Developing world wants action, not talk, at summit

A decade ago, simply raising awareness in the industrialized world about environmental protection and improving the standard of living for the world's poor was the challenge. Today, it's how to pay for these improvements.

As the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) began here Monday, a deep divide between developed and developing nations over aid funding and free trade threatens to derail negotiations and render toothless the summit's promises.

UN officials and host country South Africa say the 10-day summit will be a success if, at the end, participating nations agree to a concrete action plan with specific commitments.

Two main documents are expected to emerge from discussions here: an implementation plan setting out the world's development and environment goals, which include greater access to clean water, better sanitation, and support for sustainable energy; and a political declaration which commits the signatories to the implementation plan. Both, say officials, are aimed at turning the pledges made at the Rio Earth Summit 10 years ago into reality.

"At Rio, our focus was as much to try and change people's attitudes towards development. In Johannesburg, what we're trying to do is change the way people act about development," says Nitin Desai, the secretary-general of WSSD. "My expectation is that on Sept. 5 [the last day of the summit] we will be able to tell you how many people, and where, will benefit from our actions here."

For participants, specifics are the key. "What we need here in the plan of implementation are concrete timetables and targets," says Roland Moreau, executive director of Greenpeace UK and Belgium and a spokesman for the organization at the summit. "Quite clearly, these are nothing without funding."

In presummit negotiations, trade issues and commitments for more investment and aid were key stumbling blocks, and delegates continued to be deadlocked after two days of extra talks over the weekend. Before the negotiations began on Saturday, a full 25 percent of the implementation plan, including segments related to overseas development, trade, and subsidies, were still unresolved. A draft of the political declaration has not yet been vetted.

Developing countries want a firm commitment from nations such as the United States for more direct aid and lower trade barriers that will allow developing nations a bigger piece of the globalization pie. They say the global economic system is skewed against them, and rich nations, which subsidize their own farmers and business but threaten to cut off aid to developing countries that do not eliminate their own subsidies, fail to live up to their rhetoric of free trade.

Although the developing world's share of trade has increased in the past decade, reaching a high of 30 percent of global trade in 2000, only a few countries and regions have benefited. Africa, for the most part, was left out of the 1990s trade boom.

Nor, say developing nations, have rich nations met their decades-old commitments to increase foreign aid, such as the UN goal of spending 0.7 percent of their gross national product on foreign aid. Between 1990 and 2000, official development assistance to developing countries has fallen both in real terms and as a percentage of donor country's GNP. By 2000, overseas development assistance had fallen to 0.22 percent from 0.33 in 1990.

Both the European Union and the US have been accused by developing nations and advocacy groups of stalling on trade and finance issues, but both claim they have taken steps to increase aid and open their markets. The EU points to its recent initiative to open its markets to 47 of the world's poorest countries, while President Bush has pledged to increase aid by more than $5 billion over the next three years.

"The US has been a firm supporter of Agenda 21 [Rio's implementation plan] and the goals that we already have," says a senior member of the US delegation.

"We are prepared to follow up on our rhetoric with real action," says Katherine Day, spokeswoman for the European Commission.

In the eyes of South African President Thabo Mbeki and other developing world leaders, however, the funding promises need to be made in writing.

"It is no secret that the global community has, as yet, not demonstrated the will to implement the decisions it had freely adopted," said Mr. Mbeki as he opened the summit. "There is every need for us to demonstrate to the billions of people we lead that we are committed to the vision and practice of human solidarity."

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