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By Gro Harlem Brundtland

Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Norwegian prime minister, led the U.N. Commission on Environment and Development which in 1987 introduced the term ''sustainable development.'' She is currently director-general of the World Health Organization.

-- Cynics may declare it obscene that the 60,000 attendees of the upcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg (beginning Aug. 26) will talk long and eat well in the midst of the worst famine southern Africa has seen in decades.

Indeed, what profound irony that the Johannesburg conference will take place in a region where 300,000 people may die by year's end, largely due to our failure to carry out earlier commitments to sustainable development made 10 years ago at the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

Yet, hopefully the timing and setting of the Johannesburg Summit will focus the world's attention -- and the delegates' minds -- on the need to act on behalf of our common future and the grave consequences if we don't.

We have enough knowledge to act -- and, indeed, there is a global understanding of the need to take care of our planet for future generations. But over the past 10 years, we have not given it the key priority it requires. We have not committed the resources it takes. We have lost precious time.

At this conference, we can change all that. Attention will, of course, be paid to climate change and rising sea levels; to the loss of biodiversity and the spreading deserts. But more than anything, sustainable development is about people -- about providing food, shelter and health to everybody on the planet in such a way that future generations can do the same.

This was the clear conclusion of the commission of leading world experts I led 15 years ago, the World Commission on Environment and Development, which laid out the first global blueprint for sustainable development. No matter how many environmental agreements the rich countries of the world design, a prosperous and safe future for our grandchildren cannot be secured as long as 3 billion people live in poverty.

This is why the Johannesburg Summit matters. We cannot lose any more time. Take HIV/AIDS. Africa's AIDS epidemic is threatening its population's ability to teach, heal, defend and even feed itself as millions of teachers, health professionals, soldiers and farmers are dying or dead, leaving millions of orphans and old people to fend for themselves. If we wait another decade before we drastically scale up our actions, HIV/AIDS will have engulfed China, India, large parts of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe -- dwarfing the scale of the current epidemic in Africa.

Think about that for a moment. Think of the enormous task we will leave our children to deal with.

Alarmingly, effective action may be harder now than 10 years ago. The international context has changed since the Rio Summit. The last decade has taught us that the distribution of the benefits of globalization is not equitable. We are now dealing with a world where there is a strong sense of winners and losers, and losing may mean a life in abject poverty or even death from diseases you can't afford to treat.

Recent events demonstrate that these inequities create heightened threats -- local crises evolve into development crises and then spread to threaten global security itself. So far, crises have been over oil supplies -- it could soon be over access to water. The experience of the past decade does not give confidence that existing international processes to prevent and solve international crises are yet up to the task of dealing with them.

But the last decade has also given us a more sophisticated understanding of the nature and dynamics of poverty. Poverty, we've come to understand, is not just a function of income, but a function of multiple forms of deprivation. We now focus more on the factors that drive people into poverty and recognize, for example, the power of better health as an effective poverty-reduction strategy. Diseases, such as malaria, tuberculosis and, of course, AIDS, perpetuate poverty, for whole countries as well as for individuals. Conversely, leading economists argue forcefully that investments in basic health care in the poorest countries will boost economic growth.

And now comes the effort to modernize development assistance. Accountability, innovation, partnerships, untied aid, moving from specific projects toward integrated support and focus on locally and nationally developed poverty-reduction strategies are but a few new techniques. Moreover, current assistance mechanisms are now being complemented by innovative funding devices such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. But underlying all of these modern instruments is the need for financial follow through.

Two years ago, the world's nations united around the Millennium Development Declaration: measurable targets for reducing poverty and improving the human condition within a specific time frame. This declaration brings the benefits of a limited list of goals, careful definition of indicators, rigorous analysis of costs, ongoing advocacy and the legitimacy provided by strong political buy-in. In Johannesburg, we can make these goals a realistic road map for sustainable development.

But the real test of our resolve will not come from the words we will agree on in Johannesburg, but from the resources we are willing to put into this. The past decade has taught us that global economic growth alone does not solve the problems of poverty.

Growth, development aid, democratic change and a fairer deal for our neighbors living in developing countries as they strive for access to global markets are what will bring the 3 billion poor up to the level where they can participate in a global effort to save our natural resources. Investments in new technology, energy conservation, pollution control and a restructuring away from the enormous waste of fossil fuels will determine whether we will be able to reverse the deterioration of our environment. But more than anything, it is investments in people that will make the difference.

Our task is not impossible. There are examples of effective global action. The near eradication of polio, which until recently had paralyzed millions of children in the north as well as the south, and the rapid reduction of emissions of ozone-depleting gases show that the world can achieve great things when we focus on a problem.

As a global society, we have the resources we need to succeed. The commitments made -- or skirted -- in Johannesburg will show if we have the will.

(c) 2002, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.
For immediate release (Distributed 8/21/02)