JOHANNESBURG -- With its velvety haze and Bohemian ambitions, the Bassline
jazz club here usually draws a good crowd for poetry night. But as thousands
of delegates began to pour into the city last week for the U.N. World Summit on
Sustainable Development -- or Earth Summit -- the club challenged its poets to
an unprecedented contest.
Whoever reads the best poem in derision of President Bush's environmental policies wins.
"I'm not a real political guy," said Brad Holmes, the Bassline's owner for eight years. "But you know, people just really want to see some action on taking care of our environment and addressing poverty, and no one feels like Bush gives a [expletive] or is even bright enough to understand the issues. We did this totally in honor of the summit and just how pessimistic people are these days about the way things are going."
Poetry night at the Bassline represents just how the reservoir of mistrust and cynicism between prosperous Northern nations and poor Southern ones has widened since the last Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro a decade ago.
Nearly 100 world leaders and 40,000 other people are scheduled to attend the 10-day conference, which begins here Monday and sets out to devise global plans for how to rein in polluting industries, salvage scarce resources and accelerate economic development in poor countries through free trade.
But the failure to reach many of the goals agreed to at the Brazil summit and the enduring poverty in many developing countries have hardened the differences between rich and poor.
While such wealthy nations as the United States continue to press the developing world to open its markets to free trade and turn over public utilities, such as water and electricity, to private companies to curb environmental abuses and improve basic service delivery, poor countries say their efforts have been undermined by the industrialized world's hypocrisy and corporate approach.
Since the Rio conference, the number of people in the developing world living on less than $1 a day has not changed, despite the adoption of free-market policies promoted by the United States and such international lenders as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Opening their markets, poor countries have slashed agricultural subsidies while Europe, the United States and Japan spend $300 billion annually on them -- roughly six times the amount they spend on foreign aid to poor nations.
While wealthy nations increase their consumption of water for swimming pools, gardens and car washing, more than 1 billion people worldwide do not have access to safe drinking water and 2.5 billion lack proper sanitation, according to the United Nations.
The developing world is particularly critical of Bush, who is not attending the summit and whose administration has unilaterally rejected international treaties such as the accord reached in Kyoto, Japan, to curb global warning. The administration's support of privatization of state-owned industries is regarded by many as a ruse to enrich corporate raiders, such as those at Enron, at the expense of the poor, who cannot afford the increased prices of water and electricity that often accompany privatization.
The result is that there will be not one summit in Johannesburg this week,
but two: the U.N. summit in the gleaming suburban convention center north of the
city, and the Global People's
Forum, a conference of trade unions, grass-roots organizations, anti-globalization
protesters and environmental activists, at a soccer stadium in Soweto, the poor
black township created by the white-minority government that was abolished in
"There is a greater distance between the North and the South now," said Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, general manager of Ethiopia's Environmental Protection Authority. "Rio actually brought us together for the first time following the end of the Cold War. Now we've seen the creation of institutions like the [World Trade Organization] and we've had international trade talks, and the trends clearly show it is the rich who have benefited from them, not the poor.
"Nothing substantive is going to come out of this meeting. The stakes are too big. The most we can hope for is a stalemate."
Many Western officials say it is the developing world that has failed, begging for increasing amounts of aid while squandering much of what they already receive through corruption and mismanagement. Chief among those accused is President Robert Mugabe of neighboring Zimbabwe, who is expected to attend the summit and whose government is in the process of evicting the country's most successful white farmers while half of the country's 12.5 million people face starvation.
And officials from rich countries say they have pushed market-based proposals because many developing countries lack both the capacity and the finances to deliver water, electricity and sanitation.
"That collaborative effort is going to be necessary to bring the resources needed for these projects," said a senior official in the U.S. delegation to Johannesburg. "The financing available in the private sector is many, many more times what is available in the public sector. Some people are looking at the old ways of doing business and they don't work."
"Obviously, the euphoria of Rio -- that this was a whole new world -- has been lost in the years since," said Mark Malloch Brown, executive director of the U.N. Development Program.
Police here expect massive demonstrations by unions and anti-globalization activists protesting not just Western policies but also those of South African President Thabo Mbeki and his ruling party, the African National Congress. Many South Africans complain that the ANC's conservative fiscal policies have led to the loss of at least 500,000 jobs since 1994 and pushed the cost of basic services beyond the reach of the poor. And they charge that his proposal to increase trade between Africa and the West merely mimics the free-trade policies promoted by the World Bank and the IMF that many Africans blame for increased rates of poverty over the past decade.
Johannesburg police last week arrested 77 protesters at a rally for landless South Africans.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company