United Nations

Partnership a key theme in lead up to the World Summit on Sustainable Development

UNITED NATIONS - Among the outcomes of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro was an unprecedented coming together of civil society from all sectors on a global scale. Some 30,000 representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) concerned with a wide range of issues gathered in Rio, making the Summit among the most dynamic and colorful meetings of the decade.

At the time, many believed the engagement of so many NGOs with the issues, with each other, and with governments meeting there represented a great new impulse in the pursuit of sustainable development.

If organizers of the upcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) have their way, one of the main outcomes will be a deepening and formalizing of the burgeoning partnerships between governments and civil society in pursuing the goals of poverty eradication, promoting sustainable consumption and production, and protecting the integrity of the earth's ecosystems - which are the main themes of the conference, scheduled for 26 August - 4 September 2002 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Some 65,000 people, representing governments, NGOs, businesses, and other "major groups," are expected to participate in the WSSD. And creating a stronger, more effective, and more detailed partnership between them is a major agenda item.

"What a partnership can do is to give the people who have to implement the program at the field level, at the community level, at the local level, at the national level, a far more direct involvement in the design of policies and programs that are going to guide the deployment of financial and technical resources," said Nitin Desai, secretary general of the WSSD, addressing the opening session of the Third Preparatory Committee of the WSSD (Prepcom III) in New York on 25 March 2002.

More specifically, WSSD organizers have outlined a concept called "Type II" agreements. Such agreements "would consist of a series of commitments and action-oriented coalitions focused on deliverables and would contribute in translating political commitments into action," according to a paper presented by Emil Salim of Indonesia, chairman of Prepcom III. (Type I agreements are understood to be the traditional government-to-government agreements that are typically signed at United Nations meetings.)

However, many of the representatives of civil society gathered at Prepcom III, which ended on 5 April 2002, expressed considerable skepticism about pinning great hopes for achieving sustainable development on such partnerships, saying that governments had so far over the last ten years failed to meet the commitments and targets they made in Agenda 21, the Earth Summit's ground-breaking action plan for sustainable development.

The concern is that governments will use the partnership concept to avoid responsibility for genuine commitment to change and will place the responsibility for the main work of solving environmental problems and promoting sustainable development on the shoulders of the so-called "major groups" in the Agenda 21 process - civil society, business, trade unions, farmers, women, and indigenous peoples, among others..

"We are not against partnerships, but they must be developed to support the actions and political measures that governments must agree on at the Summit," said Remi Parmentier, political director of Greenpeace International. "We must not get lost in this strategy of confusing everybody with this Type II Partnership business."

Civil society representatives were further concerned by the fact that, as of the end of the Prepcom III, many of the details about how such partnerships might work had not yet been worked out. As well, governments failed to reach consensus on other major initiatives of the Summit, such as how to deal with the topics of oceans, energy, small island states and Africa as they relate to sustainable development.

Summit organizers hope to work out details on those and other topics at a final Prepcom, scheduled to be held in Bali, Indonesia, from 27 May-2 June 2002.

A number of NGO representatives suggested that if governments do not make more firm their commitments to implementing and achieving the goals of Agenda 21, which have been widely acknowledged to be largely unfulfilled, Johannesburg could be the scene of major demonstrations.

"It is still hoped that something will be accomplished at Bali," said Peter Pavlovic, a member of the World Council of Churches ecumenical team to Prepcom III. "But if not, Johannesburg will be a second Seattle," referring to sometimes violent protests at a World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle a few years ago.

Other NGO representatives, however, believe that the action will not be extreme. "Demonstrations won't be intended to shut down the Summit," said Pieter Van Der Gaag, executive director of the Amsterdam-based Northern Alliance for Sustainability (ANPED). "They will be to put pressure on governments to get things done."

The organizers of the NGO Forum for the Summit said they are working hard to create an environment where governments, NGOs, and representatives of other major groups can come together in a spirit of collaboration and partnership. "Quite a lot of interaction is planned to happen," said Solomzi Madikane, head of international process at the Civil Society Secretariat of the WSSD.

Summit organizers have, for example, created a special meeting place, the Ubuntu Village, located roughly halfway between the NGO Forum site and the governmental meeting hall, to provide a place for governments, UN agencies, and major groups to "unite on common ground to stimulate dialogue and maximize partnership opportunities," according to the WSSD Secretariat.

Many of the broad concerns of civil society were outlined at Prepcom III with the release of the "Johannesburg Memorandum," a 70-page document calling for the widespread adoption of an alternative model of international development that would create "fairness in a fragile world."

Authored by 16 independent activists, intellectuals, managers and politicians who were brought together by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in order to contribute to the global debate from a civil society perspective, the "Joburg Memo" argues for a new balance between the concerns of the "North" and the "South" by suggesting that the poverty eradication so desperately desired by underdeveloped and developing countries can be achieved in the long run only by more sustainable development practices - practices which must also be mirrored in the developed world.

"[F]ulfilling the ambition of Rio requires the effective response to the demand for equity arising from the South, but in a manner which takes full account of the bio-physical limits of the Earth," states the Memo. "Some claim that humanity faces a choice between human misery and natural catastrophe. This choice is false. We are convinced that human misery can be eliminated without catalyzing natural catastrophes.... Getting ready to meet this challenge, however, requires revisiting the technologies, the institutions, and the world views that dominate the globe today. Johannesburg can forge a new beginning."

Peter Adriance, representative of the Bahá'í International Community to the WSSD, said that the Johannesburg Memorandum puts forward creative and constructive ideas and upholds a positive vision.

"Certainly, when it speaks of the importance of 'world views' as they relate to sustainable development, Bahá'ís see this as something of supreme importance in achieving the kind of global transformation that is necessary for creating a world where poverty is eliminated - and the earth's environment is protected," said Mr. Adriance.

"In the Bahá'í view, nothing short of a new vision of unity, rooted in the recognition of the essential oneness of humanity, can bring this about," said Mr. Adriance. "The Johannesburg Summit will be successful in relation to the degree it embraces a vision, which is essentially spiritual in nature, that all humanity is as a single family, living together in a single household."

Each member of that family is a trust of the whole and each has a responsibility for the maintenance of the household."