Summit for nothing

Let the Johannesburg delegates drink champagne - just don't let them do anything else.

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

Flicking across the internet in search of some intelligent commentary on the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) currently running in Johannesburg, I stumbled across a ‘child’s perspective’, displayed on the homepage of the BBC News website. ‘You can’t stop poverty by drinking champagne’ read the headline, above an article by an 11-year-old.

Or something like that. When I went back to give due consideration to this pre-teen’s perspective on the state of the world, it had disappeared into the ether. I’d like to think that the BBC woke up to the fact that certain global-scale problems (chronic under-development that leads to lack of sanitation, transportation, education, food, infrastructure and much else besides) are perhaps not best dealt with by a small boy.

But I wouldn’t want to expect too much. No matter what age the commentator happens to be, most of the discussion about the Johannesburg summit seems to be from the perspective of a child.

If you’re at that puritanical stage of life where you don’t yet drink because you prefer fizzy pop and you can’t imagine going abroad for any reason other than a holiday, it’s fair enough to react with bemused outrage to the rumours of government officials out on a costly piss-up in Johannesburg when there are people starving just down the road.

But the BBC’s young Cub Scout reporter was only echoing – with some humour – an earlier, lengthier adults’ report on Radio Four’s Today programme, which took listeners earnestly through the mouthwatering horror of the menu enjoyed by WSSD delegates. Caviar! Distinctly fishy. Chocolate pud! Have they no shame? If these overfed westerners are going to sit on their lardy arses discussing poverty in Africa, they could at least have the decency to eat meal and drink infected water. And while we’re at it – should deputy prime minister John Prescott even be going? With that gut and those cars, what impression does it make?

If this infantile carping about the perks enjoyed by delegates to the WSSD was just something to carry us through the last gasp of the media silly season, it would be irritating. As it is, the ‘let them eat grain’ brigade see themselves as serious critics of the WSSD – and their all-consuming obsession with self-restraint will continue beyond the end of the Johannesburg event.

The obsession with the impression made by Western delegates to Johannesburg has some basis – namely, that this world summit is about little more than gesture politics. For a concise summary of the UK media’s view of the WSSD, it helps to turn again to a child’s eye view – this time, the official view of the BBC children’s news programme Newsround. (Not to be confused with the adults’ version Newsnight – although you could sometimes be forgiven for doing so.)

What is it?’, the Newsround website asks. The WSSD is ‘A meeting to talk about how we can improve people’s lives in a way that does not damage our environment’. ‘What do they talk about?’ ‘World leaders balance protecting the environment against making money. Normally making money comes out on top.’ Will things change?’ ‘People will keep damaging the planet and its wild animals…. Governments do not want to make deals that will cost their people money.’

And there, in all its breathtaking cynicism, is the official UK media’s line on the Johannesburg summit. You may have heard it from more grown-up sources, but discussions about the hot air talked, the problems of pushing recalcitrant governments into line, the fact that none of the agreements actually made in Johannesburg has any legal standing…all boil down to the idea that this summit is effectively a waste of space.

At this point, a child’s perspective really might come in handy. If the whole thing is such a farce, why does nobody call to shut it down? But here we have to get a bit more sophisticated. What is the WSSD about? It’s nothing to do with improving the lives of people in the developing world, that’s for sure. It’s about giving a platform for the prejudices enjoyed by the well-fed, well-educated, intellectual elites of the Western world – and the gripes and cynicism are as much a part of that as the champagne and bureaucracy.

One prejudice to run riot in the discussion about the Johannesburg summit is the current cynicism with politics. When Newsround asks ‘What happens?’, it concedes that there will be a plan of action. ‘This is the bit where governments have to promise to actually do something’, states the website. ‘The problems start here. There are ways leaders can dodge having to do anything.’ Three methods of dodging are listed: ‘Make the promises really wishy washy so it is hard to tell if you broke them or not; Don’t sign the plan. You will not be very popular at the summit; Sign the plan but then don’t do what it says.’

I’m not exactly starry-eyed about politicians’ ability to change the world through a week-long meeting. But my criticisms of the WSSD are about the fact that these leaders are there at all, and the agenda they are promoting – not about its inefficiency. And I’m not the official BBC mouthpiece informing children about politics and current affairs.

Another prejudice, which seems to gain ground with every discussion about international politics, is anti-Americanism. ‘America produces more pollution than any other country, but their president is not even going to the summit’, huffs Newsround. Globalisation should not mean Americanisation! heckle the grown-up commentators. Just think how many planets it would take for us all to live like America! Don’t let them drink Coke – let them drink cholera! And so on. But why?

While there are many reasons to criticise America, the least of those reasons is the standard of living enjoyed by its citizens. We are talking about the land of cars, computers, huge fridges, mobile phones, convenience food…like Britain, really, only Americans seem to enjoy it more. And who’s to say that Africans wouldn’t enjoy it even more than that, given the choice between a proper road and a dirt track, between a McDonalds and a day slaving over a hot stove? It’s just that, according to the consensus that existed even before the WSSD started, those in the developing world are unlikely even to be able to choose these basic life necessities.

The crude anti-Americanism broadcast daily across the UK airwaves has nothing to do with whether President George W Bush attends the Johannesburg summit or not. It is about the kind of vision that Western commentators hold for the future of developing countries, and for the West. And for the perfect child’s eye vision of this future, we need look no further than our friend, leading environmental campaigner George ‘Small is Beautiful’ Monbiot.

George is worried about saying what he says, ‘for fear of being accused of romanticising poverty or somehow conspiring to keep people in the picturesque state to which I would never submit myself’ (2). Bravely, he says it anyway: ‘But it is impossible not to notice that, in some of the poorest parts of the world, most people, most of the time, appear to be happier than we are.’ He talks about how, in southern Ethiopia, ‘the streets and fields crackle with laughter’, and how ‘In homes constructed from packing cases and palm leaves, people engage more freely, smile more often, express more affection than we do behind our double glazing, surrounded by remote controls’.

George insists that: ‘This is not to suggest that poverty causes happiness.’ Given that people in southern Ethiopia ‘desperately want better healthcare, better education, better housing and sanitation, not to mention smart clothes, motorbikes, refrigerators and radios’, such an argument would be ludicrous, if not downright inhumane. What it does indicate, though, is that ‘wealth causes misery’. That’s why the West is full of misery-guts newspaper columnists, and ‘people in Ethiopia appear to be happier than we are’.

It’s worth stopping your push-bike at this point, and back-peddling just a little. If poverty doesn’t cause happiness – but the poor are happy – and wealth causes misery, what is to be done? Well, you certainly don’t want to develop society so that those silly Ethiopians can have all the gadgets and services that they desperately want, because that will make them unhappy. Rather, you want people in the developed world to have fewer things – to become poorer – because then they might be happy too. Not because poverty causes happiness, you understand, but because not living in poverty causes misery…okay, you’ve lost me, George.

What Monbiot really means is that money isn’t everything – which any pre-school child properly reared on fairy-tales could tell you. So what? Happiness is not something that can be decreed at a world summit. What wealth does offer is the opportunity of health, education, aspiration and achievement – all of which are being denied to the people of the developing world, because of the self-indulgent prejudice that green and sustainable means friendly and happy.

If nothing significant comes out of the Johannesburg summit, good. I’d rather watch the self-satisfied delegates of the affluent west drink champagne than have them plan yet more austere menus for their hosts in Africa.

Read on:

Time to ditch the sustainababble, by Ceri Dingle

Poverty of ambition, by Daniel Ben-Ami

Making our mark, by Jennie Bristow

(1) See the Newsround website

(2) What do we really want?, Guardian, 27 August 2002

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Topics Politics

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