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Colin Powell And The World Summit On Sustainable Development by Salih Booker

(Sept. 3) Today, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell - unfortunately preoccupied with Iraq and his own retirement plans - leads the American delegation to the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, South Africa. His trip is "a day late and a dollar short" as far as making a positive difference is concerned. He is supposed to announce new multi-year spending plans for supporting development in Africa that the White House has crafted using Arthur Andersen-style accounting methods (i.e. counting old money several times and using projections for sums that don't yet exist). Arriving after all the major issues have already been addressed, he will mainly defend the U.S. opposition to setting goals and time frames for achieving progress on most environmental and developmental matters by falsely suggesting that the U.S. is leading the world in support for sustainable development. He will then rush off to Angola and Gabon to turn his attention to what really concerns the Bush Administration in Africa - Oil.

More than 100 world leaders from around the world have gathered for this 10-day Earth Summit in Johannesburg to work on a plan to promote environmental protection and sustainable human development. Secretary Powell is attending only the final two days of the summit. He is representing President Bush, who refused to attend the summit. Last year Bush prevented Powell, the first African American Secretary of State, from even attending the World Conference Against Racism also hosted by South Africa.

This year's summit, the WSSD, is a crucial international event. In the decade that has passed since the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, pledges made then have largely been abandoned, and environmental degradation and poverty have deepened in Africa and around the world. Development assistance from the wealthy to the developing world has also declined during this period. If these critical challenges are to be successfully addressed, it is at the WSSD that a new consensus should be forged.

The WSSD is highlighting the sharp fault-line between rich and poor countries that has been manifested repeatedly at recent international meetings. Rich countries - especially the United States - continue to resist calls to take more responsibility in responding to today's most urgent global challenges. In particular, they continue to reject demands to alter international trade rules that are weighted in their interests.

Developing countries are right to demand greater support from wealthy nations in their efforts to simultaneously protect their natural resources, address poverty, and promote sustainable human development. The U.S. and European countries command the lion's share of the wealth in the global economy and have accumulated that wealth by devastating their own environments and those of the developing world that they colonized.

The rich also consume a disproportionate amount of the world's resources, and are the worst polluters. It is perfectly logical, therefore, that they be expected to pay more of the shared global cost.

This concept of "differential responsibility" is receiving greater acceptance, even among the European powers. They acknowledge that new international commitments are needed to protect the environment and to eradicate poverty. European countries are now increasingly willing to negotiate targets and time-lines for increasing foreign aid and for reversing the loss of natural resources.

The U.S., however, remains outside this growing global consensus. It fails to see the importance of building international partnerships and establishing shared goals and responsibilities for achieving sustainable human development. This has been demonstrated repeatedly, from Washington's rejection of the Kyoto Treaty on global warming, to its failure to adequately support African and international efforts to respond to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. This failure of U.S. leadership bas been particularly harmful for Africa, a continent to which the U.S. has a special historical obligation.

In an attempt to stem criticism of President Bush's failure to attend the WSSD, Secretary Powell will be announcing a supposedly new $4 billion proposal on aid to Africa, to support disease control programs, clean water and sanitation projects, and environmental conservation. However, far from illustrating a U.S. commitment to Africa, this announcement is largely a hoax. Up to half of this money has already been approved or announced earlier, while the balance is based upon projections of future hypothetical appropriations, spread over several years. This is the Bush Administration's own form of Enron/Arthur Andersen-style accounting.

Included in the $4 billion "package" is the $500 million initiative to reduce mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean, announced by the Bush Administration in June. This initiative itself came just days after President Bush had personally intervened to derail Congressional efforts to pass an additional $1 billion for global AIDS. The $4 billion also includes the previously - announced U.S. pledge to the Global Fund to fight HIV/AIDS. The U.S. pledge of $500 million amounts to only a fraction of the $3.5 billion per year that Africa Action maintains would be the fair share of the richest country on earth. As a result of this stinginess, the Global Fund is facing near bankruptcy and more Africans are dying unnecessarily.

The current attempt by the Bush Administration to repackage these inadequate commitments as a "new" proposal for aid to Africa represents a cynical exercise in smoke and mirrors. And the failure of President Bush to even attend the WSSD must be read as yet another emphatic rejection of the principle of global cooperation for global human security.

As was revealed by last weekend's march in Johannesburg, and the many coordinated events around the world, there is a growing global sense that the current economic orthodoxy of market fundamentalism is antithetical to sustainable development for all. The Earth Summit can secure concrete commitments and a real plan to promote environmental protection and to reduce poverty. But the unilateralism of the U.S. already undermines the momentum of this important international summit and Secretary Powell's charm offensive cannot change the role of spoiler played by Washington.

After his short visit to South Africa, Powell will visit Angola and Gabon, two key oil producing states. While some pronouncements will be made on environmental issues, the administration's real interest in Africa remains cheap oil and these two countries, along with Nigeria, constitute a growing component of U.S. strategic energy policy. U.S. aversion to the promotion of alternative renewable sources of energy has been a major low point of the Earth Summit. Washington's promotion of U.S. oil company interests in these countries usually comes at the expense of the environment and of democratic and transparent government. Powell's decision not to visit Nigeria, the most important African country, may have been influenced by the hundreds of Nigerian women that recently took over several oil platforms of Chevron/Texaco to protest their exploitation of Nigerian resources and pollution of the environment while failing to invest in the development of local communities. In Angola, Secretary Powell is unlikely to address the moral demand for U.S. reparations to help the country rebuild itself following decades of war covertly financed by Washington.

Africa Action believes Secretary Powell owes it to Africa to be honest about the Bush Administration's lack of interest in fighting poverty and protecting the environment in Africa. But that is not possible while he still loyally serves what has become a very anti-African administration.

Salih Booker is the director of AFRICA ACTION (incorporating The Africa Fund/American Committee on Africa in New York and the Africa Policy Information Center in Washington) and can be contacted via e-mail at

Salih Booker

Wednesday, September 4, 2002

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