United Nations world summit bedeviled by issues of money

Monday, August 26, 2002

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Negotiators are struggling to bring rich and poor nations together on the most contentious element facing today's opening of the world development summit: money.

Developing nations want promises from the West to increase aid and give greater access to its markets, while the United States and other western nations are resisting new aid targets in the summit's final plan. They say they want to discuss concrete projects.

The outstanding issues are the most difficult to resolve, said Nitin Desai, secretary-general of the World Summit on Sustainable Development;

"You have differences precisely because you are talking about very important things," he said.

Although the summit didn't begin until today, negotiators began working over the weekend, hoping to reach agreement before world leaders arrive Sept. 2.

A draft plan calls for increased efforts to give the world's poor greater access to water, sanitation, energy and health care, while preserving the environment and conserving natural resources.

Environmental and anti-globalization activists criticized the latest proposals on trade and finance policy as "status quo."

The head of the U.S. delegation said he was "feeling positive" about recent progress. But he also played down the importance of the summit's final documents.

Assistant Secretary of State John Turner said any text should be secondary to the "really historic opportunity" the summit offers to launch "results-oriented" projects.

"We don't see a need for new targets," he told journalists. "We feel action on the ground ... should be the test."

Past targets have not always been met.

Developed countries agreed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 to increase aid to 0.7 percent of gross national product, but instead it has declined to 0.22 percent from 0.33 percent.

During the same period, private investment in developing countries rose more than five times to $185 billion. But U.N. figures show 80 percent of that went to only 10 countries, with the poorest attracting only 2.5 percent.

But some negotiators held out hope.

"The atmosphere is very constructive," said Danish State Secretary Carsten Staur, representing the European Union.

He also praised a new text on money issues prepared by Ambassador John Ashe of Antigua as a much-improved basis for negotiations. Neither he nor Turner would elaborate on the details.

Ashe said his latest draft did not contain any deadlines or timetables. "Some found it largely acceptable, others want to make a few changes," he said.

The Group of 77 developing countries also met behind closed doors Sunday to discuss a common position, delegates said.

Some poorer nations were pushing for new commitments by Western countries to improve market access for their products, cut agricultural subsidies that make it harder for poor farmers to compete, and boost aid levels even more.

The United States and Europe resist revisiting those issues, which were dealt with at the World Trade Organization talks in 2001 and at the Monterrey, Mexico, summit earlier this year.

The EU also wants a "clear political message" on the need to make globalization more sustainable for all, Staur said. But that was also proving problematic. "They have not even defined the word 'globalization,"' a U.N. official said on condition of anonymity.

Boosted by Washington, the summit is expected to focus on promoting public-private partnerships to help provide clean water, sanitation and energy to the millions lacking such basic services.

The Bush administration is proposing to spend up to $970 million over three years for water projects, which it says will "mobilize" more than $1.6 billion globally.

It also is proposing $53 million for forest conservation in the Congo River basin, with businesses contributing more.

Turner said such partnerships would leverage government aid and provide a more reliable, long-term source of financing.

"Goals are important, but we want ... goals combined with commitment," he said. "We need now to come together as partners and start a process of committing resources."

Yet many activists accuse governments of pushing public-private partnerships as a way of hiding inaction. "The responsibility for making sustainable development a reality lies with governments," said Peter Hardstaff of the London-based World Development Movement.

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