Mail & Guardian (Johannesburg)

South Africa: Summit: A New Cooperation

The challenge of the Johannesburg Summit will be to implement sustainable development on a much larger scale

"It is time to take the road not taken," says Nitin Desai, the World Summit secretary general. "It is time to try new approaches that can improve the lives of everyone without destroying the environment. If we try, we have everything to gain and nothing to lose."

Desai was talking this week in the run-up to negotiations at the fourth summit preparatory committee meeting in Bali, Indonesia, where the international community will hammer out details of exactly what must be done.

In a mark of the importance of the Bali negotiations, official delegations will be represented at the ministerial level in an effort to achieve the political consensus that will be endorsed by the world leaders attending the Johannesburg Summit.

The summit will be one of the largest gatherings of world leaders ever held. It is expected to provide the impetus for specific actions that will comprise a major departure from business as usual, towards a new approach to development that recognises the interdependency of economic growth, social development and environmental protection.

The framework for sustainable development was agreed to by all countries at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Yet in the 10 years since Rio the cumulative results of efforts to put it into action have been far from satisfactory. Most of the objectives of Agenda 21, the action plan for sustainable development that was adopted in Rio, have not been met.

"We have to implement sustainable development on a grander scale," says Desai. "We have to move beyond a fragmented, ad hoc and pilot-programme type of approach. We have to think big and go to scale, so that we can start to see the pay-off, in economic, social and environmental terms, that sustainable development can bring us."

Resources may already be available to make things happen. At the recent Financing for Development conference in Mexico, many countries, and in particular the European Union and the United States, committed themselves to an additional $30-billion in development aid through 2006.

"If we can come up with a good programme of action, there is money for new initiatives to confront challenges such as the need for safe drinking water and sustainable energy," says Desai.

The Bali meeting will start with informal negotiations from May 24 to 26, and then continue with the official discussions from May 27 to June 7.

Some 6 000 participants are expected to attend, including 140 countries with a total of more than 400 ministerial-level delegates. The Bali prepcom is expected to result in a negotiated implementation document and elements of a political declaration that will be endorsed by the heads of state and governments that attend the summit in Johannesburg.

Negotiations on the outcome of the Johannesburg Summit continue to prove challenging, and at two previous preparatory meetings held in New York this year, participants in the process worked to hone in on the areas where action is essential. These areas include reducing poverty, preserving natural ecosystems and resources, expanding access to clean water, improved sanitation and electricity, changing harmful patterns of consumption and production, and focusing special attention on Africa.

In a major departure from previous conferences, the World Summit is expected to result in the announcement of new partnership initiatives aimed at achieving results. While not a substitute for government responsibilitie s, the new partnerships offer an opportunity for all groups, whether governments, businesses or citizen organisations, to add enthusiasm and know-how to push implementation efforts forward.

"What I want is an action plan of deliverables," said Emil Salim of Indonesia, chairperson of the World Summit's preparatory committee. "The question is, do we want a cleaner world and a better world, or do we want business as usual?" he asks. "If we continue as we have done in the past, we will sink."

Along with government delegates, the Bali prepcom will bring more than 1 000 business leaders, local government officials and representatives of citizen groups and NGOs together. An unofficial People's Forum is being organised at a nearby venue by Indonesian NGOs.

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