Judging Joburg

Updated: Aug 26 2002, 05:30am hrs
The parallels between the failed 1999 World Trade Organisation ministerial at Seattle and the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development, which takes off today, are striking: The trade round had an overloaded agenda as does the Joburg summit. Trade negotiators had their work cut out for them and eventually failed to resolve various contentious issues. There exists a North-North and North-South divide at the United Nations meet as well. Take, for instance, the Kyoto Protocol aimed to combat global warming and the Cartagena Protocol for protecting biodiversity and health. A clash of interests resulted in the Europeans ratifying both, while the Americans stayed away. The developed world wants the South to buy clean technology from them at market prices, while the latter demands concessional rates. The US argues that poverty eradication is a function of the markets while developing countries prefer the easier option of enhanced aid. If delegates disagree on these vital tools, will they agree on future courses of action for better implementing Agenda 21, an outcome of Rio 1992

Perhaps a failed summit is all for the good. Agenda 21 was about combatting poverty, improving health, protecting the atmosphere, oceans, habitats et al in short, its mandate was the creation of a "better" world. But has global governance, both preceding Agenda 21 and succeeding it, produced sustainable outcomes We wanted to save the African elephant so the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species banned ivory trade, an action which encouraged poaching and further threatened its survival. The Basel Convention was about a cleaner environment, but restrictions on export of used lead caused the Indian lead recycling industry to shut down, encouraged backyard operations, and worsened health concerns and the environment. The Biosafety Protocol has not only contributed to the present food crisis in southern Africa but can also be expected to retard diffusion of eco-friendly agricultural biotechnology. Certain quarters continue to demand that multilateral trading rules incorporate the social clause, notwithstanding the fact that it would worsen income inequalities. Clearly, bad policy and political constraints have substantially blunted the benefits likely to emerge from such global governance. Perhaps its time to embrace a bottom-up strategy. For example, permitting some trade in ivory will give local communities a better incentive to protect elephants. Moreover, since the end goal is to develop sustainably, and not retard development altogether, why not embrace the logic of the market Flexible, cost-effective courses of action, stemming from use of innovative technology, offer win-win solutions. Mindless regulations dont. Indeed, with business thus emerging as the primary catalyst, it is unpardonable that Indian industry will go unrepresented at Joburg both, officially and unofficially. Finally, the developing world had better start ensuring the rule of law. The Cola giants dared to rape the Himalayan rocks only because local laws lacked bite. Doubtless, itll be the mindset that would mean the difference between a watershed summit and a well-meaning photo-op.