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Fiddling While Africa Starves

21 August 2002

A few days from now, approximately 60,000 people will arrive in Johannesburg, South Africa for the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development.

The Johannesburg Summit is particularly significant because it comes ten years after the landmark Earth Summit in Rio, where well-meaning government leaders and professional activists actually produced something more than more than hot air: Agenda 21, a comprehensive declaration of principles and plan of action for guiding the world towards sustainable patterns of development. The Johannesburg Summit is billed as a crucial step in fulfilling the potential of Agenda 21, promising to identify achievable short-term goals and establish concrete plans for their achievement.

Certainly the need for sustainable development is more obvious than ever. The excesses of short-sighted industrialization and overconsumption have thrown the Earth dangerously out of balance, with catastrophic climate shifts and shortages of natural resources promising massive famine, disease, and social unrest in coming decades. The cloud of toxic pollution two miles high which now shrouds southern Asia from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka is a gruesome exclamation point on the state of the planet and many of its inhabitants.

However, even if one dismisses critics who portray the Johannesburg Summit as a vast self-congratulatory talking shop, there is no question that the organizers and attendees are guilty of either shamefully poor taste or nauseating hypocrisy.

Southern Africa is on the brink of what has been described as the worst humanitarian crisis in a decade. According to the World Health Organization, between twelve and fourteen million in people face starvation in the next several months; famine looms over Malawi, Zambia, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Child malnutrition is rising dramatically, disease is rampant, and the nightmare is exacerbated by rates of AIDS infection ranging from 13% in Mozambique to 33% in Zimbabwe.

No mention of the famine can be found on the official UN Summit website, nor on the site of JOWSCO, the South African logistical managers. United Nations reaction has been limited to a tepid memo from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's chief of staff, warning UN delegates not to bring more aides than necessary, as it "could be perceived as an obvious waste of personnel and financial resources."

"We must keep in mind that this conference is taking place in the midst of a major food crisis in southern Africa, affecting 13 million people," reads the memo. "It would be wise to refrain from excessive levels of hospitality, and any event sponsored by the United Nations should be of modest, even frugal, dimensions."

Such callousness might be expected from a meeting of the World Trade Organization or IMF - but not from the professed defenders of humanity's poor and downtrodden.

While impending famine is not sufficient reason to halt the Summit - the crisis at least partly results from the absence of sustainable development, and the goals of Agenda 21 must be met quickly if future crises are to be averted - the apparent indifference of Summit organizers to the horror surrounding them is unconscionable.

The United Nations has budgeted $47 million for the Johannesburg Summit. Attendees will spend roughly $5,000 apiece on airfare, food, and lodging. All told, more than a quarter of a billion dollars will be spent debating the future of sustainable development - and none of it, apparently, will reach the millions of people about to starve outside the Summit doors.

Brandon Keim
Published by © Brandon Keim

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