World Summit on Sustainable Development

by Lindsay Cole

The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) was held in Johannesburg, South Africa from August 26 to September 4, 2002. It marked the largest gathering of its kind in history, and was intended to develop a plan to implement the agreements made at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Sixty-five thousand representatives from around the world–non-governmental organizations, business and industry, women, farmers, indigenous peoples, landless people, trade unionists, state governments (including over 100 heads of state), youth and children–were there. So was I.

The purpose of the WSSD was to address sustainable development in all of its immensity. In actuality, though, issues like poverty alleviation, access to food, basic education, health care, clean water and sanitation, and development a la trade liberalization, dominated the agenda. Sustainable development means effectively integrating environmental and socioeconomic concerns in a balanced and equitable fashion, and as a global community we are still a long way away from such a thing. Perhaps this is a reflection of the current divide between the experiences of the global south and the global north–or in other words, the gap between the immediate, life-threatening realities of the worlds' poor and the relative 'luxury' that is everyday life for those of us in (over)developed countries. Perhaps it is also a reminder that a Summit about essentially everything cannot possibly address it all in 10 days of meetings.

So, was this biggest gathering of government and civil society in the history of the United Nations a historic occasion, or a waste of precious time and money? This is not an easy question to answer, but I would like to offer a few reflections that perhaps help us to better understand what this Summit was really about.

Disconnections Between Political and Global Realities

The nature of the WSSD gathering illustrates this disconnection clearly. Sixty-five thousand people travelled, primarily by airplane, from all over the world to attend the Summit, not to mention the four preparatory meetings in the year preceding the WSSD. Canada alone sent over 200 delegates, and it is but one country with a relatively small population. The ecological impacts of the WSSD were immense–yet our political leaders did not recognize this irony. Instead they continued classic debates on climate change, and prevented the establishment of a new target for global renewable energy supply.

The official proceedings were held in the Sandton Convention Center, in the community of Sandton, the wealthiest community in South Africa, perhaps even on the entire African continent. The Sandton Convention Center consists of flashy five star hotels and a large shopping mall that had to be traversed in order to go anywhere. Delegates were seen purchasing everything imaginable, including South African cultural treasures, from the primarily white, wealthy and privileged shop owners.

Just outside the gates of Sandton, only one kilometre away, more than 460,000 people were crammed into the Township of Alexandria, measuring only three square miles. This community is built out of scraps of tin, wood, and cardboard, has raw sewage running through the streets, and has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS infection in South Africa. Not surprisingly, black people are the majority in this community.

This divide–racial, socioeconomic, power, privilege–was expressed during the WSSD through a global day of action organized by the Landless Peoples' Movement and the unions of South Africa. About 15,000 people came together to protest the absence of certain voices at the WSSD–those of black South Africans, and indeed most of the worlds' poor. The march began deep in the heart of Alexandria and wound its way through the streets of the township. Alexandrians lined the streets, waving any colourful thing they could, in support of the marchers. Eventually the crowd crossed a highway–the dividing line between Alexandria and Sandton–and finished the march at the Speakers Corner, set up at a safe distance from the WSSD delegates. The march was about 10 kilometres long and took about 5 hours to complete–for those of us who were lucky enough to stay at the conference center afterward. The majority of people then had to turn around and walk the 10 kilometres back home.

So why, in a meeting focused on sustainable development, did we ignore our current climate crisis and host a mega-summit? Why did we choose to inject all the money generated by the conference into an already rich, already privileged, already healthy white community? How are the worlds' key decision-makers supposed to make decisions on behalf of the worlds' poor when we isolate–and even protect–ourselves from experiencing first-hand their daily realities?

This Summit marked the first time that business and industry leaders from around the globe attended a meeting about sustainable development in large numbers. Some saw this as a great leap toward partnerships for sustainability. Others saw a clear indication that business had, once again, taken over the global political agenda. As an example of how this shift affected Canada's process, our official delegation included over 30 representatives from business and industry, upon the special request of the Prime Minister and the Minister of Environment. This was balanced with only four representatives from non-governmental organizations and two young people.

Some say that the Summit was bought–corporate logos, displays, events and sponsorships were everywhere. Others say that the Summit was sold–that political leaders opened the door to the business community and invited them in with open arms.

Some others (I would argue the more innovative ones) began to more fully explore the idea of partnering with the business community in areas where they had common goals. One interesting example of this was a joint press conference held by Greenpeace International and the World Business Council on Sustainable Development. They joined forces to urge governments to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and enforce it as soon as possible. Both parties were clear that this partnership was to be a short-lived and very specific one, but the fact that they found common ground and acted on it publicly was noteworthy.

Accountability and Implementation

The Canadian government came home from the WSSD feeling that they had won. They battled hard for the protection of human rights and women's access to health care and they succeeded. These particular issues were contentious, and were the last to be resolved, in the middle of the night and at the last possible opportunity to reach international consensus. However, the resolutions did not make any new progress on these issues; they only prevented backsliding from previous internationally negotiated agreements.

This is representative of the entire Plan of Implementation produced as the main outcome of the Summit. What kind of world is it when we congratulate ourselves for fighting a good fight to maintain the status quo? And given that the mandate of global governments for the WSSD was to develop a plan to implement sustainable development objectives on an international scale, how can we feel that we won when this mandate was not fulfilled?

This was a shallow success in the broader scope of things–and somewhere, that broader scope got lost. Politicians and their negotiators were not held accountable to the mandate that they were given. They resigned themselves to a mediocre outcome of the Biggest Show on Earth, even though they seemed largely dissatisfied with their own work. Instead of reassessing and shifting the trajectory of the negotiation process at one of the early Preparatory Committee meetings, they blindly continued to negotiate for negotiations' sake. There was no political leadership, no innovation, no willingness to move beyond firmly held positions and into creative solutions, and no appetite to actually move the world toward sustainability.

Citizen Engagement

In Canada there was a pseudo-engagement of citizens throughout the WSSD preparatory processes. The Canadian government held a series of national consultations intended to determine the positions that the public wanted Canada to take to the international arena. These consultations were largely predetermined–we were forced to comment on already established positions even though they were not deemed priorities at any of the consultations. Positions did not change once the consultation process was complete.

Canada also established a National Report Reference Group made up of prominent members of civil society and First Nations peoples. We convened to write the report on Canada's progress on sustainable development since the Rio Earth Summit, with the assistance of an outside consulting firm. The plan was to then submit this report directly to the UN, without it being filtered by the upper echelons of government. A very innovative and exciting idea indeed, and it produced a very fair, balanced, and good report. It fell apart, however, when the civil society report disappeared for four months with no explanation as to where it had gone. It eventually re-emerged as a completely different, politicized version that went directly into the UN system. The consulting firm subsequently removed their name from the report, and the National Report Reference Group demanded a formal apology and that they not be associated with the final product.

At the WSSD, there was much celebration of global civil society organizations and their successes at meeting sustainable development objectives. Many realize that the real on-the-ground implementation happens in our communities, in our businesses, and in our daily lives–not by international political processes. So why, then, does civil society continue to be marginalized by state and international government processes like this, when our role in implementing sustainable development is so clearly vital? How can trust be built between government and non-government actors when the former continually takes advantage of and doesn't respect the latter? How can trust be built when there is no sense of government accountability to the public in processes like these? Those doing what is arguably the real work all over the world deserve much more than mere lip service paid to their efforts.

What Now?

I was a young, idealistic and hopeful person at the beginning of this World Summit on Sustainable Development process. I was excited about the potential embodied in the goals of the Summit, and excited to be a part of it. I played the political game–went to consultations, wrote position papers, engaged in the government delegation. I think I lost, somehow. I became disillusioned and distressed about our global apathy and inaction. I lost my taste for the glamour of the Biggest Show on Earth.

However, I have learned that, for me, the real work happens at home in our communities and in our nation. Global consensus making is messy at the best of times. That said, it is necessary for building common understanding, for resolving issues affecting all global citizens, and for making international plans of action. For me, though, it is simply too slow and tedious.

This is an important lesson to learn, and I am grateful for having had the opportunity to do so. And who knows, if another global summit on sustainable development happens in ten years, I may be ready to give it another try.

* Lindsay Cole went to the WSSD as a youth advisor to the Canadian government on the official delegation. She is currently working on her Masters degree, and lives in Gibsons, BC. Sponsored by Friends of Cortes Island Sustainability Education Fund

[From WS December 2002/ January 2003]


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