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Joahannesburg Summit 2002
What's New
  FEATURE STORY

The Johannesburg Summit Test: What Will Change?


New York, 25 September— When the United Nations General Assembly authorized holding the World Summit on Sustainable Development, it was hardly a secret— or even a point in dispute— that progress in implementing sustainable development has been extremely disappointing since the 1992 Earth Summit, with poverty deepening and environmental degradation worsening. What the world wanted, the General Assembly said, was not a new philosophical or political debate but rather, a summit of actions and results.

By any account, the Johannesburg Summit has laid the groundwork and paved the way for action. Yet among all the targets, timetables and commitments that were agreed upon at Johannesburg, there were no silver bullet solutions to aid the fight against poverty and a continually deteriorating natural environment. In fact, there was no magic and no miracle— only the realization that practical and sustained steps were needed to address many of the world's most pressing problems.

As an implementation-focused Summit, Johannesburg did not produce a particularly dramatic outcome— there were no agreements that will lead to new treaties and many of the agreed targets were derived from a panoply of assorted lower profile meetings. But some important new targets were established, such as: to halve the proportion of people without access to basic sanitation by 2015; to use and produce chemicals by 2020 in ways that do not lead to significant adverse effects on human health and the environment; to maintain or restore depleted fish stocks to levels that can produce the maximum sustainable yield on an urgent basis and where possible by 2015; and to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction in the current rate of loss of biological diversity.

But Johannesburg also marked a major departure from previous UN conferences in many ways, in structure and in outcome, that could have a major effect on the way the international community approaches problem solving in the future.

"The question is, will Johannesburg make a genuine difference?" asked Summit Secretary-General Nitin Desai. "That has to be the test for an implementation conference."

For the first time, outcome documents were not the sole product of the Summit. While the negotiations still received the lion's share of attention, the Summit also resulted in the launch of more than 300 voluntary partnerships, each of which will bring additional resources to support efforts to implement sustainable development. These partnerships, tied to the government commitments, provide a built-in mechanism to ensure implementation.

And there was a new level of dialogue in Johannesburg between all the stakeholders, especially between governments, civil society and the private sector. Beyond speeches and platitudes, the participants in the Summit were forced to confront the needs and the arguments of other actors in a truly interactive dialogue.

"Johannesburg gives us a solid basis for implementation and action to go forward," Desai said. "Although the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation is only some 50 pages long, in many ways it is more targeted and more focused than Agenda 21. We have agreed on global priorities for action and we have agreed to take action."
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the press on the last day of the Summit, "I think we have to be careful not to expect conferences like this to produce miracles. But we do expect conferences like this to generate political commitment, momentum and energy for the attainment of the goals."

Commitments were made in Johannesburg— on expanding access to water and sanitation, on energy, improving agricultural yields, managing toxic chemicals, protecting biodiversity and improving ecosystem management— not only by governments, but also by NGOs, intergovernmental organizations and businesses, who launched over 300 voluntary initiatives.

Follow-through on these commitments will be the yardstick of success or failure, according to Mr. Annan. "We invited the leaders of the world to come here and commit themselves to sustainable development, to protecting our planet, to maintaining the essential balance and to go back home and take action. It is on the ground that we will have to test how really successful we are. But we have started off well. Johannesburg is a beginning. I am not saying Johannesburg is the end of it. It is a beginning."

By any indication, there was substantial interest in the Summit. One hundred world leaders addressed the Summit and all in all, more than 22,000 people participated in WSSD, including more than 10,000 delegates, 8,000 NGOs and representatives of civil society, and 4,000 members of the press.

"We knew from the beginning of the Johannesburg process that the Summit would not produce any new treaties or any single momentous breakthrough," Desai said. "But the results of the Summit have been far more comprehensive than any previous outcome. We have put together not only a work plan, but we have identified the actors who are expected to achieve results."

"People forget that there was no agreement on energy at Rio and issues such as production and consumption almost did not make it into Agenda 21, and— although it did— it was only a very general statement. At Johannesburg, we agreed on a 10-year programme on production and consumption, a concept that not only will affect the developing countries, but the development of the richer countries as well."

"We have also achieved a high level of specificity in the outcome document, particularly with regards to the targets and timetables," Desai said. "I know some may have wanted more, but fulfilling these commitments will require new and additional resources."

Desai also cited the partnerships as an important outcome of the Summit. "One of our major challenges is making sustainable development go to scale, to make something that has worked in a dozen places work in a thousand places." Desai said the partnerships offer a way to get away from the donor-driven frameworks of the past, and allow representatives from developed and developing countries to sit down together to formulate plans when something has to be done.

"For those of you who have worked in developing countries, you are always at the receiving end of prescriptions and conditionalities. We need a shared programmatic structure framework and the partnerships help meet this need."

"Some people have said that the partnerships are corporate-led," Desai said. "This is not true. The vast majority are led by non-governmental and intergovernmental organizations. But even if there is corporate involvement, that is not a bad thing. We will not be credible if we don't have the participation of business. We need to bring the energy of corporations into our agenda if we are going to make good on our commitments."

Desai warned, however, that the partnerships were not a substitute for government responsibilities and commitments and that the partnerships are solely intended to deepen the quality of implementation.

Not everyone was pleased with the outcome of Johannesburg, particularly some NGOs who felt the Summit did not go far enough in setting targets for increasing the use of renewable energies. Jonathan Lash, World Resources Institute President, said, "We have missed an opportunity to increase energy production from non-polluting sources like solar, biomass, and wind, and to provide the many companies taking action to reduce emissions with a secure framework for their actions."

But Lash noted, "This Summit will be remembered not for the treaties, the commitments, or the declarations it produced, but for the first stirrings of a new way of governing the global commons — the beginnings of a shift from the stiff formal waltz of traditional diplomacy to the jazzier dance of improvisational solution-oriented partnerships that may include non-government organizations, willing governments and other stakeholders," said Lash.

From governments, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who is currently President of the European Union, said, "The conference has concluded a global deal recommending free trade and increased development assistance and had committed to good governance as well as a better environment." He added, "Now the time has come for implementation, at the national and international levels. It is time to deliver."

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Chairman of the Group of 77— which represents 132 developing countries — said he would have liked the Summit to achieve much more. Because of time restraints, he said, the generalities that had been set out could be seen as retrograde. He would have preferred emphasis on human rights, such as the right to housing, health, drinking water, life.

Small Island Developing States (SIDS) had also hoped for more. Julian Hunt, Minister of International Trade and Civil Aviation of Saint Lucia, speaking on behalf of SIDS, said that small islands needed more help to confront the trade aspects of globalization, and that efforts to promote the use of renewable energy were frustrated by multinationals who demand a quick return on their investment.

United States Secretary of State Colin Powell called the Summit a "successful effort." He said, "I think it shows that we have a shared vision of how to move forward. I think it shows that the world is committed to sustainable development. He added, however, that the real challenge "is not just what is said in the statement, but the actions that will take place in the months and years ahead."

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24 August 2006