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By Nitin Desai

Nitin Desai is the U.N. undersecretary general for economic and social affairs. In that capacity he will chair the U.N.'s World Summit on Sustainable Development Sept. 2-11 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

-- The impact of globalization on the environment and development has been debated heatedly for years in the streets and in salons from Davos to Porto Alegre. My hope is that a new synthesis will emerge as a result of dialogue between these different visions when the World Summit on Sustainable Development convenes in Johannesburg, South Africa in September.

Of the major U.N. conferences in the 1990s, none captured the world's imagination like the Earth Summit held shortly after the end of the Cold War in Rio in June 1992. Nearly 10 years later, however, many of the commitments made there to balance environmental protection with development have remained unfulfilled.

There has been progress, of course. The public is more generally aware of environmental issues. Gains have been made in life expectancy and certain areas of health. Above all, there has been a decline in the world population growth rate.

While the overall poverty rate worldwide has declined, however, it has increased in some countries, and the gap between rich and poor has widened considerably. Energy use is up even though global growth is down. Global warming remains a significant threat. Deforestation, desertification and the number of endangered species continue to rise.

In short, the key concerns of Rio persist.

For this reason, Johannesburg must reflect a sense of urgency. It must advance with practical steps, bold measures with clear goals, timetables and commitments.

These steps will have to be taken not just by governments, but by all stakeholders -- corporate leaders, trade unionists, farmers, local authorities, community organizations, NGOs and activists.

This will require a shared vision of how development should proceed. ''Davos Man'' (the name Harvard professor Samuel Huntington coined for the global business and political elites of the World Economic Forum who meet each year in Davos, Switzerland -- ed.) sees a globalized world with open borders and a liberal market economy as the route to prosperity. But even ''Davos Man'' has doubts about how to deal with the global poverty and disease as well as the alienation, social stress and threats to order that emerge from these. As result corporate leaders seek a dialogue with critics to find new answers.

By contrast, protest movements and dissenting academics who gather annually in Porto Alegre, Brazil, are deeply skeptical about the benefits of the globalized market economy. They give precedence to the local over the global and hence are not convinced that liberalization and the opening of borders are the route to prosperity for all. For them, the world is becoming globalized not because the average person has opted for it, but because effective power is in the hands of the few. But, in Porto Alegre, too, there is a move from protest toward dialogue.

The vision we seek to embody in the form of the ''Johannesburg activist'' is different from both Davos and Porto Alegre.

The Johannesburg activist is enough of an economist to respect the need to compare costs and benefits and to recognize the potential of a properly managed market system to save us from the excesses and perversions of public control. He or she is enough of an engineer or technologist to recognize that the right sort of development requires not just tweaking of the market, but a systematic effort to promote alternative technologies that are less aggressive in their use of natural systems.

The ''Johannesburg activist'' is an ecologist who recognizes that the inputs and outputs of cost/benefit analysis need to be evaluated with a full understanding of the complex pathways through which local, national and global ecosystems are affected. He or she recognizes that development requires empowerment, and that means democracy and decentralization.

In all these, the ''Johannesburg activist'' is guided by the principle that the real test of development is what it does to the self-respect, dignity and well being of the poorest person in society. This is the vision of sustainable development that has emerged in all of our preparatory discussions for the September summit.

It is a vision grounded in a large number of local projects that have combined social, economic and environmental imperatives into a single whole. It is a vision based on the potential of new technologies to promote decentralized development that works with, not against, the local environment. It rests on a notion of solidarity and responsibility -- not only with regard to each other but to future generations.

Our great hope is we can unite the community of concern that ties the multinational corporate executive to the village family not only into a consensus but into action.

(c) 2002, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services
For immediate release (Distributed 5/13/02)