Vol.2 No.30, 05 November 2002

Post WSSD as Seen from SANE

By Margaret Legum

Under the title ‘Something Positive to Read’ an email message tells me that HSBC Holdings has given $50 million to the Earthwatch Institute. Based in London, HSBC Holdings is a vast multinational bank, whose annual philanthropic spending is in the tens of million dollars. Imagine the profits the bank must make to enable it to give away those sums without upsetting its shareholders.

If that seems an odd way to start a report on how the results of the WSSD may impact on South Africa, the mystery will unravel.

Within the limits we could reasonably expect, the WSSD was a success for South Africa. Given the American attitude, and their power to garner conservative allies against possible reform, the Summit was never going to produce agreement on implementing a radical agenda. There would either be no agreement, or a watered down agreement in bits and pieces. We got the latter.

The success for South Africa arises not only from the way the Summit was organised, but also from the public airing of the serious dangers that now confront the world. We who have been pointing them out are no longer regarded as an irresponsible claque. Even the corporation-owned public media now regard sustainability as a marketable issue and one that will affect their own interests in the long run. That is a huge change.

For that reason, governments and the corporate sector are no longer able to continue business as usual, swatting aside environmental and poverty issues in a ‘later, later’ manner. Add to that the terrifying fact that enraged individuals can now do more damage than the entire armouries of rich nations – upon which those rich nations used to rely as a last resort against the poor and outraged.

All that is important. We always knew there had to be a paradigm shift in international thinking before serious action could be taken.

What bothers me is the extent to which that action is being seen as dependent on the largesse and cooperation of the large Multi National Corporations (MNCs). That has been formalised as public/private partnerships or PPPs. Maybe we should see this as a step in the right direction. But it is precisely the power of those corporations that is responsible for governments’ failure to take necessary action on both poverty and the environment. The South African government – like others – could design and implement policies that would protect the environment and attack poverty; but they would be disapproved by the market fundamentalists whose interests are served by market fundamentalism.

The South African government’s lack of responsiveness to its electorate on issues like privatisation, trade policy and the control of capital speculation is due mainly to the power of the corporate sector. The same applies to any country you care to mention – including the United States. Governments are not allowed to act against the interests of the MNCs and the international money industry. If they do they are threatened with a flight of capital and a collapse of their currency. Democracy – governments’ responsiveness to their electorate – cannot operate properly in those circumstances.

So although the WSSD-enhanced awareness of sustainability issues is cheering, the involvement of MNCs in implementing it is depressing. For instance the report on the HSBC initiative also points out that the bank has been involved in financing projects like nuclear plants and the Three Gorges Dam which is expected to change the environment in the Yangtse River region. Taxed on this, HSBC has said that it ‘will not automatically disengage from specific industry sectors’, but will ‘err on the side of caution’ if it thinks there may be environmental risks. And it has engaged KPMG to review its operations in relation to greenhouse gas emissions, waste products and water consumption

Doesn’t that sound reasonable? The fact is the MNCs are not responsible to anyone except their shareholders, most of whom don’t give a hoot for the environment. Worldwide, they have resisted plans for democratic regulation of their behaviour in terms of their impact. They prefer governments to allow them to regulate themselves. Well, wouldn’t we all?

One can see why the MNCs are considered essential. They have practically monopolised wealth. They have more wealth than most countries. They are so rich it seems we can’t do anything without them. Our Minister if Welfare, Zola Skweyiya sounds almost plaintive in asking that ‘business’ join in the fight against poverty. At this moment unemployed South Africans are actually starving because the price of food has shot up – in some cases almost doubled in a year. People who live on the edge die in those circumstances. This is due to the internationalised price of staples – maize and wheat are denominated in dollars - the fall in the value of our currency and the shortage of these foods internationally, So although we grow plenty of food our people are hungry; and our producers make a killing. Literally, actually.

The suggestion that in this emergency we should subsidise food is rejected by the government because it ‘interferes with the markets’, and that is taboo for the MNCs. Sooner or later it will have to be done. Those calling for subsidies and other measures to control the market now include Raymond Ackerman – the enlightened owner of Pick’n Pay, the largest food chain in the country.

I also worry that the MNC involvement will skew implementation in the direction of the glamorous ‘wild life and science’ type of programmes at the expense of those that tackle snotty poverty and demoralised unattractive communities, which are less photogenic. HSBC’s millions will do archaeology and study animal and ancient civilisation. But perhaps I have become a bit churlish.

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