THE EARTH TIMES
MAY 16 – 31 1998
Q&A POUL NIELSON
Are Europeans more conscious of environment problems than other people?
By Ashali Varma
Poul Nielson, Minister of Development Cooperation of the Royal Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, spoke with The Earth Times about his year’s Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) Meeting held from April 20-May 1 at United Nations headquarters in New York City
If you were to look back six years and see all the meetings, what do you think the Commission on Sustainable Development has achieved?
Well, we had to create frameworks. So the CSD, with its regular annual meetings and agendas, is a way of directing the international debate in the right direction. And I think when we look at the decision last year to have an issue like water to be specified for this year, and looking at the preparation that has been done up until this meeting, with different meetings and conferences around the world and so on, all this is a way of organizing the debate. And this is part of what the UN system does. It provides a facility for organizing global discussions on the important themes.
Beyond the UN system, as far as governments and civil society is concerned, where do you think the real process stands?
We haven’t seen the peak yet of public involvement in environmental issues. I think this is still growing. Hopefully, the political consumer will mature into becoming a political citizen, but I think environmental issues are productive in awakening the people, and it’s one link between one’s own personal observations in life, society and politics.
Do you think the rest of the world is as environmentally conscious and has that political will that Europeans have?
The objective reality indicates that the answer is no. But that’s exactly why it’s important to discuss these things. One has not become a politician because the world is nice, but because the world needs the will and ability to fight for changing the world.
The Global Environment facility assembly in New Delhi last month was the best example so far of a more constructive, more problem-oriented mood in the discussion. At that meeting, we did not see a repetition of the traditional debate where the rich countries are blamed for not doing enough on environment, and where the poor countries are leaning back from really taking a serious part in that discussion and instead criticizing the rich countries for the low ODA (official development assistance). So we got to a point where we discussed issues, the functioning of GEF, how to do it better, how to work better for the implementing agencies and so on. It was a much more constructive mood.
The CSD has debated whether water resources should be privatized; subject to market
forces, treated as a commodity. What do you say about this?
Recognizing that water is a basic human need is not the same as saying that for that very reason water should be free. It doesn’t work like that. Even if air is seen as a free good, the reality is that securing air quality—so that we breathe healthy clean air—costs money. So providing water costs something. And in one way or another, society has to pay the fee. So we, as donors, have our fingers deep into this. Without securing a genuine ownership of the benefits of any given water project, it will not work. So, at a minimum, we have to make sure that maintenance of a project is done locally, in the villages. And the repair capability should be there and so on. So it all takes some financing. And we think it is true that the responsibility for this is linked to having some ownership also in the more literal sense of the word. So we are not advocating free water in our projects.
We are also quite careful to concentrate on providing water at the village level. We are shying away, generally, from supporting water supply in big cities because there it should be
based on local funding. Where the really poor people live, the donors’ presence is better motivated.
Today there are companies whose annual income is larger than many countries in which they operate; some of these countries may have no environmental regulations.
Shouldn’t these companies maintain the same standards abroad that they have at home?
There is a dilemma here. Many developing countries fear, for instance, the [proposed] Multilateral Agreement on Investment because they think this will further strengthen powerful multinational companies. My view is that by having a more explicit set of rules of the game we will see a different pattern. The developing countries with weak governance, so to speak, are now actually missing small and medium-sized companies as players in their economy. It’s only the big powerful multinationals, those that can work in any environment, that actually dare to do it. The normal, decent small or medium company in our societies, they do not dare to operate in these obscure ‘environments.
So actually the types of companies that might contribute with more decent management philosophies than the powerful multinationals, or would blend more easily into the environment of the smaller, less powerful, host country, are missing as long as we don’t have these regulations and rules. So my view is actually that it would be in the interest of the weaker economies to get into a system that also would be more inviting to the smaller companies.
In what ways do you think the UN summits have helped to change the way organizations and governments view issues of poverty, unemployment and social exclusion?
One of the big changes has been the reorganization of the World Bank since 1995. And it’s not a direct result of the Social Summit but the whole push in the global discussion sphere has been one of the factors in the change process. Also, for the Highly Indebted Poor Countries Initiative, which in a sense dates back to what was said in Copenhagen, where we called for new and innovative ways that multilateral organizations can deal with these governments. So it worked, and they responded to that call for action, and from then on the new management of the Bank actually did perform very well.
What are you doing specifically to the lead-up to Social Summit+5?
What we are doing is actually expressed in the Copenhagen seminars. We are holding the third one in October. In the first two we discussed the relationship between state and market,
between the informal and the formal economy, and also looked at the reality of markets in the most naked, primitive sense, meaning the place where the bananas are sold, very close to the production. And going through all the complexities of the markets, which is a discussion of globalization.
One of the conclusions is that we don’t have a global village because in a village there is a shared system of values and norms. In a village, there is also normally some governance, some authority that people can rely on. But this certainly is not the case when we look at the world. Also, on matters of shared cultural values the reality is different from the normal perception that we are moving toward some more harmonized, common perception of the world as such. It is actually a case of suppressing reality when we take it for granted that we live in one world only.
On analysis, we and others in these discussions have reached a conclusion that politics is here to stay, and that market economy is market society, and that this is quite an important distinction that is necessary to make for many reasons.
So the next theme has to do with what should be done in this world. We are not just jumping into a discussion of having a world government or something that will solve the problems and set things. But we are preparing to discuss in it systematic way in October what ought to be done in order to strengthen a more authoritative way of discussing political problems appropriately.
Are you optimistic that such an outcome can be achieved?
The World Trade Organization and its relative success in dealing with a fixed agenda, so to speak is an inspiration because when it is possible to create real progress on how to organize part of mankind’s agenda—well, in that case it ought to be possible to do other things also on environmental protection and human rights. The UN reform process is also a healthy sign that something can be done that relates to improving the mechanism of governance, however weak the so-called international society is.
Our point is that everybody speaks about an international society but we don’t have one. We’re trying to create one. We’re still a successful operation, and what we see done by the Secretary General is a sign of health and optimism that things can be improved and we can make the UN system grow greater.