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Bursting the "Sustainability" Bubble

With sustainability set to be the magic mantra at the Johannesburg summit, the World Bank says in its latest report that it can only be reached through a globally balanced distribution of rights and assets.

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The plight of young AIDS sufferers in Africa will play a central role at the sustainability summit in Johannesburg

As world leaders and tens of thousands of delegates descend on Johannesburg for the world summit on August 26, there will be one word on everyone’s lips – "sustainability".

Whether the debate is on energy, water, agricultural subsidies, trade barriers, poverty or development aid, the word is bound to keep popping up.

But the World Bank has sent a sobering message to those who eagerly reach out for the word "sustainability" as a panacea for the world’s ills.

In its recently published World Development Report, the bank makes clear that sustainability can only be achieved through a globally balanced distribution of rights and goods.

It says that the world economy could grow four-fold in the coming 50 years and there could be a sharp reduction in poverty if governments take measures now against dramatic environmental damage and social inequality.

Do away with present inequalities

Ian Johnson, vice president of the World Bank, told DW-RADIO that sustainable development cannot be achieved as long as the existing inequalities in the world are not done away with.

"I think the first level of inequality is really the one of income inequality – 20 percent of the world’s population today have and own 80 percent of the assets and 80 percent of the income. That is an unsustainable world and it must change over time", he said.

The report states that an unequal distribution of assets and misguided political strategies over the past few decades have led to exploitation of the natural world, environmental catastrophes, widespread poverty and hunger and civil wars and migration.

Building trust a priority

The report says that it’s more important than ever to rebuild trust between people because only trust can make it possible to set up of businesses and create wealth on a wider scale.

There is a second level of balance the world needs to achieve, according to Ian Johnson.

"We must balance the issues of economic management and economic justice along with ecological management and justice if we’re going to have a world that is safe and secure for our children and their children."

Both developing and developed world need to work

Johnson calls upon all to realise that: the developing countries must promote consensus, democracy and transparency.

The rich countries, he says, must shoulder more financial responsibility to reduce the debts of developing countries, open their markets to products from these countries and provide the third-world with affordable medicine as well as technologies to save energy and to strengthen agricultural production.

Johnson believes that Johannesburg will provide the opportunity to prepare the groundwork for some of these goals. The questions, he says, are "how do we set up the institutions, the markets, the policies, the vision to manage that effectively and fairly?"

Rein in greed for profits

The World Development Report also calls on companies to restructure their production processes in a more environmentally-friendly way. Johnson calls for business leaders to turn away from the desire for short-term profits or the much-quoted "shareholder-value".

"Part of it will be advocacy, part of it will be demonstrating that there is a way towards profitability as well as responsibility, a sort of responsible wealth-creation".

Johnson sure US will see the light

US President George W. Bush will not be among the leaders at the summit.

Just a week before the biggest conference in the history of the United Nations, he announced that the American delegation would be led by Foreign Minister Colin Powell. Bush has also rejected the Kyoto protocol signed by the Clinton administration.

Despite the discouraging signs from the world’s superpower, Johnson thinks the chances are good that the US will play a part in moving toward a sustainable world.

"What we have got to ensure is that there is a vision for wanting to get where we need to get and to work in terms of a sustainable world. And I think the US will play a role in that."

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