Western countries are promoting “public-private partnerships” at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg as a path to sustainable development. Environmentalists are skeptical, saying it puts big business before people.
Private industry can play a key role in saving the planet.
Led by the United States, western countries showcased partnerships on Thursday between governments, private industry and other groups as a practical way of furthering economic development and saving the environment.
They say such partnerships are ways for business and governments to pool their resources and harness the funds and the know-how to accomplish more than either could on its own.
UN organizers say they have received 218 proposed partnerships, in areas ranging from health care to renewable energy projects that could go a long way in helping meet summit goals of halving global poverty by 2015 while slowing environmental degradation.
A multi-nation project to expand efforts to save forests in central Africa’s Congo basin was announced on Thursday. Germany, the US, Japan and Indonesia are among the countries that want to provide an additional $53 million dollars over four years to a partnership between the paper industry active in the region and the local population. The plan aims to develop protected forest areas and cut down on illegal logging.
But many environmentalists are wary of relying on private business to save the planet. They say partnerships may let companies cash in on providing essential services like water and electricity, while allowing governments to shirk their traditional responsibilities.
“If a government doesn’t do its regulation homework, it could be more than happy to let a private company come in and take over things,” Jörg Kusche with Greenpeace in Germany told DW-WORLD. “But then there would be no transparency or accountability. We don’t think that’s the right direction.”
He and other environmental activists have expressed concern that public-private partnerships will be used by big business as an exercise in “greenwash” – putting a cloak of environmental responsibility around a company that could mask activities that could actually be damaging to the environment or people in development countries.
Martin Kaiser, international environmental expert for Greenpeace who is in Johannesburg, criticised the Congo plan after it was announced saying it appeared to have been developed largely by the paper industry with only minimal input from indigenous groups threatened by the Congo forests’ destruction.
“There’s already a lot of criticism about these initiatives. A lot seem to be one-sided in favor of industry,” he told DW-WORLD.
In UN parlance, these public-private agreements are called “Type 2” initiatives. The idea is that these voluntary programs can be decided on and launched quickly by the parties involved as opposed to being endorsed by the “Type 1” process, which requires the approval of an international forum and can be bureaucratic and time-consuming.
“We think it would be more sensible if these were a completion of Type 1 initiatives and a part of binding agreements instead of just voluntary ones, whose outcome is anything but certain,” Kusche said.
But the Americans at the summit see such agreements as practical steps towards sustainable development. Public funds used in partnerships, according to US thinking, can leverage private investment. Assistant Secretary of State John Turner said the US plans on commiting $970 million over the next three years to water projects, but expects to mobilize more than $1.6 billion through partnerships.
The US Agency for International Development presented a $90 million proposal to fight hunger in Africa by teaming up with regional trade groups and industry partners.
Paula Dobriansky, a US undersecretary of state for global affairs, dismissed skepticism on the part of some activists.
“I have found a great deal of enthusiasm…all want to see us really have some action here,” she said.
European Union officials were also talking up several of their proposed projects on Thursday, including agreements in energy and water management. But they were more circumspect than their translatlantic partners about the extent to which public-private partnerships can solve all the world’s problems.
In a statement, Danish Environment Minister Hans Christian Schmidt, who is representing the EU in Johannesburg, cautioned against upsetting the balance between the public and private part of the equation.
“Partnerships are a complement to (government) commitments,” he said, “not a substitute for them.”