Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Earth to Summit: It's Government, Stupid!

James Skillen


September 9, 2002

Participants in the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, worked hard and argued strongly about how to save the environment and overcome poverty. However, the conference did not adequately face up to the question of agency.

The key ingredient in sustainable development is good government—sound governance. Government is not everything, of course. Joseph Nye, in his new book, The Paradox of American Power, makes the important point that even the United States must rely increasingly on "soft power" (culture, persuasion, the influence of nongovernment organizations) and not only on "hard power" (political and military actions) to make its way in this world. But soft power emerges and grows in influence only in the context of sound governance, which makes room for it in open societies under the rule of law.

Why did the summit not say more about sound governance? Most likely because the meeting itself had no governmental authority. Despite the attendance of government leaders from around the world and sponsorship by the U.N., the summit was all talk. Plans and proposals adopted by summit participants have no legally binding authority. They are expressions of hope that in some cases represent strong diagnoses of problems such as inadequate supplies of clean water and lack of sanitation for millions of people. But who has authority to compel or entice businesses, labor unions, relief agencies, and dozens of other parties to change their behavior simultaneously so that pollution decreases while productive jobs increase? The answer is governments.

Yet this is precisely where the most important question about sustainability comes in. Listen, for example, to Nitin Desai, the summit's secretary general, commenting on the 70-page plan adopted September 2 to reduce world oil consumption and increase the use of cleaner and more renewable energy sources. "This plan of implementation provides us with everything we need to make sustainable development happen over the next several years," said Desai (The Washington Post, 9/3/02). However, with his next breath, he added, "The test is whether governments along with civil society and the private sector, can pursue the commitments that are in the document, and take actions that achieve measurable results."

The point, you see, is that the adopted plan does not provide "everything we need to make sustainable development happen." The plan is backed by no governing authority that can make it happen. Deciding how to keep employment high, poverty down, and the environment secure is difficult enough in Canada or Japan, which have representative governments and open societies; it is nearly impossible where responsible government is lacking.

Not surprisingly, speakers such as Zimbabwe's authoritarian president, Robert Mugabe, blamed his country's problems on rich countries. In his own country, he is currently trying to overcome poverty by seizing the land of white farmers and giving it to the majority population. His mode of operation offers little hope that sound governance will arise or be sustained, and it hardly convinces rich countries that their efforts will be sufficient to help Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, Zimbabweans are starving.

Certainly countries like the United States and China—big resource users and polluters, but also big employment countries—have much they can do and should do to help promote sustainable development worldwide. And it is certainly true that international law and agreements need to be fashioned. But too much powerless summit talk may weaken rather than strengthen these prospects if the talk produces more cynicism about global summits than hope for sound action by governments that bear real responsibility.

—James W. Skillen, President
    Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”