Teething troubles

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THE COMMISSION on Sustainable Development (CSD), established as a UN organisation at the Earth Summit in 1992, seems bogged down by talk bereft of action.

The commission, consisting of 53 countries elected on a three-year rotation basis, was set up as a global forum to coordinate action to implement an environmentally sustainable programme called Agenda 21 -- the informal name for Agenda for the 21st century.

The first CSD meeting was held in June and it was able to break a stalemate between industrialised countries not wanting to discuss aid and developing countries countering by refusing to discuss individual commitments. At a two-day "high level" session, Western environment ministers, including from USA, supported demands from developing countries and accepted that the lifestyles of the rich nations should be made environmentally sustainable. The Western nations also recognised the necessity for an increase in aid.

Said Carol Browner, director of US Environmental Protection Agency, "I want to tell developing countries that we are hearing you loud and clear (on the issue of aid and technology transfer) and we realise the need to change our lifestyle."

But Browner, like other officials from the industrialised world, did not offer any specific policy initiative. Instead, she asked CSD for suggestions on how to make developed countries frugal in their use of natural resources.

Most observers are convinced that aid will continue to decline -- a trend that started almost immediately after the Earth Summit. The sole exception has been Denmark, which has announced an increase in its official aid.

The industrialised countries, meanwhile, have proposed adding "economies in transition" (a reference to eastern European countries) to the category of developing countries entitled to receive aid. With the end of the cold war, developing countries have expressed concern that much of the annual 55-billion-dollar aid to them will be diverted to east European countries. In the past year, there has been a simultaneous increase in aid to eastern Europe and a decline in aid to developing countries.

Meanwhile, efforts by NGOs in developing countries and governments at replacing aid with improved terms of trade that would increase transfer of financial resources have received wider acceptance in the industrialised world.

"Financial flows associated with trade dwarf those associated with aid and debt," says Carole Saint-Laurent of the World Wide Fund for Nature. With trade in goods standing at $3.5 trillion each year, an improvement in terms of trade of a mere 1 per cent would raise $35 billion annually.

In the area of technology transfer, bringing the transnational corporations within the agreements of Agenda 21 remains controversial. Industrialised countries agreed to the need for transferring environmentally benign technology, but said developing countries should buy the technology they need and not expect any concessional transfers.

Two working groups were established at the CSD meeting to identify ways to resolve financial issues and the issue of technology transfer. These groups will meet between CSD's annual meetings.