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by Najib Saab


The Daily Star

31 August 2002

Najib Saab, editor in chief of Environment & Development magazine, wrote this commentary for The Daily Star

One-hundred heads of state will kick off the biggest international talkshow in history on Monday morning in Johannesburg. The official name of the show is World Summit on Sustainable Development. While most Arab leaders won't be attending the Earth summit, one might still hope that one of them will arrive Monday on a white horse, unscheduled, to deliver this speech: Mr. Chairman, 10 years ago, the Earth summit in Rio diagnosed the impasse of environment and development, unanimously prescribed sustainable development as the magic cure, and presented us with an ambitious agenda. Yet the human and financial resources fell short. As the UN secretary-general has said, the results achieved in implementing Agenda 21 have been rather disappointing. In many areas environmental conditions have worsened and development efforts could not improve living conditions for growing populations. The disappointments of the last decade are not, however, reason to abandon the principles and spirit of Rio; rather, they are a challenge to exercise extra effort to translate these principles into realistic actions. This summit should meet the challenge and demonstrate our commitment to find common ground to advance sustainable development, not as mere intellectual luxury, but as a path to mankind's survival. This summit is an opportunity to draw conclusions from past failures and agree on an action-oriented work program, setting clear targets and timetables. A basic requirement is that this summit should reaffirm and deliver on the commitments of the Rio summit and on the Millennium development goals, to eradicate poverty. Developed countries should also realize that changing lifestyles and consumption patterns at home is a prerequisite to achieving sustainable development. What is happening instead is that those patterns are being exported to developing countries under the cover of free trade and globalization. Whereas we fully recognize that deals can be fine-tuned to ensure better implementation in view of changing conditions, international environmental agreements with global ramifications cannot be unilaterally revoked to protect national short-term interests. International law cannot be selectively applied. Developing countries rightly complain that industrialized countries have fallen short of fulfilling the pledges they made at Rio. Official development assistance has since declined by one-third, to 0.22 percent of the gross domestic product of the rich countries, instead of increasing to the promised 0.7 percent. While developing countries are willing not to pursue the same development patterns followed by industrialized countries, which have caused environmental havoc, they must be helped to follow alternative and sustainable patterns of development without compromising their own national resources and sovereignty.

This summit should send a signal that rich countries will deliver on their global commitments to help poorer ones achieve balanced development. We in developing countries have recognized many rules imposed in the context of globalization, to secure open markets, import liberalization and the free flow of trade. For those measures to succeed, they cannot be one-sided. Industrialized countries still impose import tariffs on developing countries that are four times higher than those applied to each other. Although there are international rules against subsidies, some countries still heavily subsidize exports, causing social and ecological disasters for developing countries and destabilizing local and international markets. Such practices deny developing countries a fairer share of the benefits of globalization.

The answer to globalization's failure to benefit the poor is not isolationism, but more global integration, based on fair and equitable distribution of resources and responsibilities. The core foundation of sustainable development is global partnership based on the principles of economic, social and environmental development. By barring poor countries from effectively participating in global economic decisions, the whole structure is bound to collapse. Economic talks should not be kept off-limits in this summit: That would betray sustainable development and delay solutions. Sustainable development should be accepted as a goal in itself, not a negotiating item lost in talks on governance and aid. Selective interpretations of good governance by some developed countries should not be used as an excuse to deprive poor countries of needed aid. Simultaneously, insufficient aid from rich countries does not absolve developing countries of the obligation to ensure good governance and fight corruption. Good governance based on the principles of quality management is in the interest of developing countries, regardless of the levels of foreign aid, as much as delivering aid is an obligation of developed countries.

Any discussion outside this framework is a cover-up to defy national and international obligations. Allow me to share some of our experiences in the decade after Rio: Like other countries, we have established an Environment Ministry, enacted laws, ratified major international agreements and cooperated with international agencies to implement various environmental projects. Our civil society became vibrant and active on environmental matters. The Rio decade was, however, characterized by ready-made solutions which resulted in projects often designed to fit the measurements and requirements of donor agencies and the international bureaucracy, rather than the actual needs of local communities. While these projects delivered good results, many benefits were lost due to poor coordination. The global aspect of the Rio decade often ignored basic local requirements, allocating vast budgets for topics such as introducing alternatives to substances responsible for the ozone hole, while overlooking pressing issues such as air pollution killing thousands of people in cities.

We note with gratification that an agreement has recently been reached to expand the scope of the Global Environment Facility to finance efforts to combat desertification, another subject that was unfairly considered as being regional, thus deprived from financing under the global scope of GEF. We support the commitment of the implementation plan to promote renewable energy sources and cleaner use of fossil fuels, which require proper transfer of technology; however, as part of a developing region that depends heavily on oil for income, I caution against selectively imposing new tariffs under the guise of environmental protection, as they could hamper the whole region's development. Oil tariffs, under the name of carbon tax or others, if they were for true environmental concerns, should be shared with producers  mainly developing countries  who need the income to advance cleaner production technologies. Coming from a region trying to achieve sustainable development under war, occupation and the daily threat of Israeli aggression, I can testify that ending foreign occupation and respect for human and national rights are prerequisites to proper development. We support the call for eliminating weapons of mass destruction, but not in a selective manner. Global partnership, required to implement sustainable development, calls for a meaningful dialogue among civilizations, one based on mutual respect and understanding of different cultures. We cannot win a "war on terror" if we fail to achieve peaceful coexistence and wage a determined war on poverty and injustice. Thank you.

Arab Environment in 10 Years
ARAB ENVIRONMENT IN 10 YEARS crowns a decade of the series of annual reports produced by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) on the state of Arab environment. It tracks and analyzes changes focusing on policies and governance, including level of response and engagement in international environmental treaties. It also highlights developments in six selected priority areas, namely water, energy, air, food, green economy and environmental scientific research.
Environmental Agenda
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