U.S. unveils initiatives at summit

But programs put forth at development meeting are criticized as lacking

August 30, 2002|By Laurie Goering | Laurie Goering,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

JOHANNESBURG - Stung by widespread criticism that the United States is backing away from the international fight against poverty and environmental destruction, the U.S. delegation to the United Nations World Summit in Johannesburg went on the offensive yesterday, declaring the United States "the world's leader in sustainable development" and unveiling a package of partnership initiatives designed to turn development promises into "concrete action."

"No country has made a greater or more concrete contribution to sustainable development," said Paula Dobriansky, undersecretary of state for global affairs and head of the U.S. delegation.

But critics, including a number of American lawyers and scientists at the summit, characterized the U.S. initiative as little more than a political spin effort by the Bush administration, which has committed too little money and leadership to the Johannesburg process.

President Bush has chosen not to join the more than 100 world leaders expected at the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

The United States doesn't "have a scale of commitment that is at all realistic," said Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and a special adviser to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. "We're doing a tiny fraction of what we need to do."

Ten years after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit fostered a new global vision on how to attack the world's environmental and social problems, participants have dubbed the follow-up meeting in Johannesburg the "down to Earth summit."

The new conference is faced with the difficult task of implementing the agreements reached at Rio, a contentious issue particularly in regard to who should pay and how quickly changes should be made.

Most nations would like to set a 2015 deadline to halve the number of people living in extreme poverty and those without access to clean drinking water. But the U.S. delegation has fought efforts to set new targets or deadlines and has brought little new money to the table to help pay for such efforts.

Instead, U.S. representatives say they would like to focus on implementing needed changes through partnerships with private business, foundations, governments, nonprofit organizations, universities and other groups. "Partnerships are where the real action is," said James Connaughton of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Yesterday, U.S. representatives unveiled a package of partnership efforts to address some of the chief concerns at the summit: health, clean water, biodiversity, housing, energy access and prevention of hunger.

Under the largest proposal, the United States would commit $970 million over three years to digging wells and providing other access to clean water and sanitation services in places such as West Africa and in protecting watersheds and improving the efficiency of water use.

The U.S. contribution, Dobriansky said, would be used to attract matching investments from foundations, business and other groups that could bring the total commitment to the project to $1.6 billion.

The U.S. delegation also promised $53 million over four years to promote economic development and natural resource conservation in the Congo basin, $90 million to cut hunger and up to $43 million to provide new energy and increase energy efficiency in developing nations.

U.S. representatives, however, repeatedly dodged questions about how much of the money represented new commitments and how much was being pulled from other projects. Officials admitted that only $20 million of the $970 million water proposal was new financing.

"Is it all new? I'm not going to be disingenuous," said Andrew Natsios, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Laurie Goering writes for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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