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The trouble with summits, or - what is Johannesburg for?

About the authors
Caspar Henderson was openDemocracy's Globalisation Editor from 2002 to 2005. He is an award-winning writer and journalist on environmental affairs.
Maria Adebowale is the director of Capacity Global, the coordinating body of the UK Environmental Justice Network, and a member of the UK Government’s Commission on Sustainable Development.

Roger Scruton is a philosopher, writer, political activist and businessman. He is a professor in the department of philosophy at St Andrews University and a scholar at the American Entreprise Institute. His home on the web is

International summit conferences, such as the forthcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, are a fixed part of the landscape of global governance. But while the texts or declarations agreed at summits are endlessly pored over, the value of such events themselves is far less often discussed. Does the world actually benefit from the endless cycle of international summits? Are social goals, such as an end to poverty, advanced by a process that creates laws and conventions that bind national governments; or would they be better tackled by a consistent focus on local initiatives in which smaller democratic units retain greater autonomy?

These questions, both practical and philosophical, are here discussed by Maria Adebowale, who is the director of Capacity Global, the coordinating body of the UK Environmental Justice Network, and a member of the UK Government’s Commission on Sustainable Development, and by Roger Scruton, philosopher and co-editor of the City & Country strand of openDemocracy. Their dialogue was moderated by Caspar Henderson, Globalisation editor of openDemocracy.

open – Thirty years on from the first World Summit on Environment and Development in Stockholm in 1972, ten years after the Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro, we are now close to the 2002 World Summit of Sustainable Development (WSSD) at Johannesburg. What for you is the point of this massive world meeting and what can really be achieved?

“The most important thing about Johannesburg is to have a proper discussion about world poverty, in the context of sustainable development. How do we not simply reduce but eliminate poverty in the world?”
MA – For me, the most important thing about Johannesburg is to have a proper discussion about world poverty, in the context of sustainable development. How do we not simply reduce but eliminate poverty in the world?

For that discussion to succeed, we must first look at what has happened in the last ten years since Rio – achievements and disappointments – and to understand the reasons for both. There was a high degree of political will at that time. What I would like to see now is a review of the various conventions and commitments made then, which makes clear where and why they haven’t been fulfilled.

RS – I have two main areas of concern about international summitry. The first concerns the attempt to achieve results through transnational legislation, and thus through the hands of governments who are often detached from the real sources of change, the activities and everyday lives of people on the ground.

My second concern is more conceptual. A great many things are run together in the agenda of meetings, such as that at Johannesburg, that do not harmonise. For example, eliminating world poverty is obviously a highly necessary and commendable objective, but pursuing it tends to pull people in a different direction from the goal of sustainable development. Maria said that she hopes for the elimination of poverty in the context of sustainable development, but what if this very context is one that is not amenable to that goal?

Equality, poverty, summitry

open – Maria, do you agree that the aims of elimination of poverty and sustainable development pull in different directions?

“Governments are often detached from the real sources of change, the activities and everyday lives of people on the ground... A great many things are run together in the agenda of meetings, such as that at Johannesburg, that do not harmonise.”
MA – No, I think the two are compatible. The concept of sustainable development is essentially about issues of quality and equity, and the reduction or elimination of poverty is very much part of the discussion of these principles. From the 1960s and the period of the Stockholm declaration, poverty reduction has been central to the discussion of sustainable development. The problems have been ones of implementation and these have been influenced both by east/west and north/south divisions – but these are part of the complexities of sustainable development, not fatal to the idea.

RS – We need conceptual clarity on these matters. For example, the goals of equality and poverty reduction are different. People such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman have argued that the free market allows people to escape from poverty – but only by producing unequal distributions. The experience of the Soviet Union shows that equality can easily be achieved, by removing everything from everybody; but such equality does not help the cause of overcoming poverty at all.

I feel that one has to be very careful about what one is exactly pursuing. This is especially true in the context of Africa. For example, Zimbabwe was until recently self-sufficient in food, and agriculturally quite successful, but of course it also had a very unequal distribution of wealth. Is the sacrifice of sustainable agriculture a price worth paying for the greater equality enforced on society by Mugabe and his henchmen?

MA – The details of the Zimbabwe case are arguable, though I agree that there does need to be conceptual clarity. My problem with the latter is that arguments over language can be used as an excuse to avoid implementing, or not building on, what we’ve already got.

Sometimes, the concepts will come out of the actual work. This means that the idea of sustainable development needs to be assessed against the practical results. In these terms, I’m not sure if we’re going to make progress towards clarity at the World Summit. The failure at the Fourth Prep Com in Bali was predictable, because far more people were engaged in the process than at Rio, and they all came with different political hats. To move beyond the Bali impasse, we will need to follow through on full implementation of decisions and treaties already made in 1992.

“Treaties that are part of both national and international law have been incredibly important [for community groups fighting for environmental justice].”
You questioned earlier the value of international treaties. As a lawyer, I agree that sometimes treaties can be just words on paper. But I have worked with community groups in the UK and the rest of Europe, and treaties that are part of both national and international law have been incredibly important for them – they can use these laws within a democratic system to secure advances that in a previous era were impossible.

For example, the Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters has already become vitally important in eastern Europe, where people can use it to pressure their governments to be more open. Equally, in the UK there are a lot of community groups and environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) who are actively looking to use the convention to say to governments: “you have signed up to these environmental justice obligations, to supplying environmental information to us, so you now have a responsibility to make it happen”. This appeal is only possible on the basis of law.

RS – But for that very reason, you have to be very careful about what goes in to international treaties, because the latter by their nature are a threat to national sovereignty and therefore a limitation on the democratic decision-making process. This causes resentment, and a desire among those affected to withdraw from the process altogether, rather than subject themselves to any further diminution of sovereignty.

An example of this is the US government’s repudiation of the Kyoto treaty on climate change. This happened because the Americans felt the Treaty wasn’t framed in such a way as to elicit the consent of their electorate and their democratic process. Of course, agreements can be a great lever in the hands of ordinary people against their governments, but for that very reason they will provoke national governments into responding to the consequences of a treaty.

The agenda at these meetings should feature much more prominently the need to encourage, for example, producer co-operative ventures, private enterprise and local initiatives. These would take on the responsibility of changing things on the ground before we get governments to tie their hands with bits of paper.

open – One of the things that people will be talking about in Johannesburg is ‘type two’ partnerships, which are intended to address many of these concerns. Whereas ‘type one’ partnerships require agreement between governments, ‘type two’ partnerships are voluntary, expressing a willingness by the various agencies involved to act together, lending their expertise and resources to tackling everything from alternative energy systems to disease eradication – regardless of the commitments national governments make to each other. Do you think they offer a way forward?

RS – One has to be very careful here. From the outside, all these summits look like extremely well-paid jamborees for redundant politicians, who are only going to sign bits of paper and thereby bind the hands of the people they claim to represent. This doesn’t actually give the process much credibility in the public eye. The problems with summits such as Bali are revealed by the fact that the chairmanship belonged to the environment minister of Indonesia, a country which has the worst possible record in all these matters.

MA – I agree with the second point, but as a whole I think that Roger is unduly pessimistic. Most of the politicians at Bali were democratically elected. They have a role and purpose, but they also may be out of a job next year – yet in signing a treaty they are committing their state to a particular legal remit with many social consequences.

“Global decision-making will displace the real challenge, which is reanimating the local economy. And there is a paradox in trying to do that from a global perspective.”
It’s true that treaties aren’t the only way forward and that law isn’t always the best process – especially for poorer or excluded groups. At the same time, I feel wary of the way ‘type two’ partnerships have been pushed so much. They might be useful for some sustainable development initiatives, but they cannot be applied indiscriminately.

RS – Environmental justice initiatives are all very well, but real change more often comes from people doing things themselves, such as changing their form of agriculture. Aid agencies used to support such local initiatives, with the involvement and endorsement of the local people, and I don’t think that the language of ‘environmental rights’ actually helps much here. The concept of environmental rights is quite nebulous, whereas hard work and commitment are straightforward – and these are what we want to encourage.

My fundamental worry is that global decision-making will displace the real challenge, which is reanimating the local economy. And there is a paradox in attempting to do that from a global perspective. After all, things can only be sustained at the local level because that’s where people interact with the earth.

MA – To some extent I agree with you. Most of the community groups I work with in the UK have got no idea that Johannesburg is happening, even though some of their work around regeneration, poverty and the environment is very much connected to the global picture as well. The summit process has become a bit of a ‘government round table’, as opposed to a more locally-oriented, bottom-up approach, which sustainable development should be about.

International law for transnational powers?

open – But for that to be possible, isn’t it necessary that very powerful transnational institutions, both states and corporations, need to have their roles regulated and circumscribed in ways that currently they are not?

MA – Absolutely. One of the best reasons for having international law and treaties at all is that globalisation is a reality. How do we make sure that we are able to improve the lives of the most vulnerable? There has to be a force to tackle transnational corporations and other big organisations. This is equally true for people at a very local level, or those who want to keep it local, because they too need a measure of control over what happens in big businesses, which have a massive impact on everybody’s way of living.

drawing of factory
RS – I agree. Transnational corporations are inevitably going to be involved in this process, so you’ve got to have some kind of transnational regime to control them. But I feel that we shouldn’t be welcoming this as people seem to. I regard the transnational corporation as a moral error – a mistake that humanity has made, just like building empires. The mistake has occurred, but one should try to minimise the effects of it. What I would like to see is both national and local economies growing. An ideal would be to limit capital of any company worldwide to $1 million.

open – Wouldn’t such a law have unfortunate consequences? You might end up with a series of entities run by tight cabals of people who would strive to keep out progressive influences and forces for change?

"If any one wishes to see in how little space a human being can move, how little air - and such air! - he can breathe, how little of civilisation he may share and yet live, it is only necessary to travel hither [to Manchester, UK]. Everything which here arouses horror and indignation is of recent origin, belongs to the industrial epoch." Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844
RS – Once, Britain had its own businesses and was not subject to the regime of transnational corporations. It was a country with a great deal of local pride in its industry and a great deal of local commitment to building proper towns and looking after the countryside in what we would now call a sustainable way. That’s how truly democratic institutions develop. But now we see our legislative regime expropriated from us by Europe and by the legislative demands of multinational companies. I don’t think that this is a benefit for our environment, for our national pride, or for our democracy. So I think it’s legitimate to protest. A reactionary view, I know!

MA – I think that you are slightly romantic about big companies and what they were once like. They might not have been global, or have had a global impact, but nonetheless they had a local impact, which was by no means always positive.

RS – They didn’t have international treaties to control them. They were controlled by the existing territorial law that had existed through centuries. Surely that was a good thing?

MA – Why does localising a company, or making it smaller and local make it a better organisation with ethical sustainable development policies within its local area?

RS – There is a very good answer to that. Loyalties are all local and all served in a particular single place where employers feel part of that place. The manager, director or owner lives in that place, and is under a huge moral constraint to act honourably towards the staff. A multinational company can employ a whole town and suddenly drop that town into abject poverty by moving elsewhere in search of cheaper labour. This recently happened in India and is also now happening in my own town of Malmesbury, with the removal of Dyson’s assembly operation to Malaysia.

Treaties – what are they good for?

open – I’d like to bring us back to thinking about Johannesburg. Do you both agree that there is some role for global treaties on certain topics – for example, on shared resources such as the atmosphere – in order to ensure protection of the global commons? And do you both agree that there should be transfers of resources from rich countries to poor countries? The size and nature of those transfers are likely to be hotly debated at Johannesburg, if discussions at the recent meeting of the G8 are anything to go by. There, we saw a contrast between the size of the sums pledged and the much greater sums that many people feel are needed.

house and premisesISEC (International Society for Ecology and Culture)
RS – I endorse the transfer of resources from people in wealthier countries to people who are impoverished on two conditions: one, it goes to the people and not to the kleptocracy that is pretending to rule them; and, two, it can be shown that the transfer will not just be pouring money down the drain but will lead to a revitalisation of the local economy. If you simply make the local economy dependent on handouts then it hardly encourages sustainable development – it encourages the opposite. You’ve got to be absolutely clear about your economic theory, which will tell when and how these transfers will benefit people. You’ve also got to make sure that you’re not just subsidising criminals.

MA – This argument has already been won. For some time now there have been agreements to transfer resources to the global South, the poorer countries. If you look back to some of the 1992 treaties, they all have articles saying that there should be transfers of technology and aid. These commitments legally bind the countries which ratified them – including, of course, many in the North.

ISEC is a small international organisation seeking to promote sustainability and community regeneration in both North and South. Their Ladakh project works to support a sustainable local economy. Click for further information
But the most frustrating thing for people from India or Africa is – well, why hasn’t that happened? Why have yet another discussion about something already agreed to? So the issue now is setting up effective processes that allow for that transfer to occur. If you’re talking about aid, as distinct from the transfer of appropriate technology, I would agree that you have to help the people most in need. But the first thing to be done before transfer of resources is simply ending the debt burdening many of the poorest countries. Of course, there must be conditions on how the gains made by not attempting to repay debts will be used.

RS – You are right about this debt problem, though I recognise that it is very complex technically. Part of it is that aid in those countries via the World Bank and IMF comes in the form of dollars, which themselves come in the form of little ciphers in a bank account. These can, in turn, be cashed out only by spending in the dollar market, so that a kind of indebtedness to the West and the industrial nations is almost programmed into the deal. Those who set up the IMF and the World Bank never thought this through. There is no reason why one shouldn’t say: “Look, you made a mistake here. But it is your fault, so we’ll have to cancel the debt”. The West, the World Bank, and so on, will bear the burden.

open – All this implies a profound change in the global financial system. Is that achievable, and if so what are the near-term steps?

RS – I think that there is an alternative. Were the IMF to transfer 500 very well-educated people to a particular place and provide them with the goods and services needed to capitalise industry or agricultural development, then it would be a genuine transfer of capital – in this case “human capital”. But just putting a few zeros on a bank account in that place and inviting the local residents to spend it in the West is doing the opposite.

“The first thing to be done before transfer of resources is simply ending the debt burdening many of the poorest countries.”
MA – You don’t need to transfer 500 extremely able people. They’re already there!

RS – All right, but I will just go back to my original point – that it is committed people doing things on the ground that change an economy.

MA – I think the problem is that, in countries such as Britain, we don’t hear enough about committed people in other countries such as those in Africa and South Asia. The reason why there is not total anarchy in many countries is because there already are thousands of people who are extremely active, able citizens. NGOs and some governments are trying to make a difference. We need to support them. Many of them are very clear that they want to decide where any incoming money goes. If you give us 500 people, they say, you’ve already determined the agenda for us.

open – The South African government has circulated what is known as a ‘non paper’, which outlines some of the things they hope could be achieved at the Johannesburg summit. There are many specific recommendations – programmes for education, provision for centres for technology transfer and so on – and in the ‘non paper’ they estimate the costs of each. We could look at these in detail if we choose to.

I also wonder about a larger point. There seems to be a recurring problem in international efforts of this sort. What seem to be excellent plans are outlined, say at Rio, or more recently by the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) and now in the run-up to Johannesburg. The proposers say we need money from donor nations to implement these. In each case, the rich Western countries agree in principle, but in practice have real concerns about governance and doubt that this money will be effectively spent. They then discover other priorities which are more urgent. As a result, the sums that rich nations eventually commit are usually a small fraction of what is needed in the honest best estimate of respectable and thoughtful analysts who made these proposals. This pattern seems to recur again and again.

“I would like to see real positive initiatives on the ground from which genuine consensus emerges, which can then be used to create the international politics necessary to solve the issues”.
RS – Yes, this goes back to my original point. The attempts to solve problems through treaties produce in the end a vast amount of hot air and very little action.

MAd – I think that treaties can create a lot of political cohesion; they are no different to any other kind of option that could come out of the World Summit. With regard to hot air, I think that ‘type two’ initiatives also have that potential as well!

open – Can you give us some concluding thought about what you would like to see instead of Johannesburg?

RS – I haven’t ever thought about what the alternative to all this really is, I confess. I suppose I would like to see the development of these ‘type two’ initiatives and perhaps the establishment of an agency which is not essentially governed by a treaty but which encourages us to want to work locally. This would be the equivalent of what was done in the old missionary days – links across communities to encourage people from more wealthy countries to play their part in local initiatives, to help them along and to draw into those initiatives the kinds of expertise that are needed, especially in environmental matters.

At present, you have what are called stakeholders who are supposed to put down their mark on decisions. But nobody ever elected them to their position. Usually they are like Greenpeace or some other self-appointed policeman trying to govern the rest of us, control us, perhaps with good intentions, who knows? But we are all stakeholders! I would like to see real positive initiatives on the ground from which genuine consensus emerges, which can then be used to create the international politics necessary to solve the issues.

open – So enhanced VSO, Peace Corps) and organisations of that kind? Is that the sort of thing you are talking about?

RS – Nobody at all likes the fact that all these matters are discussed by grey, very self-centred old men, lounging on the beaches of Bali. Everybody would like to see real initiatives coming from the people concerned and real attempts to help them from people prepared to make personal sacrifices in doing so.

“A lot of young people don’t get to see another side of life. If they worked within local initiatives with people from different communities than their own, that would open up a wider world of possibility.”
MA – I agree with the idea of local initiatives. But another thing I would like to see is people taking a year off within their education between the ages of 9 and 16 or 18. Having to take a year out and working with local initiatives would be really useful. A lot of young people don’t get to see another side of life. If they worked within local initiatives with people from different communities than their own, that would open up a wider world of possibility. It would be a way of making some of the ideas about sustainable development and poverty much more real than just a dry discussion on the Channel Four News!

At Johannesburg I’d like to see a commitment to scrap the remaining debt of the most impoverished countries – obviously with conditions that would be used for the right agendas. I’d also like to see some commitment from the various UN agencies, which have these ‘silo’ remits to work together. For instance, you have the UNHCHR working on human rights, but it doesn’t look at issues such as environmental concerns or environmental justice since it links to human rights. And then you have the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), a lot of whose work on toxic waste links into the area of human rights. But these agencies don’t work together. I would like to see joined-up policies and integrated institutions because I think they would be much more effective than at present.

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