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
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
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 is a writer and designer. firstname.lastname@example.org