The World Summit on Sustainable Development, which begins in Johannesburg on Monday, is a major global event. What is it, what can it achieve and how may we assess its achievements?
The meeting is a sequel to the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro 10 years ago. That meeting did a lot to advance environmental consciousness in public discussion. It also helped to generate the understanding that "environment and development are inextricably linked," in the words of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
The 1987 Brundtland Report defined the sustainability of development as the requirement to meet "the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Economist Robert Solow gave a more exact formulation by insisting on the condition that the next generation must be left with "whatever it takes to achieve a standard of living at least as good as our own and to look after their next generation similarly."
The need to think about the environment cannot really be dissociated from the nature of the lives that people, especially deprived people, live today. Indeed, if people have a miserable living standard currently, then the promise of sustaining that pitiable standard can hardly be thrilling.
The goal has to include rapid reduction of today's deprivations while making sure that whatever is achieved today can be sustained in the future.
Global cooperation is needed to alleviate today's deprivations and to safeguard our future. And that is what the summit in Johannesburg is trying to achieve.
Do the prospects of effective global cooperation look promising? One issue is the need for development assistance and finance, and the extent to which the richer countries are willing to help the development efforts of the poorer ones. On this front, things do not look particularly promising.
The chasm between expectation and delivery is beginning to look big. For example, the financial expectations entertained by the so-called New Partnership for Africa's Development, or NEPAD, seem to be radically out of line with the level of assistance that can be realistically expected at this time from the richer countries or from international financial institutions.
Yet it is extremely important to be clear that fruitful global cooperation can take many different forms, not just general financial assistance. On the environmental side, the ground that has been lost by the slowing down of international agreements and also by the reneging on past understandings (for example, by the United States on the Kyoto Protocol) needs to be reversed. On the economic side, the importance of reducing entry barriers in the richer countries for products from the poorer ones deserves much greater acknowledgment.
Also, there is wisdom in Annan's observation that people tend to be much more "responsive when you present them with a major human problem and a credible strategy for dealing with it." The response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic is one obvious field, but the more general need for concerted efforts in basic health care and education calls for more global commitment.
There are also many institutional reforms urgently needed for the global economy. For example, there is a strong case for making patent laws more efficient and equitable. The existing laws do not facilitate the use of desperately needed medicines in less-affluent countries because the obligatory royalties for patents often cost many times more than the actual production costs.
There are many positive things that the poorer countries can do for themselves. In this context, we can even question the general strategy of defining sustainable development only in terms of fulfillment of needs, rather than using the broader perspective of enhancing human freedoms on a sustainable basis. The essential freedoms must, of course, include the ability to meet crucially important economic needs, but there are many others to be considered, such as expanding political participation and broadening social opportunities.
There are many rewards to seeing people as "agents" who can exercise their freedoms rather than merely as "patients" whose needs have to be fulfilled. Important as financial assistance may be, there are also other ways forward, working on one's own or in collaboration with others. Johannesburg offers a major opportunity.
Amartya Sen, a master of Trinity College, Cambridge, was awarded the Nobel Prize for economics in 1998.