NEWS IN FOCUS: Was the summit really a complete waste of time?

Many aid agencies were disappointed at the lack of firm targets set at the event. But it had some positive points, says Caspar van Vark

Catcalls drowned out Colin Powell, and Robert Mugabe used his platform to rage against Britain's colonial past. It's a wonder that sustainable development was discussed at all at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg earlier this month.

Many branded the summit a failure before it even ended, mainly because it failed to set firm targets. Its most notable success was an agreement to halve the number of people without access to clean water and sanitation by 2015.

Many NGOs have expressed their disappointment, not only with the lack of concrete results but also about their marginalisation at the summit.

"NGOs didn't have the same behind-the-scenes influence,

says John Hilary, trade policy adviser at Save the Children. "We were given a sense of access, but influence came squarely from the private sector. We'd go along and say we're concerned and have meetings, but those concerns just didn't get through."

The size of this summit meant that NGOs had to shout to be heard. Representatives took part in all sorts of meetings, forums and lobbying activities. Tearfund had a stand in the Waterdome, an open meeting area, where it raised awareness of the link between natural disasters and sanitation. Save the Children was fortunate enough to be given space for a side event in the main conference centre, for which 80 per cent of applications were turned down.

Large companies had a more visible presence. "The main square at the summit was completely given over to BMW installations,

Hilary recalls.

"Each installation was huge, as big as a bouncy castle.

So there was a really strong corporate presence."

This sense of being sidelined in favour of the private sector meant that for NGOs, partnerships with organisations or influential people were important.

"You need alliances because you can't be everywhere,

says Andy Atkins, advocacy director at Tearfund.

He also stresses the need to put in the hours. "If you're serious about influencing policy you need to work all hours. I had a text message at 3am telling me about a decision that had been made. That kind of commitment is necessary,

he says.

Keith Roberts, head of Oxfam Wales, says that being part of a well-known organisation really helped. "In our case we were working as an alliance with other organisations like Friends of the Earth, and it's easier for Oxfam to have a high profile than it is for some smaller organisations,

he says. "Among them there was a feeling of being sidelined."

Access to events seems to have been an issue for all NGOs, and the problem was not just one of being deliberately excluded but that the logistics of getting passes were so complicated and kept changing. Atkins complains that the hassle of getting passes ate into valuable lobbying time.

"The major problem was that procedures for access to the conference centre kept changing,

he says. "You had to register, but then you couldn't just go in, you still needed a pass. And then when you came out at the end of the day, you had to queue to get the next day's pass. This was time you could have used for lobbying. The conspiracy theorists thought it was deliberate, but I think it was just ineptitude. They had no experience of how to handle all those people."

Sally Nicholson, head of global policy at WWF, agrees. "It was the first time for South Africa so they were a bit over cautious,

she says. "The whole access thing made it so difficult that many NGOs were sidelined by default. There were lots of meetings and decisions being made behind closed doors, and there wasn't much transparency."

So have all the NGOs really written off the summit as a total failure? Far from it. All eyes were on Johannesburg last month, and even if targets weren't set, there were still a lot of column inches and airtime to be had. Many feel the level of media attention alone was enough to warrant the trip.

"We were still able through the media to emphasise certain issues,

says Roberts of Oxfam Wales. "These included fair trade, and we did also have a positive engagement with the media about that and HIV and famine."

Hilary echoes this view. "We did get coverage in the press, and we were able to push forward some concerns around the privatisation of services.

My time was split between the media, speaking events and meetings."

But in spite of that success, Roberts also says that the most valuable work he did was nowhere near the Johannesburg summit.

"I spent four days around the summit and then went to Pietermaritzburg to look at work we are doing tackling HIV and Aids,

he says. "There I found real engagement between us and the local authorities and organisations.

We were working from the grass roots up instead of from the top down, which was what it was like in Johannesburg. There was a famine on the doorstep and the summit was not willing to engage with possible solutions to that."

Part of the problem, suggests Atkins, is that NGOs came to the summit with unrealistic expectations. He says it is only to be expected that some issues will see progress and others won't, and warns against the danger of dismissing the summit as a disaster.

"I don't agree that it was a failure, although it needed to deliver more,

he admits.

But you need to be careful because if you give the impression that it's just a waste of time, then we might not have these summits at all in the future, and that would be even worse. They do inch us forward.

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