For a Different Globalization

During, and just after, the Earth Summit on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, I could sense an overwhelming air of enthusiasm and hope for the future. It was a time of optimism and, in retrospect, innocence, as everyone celebrated the end of the Cold War.

Ten years later, we are surrounded by a different air -- one of cynicism and, for many, despair. This is hardly surprising, considering that the environment continues to deteriorate at an alarming rate, poverty is deepening in developing and transition countries, human security is diminishing, and violent conflicts and attacks still scar our world.

And this does not even begin to take into account the new realities we face in 2002. Most of these recent developments are tied to the phenomenon of globalization; the fact that we now live in a highly interconnected world where trade, pollution, crime, disease and communication know no borders. Globalization has brought enormous benefits to some, disaster to others, and has completely bypassed many. It has generated even greater gaps between the haves and the have-nots: those who have access to information, technology and natural resources, and those who have no influence at all over the factors that affect their livelihoods.

Double standards and the increasingly unfettered power of large multinational companies have served to exacerbate this trend. Instead of the "sustainable development,'' which the world signed up for in Rio, we see unsustainable consumption gained largely on the backs of the world's poor and disenfranchised, and at the expense of the environment.

What has gone wrong? What is missing?

Even in 1992, many of us realized that all the good will and promises of the Rio Summit would amount to nothing unless accompanied by two things: a serious investigation into the universal values and codes of ethics, and a great deal of money.

With others, I have been part of a global dialogue to create an integrated ethical framework for sustainable development, which resulted in the Earth Charter first released in 2000. With this text, we sought to fill an important gap.

Since the very emergence of human civilization, communities everywhere have developed and put into practice moral codes of conduct to govern the way they treat one another. Violators of these codes are brought to justice and often required to compensate the victims of their actions. After the horrors of the world wars, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was formulated as a means of protecting the people of the world from harm. Now the planet itself is in danger, and many of the basic ethical principles that should protect it are not respected, even though millions of people suffer as a result and violators go unpunished.

Hence, the need for an Earth Charter on behalf of the environment, and for the rights of future generations.

One important area where the world has fallen most sadly short of the Rio promises is freshwater. So simple, so beautiful in its different natural forms and so essential, water is a symbol in many religions and cultures for purification and replenishment, and is regarded as something to rejoice over and cherish.

It should be regarded as a source of universal shame that 3 million children will die, and millions more become blind this year as a result of preventable water-borne diseases; that over 1 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water; that almost 3 billion do not have the means for adequate sanitation; and that we thoughtlessly continue to pollute and exploit natural sources of freshwater throughout the world.

Water is the single most important ingredient for development and stability. Without access to basic water supplies, one is left with ill health, poverty, environmental degradation and even conflict -- all of which in turn lead to greater water stress.

Good governance, though essential, is not enough to cope with these issues. The United Nations has made a Millennium Pledge to reduce by half the number of people in the world without access to improved water and sanitation services by 2015; achieving this will take an estimated US$ 23 billion per year. Access to an adequate supply of good water for basic human needs is a universal human right, and it is the responsibility of everyone that this pledge be kept.

This will be difficult, considering that levels of Official Development Assistance (ODA), which helped finance infrastructure projects -- reached a 20-year low point of $53.1 billion last year.

At the Earth Summit, leaders of developed countries vowed to increase their ODA to 0.7 percent of their GNP. Only five nations have made good on that promise (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, The Netherlands and Luxembourg), while the others have either decreased or frozen their contributions. The OECD average is a pitiful 0.39 percent.

The countries of the North should insist that this trend be reversed, and that their nations live up to their global responsibilities. (It is, perhaps, a small but promising sign that U.S. President George Bush just decided, on March 15, to increase the American development aid budget by $5 billion.)

While insisting that developing nations pay their crippling overseas debts, rich nations should not forget the incalculable ecological debts that they are accruing through over-consumption, particularly the already evident climatic changes directly caused by irresponsible energy policies. The U.S. Senate, for example, voted down higher fuel efficiency standards of the gas-guzzling SUVs that clog the roads of American suburbs).

Surely, it is too much to ask that the developing countries not only honor their own debts but also bear the brunt of the over-consumption of the rich.

It would be naive to imagine that our prosperity can continue, or that we can achieve any degree of global security, without meeting these goals. One of the most important lessons of the terrorist attacks of September 11 is that we are all living in one world, and no one can afford to ignore the problems of others, no matter how far away.

Clearly, only globalization that is inclusive and rooted in sustainable development, will work. The current path will only breed resentment, despair and, no doubt, more violence.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the Cold War. He is currently president of Green Cross International, a worldwide environmental organization based in Geneva.

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