Beware Beating About the Bush.

Johannesburg World Summit 2002
Opinion & Analysis

As tens of thousands of people and about 100 heads of state gather in Johannesburg for the World Summit on Sustainable Development, one question is on everyone’s mind: “What can be done about the US?”

Under pressure from the right wing of the Republican Party, President George W. Bush will not be attending the WSSD. While his absence is an affront to democratic multilateral co-operation among nations, it should not be mistaken for a lack of US commitment to the outcome. On the contrary, the US has set an aggressive agenda for the summit that the administration has been pursuing for over a year.

The agenda involves halting progress toward the fulfillment of the commitments made by Bush’s father at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, and the enactment of specific policies that benefit corporations at the expense of people and the planet.

The 1992 Rio Earth Summit was an historic watershed. It placed the environment crisis at the top of the international agenda, and linked environment with development in a new paradigm of sustainable development. Governments, including the earlier Bush administration, made many commitments in Rio. These included binding international agreements to protect people and the environment such as the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change and the Convention on Biodiversity.

There was also a commitment by developed countries to provide 0.7% of GNP in aid to developing countries and to transfer environmentally friendly technologies; and the creation of a structure at the United Nations to enforce these measures, based on transparency and democratic participation of governments and civil society.

Over the past 10 years admirable work has been done to fulfill these commitments. However, far more attention has been paid to implementing the corporate globalisation agenda of liberalized trade and investment policies enforced by the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and others.

While the agreements of Rio have floundered, the institutions of economic globalisation have thrived with political and financial support that has turned them into the world’s dominant international institutions. While the products of Rio focus on social and ecological sustainability, the institutions of corporate globalisation focus on profit-maximization and wealth for the few.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the world is facing even greater environmental and economic crises today than in 1992.

Not only has Bush withdrawn from the Kyoto Protocol, but his administration has also announced that it will not negotiate new binding commitments.

According to US Under-Secretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky, “the world community does not need to negotiate new goals or create new global bureaucracies (at the WSSD).”

Rather than fulfill the commitments made in Rio by his father, Bush is using the summit to fulfill a corporation globalisation agenda which includes the privatisation of vital human services through “public-private partnerships” and reduced government regulation of corporations and foreign capital with a call for “investor friendly environments.” The two initiatives combine to make a deadly corporate cocktail: privatisation of vital resources with a weakening of the government’s ability to regulate the corporations that provide the services.

The Bush Administration has already implemented public-private partnerships at the US Agency for International Development (AID). One such initiative, the US Energy Assistance Partnership Program, was established by about 80 utilities and regulatory partnerships in 32 AID-assisted countries. Among other things, it has accelerated the deregulation and privatisation of publicly owned utilities in developing countries.

In California, after the government and the Enron Corporation “partnered” to deregulate the energy sector, Californians experienced blackouts, prices that went through the ceiling, and some of the most unethical (and illegal) corporate behavior in the state’s history.

Around the world, the effects of Enron “public-private partnerships” have frequently been deadly.

For example, in 2001, eight people were killed when police were brought in to quell riots in the Dominican Republic after blackouts lasting up to 20 hours followed a power price hike that Enron and other private firms initiated.

In 1993, the president of Guatemala tried to dissolve the Congress and declare martial law after rioting ensued, following a price hike that the government deemed necessary after selling the power sector to Enron.

In India in 1997, police hired by the power consortium, of which Enron was a part, beat non-violent protestors who challenged the $30 billion agreement (about R318-billion) struck with Enron.

The World Bank and IMF also employ the privatisation model of development. The people of South Africa are well aquatinted with it. When water was privatized in South Africa, prices soared, people were cut off and many had no choice but to turn to contaminated sources of water. The result has been a cholera epidemic 10 times worse today than at any point over the last 20 years.

In Cochabamba, Bolivia, World Bank water privatisation brought increased rates overall and as much as triple the rates for some of the poorest users.

In a country where the minimum wage was less than $60 per month, many users received water bills of and above $20 per month. In both instances, the people have risen-up to demand an end to privatisation and a return to the public provision of this vital resource.

Interestingly, most wealthy countries, such as the US, take the opposite approach, heavily subsidizing the public provision of water and sanitation services in accordance with government regulations such as the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts. As a result, access to water in the US is largely taken for granted.

Historically, it has always been binding regulation that has made business and government act in ecologically and socially sustainable ways. Partnerships are likely to be used to transfer the responsibility for sustainable development from governments to corporations.

Therefore, around the world, the call is for increased aid to developing country governments (at least the 0.7% promised at Rio) working directly with local communities in the provision of vital services and increased regulation of corporations through a binding Corporate Accountability Convention at the UN.

In fact, as a result of the Enron scandal and countless other corporate disasters, Bush made such a commitment last month when he signed new corporate regulations into law in the US.

What is good for the US must be good enough for the rest of the world.

The power and influence of the US does not depend on the presence of Bush at the WSSD.

Bush has demonstrated his firm commitment to a privatisation and deregulatory agenda from the World Trade Organization ministerial in Doha, Qatar, to UN Conference on Financing for Development in Monterrey, Mexico, to the G-8 Summit in Kanaskis, Canada.

The heads of state meeting here do not need to be reminded of this agenda, nor the cost of noncompliance. In fact, the only thing that would require the president’s attendance would be if his government suddenly embraced a commitment to real social and ecological sustainable development.

The UN is the last international institution that provides a real alternative to corporate globalisation. The WSSD is our opportunity to embrace, empower and strengthen that alternative.

Just as we did in Seattle, the people of South Africa, the US and the world have already begun to unite and demand that our governments do the right thing in Joburg.

It is not too late to let them know that they will be held accountable for their actions at the WSSD.

It is time to make our voices heard.