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Sustainable Development or Self-Determination?

9 August 2002

Another international event is about to be staged. Typically, it has triggered a flurry of activities by international organisations, governments of 'North' and 'South' and the NGOs characterised, these days, as 'civil society'.

The event is the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) to be held in Johannesburg, South Africa, in September 2002. The event is being organised by the United Nation ostensibly to promote 'sustainable development'. International events such as the WSSD are moments when the ordinary everyday practices of people dealing with problems of their lives and their struggles converge to present the Big Picture about their lives.

The events are moments that pose the Big Questions about how their conditions may change, and in what direction they could change. However, on the eve of the big event, there is little evidence to suggest that those busy with organising the details of the event have paused to reflect on what 'sustainable development' is all about: how the idea originated, the road it has traversed so far and what it portends for the future.

This is disconcerting as two important participants in the event, NGOs and the trade unions, claim to speak on behalf of the world's 'poor', variously described as the 'Third World' or people of the 'South' (the colonised) and the working people (class), and some others in between.

There are three aspects to the approach of NGOs and trade unions that requires reflection by people who are engaged in the work of the organisations. Those speaking on behalf of the 'Third World' have voiced concerns about 'corporate driven globalisation'.

Has there ever been any other kind of 'globalisation' that was not driven by corporations and capital? Alternately have corporations done anything other than appropriate the world's resources and labour for their own interests? The other concern is the weakening power of the governments that are seen to vacillate and capitulate to the corporations. Is this new?

When did governments serve the people and respect their mandate to the point of subordinating the interests of corporations and businesses? The third concern relates to the United Nations and international law that is seen as being downgraded and weakened by 'corporate globalisation'. The ideas of a weakening UN and international law presumes that the UN was truly representative of the world's people and international law an instrument for global justice.

How do we explain the reality that it is precisely during the 50 years under the UN that the world has seen the most obscene increases in wealth of a small number of people and the most dehumanising poverty and misery of the majority of the world's population? Why is it that the more the UN speaks of poverty alleviation programmes the more it seems to increase? And, the more UN agencies speak of sustainability the worse the environment seems to get?

The ICFTU, claiming to speak on behalf of the working classes of the world has argued that the WSSD must serve to negotiate 'a "New Deal", one that will take the aspirations of Agenda 21 into a second decade' (ICFTU document entitled 'Fashioning A New Deal: WSSD discussion document).

The language of the "New Deal" has a resonance from the Depression years that saw American and corporate expansion globally and economic prosperity of the American people increase at the cost of the 'Third World'. Is the choice of language accidental or is it the proverbial slip that unwittingly lets the truth escape?

The problem with the way questions of 'sustainable development' are envisaged by the NGOs and trade unions is not that they are wrong as such, but that do not tell the whole story. Partial truths can sometimes be untruths. More significantly by de-linking corporations and globalisation from history, by de-linking the states from the corporations, and the United Nations and international law from the context that sustains it, they disable people from understanding the true reasons for the deteriorating conditions of their lives.

The eve of the WSSD is an opportune moment to reflect on the meaning of 'sustainable development', its genesis, the road it has traversed and what it means for the peoples of the world. More importantly, it is an opportunity to assess whether the rhetoric of sustainable development has the potential to shift the emphasis from wealth generation and bring wellbeing of the world's peoples into centre-stage of societal concerns.

The idea of 'sustainable development' has been around for 20 years or so now. It grew out of the influential report in 1987 entitled "Our Common Future" by the World Commission on Environment and Development popularly known as the Brundtland Report. In retrospect it is ironic that the report defined 'sustainable development' as 'development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs'.

Since the report, the problem of 'future generations' appears remote given the perilous state of the present generation's survival in the face of wars, unemployment, and death despite the best advances in medical knowledge. Perhaps, before getting into "New Deals" and new Agenda 21s we need to be asking what was wrong with the 'old deals' and the old Agenda 21?

The idea of 'sustainable development' followed the failure of the idea of 'development' that preceded it. 'Development' was couched in the same rhetoric as 'sustainable development'. It was about poverty alleviation, about growth, about technology, about the 'North' helping the 'South', about the UN and international organisations promoting the interests of an undifferentiated humanity.

'Development' under the institutional umbrella of UN organisations and the leadership of the US and the capital rich G-7 countries mobilised global resources, environmental, labour, ideological, political, technological and organisational for the expansion of corporations, capital and the imperialist countries of the 'North'.

As people soon discovered 'development' pillaged people and the environment and created unprecedented disparities in wealth and poverty. 'Development' meant different things to different people just as the 'sustainable development' today means different things to different people. It is estimated that there are over 100 definitions of 'sustainable development' floating around in academic literature today.

The ambiguity of terms like 'sustainable development' has a politics attached to it. It becomes amenable to multiple meanings that can be hijacked by all sorts of interests and groups. When NGOs and trade unions say they wish to engage with the UN and the governments of the 'North' and 'South' on sustainable development, are we sure we understand the term to mean the same thing?

The genesis of the idea of 'development' may go further back in time. In the days of the direct colonial rule under the Empires of the time, the catchword was 'progress'. Like 'sustainable development' today and 'development' before that, the rhetoric of 'progress' was couched in the same language.

It was about technological progress, human development, poverty alleviation, and economic prosperity amongst other things. The depression and wars that followed project 'progress' ended in wars and the disintegration of the Empires.

What is common to all the three ideas is that:

(i) all three are premised on a model of social development that can only survive by exploiting the land, labour and natural resources of others;

(ii) all three are premised on the need to sustain that exploitation over time by managing the opposition and resistance to it; and

(iii) all three are premised on the understanding that 'the rest must follow the West' ;

(iv) all three invoke moral arguments to obscure the economic and political dimensions of colonial/neo-colonial governance;

The moral rationalisation is an essential component of imperial governance. Not surprisingly, voices during the colonial and post-war eras in the 'North' and 'South' have argued for 'progress', 'development' and 'sustainable development' and collaborated to give the project legitimacy.

The struggle against imperialism and colonisation in the early 20th century against project 'progress' was inextricably linked to the idea of self-determination. De-linking 'corporate globalisation' from history, the state from capital/corporation nexus and the UN organisations from their context and role in the contemporary world, as suggested above, promotes amnesia of history that is dis-empowering.

The idea of self-determination is subsumed by the incoherent clamour for 'sustainable development' with ambiguous meanings.

As the idea of self-determination fades from historical memory, the political space concedes, by proxy, to those seeking to make poverty and exploitation of people and nature more sustainable. For, in the long term 'sustainable development' is sustainable poverty, sustainable environmental degradation, sustainable human degradation, so that the present beneficiaries of 'development' and 'progress' can extend their benefits just a little longer.

Many NGO and trade union discussions on the WSSD are replete with references to 'we the people', 'strong ordinary citizens', 'the struggles of people' that sound axiomatic. They invariably refer to the participation by 'several hundred organisations from several nations' to claim legitimacy for themselves.

Without going into the claims about the scale and the representative status of the organisations, the grandiose declarations imply that the only thing that matters in social movements is numbers, and that numbers can be drummed up by spreading the message more effectively. It obscures the reality that social transformation is dependent on fundamental shifts in the way the world is envisioned.

Concepts, ideas and articulation of aspirations by people comes not from dissemination of facts and figures, but by linking the present to their histories, their people and their past. Information of the present elaborates upon things about people's lives that they already know from experience.

An unemployed person knows he/she is unemployed and that the conditions are in someway linked to the boss, the politician or whatever. Information about the extent and scale of unemployment and the de-historicised causes may expand that knowledge but does not add any new insights. Reviving the memory of their histories on the other hand energises actions, being premised on their own connected-ness with the land and people that they are part of. Traditional cultures and systems of knowledge emphasised ancestry, genealogy and history for the reason that the knowledge equipped people to take actions to address questions of their self-preservation as societies and peoples.

On the eve of WSSD, it is an opportune moment to ask: what did our ancestors and elders struggle for? Sustainable development or self-determination? Is the WSSD taking us towards self-determination? Once on that turf, the inquiry follows a different trajectory.

Radha D'Souza (c) Radha D'Souza
ZNet Commentary

'Resist WTO, APEC, economic globalisation 'New' world order? and General index


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