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After Johannesburg - Do UN Summits Really Accomplish Much? - 2002-09-05

The World Summit on Sustainable Development is over and the thousands of delegates who attended have headed for home. Some of those delegates are questioning how much really gets done at big conferences like the one in Johannesburg.

A serious but quiet debate has begun, both among activists and nations, about whether massive U.N.-sponsored summits are really worth it anymore. Do they accomplish enough to justify the price tag?

Fred Kalibwani is with the Zimbabwe-based PELUM Association, which works for sustainable agriculture in Africa. He says it is time to re-think the usefulness of big, expensive summits.

"It is high time as civil society, as the people concerned, we need to hold the U.N. accountable," he said. "We cannot just have summits and summits, when they do not touch the issues that actually impact 70 to 80 percent of the population."

The Johannesburg summit was supposed to find ways of carrying out the ideas discussed 10 years ago at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. It ended with the adoption of an Implementation Plan that commits governments to specific action toward reducing poverty and saving the environment.

But Mr. Kalibwani and other activists say they did not see the progress they had hoped for in Johannesburg. In fact, as far as they were concerned, they had to fight to keep from losing ground. And so they are questioning whether the United Nations should bother sponsoring future summits.

The debate is also taking place among national governments. The prime minister of Denmark, for example, raised the same question in his speech to the Johannesburg summit.

But some argue in favor of big summits.

"These conferences are in fact starting a process - encouraging to start a process. And this is very much the case here," said Jean-Claude Faure who heads the development assistance committee of the OECD, the Organization for Economic Cooperation in Europe. "Beyond the consensus on substance and the content of the plan of action, what is very essential is to see how we are going to move these days on that road toward sustainable development, which involves development also, and all the dimensions of development, poverty reduction, etc."

Mr. Faure says in order to achieve any of the goals set at the summit, national governments will have to work in partnership with citizens' groups, businesses and communities. And so, he says, the real value of the meeting will be determined by whether all of those groups follow up on it.

Some activists agree with him. They say it may take months, even years to discover whether the Johannesburg summit was worth it.

The debate over summits has led to a related discussion over the role of the United Nations and other so-called multilateral organizations, such as the World Bank, the IMF, and the World Trade Organization.

Steve Sawyer of Greenpeace says the issue is usually only discussed around the time of big summits. But he thinks it needs to be addressed urgently.

"We are facing global crisis after global crisis, whether it be terrorism, whether it be the environmental crisis, famine in Africa, social unrest, the rapidly increasing gap between rich and poor, both between and within countries. And we don't have any global institutions capable of dealing with them. And we need them," he said. "And I think the majority of the countries in the world recognize that. They're not willing to give up a very large percentage of their sovereignty in order to create these institutions, but at the same time I think there's a recognition that there's a real need. And somebody, somewhere has got to take some leadership on that subject.

Even people who work for the United Nations agree the U.N. system needs reform. What nobody agrees on is how it should be reformed, and what the U.N. of the future will look like. The debate is really only beginning.

Maybe someday, the U.N. will sponsor a summit to decide its own fate.