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Joahannesburg Summit 2002
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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 underway.

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 issues.

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 ago.

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 done.

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 efforts.

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 the past."

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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24 August 2006