progress since Rio
When Adil Najam landed in Johannesburg two weeks ago to attend the United
Nations' 10-day World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), he was
pleasantly surprised to find Boston University represented at the global
gathering. Several thousand copies of the leading environmental policy
journal Environment, the cover story coauthored by Najam and six of his
graduate students, were circulating among the delegates. Najam, a CAS
assistant professor of international relations and environmental policy,
attended the WSSD to launch a UN-sponsored book project titled Civic Entrepreneurship,
and says that the article, "From Rio to Johannesburg:
Progress and Prospects," was well received because it addresses a
question that became the theme of the conference: are megasummits really
worth the effort?
This question surfaced last semester at the first meeting of Najam's
graduate seminar in environmental politics, as students expressed interest
in what had been achieved since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero.
The discussion grew into a collaborative project that surveyed experts
in business, government, and nongovernment organizations about what they
thought had been achieved since Rio.
At first, the survey was purely academic. The class studied successful
survey designs, debated their drafts, and tested prototypes on sample
groups. "All of us got really involved in drafting the survey and
figuring out who to send it to," says Janice Poling (GRS'03). "Then
when the results started coming back, it took on a life of its own."
Over 250 recipients responded. "I think that was very fulfilling
for the students," Najam says. "We thought that most of these
people wouldn't give us the time of day. But here they were - the people
whose textbooks the students were studying in class, and about whom they
were reading - sending back thoughtful answers."
As more responses poured in, the academic endeavor became professional.
"Once we started getting responses from distinguished heads of state
and presidents of multinational oil corporations, we realized, 'Hey, this
is real,'" says Daniel Straub (GRS'03), an assistant professor of
naval science at BU, who is pursuing a master's degree in the joint program.
"This was no longer students sitting in a classroom. It really gave
us a sense of purpose."
The survey responses paint a nuanced picture of what has happened in the
decade separating Rio and Johannesburg. A global environmental agenda
is beginning to take shape, but significant differences persist between
the priorities of developing countries of the south and the more industrialized
countries in the north. Both rate poverty alleviation as the number-one
goal in sustainable development. But after that, priorities split along
geographic lines. Debt relief and technology transfer were two staple
southern demands. Freshwater security, overpopulation, and renewable energy
were deemed important issues in the north.
The survey also suggests that the Earth Summit in Rio is regarded as
a success even though progress towards realizing its goals has been less
than spectacular. Nearly 70 percent of the respondents said that Rio was
monumental or very significant, but only 6 percent think significant progress
has been made since then.
It's not surprising, then, that many respondents were cynical about the
prospects for Johannesburg. Nearly half said that it would be insignificant
or only marginally significant. African respondents, despite being summit
hosts, were the least hopeful, Najam says, and that sentiment carried
over into the summit.
"The level of enthusiasm and hopefulness at Johannesburg was not
at all similar to the Earth Summit," he says. "Rio was naïve
to some degree, but in a very inspiring way. There was a sense at that
time that we were at the cusp of history, that anything was possible.
The Cold War had just finished. All of the forces of the world were aligned
to give people a sense of hope and enthusiasm. This was 2002, after 10
years of Rio's promises going unfulfilled. It was quite clear that lots
of things are not possible, and we have to do the best with what we have."
Going into Johannesburg, respondents said, rather hesitantly, that environmental
megasummits really are worth the trouble because they raise awareness,
place new issues on the global agenda, and encourage dialogue between
disparate interests. Several of the students involved in the project are
now planning with Najam a shorter follow-up survey that will gauge reactions
to the Johannesburg summit to see whether that cautious optimism will
push the Rio legacy forward.
For more information, visit www.johannesburgsummit.org.