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The GD's potential importance
There is widespread anxiety that the WSSD may be scuttled by bureaucratic boredom and the lack of a clear focus; the GD has been punted as one concrete output the parties could agree on, thus salvaging the beleaguered event.

Thus the GD has been proposed as a means of providing an agreed global framework for action after the jamboree ends. In the process, it is hoped it will stimulate debate on what the WSSD could and should achieve. Its proponents also believe it could serve as a vehicle for fulfilling the aspirations of both the North and the South.

The GD focuses on the social, environmental, and economic aspects of sustainable development. It has been championed by Denmark’s charismatic - and controversial - minister of environment and energy, Svend Auken, who presented a substantial outline to the OECD Forum held in Paris in May 2001.

The GD is no longer just a Danish effort; it is being increasingly widely accepted within the European Community. The Danish effort is timely and strategic, as Denmark will hold the EU presidency in the second half of 2002. But is still largely a European initiative, and the South -- whose voice is represented by the G77 and China - still has to respond to the proposals.

The GD articulates all the right sentiments; at times one is not sure whether one is reading the Millennium Declaration, the OECD DAC objectives for poverty reduction, or any similar UN or European statement on development. It is an attempt to place sustainable development in the context of globalisation. It speaks of a new internationalism, founded on the idea of what the recent Nobel Laureate for Literature, V S Naipaul, once described as a ‘universal civilisation’, based on the idea that the ‘road to a common future is built on a common understanding and common objectives’.

The GD seeks to create a balance between North and South in recognition of the fact that globalisation, with its strong taint of neo-liberalism, has had negative consequences for some countries and positive ones for others that have been dextrous enough to grab the opportunities when they have arisen. The GD is an attempt to introduce a new ethic into globalisation. In that sense, it is similar to the position taken by Guy Verhofstadt, Belgian prime minister and EU president, who, in response to the anti-globalisation protests at the recent G-8 meeting Genoa, declared that: ‘The challenge we face today is not how to thwart globalisation, but instead how to give it an ethical foundation. I would call this ethical globalisation, a triangle consisting of free trade, knowledge and democracy; or, alternatively, trade, aid, and conflict prevention.’ (Business Day, 29.9.2001)

The GD seeks to bridge the bipolar world of abject poverty on one hand and excessive and ostentatious wealth on the other. Despite these glaring contrasts, we are still being subjected to the terrifying argument that rapacious capitalism is good for us - among others by the prophet of the triumph of capitalism, Francis Fukuyama, who recently insisted that: ‘We remain at the end of history because there is only one system that will continue to dominate world politics: that of the liberal-democratic West’ (Independent, 14.10.2001). The contrast between the worlds of the rich and the poor is resulting in pressure from both the left and right. On the one hand, the right is insisting that free markets are an innate feature of society and should be left to their own devices; on the other, the left anticipates pernicious consequences if they are left unchecked.

However, a major feature of the GD is the recognition that -- at least in respect of poorer developing countries -- economic growth should be decoupled from environmental impact; in other words, developing countries should be allowed to pursue growth in a relatively unregulated manner, and that developed countries should be obliged to help ensure that the resultant environmental impacts are adequately managed. However, this concept needs to be more closely defined and clarified if its intent is not to be misunderstood. The second major element of the GD is an attempt to incorporate sustainable development issues as part of the global trading regime.

This is a useful intervention, as the UNCED meeting of 1992 did not quite achieve the necessary alignment between sustainable development and trade. This is pivotal, and can hardly be ignored, given that trade issues continue to preoccupy political sentiments and concerns in developing countries. Perhaps it is not surprising that, in the recent Doha ministerial declaration, member states of the WTO have reaffirmed their commitment to ensuring that trade contributes to the objectives of sustainable development. The declaration reads: ‘We are convinced that the aims of upholding and safeguarding an open and non-discriminatory multilateral trading system, and acting for the protection of the environment and the promotion of sustainable development, can and must be mutually supportive.’ It also encourages closer co-operation between the WTO and the multilateral environmental agencies responsible for implementing or monitoring the various international agreements on the environment.

Perhaps the most significant feature of the declaration is the fact that the WTO has explicitly acknowledged that trade and sustainable development issues should be addressed at the forthcoming WSSD. The declaration states: ‘We encourage efforts to promote co-operation between the WTO and relevant international environmental and developmental organisations, especially in the lead-up to the World Summit on Sustainable Development to be held in Johannesburg, South Africa, in September 2002.’

Trade complements economic development, but cannot replace the need for sound domestic economic policies. This needs to be underscored, as the GD talks of market access as if it is some kind of magic wand that could solve all the economic woes of developing countries. However, market access is only important to countries with the capacity to add value to primary products. The continued prevalence of economic ‘asymmetry’ between developed and developing countries, between empowered and disempowered domestic entrepreneurs, is at the heart of perpetuating economic underdevelopment and income disparity.

The third major element of the GD is an attempt to ensure that developed countries continue to adhere to various international environmental agreements. This includes possible ways for dealing with conspicuous consumption, which is responsible for the largest share of the ecological footprint. This reflects a growing movement in Europe for the notion of sustainable consumption.

In short, the GD contains nothing that has not been said before; it merely proposes a framework for action that draws attention to specific priorities. It is an evolving framework that needs to be accompanied by enforcement and compliance measures if it is to work. It is still a vague idea that needs to be fleshed out; agreement needs to be reached on a core set of principles and goals, and how the latter should be implemented. Nevertheless, it is an important initiative that cannot be ignored.

It also still needs to take account of the outcome of other initiatives, notably the UN-sponsored Finance for Development deliberations, meant to be concluded in March 2002. A poor showing at this conference will increase the ‘threshold of reluctance’ of many southern states in that it will strengthen their perceptions of international initiatives in this area as a dismal display of many words and agreements, but very little action.

The GD also needs to be more clearly focused, and to identify more clearly what it ultimately hopes to achieve. It has a made a good start by attempting to contextualise globalisation, and identifying priority concerns within the three pillars of sustainable development. This is all the more important given that Agenda 21 is a broad sampling of ideas and issues; as the review of Agenda 21 at the Rio-plus-5 meeting in 1997 showed, only some of its goals have been achieved, suggesting that they need to be more effectively prioritised. Globalisation is a useful lens through which to determine priority areas. While the GD appeals for universal solutions, its principles and work programme need to be translated into country- or region-specific issues.

Perhaps the GD’s real strength may lie in its ability to focus on those international issues that have the effect of unblocking or removing barriers which allow regional and country level actions to be implemented more effectively. Ultimately, its real test is whether it will merely become another elegantly written document, or a vehicle for truly promoting self-development in poor countries

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