CAMBRIDGE, England — As I write, the world’s leaders, well most of them — U.S. President George W. Bush is too busy clearing his desk after a month’s holiday — are lining up to make their speeches at the Johannesburg global conference on sustainable development.
They will all be very predictable, as will the final communique. This will “commit” the governments of the participants to all sorts of targeted actions to change the world for the better. Well, almost. There will be a lot of weasel phrases like “as far as possible” and “were feasible.” Some are already in place, for example, in the section on protecting diminishing fisheries.
Junkets such as the Johannesburg conference cost a lot of money. Bringing together 65,000 delegates from around the world and keeping them in town for two weeks cannot have cost less than a quarter of a billion dollars. However, they rarely achieve anything of lasting significance, except an overwhelming sense of self-importance among the official delegates and nongovernment organization representatives.
I feel a little more involved in this one, since the president of the host nation is an old student of mine and the chairman of the conference was a fellow student, many years ago. However, the outcome will be the same.
Delegates at such conferences can put whatever commitments they want into the final communique, sitting up all night to decide on the precise wording and making sure all the weasel phrases are properly in place. Such communiques are simply meaningless, however, unless politicians in key Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development countries believe that there is political support for them at home. The commitments set out in such careful language in these documents will either be reneged on — think United States and the Kyoto Protocol or the International Court of Justice — or they will simply be ignored.
Many years ago I was an adviser to the Sherpas who produced the communique for the second United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, held in New Delhi in 1968. This was the conference that set for the OECD countries, the rich countries of the world, the commitment to meet the target of transferring 1 percent of their incomes each year to developing countries. Of this, 0.7 percent was to be as official aid and 0.3 percent was to be private capital flows.
You still hear references to the 0.7 percent target from time to time, but very few countries have ever met it. Since it was adopted in New Delhi, most countries’ aid programs have diminished as a share of their income, especially that of the U.S. Only the Netherlands and one or two Scandinavian countries ever come anywhere near reaching the target.
Why do politicians not think that transferring resources from rich to poor countries to support sustainable development in the latter is a politically popular program to support?
Politicians in OECD rightly assess the situation that there is no majority support among their electors for aid programs of the size that would meet the 1 percent, or even 0.7 percent, target. Sure people are willing to put their hands into their pockets for some specific well-publicized disaster. The sum of such contributions falls far short of the 0.3 percent target for the private sector, however, and there is little or no support for a regular program of taxation on a level that would make it possible to meet the 0.7 percent target for official aid.
Some years ago I gave a talk about the 1 percent target to an audience of researchers at America’s leading think tank on development issues. It was Christmas week and it was a lunchtime “brown bag” seminar. I had just completed a tour of the length and breadth of the U.S. assessing the level of popular support for aid. I told them that I had concluded that there was very little support for increased aid flows. Most people I interviewed did not even support the significantly lower levels of aid that was being sent abroad at that time. The audience, made up of young rich people from rich or well-off families, asked why I thought this was so.
As it was Christmas week, they had come into the lunchtime seminar with bundles of bags from the more expensive shops in Washington D.C. I asked them why they had spent so much money on presents for their friends and relatives. Those people were clearly among the richest people in the world. Why did they not send the money to some NGO involved in the delivery of development assistance at the grass-roots level instead? The audience, remember, were development professionals who had all the information they needed to know that the same amount of money sent to say Africa would have made people there better off than the same money spent on rich residents of Washington. Silence.
That’s the problem. People place more importance on their own welfare and that of their friends and relatives than they do on the welfare of much poorer people half a world away. Sure their guilt can be jogged for a few seconds — long enough for them to read out their credit card numbers to telethon phone handlers, but that’s it. Most people won’t even rise to that.
They certainly will not write to their elected representatives insisting that taxes be raised to fight poverty in the Third World or that existing domestic public expenditure programs be cut and the resources saved put into the aid programs. Have you?
Most people won’t even change their consumption habits and cut back on the use of cars and other fossil fuel-based consumption to protect the environment for their own children and grandchildren. Why expect them to bother about the future generations of the citizens of developing countries?
The more than $250 million that is being spent on the Johannesburg conference could have been spent on schools or training facilities for health care workers in southern Africa. Now that would have changed the world. A nicely worded final communique full of important sounding commitments, for all the warm glow that the drafters will feel, won’t.
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