22 May 2002

Africa: Development Summit Aims to Mark Turning Point


Johannesburg — Jonathan Katzenellenbogen spoke to Nitin Desai, the top UN official working on the agenda of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, to be held in Johannesburg from August 26 to September 4.

WHAT is sustainable development?

The one famous definition of sustainable development from the Brundtland Report in 1987 is "meeting the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs".

But I find it does not get to grips with how you do things differently.

We have tended to presume that there is one policy that you follow for economic growth and another you follow to take care of environmental consequences and a third policy that you follow to take care of poverty, and others for promoting education and primary health care. Sustainable development says that is not good enough, as there are connections, and you really have to look at a package.

Why do you need a summit of world heads of state to make headway on these issues?

The reason is that most of these things require action which has to be initiated at the very top, because what we are talking about are things which will connect different government departments and different international organisations.

Why has Kofi Annan, the United Nations (UN) secretary-general, said the summit should focus on what he says are the strategic issues or "WEHAB" water, the environment, health, agriculture and biodiversity?

We will clearly have to have an important energy transition, because if you simply extrapolate the way we use energy today we know that is not sustainable. We have a major issue when it comes to water and sanitation. About two thirds of the world's people are living in water scarce areas. We have to worry about the health and environment connection. Health is not simply a matter of delivering medicines. A lot of it depends on better water and sanitation, air quality, and management of chemicals. We have to talk about agricultural productivity because without that you are not going to get food security and for that matter you are not going to be able to address problems of poverty because 70% of the world's poor live in the rural areas of the third world. And you have to worry about ecosystem management, because in the long term your prospects of sustainability will depend on that.

What are the key differences ahead of the summit?

The differences are not so much in terms of recognising these as strategic issues, but what it is that is do-able in the immediate future. The outcome clearly depends on how we get together the corporate sector, the trade unions, the co-operatives, the farmers, and others who have a capacity. Corporations are talking about the triple bottom line more and more the economic, social, and the environmental aspects. I hope the summit will mean that this is the accepted way in which corporations behave.

What about the way governments behave, how is the summit going to put pressure on governments that need to change their ways?

Desai: In some ways initiatives like the New Partnership for Africa's Development, Nepad, have shown the way. Nepad quite clearly puts governance initiatives on the table and says this is part of the deal. These are issues that are recognised more and more. That is why at the UN Financing for Development Conference we have a commitment to a global convention on corruption.

What will come out of the summit in hard terms?

We have definite proposals on energy for instance, to reach the 2-billion or so people who are outside the modern energy system; I hope we can reach agreement on transitions to renewable energy, and energy efficiency.

What specific projects will come out of the summit?

There are three types of initiatives. One is those that governments themselves wish to launch. Then there are initiatives of the corporate sector. For instance, the biggest electricity utilities in the world and the biggest motor car companies are working on initiatives. And civil society is working on others. Our job is to focus on those which are simultaneously addressing the social, environmental, and the economic dimensions.

One hundred years from now, why will this summit mark a turning point?

Perhaps we should answer that question on September 4. But if we succeed at all of the things we are aiming, then we could say yes we did initiate the key transitions at this summit.

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