The WSSD – Reason for Skepticism?


The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) will primarily focus on three pillars, namely social development, economic development and the protection of the environment. There is increasing scepticism whether this expensive exercise will have a meaningful impact on ordinary people, particularly in the developing world.

Reviewing the history of the WSSD from the Stockholm Conference in 1972, the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro 20 years later, and at “Rio +5” in New York, it is patently clear that most commitments were not fulfilled. In the last thirty years we find millions of people in the world increasingly afflicted by grinding poverty and famine, by oppression and exploitation, by violence and the evil effects of unjust wars.

Globalization can been characterised as economic parasitism or colonialism dominated by the Multinational and Transnational Corporations. Twenty per cent of the Western countries (in particular the USA, Britain, Japan, Germany and France) controls 82,7% of the world gross national product; 81,2% of world trade; 80,5% of domestic investment; and 94% of research and development. In a recent paper Chandra Muzaffar of the International Movement for a Just World estimates that 70% of world trade is controlled by 500 corporations while 1 per cent of all MNCs own half the total stock of foreign direct investment.

He states that “Corporations have one major occupation: the maximisation of profits. National interests, still less the people’s welfare, mean very little to these gigantic enterprises. It is because of their desire for profit maximisation and increased market share, that corporate mergers and takeovers are taking place. This has led to greater and greater concentration in fewer and fewer hands…

The gap between rich and poor on a global scale is widening at an alarming rate. In 1970, the top 20% of the world’s population had 30 times the income of the bottom 20 % but by 1995 the disparity had increased to 82 times. There is also a greater monopolisation of wealth than ever before. Three of the world’s richest men possess assets that exceed the gross domestic product (GDP) of forty-eight of the world’s poorest countries.”

The UN Development Programme calculated that the developing countries are losing over 500 billion dollars a year in income that they could earn, because of protection barriers against the exports they try to sell to the West, because of Western manipulation of interest rates on their borrowings, and because of other structural inequities. That is to say that the policies of the Western governments are preventing the developing countries from earning ten times all the official aid they receive from the West.

It is scandalous that millions of people should live in abject poverty, that millions of people should die of starvation in a world that has no shortage of food. Food is stockpiled, dumped, wasted in enormous quantities in some parts of the world to maintain profits and price levels while babes die on their mother’s breasts too dry to provide life-giving sustenance. The coercive practice of giving over land to produce cash crops like sugar cane, cotton and worst of all, tobacco, for the benefit of foreign multinational companies needs to be exposed and eradicated.

Fear has become a global problem on a vast scale. People live in fear of eviction from their homes, in fear of oppression and the denial of basic human rights by tyrannical governments, in fear of the ravages of war and sectarian strife and of crime. The blood and the tears of the innocent men, women and children in Iraq, Palestine, Chechnya , Kashmir, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Afghanistan and elsewhere must not remain hidden and ignored. They bear testimony to the majority of mankind that suffers from exploitation, oppression and injustice of one form or another.

From motives of power and greed and not from need, and with a technology to match, man this century has rapaciously depleted the earth’s natural resources, produced, and continues to produce waste and pollution on a scale which has never been known. His science and technology and his motives of power and greed have produced stockpiles of enough nuclear, chemical and biological weapons to destroy the earth several times. His economics and his values have led to to the concentration of vast human populations in urban environments and the alienation of man from his environment and nature.

Mankind must realise that they are simply trustees on earth. A trustee is someone who does not own things as of right but is responsible for their proper management.The ecological crises which the world is witnessing and which threatens man’s future could not have happened under a humane system of morality and law.

What is of concern to the vast majority of the human race in Africa, Asia and Latin America is that the WSSD address their rights to food, to clothing, to shelter, to security, to education, to health and to employment. Of what use will it be to spend 100 million rands on a Summit that will not liberate them from hunger and thirst, from homelessness, from ignorance and from disease?

As Rashmi Mayur, director of the International Institute for Sustainable Future wrote that poverty is the root of many human crises. Governments emphasised that 1,3 billion people in the developing world were living at the edge of survival. It is obscene that $800 billion dollars is spent annually on arms, armaments, conflicts and wars in a world deprived of even basic resources. To simply tinker with an unjust and oppressive system will be lead to a failure of the WSSD. The struggle at the Summit and beyond, will be to reconstruct a world of equity, global rule of law and sustainability.

(Mr. Firoz Osman is Secretary of the Media Review Network, which is an advocacy group based in Pretoria, South Africa.)