TCS Daily

Crisis of a House Divided

By James S. Shikwati - August 30, 2002 12:00 AM

JOHANNESBURG - Sharp division has emerged on views expressed by the NGO sector at the World Summit on Sustainable Development. Reporting in the Earth Times, Rahul Singh States, "By and large, the NGOs are united in their views on sustainable development at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD). Right? Wrong!"

The Eco Equity coalition that includes Greenpeace, the Worldwide Fund, Friends of the Earth and Oxfam and many other NGOs focus on alternatives as a solution to the world poverty problem.

At an Eco Equity press conference here, one of the panelists pointed to the fact that two billion people in the world were without reliable energy. But if they are to be brought into the energy fold, it should be only through renewable energy. On water, another panelist argued that "the World is facing a fresh water crisis with 2.5 billion people lacking access to safe drinking water". The source of water, like the river water basins, must be managed "holistically". The panelist was opposed to "pouring concrete" for dams and "sticking pipes" in river sources for canals. And these NGOs invariably focus on government solutions to problems poor people face.

But a different group of NGOs, the Sustainable Development Network (of which Kenya's Inter Region Economic Network is a partner) pointed out in one of its briefing papers that government and bureaucracies have failed to deliver, particularly in developing countries. "When water is provided by government it is typically of poor quality, it is also under priced and used wastefully, the infrastructure is frequently poorly conceived, built, and operated, and delivery is often unreliable. As with other systems of government patronage, water is allocated to the wealthy and politically powerful, whilst the poor go thirsty".

The SDN further pointed out that preventable diseases kill at least 13 million children under age 5 in poor countries. There are 4 billion cases of diarrhea, resulting in 2.2 million deaths, most of them involving children under 5 years old. That's the equivalent of one child dying every 15 seconds or 20 jumbo jets crashing every day. The causes of poor health include bureaucracy, taxes and duties and lack of clean water and sanitation.

What is the solution to this? According to the SDN we should:

Decentralize ownership and control of resources and other assets and enable well-defined, readily enforceable and exchangeable property rights. If the representatives of nations meeting at Johannesburg really want to promote sustainable policies, they should begin by doing what they can do to reduce the extent to which they intervene in the economic activities of the people they govern - and the activities of those in other nations.

Another controversial issue is the idea that wealthy governments must give aid to poor governments. But the SDN says, "Rather than giving more aid, governments (of the North) should significantly reduce the amount of aid they give, and use what aid they do give much more judiciously and target genuine problems, for example purchasing medicines to fight HIV/AIDS."

Other than give aid to governments that oppress their subjects making them poor, it would be better for the wealth nations to rethink their aid strategy.

The debate among NGOs is on whether the world should have more government intervention on development issues or less, more overseas aid or less. Many NGOs are arguing for more government expansion. The history of the developing world, however, points at the government inefficiencies and predatory tendencies that have made people poor who would, in a fair environment, be productive.

Director Inter Region Economic Network, IREN Kenya

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