World Summit on Sustainable Development

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  • by Anup Shah
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The United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), also known as Earth Summit II or Rio +10, took place in Johannesburg, South Africa between August 26th and September 4th 2002. This was some 10 years after the Rio Earth Summit. (Side NoteThere was another United Nations conference on the environment in Stockholm, 1972. This would then make the current one Earth Summit III!)

On this page:

  1. Progress on Sustainability so far
  2. Outcome of the Summit
  3. Public-Private Partnerships, Corporate Interests and Globalization
  4. Governments and Political Leaders: failing people and the environment?
  5. NGOs Sidelined?
  6. More Information

Progress on Sustainability so far

As highlighted in the introduction page, the record on moving towards sustainability so far appears to have been quite poor and the vast majority of humanity still lack access to basics such as clean water, adequate sanitation, electricity and so on. And this is in the backdrop of an increasing amount of wealth in fewer hands.

Given that previous international meetings on sustainable development seem to have had little effect on the world's majority, the Johannesburg Summit was considered by some to appear quite ambitious to say the least and many were skeptical as to whether anything of importance would even come of this summit.

A broader agenda than the Rio Summit in 1992, the summit in Johannesburg also included a huge number of delegates representing nations, business interests and non-profit environmental and development/citizen/social justice groups. Various key issues were addressed, including:

  • Poverty
  • Water quality and availability
  • Cleaner energy
  • Health
  • Good governance
  • Technology
  • Production and Consumption
  • Oceans and Fisheries
  • Tourism

These are just a sample and were all discussed in varying degrees. Other related issues such as globalization, women's rights were also discussed.

Some understandably criticized the summit as over-ambitious to try and talk about so many issues. Yet, true or not, it shows that there is at least an apparent growing recognition that sustainable development (admittedly a somewhat overused word) means a myriad of inter-related issues, not something solely in the realms of environmentalism, but also deep into economics (which governs how resources are used), and a variety of sociopolitical issues.

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Outcome of the Summit

There were a number of outcomes in the summit's 'Plan of Action', on key areas (though many marred with controversy, or praise, depending who you heard it from!). Some of them include the following:

Water and Sanitation:

  • Governments agreed to halve the number of people lacking clean drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015.
  • This agreement was perhaps the most positive outcome of the Summit.


  • Governments agreed in principle to take action to help the poor gain access to affordable energy
  • Yet, there were no specific targets on things like boosting renewable and "green" sources such as solar or wind power, just wording to "substantially increase" the global share of renewable energy.
  • Various Oil-Producing and Exporting Countries (OPEC) nations and the United States opposed targets while Europe and various environmental and development organizations wanted them.
  • Definition of renewables also caused a stir because some wanted nuclear and hydro-electric power to be included in this definition while others did not.
  • Environmental organizations in particular did not like the outcome.

Global Warming:

  • The agreement referred to the need to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, though various organizations and nations were hoping for more concrete plans.
  • Russia and some other nations announced they would ratify the Kyoto Protocol. This was seen as positive, because earlier some had implied that they might not.
  • Had they not, with the U.S. already rejecting the protocol, Kyoto might have headed for collapse.

Biodiversity and Natural Resources:

  • Nations agreed that by 2010, the rate at which extinctions of rare plants and animals are occurring should be cut.
  • There was commitment to restore fisheries to their maximum sustainable yields by 2015;
  • To establish a representative network of marine protected areas by 2012;
  • To improve developing countries' access to environmentally-sound alternatives to ozone depleting chemicals by 2010.
  • While these were on the positive side, World Wildlife Fund, one of the world's leading conservation organizations felt the Summit didn't do enough.

Trade/Global Economic Related Issues:

  • This was a thorny issue for some because it was argued that the WSSD was seen mainly as a place to iron out World Trade Organization issues, and not really tackle sustainability.
  • Some WTO wordage changed specified (or implied) that environment shouldn't be secondary to trade, which is a positive development.
  • There was no new commitment or timetable to the E.U. and U.S. farm subsidies or the crisis in commodity prices.
  • Nothing changed in terms of aid, or debt relief.
  • Oxfam, for example, described this as a wasted opportunity, only offering crumbs for the poor.
  • reports that "Several African delegates are known to be angry at the way that the World Trade Organization's Doha agreements have dominated much of the discussion - and particularly at attempts to give the WTO resolutions primacy over the WSSD's own agreed positions. Africans also blame rich countries for the failure to make progress on the ending of agricultural subsidies to their own producers, seen as restricting developing countries' access to markets."


  • Attempts to link women's rights and health services to human rights was opposed by some nations and religious groups.
  • There was agreement that recognition that access to healthcare be consistent with human rights, and "cultural and religious values".
  • Various groups criticized the U.S., the Vatican and some developing countries that tried to oppose this stronger linkage due to issues around women's rights, abortion issues, etc.
  • Countries agreed to phase out, by 2020, the use and production of chemicals that harm human health and the environment.

Corporate Accountability:

  • There was recognition that corporate accountability must be increased.
  • Environment News Service commented that the U.S. attempted to "circumvent efforts to develop new, binding international rules on environmentally irresponsible corporate behavior" and wanted it to apply only to existing international agreements. However, country delegates in the end rejected this and "conference delegates prevented the United States from evading a commitment to corporate accountability for environmental crimes."
  • The World Development Movement (WDM) were disappointed on the overall outcome of the summit but on corporate accountability commented that, "The only glimmer of hope is that for the first time proper regulation of multinational companies has been placed on the agenda. The NGOs and developing countries that have achieved this in the face of fierce opposition from rich governments deserve massive credit. But it will be a long struggle to get a binding, enforceable agreement."

There were various other issues that had been discussed as well. In a lot of cases, there were only agreements to do something, without any specific targets or action plans. It is easy for any nation, or organization or business to say they support something, but as various organizations have argued, this summit became an arena for nations and businesses to say they will do things, while often avoiding actual obligations. In addition, because the sanitation agreement was the only really concrete agreement, development and citizen groups saw the summit as a failure.

Various organizations, some leaders and delegates from developing countries were critical on numerous aspects of the world system, especially on the agendas and interests of the richer nations. The World Development Movement, for example, felt the summit was a failure for the world's majority, and that "much of the failure can be attributed to the two major world powers - the US for active obstruction and the EU for pursuing the politics of self-interest." (See their article (PDF format) for the full report.)

The following from raises the issue that on the whole all the effort spent on reinforcing past commitments meant little substance in implementation issues or efforts towards new commitments:

A representative from the Youth Caucus -- a group of youth organisations working on sustainable development -- told the closing plenary: "You have failed us."

"We are sick and tired of the empty promises and political posturing that we've witnessed time and time again over the past ten years. We are fed up with your bracketing and debating the placement of commas in the plan of action".

UN special envoy to the summit, Jan Pronk, told the BBC that the meeting had come "close to collapse" and implied that delegates had only managed to maintain the status quo, rather than advancing the summit's real objectives. "They were working till last night on reinforcing advances made in the past," he said. That left very little time for talking about implementation."

Akwe Amosu, WSSD in Johannesburg Ends on Uncertain Note,, 4 September 2002

There were various controversies over issues of governance, influence, power and politics, and lack of truly democratic processes at the international level. For example, numerous developing country leaders commented on the interest and agendas of rich nations and multinationals as having a detrimental impact on the poor, increasing and causing poverty, and that the legacy of colonialism was still being felt hard. (Indeed, some such as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe made scathing attacks on Britain's Tony Blair, for example. While he might have had some fair points about the impacts of colonialism -- to which many in the audience applauded or approved -- his ruthless actions are hardly a positive alternative.)

As another example, many accused the U.S. of attempting to water down any final agreements. On the final day of speeches, many protestors (including many Americans) and even delegates from countries around the world, jeered U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell as he delivered his speech in the closing part of the Summit (President George Bush was not in attendance). The actions of the U.S. have been highly controversial during the Summit. Even U.S. protests groups have been vocal and dismayed at their leaders., detailing some of this criticism on U.S. actions, even reports that "Following the [NGO] press conference [on the final day of the Summit], members of NGOs from the United States pinned a large U.S. flag to the wall outside the briefing room, On it they had written: "Thank you, President Bush, for making the U.S. so hated."".

The above-mentioned WDM article also highlighted another emerging trend: the growing subordination of government responsibilities to their citizens to multinational pressures and interests. Many businesses were also at the Summit, some with these additional agendas, some with hopes to participate in the drive towards sustainable development. But, the interests of powerful nations and certain large influential businesses and industries did have an impact on the summit, as they have in all international talks and agreements.

For more on the outcomes, including perspectives/opinions, the following offer some views (links at the end of this section to other web sites also provide more information in general):

The remainder of this section introduces at some of those issues relating to business interests, governments, non-governmental organizations, etc.

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Public-Private Partnerships, Corporate Interests and Globalization

A much-talked about issue during the build up to this summit has been the multinational corporate interests and influence.

Transnational businesses are major entities in global affairs. Some have considerable resources at their disposal. Business partnerships with governments, at national and local level is increasing in many parts of the world, as it is recognized that business processes can bring positive benefits. Compared to the Rio Summit (and others such as the Kyoto meeting on Climate Change in 1997), a number of businesses came to the Summit appearing to support sustainable development.

Ten years ago at the Earth Summit in Rio, world business leaders were mostly in attendance to say "no" to any proposals for firm action to reduce greenhouse gasses, as well as to demands for more investment in reducing pollution and controlling toxic wastes.

But what a difference a decade can make. ... Businesses, or at least some business leaders, have decided to embrace the call for sustainable development. Dozens of CEOs and hundreds of other of corporate officials arrived in Johannesburg this week with briefcases full of proposals for "partnership initiatives" to enhance sustainability.

Jim Cason, Business Embraces Call for Sustainable Development,, August 29, 2002

However, at the same time, especially in the developing world, but also in the industrialized nations, business interests at the expense of people has led to a lot of concern about transnational corporations' (TNC) influences in international meetings and summits.

The above quoted article, for example continues that, despite various big businesses turning towards sustainability, "The criticism, however, has continued, and some groups believe the United Nations has become too cozy with big business. "What we're worried about is that many businesses are draping themselves in the blue of the United Nations in order to get themselves some brownie points to look good to governments, to look like they're doing the right thing around the world, when in fact their actual practices on the ground may be very different to those they profess on paper," said Matt Phillips of Friends of the Earth in an interview with the BBC." In addition, "Most of the business projects, not surprisingly, are proposals that will expand the reach of the business community while also - at least in principle - improving sustainability."

In addition, the shift towards voluntary commitments rather than obligatory ones is highlighted by some as an indication of business interests highlighting the willingness to appear to do something but without being confined by those obligations:

The shift towards private-public partnerships in both the Type I (obligatory) and Type II (voluntary) agreements of the WSSD represents part of wider abdication of responsibility on the part of developed countries to fulfill their commitments to facilitate sustainable development in the south. Plus, allowing northern-controlled agencies, such as the World Bank, to initiate the implementation of crucial programmes, including through its role as lead agency of the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), once again limits the policy choices of developing countries in their attainment of sustainable development.

Johannesburg will thus serve as a test of the political will of northern countries, both to accept the weight of their present and historical contribution to depletion of natural resources, and to assume primary responsibility for the costs of rebalancing the earth's ecosystems for the benefit of the world's peoples. This responsibility will involve not only the contribution of substantial financial resources to aid developing countries in bearing the adjustment costs of sustainable development, but a commitment to reorienting current unsustainable production and consumption patterns and reforming the global economic system which form the basis of the present ecological devastation and human misery.

Celine Tan, Why trade and finance groups should get involved in the WSSD process, Third World Network, Malaysia, July 2002

But the move towards voluntary actions is also criticized as an excuse for governments, as well as businesses to shun away from commitments as well.

While this summit saw delegates from all over the world attending, including most world leaders, the most powerful leader in the world, U.S. President George Bush did not attend.

The decision for Bush not to attend also seems to have some business-oriented reasons behind it, amongst other factors.

Some of the more right-wing oriented big business-backed think tanks and others have urged and applauded George Bush's decision not to attend in person. Certain big businesses have long been afraid of making costly commitments to reduce environmental burdens. Some of the free market "fundamentalist" think tanks believe that any form of regulation on them would have a negative impact on the economy, while others fear a sort of "global government" agenda. (Side NoteIndeed, there has been a bit of controversy over a letter from lobbyists and others to George Bush saying that "We applaud your decision not to attend the summit in person. ... Your presence would only help to publicize and make more credible various anti-freedom, anti-people, anti-globalization, and anti-Western agendas." Many who signed on to this letter were from corporate-funded think tanks.)

Evolutionary economist and author, Dr. Hazel Henderson, is quite scathing on the Bush position (and it also puts the onus on U.S. delegates there to defend that position):

US Secretary of State Colin Powell will have a tough job in Johannesburg. Powell must provide public relations and "spin" on US President George Bush's continued "go-it-alone" disdain for multilateral cooperation. Bush's stance is rooted in the laissez faire ideology of his corporate supporters, the fundamentalist, right wing of his party and the "rugged individualism" philosophy of the US "wild west".

Hazel Henderson, Bush's Agenda in Johannesburg, Terra Viva, Inter Press Service, August 28 2002

Yet, arguably, if it were even possible for the Summit to have produced some binding outcome that could be regarded as positive, it would likely be that the perceived costs of making such changes would have a negative impact on the wealthy, who currently benefit from the current global system as it is structured. While potentially addressing (or at least highlighting again) the concerns of the poorer around the world, the hope was that this summit may provide one small (maybe quite tiny) step towards protecting their rights and their environment from external factors that they have little control or say over. (Side NoteAs has been detailed on this site's section behind consumerism and consumption, one of the major factors of environmental problems, as well as other issues such as poverty and hunger, lie in the inequalities around the world and the interests of power and big business. Any changes to processes that are beneficial to those entities is of course likely to generate discontent at the least and opposition. Hence, some businesses that are in attendance may well have genuine concerns and desires to help in this area, but for others there are more opportunities at profit. These two agendas could overlap and be positive, but they could also clash, as will be discussed a bit further down this page.)

No doubt that from these business interests and free market ideology, there is some valid criticism as well. Some environmental "extremists" may unwittingly be suggesting policies which might hamper long term economic development for poorer nations. Yet, at the same time, points are made for example that economic growth leads to better environmental qualities. But, this is an ideologically based oversimplification, because it ignores those very same political factors and influences surrounding economic growth, development and the environment that have been pushed by and turned out to be beneficial for various business interests at the expense of these other issues.

For example, economic growth of the wealthy countries has been at the direct cost to poorer nations (for centuries controlling, extracting and using much of their resources), and more recently, by things like exporting pollution to the poorer regions, which makes the wealthier nations' environment appear even cleaner while regions in the South get even dirtier. Graphs and charts might show a nice correlation between economic growth and environmental health, but they doen't necessarily capture these political decisions. (This, while the U.S. for example is still the world's largest polluter, as highlighted in various discussions and global meetings regarding climate change.) Years of devastating structural adjustment in much of the third world by the rich nation-heavy IMF and World Bank has meant that the third world nations have been opened up for easier exploitation of labor and environment.

As another example of an ideological comment, the above-linked article about some valid criticism, from the corporate-funded American Enterprise Institute, mentions that at the Summit, "the undemocratic influence of nongovernment organizations (NGOs), the radical fringe's agenda of global environmental governance, and the socialist-redistributionist impulse will all be on display. On the other side of the ledger, however, are signs that the sustainable development project may be turning away from its Malthusian roots toward a broader and more productive view of the relationship between economic development and environment quality."

Rhetoric aside, this passage above ignores interests from other ideological camps, such as "undemocratic" business interests (which wield considerably more power and influence than NGOs and have contributed to a lot of the world's environmental and social problems, while at the same time being largely unaccountable). (Side NoteIn fact, a highlight of the ideological bias in the above statement depends on how the latter part of the quote is understood -- the applause at recognizing economic issues (which is critical) appears to be framed in a way so as to applaud business interests as the better way -- that is, "undemocratic NGOs" etc have a negative impact on the environment by fighting for environmental policies, but on the other side of this is big business who have a better understanding. Yet, for decades, many NGOs from the South especially, and increasingly more "development" and "social justice" NGOs of the North, have also highlighted the economic and political roots of todays problems which have included influences and problems caused by various multinational corporations. Of course this is an oversimplification as much as the above quote is, but it gives an idea.)

In addition, the claims that NGOs are non-democratic is only in the sense that it is assumed that sovereign governments are democratic in their real actions (as opposed to rhetoric). As mentioned on this site, for example on the NGO page, there have been numerous problems that are also at the hands of certain types of NGOs. While there are no doubt problems with many NGOs, many, from the third world especially are highlighting issues that their leaders and other leaders and elites around the world are unwilling or unable to address for a number of reasons.

  • Many NGOs are beginning to work with people in local and grassroots situations more effectively, often when governments don't.
  • From a business interest perspective, many NGOs are indeed critical of transnational corporate interests. In that context then, NGOs are seen by them as "undemocratic", when they are just as legitimate a part of civil society as businesses are.
  • Furthermore, the business interests being spoken for are not exactly democratic themselves.
  • The power wielded by just a handful of corporations is enormous, more than many nations, compared to NGOs and other segments of society.
  • Business lobbies and related groups do not have even the theoretical accountability to the public at large but to their industries and companies. Their resources and influence are immense.

Furthermore, the rising number of NGOs could be regarded as relating to failures of state and markets to provide all the requirements of society. It is worth bearing in mind the sheer size of global inequality, to give an idea why there are so many NGOs popping up. An aspect of this inequality and some associated problems is highlighted by the United Nations here:

Today's consumption is undermining the environmental resource base. It is exacerbating inequalities. And the dynamics of the consumption-poverty-inequality-environment nexus are accelerating. If the trends continue without change - not redistributing from high-income to low-income consumers, not shifting from polluting to cleaner goods and production technologies, not promoting goods that empower poor producers, not shifting priority from consumption for conspicuous display to meeting basic needs - today's problems of consumption and human development will worsen.

... The real issue is not consumption itself but its patterns and effects.

... Inequalities in consumption are stark. Globally, the 20% of the world's people in the highest-income countries account for 86% of total private consumption expenditures - the poorest 20% a minuscule 1.3%. More specifically, the richest fifth:

  • Consume 45% of all meat and fish, the poorest fifth 5%.
  • Consume 58% of total energy, the poorest fifth less than 4%.
  • Have 74% of all telephone lines, the poorest fifth 1.5%.
  • Consume 84% of all paper, the poorest fifth 1.1%.
  • Own 87% of the world's vehicle fleet, the poorest fifth less than 1%.

Runaway growth in consumption in the past 50 years is putting strains on the environment never before seen.

Human Development Report 1998 Overview, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) [Emphasis Added]

Yet, ignoring the ideological biases, there is some valid criticism of such agendas, such as the Malthusian perspectives (as also discussed on this site's population section.)

Population issues, for example, and various agendas and perspectives on the issue between different types of NGOs were apparent in the last summit as the following highlights:

Some northern environmentalists further infuriated those from developing countries [at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil] by suggesting that rapid population growth among the world's poor was the primary driving force behind rainforest destruction, degradation of agricultural lands, and other threats to the future health of the global environment. Vocal advocates for developing countries resented being portrayed as environmental villains. Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and the Environment in New Delhi, India, observed, "It is ironic that those who have exploited global resources the most are now preaching to those who have been largely frugal and sparing." The editors of Third World Resurgence added, "The poor are victims and not culprits in environmental degradation. Much of the depletion and contamination of resources have been done to meet the consumption demands of the affluent. Changing consumption habits of the affluent is thus the priority in curbing the rate of depletion or pollution of resources." After all, even though the population was growing rapidly in countries like Bangladesh, each additional American consumed many times more than each additional Bangladeshi.

Michael Brower and Warren Leon, The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices, (The Union of Concerned Scientists, 1999), p.9 (Link is to online extract)

It should be noted that when big business weren't at Rio or other such meetings as much, they were criticized by many for not caring. Now, when they were present, they have been criticized for being there! However, that argument doesn't in and of itself negate the criticism, based on their interests, influence, power and past actions in other international meetings and summits. No doubt, there are many in industry and even some business interests that may be regarded as genuinely attempting to meet some of these challenges. Private corporations can provide many resources to tackle these issues, and are often driven by the incentive to profit, which can be a big driver to push for development quickly. Of course this has led to the often justifiable criticism or observation that this drive for profit can be counter to the drive for sustainability. Yet, if it were possible to manage all this well, this can also be potentially a beneficial arrangement, which is where the appeal for public-private partnerships can come from; the so-called win-win situation. However, as nice as that sounds, as various international meetings have shown, from Kyoto and other global warming meetings, to various World Trade Organization summits, etc, there has been genuine concern about big-business interests that are harmful to the third world (and people of the first world even). These are serious issues that can't just be ignored.

For a while now, U.N. partnerships with certain major multinational corporations have been quite controversial because some of the major corporations it has partnered up with have been major human rights violators, or major contributors to environmental degradation. In many international agreements in recent years, corporate interests and strong influences have been criticized by many, especially from the developing world. It is therefore not surprising that this summit has also received criticism in relation to corporate interests.

A serious concern emerging from the preparatory process of the WSSD is the influence of big business in shaping the outcomes of the WSSD. Through the Business Action for Sustainable Development (BASD), transnational corporations are reprising the role they played at Rio through the Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD). Not only are TNCs (through the developed countries) blocking efforts to frame a regulatory mechanism to govern their activities within the WSSD official agreements, they are presenting themselves as viable partners in the delivery of sustainable development programmes, especially in the key areas of water, energy, health, agriculture and biodiversity.

Actively engaging in these partnerships are developed countries who have allowed their corporate lobbies to determine their priorities for negotiations during the Prepcoms. The Draft Plan of Implementation is sprinkled very liberally with language exhorting the virtues of 'public-private partnerships' and calling for public-private partnership implementation of WSSD programmes.

Celine Tan, Why trade and finance groups should get involved in the WSSD process, Third World Network, Malaysia, July 2002

Christian Aid highlights a similar concern to the above from the Third World Network, that while companies increasingly play an important role in investment and long term development, technology and skills transfer and job creation, "a company's prime motivation is to make a profit, not to educate a nation or provide clean water for every village." In addition,

"In preparation for the WSSD, corporate lobby groups representing hundreds of transnational corporations set up Business Action for Sustainable Development. This has the specific purpose of getting private sector concerns high up the Summit agenda. They have succeeded. The negotiating document, or Draft Plan of Implementation, encourages further broad and rapid liberalisation, public-private partnerships, and what are known as 'Type II outcomes'. This is where small working groups of companies, governments and non-governmental organisations come together to: 'translate political commitments into action', entrenching the role of the private sector in sustainable development. But at the same time these same companies have lobbied to ensure that minimum standards do not become mandatory. In other words, they want to police themselves."

Daniel Graymore & Isabella D. Bunn, A World Summit for Business Development?, Christian Aid, August 2002

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Governments and Political Leaders: failing people and the environment?

As well as business interests, both positive and negative, national interests too were a major (the biggest) factor in how the Summit ended and what was in (and out) of the final Plan of Action.

It has been pointed out by many (and also discussed on many sections on this web site) how business interests and governments of some of the industrialized countries have often gone hand in hand, from lobbying, to mega donations, shared ideologies, pressure for government and political leaders to meet business demands else face the prospect of losing jobs as companies can easily relocate, etc. In that context, there have been a number of criticisms about various Northern governments as well leading up to this Summit.

As an example of the concern of differing agendas, a European Union and United States negotiating document advocated using the Earth Summit to promote trade liberalisation and corporate-led globalisation, while not proposing legally binding mechanisms to protect the environment or vulnerable communities, as Friends of the Earth reveals. And this was while ideas about some sort of World Environmental Organization, similar in idea to the World Trade Organization, (but to balance it out as well) is also given a cold shoulder.

Friends of the Earth also criticized the European Union (EU) regarding its position on trade and globalization related issues discussed at the Summit, saying that,

"In discussions all day yesterday [August 27, 2002, the second day of the Summit] the EU said that they would not support a UN text that would set an international framework on corporate accountability and corporate social responsibility. This proposal was originally put forward by the G77, the group of developing countries, in negotiations on globalisation, trade and finance."

EU loses earth summit leadership role, Friends of the Earth, 28 August, 2002

As another example, "Canada's negotiators to the WSSD admitted [to] the federal government's support of the private sector's control of human rights and environmental outcomes of this conference." according to the Council of Canadians.

Transparency International criticizes both rich and poor nations, pointing out that "Corrupt political elites and unscrupulous investors kill sustainable growth in its tracks" as it released its 2002 Corruption Perception Index. In addition, the chairman of the organization pointed out that, "Political elites and their cronies continue to take kickbacks at every opportunity. Hand in glove with corrupt business people, they are trapping whole nations in poverty and hampering sustainable development. Corruption is perceived to be dangerously high in poor parts of the world, but also in many countries whose firms invest in developing nations."

Thus corporate-oriented but rich government-led globalization has been a major factor in environmental issues, social and economic issues, especially for the third world due to the impacts and influence they have in international bodies such as the WTO, IMF, World Bank, and on agreements and negotiations, as discussed throughout this web site. The right to sovereignty is affected and people have even less ability to make appropriate decisions for their own communities, also highlighted in part by the following:

"While it is wonderful that Rio + 10 will attempt to breathe new life into its basic agreements its chances for long-term success are next to nil if nations remain caught in the present double-bind, which prevents even those willing to act on behalf of nature from doing so. The root causes of the present global environmental malaise do not only reflect a failure of "political will," they are also caused by a fundamental loss of national powers to operate in the best interests of nature or human beings."

Globalization and the United Nations, International Forum on Globalization, August 26, 2002

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NGOs Sidelined?

As mentioned above, Non governmental organization, ranging from international to local grassroots groups were present throughout the summit. Their issues and interests ranged from environment, development and poverty, social justice and other single and multi-issue campaigns. While some business interests argued that NGOs are undemocratic, as mentioned above, a lot of business interests could be considered undemocratic and unaccountable, and even more of an issue considering the enormous global impact that various industries have, in terms of power, influence and wealth. That aside, NGOs were recognized participants of the Summit, by the United Nations. Various NGOs have long been recognized as legitimate 'third' entity of society (the other two being nation states and corporations.)

But, NGOs are not one group, or even a lose group bound by a common set of goals. Hence, there were diverse range of opinions, ranging from being against the Summit in total, to supporting and campaigning hard to pressure governments for harder and more concrete agreements.

Anuradha Mittal from Food First, taking part at the Summit, describes how some NGOs on the opening day were not able to attend the meetings:

The international civil society has faced being shut out of trade talks. It has faced increasing brutality of police at the trade summits whether it is Seattle, Genoa, Washington, DC, or Quebec. But over 6000 accredited NGOs to the World Summit on Sustainable Development came to Johannesburg with different expectations.

This morning, however, thousands of delegates were in for a shock when they were turned away from the Standton Center where the official summit is being held. The reason given: over the weekend the organizers realized that the building has capacity for holding only 6,000 individuals and the government delegates are over 5,000 in number (several corporate officials are part of government delegations). So while the WSSD Secretariat was processing endless applications of NGO accreditation, they failed to inform the civil society delegates that they will not be able to participate in the official meeting. Instead they handed out 1,500 passes, allowing first 1,500 to enter the building, enraging thousands who were treated with contempt and even threatened. To deal with delegates anger, they have now removed the passes. Instead the first 6,000 delegates will be allowed in after the gates open at 8:30 am. Government delegates (including corporate executives) however, will have access to the building at all times.

Anuradha Mittal, Latest from the WSSD, Day One, Institute for Food and Development Policy (also known as Food First) August 26, 2002

Some groups have argued that human rights is also a central component to sustainable development. That giving people more rights to make more decisions for themselves is key. Mary Robinson, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and former President of Ireland, has added that aspect of accountability that human rights should bring, also adding that, "the private sector is getting 'too much emphasis without accountability'," in an interview with Inter Press Service (31 August, 2002).

Some of the more grassroots-oriented organizations are often on the streets with ordinary people staging protests and the like. These have occurred for decades on all sorts of aspects of globalization.

As with other international meetings and summits, this one too saw many protests. To accompany it, there was a police crackdown with more accusations of heavy-handedness. The police claims security alerts that activists are planning violent protests, yet, a peaceful march of activists that included children and elderly was dispersed using percussion grenades to make loud sounds and produce smoke, to intimidate people.

(See this site's section on protests around the world for more about protests that have occurred for years on all sorts of global issues and the violence that has accompanied it, usually mostly from the authorities.)

As corporate globalization in the past few years has seen an increase in poverty, inequality and environmental degradation, ordinary citizens composed of activists, scientists, academics, intellectuals and others have formed various groups and non-profit organizations to try and highlight these inequalities from a human/environmental perspective.

This has also come at a time when a lot of governments around the world, from the most powerful to many of the poorest are seen cosying up or caving in to monied and corporate interests. Business-backed think tanks may claim such NGOs as undemocratic and unaccountable, and in the West where a large number of us benefit and live in comparative luxury, it might be hard to look inward to find a contributory cause to the world's problems. Of course due to the wide variety of NGOs many are not united by any common goals (in comparison, some basic business interests are common across industries). Some NGOs are indeed quite hostile on some issues while ignoring others. Yet, many more are popping up, with broader and multi-issue agendas and goals. These are often the ones being more critical of both governments and businesses.

When NGOs and others from around the world try to highlight this, it can be easy to shake off and dismiss as special agendas, and having other interests. In addition, when governments and businesses are failing people, NGOs offer additional voices (which are often more participatory and involving wider society, though not always) that add to the debates, which participatory democracy should be all about.

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More Information

The magnitude of this event means that there is a lot more that can be discussed, from a variety of perspectives. Hence, for some additional sources of information about the WSSD, you could start at the following web sites:

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Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
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Alternatives for broken links

Sometimes links to other sites may break beyond my control. Where possible, alternative links are provided to backups or reposted versions here.