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Can Sustainable Development challenge the neo-liberal paradigm ?

vendredi 31 mai 2002, par Malin Björk

Could the concept of ‘sustainable development’ and the political actors behind it, be important forces in order to bring about a reform of the international economic order ?

What are the prospect for the Earth Summit in Johannesburg to be the event that will be ‘replacing the global paradigm of competition by a paradigm of cohesion’ ? The question was the centre of discussion during the hearing "From Rio via Doha to Johannesburg - Counterbalancing the WTO with strong environmental standards" held in the European Parliament on 17 April. The hearing gathered around 100 participants, mostly from NGOs, to discuss in which ways the concept of ‘sustainable development’, and the political forces behind it, could challenge the dominant neoliberal economic policies structuring the international system.

The advocates for a reform of the international economic and financial system, have targeted several United Nations meetings during the last years, as well as many other international meetings. This was the case with the Five year follow-up of the Beijing conference and the Five year follow-up of the International Population and Development Conference. At the relatively recent UN Monterey process, the issue of international financing for more equitable development was the very topic of discussion. However, these attempts, mainly pushed by social movements around the world, have not been successful in achieving a change in international economic and financial policies.
Apparently, taking the issues of gender equality, development, poverty eradication, or education as the points of departure does not suffice in order to obtain alternative economic policies, or even to make a dent in the structure of the powerful neoliberal logic promoted by the International Financial Institutions. Is it at all realistic to imagine that "Sustainable development" should be more successful than other focal perspectives in challenging the WTO, the IMF and Worldbank policies, the Free Trade Area of the Americas, or the neoliberal economic policies of the EU ?
The environmental perspective, which remains a strong focus in the sustainable development discourse, has somehow managed to make limited indents to the liberal economic competition doctrines. For example, in EU policy-making, environmental concerns have had some (however minor) success in contesting the fundamentalism of competition policies, while social- or equality based arguments have had extremely limited results in this quest.

What about equality ?

But, even though protection of the environment for generations to come are fundamental for sustainable development, one must still enquire whether a focus on environmental impacts necessarily or automatically will also bring about an international system based on solidarity and equality ? For example, depending on the system used, green taxes could mean a closed system where redistribution of resources are made between private corporations - taking from the polluting ones and giving to the ones that are engaged in the development of environmentally friendly technology and production. Although this would undoubtedly be a desirable development, it does not automatically strengthen the rights of workers, contribute to global gender justice or to access to healthcare, etc.
However, in this context is it important to highlight that many issues, well beyond strictly environmental concerns, have made their way into a more global sustainable development framework, such as poverty eradication, gender equality, rights of indigenous communities, habitat issues, etc. This also shows that the conflict is larger, and that environmental sustainability cannot be separated from struggles for social sustainability, equality and solidarity. Women’s groups have been essential actors, both through their concrete practices and in their political advocacy, to make visible the links between environmental and social sustainability, and above all to show that none of the objectives of sustainable development can be considered without incorporating gender equality objectives.
Environmental NGOs, social NGOs, and the women’s movement are in this sense creating closer ties, and jointly stepping up their critique in relation to the policies of international economic and financial institutions. The popular notion of win-win situations, where the environment, corporations and populations where all potential winners if only the solution was right, is now fundamentally challenged from most main actors within the sustainable development discourse. The conflict is economical and political, and in the current power relations, multinational corporations and richer countries are setting the rules.
Although the preparatory process so far makes it hard to believe that the Johannesburg Summit in itself will deliver a shift in paradigm, the sustainable development discourse is without a doubt one of the important forces in a broad and growing social movement, struggling to put an halt to the current WTO negotiations, the policies of the Worldbank, the IMF, the EU macro-economic policies, and various regional free-trade agreements threatening gender justice, and social- and environmental sustainability.


Malin Björk - mai 2002

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