Sustaining boredom

  • 30/05/1998

The Commission on Sustainable Deve--lopment ( csd) meets every year in New York in April to take stock of the world's progress towards sustainable development. Discus-sions centre around a few select chapters of Agenda 21, the global action plan chalked out in Rio.

The last csd (see Special Report: How sustainable a partner? ) focused on two critical areas: water and industry. Despite the enormous importance of these issues, the discussions were lacklustre and lopsided. While the Northern nations learning from their own experience came to csd with several solutions they felt could be applied worldwide, Southern nations came largely unprepared. Quickly falling back on their two-point agenda, easy techno-logy transfer and additional financial resources, which the industrialised countries have never accep-ted, the discussions soon became banal and ultimately inconsequential. With the civil society from the South largely missing, the discussions also remained remarkably poor even at the intellectual level.

Industrialised country governments, trade unions, industry and NGOs came quite well prepared to csd -6. On the subject of water, the German and French governments had already held major meetings, while the Swedish Inter-national Development Agency ( sida ) working with undp and World Bank had made a laudable effort to create an international network called the Global Water Partnership ( gwp ). While the German government, learning from its success in managing international rivers like the Rhine and Danube was advocating the management of internationally shared rivers on the basis of a 'shared vision' amongst the basin states, the Global Water Partnership was promoting the idea of 'integrated water resources management'. Another idea, shared by all Western governments and agencies like the World Bank, was that water must be treated as an 'economic good', which means that it must be appropriately priced. Appropriate pricing of water would not only reduce its current squandering but also make water projects attractive to the private sector. While current unmet water needs are enormous, almost all developing countries are facing a paucity of investment funds. According to some figures, the developing world will invest some us $600 billion in water projects over the coming decade, of which only some us $60 billion could come from international resources. Creating a scope for corporate investments, therefore, makes sense.

While this may look like 'sage' advice, many developing countries governments still find them unacceptable. Countries with strong disputes over the sharing of international rivers are going to be wary of talk about a 'shared vision'. And those with large numbers living in poverty will continue to argue that 'water is a social good' which means it must be provided cheap. It becomes difficult for them to accept water as an economic good, even in a soft forum like csd which does not produce legally-binding international treaties, because major donor agencies like the World Bank could use the csd agreement to push for enhanced pricing of water in its projects. The discussions, therefore, quickly move away from a discussion of issues into a demand for additional financial resources, leading to a North-South stand-off.

csd has become a stratospheric environment in which no wisdom gets injected from the perspective of the poor even though both the Northern and Southern governments repeatedly talk about them. For instance, nobody mentioned that if many water projects were decentralised and debureaucratised, even poor rural communities could make substantial contributions to both capital and operational costs of water projects. Privatisation need not only mean corporatisation. In this way water supply costs could also be kept as low as possible. And by developing appropriate property rights systems and local institutions, both within and between communities, it is equally possible to reduce the misuse of water resources. Community efforts was not an issue at csd . Those members of the civil society in the developing world who could have presented this wisdom were largely missing, simply because they have no resources to participate in international negotiations and because they remain largely unaware of these discussions, they fail to set the agenda of their own governments domestically. The Southern governments, too, do not put in resources to ensure that they come up with common positions built on their understanding of the reality.

My last example of the non-productive debate in csd comes from the talk about technology transfer. Nobody stepped back to ask whether industrialised countries have all the answers. An issue repeatedly raised in csd in the industry debate was the high levels of pollution from small-scale industry, which is phenomenal in both India and China. These firms provide jobs and spread the benefits of the industrialisation process. But there is hardly any pollution control technology to help them. The Supreme Court in India is closing down thousands of such small firms leading to strong protests from labour unions. The Chinese spokesperson present in csd said, "in the last few years, we have closed down thousands of small firms, but how many can we close down? We have two million of them." The csd should, therefore, have focused on this vexatious issue. But most of the time was spent on discussing how effective have been 'volun