The World Summit: A personal perspective

Robert Kay and Andrew Crow describe what it was like to take part in the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

Robert Kay is a freelance consultant in coastal management and planning. Andrew Crow is a self-employed information management and information technology specialist. They are both based in Perth, Australia.

The World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg, South Africa, in September 2002, focused the world's attention on the difficult challenges of improving people's lives and conserving natural resources in a world facing accelerating environmental, social, economic and political pressures. The meeting brought together tens of thousands of participants, including many politicians and delegates from non-governmental organizations, businesses and other major groups.

For governments, the Summit provided an opportunity to consider existing commitments such as the Kyoto Protocol and to make new commitments in progressing the Millennium Development Goals on health, gender, children, water, poverty and education. The meeting also created a massive opportunity to form new partnerships between different stakeholder groups.

Attending the World Summit on Sustainable Development was like being thrown into the middle of a tornado: being briefly toyed with by many very powerful forces then unceremoniously thrown out the other end, dazed and exhausted, not quite sure what had happened. But having survived, we left feeling wiser and strangely exhilarated and pleased to have gone through the experience.

Even now, nearly two months after the tornado has passed we still have vivid recollections of encounters, perceptions and experiences from Johannesburg. There was simply too much going on at the Summit to take it all in at the time. The days were very long, intense, rewarding, sometimes depressing, but always stimulating. Summit flashbacks occur when you least expect them, but often when we’re alone and our minds drift, like in the shower or just before sleep.

It’s tempting to think that our personal perspectives reflect in many ways how the Summit should be viewed in general. The international community should, perhaps, take a long collective shower or lie down in a darkened room to really work out what it all meant. Because, we can tell you with all honesty from being there, the Summit really was a big deal and only with a great deal of personal and collective introspection and analysis will its true impact on global environmental management become clear.

We were attending the Summit to launch a ‘Type II’ initiative, OneCoast, in partnership with the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission and Sun Microsystems.

Type IIs were new at this Summit and marked a major difference from the 1992 Rio Summit. Type IIs were to be flexible, action-oriented, implementation mechanisms developed by governments, intergovernmental organizations, the private sector and non-governmental organizations. The formally negotiated text of the Summit was a Type I outcome which represented agreement between all Parties and the United Nations. A perceived major failing of the Rio Summit was the lack of progress in actually implementing many components of the Type I text negotiated there. As a result, the World Summit included a second implementation mechanism, the Type II agreements, to focus on simply getting the job done.

To understand the maelstrom effect of the Summit, it is important to comprehend how the Summit was set up. The Type I negotiations took place in the main hall of the Sandton Convention Centre with tentacles spreading to every available room, corridor, nook and cranny there. Only members of governmental and intergovernmental delegations were allowed in to the main negotiating hall.

The press centre

© Robert Kay

The Convention Centre’s basement was taken up by a couple of thousand members of the world’s media. The frenzied activity in the media centre mirrored, and often pre-empted, the wheeling and dealing upstairs with frequent media briefings, hundreds of media releases each day and small forests of printed documentation.

The profuse documentation ranged from the excellent daily Summit News produced by the Johannesburg Star, to glossy publications from businesses and governments through to messages and documentation from grassroots, environmental non-governmental organizations.

The Convention Centre was surrounded by at least three stages of security, each conspicuous with armed personnel, identity checks and personal and baggage x-ray scanning. Next time you go through an airport security check and witness two personnel going through the checks with metal detectors and x-ray scanners without breaking the flow in their conversation or step, ask if they went to the World Summit. For anyone at the Summit this routine became second nature.

But the Convention Centre was only one activity focus of the Summit. All around the city were ‘parallel events’. Some of these events were open to the public, providing opportunities for an incredibly wide spectrum of governments, non-governmental organizations, international organizations, and donors and businesses, all interested in finding a platform, promoting their initiatives or looking for partners or feedback on new ideas.

The number and scale of the parallel events was daunting – as was the process of travelling between them. Much was made of the ‘transport grid’ of coaches and minibuses between venues. Indeed, these worked well for some short trips. In the end, though, our punishing schedule surpassed the facilities of the transport grid and we gave up trying to use it. This, happily for us, coincided with our discovery of Joseph, the Sowetan taxi driver in his dated Toyota Corolla with a leaky muffler, his sensational sense of place and time and his functioning mobile phone.

Inside each of the parallel venues were pavilions, displays, seminars, discussion forums and mini-conferences. From all of these events there poured literally hundreds of important announcements, myriad interesting discussions and involved in all this thousands of interesting and committed people. To try and keep track of it all, we ended up with a routine of hitting a venue’s media centre first thing each morning to trawl through the list of events planned for that day. Even then, we had to split up to try and cover key events and still missed many others.

One aspect of the parallel events open to the public that struck us was the number of local South Africans, including school children, that were there. In speaking with these people we got the same impression about their feelings regarding the Summit as we experienced living in Australia in the build-up to the Sydney 2000 Olympics. Beforehand, everyone was cynical about the cost and whether it would make any real difference to the country. Then, once the event got underway, no one remembered all the cynical and negative rhetoric that went on before hand and all thoroughly enjoyed the event and the opportunities it presented.

It can only be hoped that the thousands of local visitors who gained access to the event have been left with a positive impression about sustainable development. We wondered, however, how many other countries and peoples of the world were aware of the World Summit and, if they were aware, how much publicity did they give so that their citizens and students could have chosen to attend this important global event? And how many universities, schools and researchers would have chosen to go just for the experience?

For a brief period, Johannesburg was the place to be. For us, involved in developing a new sustainable development initiative, the ability to meet hour after hour senior decision makers and thought leaders was fantastic. We have come to recognize just what an opportunity this was as we’ve been continuing the conversations since the World Summit.

The Summit provided for us a unique opportunity. It enabled us to have detailed and focused dialogue with key stakeholders away from the daily operational focus of their normal work. The ability, through this forum, to accelerate the implementation of initiatives was clear.

What was also clear was that the World Summit, sadly, did not adequately provide the space and time for strategic linkages that could have developed between the numerous activities and initiatives from the broad diversity of the represented groups.

In some ways, for many who were in Johannesburg with either a platform, an initiative or an idea, the success of their trip was as much a matter of timing and serendipity as good planning and management. It is a pity that so many initiatives will not have the opportunity to have access to the same type of hearing at senior levels within the United Nations system for another ten years.

There is talk of not having another World Summit. Some say it’s all too expensive, too big and not enough gets achieved through the formally negotiated text. If you asked if, from our experiences at the Johannesburg Summit, would we have preferred not having gone, we would say absolutely not.

We were at the Summit for a week and most of the world’s nations were focused on its activities and outcome. Over a hundred heads of government attended, together with hundreds of senior officials and innumerable key influential figures. Okay, so the Type I outcomes of the event may have been disappointing to many, if not most, observers. But to criticize the event from this perspective only is to miss the many intangible benefits. Important benefits such as networking, information sharing and catching up with the latest developments from parts of the world or from disciplines outside your day-to-day work. Only time will tell if the more flexible Type II initiatives go some way to leveraging these intangible benefits of the Summit.

Further information
Robert Kay, OneCoast, PO Box 191, Mosman Park, WA 6012, Australia. Fax: +61-8-93845745. Email: Web:
Andrew Crow, OneCoast, PO Box 191, Mosman Park, WA 6012, Australia. Fax: +61-8-92844292. Email: Web:

On the Web
Earth Negotiations Bulletin has detailed reports from the World Summit.