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UN conference in South Africa pushes business "solutions"
The sham summit

August 30, 2002 | Page 5

TENS OF thousands of political and business leaders will gather this week in Johannesburg, South Africa, to make pious promises to preserve the environment while raising the world's poor out of poverty. But behind the hype surrounding the World Summit on Sustainable Development are business-oriented "solutions" to environmental and social crises.

Planned protests will help expose the United Nations' (UN) "new" policies as indistinguishable from those of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and World Trade Organization (WTO)--the hated trio of financial institutions that, in fact, set the free-market agenda for much of the conference. DAVID WHITEHOUSE explains what the Earth summit is really about.

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NEWS STORIES about the Earth summit in Johannesburg focused on George W. Bush's decision not to show up. Maybe Dubya was afraid that he'd become the main target of protests.

He's personally responsible, after all, for finishing off what little remained of the initiatives from the last Earth summit, which took place in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The final act was the Bush administration's rejection of the 1997 Kyoto protocols to cut back on the emission of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

Bush's decision not to go to South Africa is just the latest U.S. attempt to wreck an international initiative--on a list that includes arms control, land mines and pollution, to name a few. Washington's message to the rest of the world is that it will do whatever it wants--which is why people around the globe responded to Bush's snub with anger.

But the truth is that Bush never had much to fear about this conference. His big business buddies made sure of that. Aside from the influence of the IMF and World Bank preaching neoliberal economic policies, groups such as the International Chambers of Commerce and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development have lobbied since 1999 for the summit to recommend private, for-profit management of vital resources and services--and so-called free-market solutions to pollution and poverty.

No wonder the summit's preparatory materials avoided mentioning the impending famine in the Southern African countries that surround the conference. They might have been forced to discuss the causes of the famine, which include a drought intensified by the impact of global warming--and the devastating poverty of the region caused by a huge debt burden.

And this isn't to mention the difficulties that poor countries face competing in a world market where powerful countries set the rules through the WTO.

The summit is primed to serve corporate power in two major ways. One is voluntary agreements to govern business conduct. Like other corporate "codes of practice," these new agreements will "amount to little more than the re-branding of destructive activities as beneficial ones," as George Monbiot wrote in Britain's Guardian newspaper. The other gift to big business will be a UN blessing for "public-private partnerships"--in which governments hand over control of resources, such as water or energy.

As a justification for these giveaways to rich Western multinationals like Bechtel, Monsanto, France's Vivendi and Britain's Thames Water, free-market enthusiasts claim that resources are used most efficiently when they're sold for profit. But some do admit that privatization has widened the gap between rich and poor--and that poverty bites even harder when everything comes with a "user fee."

The proposed solution is to allow some government action--not limits on how much can be charged, but cash grants to the poor to help them pay. This is in synch with Bush's pre-summit promise to increase development aid to Africa by $4.5 billion.

The amount is stingy. But the real problem is that the cash will never materialize. At the 1992 Rio summit, every rich country promised to double its aid budget--to 0.7 percent of economic output. Since then, aid has actually fallen to 0.22 percent of output.

Whether the summit "succeeds" in endorsing free-market solutions or breaks up with no agreement, the corporations and the governments that serve them can go on wrecking the earth and robbing the poor. The real hope for turning the situation around lies outside the UN--among the forces that protested the Earth summit.

How the free market is wreaking havoc

OVER THE years, the UN and World Bank have honed a strategy for talking about "sustainable development." The first step is to acknowledge an environment-related crisis that threatens the poor. The next step is to misstate the cause and scope of the crisis, and the charade ends with a free market-oriented business "solution" to a misdiagnosed problem.

UN summit documents around the question of hunger echo this method. They stress that food production is no longer growing faster than population--leaving multinational agribusinesses to recommend technical solutions like genetically engineered crops.

What's left out is the fact that, despite the production slowdown, there is now--and has been for decades--enough food to feed everyone. Yet 800 million people face chronic starvation--because of lack of money, not lack of technology.

The same verbal tricks show up when the free marketeers discuss the growing water crisis in poor countries. Drinking water is getting scarcer because of corporate methods of agriculture that demand heavy irrigation, industrial pollution of water, and a lack of proper sewage removal. But market "logic" reduces these problems to a simple question of "natural scarcity"--and declares that water would be best conserved if everybody paid market prices for privatized water.

Besides profits for the new water barons, the real results of water privatization have been higher prices, service shutoffs for the poor and mass layoffs of workers that lead to declines in service and water quality.

The big shots may talk about the wonders of the free market. But their rhetoric is a tool for pursuing their real goal, which is economic imperialism--the defense of profits of the biggest companies in the most powerful countries.

"We want to shut them down"

THE UN picked a strange place to advertise the benefits of the free market. It's not just that the region is in the grips of hunger--and an AIDS epidemic made worse by the prohibitive expense of patented drugs.

The summit itself is taking place in the posh suburb of Sandton, just across a cholera-infested river from the destitute Black township of Alexandra. Like the much bigger township of Soweto across town, Alexandra has a proud history of resistance to the racist system of apartheid--and now a new resistance to the free-market policies of the post-apartheid governments.

The resistance includes illegal restoration of water and power to those who have been cut off by newly privatized utilities--as well as movements of the landless to claim the housing that they were promised when apartheid fell.

The UN tried to head off confrontations by providing an alternative forum of "civil society"--15 miles removed from Sandton. And for those who can't pay the $150 fee to be part of "civil society," there's an area down the road claimed by the landless movement.

One division in the protest movement is between those who want "a seat at the table"--and those who think that gaining such a seat would be impossible or useless. "It is our aspiration to shut them down," said Trevor Ngwane, a leader of South Africa's thousands-strong Anti-Privatization Forum. "If we have the numbers, that is what we will do. We are inspired by what happened in Seattle and Genoa."

The main protest will be an August 31 march to the summit site that could draw tens of thousands. South African authorities are plainly worried. Last week, police arrested 77 landless protesters during one march--and another 30 the next day. Organizers say that the crackdown amounted to "an undeclared state of emergency."

The corporate and political leaders want to have their way in Johannesburg. But protesters have other plans--to expose the Earth summit as a sham.

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