For more than ten days in Johannesburg thousands of official government
delegates were closely observed by the world’s media and tens of
thousands of members of civil society and business representatives have
laboured over a lengthy implementation plan.
The Summit was supposed to build upon the historic Rio conference held
10 years ago and give an impetus to efforts to tackle the crises of world
poverty and environmental degradation. But aside from a few noteworthy
achievements, the overwhelming assessment is that it has delivered little
for the poor or for the environment. And indeed the lack of real progress
raises fundamental questions about the political commitment to build a
The Summit’s Plan of Implementation can hardly be considered a
coherent "program", let alone an action of implementation plan.
Its positives are few. A time-bound target to improve sanitation
provision, a recognition that the private sector is accountable for their
social and environmental impacts and some useful measures to protect the
oceans are the most noteworthy. And of course some governments did pledge
But these few gains are overwhelmed by the lack of commitment to tackle
the scandal of more than two billion people living in absolute poverty,
denied their basic human rights to such things as access to education,
healthcare and clean water.
When it comes to tackling poverty the Summit’s implementation plan
and declaration are marked either by silence, backsliding on long-standing
commitments or high sounding rhetoric with no back-up in resources or
On one of the most central issues for poverty reduction worldwide –
reform of international trade – Summit outcomes were neither here nor
there. Without crucial adjustments, the current system of rigged trade
rules will continue to clash with social and environmental values.
Volatile commodity prices – a major concern for many developing
countries and cause of much poverty and vulnerability – are also left
unaddressed at a global level. There was no progress on the urgent need to
reduce rich country agriculture subsidies which often result in the
dumping of produce on vulnerable developing country markets.
Long-standing commitments to increased foreign aid levels have been
weakened. And notably, there is no new commitment to tackle the crippling
So why is the Summit characterised more by failure than success? Why
has it failed to deliver on its own theme of "Poverty Eradication
through Sustainable Development"?
The essential problem is a lack of political will on the part of the
world’s leaders, especially on the part of those from the rich world.
Some, like United States’ President George Bush and Australia’s John
Howard, did not even attend the Summit. This was a clear indication of
their lack of interest in the issues being discussed at the Summit and
their contempt for the process underway. President Chirac of France did
attend and made a speech with high-flown rhetoric about "the house
burning down" and that the world must act. Yet it is France opposing
real reform of European Union agricultural subsidies - $40 billion per
annum that depresses world prices and devastates the livelihoods of
farmers in poor countries
Most world leaders, however, did attend. But the fine sentiments and
grand rhetoric in their speeches were not reflected in their negotiating
positions. Far too many countries were looking to turn back the clock,
overturn principles agreed to at the Rio conference and roll back previous
When push came to shove, a concern for keeping spending down had
priority. A narrow trade agenda triumphed. It was as though the world’s
rich countries had virtually all adopted a fortress mentality.
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