WHAT CAN JOHANNESBURG ACHIEVE?
By Amartya Sen
Amartya Sen, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, was awarded the Nobel
prize for economics in 1998.
CAMBRIDGE -- The World Summit on Sustainable Development, which begins
in Johannesburg on Aug. 26, is a major global event. Since ''sustainable
development'' sounds like a specialized and somewhat technical concept,
the general public may well wonder what this global event is about, what
it can possibly achieve, and how we may go about assessing its achievements.
These are important questions indeed -- not just for the lay public.
The Johannesburg meeting is a sequel to the Earth Summit held in Rio de
Janeiro 10 years ago. The Rio meeting, which hammered out a few agreements,
did a lot to advance environmental consciousness in public discussion.
It also helped to generate the understanding that ''environment and development
are inextricably linked,'' in the words of Kofi Annan, the Secretary General
of the United Nations. It is this understanding that lies behind the invoking
of the idea of ''sustainable development'' in the Johannesburg Summit.
That concept has been widely used in environmental analysis, over the
last decade, following its exploration in the justly famous Brundtland
Report, Our Common Future.
The Brundtland Report defined the sustainability of development as the
requirement to meet ''the needs of the present without compromising the
ability of future generations to meet their own needs.'' Economist Robert
Solow gave the idea of sustainable development a more exact formulation
by insisting on the condition that the next generation must be left with
''whatever it takes to achieve a standard of living at least as good as
our own and to look after their next generation similarly.'' While questions
can be raised about these formulations (I will raise one before long),
it cannot be doubted that the concept of sustainable development, pioneered
by Brundtland, has served as an illuminating and powerful starting point
for simultaneously considering the future and the present.
The need to think about the environment cannot really be dissociated from
the nature of the lives that people, especially deprived people, live
today. Indeed, if people have a miserable living standard currently, then
the promise of sustaining that pitiable standard in the future can hardly
be very thrilling. The goal has to include rapid reduction of today's
deprivations, while making sure that whatever is achieved today can be
sustained in the future. Global cooperation is needed both to alleviate
today's deprivations and to safeguard our future. And that is exactly
what the World Summit in Johannesburg is trying to achieve.
But do the prospects of effective global cooperation look promising? One
issue that has received much attention is the need for development assistance
and finance, and the extent to which the richer countries are willing
to help the development efforts of the poorer ones. On this front, things
do not look particularly promising, if I am any judge. The International
Conference on Financing for Development, held in Mexico last March, produced
a document -- the ''Monterrey Consensus'' -- that is quite upbeat on powerful
rhetoric but rather bashful on the likely magnitudes of financial assistance.
The chasm between expectation and delivery is beginning to look big. For
example, the financial expectations entertained by the so-called New Partnership
for Africa's Development (NEPAD) seem to be radically out of line with
the level of assistance that can be realistically expected, at this time,
from the richer countries or from international financial institutions.
In general, from the financial perspective, the outlook for the Johannesburg
Summit cannot be seen as rosy.
Nevertheless the activists for a better financial deal will no doubt soldier
on in Johannesburg, and rightly so. But it is also extremely important
to be clear that fruitful global cooperation can take many different forms
-- not just general financial assistance. Let me illustrate.
On the environmental side, the ground that has been lost by the slowing
down of international agreements and also by the reneging on past understandings
(for example, by the United States regarding the Kyoto Protocol) needs
to be reversed. On the economic side, the importance of reducing entry
barriers in the richer countries for products from the poorer ones deserves
much greater practical acknowledgment. Johannesburg offers an excellent
opportunity for both.
Also, despite the pessimism about general financial assistance, there
is wisdom in Annan's penetrating observation that people in other countries
tend to be much more ''responsive when you present them with a major human
problem and a credible strategy for dealing with it.'' The response to
the HIV/AIDS pandemic is one obvious field, but the more general need
for concerted efforts in basic health care and basic education calls for
more global commitment in supplementing local engagement.
To consider another area, there are many institutional reforms urgently
needed for the global economy. To illustrate, there is a strong case for
making patent laws more efficient as well as less contrary to equity.
The existing laws do not facilitate the actual use of desperately needed
medicines in less affluent countries, because the obligatory royalties
for patents often cost many times more than the actual production costs.
No less importantly, the existing patent laws do not provide adequate
incentives to the producers of medicine to develop more appropriate drugs
(for example, low-cost, single-use vaccines), which are critically important
for less affluent people.
There are also many positive things that the poorer countries can do for
themselves, without any financial help from the rich, who need not be
seen as the moving agents of change. In this context, we can even question
the general strategy of defining sustainable development only in terms
of fulfillment of needs, rather than using the broader perspective of
enhancing human freedoms on a sustainable basis. The essential freedoms
must, of course, include the ability to meet crucially important economic
needs, but there are also many others to be considered, such as expanding
political participation and broadening social opportunities. It is good
to see that the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Civil Society Forum
are arranging meetings in Johannesburg during the summit, and one hopes
that the summit leaders will pay attention to their concerns.
Indeed, it is not at all obvious why the enhancing and sustaining of democratic
freedoms should not figure among the central demands of sustainable development.
These freedoms are important in themselves, but furthermore, they can
contribute to other types of freedoms. For example, open public discussion,
often stifled under authoritarian regimes, may be pivotally important
for leading a fuller human life and also for a better understanding of
the importance of environmental preservation and its far-reaching effects.
There are many rewards of seeing people as ''agents'' who can exercise
their freedoms rather than merely as ''patients'' whose needs have to
be fulfilled. Being less anxious about getting big financial assurances
from the richer countries is among those rewards. Important as financial
assistance may be, there are also other ways forward, which can be helped
by more focus on agency rather than just one need -- working on one's
own or in collaboration with others.
Johannesburg offers a major opportunity for that approach as well. Our
relations with the world depend crucially on our view of ourselves.
(c) 2002, Nobel Laureates. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate
International, a division of Tribune Media Services.
For immediate release (Distributed 8/13/02)
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