The Last Mega-Summit?

The Last Mega-Summit?

On the last day of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, an angry NGO leader bashed the WSSD acronym, offering instead that it was a World Summit of Shameful Deals. Oversimplification and exaggeration make for strong headlines, but rarely reflect the whole truth.

I would like to offer a few variations, beginning with the World Summit of Serious Dilemmas. Rio ‘92 had left unfinished business: better integration of the crying need for development and the protection of the environment; ensuring trade, direct investments, and public aid are mutually supportive while respecting the environment; making globalization work for the spread of human rights and good governance; building on the dynamics of private enterprise while stimulating responsible practices and integrity at all levels. It is difficult to reduce such issues to simple yes/no choices and to the old debate of economy against environment.

Yet because politicians and campaigners with a deep-green drill felt this summit was their ten-year career high point, they came in large crowds but clearly struggled with the scope of issues at hand.

It could also be dubbed the World Summit of Stricter Duties for government delegations of richer economies. They were not prepared to step outside their domestic political realities to sign commitments that their electorate would not allow them to fund or implement. With a significant shortfall against the Rio ‘92 promises, there was no credible way to yield to those who clamored for a fresh visionary global deal, even though future generations would be better off for it.

As a result it became a World Summit of Small Decisions. Even so, it did not backpedal on Agenda 21. The Implementation Plan puts poverty alleviation center stage and reaffirms the 2015 Millennium Development Goals. It adds a water sanitation target, strongly supported by business. It expands on energy beyond Agenda 21. It resolves to get trade rules supportive of environmental goals and to get public aid more in synergy with private-sector investments. It stresses the need for good local governance to foster investments and development. It gives the liberal market system the benefit of the doubt but sends a clear signal to the private sector that it must shape up on accountability and its performance to contribute to sustainable societies. It also presses for dealing with unsustainable consumption.

This is not the full story. Jo’burg was also the World Summit for Spirited Dialogues. Many of which were held as side events near to the hub of negotiations. They had high content and testified to the engagement of stakeholders in existing and new partnerships that address all the major dimensions of sustainable development. The UN had taken a stab at listing many new Type II partnerships to boost the outcome of the Summit. We had reservations about an effort that could be rather cosmetic. It would let governments off the hook to agreeing on a robust Implementation Plan that must be the framework that aligns all forms of partnerships to shared goals. However, more than ever, partnerships will be the way to build on the respective skills and financial capacity of business, governments and NGOs.

Business therefore demonstrated a strong commitment to action that overcame the initial surprise of those who liked to deal with business as the absent villain or backroom schemer. Accused of “hijacking” the summit in the first days, the large number of business delegates finally impressed most by exhibiting a genuine readiness for dialogue and power of initiative.

This may well have been the last mega-summit. It did the job in the end. An issue-centered process would surely now work better to deal with progress on the various chunks in the Implementation Plan.

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Claude Fussler was a director of the key private-sector delegation at the Johannesburg Summit, which represents such major multinational companies as Unilever, Shell, Rio Tinto, and Mr. Fussler’s own former employer, Dow Chemical.