additional suggestions submitted by member states was so voluminous and largely divergent from sustainable development principles - focusing excessively on a narrow economic agenda: trade gains, utilities liberalisation, intellectual property rights, promoting biotechnology and market access for private investment - that many delegations initially felt unwilling to negotiate even a consolidated text.

Lack of progress

Many delegates dragged their heels for two days in expectation of either an expedited Chairman’s Text, a call for an inter-sessional meeting before the final preparatory meeting in May to absorb the increased burden of work, or an extension of PrepCom 3. NGOs and other supporters of Agenda 21 meanwhile despaired of the outcomes even upholding the Rio principles and agenda, let alone implementing it. Chairman Emil Salim of Indonesia was highly upset with the lack of progress since he was committed to ensuring that Agenda 21 would materialise into a set of ‘deliverables’ by the Johannesburg Summit. PrepCom4, which will bring together environment ministers for the last session, will be held in Bali, Indonesia.

However, by the middle of the second week Professor Salim took a firm line that governments would have to complete consolidation of the proposed plan of action by the end of the week.

The plan of action, together with a political declaration by member states, comprise negotiated intergovernmental agreements or ‘Type I’ outcomes for the WSSD. The political declaration is scheduled to be discussed during PrepCom 4.

Discussions of the compilation text of the proposed plan of action were split into two working groups which attempted to get governments to produce a leaner text, to reach less divergence on issues before proceeding to negotiation. Consultation was begun on the ‘least contentious issues’, such as those relating to small island developing states, before dealing with more contentious ones such as trade, globalisation and natural resources.

Work was carried out in late night sessions under quite unfavourable conditions. Due to recently announced budget cuts at the UN headquarters in New York it was no longer possible for official sessions (with translation services) to convene after 6 pm, heating and air conditioning were to be cut, and technical services (including those for evening side events) would be provided only at additional costs. This presented immediate difficulties to the Group of 77/China bloc of developing countries; this large group of over 130 countries needed to meet with translation during time originally scheduled for official negotiations. This pushed back the schedule for working groups to after 6 pm. Delegates were able to meet to discuss the text but in small conference rooms bereft of air conditioning or microphones. Suffocating, overheated delegates complained that they were swimming in their sweat after several hours in such conditions.

By the last day of the PrepCom it was clear that the original target of a negotiated text of the proposed plan of action would not be achieved by the final date. The contentious globalisation section had not been negotiated by the time the closing plenary was convened.

However, following several nights of heated discussions within the Bureau (comprising representatives from the different regions who assist the Chairman and facilitate the negotiations), its members met with the representatives of the G77/China, US and EU during the final afternoon and arranged a deal proposed during the plenary.

Speaking first, Venezuela on behalf of the G77/China called for the Chairman to intervene with a fresh text to be drafted with ‘Friends of the Chair’ (code for a select group of key parties to produce a closed-room text with the chair). Venezuela naturally identified itself as such a friend, as did the US and Spain speaking for the EU.

Consultations on the globalisation section continued after the closing plenary, which suggested that the working group consultations would provide some basis for the Chairman’s Text which is expected to emerge prior to PrepCom 4 in Bali.

It was further decided that PrepCom 3 would resume three days prior to the official start of PrepCom 4 following an offer by the Indonesian government to host the additional days. Budgetary pressures precluded an inter-sessional and a number of delegates were expected to be in The Hague for the Sixth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in the week following PrepCom 3.

It is also quite likely that negotiations on the Chairman’s Text would run parallel to the Multi-stakeholder Dialogue (MSD) for PrepCom 4.


In parallel sessions additional components of the WSSD agenda were discussed. These included consultations on a draft paper on sustainable development governance prepared by the WSSD Bureau, and ‘Type II’ outcomes, loosely understood as partnerships between governments, between governments and stakeholders, or between stakeholders to facilitate implementation of Agenda 21.

Vice-Chairs Ositadinma Anaedu (Nigeria) and Lars-Goran Engfeldt (Sweden) prepared a 13-page draft paper on sustainable development governance (SDG) with a separate text on good governance. The paper covered  SDG issues at the international, regional, and national level, focussing on institutional issues.

It contains a number of intriguing suggestions on fleshing out SDG within the UN, such as making the General Assembly’s Second Committee a ‘sustainable development committee’, elaborating Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) engagement with sustainable development, and strengthening the Commission on Sustainable Development. The paper also calls for a strategic partnership among the UN, its agencies and organisations, the international financial organisations and the WTO.

The good governance section contained some unclear language which suggested that corporations and other non-government sectors might fall under similar considerations of good governance. This perspective fails to appreciate that corporations and civil society groups such as NGOs, indigenous peoples’ organisations,  women’s groups, youth organisations, farmers and workers are quite different from a policy and practical perspective. It is most worrying in light of recent attempts by large corporations to call for NGOs to be scrutinised the same way as corporations. This point of view fails to recognise the significantly greater power and lesser corresponding regulation applied to corporations.

On access to information, governments are called on to promote laws that ensure citizens have such access regarding government laws, activities and policies as well as the status of environmental, economic and social conditions. Conspicuously absent is a call for laws to ensure public access to information held by corporations. This right to know is a demand of citizens’ movements in every country - be it for information on toxic chemicals and wastes, genetically engineered food and crops or, as the Enron scandal has exposed, accounting records and dubious business partnerships. As corporations increasingly expand their demands for confidential information protection beyond conventional trade secrets, and in most countries enjoy direct access and influence on government policy, access to corporate information is all the more crucial for good governance and accountability.

Submissions and suggestions on the governance paper were taken in during the second week and the G77/China will submit a position paper before PrepCom 4. Another consolidated draft will then be presented for negotiation at PrepCom 4.


Also on the agenda for PrepCom 4 will be partnerships as Type II outcomes. Concern had grown amongst several governments and many NGOs since PrepCom 2 that partnerships would end up being a weak substitute for the failure to achieve an intergovernmental Type I outcome. There was further concern that the partnerships would be predominantly public-private partnerships with the corporate sector coming out ahead and sustainable development being a distant third after governments.

So it was that an informal meeting on partnerships convened by its two co-chairs in a small conference room was rapidly filled with NGOs bristling with questions. Following an interesting presentation by UN Habitat which placed a heavy emphasis on partnership with local governments, a presentation by the agrichemical industry coalition CropLife confirmed fears of unilateral ‘partnerships’ launched by industry to cash in on sustainable development. CropLife proposed to use Internet technology to instruct small farmers in developing countries in the use of industry products for ‘integrated pest management’. The sponsors of CropLife included familiar names: Bayer, BASF, Monsanto, Aventis.

The Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development (SARD) partnership which involves farmers, indigenous peoples, women’s organisations, NGOs, trade unions, local governments, business and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) seemed to offer more balance and greater opportunities for mutual check and balance to be exerted between partnering groups. As a mandated follow-up to the 8th session of the Commission on Sustainable Development, this collaboration can offer useful principles and methods for implementing sustainable development.

NGOs poured out their concerns and objections. Speaking on behalf of a number of NGO networks and organisations, Third World Network said that the UN and heads of state in Johannesburg risk giving legitimacy to partnerships that comprise unequal partners, or are merely a facade for a corporate agenda with no framework to determine whether such partnerships are indeed for sustainable development. The Women’s Caucus stated that there could be no partnerships with the Bretton Woods institutions or the WTO unless those were fundamentally changed. Another NGO suggested that no government should take part in a Type II initiative unless it had already ratified all multilateral environmental agreements. Others questioned why no issue of monitoring the conformity of partnerships to sustainable development principles and Agenda 21 was proposed.

The co-chairs finally produced an informal text aimed at clarifying concerns. It reassured participants that a strong Type I agreement would be the basis of Type II initiatives, which would not substitute for the former. Both the G77/China and the European Union have adopted this position. It nonetheless remains likely that the integrity of Type II initiatives and the framework within which they operate will have to be closely watched and hotly debated. Stakeholder major groups will discuss this in a multistakeholder dialogue during PrepCom 4.

Partnerships appear to be a stand-by as the saving grace for the Johannesburg Summit. If the intergovernmental agreement should fail or prove weak, it is likely that partnerships could be wheeled out as a ‘catch all, save all’. What worries NGOs and others (including some UN officials) is the growing ideology of public-private partnership in the UN, a process captured in the controversial Global Compact that is an initiative of the UN Secretary-General.

Agenda 21’s crisis of implementation

What has become known as the ‘crisis of implementation’ of Agenda 21, and the difficulties experienced within the UN, is indicative of the shift of world power during the last decade from the bipolar Cold War scenario to the pre-eminence of the First World which has itself been superseded by the growing power of transnational corporations.

During PrepCom 3 it became clear that Agenda 21 had few defenders amongst governments, and NGOs themselves were splintered into sectoral agendas, with very few articulating a systemic whole. Perhaps this is an indication of the failure of sustainable development to fully take hold as a cross-sectoral policy or concept. More accurately it is a sign of the strength of the forces striving to tear it apart. Probably the most powerful opposing force is the present trend and form of globalisation. The greatest danger arises from attempts to adapt sustainable development to globalisation rather than the other way around.

Both the Chairman’s Paper and the UN Secretary-General’s report on the 10 years since Rio, Implementing Agenda 21, believe that ‘globalisation can be made to be a force for good.’ They recognise that negative impacts have accrued but they avoid confrontation with the nature of economic globalisation to date. They, along with many others, assume that burgeoning poverty, increasing economic dependence and environmental degradation can be corrected with more of the globalisation that produced them - the cure being a further injection of the disease.

At its mildest this viewpoint takes what it believes is a pragmatic stance and decides to work with globalisation and reform it by association. This is the rationale behind such voluntary initiatives as the UN Global Compact, which aims to reform multinational corporations by bringing them into fold of the UN. The price for getting them to sign on to the Compact was an assurance that there will be no monitoring by the UN.

This position does not grapple with the reality that multinational corporations together with the US, EU, Canada, Australia and Japan, the international financial institutions - World Bank and International Monetary Fund - and the World Trade Organisation hegemonise global resources and investment flows to facilitate an overall transfer of wealth and resources from the former Second World and Third World to the First. The UN is in danger of being the latest addition to the club. UN Conferences such as the Monterrey Financing for Development conference and the WSSD are being used to encircle developing countries with offers they can’t refuse or feel are the best that they can get.

The pressure is to thoroughly undermine the principles and spirit of the Rio Summit, and the UN itself, in favour of developed countries and the institutions, corporate and international, in which they can firmly set the economic and political agendas. (The Bretton Woods institutions are donor-dominated and always have a US and European head, and the WTO in a parallel manner is presently configured as a protectionist instrument for developed-country interests while prying open developing country economies and markets.)

During negotiations on the trade section of the Chairman’s Paper, the issue of trade and environment matters was raised in a number of paragraphs. The co-chair of the session suggested that delegates could defer to the outcomes of the WTO’s Committee on Trade and Environment (CTE). This passed without comment until the G77 reminded those present that the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) existed and it too had work in progress on trade and environment.

Many developed-country governments already acknowledge or promote the primacy of the WTO over UN agreements. Discussions on economic matters such as trade were consistently deferred to the WTO and the Monterrey Consensus declaration on Financing for Development (itself beholden to the WTO in some respects).

The EU has been consistent in the Financing for Development PrepCom and WSSD PrepCom 2 and 3 in referring to the outcomes of the Doha Ministerial Conference of the WTO as the ‘Doha Development Agenda’, a term also promoted by the partisan secretariat of the WTO. The term suggests that the outcomes of the conference were both pro-development as well as agreed upon. However, the negotiations (process and outcomes) at Doha were highly controversial, with developed countries engaging in outright duplicity and heavy-handedness in order to extract concessions from developing countries. Unaware of an eleventh-hour extension, many developing countries left the conference believing that no consensus had been reached. Although the main text of the Doha Ministerial Declaration outlines an extensive programme of action, the Qatari chairman clarified in his closing speech that the launch of negotiations on the highly contentious issues such as investment, competition policy and government procurement  awaits an ‘explicit consensus’ of all WTO Members.

Rejecting any reference to the ‘Doha Development Agenda’ or DDA, as it has become known, the G77/China doggedly referred to the Doha Ministerial Declaration or DMD. Such is how global trade policies rest on the use of an acronym or catchphrase.

This struggle is what underlines the utopian dimension referred to in sustainable development principles and the Rio legacy. Political realities have eroded the substance of sustainable development ever since Rio such that the term has been an object of struggle between the dominating forces of globalisation and the new social movements which oppose and seek to reshape them. Although derided in many circles for being an apologia for ‘development as usual’, the content of the concept of sustainable development is something that in the final analysis will always be determined by the winners. The multinational trade racket presently holds much of the stakes, so it is even more urgent to fight for a sustainable development that better reflects the collective and diverse desires of the new social movements.

During an informal meeting with NGOs, UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director Dr Klaus Toepfer cited German philosopher Ernst Bloch’s definition of utopia. He drew a distinction between concrete and abstract utopias. Rio was too much of the abstract. Pre-empting NGO criticisms of the UN’s public-private partnerships, Toepfer explained that he had embraced the pragmatic route of constructing a concrete utopia. In saying this he was very much in harmony with the current of the UN executive by seeking to embrace and gently reform the present forces of globalisation.

It is important to note that Toepfer crucially did not acknowledge that it was the abstract utopia of Rio that opened up the space for the concrete utopia which he was trying to articulate. The compromised attempts at sustainable development he felt were a pragmatic stumble to a concrete utopia were a fallback from the utopian push of the Rio dream. It must not be forgotten that Rio captured the attention of the world in a way that Johannesburg does not appear to be doing. Far from being abstract it was a concrete expression of the hopes of people’s movements from around the world that North and South, humans and nature could be reconciled.

The Rio dream may not survive within the present state of the UN but that does not by any stretch mean that it is dead. The space that was opened by Rio remains to be recaptured in a new vision for a new century. Concrete and abstract are inseparable from the utopian impulses that change the world. In a world sliding towards another cycle of destructive militarism, a dream, clearly articulared, may be all it takes to pull us back from the brink.   

Yin Shao Loong is a researcher with Third World Network.

Production, consumption and globalisation

Yin Shao Loong

UNCED 1992 pinpointed consumption and production as part of the paradigm shift needed for the 21st century. But since then globalisation has taken over, like a massive machine attempting to spread around the planet: opening up markets, economies and domestic systems for penetration. The balance tends to be that domestic energies are integrated into and flow to the machine rather than the machine serving the needs of domestic sustainable development.

The penetration of this globalisation machine brings with it a production and consumption paradigm that carries much of the challenge for sustainable development. We have the extraction and transmission of resources, which then enter a production cycle and subsequently accumulate as waste.

Here we have the overall unequal flow of resources from South to North and the environmental and social problem of waste and pollution, including climate change. Many of the products themselves are hazardous to health and safety. Technologies that drive industrial production also contribute to environmental and health problems - the Green Revolution chemical package, nuclear technologies and genetic engineering are but a few examples.

The production cycle faces problems of supply (from the perspective of business) in order to maintain and increase profit by matching market demand, itself largely shaped and even created through aggressive advertising and marketing. Capitalism’s ability to apparently yield more from less springs from this system of production but at the cost of environmentally-damaging resource extraction which operates in the context of unequal international economic relations. Another impact is the pressure on labour. While some point to rising wages and standards where globalisation has penetrated most, there is simultaneously the labour reserve of billions of poor who receive the brunt of exploitative pressure.

The globalisation of the globalisation machine serves precisely to expand its grasp of labour pools it can integrate and control at lowest cost. For all those who appear to benefit from globalisation there are many times more who take the brunt.

The so-called ‘positive’ economic outcomes of globalisation are built upon the availability of an oppressible majority. Militarism, coups d’etat and unbalanced trade institutions help ensure this.

The hope of the Chairman’s Text on an action plan (discussed at PrepCom 3) is that globalisation can be made to work for all. However, it is the machine itself that is the problem. It is dangerous to take the present affluence and consumerist culture of developed countries as a benchmark. The industrialised countries cannot live this way, Gandhi was absolutely right when he said that there is enough in this world for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed. What sustains the production and consumption paradigm is as damaging as the outputs of it.

Then we have the impact of the integration of societies into the machine. There are many cultural consequences of this as well as the erosion of social structures that uphold health and security. The more countries take on the globalisation model of consumption and production, the more sustainable consumption becomes a priority issue. It is better therefore to tackle the terms and nature of integration into globalisation. Unfortunately, the forces pushing globalisation and shaping most of the terms are powerful indeed. Hence the narrowing of the debate to efficiency and consumers’ awareness, without any basic shift in the forces and structures that perpetuate unsustainable production and consumption.

The struggle for us that was attempted at Rio is over the nature of the machine: how it produces, whom it takes from, where things get dumped and who suffers from the dumping.

It is insufficient therefore to tackle consumer issues or even patterns of consumption and production. Rather it is the struggle over access to resources and their destination. Whether resources both natural and human get sucked into the globalisation machine, or whether societies have a right to determine their mode of production. It is not product choice but choice of a mode of production. In the case of small farmers in developing countries, we see, with the push for Green Revolution technologies and biotechnologies, a pressure for industrial-scale farming suitable for world export, where big business plays centre stage. Trade has become the lens through which development is perceived rather than the other way around.

What we see in grassroots struggles against genetically modified organisms, unfair rules in the WTO and policies of the World Bank and IMF is precisely a struggle over sovereignty to determine one’s mode of production. A one-size-fits-all approach is not acceptable.

Realising this places initiatives like eco-efficiency and incremental corporate greening in a totally different perspective. They do not address root political, economic and environmental inequalities. The WSSD must move beyond the economic examination and reform of production and consumption to political economy and political struggles over economic sovereignty. Recalling Gandhi, the globalisation machine tries to prescribe a standard of need beyond the capacity of the planet to bear.

And this is what is being squeezed out of the WSSD documents. The systemic inequality of the production and consumption model of the globalisation machine is carved up into separate sections on trade, globalisation, poverty, natural resources management, and so forth. It is the political precisely that is being lost and therefore the spirit of Rio. It is this that we must retrieve.


Questioning partnerships

The Johannesburg Summit will have two sets of products. ‘Type 1’ outcomes will consist of a political declaration and action plan negotiated by governments. ‘Type 2’ outcomes are global and regional partnerships that can involve any combination of governmental and non-governmental actions. Many civil society groups are concerned that these partnerships will essentially boost

business and industry in an era when corporate regulation and accountability are paramount. Below is a viewpoint by the Sustainable Development Issues Network that was circulated at PrepCom 3 and supported by many NGOs.

THE sustainable development agenda is faced with a ‘crisis in implementation’. This is openly acknowledged by everyone, including governments. Restoring political will to implement political and legal commitments under the entire package of UN programmes from Rio to Durban as well as multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) must be the priority of the WSSD. ‘Type 1’ outcomes are thus primary and governments must strengthen their role and fulfil their obligations and commitments to implement sustainable development.  The renewed political commitment to development assistance in Monterrey (though small in amount and the Consensus document was weak in many respects) was a significant shift.

The WSSD must provide the momentum for a similar renewed political commitment for the sustainable development agenda, and even move beyond the Monterrey Consensus on Financing for Development to meet the full challenges of implementation.

Type 2 outcomes can be valuable and there are many examples that exist locally, nationally, regionally and even globally. They take place anyway, and will continue to do so. But these do not and cannot replace government commitments and obligations. The WSSD must first and foremost be about implementation of government commitments. Initiatives by other parts of society complement and supplement the fulfilment of government commitments. A historic North-South partnership was forged, and two major conventions agreed upon as well. That is the partnership that needs full activation.

Therefore, the explanatory note by the Chairman of the PrepCom on Partnerships/Initiatives raises a number of questions and concerns among a large number of NGOs, women’s organisations and indigenous peoples’ groups.

An exercise of legitimacy

The emphasis on Type 2 outcomes is the direct result of the failure of governments to turn their commitments to action. While collaboration and cooperation among different parts of society among themselves and also with governments are not new, and have often produced positive results, the current emphasis is on private-public sector partnerships, especially those involving transnational corporations. This seems to be another gust in the prevailing wind from the UN concerning partnership that is biased towards private sector cooperation.

Leaving the modalities (including monitoring arrangements) to each partnership essentially means self-regulation. Yet in the wake of currency speculation, Enron and Arthur Andersen, the reality is that regulation of corporations is essential, and multilateral monitoring and surveillance are crucial. By launching these new initiatives at the WSSD, the UN at the highest political and institutional level risks conferring legitimacy without any accountability framework.

Unequal relations with business and industry

While the CSD and other international processes have increased non-governmental participation to some extent, there is a false assumption that civil society organisations and the business sector can sit at roundtables to reach consensus. Often, the interests of industry (especially global corporations) and communities (and their organisations) are diametrically opposed. Mechanisms are needed to deal with such conflicts, with governments taking a crucial role in being a fair and just arbiter of these conflicts. By promoting partnerships and initiatives that may disregard these inequalities and even conflicts, the WSSD risks the sidelining of conflicts of interest at the cost of local communities. Since monitoring is essentially voluntary, how can the effects and results be independently assessed and verified? Again, the WSSD risks giving legitimacy to activities that are environmentally and socially damaging. The initiative on mining that is underway is one example of potential conflict.

Some of the past and current experience of UN partnerships with business and industry also causes great concern among many NGOs. There are many initiatives that are questionable. The Global Compact, the partnership with the highest profile, is fraught with problems and contradictions, ranging from non-disclosure of the full list of companies that are members to no mechanism for monitoring. Of the known members, many are global corporations that have violated principles of the Compact. 

Undermining MEAs

The lack of ratification and implementation by governments, especially those from developed countries, of key MEAs is causing frustration and undermining sustainable development objectives embodied in those MEAs. Is this Type 2 outcome going to be spread to the Conventions and Protocol, too? If this happens, then there will be no incentive for governments to ratify existing international agreements relating to sustainable development. Within the context of the multilateral system, completing ratification would be of fundamental importance towards the goal of ‘translating political commitments into action’.

Similarly, is the same approach going to be applied with regard to other UN action programmes that resulted from UN summits and conferences?

Bias towards global partnership

The bias towards ‘international partnerships’ sidelines valuable practices and experiences at the national and local levels. Many of these have immense potential for replication and mainstreaming into policy that can be spread through bilateral, regional or global networking. There is considerable documentation, even in collaboration between some UN agencies and civil society. That compilation work by the CSD in cooperation with UN agencies, national governments and civil society remains to be done.

PrepCom 3 should clarify these and other ambiguities and potential pitfalls of the Type 2 outcomes as currently conceived. Priority must be on galvanising political commitments and momentum so that heads of states can finally take the bold steps for paradigm shifts and structural reforms at all levels.                                         

The Sustainable Development Issues Network (SDIN) is an issues network to assist NGOs to work towards the WSSD. It is facilitated by the Northern Alliance for Sustainability (ANPED), Environmental Liaison Centre International (ELCI) and Third World Network.