Mail & Guardian (Johannesburg)

South Africa: World Summit on Sustainable Development: Actions, Not Words, Count

Two weeks of intensive negotiations over the plan of action that governments will adopt at the World Summit on Sustainable Development ended earlier this month with substantial agreement on a wide range of issues that could boost efforts to fight poverty and protect the environment. However, the talks could not bridge differences on several key issues that will still have to be resolved at the summit.

The three-day negotiations, held in Bali, Indonesia, were the fourth and final preparatory committee (Prepcom) meeting in the lead-up to the World Summit in Johannesburg. More than 4 500 people from 173 countries, including over 100 ministers and a large NGO contingent, attended the Bali meeting.

The Bali deliberations, aimed at generating high-level political commitments for action at the World Summit, underscored the obstacles and challenges faced on the road to Johannesburg, where the summit will be held from August 26 to September 4.

The negotiations resulted in agreement on about 80% of a plan of action, yet disagreement over a series of contentious issues, particularly concerning trade and finance, foreclosed an opportunity to seal agreement on the plan.

Prepcom chairperson Emil Salim stressed there were still three months before the summit for governments to reconcile their positions. "Significant agreement has been achieved," he said. "We can expect Johannesburg to be a success."

The main areas of disagreement revolved around the trade and financing provisions of the plan -- the "economic platform" of the document. Developing countries insist that a poverty eradication strategy should not ignore the most important causes of poverty, among them unfair terms of trade and, in particular, the lack of market access for agricultural products from poor countries.

Developing countries also differed with the rich countries on the resourcing of the implementation plan. Developed countries wanted the plan to indicate who and how the good intentions would be financed.

"South Africa is of the view that a summit on sustainable development that has poverty eradication as its theme must deal with these questions," said Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism Mohammed Valli Moosa. "The donor-recipient model in which the rich give handouts to the poor does nothing for real economic development and is not a sustainable poverty eradication strategy.

"By allowing poor countries to sell their agricultural products in rich countries, one of the biggest obstacles to poverty will be eradicated. While aid is important and must be expanded, it is far more important for rich countries to do business with poor countries -- or at least to allow producers in poor countries a fair opportunity to compete with producers in rich countries."

The Bali negotiations brought to an end the 18-month-long preparatory process for the summit. But while the formal preparations are over, South Africa will continue with informal consultations over the remaining three months, Moosa added.

Speaking for the Group of 77 countries and China, which represents over 130 developing countries, Venezuelan Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources Ana Elisa Osario said, "We think it would have been better to finalise the agreement in Bali", but added that the Group was still hopeful complete agreement will be reached in Johannesburg.

Margot Wallström, the European Union's environment commissioner, said: "We have achieved a whole lot in Bali. I would have liked to see more progress -- but indeed, we did make progress."

A historic opportunity, the Johannesburg summit provides a chance for world leaders and representatives of citizen groups, business and governments to forge initiatives that will reduce the ranks of people living in poverty and address the relationship between human society and the natural environment.

"The agreements reached in Bali are substantial," said the United Nations summit secretary general, Nitin Desai. "They provide governments -- and citizen groups and businesses -- a firm foundation to plan action-oriented programmes and projects to achieve recognisable results that people can see.

"We now have agreement," Desai added, "on a plan of action for water and sanitation, energy, health, agriculture and biodiversity. We can still improve on the plan, but the real test ahead of us is not in the words of a document, but in the actions that are undertaken."

The plan of action will be one of the outcomes of the World Summit. World leaders will also adopt a political declaration, and new voluntary partnership initiatives by and between governments, the private sector and NGOs will be launched in an effort to mobilise implementation efforts.

"We are pleased there is now global consensus on the main framework for the summit," said Moosa. "It is becoming clearer that the outcome of the summit has the potential of constituting a message of hope to the world."

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