- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 28, 2002

If you are in love with international treaties, if non-governmental organizations make your heart beat faster, then Johannesburg will be the place for you. If you care passionately about fighting poverty and improving the lives of children in the Third World, on the other hand, then there are probably better ways of spending your time and travel money.

Between Aug. 26 and Sept. 5, leaders from 100 nations will travel to South Africa for the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development. So are some 40,000 other persons, reporters and NGO representatives covering just about every cause on the planet. Some undoubtedly will come just to protest the evils of "globalization" and to cause anarchy and mayhem. The South African government is desperately hoping for nothing more than a fabulous gab fest and has taken every precaution.

The Johannesburg conference comes 10 years after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, whose results should be tangible by now. But not exactly a whole lot has changed when it comes to the fight against Third World poverty and disease. Though there are success stories pointing the way forward, throughout the developing world, countries continue to fail and decline.

The relationship between foreign assistance and the growth of gross domestic product (GDP) in Africa, for instance, has followed inverted trends. The more the wealthy nations increase their foreign aid, the more GDP in the developing world declines. Worldwide, today, 1.2 billion people live on less than $1 a day. More than 1 billion people still do not have clean drinking water, and the number of AIDS cases is exploding, in China as well as Africa.

Other things have grown since Rio summit, to be sure, but hardly to the benefit of the Earth or the poor nations. If the world's poor had a dollar for every international treaty designed to improve their living standards, they would surely wonder at the largess.

Over the past decade, we have had the 1994 framework Convention of Climate Change, a predecessor of Kyoto. We have had the 1993 Convention on Biological Diversity, which was followed in 2000 by the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. We have had the 1996 Convention to Combat Desertification, which was meant to address particularly Africa's problems with arid lands, but hasn't. We have had the Statement of Forest Principles, which came out of the Rio summit.

Then, there was the Rio Declaration itself of 27 principles for sustainable development, the meaning of which is still being debated a decade later. And there's the action plan developed by the United Nations itself, Agenda 21 "a powerful long-term vision for balancing economic and social needs with the capacities of the earth's resources and ecosystems," according to the United Nations itself. Unfortunately, the United Nations also wrote this about Agenda 21 "Good plan, weak implementation."

But there is room for hope. In a speech at Meridian International Center on July 12, Secretary of State Colin Powell highlighted the progress that had been made since Rio: The number of people in the developing world struggling to make ends meet on $1 dollar a day has dropped from 29 percent to 24 percent. Well, yes, that is progress, if modest.

In an article in the new issue of European Affairs magazine, undersecretary of state for global affairs, Paula Dobriansky, describes the growing recognition that "good governance begins at home" in the developing countries themselves, and also that private enterprise has a crucial role in raising living standards and preserving the environment. Successful partnerships between the private and public sectors reduce the costs and protect the environment.

In his speech, Mr. Powell also noted that "countries that have opened their economies have done better than those who remained closed. It's as simple as that." This should not come as a big surprise. Here Mr. Powell might just as well have referred to the Heritage Foundation's Index of Economic Freedom, which every year displays the undeniable correlation between economic freedom and prosperity.

Looking at the 2002 Index's map of Africa and the Middle East, for instance, only seven countries are ranked as economically "mostly free" on a scale that considers government interference, corruption, property rights, banking systems, trade tarrifs, etc. The differences between neighboring countries are striking. Namibia is "mostly free" and has per capita GDP of $2,097. Botswana is "mostly free" and can pride itself on per capita income of $3,711.

Neighboring Zambia, on the other hand, is "mostly unfree" and has a per capita income of just $389. Zimbabwe, also a neighbor and once a prosperous nation, is now categorized as "repressed" and shows per capita income of $703.

Yes, sustainable development is certainly what it's all about, but it takes more than talk. The models are there, based on good government and free-trade practices if only the summiteers would know where to look.

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