Moves to strengthen sustainable-development institutions blocked

Hopes for a strengthened role for the UN to implement sustainable development were dashed at the WSSD.

Saradha Ramaswamy Iyer

A post-mortem of the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation reveals a missed opportunity to strengthen structures and capacities to buttress the implementation of sustainable development.

At a time when strong institutions are needed to grapple with corporate-led globalisation and salvage the sustainable development agenda, once again a powerful minority blocked the way.

The existence of institutional structures with strong capacities, supported by reliable and substantial financial resources, is a precondition for the continued implementation of Agenda 21 (the plan of action for sustainable development which was approved at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro) and the outcomes of the recent Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD). 

The monitoring and enforcement of sustainable development policies and strategies, partnerships and other initiatives agreed to at the WSSD requires a degree of oversight hitherto non-existent in the governance architecture especially at national, regional and local levels. This is all the more urgent given the fact that national governance structures have steadily been eroded by the persistent demands of privatisation and globalisation in the decade since the Rio Summit. At the same time, international trade and financial institutions in particular have rapidly moved from strength to strength.

The big question is whether Chapter X (‘Institutional framework for sustainable development’) of the Plan of Implementation adopted by the WSSD addresses these needs and redresses the inherent asymmetries and imbalances in the system to pave the way for successful follow-up of the Summit’s outcomes. In many respects, what is not in the text is more telling of the trend than what found its way in.

Time-frames for national governments

The only time-bound target in Chapter X is the one under ‘Strengthening institutional frameworks for sustainable development at the national level’. Paragraph 145(b) now states that States should ‘take immediate steps to make further progress in the formulation and elaboration of national strategies for sustainable development and begin their implementation by 2005...’  This is clearly a major responsibility for developing countries that now have to formulate poverty reduction strategies that integrate economic, social and environmental aspects of sustainable development and start implementing them in three years’ time. There is mention in the same paragraph that the strategies ‘should be supported through international cooperation’ but no other commitment for financial resources for capacity building is agreed. Developed countries that have failed to meet their commitments made at Rio in 1992 have again evaded their responsibility.

No ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ for governance

Principle 7 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development embodies the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ and its concomitant inter- and intra-generational inequities, historical culpability and other global realities.  It goes to the very core of the North-South Partnership forged at Rio.  The WSSD is the legitimate follow-up on the implementation of those values.  Rio was not to have been the ceiling but the floorboard for further concerted action.

Yet, the tortuous negotiations on including the mention of this Principle in the ‘Institutions’ section of the document left the Group of 77 (G77) and China trying to prevent the ceiling from falling, so to speak.  The chapeau to Chapter X was to specifically mention ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ but in the final hours it was deleted from Paragraph 120.  The Group had also sought to have it included in Paragraph 138© but in all the nipping and tucking that went with the trading exercise this paragraph was sacrificed and so was ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’.

In effect this means the US got its way in keeping that important principle out of Chapter X and restricting its import to broader sustainable development.  The US has always maintained that Rio Principles must remain rooted to environmental concerns and not be broadened in their application to the development dimension.   While the WSSD was all about reinvigorating Rio commitments, the marginalisation of this cross-cutting issue undermines the very core basis of the Rio Compact. 

The Principle is, however, mentioned in the Introduction in Paragraph 2 and in the section on ‘Changing unsustainable patterns of consumption and production’ in Paragraph 13.  (Contrast this with the insistence upon and successful reiteration of good governance in every single section of the Plan.) Fortuitously, the whole Principle is spelled out in Chapter IX on ‘Means of implementation’ that deals with trade, finance and technology.  This is reflective of the hard bargaining that went on deadlocking this issue till the very end of the Summit.

Good governance emphasised

As mentioned above and in keeping with the intent of the developed countries, good governance, particularly the references to human rights, rule of law and the emphasis on strong democratic governmental institutions, came into prominence in numerous paragraphs.

Paragraph 123 on good governance at the international level to ensure a dynamic and enabling international economic environment was an appeasement to G77 efforts to insist that there must be also an attempt to correct the existing global economic inequities. The Group managed to secure language ‘ensuring support for structural and macroeconomic reform, a comprehensive solution to the external debt problem and increasing market access for developing countries’ and even wording to sustain efforts ‘to reform the international financial architecture’ with greater transparency.  However, the more significant sentence that was in the original G77 proposal and which would have required the developed countries to adhere to their commitments for provision of financial and technical assistance to developing countries, including achieving the ODA (official development assistance) target of 0.7% of GNP, was carefully excised from that paragraph. So was the phrase ‘eliminating restrictive and trade-distorting practices’. These two elements could actually have made a substantial difference to developing countries in their efforts to implement sustainable development. Instead we are left with general wording that lacks concrete action, and lends nothing to move forward those critical issues of external debt and financial architecture reform.

There was intense debate and negotiations over the issue of ‘coherence’ among international inter-governmental institutions. The entire debate on synergies and inter-linkages between the World Trade Organisation (WTO), international financial institutions (IFIs) and multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) had been relegated to a Contact Group (smaller informal negotiating group) since the May PrepCom IV in Bali. The grand design of the developed countries, especially the US and EU, was towards ‘ensuring WTO consistency’ in any and all attempts to resolve trade, environment, development disputes or inconsistencies.  This matter was only resolved after much heated argument and following rigorous lobbying by several NGOs, including a silent demonstration outside the room where the EU members thrashed out their final position. The intervention of a few brave delegations - Ethiopia, Jamaica, Tuvalu and Norway - saved the day as everyone else then fell in line.  The result is that those paragraphs in Chapter X on institutions that originally dealt with this issue have been moved to Chapter IX (on implementation means) of the Plan of Implementation.  Paragraph 85 now reads: ‘Continue to enhance the mutual supportiveness of trade, environment and development with a view to achieving sustainable development through actions at all levels ...’ On the ongoing tussle between MEAs and the multilateral trade system, a truce appears to have been maintained, though the WTO work programme itself has actually taken the trade and environment issue further into the WTO realm for resolution. Paragraph 92 commits States to promote mutual supportiveness between the two, ‘consistent with sustainable development goals, in support of the work programme agreed through WTO, while recognising the importance of maintaining the integrity of both sets of instruments’.

No strengthening of UN’s role

By virtue of Paragraph 125, the UN General Assembly is to adopt sustainable development ‘as a key element of the overarching framework for UN activities’.

The UN Economic and Social Council’s (ECOSOC) role where it really mattered, namely in coordinating closely and linking in a sustained manner the follow-up of both the Summit outcomes and the Monterrey Consensus on Financing for Development, was subject to strenuous debate and a lot of linguistic gymnastics. The G77 argued that it was important for the WSSD to take the Monterrey implementation further so as to make links with sustainable development, and that ECOSOC should thus be responsible for the ‘monitoring of commitments’ made at that Financing for Development conference. However, the US insisted throughout the negotiations that Monterrey did not give a general review role to ECOSOC to monitor those commitments. 

The G77 expressed some concern that ECOSOC may end up reviewing Type II partnership arrangements that are voluntary. And so, ECOSOC now does not have a clear mandate to review progress in implementation of the Monterrey Consensus. It can only ensure there is a close link between its respective follow-up of the WSSD and Monterrey outcomes according to Paragraph 126(f).

As for the role and function of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), it remains the high-level commission (under ECOSOC) on sustainable development that serves as a forum for integration of the three dimensions (economic, social and environmental) although it is arguable if that function has ever been operationalised. The only enhancement of its role as set out in Paragraph 127 would ‘include reviewing and monitoring progress in the implementation of Agenda 21 and fostering coherence of implementation, initiatives and partnerships’.

A significant change in the modus operandi of the CSD is found in Paragraph 129(d) whereby it would ‘limit negotiations in the sessions of the Commission to every two years’. Also the CSD is mandated to ‘Limit the number of themes addressed in each session.’  This is stated in Paragraph 129(e).  Evidently, negotiations do not foster action. In order to facilitate implementation, the CSD should, as stipulated in Paragraph 130(b),  ‘Serve as a focal point for discussion of partnerships for sustainable development, including sharing lessons learned, progress made and best practices ...’  Since inter-governmental commitments are weak or too general to be meaningful, with partnerships potentially being a substitute (the US has made it clear that it considers partnerships to be the way forward, and accordingly can selectively choose its partners and fundees).

Despite constraints, in the past 10 years the CSD has provided a much needed platform for debating critical cross-cutting as well as sectoral issues and has thereby enhanced multilateral environmental negotiations. It will have to be seen how this mandate will be interpreted by the Secretariat and how the Type II partnerships play out.  In some ways, it is a new challenge and the onus will rest upon partnership initiators and their supporters to ensure they actually bring to bear what negotiations alone have not been able to achieve so far in terms of turning sustainable development from concept to action. It is going to be a delicate balancing act for the CSD.  How it manages its inter-sessional work programme will be a crucial test. Whether it will be equipped with requisite manpower and resources to carry out this job is also left to be seen.  It can only be hoped that the CSD’s other important role in assessing progress and identifying obstacles to the integration of the three pillars of sustainable development  is not altogether neglected as it takes on this added dimension and moves on to a new phase in its life. The next CSD session in 2003 will be an important time for developing countries to clearly shape the direction and priorities of the CSD.

Major role for Major Groups?

In Paragraph 121, the Objectives part of Chapter X states that  measures to strengthen sustainable development institutional arrangements should focus on  ‘Enhancing participation and effective involvement of civil society and other relevant stakeholders in implementation of Agenda 21, as well as promoting transparency and public participation ...’

Paragraph 131(b) urges the CSD to ‘provide for more direct and substantive involvement of international organisations and major groups in the work of the Commission’; while 131(d) mentions ‘Furthering the contribution of educators...’

Paragraph 143(d) calls upon Regional Commissions and other institutions and bodies to ‘Continue to promote multi-stakeholder participation...’

Paragraph 146(bis) states: ‘All countries should also promote public participation, including through measures that provide access to information regarding legislation, regulation, activities, policies and programmes. They should also foster full public participation in sustainable development policy formulation and implementation. Women should be able to participate fully and equally in policy formulation and decision-making.’

Paragraph 150:’Enhance partnerships between governmental and non-governmental actors, including all major groups, as well as volunteer groups, on programmes and activities for the achievement of sustainable development at all levels.’

Paragraph 153: ‘Promote and support youth participation in programmes and activities relating to sustainable development through, for example, supporting local youth councils or their equivalent, and by encouraging their establishment where they do not exist.’

All the above paragraphs in Chapter X impinge upon the now well recognised role and efforts of major groups in implementing sustainable development objectives.  The fact that this matter drew so much attention mirrors the priorities but the actual rules for engagement remain unclear. Despite a major push by the EU, the need to negotiate binding multilateral guidelines such as the Aarhus Convention was rejected.  All the same, this is one area where Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration is being taken a step further. However, the victory for civil society may prove to be a hollow one.

On the one hand, civil society may be painting itself into a corner by aligning with government, industry or both at the expense of their own independence.  On the other, these developments may well point the way forward to ensuring WSSD commitments are honoured by all parties. Either way, the time has come to address the actual methods by which effective engagement with civil society takes place. Current engagement strategies are varied and diverse among different organisations and between different agencies within the same organisation. Definitional, representivity, funding and capacity-building issues all have to be handled simultaneously if civil society is to make a real impact on implementation post-Johannesburg. However, it is clear that to be effective in achieving sustainable development, civil society organisations have three critical roles: to be a ‘watchdog’ on government and industry; providers of policy analysis and options; and direct implementers.

Corporate accountability

Language agreed to in the Bali PrepCom IV in Paragraph 122(f) is the only reference in Chapter X to corporate responsibility and accountability. It requires the international community to ‘Promote corporate responsibility and accountability and the exchange of best practices in the context of sustainable development, including, as appropriate, through multi-stakeholder dialogue, such as through the Commission on Sustainable Development, and other initiatives’.

Elsewhere in the text this issue presented negotiators with tremendous difficulties.  Paragraph 17 in Chapter III on ‘Changing unsustainable patterns of consumption and production’ spells out corporate social and environmental responsibility.

Then in Paragraph 45.ter, one of the ‘few bright spots in an otherwise disappointing WSSD’, we now have the commitment to ‘Actively promote corporate responsibility and accountability, based on the Rio Principles, including through the full development and effective implementation of inter-governmental agreements and measures, international initiatives and public-private partnerships, and appropriate national regulations, and support continuous improvement in corporate practices in all countries’.

This paragraph is a credit to the tireless campaigning by NGOs. It is regarded as a success because a coherent and democratic architecture for global governance must include binding regulation of multinational corporations and this paragraph refers to full development of inter-governmental agreements, a position close to NGO calls for a binding framework for corporate accountability, a move launched by Friends of the Earth International during the preparatory negotiations.

It must be emphasised that this victory was hard won and came during the last few hours of the Summit and that too after much drama and vehement objection by the US delegation that tried in vain to put its own twist to things by insisting that ‘full’ meant only ‘existing’ agreements. It was overruled through the insistence of Ethiopia and Norway.

Taken together and read as a whole, the WSSD’s Plan of Implementation has at least registered its displeasure of corporate corruption, cronyism and collusion.  Responding in part to public outcry against unfolding corporate scandals it remains to be seen if big business will actually be held accountable.  But the public pressure on governments and even the UN not to privatise sustainable development is strong and was amply displayed at Johannesburg.

Then again this must be balanced against the Type II partnerships and initiatives that have left the door wide open for the private sector to legitimately enter into partnerships for the provision of essential services to communities, even entire populations, as seen from the announcement of big business that the top corporations in the world will ‘adopt’ a number of least developed countries to ‘deliver’ development.


In the final analysis, Chapter X is very much a metaphor for the debate in other areas of the Plan of Implementation.  The general sense is that but for some small successes the Summit is one of great disappointments. It was the largest and most expensive UN-sponsored Summit. But the Plan of Implementation is toothless, lame even. It may as well be called the Plan for Inaction.  For many the algebraic formula WSSD = (Rio-10) + (Doha) seems an accurate enough description of both its process as well as its products. 

The real impact of the WSSD remains to be felt, lived and experienced.  But it is possible to elicit some trends and attitudinal shifts it is likely to influence. The prospects are not promising.  It is likely to fuel the now undeniable shift in political culture - one that can be paraphrased as ‘government (and international institutions) of business, by business, for business’. Indeed the WSSD may come to signify the turning point where the market began to be touted as the mechanism to correct government failures even as market failures are erupting, where governments began to be more subservient to markets, when governments themselves began to abdicate their protective roles and when the first death knells of multilateralism sounded, forcing the abandonment of global cooperative efforts to solve global problems. 

If the WSSD is not to be the summit that put an end to all summits, then civil society and governments have to forge the most important alliance of all - one that shapes a truly sustainable development agenda, implemented with strong commitments and institutions.