BANGKOK, June 10, 2002 (IPS) — A U.N. summit seeking to lift millions out of poverty and protect the environment at the same time still lacks relevance and meaningful action for Asia's poor, say regional activists.

A key issue, they point out, is funding for development programmes in countries that are home to the poor of Asia, where one in four people live in poverty. The region also also hosts two-thirds of the world's 500 million hungry people.

Developed countries were expected to have declared their financial commitments by now for the U.N.'s "World Summit on Sustainable Development," (WSSD) which begins late August in Johannesburg.

However, a meeting that ended late Friday on Indonesia's island resort of Bali provided activists some clues about the state of such financial pledges for sustainable development.

According to the activists, the language in the document to serve as the action plan for the WSSD is woefully short of specific details on how the developed nations will deliver on their funding pledges.

"There are very little commitments that Asia's poor can expect from the WSSD if this thinking prevails," says Shalmali Guttal of Focus on the Global South, a Bangkok-based think-tank. "The text also does not challenge the way development is currently financed."

Alex Renton is equally concerned about the absence of concrete language on financing. "Financing is a key problem when it comes to implementing the sustainable development agenda," says Renton, spokesman for the South-East Asia division of Oxfam, a global development lobby.

The Bali meeting, which attracted some 120 environmental and development ministers, was expected to agree on concrete measures to be implemented at the Johannesburg summit, also called 'Earth Summit 2' or 'Rio+10'.

What is more, the participating ministers only succeeded in arriving at a draft action plan for the WSSD, than what the U.N. had hoped would emerge out of this final preparatory session — a definite plan of action to be implemented on the ground, having clear targets and timetables.

"The NGO (nongovernmental organisation) perception is understandable," says Ravi Sawhney, an environment and development expert at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific (ESCAP), based in Bangkok. "Asian countries are looking for an action plan that deals with implementation, including financing."

Since the Bali meeting ended, one coalition of NGOs has issued a caustic statement about the participating governments falling short of their expected objectives.

"It has been embarrassing to watch this process, to see different nations and blocs single-mindedly pursuing their own narrow interests at the expense of poor people and the planet's future," states the coalition, which includes Consumers International, Friends of the Earth International, Greenpeace and the World Wide Fund for Nature.

"Hardly any country can leave Bali without embarrassment," it adds. "The list of guilty parties is a long one, but it starts with the three who shamelessly hijacked the process in Bali: the United States, Australia, and Canada. They are abandoning their responsibilities to their citizens and to poor people across the world."

At the first Earth Summit, held in Brazil's port city Rio de Janeiro in 1992, governments agreed to set out goals for financing development in the 400-page summit document Agenda 21 — described as a "blueprint for sustainable development."

According to U.N. calculations at the time, it was estimated that implementing Agenda 21 in the developing countries would cost over 600 billion dollars annually. Developed countries declared to pump in 125 billion dollars yearly through Official Development Assistance (ODA), which meant each country raising its ODA levels to 0.7 percent of their gross national product (GNP).

To date, only five countries have met this target — Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. And since 1992, 14 of 21 donor countries have seen their aid budgets decline.

Consequently, Asia-Pacific countries have been faced with an estimated 30 billion dollars a year financial gap as they pursue the development and environmental needs of the region.

But U.N. Asia experts like Sawhney are hoping that the Johannesburg summit will deliver on some of the other pivotal issues that Asia-Pacific countries are pushing for in their regional platform for Rio+10.

"The draft action plan in Bali has incorporated the seven initiatives that the Asia-Pacific countries called for," says Sawhney.

The seven issues that were agreed upon at a regional meeting last November in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, included capacity building and poverty reduction for sustainable development, cleaner production and sustainable energy and land management and bio-diversity conservation.

The other areas are: protection and management of access to freshwater resources, oceans, coastal and marine resources and sustainable development of Pacific island-nations, and action on atmosphere and climate change.

"We should not shy away from the document for Johannesburg," asserts Sawhney. "Things will have to be done in Johannesburg. It is not going to be a talk shop."

Oxfam's Renton agrees that Johannesburg should prompt governments to remedy the shortcomings at Bali. "Heads of governments must ask what the WSSD should be remembered for. The summit has to deal with time frames and commitments."

However, Guttal of Focus is not as sanguine about what the WSSD will offer. "I don't know what Asia's poor have to look forward to in Johannesburg, except a reaffirmation of the conditions that have made them poor."


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Marwaan Macan-Markar is is the Asia-Pacific correspondent for the Inter Press Service (IPS).