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By Amartya Sen

Amartya Sen, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, was awarded the Nobel prize for economics in 1998.

-- 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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