Development specialists say next week's summit on sustainable development in South Africa is one of the last chances the international community has to commit itself to protecting the environment and reducing poverty. But there is evidence of a divide between rich and poor countries on what should come out of the summit and it does not bode well for the conference's success.
People like Kristalina Georgieva, the head of the World Bank's environment department, believe the Johannesburg summit is a crucial milestone in global efforts to set the world right.
"World leaders will gather together with the very urgent objective to think of ways, and commit to these ways, of shrinking the ranks of those who are currently poor and, at the same time, lay the foundations for sustainable development, which is the only road for us to follow for poverty, as we know it, to cease to exist in our lifetime," Ms. Georgieva said.
An ambitious goal, that some view as too ambitious, given the fact that commitments made at the landmark Rio de Janeiro summit on the environment and sustainable development 10 years ago have pretty much been neglected.
Poor countries are accusing rich countries of failing to live up to pledges made in Rio to increase foreign aid. They say the rich countries, especially the United States and the members of the European Union, are hypocrites because they demand open markets but have erected protective shields against agricultural and textile products from the Third World.
The World Bank, which supports that view, says farm subsidies in rich countries total $300 billion a year. That is five times more than the total amount of development aid rich nations give poor nations. The World Bank says in its latest World Development Report that if rich countries really want to do something to help poor countries, they should end agricultural subsidies.
The report says the latest round of subsidies to U.S. cotton farmers, for example, will cause African cotton farmers to lose $200 million. Oxfam, the British-based development charity, says EU tariffs on imported sugar effectively shut out imports from poor nations, thus pushing up the cost of sugar for European consumers, while subsidies to EU sugar growers allow them to undercut competitors and depress world prices.
The EU responds by saying it tries to strike a balance between the needs of developing nations and those of its own sugar industry, which employs nearly 400,000 people.
The EU and the United States committed themselves at a trade summit in Qatar last year to negotiate the progressive elimination of such subsidies. But, in a sign that domestic political considerations will always carry the day, the U.S. Congress later voted to increase government aid to farmers. And, in Europe, proposals to change the EU's agricultural policy, which now favors intensive farming, were vetoed by France, whose farmers are the biggest beneficiaries of massive EU subsidies.
Another problem is that the rich world's attention has shifted over the past year, away from the lofty ideals of sustainable development to the war on terrorism, the unending crisis in the Middle East and the shaky world economy. The souring global mood, the trauma of September 11 and the battering of stock markets means that developed countries are less willing to sign the checks to fix the damage caused by such ills as global warming and water pollution.
Still, environmentalists like Stephan Singer, head of the World Wildlife Fund's European policy unit, say the world cannot just ignore the needs of its most vulnerable citizens. "Each day, 30,000 people, mostly children, are dying from lack of access to clean water," he said. "30,000 each day, world-wide...That is ten times more than have died on the 11 of September in Manhattan, as tragic as that was," Mr. Singer said.
So, what is to be done? Ms. Georgieva, of the World Bank, has an answer. "A radical transformation, starting in the rich world, where both the financial and the technological capabilities are much stronger to shift us toward this sustainable society, is absolutely necessary," she said.
One idea being pushed by Ms. Georgieva and other development specialists is a consumption tax on citizens in rich countries. But is there any chance in the current political climate that such a tax would be accepted by sovereign governments or voters in rich countries?
Uwe Werblow, of the European Commission's development department says that depends on the governments. "We think that national governments, in the first place, have to get their act together," he said.
Rich country governments are themselves divided over how to approach the problem. The EU wants to reduce the number of people without access to clean water and sanitation in half by the year 2015. It also wants to increase the share of renewable energy sources to at least 15 percent of primary energy supply by the year 2010. The United States has resisted committing itself to specific targets.
Both Washington and Brussels say developing countries should fight corruption to attract private investment and ensure that foreign aid benefits those it is intended for. Washington would also like to see private companies more involved in development efforts. But countries such as Brazil say that would only give governments an excuse to reduce their financial commitments.
One thing everybody seems to agree on is that development efforts cannot be effective if they do not have the underpinning of competent and capable institutions.