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Ecumenical team challenges basic approach to development

12 February 2002

Ecumenical team challenges basic approach to development

An ecumenical team at the 28 January-8 February meeting of the preparatory committee for the World Summit on Sustainable Development called attention to the priority of sustainable communities.

In spotlighting the human dimension, team members built on a tradition of ecumenical thought about international affairs, including the declaration of the World Council of Churches' (WCC) Harare assembly that the dangers in current patterns of globalization should be countered with a focus on "just and sustainable communities”. This means economic advance that benefits and empowers all, not just an already-powerful minority.

Team members came from diverse regions and religious communities, including Hindu and Shinto, and brought individual interests in specific issues such as concern for handling water resources or curbing use of fossil fuels. But in their first experience observing summit preparation as a team, they found themselves in agreement on a basic approach.

Peter Pavlovic, a Slovakian Lutheran minister who works with the Commission for Churches in Society, an agency of the Conference of European Churches, said governments generally acknowledged that development must include the ecological and social aspects as well as the economic. But the ecumenical team was insisting that all three of those aspects had an essential ethical dimension. "This still is not generally recognized," Pavlovic said.

Preparing for the World Summit

The United Nations (UN) Commission on Sustainable Development, a body established in 1993 to follow up on the Rio Conference on Environment and Development the previous year, is serving as the preparatory committee for the summit sometimes called Rio +10, to be held 26 August-4 September in Johannesburg, South Africa.

This conference not only follows up on the Rio meeting, the Earth Summit that produced Agenda 21 for sustainable development in the 21st century, but continues the tradition going back to the 1972 environmental conference in Stockholm. Although the word "environment" is not in the theme of the Johannesburg summit, the term "sustainable" is understood to include environmental concerns.

The first, mainly organizational meeting of the preparatory committee (prepcom) was held in spring 2001. The second prepcom began a discussion of issues and on the last day accepted by consensus a summary document by chairman Emil Salim of Indonesia that will serve as a draft for future negotiation. More serious debate is expected at prepcom 3, to be held in New York, 25 March-4 April, and the fourth and final prepcom, 27 May-7 June, in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Sustainable environment requires a just society

Preparing "talking points" for use at these future meetings, team members called for "a healthy planetary ecosystem", but said "environmental sustainability without social justice" meant nothing.

Reflecting the disappointment of team members over results of the past decade, Jutta Steigerwald, who is based in Rome but works with the Bad Boll Academy of Germany on climate change, said the Johannesburg summit might better be called "Rio minus 10".

"Environmental damage has increased, the gap between the poor and the rich has increased, global warming has increased, motorized transport has increased," she said. While Rio brought greater environmental awareness, Johannesburg needs to set firm targets and firm dates for reaching them, she said.

Elias C. Abramides, an Eastern Orthodox layman from Buenos Aires, Argentina, suggested that the summit should look at the reality that some forces had been "creating poverty" rather than assisting development, a backward movement that he has witnessed in his own country.

On the positive side, Shanti A. Sachithanandam, a Hindu in Sri Lanka who works for an agency funded by British churches, said the process beginning in Rio had brought an advance in the number of recognized "stakeholders". "Government delegates have to share the policy-framing space," she said.

Moises Gutierrez Rojas, a Methodist Aymara from Bolivia who works on indigenous and agrarian issues, expressed gratitude for the support of the WCC that made an indigenous presence at such UN events possible. "Our most important demand is to get back control of our territories and resources," he said. "That is a precondition for sustainable development."

While he and other team members were uncertain whether their efforts would show up in the final document acted on in Johannesburg, they agreed it was worthwhile to keep pointing out the different kinds of actions that would be needed for the development of sustainable communities.

Jackie Moreau, an American member of the Roman Catholic Sisters of Mercy, observed that even some government delegates, such as those from small island states concerned about the effects of global warming on water levels, did not always see results from their efforts, but kept working nonetheless. And she pointed out that representatives of the various non-governmental organizations helped each other through their exchange of information and ideas.

The ecumenical team is coordinated by the WCC in consultation with the UN offices of the Sisters of Mercy and the Lutheran World Federation.

Linking financing with sustainable development

Some members of the team have also served on another ecumenical team which closely follows preparations for the International Conference on Financing for Development, to be held 18-22 March in Monterrey, Mexico, and pointed to its connections with the Johannesburg theme.

If Monterrey produces no new money, then Johannesburg will not be able to launch any significant new programmes for sustainable development, they said.

Jeffrey M. Golliher, a priest on the staff of the Episcopal (Anglican) Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, also said the possibilities for any kind of development benefiting the poor of the world would be limited by the increase in military expenditures that had come since 11 September.