Partying in Joburg

Worth A Look, Poverty, Frontier Centre

At the world summit in Johannesburg, everyone seemed to agree: The Rio summit ten years ago had been a flop. There had been no real follow-up on its grand promises. Predictably, the results of the Joburg summit do not appear to have been any more promising.

So why was there another summit? Tens of thousand of people attended. Travel costs alone must have been more than $100 million. All told, the Joburg summit cost at least $250 million. Putting that money into mosquito nets instead, says Roger Bates of Africa Fighting Malaria, “could avoid 7 million malaria cases and save the lives of 350,000 children per year.”

In May of this year, Lord Peter Bauer died a few days before he was scheduled to receive the $500,000 Milton Friedman award of the Cato Institute. In his distinguished writings on economic development that spanned 50 years, he gave us the answer. The business of doing well in the world is not really about helping the poor. The real beneficiaries lie elsewhere. Governmental elites of poor nations siphon off most of the foreign aid money that enters their lands. In one well-known study of development spending in India, only 15 percent of the funds were estimated to reach the intended beneficiaries.

Some of this money ends up paying for travel costs to places like Paris and London. Many leaders of poor nations spend 20 to 30 percent of their time jetting around the world. Having bankrupted their own countries, they look for any convenient excuse to get out.

There were around 100 heads of state that came to Joburg. Japan alone brought 500 members in its official delegation. One hotel operator reported hiring 24 extra chefs. The top hotels in town stocked up on foods like Beluga caviar and champagne oysters. They expected the delegates staying in the hotels to consume 2,000 pounds of prime beef, 1,000 pounds of shellfish and 400 pounds of salmon.

The Joburg delegates were there to solve the problems of the poor but apparently they didn’t want to see them in person. The world summit was centered in Sandton, an exclusive enclave of high rise towers and fancy hotels, built in recent years to escape crime ridden downtown Joburg. Before the summit, the street traders were cleaned out. Leon Louw, the head of a local NGO, declared that “they have turned the place into a White Group Area with all signs of Africa removed.” The world summit, he says, was creating a “Disneyland fantasyland” for the pleasure of visiting delegates. In protest, hundreds of local hawkers of goods marched during the summit against their callous treatment by the authorities.

Among the leaders of state in Joburg were such worthies as President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, happy to escape his own crumbling economy. President Sam Nujoma of Namibia who declared recently that “British imperialism” is the real problem in Zimbabwe joined him. “We cannot allow imperialism to take over our continent again,” as he assesses a central concern for current African leaders. The top officials of undeveloped nations pressed the rich nations of the world to commit at the Joburg summit to large new infusions of foreign aid. Many of them were apparently convinced that outside forces are responsible for their current problems and hold the key to any future progress of their economies.

President George Bush was public enemy number 1 in Joburg. Bush had the effrontery to stay at home to work on the problems of the economy and other pressing issues for the United States.

The leaders of the top non-governmental organizations (NGOs) travel around the world in luxury as well. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) occupied a new building for the summit that put the headquarters offices of most American corporations to shame.

Not all the people who came to Joburg expected sushi and caviar.

There were many smaller NGOs that operated on a shoestring. Some of their members scrimped and saved to make a pilgrimage to the world summit. For them, it was a religious revival meeting to top all revivals. They came to hear secular incarnations of Billy Graham condemn the sins of the world many of them associated with American multinational corporations.

A religious revival, to be sure, is a festive occasion. There was a genuine sense of coming together in Joburg of people from every nation. For true believers in the environmental credo of “sustainable development,” the feeling of camaraderie was a powerful elixir.

Yet, no one in Joburg actually had any idea what sustainable development meant. Almost every activity in the world today from chemical manufacturing to setting aside forest reserves has attached “sustainable” to its mission statement. It is the secular substitute for good and evil; the language of old fashioned moral judgment is out of style these days but a new language of “sustainable” and “unsustainable” has taken its place.

To be for a sustainable world is actually a very old idea to hope and pray for a new world where God will banish the evil doers and reward the faithful. When true sustainability is achieved, the millennium will have arrived.

It was a strange combination kleptocratic leaders of impoverished nations, staid international bureaucrats from around the world, and true believers in a perfect a “sustainable world to come. All of them, to be sure, came to Joburg to party in their own fashion.

They would have been better off staying home. There was nothing there to suggest that anything had been learned since Rio that offered the prospect of a better outcome.

The problems of the world will not be solved on the grand scale envisioned at the Joburg summit. They are much more likely to be addressed successfully at the local level. If the money and energy that were committed for two weeks in Joburg could have been redirected to less exalted purposes, it might not have saved the world but there could have been at least the prospect of some real practical benefits.

A delegate to the world summit, Robert H. Nelson is a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland and senior fellow of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. His most recent book is Economics as Religion: From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond (Penn State Press, 2001).