Vol.2 No.23, 11 September 2002

The Summit Bell Tolls for Business as Usual

By Margaret Legum

The genie is out of the bottle. The Johannesburg Summit let it out and it cannot be stuffed back again. The world was told how serious the poverty and ecological situation is, and who is keeping it that way. The media at least in South Africa and Europe reported the opposition to the status quo at least as much as they reported the governments who keep it in place. That is a first. All other international conferences, dominated as always by the G8, have been reported as if the mainstream line is obviously broadly correct and the opposition something of a rabble.

For that reason the Summit was by no means ‘a failure’ the usual tabloid exaggeration. First, contrary to the usual cynical expectations, it was extremely well organised including the imaginative lengths to which it went to limit its own ecological damage. The ‘greening of the conference’ was an eye-opener in terms of what can be re-cycled and renewed. South Africans should be proud of that.

Second, there was never any chance of a final declaration that set realistic targets about the use of dirty fuels, fish re-stocking, poverty alleviation and the regulation of corporate environmental activity. That is because the American government is unable and unwilling to control its corporate, and especially its oil, sector. So we were always going to have either no agreement, or a wishy-washy agreement unless of course the Americans left, as they did from the Racism conference last year.

The Americans have a vision of how the world economy should operate that is inconsistent with rapid movement to renewable energy sources and with poverty alleviation. And on each individual issue except perhaps water and sanitation, which did achieve time-targeted agreement - they were able to garner allies among some other governments. Many of those rule poor countries, victims of the American vision, but apparently too dependent upon American support to defy them. So an agreement binding all governments to actions that seriously tackle environmental renewal and an end to poverty was never a realistic hope.

So where do we go from here? Awareness of the problems is much higher; but governments are lagging. The way ahead lies through tackling issues at many levels. If the last thirty years have seen the triumph of multinational corporations and the unregulated global markets, the next will be the decades of the environmentalists and the regionalists. Both will draw heavily upon civil society, the guardians of society’s value systems. Economics will become once again value-based, human-centred, judged by what it does for people and not products and statistics.

In practice this will mean a new boost for local economic regeneration projects that build on local consent to use local people’s potential and local resources to create local economies in which money circulates locally. That should go some way towards restoring food security. We are miles from accepting that in principle food should be locally produced and consumed, rather than traded; but we can at least move in that direction.

To do that we can use local and regional governments, while national governments remain muscle-bound in the grip of international mandates. Former President Gorbachev is reported to be linking with city mayors including our own Obed Mlaba of Durban to ‘declare our planet in danger and accuse the self-interest politics of ‘business as usual’ pursued by governments’. The initiative is a reminder that it was local governments and cities that, in the late 1990s, scuppered the notorious Multilateral Agreement on Investment, which would have delivered every country into the hands of international investors, and no questions asked.

But the context is still toxic. It can continue to undermine local initiatives. The American-led international regime of footloose capital, investor rights and trade deregulation is still the dominant force. It inevitably centralises economic activity, creates unemployment and limits democratic accountability of governments. And it is enforced through the justiciable rules of the World Trade Organisation.

President Bush says: ‘If you are serious about poverty, you should be serious about trade.’ But there is no real chance that the Americans or indeed the Europeans will voluntarily give up their trade-distorting subsidies, especially but not only, on agriculture. Unless there are rules the breaching of which will entail sanctions, how can a democratic leader propose measures that will disadvantage their electorate in close-fought elections. Where is the evidence that this has ever happened?

At the Summit Colin Powell rejected the idea of a rule-based International Institute for Sustainability, to make enforceable sustainability rules. It would monitor economic aid flows, growth, material use, and transparency of governments, corporations and NGOs; it would define the best environmental technology; it would ensure fair trade and the use of renewable energy for areas without energy; and define the limits to emissions. It would make rules for all of these. It would provide an incentive for governments to behave responsibly. But it will not happen at present.

Second, it seems that Public/Private Partnerships (PPPs or ‘type 2 partnerships’) will become the new orthodoxy. Not only Western governments, but also UN institutions and, more reluctantly, some large NGOs are looking to large corporations to help finance and implement sustainability programmes. There are dangers. It could simply mean governments subsidising corporations. And large business has been notorious for exacting a price in terms of government policies on areas that privilege them.

Most suspicious of all, big business has consistently opposed regulation in terms of transparency of their own activities. If, as they claim, they are now on the side of the angels in terms of sustainability, why do they oppose regulation? The truth is that only regulation provides incentives for good behaviour. ‘Self-regulation’ always gives advantages to the least responsible.

Our own government, brilliant facilitators as they were at the Summit, can now take heart and courage from the new wider understanding of what is at stake. We fail to get foreign direct investment, while the Chinese with a much less open economy - get it in spades. That is because the Chinese economy is growing due to its government’s retaining control of its economy. We need to draw the right lesson about our power to put the interests of our own economy first.

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