Forging a New Global Partnership
French, Hilary F., The Humanist
In June 1992, more than 100 heads of state or government and 20,000 non governmental representatives from around the world gathered in Rio de Janeiro for the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development. The event was widely heralded as historic. It resulted in the adoption of Agenda 21, an ambitious 500 page blueprint for sustainable development. If implemented, this would require far reaching changes by international agencies, national governments, and individuals everywhere. In addition, Rio produced treaties on climate change and biological diversity, both of which over time could lead to domestic policy changes in all nations.
The Earth Summit marked the coming of age of "sustainable development"--the point at which this concept moved from the environmental literature to the front page, and from there into the lexicon of governments and international agencies. Significantly, the Rio conference pointed to the need for a global partnership if sustainable development was to be achieved.
Since Rio, a steady stream of international meetings has been held on the many issues that were on its agenda. Governments, for instance, have been preparing for the first Conferences of the Parties of the biological diversity and the climate conventions, where the real work of getting these agreements actually implemented will begin. Similarly, the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development, created to oversee follow through on Agenda 21, had met twice by mid 1994 and is starting to get its feet on the ground. And the September 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo put the spotlight of world attention on the inexorable pace of population growth--and on the need to respond to it through broad based efforts to expand access to family planning, improve women's health and literacy, and ensure child survival.
Unfortunately, though, the pace of real change has not kept up with the increasingly loaded schedule of inter national gatherings. The reality is that the initial burst of international momentum generated by UNCED is flagging, and the global partnership it called for is foundering due to a failure of political will. Though a small, committed group of individuals in international organizations, national and local govern meets, and citizens' groups continues trying to keep the flame of Rio alive, business as usual is largely the order of the day in the factories, farms, villages, and cities that form the backbone of the world economy.
The result is that the relentless pace of global ecological decline shows no signs of letting up. Carbon dioxide concentrations are mounting in the atmosphere, species loss continues to accelerate, fisheries are collapsing, land degradation frustrates efforts to feed hungry people, and the earth's forest cover keeps shrinking. Many of the development and economic issues that underpin environmental destruction also continue to worsen. Though some social indicators, such as global life expectancy and literacy rates, have improved in recent years, other key trends are headed in the wrong direction: income in equality is rising, Third World debt is mounting, human numbers keep increasing at daunting rates, and the absolute number of poor people in the world is increasing. …