Wanted: Commitments and Action on Sustainable Development
New York, 28 January-It took several months to gather opinions and
recommendations from farmers, trade unions, community groups and business
leaders, but all of those suggestions on how to promote sustainable development
made their way to the United Nations today as the second session of the
Preparatory Committee for the World Summit on Sustainable Development got
In roundtable discussions, regional preparatory meetings and brainstorming
sessions, there has been virtual unanimity in the belief that Agenda 21, the
global plan for sustainable development, is still a solid framework for action,
but that efforts to implement it in the ten years since the 1992 Earth Summit
in Rio de Janeiro have not been satisfactory.
Many common themes have run through the discussions that were held at the local
or regional levels, according to PrepCom Chairman Emil Salim of Indonesia.
"Most of the participants are fed up with speeches that don't bring
results. We need doable programmes."
Rio was significant for setting the themes, he said, but "Johannesburg
must now have the substance-the beef."
The struggle for sustainable development has been an "uphill task,"
according to Summit Secretary-General Nitin Desai, in his opening address to
the PrepCom. "At each stage we go a little bit further up the hill, and at
Johannesburg, the goal is to make it up to the top."
The Rio Conference, he said, marked a move away from confrontation toward an
approach that sought to find common ground. It also marked a new phase in
international affairs, ushering in efforts to find consensus on programmatic
Among the "quite substantial" achievements of the last decade, Desai
said, is a new awareness, not just about the issues, but about how
environmental issues have to be dealt with in connection with development, and
not in isolation. Desai said that Rio also brought two new terms into common
policy usage - the first being the idea of "common but differentiated
responsibilities". This means that all countries have a responsibility to
work towards sustainability, but in different ways, according to their level of
development. The other term is the "precautionary principle", stating
that even if the long-term effects of a problem are uncertain, action cannot
wait until the effects are felt, for then it may be too late
"We must also recognize that we don't see the results on the ground,"
Desai said, whether in poverty reduction or environmental protection. Now that
the Doha WTO meeting has put development at the centre of the trade agenda, and
the Monterrey Conference on Finance for Development is putting development at
the centre of the finance agenda, Desai said the challenge for Johannesburg is
to put sustainable development at the centre of the development agenda.
In a report on implementing Agenda 21, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi
Annan confirmed that while Agenda 21 remains a powerful, long-term vision,
progress towards reaching the goals set at Rio has been slower than
anticipated, and in many ways conditions are worse than they were ten years
Yet while there is agreement that the process of putting Agenda 21 into
practice needs to be reinvigorated, and that there must be a departure from
business as usual, there is still a great deal of uncertainty over what
programmes and projects are needed, who will do them, and when they will be
In the regional meetings, representatives of government and civil society made
it clear that they wanted the Johannesburg Summit to concentrate on the
effective implementation of Agenda 21, accelerating progress towards poverty
eradication efforts, and addressing new realities such as globalization and the
spread of HIV/AIDS. There were also many calls to strengthen the international
system so that it could promote sustainable development more effectively.
The PrepCom is the next step towards Johannesburg. Through 8 February,
representatives of governments and all the other major stakeholders in civil
society will participate in discussions that attempt to chart a course of
action. There is already a consensus forming around the idea that partnerships,
between any combination of stakeholders, will be vital for any implementation
Disappointment over efforts so far to implement sustainable development was
evident at a brainstorming session held on 16-17 January. Iran, speaking for
the Group of 77, representing over 130 developing countries, said that since
Rio, 66 countries have become poorer, the environmental situation is becoming
worse, and that levels of assistance have decreased. "We should address
the root causes of non-compliance with Agenda 21. I don't want to be paranoid,
but we need to tackle the realities. We should not repeat the experiences of
To move the sustainable development agenda forward, the Secretary-General, in
his report, offered a Ten-Point Plan suggesting the issues that must be
tackled. The ten points include globalization, poverty eradication, changing
unsustainable patterns of consumption and production, health, energy, managing
ecosystems and biodiversity, freshwater, finance and technology, initiatives
for Africa, and international governance for sustainable development.
Desai said the Ten-Point Plan was an attempt to see what actions could
realistically be taken at the local, regional and global levels to strengthen
sustainable development. "The main challenge," he felt, "is to
secure the political commitment to undertake practical steps in
partnerships." He said that the preparatory process for Johannesburg must
provide "a clear sense of what we're going to do together."
Decisions, he said, must be made on how implementation would proceed, and what
the structure of international cooperation will look like.
Dr. Salim, Chairman of the Preparatory Committee, said that he was encouraged
by the preparations of the major groups. "We're past the notion that
implementation of sustainable development rests only on the desk of
governments. It also rests with the stakeholders."
There was, however, concern over who should monitor the partnerships. Several
developing countries suggested that the responsibility for implementing
sustainable development rests solely with governments, while developed
countries stressed the need for the private sector to play a major role.
The idea of promoting partnerships has gained support. At the brainstorming
session, which was an unofficial discussion, the United States said major
efforts should be made during the preparatory process leading up to
Johannesburg to "forge coalitions of the willing," or partnerships
among various sectors of society. "We're used to negotiating text, but
maybe there is another model. Maybe we can conceptualize the role of government
in another way, as a galvanizer to forge coalitions."
Any initiatives that are agreed upon will require resources, which have been
sorely lacking over the last decade. While developing countries have called for
increases in official development assistance, at least so that donor countries
honor the 0.7 per cent of GNP commitment, representatives of some donor
countries say that is unrealistic.
Salim said the Summit had to provide the incentives for attracting resources.
"If the programmes are right, the money will follow," he said. Noting
that the European Union mentioned that they were working toward the goal of 0.7
per cent for ODA, Salim said that programmes, such as for poverty eradication,
must have "sex appeal" to taxpayers in developed countries.
"There has to be proper resource management and there should be a
programme approach that makes it attractive to raise resources," he said.
"We don't need high-flying rhetoric. We need doable, deliverable
programmes that are effective and measurable."
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Department of Economic and
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24 August 2006