opinionBy Thabo Mbeki
Johannesburg — Summit could be a springboard to end global development's winter of discontent
AS OUR winter ends, the people of the world will gather in Johannesburg at the United Nations World Summit for Sustainable Development.
This massive event which is one of the most ambitious attempted in the world, but undertaken with confidence by democratic SA needs to answer a number of questions, practically.
One of these is whether it is possible for the rich and the poor in the world to share and pursue common objectives, for mutual benefit. Another is whether the rich are willing to agree that the priorities of the poor are also their priorities.
Yet another question is whether the rich will moderate their immediate material gratification, to protect the global environment as a public good for the benefit of present and future generations.
Another is whether the rich are ready to use the considerable means at their disposal to underwrite with actual resources the positive answers to these questions.
There are many in the world who believe the rich are unwilling to answer these questions in the affirmative. Some among these made their point forcefully and sometimes in a disturbing manner, in demonstrations at Seattle, Prague, Davos, Genoa and elsewhere.
They demand practical responses to deeply felt concerns. They will not be satisfied merely by good declarations, such as may emerge from the Johannesburg summit.
The daily hunger and human pain of the poor of the world also lead these billions to make the same demand. They ask that out of Johannesburg must come a real message of hope and not a mirage.
Those who have spoken out put on the credit side of their balance sheet the fact that the World Summit on Sustainable Development will be held on a continent that exemplifies the global challenge of poverty and underdevelopment that all humanity faces.
As a country that shares and is inspired by the potent and humanising feeling of hope, we agreed to host the summit. We were, and are, convinced that the people of the world are determined to achieve global sustainable development.
The balanced and successful combination of social, economic and environmental objectives constitutes the aim of sustainable development. These goals cannot be compartmentalised or separated one from the other. They are three sides of the same triangle.
The summit will be the culmination of determined efforts to confront critical issues facing humankind. These have been discussed since the Rio Earth summit of 1992 and beyond. Johannesburg stands at the apex of these global activities, which focused on building a better world for all.
These initiatives are represented by such conventions as the United Nations Millennium Summit, the Rome World Food Summit and the Monterrey Summit on development financing. They include the World Trade Organisation's Doha development round and the Group of Eight summit in Kananaskis, Canada.
At these conferences, the leaders of the countries of the world committed themselves to shared global prosperity, the eradication of poverty and underdevelopment, and sustainable development.
Given this build-up, the ordinary people of the world expect that out of Johannesburg will emerge a credible plan of action that is inclusive, relevant, practical and implementable. They expect this action programme will be expressive of a new and durable global partnership for human dignity and a healthy relationship between human beings and the natural world. They expect action now.
For its part, Africa as the host continent, will present its united view about itself in the form of Nepad, the New Partnership for Africa's Development. It will therefore speak of the imperative for its people to enter into a partnership among themselves, for peace, democracy, human rights, the rule of law and prosperity.
It will speak of the need for Africa to enter into a mutually beneficial partnership with the rest of the world. It will speak of a partnership involving governments, the private sector, the labour movement and civil society. It will speak of the requirement for mutual accountability within Africa and between Africa and the world.
Even as we hope that something new will come out of Johannesburg, we are mindful of what has happened globally since Rio 1992. Since 1990, every year, 10-million more people have joined the ranks of the poor. More than 1-billion fellow human beings remain undernourished. No fewer than 1,5-billion people live in water-scarce areas.
Every year fish stocks decline by about 660000 tons. Rising oceans increasingly threaten island states.
In some parts of Africa the desert is advancing by 10km a year. The gap between rich and poor continues to widen at a faster pace. Even as you read this, millions in southern Africa face death from famine, despite the existence of huge food stocks elsewhere in the world.
Johannesburg provides a rare opportunity, which will not come again soon. This is a time for all humanity and all leaders to get together, to engage in an historic act of creative human solidarity and intelligence, to build a truly peoplecentred, caring world community.
The banners that will soon adorn Johannesburg will proclaim people, planet, prosperity. Will they be the trumpet of a prophecy that heralds spring, or will they be mere banners flapping in the wind?
Mbeki is President of SA and inaugural African Union Chairman. He will be World Summit Chairman.