A lost opportunity

Published : Sep 14, 2002 00:00 IST

Hijacked by global corporate interests, the Summit fails to address issues of poverty and sustainable development.

IT was a historic opportunity for the over 10,000 non-governmental organisations and civil society groups gathered at the World Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD) to pressure governments around the world to join hands against global corporations, whose interests the big powers push, leaving in the lurch billions of poor and vulnerable people whom the Summit hoped to protect. But that was not to be, mainly because of the fissures and fractions within the civil society groups.

It was ironic that the Summit was held in Johannesburg's Sandton city, which is a mere five-minute drive from the squalor and poverty of Alexandria. A reminder of South Africa's painful past, Johannesburg's landscape evidenced visible scars of resource extraction for over a 100 years. It also reminded one of a globalised world built on the foundations of imperial conquests and colonial domination, which continue to define the contours of poverty and underdevelopment. The colonised countries are now free but are virtually under siege by developed countries, which are using globalisation as a sort of Trojan horse for their economic subjugation.

And the Summit said it all. It was a complete take-over by trade and business interests (over 1,000 major global corporations were represented at the WSSD). The message was loud and clear: "Global corporations would provide the solutions for a sustainable world." Undermining governments and the process of multilateralism, the Summit effectively narrowed the space for the involvement by civil society. Why has this happened?

The search for solutions to sustainable development is taking place within a globalising world, which has brought about a significant change in the modus operandi of capitalism. Perhaps the most important of these changes is the transition from an international to a transnational mode of the world economy. This is reflected in the growing importance of transnational institutions, including the corporations and global financial agencies.

At the same time, politics has also been fundamentally reshaped. For instance, the collapse of the socialist bloc resulted in the emergence of a unipolar world. The 1980s also saw the emergence of the debt crisis of developing countries as also the economic crisis of state-led import substitution projects, particularly in Africa.

At the same time, in developed countries monopoly companies, particularly transnational corporations, were setting the globalisation agenda. These corporations had the potential to determine the economic, social and environmental policies of governments throughout the world. This situation was backed by a system where developed countries were driving and shaping the process of globalisation in a manner that suited their national interests and those of the global corporations. This undermined progressive movements across the world.

After Rio, in contrast to the sluggish move by the governments, civil society organisations assumed a significant role and formed part of the multi-stake holder meetings that provided them entry into the official negotiations. Over time, as the number of NGOs exploded in many countries, opposition groups often benefited from the legitimacy acquired in Rio. Interestingly, at the WSSD, several government delegations, including India's, had representatives from NGOs.

Different shades of NGOs and civil society groups were represented at the WSSD - from those that strive to protect the poor and the vulnerable to big corporate groups bending over backwards to showcase a green image, to the innumerable religious groups highlighting peace as a fundamental prerequisite to sustainable development. There were NGOs with genuine concern for the poor and the environment. But their numbers were small.

There were NGOs within the United Nations negotiating process - a legacy of the 1992 Rio Conference. They were part of one or more of the major groups identified by Agenda 21 at Rio. But there were NGOs outside the U.N. process too, both accredited and non-accredited. The major groups operated from seven venues. This itself brought out the fractured nature of the civil society groups. For instance, the rich and global NGOs, such as the World Resources Institute, the International Development and Research Centre, the IUCN, Greenpeace, the WWF and the Consumer International, as also multinational corporations such as Ericsson, Bayer, Unilever, BMW, Chevron and British Petroleum were at Ubuntu village (5 km from the main convention centre), paying $6,000 for 6 sq m of space. The small and poorer NGOs that work at the grassroots with the people were at the Global Civil Society Forum at Nasrec (25 km from the main venue), paying $660 for 6 sq m. There were also those working specifically on issues concerning water resources at Water Dome (15 km from the main venue). The Forum of Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development; the Trade Union Summit; the Business Forum; and Global Judges Symposium operated from different venues. The more radical NGOs, representing anti-globalisation and the movements for landless people, were at the Global Indaba, 3 km from Nasrec.

The civil society groups, which were part of the nine major groups and the 16 caucuses negotiating within the NGO process were tired and exasperated seeing the language of the text being diluted progressively. All of them felt that the World Trade Organisation and issues relating to trade took over other issues at the WSSD. Said an exasperated Shiney Varghese, co-chair of the fresh water caucus: "We have to look for answers outside the WSSD process. It has to come from people and people's movements." Those working within the U.N. process were bitterly against the Type- II initiatives which, they said, led to governments abdicating their responsibilities and handing on a platter to the corporates the work of sustainable development. But it is ironical that not all NGOs share this view. Some major NGOs were already negotiating for partnership ventures.

Partnership per se is not bad. But, if it helps governments to abdicate their responsibility, there is a strong case against such initiatives, which are non-binding and self-monitored. At best, they must substitute Type-I initiatives and not replace them.

The WSSD organisers also made things difficult for the civil society movement. For instance, the NGO entry to the main venue was restricted (1,500 during the days before the arrival of the Heads of State, and 200 after their arrival). Under the Regulations of Gatherings Act (1983), no protests and demonstrations were allowed, except on August 31, when with permission major civil society groups took out three marches from Alexandria to Sandton city. Major civil society groups were kept far away from the main venue.

As Samuel P. Huntington in his book, The Clash of Civilisations, notes: "Global political and security issues are effectively settled by a directorate of the United States, Britain and France, world economic issues by a directorate of the United States, Germany and Japan to the exclusion of lesser and largely non-Western countries. Decisions made at the U.N. Security Council or in the IMF [International Monetary Fund] that reflect the interests of the West are presented to the world as reflecting the desires of the world community. The very phrase 'the world community' has become the euphemistic collective noun to give global legitimacy to actions reflecting the interests of the United States and other Western powers." This neatly sums up the outcome of the WSSD and the fracture within the civil society groups.

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