18 July 2002

Africa: US Inching Closer To Consensus on Sustainable Development Summit

Washington, DC — High-level officials from 27 nations who met in New York Wednesday at the urging of South African president Thabo Mbeki, say outstanding differences between developing nations and the U.S., Canada, Australia and other industrial countries could now be bridged at the upcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD).

"I left the meeting with the belief that there is no reason to believe we will not be able to finalize the outstanding issues when we get to Johannesburg," South African Environmental Affairs Minister, Valli Moosa, told allAfrica.com. "Of course, keep in mind we were not negotiating [here in New York] and sometimes the devil is in the details."

The WSSD will seek ways to reduce global poverty while protecting the environment and conserving the world's natural resources. Anxious to chair a smooth summit, Mbeki fostered creation of this "Friend of the Chair" gathering during the G8 summit in Kananaskis, Canada last month.

Developing nations have been pushing for financial specificity on development goals and for discussion on lowering trade barriers to expand market access. Developing nations also want targets established for dealing with sanitation and water. You cannot talk about "sustainable development" without tackling these issues, they say.

The U.S. and its allies, however, say this would reopen agreements reached at the World Trade Organization meeting in Doha, Qatar and the summit on financial development held in Monterrey, Mexico. "The US mantra was, 'no new targets'," said one South African official participating in the New York meeting. "We don't want to reopen the Doha consensus, but we do want a reference to this."

But both sides agree that "the tone has changed". The recent fourth WSSD "Preparatory Conference" that was held in Bali, Indonesia ended in bitter, unresolved dispute. The New York discussions "were characterized by a constructive attitude and demonstrated that there was sufficient flexibility in finding consensus on the outstanding differences," said South Africa's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Dumisani Kumalo in a statement, Thursday. "Everybody, those from the developed countries and we, ourselves, was displaying a new spirit of constructiveness which did not exist at Bali," said Valli Moosa. "It doesn't mean people agree, but it is a good sign," he added.

The New York meeting reaffirmed the principles of the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a decade ago, and "narrowed" the dialogue on timetables and targets. According to the South African UN Mission in its statement, agreements reached at Doha and Monterrey will not be reopened. "On trade and finance issues, there seemed to be a broad measure of agreement and the differences that remained seemed to be capable of resolution."

Meanwhile in Johannesburg the Pan African Conference of Civil Society Organizations has been meeting since Wednesday and says it is looking for alternatives to Nepad which South African President Thabo Mbeki wants adopted as the sustainable development program for Africa. A spokesperson for the group told Inter Press service that it will have a political declaration and program of action ready before the start of the WSSD.

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