Corporate Takeover of Agenda 21

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Johannesburg will be used by corporations as an opportunity to safeguard global trade - not as a chance to lift the world's poorest out of despair

by Kevin Watkins
The Guardian
July 27, 2002

Remember the summer of 1992? The Conservatives had just been re-elected, George Bush senior was in the White House, Nelson Mandela was negotiating the end of apartheid - and sustainable development hit the headlines. Meeting at the Earth summit in Rio de Janeiro, the world's governments pledged to avert an impending collision between Earth's ecology and the global economy

As the world prepares for next month's world summit on social development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, the Rio rhetoric is back on the airwaves. Northern governments are treating us to painful cover versions of the old sustainable development classics, and marketing them with more hype than that surrounding the launch of Will Young. Meanwhile, the US and the EU are desperately seeking to pre-empt any discussion of a global economic system that is perpetuating the vicious cycle of poverty and environmental degradation.

The widening gap between rhetoric and reality that has transformed sustainable development into an irrelevant buzz phrase now threatens to turn the WSSD into tragic farce.

Nowhere is that gap more visible than in the UN-prepared statement for adoption in Johannesburg. Three-quarters of the text has already been agreed, most of it of such vacuous inanity as to make a trainspotter's diary look exciting by comparison. The remainder, dealing with issues such as trade and finance, has become the site of a pitched battle between southern governments, environmentalists and development agencies on the one side, and the EU and the US on the other.

The issue at the heart of the divide can be summarised in a single word - globalisation. When the Earth summit took place in 1992, surging flows of trade and finance were already transforming the world, but the "G" word was never even mentioned in Agenda 21, the call to action adopted at Rio. The WSSD now provides an opportunity to align the management of globalisation with the principles of sustainable development.

For the high priests of globalisation, the 10 years since Rio have been an unmitigated triumph - living proof of the benign power of markets. They point out that world output has risen by 50%, with trade and investment driving economic growth. The fact that 1 billion people are still living in poverty - the same number as a decade ago, despite the rising tide of prosperity - is treated as evidence of the need for more growth, and more open markets. Gross and widening disparities in wealth that leave 15% of the world's population controlling four-fifths of global GDP are viewed as a distributional irrelevance.

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In this Panglossian bubble, ecological costs can be viewed in a different light. The crazed, carbon-based energy system fuelling globalisation is destroying our ecosystem, and current growth models are based on unsustainable production and consumption systems that are depleting forests, oceans and fresh water.

Nothing better illustrates the tensions between trade and sustainable development than the management of world trade. While the ink was drying on the 271 pages of broad principles outlined in Agenda 21, northern governments and corporate lobbies were shaping the Uruguay Round agreement, complete with the 26,000 pages of binding law overseen by the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The provisions extended beyond tariffs to intellectual property, agriculture, the regulation of foreign investment and even basic services. Sustainable development was added to the preamble as an afterthought.

Many of the WTO's rules flatly contradict the Rio accords and conflict with multilateral environmental treaties. Moreover, the new system has institutionalised deep imbalances in power between rich and poor countries, skewing the benefits of trade towards the rich world. But the multilateral trade system highlights an imbalance in power at the heart of globalisation. The holy trinity overseeing globalisation - the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO - has teeth and muscle, sustainable development has the vague principles of Agenda 21.

For all the flamboyant rhetoric about a "development round", the current WTO talks are intensifying the tensions between trade and sustainable development. The EU is doing its bit for big business in the negotiations on services, demanding that poor countries privatise water systems under the auspices of transnational companies. It has not even bothered with an assessment of the consequences for public health, or the environment.

In the intellectual property negotiations (Trips), Europe and the US are shoulder to shoulder behind corporate self-interest. WTO-sponsored enforcement of patents is being used to extend corporate control over seeds (jeopardising the Convention on Bio-Diversity), to enable drugs companies to inflate the cost of life-saving medicines in poor countries, and to raise the cost of new technologies - including those needed to make the transition from inefficient carbon-based energy systems.

Of course, the WTO has rules against subsidies - well, some of them. The Bush administration can adopt with impunity a farm bill providing an $18bn-a-year top-up to the corporate welfare trough for assorted agribusiness interests, spelling social and ecological disaster for developing countries. Heavily subsidised exports will destroy the local and international markets on which millions of smallholders depend, with devastating consequences for poverty.

While rich countries use their control over IMF-World Bank loan conditions to frogmarch poor nations into rapid import liberalisation, the principles of free trade are applied more selectively at home. Industrialised countries impose import tariffs on developing countries that are four times higher than they apply to each other, denying the latter's citizens a fairer share of the benefits of globalisation.

Of course, increased export opportunities will create tensions. As with any production, there is a danger that ecological costs will be ignored in the rush to generate economic wealth. But this highlights the need to bring export prices into line with real ecological costs, and to adopt a global tax on aviation fuel as part of a strategy on global warming.

Last month, at a preparatory meeting in Bali, African governments insisted that the WSSD communiqué should include commitments by northern governments to improve market access, review current approaches to import liberalisation, and support market interventions to raise commodity prices. They also called for a commitment to increased aid to achieve agreed goals on poverty and the environment, recalling that Agenda 21 had included a promise by rich countries to increase their development assistance to the 0.7% GNP target set by the UN.

In the event, aid was cut by one-third over the next decade, to 0.2% of GNP. The EU and the US have responded in time-honoured fashion. They insist that the place to discuss trade is the WTO, rejecting any reassessment of current IMF-World Bank market liberalisation. On aid, the US maintains that the commitments made at the Monterrey summit of financing for development represent the last word, even though it remains at the bottom of the aid donor league table.

All of which raises an obvious question: namely, what is going to be discussed at the WSSD? Both economic superpowers appear to see the event as an opportunity to exchange vague generalities about unsustainable consumption, while admiring the transnational companies lining up to parade their green credentials on the Johannesburg catwalk.

In the age of globalisation, we cannot afford to tolerate such reckless irresponsibility

Kevin Watkins is senior policy adviser at Oxfam.

Further Reading: Agenda 21 BLIGHT for Profit?

Sustainable Development


Sustainable Development: An Expensive Trip To Nowhere?

By Radha D'Souza

It is here. It is real. It is on our TV screens. The WSSD has come to our living rooms. Once again the police are out on the streets and images of protestors are everywhere. The real business has begun, but this time around the context of the meeting gives it an eerie surreality. The summit on sustainable occurs in the context of increasing attacks of countries and peoples of the ex-colonies now re-designated the 'Third World'.

Even the highlights don't lend themselves to a succinct summary: the 'war on terror', the 'axis of evil', Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, Venezuela, Columbia, North Korea, etc, etc; renewed defence agreements with Philippines and Japan amidst fears of 'encirclement of China', and the surest signs of the times to come, repressive legislation in the 'developed' imperialist nations giving the state draconian powers to stifle dissent and rise of racism and xenophobia.

Does this sound like it is the most conducive environment for 'sustainable development'? The UN sponsored conference has been gracious enough to allocate space within the conference structure to what is now referred to as 'civil society': the Global People's Forum. The conference theme for the Global People's Forum in the summit is 'A Sustainable World Is Possible'. How, may we ask?

If quizzed, nobody will deny that political peace is the first condition for human well being. Much of the debates on 'sustainable development' remain articulation of what ought to be done by three principal actors, the States, the TNCs and 'Civil Society'. The institutional vehicles that are expected to deliver on 'sustainable development' are seldom interrogated. Consequently, the institutional preconditions for 'sustainable development', (however interpreted) does not feature prominently in the debates, let alone the final resolutions or outcomes. Yet, without institutions, policies and programmes remain abstract ideas. Conversely, the best policies and programmes acquire their colour and character from the institutions that execute them.

All the principal actors in the WSSD conference, the States, the TNCs and 'Civil Society' agree on one central issue: that the UN is the appropriate institutional umbrella for 'sustainable development'. There may be degrees of differences on this. Some civil society groups for example believe that the 'developed' states such as the US seek to weaken the UN and that it should be strengthened.

The 'developed' states believe the UN should promote their conceptions of 'sustainable development' in preference to others. The TNCs may advocate a co-ordinating role for the UN and want it to promote 'public-private' partnerships and the 'Third World' states may wish the UN to play a greater regulatory role. Whatever the differences in what the UN should or should not do to promote 'sustainable development', there is general agreement that the UN is the appropriate institutional umbrella for 'sustainable development'.

Thus, the UN is expected to deliver on 'sustainable development', primarily an economic issue even though it has failed to keep the peace for the past 57 years, which is its primary political function. Yet, this disjuncture between the economic and political roles of the UN does not appear to be problematic. In the dominant modes of thinking that prevails, the economic and the political, the legal and the institutional are analysed as disparate issues, as if they belong to distinct and unconnected realms.

While the WSSD is still on and before 'sustainable development' retreats into the corridors of labyrinthine bureaucracies, public and private, national and international, 'civil' and 'not-so-civil' society organisations, a critical appraisal of the institutional framework for 'sustainable development' may not be out of place.

Institutionally, 'sustainable development' is the responsibility of the Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD) within the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the UN. The architecture of the UN is based on three pillars: the Security Council (the political wing), the Specialised Agencies (dealing with economic and physical infrastructure for capital) and the General Assembly. The ECOSOC is perhaps the most important institution within the General Assembly.

The Security Council is captive to the five veto powers. The relations between three of them, the UK, USA and France go back a long way to the World Wars and the colonial era. The end of the Cold War makes the Security Council effectively captive to three of the five veto powers. In any event, for the moment, China and Russia the other two veto powers can be bought off with aid and trade.

The specialised agencies are of two kinds. The first maintain the financial infrastructure for global capital, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation; the second maintain the physical infrastructure for global capital, by setting standards, norms, rules and the scientific and technological preconditions required for global capital.

They include organisations as diverse as UNESCO, World Meteorological Organisation, ILO, the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), the WHO, FAO and a host of others. Their relationship to the UN is determined by special agreements that specify the terms on which they will associate with the UN. The economic organisations, the IMF, WB and the WTO are not required to submit to the supervision, direction or control of the General Assembly.

The constitution of the three organisations ensures that they remain under the domination of the five largest capitalist powers in the world at all times. Generally speaking, 'experts' drive other specialised agencies as they are seen as organisations requiring special knowledge. Being expert organisations they are free to interact with governments, private corporations, research and scientific institutions and other knowledge producing bodies such as the universities.

However, their role is to mobilise knowledge and complement the economic specialised agencies towards a global regime of accumulation for capital.

The role of the ECOSOC needs to be seen within this wider architecture of the UN. The Allies, who were victorious in the World Wars, designed the architecture of the UN. In the post-war era it had three overarching objectives: to reconstruct war torn Europe and assimilate it economically into post-war capitalism; to reconstruct the global infrastructure destroyed due to the war; and lastly and most importantly for understanding the WSSD, to re-establish imperial domination over colonies that had weakened due to the collapse of the old Empires, the decline of Britain and the Axis powers.

The US, the rising imperial power at the end of World War II, had a prominent role in the design of the UN. The US insisted on including economic development as an important principle in the UN Charter and set up the ECOSOC under the General Assembly as the institutional framework within which economic development could occur. De-linked institutionally from the economic, political and ideological wings of the UN, the ECOSOC's role became, and continues to be, one of mobilising from the top different actors, national and international for global capital.

It does this by co-ordinating states, developed and developing, TNCs, scientific and technological institutions; by ironing out points of friction between them; and by co-ordinating and promoting the legal, institutional and ideological requirements of post-war capitalism.

Such a process is by its very nature controversial, argumentative and contentious. The ECOSOC provides the institutional umbrella to contain the controversies and channel them to consolidate the global regime. It does this by providing for regional commissions, special commissions and consultations with NGO. Although this may come as surprise to some, the provisions for NGO consultations has existed within the ECOSOC since inception.

The AFL-CIO was very much part of it, as were numerous Christian and Jewish organisations in the post-war era. Now they are replaced by NGOs with new concerns: environment, poverty and human rights amongst others. In 1948 the US moved the first resolution urging the UN to take up 'development' of underdeveloped nations as its mission. The purpose of 'development' was three fold: to contain the spread of 'communism' as defined by the Allies, to ensure that the national independence of the politically independent colonies was contained and to ensure that the resources, natural and human, remained accessible to post-war imperial powers.

Subsequent UN initiatives saw 'development' emerge as a global ideology. It led to a proliferation of organisations within and without the UN and a complex institutional web of political, economic, ideological, scientific and technological organisations, national and international, public and private that is kafkaesque to say the least. Within the institutional quagmire, men and women made decisions without knowing how the whole might look or what follow on ripples it might have. Their actions reduced democracy to a meaningless ritual to be undertaken periodically.

However, the ECOSOC is the forum that facilitates debates, where all the heated arguments happen. It is the home that nurtured the 'dependency theories' and the critique of 'development economics' of the post-war era, the home where environment, human rights and democratic development came into focus, the locale where the 'developed' and 'underdeveloped' states negotiated the terms of 'development'. Those debates helped bury the old 'development' of the post-war era and restructure the State-TNC-Civil Society relations in the post-1970s. Post-war 'development' was resurrected as the new 'sustainable development'.

Invariably, tracing back the institutional history of how issues come into being and pass away, shows that there are familiar patterns to the changes and how they come about. The 'developed' nations (read imperial powers) come together in exclusive forums (OECD, G-7, others) and chalk out the agenda. The agenda is then brought to the UN forums, the ECOSOC, the organisations under it and mobilisation from the 'top' for the agenda follows. At that stage the issue is in a manner of speaking 'opened up' to the world public. Much of the debate that occurs subsequently leaves out the beginning, of how it came about in the first place.

The principles for dealing with the tensions between economics and environment were first thrashed out in the course of a series of agreements between European and North American nations over the late 1950s and late 1960s: the International Convention on the Pollution of Sea by Oil, 1954, Antarctic Treaties, 1959, European Social Charter, 1961, Tanker Owners voluntary Agreement Concerning Liability for Pollution, 1969, Nordic Mutual Emergency Agreement in Connection with Radiation Accidents, 1963, to name a few. Once the principles of economic and environmental sustainability were established it was then time to extend them to the 'developing countries' through the ECOSOC organisations.

Much of the thinking and planning that went into the 1972 Stockholm conference on Human Development arose as a response from the failure of the post-war 'development' agenda. The Founex Conference On Environment and Development, held preparatory to the UN Stockholm Conference, in 1971 in Switzerland, held that 'the kind of environmental problems that are of importance in developing countries are those that can be overcome by the process of development itself'.

The Stockholm Conference set out 26 principles for sustainable development and passed 106 resolutions on the future tasks and programmes: 18 on housing, 50 on environment and natural resources, 15 on marine pollution, 6 on education and 7 on environment and development.

Each of those resolutions and principles led to a proliferation of a new set of institutions: the Global Assessment Programme or Earthwatch, that includes programmes such as Global Environmental Monitoring Service, (GEMS), International Referral System for Sources of Environmental Information, (INFOTERRA), Global Resource Information Database, (GRID); older UN agencies, the World Bank, the FAO, the WHO, that were part of the failed 'development' of the post-war type were now mobilised to contribute to the post-Stockholm 'sustainable development'.

New UN agencies were created and others brought in line with the new thinking: the UNDP, the UNEP, the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (UNCHS) and many more. A train of conferences followed. The Mal-del Plata conference on water in 1979, the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987 and many smaller and larger ones in between. The result is there to see. Fifty seven years later, after twenty three years of development and another thirty years of 'sustainable development' we are back to the same organisations to fix the problems of poverty and inequality.

Human ingenuity and intellectual creativity seems to be on a no-exit street. The proliferation of organisations and the deluge of regurgitated information have left us with a curious paradox. The more we do the less we are able to do things to improve our conditions.

The more we know the less we are able to deal with the conditions of our existence. The causes of underdevelopment appear as the cure. The critique of imperialism and capitalism continues, but it seeks to fix the problems through the very same legal and institutional mechanisms that have spawned and nurtured capitalism and imperialism through its long and bloody history.

Nothing that has been said here is new; nothing is novel or unknown. Yet it is seldom stated or debated. Stating it calls for a fresh look at our reality, confronting that reality and seeking answers that challenge not only ideas about states, corporations and exploitation, but also the institutions that nurture those ideas.

ZNet Commentary:'souza_.cfm

Further Reading: Agenda 21 BLIGHT for Profit?

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