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Business Takes Prominent Place at Johannesburg World Summit - 2002-08-27

The World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg aims to follow up on the Earth Summit held 10 years ago in Rio de Janeiro. One major difference between the two meetings is the role of big business. There is a new focus on partnerships between industry and environmentalists.

A decade ago, business leaders went to the Earth Summit in Rio, but the stars of the summit were environmental groups and governments. Industry, if anything, was seen as part of the problem.

In Johannesburg, business is taking a much more prominent role, and it wants to be seen as part of the solution.

Mark Moody-Stuart is a former chief executive of the Shell Oil Company. Today he heads a group called Business Action for Sustainable Development.

"For some time we have realized in business that simply delivering economic benefit is not good enough," he said. "We have to also address the environment and, very importantly for sustainable development, the social implications, the social consequences and social benefits of economic activity. But we know that we cannot do that on our own. We need to do it in partnership with others, with NGO's with governments, with local communities, with local governments."

The Johannesburg summit is about concrete results. Delegates are focusing on ways to implement the lofty ideals agreed to in Rio. But action takes money, and neither environmental activists nor local communities generally have much of it. Business however, does.

The partnerships being talked about at the summit aim to combine the expertise of non-governmental organizations or local governments with the financial backing of business.

But some activists remain skeptical. Chee Yoke Ling of the Third World Network says nobody is against partnerships in theory, but there are potential problems.

"Can you have a partnership between the polluter and the victim? Can you have a partnership between those who have lost their land rights with those who have come to take away their land rights?", she asked. "And therefore we want to raise the issue that there are many contradictions and conflicts."

Ms. Chee says it is crucial that any collaboration with business must be a partnership of equals. She says business must be accountable in order for the idea to work.

"We want governments to play the role of the arbiter of the different interests in society," she said. "Yes, we will always want to have collaboration. But they must be among real partners, respect. Not when you bring unequal partners together and this is something that we are very concerned about."

Mr. Moody-Stuart admits that it is not easy for businesses to earn the confidence of activists who have in some cases campaigned against them.

"If we are to have these partnerships and they are to work, we need to build trust," he said. "There is not a great deal of trust in the world between these different actors, we need to build on it."

Both sides agree that the way to build trust is by making sure businesses are transparent about the way they work in partnership with NGO's, governments, and communities. They need to set clear targets and then report honestly about the progress toward meeting them.