Global Policy Forum

Sustainable Development: R.I.P.


By Kenny Bruno

September 4, 2002

Johannesburg -- Sustainable Development is dead. It's demise came, ironically, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development. It's not that the phrase wasn't invoked. It was, ad nauseum. But it was hardly discussed. Instead, sustainable development was deemed to be whatever compromise governments happen to reach on trade, subsidies, investment and aid, and whatever projects corporations see fit to finance. "Sustainable Development" is now officially meaningless.

A Sad Day for the United Nations

Saturday, August 31 was an historic day for the United Nations, for the wrong reasons. It marked the first ever major anti-globalization protest against the UN itself. Previous major anti-globalization protests took aim at the WTO, World Bank, IMF, G-8, NAFTA and specific companies or brands.

Many anti-globalization leaders have looked to the UN as the counterbalance to the WTO, and argued that we must support it as the last bastion of democracy, albeit very imperfect, in the inter-governmental system. Some anti-globalization campaigners, including CorpWatch, have repeatedly tried to warn the UN that if it allied too closely with the corporate agenda over human rights and environment, it would become the target of the Seattle movement.

Secretary General Kofi Annan expressed relief that there were no major anti-UN demonstrations at the Millennium Summit in September 2001. Many activists hoped he would wish to avoid placing the UN in the same line of fire as the WTO.

He had a chance to do so. Civil society has been ambivalent, caught between the "positive visioning" of the UN as the voice of "We the Peoples," and the reality of its tightening embrace of global corporations. The ambivalence was still evident in Johannesburg, as two marches were organized for last Saturday -- one pro-Summit, and one anti-Summit. But the pro-Summit march, endorsed by the ANC, flopped, while the anti-Summit demonstration was well attended, peaceful and militant.

The Social Movements Indaba, the umbrella organization for the successful anti-Summit march, included this depressing line in its platform: "The United Nations has fallen into line in creating the conditions for the giant transnational corporations to increase their plunder and profit. It is now seen together with the World Bank, IMF and WTO as illegitimate." That position is the Secretary General's worst nightmare. But even for pro-UN activists, it was hard to disagree.

Endless Partnership

At the mid-level bureaucracy, the UN had allowed some dissent against the failing globalization paradigm. But at the Summit level, that became impossible. With the world's most powerful governments fully behind the corporate globalization agenda, it was agreed even before the Summit that there would no new mandatory agreements. Rather the focus was to be on implementation of old agreements, mainly through partnerships with the private sector. In other words, those aspects of sustainability that are convenient for private sector would be implemented.

Not surprisingly, this piecemeal approach suits global business quite well. At a giant, swanky business conference called Lekgotla, which means something like "dialogue of leaders," panelist after panelist discussed the ways in which business was committed to sustainable development. Kofi Annan endorsed this vision of sustainable development as "an era of partnership," and evinced a deep trust of business, calling on it to do what governments had not done. (He did not address the mass mobilizations of poor people.)

It is true that partnership requires trust. That's why, during the press conference of Lekgotla Business Day, CorpWatch asked the former and current Chairs of Shell, both of whom were on the podium representing Business Action for Sustainable Development, whether they still believed that Shell's behavior in Nigeria represented "best practices," as they had claimed in 1992.

If Shell could admit they had been wrong about Nigeria, that common understanding could be a basis for the beginning of trust. After reluctantly accepting a green Oscar statuette from Greenwash Academy (CorpWatch, Friends of the Earth International and the South African environmental justice group groundWork,) Board Chair Philip Watts replied that he was "proud" of the case study Shell had done in 1992. That study focused on building capacity among local staff in the Niger Delta, not on human rights or environmental abuses. Furthermore, he was "quite proud" of Shell's overall behavior in Nigeria.

"How can we begin to trust business leaders that cannot even recognize the most blatant case of corporate crime? How can we even think of partnering with such organizations?" asked an incredulous Isaac Osuoka of Nigeria's Environmental Rights Action.

Osuoka's group has been fighting for the very lives of the people of the Niger Delta for years, and the conflict between the oil companies and the communities is as intense today as it was when environmental rights activist Ken Saro Wiwa and eight others were hanged in 1994. In general, civil society is stunned by Shell's attitude toward Nigeria, especially because Shell claims to be one of the corporations most committed to social and environmental issues. But to spend the day at Lekgotla was to visit a parallel universe in which "we're all in it together." In this happy land everyone understands sustainable development, and everyone is struggling to achieve it.

This was also the message at Ubuntu village, a mega-mall of sustainability, where the slick booths of France, Norway and the US EPA blended with even slicker booths of CropLife (GMO promoters), BP, Chevron Texaco, and small farmer groups, solar village builders, and others. One small women's farm project had such a beautiful display that I couldn't help but ask how they were funded. By Nestle, was their unembarrassed reply.

The crux of the problem is not just that small-scale farmers are cornered into accepting support from Nestle when government assistance is not forthcoming. At issue is the fact that the UN is unabashedly -- anxiously -- partnering with corporations that define sustainability to suit themselves.

Blaming governments was the other big theme at Lekgotla and elsewhere around the Summit. Bad governance in the South is the true impediment to sustainability, according to one business leader after another. Funny they should mention governance at a time when corporate governance is in such tatters. Even more to the point: Those same corporations are responsible in significant measure for governmental weakness.

In South Africa, for example, global corporations like Shell, Caltex, and BP joined with national companies like Sasol to push for voluntary agreements rather than legislation on environmental matters. Nearly four years later, the voluntary agreements are still not in place, and South Africa has virtually no pollution standards and just five air pollution officers for the entire country. Environmental governance is weaker than it was before industry's campaign for voluntary agreements.

This is What Democracy Sounds Like

The Lekgotla participants' approach was as far from the poor -- on whose behalf they were supposedly partnering -- as Soweto is from Beverly Hills. Yet less than an hour away was the encampment of the Landless People's Movement (LPM). These current and expelled tenant farmers had come from around the country to hand President Thabo Mbeki a memo about his failure to address their plight, while Mbeki was in the global spotlight.

77 landless protestors were arrested over a week earlier, and then released, as the police threatened to crack down on any and all marches in Johannesburg. On Saturday, they sang, marched and danced for nine kilometers from the worst slums of Alexandra Township past luxury malls to Sandton, where the Summit was in session. After all the fears of violence and confrontation, the protest was completely peaceful, with both marchers and police on exemplary behavior. At the final rally, Mbeki sent a Minister to receive the memo, but the Minister was booed and escorted off the podium.

For days landless activists have been encamped near Soweto at a decrepit and ruined theme park, where they have been holding leadership elections. Their election process, which took place last Friday, is remarkable. It started with a group of about 20 singing, some of them almost in religious ecstasy. The group grew gradually to about 100, and then moved inside to a small indoor stadium, where their polyphonic call and response songs reverberated magnificently. Speeches were made, often interrupted by more singing.

When an impasse in the process was reached, the speaker urged everyone to remember what united them, and they sang once more before going to province caucuses. Each province sent 50 representatives back to the stadium as electors. One province, possibly infiltrated by government agents, dissented from the process and began shouting, but somehow this was eventually resolved, new leadership was elected, and the singing took over again later in the evening.

The songs were in the spirit of the anti-apartheid movement, but eight years into the ANC government the lyrics reflect a profound disappointment in the ANC's failure to make good on its promises of land reform. They also express a clear opposition to the ANC's neoliberal policies in general and its commitment to privatization in particular.

Privatization and Resistance

Another pocket of resistance to South Africa's neo-liberal policies is the in-your-face Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee. Andrew Daniels is a slight, friendly, 32 year old who spent the last eight years of apartheid in Tanzania, Angola and Mozambique training and fighting, and has served in the South African Army. He lives in Soweto, where some 20,000 houses per month have power disconnected for non-payment by the energy parastatal Eskom. Andrew spends his days reconnecting the wires, switch boxes, and even underground cables of these houses, in a direct action that restores light to the pensioners, unemployed and working poor of Soweto's vast slums, many of whom pay higher rates than rich suburbanites.

Thirty minutes beyond Soweto is Orange Farm, which, despite its name, is a sprawling settlement in a not very rural setting. Here, an experiment in water privatization by French water giant Suez has caused controversy akin to the Soweto electricity crisis. Local water meters are stamped with the logo of the Rio Earth Summit's leading corporate environmentalist, ABB. The residents, who look to be mostly unemployed (the national unemployment rate is 41%), pay $10 to hook up the water, get a key to the spigot, and then receive just 6 free liters per day. After that they pay per liter. If they don't, they get cut off. Is that affordable? The workers installing the meters are earning just 50 cents per man per meter, or about a dollar a day.

One of the meters is obviously broken, and is running even though the water is not. The broken meter serves the Ksona family, who will refuse to pay for the water they are not getting, and will probably get their service cut off. Lance Veotte of the South African Municipal Workers Union says that broken meters are the least of the problem, and that what South Africa really needs to bring water to the townships are public-public partnerships, not public-private partnerships. He speaks for many in resenting the foreign ownership and commodification of water.

NGOs Never Say DieBack at the Summit negotiations, activists are frantic. Even a quick stop in the "Major Groups" rooms (for NGOs, indigenous people, and other members of civil society), leads to requests for urgent lobbying and paragraph drafting. At stake is language in the Johannesburg Action Plan text. The insider NGO activism reaches a climax in Sunday's theater of the absurd protest outside the negotiating rooms. About 30 NGO representatives are greeting the negotiators with leaflets that say "Para 17 - Take Out 'While Ensuring WTO Consistency.'" The UN security will not allow even this ultra-esoteric protest, and threatens to take the badges of anyone -- no matter how respectable -- giving out the leaflets to EU negotiators.

The heroic efforts of the NGOs have paid off, albeit within the confines of a very weak Summit document. Early Monday the offending language in paragraph 17 was deleted. In addition, the phrase "corporate accountability," is included elsewhere in the Action Plan, though it's located in an ambiguous paragraph that will require several more years of campaigning by Friends of the Earth and allies to see any legal instrument on corporate accountability born at the UN.Meaningful corporate accountability to the UN seems a long shot, because those who would be held accountable are the UN's primary partners. Despite all the lofty rhetoric about poverty alleviation, poor people's voices were kept out of the official Summit. Northern production and consumption patterns -- originally a major topic at Rio and the most important factor in global environmental problems -- are virtually untouched. As the Summit closes, there are no targets or timetables for growth of renewable energy sources, a pre-requisite for slowing global warming, our most serious environmental challenge.

Born in Stockholm in 1972, sustainable development came of age twenty years later at the Earth Summit in Rio. But just two years on, it came down with a horrible disease in Marrakech, during the meeting that established the WTO. That contagious disease, known variously as the Washington Consensus, neoliberalism, or corporate-led globalization, spread a big business, free trade agenda to government after government, finally leaving almost no part of the world uninfected.

After an eight-year illness, Sustainable Development at the inter-governmental level succumbed this week in Johannesburg. A few die-hard NGOs will fight to revive it inside the halls of UN meetings. In South Africa, and elsewhere, most of the resisters will fight on the streets.

More General Analysis on Poverty and Development
More Information on the Johannesburg Summit

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.